I’ve recently read a few thoughtful discussion threads on the state of the VN market here in the West. Some taking a negative stance, some with a more positive outlook. I thought I’d try to put some numbers on these statements and look at VN ownership on Steam, still the predominant market for PC games, and use that to analyse whether VNs are on their true route or have stumbled into a bad end.
I checked just over a million steam profiles to try and get a random sample of gamers. With Steam’s new private-by-default profile settings, only 8% of those users had public game lists, but that still gave us 80k user profiles to work with. I could then compare my sample with the “leaked” owner data and scale up my numbers accordingly to represent Steam as a whole.
Steam is rather haphazard with what gets tagged as a Visual Novel (RPGMaker games like A Bird Story are tagged as VNs), so I’ll only be including games that also have a VNDB entry.
Steam VN releases
So let’s start simple, with a simple plot of how many VNs are being released each month.
Here we can start to see the reason for the differing perspectives on the state of the VN market depending upon whether you read more JVNs or EVNs. While the rate of EVNs releases has steadily increased, the number of new JVNs has remained fairly static since 2016, despite Steam’s lowered release requirements. Steady release rates aren’t definitely bad news, but in general profitable industries want to expand, so the lack of expansion tells you something about the industry. But as someone with a plan-to-read list that grows longer by the day, I’m not complaining if the rate doesn’t increase.
One under-reported development in the VN market is the recent rapid growth of Chinese VNs (listed as other here), who have quietly been doing well in their home markets, but are rarely translated.
So while more VNs might be good for us fans, how does the market look for developers? Let’s have a look at VN sales.
Unfortunately Steam’s API doesn’t list when someone bought a game, so we’ve got to group sales by the release date of the VN. That means there will be a bias towards older releases which have been out longer and so had more time to build up sales.
Here we can see some justification for the doom and gloom perspectives, with more recent VN releases selling significantly less than older ones. With new JVNs in 2017 selling only half what they did in 2016. The EVN downward trend is especially stark given that the number of new releases has been increasing, so that’s less revenue split among even more VNs.
Not all VNs are equal, some are priced higher, so let’s look at total revenue rather than total sales.
Here we can see the difference between EVN and JVN markets. While JVNs sell only half as many as EVNs, they earn almost as much revenue due to their higher price. We again see the same dip in more recent revenue though, 2017 was only 46% of 2016′s revenue, and 2018 looks even worse so far.
Remember, this fall in revenue coincidences with an increase in the total number of releases, so to fully comprehend the drop on revenue, let’s look at the average sales per VN.
But it might not be as bleak as it seems, older VNs are more likely to have been in bundles and in Steam sales, so their revenue is likely overestimated compared with more recent releases. So I’d be hesitant to claim that revenue is necessarily dropping, but I think we can confidently claim that revenue isn’t increasing.
Nostalgia for a past golden age is common everywhere, not least among VN fans. It’s not uncommon to hear that newly released VNs aren’t as good as older ones, but can we get any empirical data on this point? We can get close by looking at the Steam reviews of VNs over time.
As for EVNs, while they had consistently scored lower than JVNs, they’re catching up and are now pretty comparable in review ratings of JVNs.
Just for fun, let’s see how the total review count compares between VNs.
What free-VN fans lack in the wallet, they make up for in their word-count. Although this is massively skewed by two free VNs which compromise 70% of all free-VN reviews: Emily is Away and DDLC. They seem anomalies rather than trends. As shown by the graph when we exclude those two:
Despite the drop in position, free-VNs still out-perform what we’d expect given their lower count of total owners, but that may be because EVN and JVN totals include users who own the VN but have never read it. Whereas the free-VN total only includes those who have logged playtime in that VN, so there’s a larger pool of possible reviewers.
There are a few sources of uncertainty in the dataset. The selection of users who have set their profiles to public might not be representative of the wider Steam userbase. It probably undercounts more casual fans who are less likely to configure their Steam profile.
We also don’t know when someone purchased a VN, so it’s possible VN sales are increasing, but a lot of that money is going to older releases, especially if they’re in bundles and Steam sales.
In inclusion of VNs in game bundles may be distorting the image of the VN fandom, as it’ll include those who have little interest in the medium and only own a VN by happenstance.
We should also remember that “Steam” is not synonymous with the VN market. There are plenty of competitors in the VN scene, namely Mangagamer and itch.io, who tend to cater to different tastes than Steam does. So we’re only getting a partial picture of the Western VN scene.
There’s data here to support both the optimistic and pessimistic commentary. On the positive side, there have never been more VNs being released as there are now. EVNs are improving with higher average ratings and a few have reached mainstream attention.
On the pessimistic side, it seems like there are ever more VNs competing for a fanbase that isn’t significantly growing. While I’d be wary of claiming profits are falling, it seems highly likely they aren’t increasing, and a stagnant market is not a healthy one.
Personally, I think the future is bright. While VNs might not be destined to become blockbuster successes, there is enough of sustainable fanbase to support lots of indie developers, who are the most prone to innovate and write interesting new stories. As a VN fan, I’m excited to see what comes next~
I hope you found the article interesting. I had wanted to include a section analysing the Steam users, how many VNs do JVN fans purchase compared to EVN fans etc. But I want to spend a little longer going into more depth on it, so I’ll have a post up next week on that. If you’re interested in more until then, check out my other tumblr analysis posts, look out for updates on my twitter, or give me a yell on Discord (Sunleaf_Willow ／(^ n ^=)＼#1616). Special thanks to /u/8cccc9 for collaborating on the analysis, and Part-time Storier for proof-reading.
I just do these analyses for fun, but if you want to support my work with a tip, I accept small donations at ko-fi.