Visual novels are getting a big push lately on Steam. It seemed the flood gates opened at some point, and we are now awash with the medium on the platform. I generally view this as a good thing despite visual novels (VNs) not being a mainstay of my gaming time the past few years. Not everyone seems to think that this rise is such a good thing, as one writer from Playboy — of all places — laments this rise in prominence when he explains that sex scenes make him feel weird when trying to recommend certain visual novels to friends. This article seems to ignore the plethora of different genre specific VNs released over the decades. One of the more popular varieties, otome’s (think romantic Choose Your Own Adventures) are actively marketed towards women, and feature more feels than flesh — generally.
We are not here today to talk about how horribly misguided this poor chap at Playboy is, though. I had been laughing this off on social media when I found out that there *is* something to be a tad worried about in visual novels. And it isn’t cheesy romance or awkward sex scenes. It’s everyone’s favorite market practice: micro transactions and DLC abuse.
Now I do want to state that I do not think every instance of micro transactions in a game, or DLC to expand content, is by default a bad thing. It is my relief to report that in my research, what I am about to detail is not the market norm right now — at least on desktop. To shortly state as to not digress, I feel it is a fair deal most times when I see items like a VNs soundtrack or artwork available as DLC for an extra charge.
My line gets drawn when I see DLC items like character epilogues, or game modes, being divvied out as DLC.
Meet Exhibit One. Its name is Mystic Destinies: Serendipity of Aeons. Mystic Destinies offers itself as a free to play visual novel, though it is really more of a demo. It offers the first chapter of each character for free, and to explore the rest of a characters arc you need to buy their story DLC. This, in and of itself, is not something I have a problem with either. I can actually see this as a good way to have people try a VN in the first place, then only pay for the stories that they like. But Mystic Destinies abuses this.
How so? The Epilogue for each character is an additional DLC. Each character’s story is $4.99, with their epilogue being another $1.99. Granted, it is only two dollars, but this is how they get you with micro transactions. Get you into a system where you want to spend just a bit more. I don’t even understand what led the developer to this discussion. Frankly, I would have just tacked the extra price into the total cost of that character’s arc.
I don’t care if the story of this particular VN is the equivalent of War and Peace, these are not practices that I would support. Again, not the idea of a free to play base VN with a specific character’s full story as DLC. But that is the kicker. You want the *full* story for that character. I would not want to signal to anyone that splitting off an epilogue is a practice that should become a norm.
Speaking of splitting off bits of game, let’s usher in Exhibit Two for today: Army of Tentacles: (Not) A Cthulhu Dating Sim. When AAA publishers have tried to cut off extra game modes as DLC, people rightfully got a bit irked. Because of their niche appeal, there are not as many people around to cry foul when a visual novel does something similar on Steam. Army of Tentacles has the distinction of offering it’s New Game+ mode as an extra $3.99 tack-on purchase.
I’ve seen games, even indie games (see Rabi-Ribi), include new game modes as after release support for a title as a free incentive to new players to purchase, as well as a way of getting older players to come back and recommend the game after the buzz of it’s release date is gone.
Offering something like a New Game+ mode as another one of these micro transactional additions is one of those things I personally would not want to signal support for in the market either. While it’s a free market for practices to thrive or fail as they will, this is certainly one that I would not like taking root in VNs, or games at large.
It’s only been semi-recently that the abilities of the Steam marketplace have allowed desktop visual novels to explore these micro transactions and DLC avenues. This has been much more of a norm on mobile, though sadly that is expected these days. That is a damn shame too, as tablets are arguably the best platform for engaging VNs on.
The worst of the mobile market practices are just as present on many otome games on the mobile market. Some of the worst offenders, like It’s Our Secret Fake Marriage (the things I do for the name of research), only let you advance through the stories with a currency — like energy or scenario tickets (different names, same concept). Each ticket would get me roughly 1 – 2 minutes of story advancement, with up to five free tickets regenerated at a rate of one ticket per few hours. To buy tickets, you spend 85 coins a piece, with coins startings at $0.99 for 99 coins.
Oh, there are ways to earn free coins. These insidious games always have ways. Just give them your email address, share them on Twitter, invite your friends, and install LINE and shill on there for them. Don’t forget to rate the game five stars for a bonus!
Despite coming to expect the mobile market to be a wasteland of consumer friendliness already, it never ceases to amaze me the depths of some of it. These practices may be the order of the day on mobile, but that’s because most of those consumers already acquiesced to them long ago.
Thankfully, the overwhelming amount of visual novels on Steam offer fair (to me) DLC purchases. The digital artbook, the OSTs, and the voiced “Plus” additions are not the practices I am worried about. The slicing off of game content like character epilogues and game modes is already something we see in the AAA realm, and something I would be wary of supporting in the visual novel arena.
When it comes to consumer practices, some will push things as far up to the line as possible. The biggest defense against these practices is the consumer being aware and not supporting what they find egregious. Don’t let current outliers become future norms.