Hm, I am a member of a few Greenlight watch groups and most of my fellow members dislike VNs for some of the following reasons I want to share and comment from a players standpoint, so please forgive me If I may have overstepped my bounds and if I am too brutal with my honesty. Lot's of anime rants incoming because I feel that it is important to address:
"It is not a game, since most are lacking in gameplay department. NO gameplay, NO game! Go to itch.io, Steam Greenlight is for GAMES."
I understand this one and it is a valid point many bring up when they leave a comment on the Greenlight pages. Most VNs are more like interactive novels and the only thing that slightly reminds one of some gameplay is to pick some choices that mostly have the purpose to get on a route. I grew up with RTS, Shooters, RPGs, Adventures and TBS. VNs a relatively late discovery for me. So I understand their concerns and mostly agree with this statement that you can't really call most VNs a game. Which is one of the reasons why I am ever so happy if VN creators move away from the classical format and add in some gameplay mechanics especially if they are RPG mechanics like for example stats.
And no - I loathe stat raising games. All you do is grinding stats so that you can unlock a better ending with character X. 7kpp, LLTQ and Magical Diary are the best examples on how you do it. What I mean with stats is that they give you something, make you stronger and let you pass checks or are used for some combat gamplay mechanics like some Winter Wolves TBS games
. I love RPG and all the other stuff, so when a project that I watch decides to pick up some video game mechanics, I will do a little happy dance. I know that those mechanics are not for everyone, especially people who only play VNs, and that's why I like Winter Wolves approach on it with including a story mode next to the different difficulty settings. The appeal here is and always was for Winter Wolves games: "Games for different folks with different strokes" ;P
That being said, you cannot convert every regular video gamer into a VN player. Most gameplay mechanics are too easy and will give them nothing in return in terms of being a challenge. Some people will always value gameplay over story and will rather play a nice round of RTS or TBS then playing the campaign mode. All you can do is, especially if you're developing commercial projects, to pinpoint your desired target audience, created the things you are comfortable and know that you are good with. Then you can -maybe-
experiment on something different (just make sure you have some willing lab rats before you put a "Now for sale!" label on it).
"What with those crappy visuals? Isn't the story and the visuals the main selling point of a Visual Novel? Just fuck off! No wants to buy this ugly ass shit!"
I think we once had a discussion on how important the visuals are for us and if it's an important buying factor. And lo and behold it really was super important. I skip games if I don't like the art. To be specific: I can overlook some imperfections and much more in free to play games such as art assets like backgrounds or the GUI. But when it comes to commercial VNs it all has to be consistent. That includes background, sprites, the GUI and some neat little graphic effects (glow effects, eye blinking). Nothing is more saddening then to have a really great story and even gameplay mechanics at hand but it gets devalued by lack of certain visuals and that also includes NOT providing the standard 1920x1080 screen resolution (forever crying over 7kpp lacking these things and finalising the backgrounds to such a small resolution).
I don't care how many of you work on Laptops. I don't want at this day and age some smallish resolution on my desktop PC. Let me visualize it for you you: I buy a VN and want to comfortable read it. Meaning, I will play it on my PC while sitting on my super comfy office chair and enjoying some nicely brewed tea that I drink out of my pretty tea cup. The last thing I want to see is some small resolution and mismatching art assets. I know that it will get more expensive with higher resolution art, but.....I don't care. It's the standard resolution for desktop PC gaming. If it's too pricey then try going to the mobile market where I won't buy it. The same applies for video gamers. They don't want games with small resolution and when someone of them decides to pick up a VN that has a small resolution, they ask: "What year was it made?" to which they may get the answer "Oh, it's from 2015." They will not be amused and will not buy it. If indie devs can create 3d models with complete landscapes and give us the standard resolution or some retro looking side-scroller or some other hand drawn and even animated (!!!!) games it will really look bad for a VN dev to say: "Ah sorry, those few backgrounds where just too pricey to get them for this resolution." Nobody will care about those technical issues from a consumer standpoint, because they will hold up those two gaming formats, compare them in their head and then will flip you the bird.
Now, why am I riding so much on this issue? Because that's a very important factor for a visual novel and it is often a deciding factor for people to buy it, even for people who never played one, but thought: "Oh, well. Let's try this one. It's looks pretty and I want something comfortable to play that doesn't require both hands and being constantly alert. I've never played one of those so let's see how it goes." Little visual details such as light effect, eye movements or moving background elements definitely enhance the visual experience. Gimme them. I want some nice rain effects. I want interesting art-styles that matches the story.
"Ugh, more anime bullshit. Can't you just read a manga? Look at those pedobait drawings."
This one is a tough, but also easy one. Just like mentioned above. Visuals are an important buying factor and the art style can make or break it for many people. Especially if we are talking about the western audience. I will draw two camps for this to make it easier to understand:
Group Anime (A) - Likes nearly everything anime related and probably already plays visual novels. Watches anime and reads mangas from different genres. Some like to collect fan merchandise.
Group Games (G) - Maybe watches an anime if it's good or reads a manga, but also has many people that loathe and avoid everything "weeb" related. Connects many negative things with everything anime related. The majority of them doesn't play visual novels and it's this group that mostly "hates" visual novels
You see, I belong to G even thought I do read mangas and watch anime - occasionally. The problem is that I have preferences like people from A and if those aren't met then I am out.
Things I noticed from my own experience and from others that also belong to G is that there are certain art-styles group G tends to like:Semi-realistic, comic, caricature, quirky, old adventure games style, slightly anime or just realistic.
I can endure certain art style that I am not fond off if I can get sucked into the story and if there is an interesting gameplay mechanic that keeps me going. Thought, this is rarely the case. Like nearly all of group G - and myself included - they really hate the Moe-style (with a few exceptions). Many call it pedobait or weeb-crap. I like to think of myself as a person that doesn't judge people on their preference and I mostly do so, but for the love of all what's good I cannot wrap my mind around why anyone would like that.....that abomination. Those girls (yeah, most of the time this art style is used for games that sorely target the male audience
) mostly look like freaks and you can easily swap one out with another. Most look near identical if it weren't for bigger boobs or their hairstyle and colouring. Too much lolicon pandering and heavy sexualization of childlike characteristics. There is a reason why the western audience finds it so foul to do that even if it's just drawn. Anyone that wants to keep their non-otaku friends will stay clear of even owning one of those VNs. This art-style is a big factor that alienates the majority of the western audience and is one of the reasons why VNs have a bad rep on Steam. People see it, then leave a nasty comment on the greenlight page and hope that all those shitty VNs will disappear. Anime = VNs, meaning VN = "Fuck Off!" I know how this sounds to you, but this type of medium gets heavily associated with anime and it's "less then great qualities" from many non-VN players.
Group A on the other hand.........well, there are some people that flail around and whine like little kids if they can't get their animu-fix in a VN and will not buy anything that doesn't contain some anime-aesthetics. And again, who do want as your audience or maybe you can find a middle-ground that doesn't alienate too many people."More anime-related issues. Keep your tropes and those space-high-school-loli-dating-sim to yourself."
If it reeks too much like anime, group G will most likely not touch it. That contains certain tropes, ffffu.... *cough* anime character archetypes such as anything that end up with a -dere. In most cases you will loose people by mention those weird ass animu vocabulary. The story is one of the main selling points of a VN and if you fill it with fetishistic crap and cliches, people will be turned off. I asked multiple non-VN player on that and they all gave me the same answer as the things I previous mentioned. VNs are text-based games that are enhanced by additional visuals and should be therefore at least be above the average story-teller level then some video game. If the story won't grab you then what else? Gameplay? Nah, most don't have it unlike video games. And if it does, It won't warrant you buying this VN over your next video game. LLTQ might be an exception to that. Truth to be told, I haven't played all VNs and many aren't even translated. Still, I hold games like Baldur's Gate over Neverwinter Night too a much higher regard then VNs. Both games give me what a Vn does in in much higher quantity that I shamefully will compare them to VNs that are made by a small group of people.
Now that I think about it, RPG maker games face the same stigmas especially on Steam. The cliche "hero saving the world" is getting awful stale....as do rpg maker assets. In any case, dating sims often fall under the category VN and will also turn people off, especially all the hentai games. People ask "Why would I want to play this if I can watch porn, you weeb-pedo-virgins. I don't like seeing (underage) schoolgirls getting fucked in the ass just to see the cum and blood squirting out of her anus. It makes me feel icky and disgusted. Don't fuck little girls, you sickos!"
I think western audience is very receptive towards romance and text-based sex scenes that are woven into the story and won't be the centre of the story or the ultimate goal of it. It isn't required, but you can read it if you want. Just like Bioware romances. And if it has to be graphical sex scenes - it can be slightly hinted at or something sexy, sensual, fun and interesting => Don't worry, no penises or vaginas. It's the best example I can come up with right now. If you are interested, please read the next 4 pages from here on.
The points I mentioned above are also relevant for romance or dating sim games with exception that it is much more the centre of the story. It's just that I wouldn't go for that VN genre if I would try to coax VN-haters into playing one.
Now to the things you have mentioned in your article that caught my interest:
Use lots of sound effects, but be lazy about finding new ones.
I love sound-effects. I especially love new sound-effects that I don't recognize and that isn't used by everyone. Why bother with this type of medium when you don't try to get the best out of it. You can replace the soundtrack in certain scenes with ambient background noises. To a certain extend it's much more effective then music. Sound effects are not excluded from making the game feel consistent. Don't put your average comedic slap sound in your noir and gritty VN that wants to be realistic. VNs have the power to create a moving visual landscape for a story. Restricting it only on the visual part, but neglecting to create the matching audio landscape is almost sad. If you want to make me feel like I am standing in a magical forest then please give my brain the necessary audio impulses.
Don’t let the characters just stand there like assholes.
Heheh, that is almost a given and makes your VN much livelier.
Lastly, I want to share a comment from someone that read Winter Wolves article on "Making and selling visual novels and dating sims":
I've played a few, Sunrider Academy being the most recent. I don't recommend it. Always Remember Me was okay. Love Plus was probably the best of the bunch. The rest aren't worth mentioning. As far as that goes, making various encounters feel meaningful seems to be what sets them apart. Just as an example, Love Plus did this well, Sunrider Academy did not.
I'm with Rui Mota here in that the art style can be off-putting. I'll add to that the settings. Japanese high school [in space | with robots | for pigeons] is tiring. I'd look to the hidden objects genera for inspiration there, with its great variety of settings and scenarios.
I also agree that there's lots of room for innovation. Of the few I've played, each did something different. I can also see the mainstream appeal for a western audience, if the genera could be properly adapted.
Navigation seems important here. With Telltale's The Walking Dead, the focus was on navigating a narrative space, not a virtual physical space. In other games, you seem to bumble about aimlessly, trying to stumble in to a person for a chance to influence your relationship with them. With TWD, what you do is central. In other games, all that seems to matter is how much face-time the RNG gives up.
tl;dr - For western audiences, drop the tropes and look to other successful western story-focused games for inspiration.
That went on longer then I thought and thank you for reading if you made it past my huge post.
Edit: One thing I forgot to mention is the accessibility:
Some people just don't want to read too much. They don't get any enjoyment out of it and if you create a too huge information dump, especially right at the beginning, you will create a barrier that keeps people off. Even the people who are not averse towards reading. Gently lower them in and keep some gameplay mechanics or visuals that let's them play and explore.