The state of VNs on Steam

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The state of VNs on Steam

#1 Post by BunnyAdvocate » Wed Sep 05, 2018 2:38 pm

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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.


Data collection

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.

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At first glance things seem rosy for VN fans, there have never been more VNs being released in the West. But let’s break down those results a bit:

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Note that these trends are cumulative but NOT stacked. The EVN, JVN, and other VNs trends include only non-free VNs.


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.

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Note that these trends are cumulative but NOT stacked. All sales are back-dated to the release date of the VN on Steam. Free VNs count sales as the number of users who have logged some playtime in it.


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.

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Note that this assumes every user pays full price, so this is more the maximum possible revenue than actual revenue.


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.

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First, we should note that this massively overestimates the average revenue generated as it assumes every user pays full price. I know devs who would sell their soul for 282k per VN. Oh wait, they already did when they signed up for Steam... (just kidding, I do like Steam, but it has issues). The important aspect here isn’t the y-axis total which is unreliable, but the consistent downwards trend.

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.


VN Reviews

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.

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Each dot represents the average thumbs up/down ratio for any VNs released that month.
Within the JVN market, we can see some truth to the nostalgia viewpoint. Older releases were more consistently rated higher. But that isn’t to say there aren’t new highly rated JVNs. They still maintain enviously high scores overall.

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.

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The two free-VN spikes are for Emily is Away and DDLC.
As I’m sure anyone familiar with the VN community can tell you, JVN fans are vocal, and it shows in the total reviews VNs get. Despite there being only half as many JVNs as EVNs, they still attract more reviews than EVNs do. This is perhaps because JVNs are typically far longer than EVNs, so might be worth the time of writing a review.

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:

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*Excluding Emily is Away and DDLC.


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.


Potential Issues

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.


Conclusion

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~

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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.

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Re: The state of VNs on Steam

#2 Post by papillon » Thu Sep 06, 2018 7:35 pm

This is perhaps because JVNs are typically far longer than EVNs, so might be worth the time of writing a review.
In my completely non-scientifically-studied opinion, JVNs get a huge amount of 'hype' reviews, people leaving a positive review immediately when the game comes out without even having played it because they've been waiting to play the game for so long and they're so happy it's now available in English. Even JVN releases with some enormous problems on launch are often still sitting on 100% positive reviews out of enthusiasm and hope that the issues will be patched away eventually.

Again, this is my entirely cursory opinion from having occasionally looked at steam game pages, and might not hold up to study.

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Re: The state of VNs on Steam

#3 Post by LateWhiteRabbit » Fri Sep 07, 2018 12:13 am

papillon wrote:
Thu Sep 06, 2018 7:35 pm
This is perhaps because JVNs are typically far longer than EVNs, so might be worth the time of writing a review.
In my completely non-scientifically-studied opinion, JVNs get a huge amount of 'hype' reviews, people leaving a positive review immediately when the game comes out without even having played it because they've been waiting to play the game for so long and they're so happy it's now available in English. Even JVN releases with some enormous problems on launch are often still sitting on 100% positive reviews out of enthusiasm and hope that the issues will be patched away eventually.

Again, this is my entirely cursory opinion from having occasionally looked at steam game pages, and might not hold up to study.
I get the same impression as Papillon. In addition to the point she brought up, it is also worth noting that with JVNs, a lot of people leave positive reviews because they want to encourage the publisher or developer to translate more of their game library into English. Especially when a JVN is part of a series, you'll see a lot of positive reviews in the hopes that another newer entry in the series (that the reviewer is ACTUALLY wanting) will be released in English.

There is a somewhat complicated relationship between some fans in the west and Japanese pop culture that borders on mythologizing in some cases. The 'legend' of a title has YEARS of word of mouth. A lot of us can remember a time when ANY visual novel (ren'ai game / dating sim / we didn't have solid terminology for so long :lol: ) from Japan was treated as a precious rarity, and regardless of quality was protected and promoted to encourage the genre as a whole. That same behavior continues today.
Thankfully we are seeing a more critical environment and realistic treatment of Japanese pop culture now with so many anime shows and manga having simultaneous same-day Japanese and English releases of each episode and chapter. Western audiences are allowed to form a fandom around a property independently / at the same time / as the Japanese audience.

I have my own theories about the declining success of visual novels, but that's perhaps best saved for another time.

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Re: The state of VNs on Steam

#4 Post by Morhighan » Fri Sep 07, 2018 1:29 am

Thanks for the stats, I always enjoy these posts.
To add to what papillon and LateWhiteRabbit have said, as an EVN dev it is a struggle to get reviews at all. Especially if you crowdfund a project and any reviews left by a person given a key are ignored by Steam, then you just kind of scrape by.
From the perspective of being a fan, I like both JVN and EVN, and I'm always delighted to see titles in any category, especially the 'other.' (Shan Gui is one of my favorite VNs.) In the last few years I've been unable to play any games that utilize 3D graphics or even some 2D animations (like parallax) because they make me physically ill. Visual novels let me experience some amount of "gaming" and they've always held a special place in my heart. What bums me out is the animosity of the "purist" fans against EVNs. I've seen titles get dragged just for having "ugly" art (aka. not anime.) Like, sorry I was born in the US? I'll try harder in the next life. (lol)

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Re: The state of VNs on Steam

#5 Post by BunnyAdvocate » Fri Sep 07, 2018 2:43 am

LateWhiteRabbit wrote:
Fri Sep 07, 2018 12:13 am
There is a somewhat complicated relationship between some fans in the west and Japanese pop culture that borders on mythologizing in some cases. The 'legend' of a title has YEARS of word of mouth. A lot of us can remember a time when ANY visual novel (ren'ai game / dating sim / we didn't have solid terminology for so long :lol: ) from Japan was treated as a precious rarity, and regardless of quality was protected and promoted to encourage the genre as a whole. That same behavior continues today.
Yeah some of the hype for untranslated VNs has been quite excessive. I'm become quite skeptical of the hype after a series of translated VNs that have been good, but not mind-blowingly amazing as the untranslated fans would have had us believe.
Morhighan wrote:
Fri Sep 07, 2018 1:29 am
From the perspective of being a fan, I like both JVN and EVN, and I'm always delighted to see titles in any category, especially the 'other.' (Shan Gui is one of my favorite VNs.)
Until doing this analysis, I hadn't realised just how many Chinese VNs there were, there are some really great looking ones! It's a shame more of them aren't translated.

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