Saturday, January 14, 2012

You're Doing it Wrong (But That's All Right)

Since the release we've gotten quite a bit of questions from people who want to make a VN of their own. Can you tell your secrets? Any tips for beginner creators? Well, sure. We really have gathered a ton of collective know-how about making VNs, plus another ton of theory on the subject. KS was a very unique project, and many of the lessons we learned probably are applicable only to a project like KS, or even more specifically, only the 4LS. Other things are so very fundamental lessons that they are not really worth regurgitating every time someone asks for tips. Of course, between these two extremes is a ton of useful stuff we learned (mostly about how not to do things). Based on this one project, there's really not much we have to teach to anyone, only anecdotes of what worked for us and what didn't, so I'm not going to even attempt. I think though, that if we were to do another large-scale VN and actually manage to apply all the lessons we've learned, it'd definitely be a lot smoother ride than KS was, and would likely (hopefully!) be a considerably better production.

Anyway, to give some examples I'll try to explain some design and development decisions we made, and now with perfect hindsight, maybe figure out if they were good or bad ones.

Five writers, one game

Every path in KS is primarily planned and written by a different writer. We of course collaborated heavily and helped each other, but that is the basic setup. Doing this gave us a couple of advantages, at a significant cost for overall consistency. The diversity increases the likelyhood of any given reader liking at least some part of KS. Some people love the romantic and soapy Lilly path, others really get deep into the cerebral Rin path, and so on. Of course, the diversity also increases the probability that any given reader won't like all of KS, but there's nothing wrong with that. The primary advantage however, is the increase in focus for the writers. Being able to concentrate mainly on one story definitely improved the quality of each of them, and made each individual's writing process more independent of the rest of the writing team.

I think our solution worked really well for a project like KS, but it would be nigh-impossible to pull of with many other kinds of stories. Something we probably should've done was improve our scenario planning before actually writing anything, to bring the stories a little bit closer together than what they ended up being. With Act 1, we experimented with one writer coming up with the entire scenario and everyone else writing scenes to fit into the overall framework. That worked okay for us too and resulted in a more coherent story within Act 1. Still, I'm not sure if we'd want to make a full game with that writing production concept and ultimately, having just a single writer is almost always superior to any other number.


The first year of KS project was a real struggle. We kept losing people, especially artists, and getting a full stable team was just seemingly impossible. Even after the 4LS team got stable, there was always the risk of losing people to random circumstances. Nothing ever tied any of us to the project, except our desire to work on it. A huge amount of projects like KS fail because of people quitting, so we wanted to minimize the risks.

If you look at the art in KS, you can fairly easily see it's done by multiple people. The artists were distributed similarly to writers, one per each girl, but they all also collaborated across paths and on single images, and every path has art from each of the artists which sometimes can make the reader do a double take at the style shifts. Production-wise, a more optimal distribution would've been to have one artist do all the design and lineart, one the digital inking and the rest be colourists, with maybe one doing the final effects. This would've made the art in KS a whole lot more consistent. So, why did we do things the way we did?

Because it gave us a fail-safe with the art. If one of the artists would quit, the others could pick up the slack with less trouble than if we had put all our eggs in one basket. Putting ourselves in a situation where a critical job is down to one person would set us up for a gigantic failure. Imagine, our sole character designer and liner getting run over by a truck after 2 years, her work half-way completed. That'd mean that ALL the art up to that point would need to be discarded and started again from scratch. We simply could not afford that possibility.

We applied the same approach elsewhere in the production as well, and generally, thinking like this was a big part of why 4LS stayed alive and why KS got released despite the insanely long development cycle and all the difficulties.We always tried to put the project first, the product second, and the egos last. KS is by no means perfect, but it's a great deal better than having no game at all. From mid-2008's onwards, the structure of 4LS was such that we could survive any single person quitting, though an event like that would obviously make things harder for us.
The above two points maybe illustrate what lead to KS's maybe most immediately "amateurish" aspect: its internal inconsistency. A lot of it was simply a result of us trying to ensure that the game would get finished, and maximizing certain parts of the production.

Keeping it real 

We wanted to make a Visual Novel, but we also had some ideas what we'd want our VN to be like. Getting our ideas to mesh together and develop took its own time, many nights of long discussions, false starts and brainstorming. I guess the main goal could be described as some kind of "toned down ren'ai story". We wanted the story, characters, relationships, the role of sex and so on feel more natural and less plastic than it often is in these kinds of game, while still keeping the feel of the genre KS is in. We had both successes and failures with that, but overall I don't think anyone is unhappy with how KS came out. Presentation, art and music followed the same school of thought.

Meritocracy and herding cats

4LS did have people with titles like "producer", "head writer" and "director", but we did not have strict hierarchy. Nobody was anyone's boss, everyone had a lot of autonomy over their own work and disputes were resolved through gentlemanny discourse and wit (and sometimes other things). Having no strong leadership was a part of the "failsafe" line of thought, plus we worked more comfortably without the necessary bureaucracy that comes along with it. It had downsides too. Organization and communication was something we did struggle with a lot throughout the project, and never really managed to get it down. I'm sure the lack of anyone to enforce us to communicate better and follow deadlines was a part of this. If we were to do another production, this would be the area we'd have to improve in the most, and possibly change our methods.

5 years

KS took way too long to make. However, much of that time was sort of hot air. Roughly: It took us 1 year to get our core team together (4LS was formed half a year after project started and delta, SC, Nicol, Suriko, and all the artists joined within the following 9 months), 1 year to learn the ropes and figure out what to do and how, and 3 years of actual production of which maybe 1 year or so was wasted time because of real lives, us scrapping and redoing content and whatnot. So, a more optimized 4LS that does everything right might only spend as little as ~2 years to make something like KS. That feels acceptable to me. We had to learn a lot of things, mostly through trial and error, and doing this only as a hobby on our spare time made the development really difficult sometimes. There was just no way around these things, and while we might've been able to get the game done faster, I don't feel too bad about taking so long.

So, if we had to do these decisions again, would be go about making KS the same way? In many cases, probably not, but I would like to think that we managed to pull off some parts of the production pretty well, for a ragtag bunch for first-timer novices at least.

- Aura

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