Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Dizzy Hearts

Welcome back to another Kickstarter Conversation!  Today I am joined by Taosym the creator of Dizzy Hearts.  Thank you for joining us today!

Hey, thanks for inviting me to do this interview.

Dizzy Hearts is definitely the kind of project that would be hard to fund outside of Kickstarter.  Could you tell us a bit about it?

That’s definitely true. I think if I brought the idea to any developer who could fund it. I would fail at the pitch. Pitching the idea has really been the hardest job of the project, because I think to fund a successful game, you really have to have a simple hook.

Dizzy Hearts is the story told via a visual novel about Seriva, a human girl from a country called Assard. They have a tradition that as a coming of age, adults must “leave the nest” and bring back something new. It’s a proud tradition of exploration that’s kind of stagnated in recent times. Seriva has always been an exploring type, so she decides to leave and go where she thinks is the edge of the world. She ends up finding these weird elves that live in an area of perpetual night. They are completely different from everything she’s experienced, and she’s sort of the lens for the audience to explore this bizarre race.

It’s basically the world that lives inside my head. I’ve been creating it since I was still in school, the universe, not just Dizzy Hearts. Then I created different periods of time in this universe, how it came to be, and how it might end. I guess every artist, writer or game developer really has these crazy ideas they know no studio will ever pick up. It’s too niche, it’s too hard to explain, there isn’t really a market for it.

I think Kickstarter really gives me a chance, not only to organize fans, but to create a new market for new indie developers that are all experience based, rather than results based corporate developers.

What is a visual novel and why go for that format? Couldn’t you have just written a book?

Visual novels are sort of like Choose Your Own Adventure stories but not. Essentially it is a novel with pictures that assist in telling the story. There really is not stipulation beyond that. You have choices you can make that change the endings of the story, or even end it early. That’s not a requirement for visual novels. I would say the name is very descriptive of what visual novels are.

I’ve been playing visual novels for the last 5 years with stuff like Fate/Stay Night, Umineko, Higurashi ~ when they cry, Muv Luv, the so called “staples” of VN fans. But I’ve known about them ever since they really started seeping into the west. First came JRPGs, then anime, then visual novels. Now light novels are sort of being fan translated now.

Years ago people in the west started making their own visual novels, it was kind of like Japanese VNs gave birth to a baby, and it was just learning to walk. Everyone was doing things Japan did years before. We’ve had commercial projects, and such, but no one really knew how big VNs could get until Katawa Shoujo.

People either love it or hate it, but it was a pioneer, and it blew open the doors for visual novels in the west in a huge way. It birthed a lot of imitators and inspired a lot of people to get in the game. I think most people cite Katawa Shoujo and Christine Love’s game Analogue as two big milestones in western Visual Novels, they proved that VNs could not only big popular, they could be a viable market.

Hilariously though they were dubbed OELVNs (Original English Language Visual Novels). Which sort of has this implication that you have to distinguish Japan’s “true” VNs from our shoddy imitations.

For me, I was inspired by VNs. Given the choice of writing a book, doing a comic, or something else. I felt that a comic was way too ‘light’ to tell the meatiest parts of my stories. Novels lacked the visual element I wanted in the story. For comics, I would spend pages of pages just to set up the premise. That’s fine for other stories I might want to finish in the future. However for Dizzy Hearts, it bridged a gulf between a book, and a comic. You can devote a lot of time to text, and still have art. Since art is my primary background, I wanted something visual. So visual novel to me is very accurate, and very literal for what I want to do .
You’ve been asked about the mature nature of your project enough to devote not only an update to it, but a FAQ response even.  Do you think your use of Mature in connection to a visual novel immediately triggers the idea of an eroge or porn?  

That was a question I got asked a lot on other websites, “Does Kickstarter allow this?”. There are industry buzzwords, and there are audience buzzwords. You write a word, and the person who reads it thinks a particular thing. There’s no filter for literal definition of things, so I’ve had to use synonyms, not to hide the fact, but to give the correct mental image. For instance, mature game, erotica game, and eroge are all synonyms. However western audiences conflate these terms and essentially eroge becomes synonymous with porn game. I mean, eroge literally means erotic game. There are a lot of books out there that are pornographic in text, but legally we call it “erotica”.

So obviously not pornographic just “R” rated essentially?  

Well, for Dizzy Hearts I have two different audiences, one that is looking for mature works that have sex, but with a much richer, deeper, meaningful story, rather than just instant-gratification. Another audience which is sort of the NC-17 audience who likes the concept for all that it is, but they’re not interested in seeing the mature content at all. They still like the story for it’s mature aspects, they just don’t want to see anything.

Do you think visual novels have a bad rap?  No one bats an eye if a book or movie shows adult situations but a comic, game, or a visual novel and some people seem to go off the rails!

It’s all about public perception. Visual Novels are pretty much just going through puberty right now. People are starting to break out, figuratively and literally. Trying to find their own identity. The west doesn’t yet know how to perceive them yet. Other than “those wacky chinese porn games”. I’m not exactly doing my best to change that public perception either.

I think it’s because comics and games are still fighting for their artistic integrity in the western culture. We have debates about whether games or comics are art. You can depict sex in a movie or a song, and it falls under an artistic choice, to provoke emotion in the audience. Visual novels are at the bottom of the totem pole there, because it already has a bad rap due to the unfairly reasonable fact that many visual novels need the adult content just to sell to a mass market in Japan.

I think that if people take one thing from the game is that you don’t have to walk on eggshells with your ideas. I’m not comparing myself to anyone, but creators all stand on the shoulders of giants. Katawa Shoujo made a “cripple sex” game, and that dirty feminist Christine Love dared to make a game that tackled women’s issues. Both games were very popular, and I think especially in the LGBT community, people are willing to support niche games if you’re willing to fight for your idea.

What engine drives this game or is it all custom code?  

I use Ren’py, which is an open-source engine developed by PyTom in Python. The beauty of the system is that there is very little that you need to know to make a Visual Novel. There are UI quirks in my game that have to be worked out, new elements to be designed. However getting characters on the screen, talking to each other is the easiest part of programming a Visual Novel.

There’s all sorts of subtle things such as text timing to get scenes to feel right. The hardest thing I’d say was getting the expressions to work, because that actually required assistance with someone who knew Ren’py more than me. Thankfully PyTom has put out a massive library of FAQs and explanations how to do anything you’d want to do.
How much of a labor of love has this whole process been for you?  

I think the whole process has. I think if it wasn’t it would never be where it is now. I know it was a lot of sleepless nights grinding art, grinding the writing. Going through the game over and over. Or sort of meditating on the totality of the story to make sure it ‘makes sense’. The ending, and the character conclusions had to make sense.

It’s not traditional in the sense that each character has their own dating story. For this game, there’s only one datable character. I feel that the other characters of the game, they are all reflections of Mercilia.

But I think making something like this has to be a labor of love, just to not have given up when you’ve been told constantly “Don’t even bother, no one will play a game this weird.”. I think there’s much more to come, and much more about the characters that people probably won’t even expect. In a way this Kickstarter told me that there is an audience for this, I probably sound like a broken record thanking people so much. No one was more surprised than I was though.

Is all the art yours?  How much artwork are we talking about here?

Everything was drawn by me, and 90% of the script was written by me, with 10% of the scenes being planned out by the person who also assisted with the harder bits of the programming, Funnyguts.

The art for Dizzy Hearts went through 3 iterations, going back 2 years when I was still developing the universe and the story(more than I’d like shown publicly). At the time I didn’t have the time to work full-time on the game. When the time came, I designed the concept for Lungarde and a central architectural theme. Which is based on Russian architectural queues like pointed roofs and onion-top towers. The elves in this area are really inspired by Russia even before I located the city in the snowy-night areas of the world. It seemed like a really good fit.

What people don’t see is all the city planning that went into Lungarde and the elves, what kind of houses would they live in, what would they wear. A lot of the clothes are quite revealing (the lack of outdoor clothes for the demo is totally a matter of lack of time and money.), because the culture is quite flashy and hedonistic. They like having fun, partying, drinking. The meat and potatoes kind of people. Not really like the refined and elegant elves you see in a lot of other stories.

What determined your art style for the novel?  Is it just your usual style or do you have a look you’re trying to achieve?

It’s my usual style, but a lot of the characters are designed to reflect their character. When I designed the characters, I wanted what they wore to ‘feel’ like them. The way they look is representative of how they are at first glance. It’s a bit of a trick though, because each character is totally not how they appear to be. Except for Seriva, she has to be “The only sane man” to make the world seem so crazy.

What is the $5,500 budgeted for?  How much have you prepared for the shipping/manufacturing of physical goods?  

I’ve had to get a musician to do the game, Ponyo. In the limited time he had to work on the project, a brief vacation from school, he was able to complete the 7 songs in the game. He’s also helping with the Russian translation. I also have an editor, she helped edit for other developers and I basically had to turn the demo script over to her last minute to get it edited, and she burned through it to get it ready for release. The programmer Funnyguts I mentioned earlier helped with coding certain harder things  in the game, and with scene ideas. The first encounter with Mercilia where she just kind of blows up was planned by her.

I mention them first because many people don’t have the luxury to have volunteers who, when put to the grindstone, stick by your side because they believe in your ideas. People like that to me are invaluable. For me, I know there’s no danger of me quitting, or leaving the project. If I had money though I would pay them, because you want to keep people like that around you. Even if they joined your project never expecting to get anything to come from it.

So I have to bribe my musician to write more songs. My editor to fix all my broken english, and programmer/writer to write more ideas and program more things. I have to pay for Kickstarter fees, and website creation and operation costs. There’s the cost of all the printing, but thankfully over the years I’ve made connections in doing these things  that allow me to offer rewards much cheaper than other projects might be able to and still fund the game. Once everyone and everything else is taken care of, the rest of the $5,500 goes to supporting more expression sets, clothes, poses, CGs, BGs, etc.

If I was to pay myself even minimum wage for the time spent creating the game, even just the demo it would be more than $5,500. I’m a working artist full-time, and so working on games means time in the future that I can’t spend on commissions. What is left goes to any surprise expenses and making sure I still have electricity when I wake up.

Your $25,000 stretch goal is a 2nd story!  Is it mostly just wishful thinking on your part to put it up there or do you have multiple story concepts just waiting for time and funding to pull out?

It’s wishful thinking, but I think that if I was going to need stretch goals, it was for things people would really want. People want high resolution versions, and they want portable versions. Visual Novels are perfect for that. Even before I considered Kickstarter, the art was all done in ultra high resolution, so things are infinitely scalable. It just takes time taking all the art assets, resizing everything. Resizing the sprites and reassembling the expression sets. Then making sure the characters are all positioned properly, in the right places. It’s a very manual thing and I can’t quite click a button to do it, it means going through testing at every resolution.

After that, there wasn’t much more I could offer with Dizzy Hearts. Once the story is told I have to move on. I wondered if people would really go for the idea of a second story. Especially one as big as this one. To tell the whole story of Vagabond would take around a million words. Which is larger than most novels. Because unlike Dizzy Hearts, Vagabond focuses on the entire story of 6 different characters, instead of just one couple.

Each day I plan to reveal a new character of Vagabond, and each character fulfills a facet of the story. You can go down one route, and discover a realization about that character, and about Alabast’s society. You can stop there and be happy, because I want there to be a sort of resolution for fans who want to play for the relationships. However, for completionists you can then go down another route, go deeper down the rabbit hole. At the very end of the maze, you sort of get the key to finding out what the real secret of Alabast is. Each character path by itself would be some 150k words give or take.

I’ll let people know that it’s not the end either. For as long as people are willing to listen, I have stories I want to tell, in different periods of this universe.

How did you discover Kickstarter?

I learned about it pretty early on, but I had never really grok’d the enormity of it until about a year ago. Most people unfamiliar with it see it as a platform where Indie developers go to beg for money. It’s sort of a dream though for many Indie devs, you’re beholden to the people who fund your game. They want to see you make your game, you have to deliver on their good will and give them the rewards you promised them. You have to make your fans happy. It’s really different from a faceless mega-entity that can, on a moments notice decide they’re not feeling the direction you’re going in, and can you.

A key part of successful Kickstarters is backer participation and how to convert a potential backer into a full backer.   How are you engaging your backers?  What kinds of things do you have planned for updates to give notice to those who just hit the “remind me” button and surf on?  Interviews?  Videos?  Stories from the project?

I didn’t think when I submitted this people would go “I’d like to interview you!”, I’m sort of like, uhh yea, I guess so. It’s a new concept to me at least. Backers though, I just try to be as ‘me’ as possible, and hope that people can judge you fairly from that. I like to answer every message, answer every question, respond to every comment. I did that way before Kickstarter, because when I was younger, and I was the one engaging with artists, they wouldn’t ‘have time’ to speak to fans. People can get hurt by that because a lot of the time, you’re making something that means something to another person. I want to make things that mean things to people. I’d like to talk to them as best I can. If I ever get to the point of being unable to talk to people individually, I want to talk to them generally. I want to listen to everything.

Updates, as I said before, every day I want to add concept art busts from the characters of Vagabond, more lore from the game, answering questions and elaborating on things I might not be clear on. Of course I’d definitely be open to doing interviews.

One thing I wanted to do was more short promo things, like little cute comics or something like Irraere’s Classroom. In the spirit of something like Diebuster where they tell you more about the series, scientific or biological type stuff. It’s hard to find the time for that, because I for many days honest just woke up, made food, sat down and drew Dizzy Hearts until I fell asleep 16 hours later, for a few weeks.

Dizzy Hearts -- Kicktraq Mini
What kind of media attention have you received with your project?  How are you spreading the word?  Facebook?  Twitter?  Google+? Youtube?  Advertising?  Are you using Kicktraq to track your progress?

None so far as far as I know. I use Twitter mostly, I like Twitter and you can find me at @Taosym I also have a blog, which people can find the URL to in my Kickstarter profile. I’ve posted on Google+, Lemmasoft (pretty much the go-to forum for english speaking Visual Novel creators),  Tumblr, however I’m not exactly a “well-known” celebrity or anything. I drop by Reddit, and when I feel I’m being respectful and not spammy I’ll say “Hey, you should try this out, you might like it”.

Which is hard for me to do, since I’ve always been the person who doesn’t want to intrude and step on people’s toes. I kind of had to reinvent myself as someone who could sell themselves and their idea. If I didn’t then they just would never exist, it was like a survival instinct.

Do you have any tips/advice would you give to anyone looking to start a Kickstarter?

I’m probably not fit to give advice on making a successful Kickstarter. I think the best thing is really be passionate about it, and make rewards that are doable, but things people will really want to go for. I think there’s a lot of people who are looking for something different.

Thank you for spending your time with us!  Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

No problem, I think the only thing I could suggest is that the biggest obstacle you can ever have from doing what you want is yourself.

Thanks again and I hope to hear good things from your Kickstarter!

Thanks for having me.

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