I’ve talked before about cutting the scope in indie games and how important is. If you haven’t seen my last rant on it, you can read it here. For those unfamiliar, scope is the entirety of a project. The scope of a project comprises everything from the artwork, the writing, the amount of characters, the features, and more. Keeping your visual novel’s scope is important for several reasons.
The main reason to keep the scope small is it helps a project get finished. You have less work to do that’s frivolous which speeds up production. Keeping the scope small also narrows in on the project’s vision. By getting rid of extra stuff that can bog down the project, the core of the project is more visible. Most importantly, though, a scope that’s too large can kill a project.
However, saying “cut scope” and “keep scope small” can be too vague for new developers. Today I want to give some specific examples on places you can cut scope.
Player character options
A popular aspect of visual novels is player customization, being able to decide how your main character looks.
Different options can be:
- Changeable name
- Changeable pronouns
- Choose MC design
- Customize MC design (dress-up, color change, etc.)
This list is also in order of difficulty- changing the MC name is very easy with just a variable, while allowing players to customize the MC design requires a lot more artwork, scripting, and planning for CGs. While it’s a great feature to let the player customize who they play as, prioritize what you want from the game.
When we were planning Enamored Risks, I wanted 2 designs for the player to choose from for Alex, the MC. However, we decided to go with one design for Alex. This saved us time in multiple places:
- One less sprite for the sprite artist to draw
- No CG variations
- No writing variations
- Sprites didn’t need special programming
Cutting back on this small thing helped save us a lot of time, which is very important when you only have a month. Having just one sprite (i.e. no player customization) helped us hone in on who Alex was, giving her a more defined personality & backstory.
Love interest options
One feature people love about dating sims is the amount of choices and variety when it comes to romance options. However, too much of a good thing can be bad sometimes.
When figuring out how many love interests to include, consider that each love interest will require:
- New CGs
- At least 1 sprite with expression changes
- New backgrounds for locations (especially if the LI has their own home/apartment)
- More music & sound effects
- An entire route written as well as including the character in the common route
Additional love interests essentially double the scope of a project. Be mindful of how many assets you’ll need to add before adding more love interests!
You should also consider how varied your love interests are. One problem I’ve heard from writers who had planned for 6+ love interests was that the routes started to mesh together and were too similar. If you run into some of your love interests acting too similar, then it’s probably time to cut back.
Minigames can be a fun addition to any game, but they can also be tedious for players and complex for programmers. Visual novels are no stranger to minigames, such as Little Busters, but at the same time minigames are just that- minigames that typically serve no purpose to the larger game.
Adding in a minigame is never just a “simple” addition, even if the code is already written up for you. A minigame will require:
- Extra assets (artwork, GUI, sounds, etc.)
- More playtesting
- Someone who can ensure the code works with your existing code
Another thing to consider is whether the game actually needs the minigame(s). Will players like it or will they want to skip it? Don’t assume players will always like minigames, ask them.
Finally, if you decide a minigame is a must-have, consider working on the minigame last. Design it and make sure it fits in with the game, but work on implementing it later. A big part of cutting scope is working towards your minimum viable product, i.e. the base build of your game.
Backgrounds are assets that rely heavily on the writing- but in turn, the writing can also rely heavily on them. If you’re less experienced with developing VNs, then you can easily stack up a lot of backgrounds that you think are necessary but aren’t.
Finding a balance between having enough backgrounds to properly show each location and not blowing your budget out of proportion can be hard. A few backgrounds you might consider cutting are:
- Bedrooms (such if a character already has a living room background)
- Any background that’s shown for less than 10 lines of dialogue
- Any background that could be better expressed as a CG
For instance, if your love interest lives in an apartment and you want background for the living room, bedroom, and bathroom, you can shorten them to just 2 or 1. Most apartments have a bathroom attached to the bedroom, so you might not actually need a bathroom background. Similarly, if the bedroom background is only shown once, you can have an open door in the living room background and zoom in to it somewhat (animation is a good substitute for extra art when done right).
An example of a background that might work better as a CG would be a car interior. It can be very, very awkward to work sprites into a car interior for driving scene. CGs can be much more effective and immersive in instances like this.
One tactic for keeping backgrounds small is to keep them in mind when outlining and writing. Try to limit the amount of locations the characters can go to. Don’t stunt the writing by limiting yourself too much, but try to avoid writing lots of locations that are only visited once.
CGs can be great for emphasizing emotions and action, but they can also get costly and cause lots of delays. For A Pinch of Magic we went with 2 designs for the player character which meant double the CGs. In order to make things easier for the CG artists (A Pinch of Magic was made in 1 month for NaNoRenO 2021) we focused on the love interest’s faces rather than the player.
Mark your most important CGs to be finished first. Then, go through the rest of your CGs and see which can be swapped out for fancy sprite placement or a simpler CG setup.
Even when you’re doing a game jam, the user interface is a very important part to consider. Making sure it’s readable and easy to navigate is challenging at first when you’re making custom UIs. If you don’t have someone who can do UIs (both art-wise and programming-wise), consider getting a premade GUI.
There are plenty of free (and cheap) GUIs for visual novels on itch.io and Lemmasoft. Some of these are only the graphics (meaning they need to be programmed into your engine) while others are ready to use in Ren’Py.
Cutting scope is not something to be afraid of- it’s a natural part of game development. Every game that’s shipped has cut its scope in some form or fashion, whether it was scrapped designs early on or cutting out features late in development. Managing the scope (and your workload) is an essential skill for game jams, as you don’t have time to fix mistakes.
Trust me, it’s a tough skill to learn! Figuring out a perfect scope is near impossible, but it’s still something you can work towards. Review your project’s timeline and assets needed every so often and you’ll be fine.
I’ve written about cutting scope before but I’m someone who needs a lot of examples, so I hope I was able to give some effective ones! Once you finish a few VNs, scope management becomes easier. It’s still hard to figure out the scope on other media (such as if you switch to an RPG), but some of the skills do transfer over.