So often I hear questions like “when should I start marketing my visual novel?” or “how do I start marketing my visual novel?”. A lot of these people are actually asking “when should I announce my visual novel?” or “when should I make social media accounts?”. But what’s the difference? Isn’t that what “when should I start marketing my visual novel?” means?
It isn’t, because you’ve already started marketing your visual novel.
Today I want to go over what marketing actually means (and what this means for you as a game dev).
what is marketing?
Here I am claiming that you—yes, you the reader—have already started marketing, even if you don’t have social media accounts for your studio, even if you haven’t announced your game. So let’s start off by defining “marketing”.
Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.American Marketing Association, 2017
This is a wonderful definition of modern marketing, provided by the American Marketing Association. In simpler terms, marketing is the process of communicating your product with potential customers.
That might still sound somewhat vague, especially if you’re unaccustomed to this idea. Marketing is not just advertising. It’s not just social media posts. It’s not just emailing press. Marketing is all of these things and much, much more.
how am I marketing already?
We’ve already defined marketing as a creation and communication process, but let’s get a bit more clear.
Here’s some more things that are a part of marketing:
- deciding on the art style
- picking story genres
- having one, multiple, or no love interests
- allowing customization for the main character
- settling on a game title
…And much, much more. A lot of game design choices are part of marketing. But how are these decisions marketing?
Different story genres have different art styles that audiences are accustomed to. For example, a majority of modern galges (male lead and female love interests) have moe art styles—very exaggerated anime art styles with large eyes and simplistic facial features. This doesn’t mean you have to use a moe art style if you make a dating sim with a male lead and female love interests, but think of it as an indicator for people that your game is probably a galge.
Art styles and audiences can get more granular as well. For instance, modern otome games are made in a wide variety of art styles, but not every otome fan wants just any art style. A lot of fans are particular about what kind of art style they want to see in a game.
Some players want a more semi-realistic art style. Some players only want an Otomate-esque art style. If you want to do your own specific art style, you have to realize that you’ll be turning off some players no matter what art style you pick.
Different story genres require different ways of pitching games. Let’s compare how a horror game is pitched versus a romance game.
These descriptions give very different feelings but also make it clear what categories the games fall into.
Return to the crumbling coal town your family built generations ago for the funeral of your aunt. You won’t be able to save everyone. You might not even be able to save yourself.
We’re returning to a town for a funeral—already a dour subject. And then we have to save people? Clearly this isn’t a slice of life story.
A yuri visual novel that will make you both laugh and cry. A story about love, trust, mortality, and about understanding not just how to be happy, but how to be human.
On the other hand we have Please Be Happy, which is a slice of life story. This blurb goes for the genres, opting to tell players exactly what to expect—this game is about love, not just romance, and deals with some heavier topics while not being dark overall.
Players have different preferences for what they want to read. Some people just want a comfy, low-stakes romance story. Some want more visceral, autobiographical stories from people’s experiences.
Just like with picking an art style, some people will be instantly turned off when you decide on the story genres. This is okay.
Not to be a broken record, but players have different preferences for romance. Some people don’t want romance in their visual novels. Some people only want to play yuri (female lead and female love interests). Some people enjoy a variety of romances and dating sims.
All of these are valid story structures for visual novels, but will segment what audiences will like your game. Some people will try your games even if they don’t care for the romance types (or lack thereof)—I’m not a galge player but I am a fan of Type-Moon visual novels.
On itchio, romance games with thumbnails featuring a couple (especially in a romantic pose) do better than thumbnails that don’t show off characters. I talk more about this aspect of branding in a VN;conf talk from a few years ago that you can watch here, or read the cliffnotes.
main character customization
Just like with potential love interests, the amount of customization (and lack thereof) for the main character segments your audience further.
Some people don’t want to play as a guy. Some people do want to play as a guy, but only if they can customize him. There’s a few players like myself who prefer to play as defined protagonists, characters who have a set personality and backstory, even if we can make some choices for them. But, there’s also a growing demand for highly customized protagonists (especially in romance games), as seen with Our Life.
There are two things people see first about your game—the thumbnail and the title. Sometimes titles are a reference to a character or event or place in a game. Sometimes they’re more of a feeling or vibe you’ll get from the game.
Games like Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney make it pretty clear they’re mysteries. Even a title like AI: The Somnium Files gives an idea of being a detective story, with the word “files”.
Your title doesn’t have to make it clear initially what the story genres are, but it is something to consider.
so… I’ve already started marketing my game.
If you have picked the plot of your visual novel and have designs set in place, then you have already started marketing—because marketing is part of the entire process of product development.
btw we have physical copies of our games now over at Élan. I just think that’s neat.
The branding in this instance are the components like the art style, the aesthetics, the logo, etc. The target audience aspects are the components like the story genres, any game mechanics, romance (or lack thereof), etc.
Branding and finding your target audience are both very, very important parts of marketing.
so… what now?
If you’ve already decided what game you want to make, that’s okay. As a hobbyist myself for my own studio, I decide what story I want to tell first and then worry about what target audience it’ll fall into—but if you’re aiming for commercial titles, you don’t always have that luxury.
don’t jump to social media.
For people looking to establish commercial visual novel studios with the aim to make a profit eventually, then you need to do market research. Can you make a profit from making short, under 10k games? Has it been done before? Will you need to make longer games to stay afloat? Are there other studios making games similar to what you have in mind? How do they go about marketing visual novels?
Research other visual novels on Steam, on itch.io, on Tumblr, on Reddit, on other social media and wherever else you can think of. There are so many more visual novels out there than you realize—I’m constantly finding niche visual novels that do well that I’d never heard of before.
Take time to do research first and then look into what social media platform(s) are a good fit for you and your game. Research comes first, creating social media accounts comes later.
marketing visual novels is more than just posting on social media—in fact, you’ve already started it.
I don’t have a whole lot to say for the wrap-up this month. Twitter (𝕏) is on fire as usual. I’ve made a Bluesky account, but with it being invite-only still (and the waitlist reportedly not sending out invites for months), I don’t see it replacing Twitter anytime soon. Tumblr has definitely come back as one of my primary social medias now—it’s just a nice set up for social media blogging, even if they keep trying to run it into the ground by copying competitors.
I’m hoping to do a series (?) of article interviews soon, with my first one coming… Soon… I want to keep my blog focused on visual novel development, but I also want to talk to fellow developers on ways we can all improve our games. After all, it’s easier to sell a great looking game.
Oh, the last thing! We’re doing a campaign for limited edition Miho plushies from Please Be Happy with Makeship. They’re sooo cute, I hope we hit the 200 pre-orders so they can go into production (we’re almost there!). Look at her wittle face!!