What’s the next big mobile app? Is it really something that no one has done before, or is it something your market has never done before?

Many world-changing concepts were good, smaller ideas in different markets before they became worldwide. The idea behind the iPhone existed in the form of the PDA, handheld computers like the OQO, and many other brands before Apple polished it.

Even today’s connected culture of staring at smartphones existed in Japan during the 90’s highly aesthetic keitei culture in the 1990’s and before the term app meant anything other than food. Japan has another big market that could make great gains if turned into the right product.

Visual novels (VNs) sell well, tell great stories, and offer entertainment in ways that the Western world doesn’t yet appreciate. Here are a few VN details to help you understand the niche, why it’s not working in the West right now, and how you can set a framework for big app gains.

What Is a Visual Novel?

Think of visual novels as a step between comic books and text-only novels. VNs are a series of pictures, short animations, and sometimes highly-details videos for special scenes that tell a story.

Unlike a novel, you have a few visual prompts to go with the words you read. Backgrounds and scenery are usually displayed at the top of the screen while text is displayed on a visually-appealing board.

Characters in the game are drawn with a few poses, facial expressions, and accessories. They change depending on the text, and multiple characters appear on screen depending on context. In some cases, the background and scenery can show even more characters, especially for especially scenic meetings and encounters.

Music is another big part of visual novels. Soundtracks for visual novels in Japan are big enough that entire subcultures called doujin music circles (from doujinshi, meaning self-published works) that create a musical fandom that subtly influences many bands in the West–often without the western band’s fans knowing.

Finally, storytelling is enhanced. One of the biggest parts of the VN world is that the story is interactive. It’s a bit like the Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) genre, but part of a computer or console game with many more branching stories.

Visual novel culture has a huge impact on Japanese and Korean modern culture, and the influence isn’t completely invisible to the west. Three visual novel apps delivered $14 million in combined revenue in Feb 2018, and many visual novels have launched Japanese anime series, TV shows, movies, and imported culture across the world.

Visual Novel Examples, Sales, and Reach

The Fate franchise by studio TYPE-MOON covers a series events called Holy Grail Wars. In these wars, Masters called Magi summon Servants, who are heroic spirits often from various periods of time.

The franchise is a fantastical touch of alternative history where the Knights of the Round table, Alexander the Great, Elizabeth Bathory, Leonidas I, Nero Claudius Caesar, Oda Nobunaga, William Shakespeare, Cú Chulainn, Fergus mac Róich, and many more personalities are summoned in a reimagined form. The series isn’t so much a history lesson as a history reference painted across a magical war and drama series.

The original Fate/Stay Night became the highest selling visual novel in 2004, and sold 400,000 copies. A Playstation release of the game in 2007 sold for $184,558, and many more renditions followed. In total, 751,488 copies of the visual novel have been sold.
As of 2013, the Fate/Stay Night game franchise has grossed $1.106 billion, or $1.43 billion with inflation.

The visual novel has multiple story paths and endings, and a few of these story paths have become anime series. The Fate/Stay Night anime aired on television, then sold 283,864 DVD and Blu-ray copies in Japan.

The anime lead to radio dramas and launched, and a mobile game based on the franchise called Fate/Grand Order (also known as Fate/GO) launched. This is where things become interesting for app developers.

Fate/GO is part of a mobile card game subculture in Japan called gacha. It’s a predecessor and competitor to the loot box concept of spending money on a chance to earn rewards in a game, and is one of the most famous examples of the microtransaction gaming culture in Japan.

Sony manages the Fate/GO mobile app, and since its launch in 2015, the game has passed $2 billion worldwide revenue. These reports come from Sony and analysis from app economy blog Sensor Tower.

This all comes from a Japanese studio that was once a cult favorite, off the beaten trail part of Japanese culture. There are multiple vectors for sale and market penetration, and not all of these avenues have been exhausted in the West.

Implementing Visual Novels for Your Own Niche

Visual novels enjoy popularity among existing Japanese animation, gaming, and storytelling culture fans. The popularity has grown in Asia significantly, and Korea is a part of Japan’s success as many Korean studios and contractors are part of Japanese studios.

In the West, Japanese anime and gaming culture–sometimes called otaku culture, although the term can be a pejorative for fanatics and extreme geeks–is growing, but not enough to be the next big thing. After all, anime and Japanese gaming fandom already exists, and while growth exists, it’s not an undiscovered gem that needs the right exposure at this point.

Instead, think about the visual novel’s format. In a way, it’s a casual game that tells a story. In countries such as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and across Europe, this is an easy vector for children’s stories.

Visual novels often have voice narration for key parts of the games, especially in higher production value from companies such as studio Key. Telling stories while delivering visuals isn’t new, but giving children options for where their story could go can help you unlock new, longer gameplay sessions.

Visual novels are not just for children. It’s a difference in culture, but many of the most popular VNs that have mainstream presence have violence, gore, and even sexual content. If you have a Young Adult, romance, or other novel idea that you would like to expand into digital format, this could be a good way to deliver the story.

One barrier to success is the appeal of the VN aesthetic. People who love VNs tend to prefer designs that look Japanese, and there are unspoken rules and tastes for near-Japanese designs that seem western. If that sounds too subjective and hard to pin down, it is; the fan community of not just specific works, but entire formats of entertainment can be very specific.

Instead, cultivate a design that sells well in the West. There isn’t currently a preferred style that sells well; the best-selling animated and digital styles simply look like existing, popular cartoons. Copying those styles will not ensure success.

Look to the growing popularity of animated series such as The Dragon Prince, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Steven Universe (which, ironically, holds many Japanese anime influences), or the 2018 She-Ra reboot.

If you have an animation team that is all about detail, reaching for older peaks in more mature audiences such as Todd MacFarlane’s Spawn, Heavy Metal 2000, or movies such as Titan A.E. and Atlantis could bring you to the forefront of Western animation that doesn’t compromise on frames.

The core of the visual novel is the story. With a good story that can branch out into multiple paths, you can either create a new type of Western gaming niche that quenches the thirst of readers who want gameplay elements. If you want to explain the story of an existing gaming app, VNs can act as supplements without affecting the files and download burden of the original game.

Positioning your game releases and stories can be challenging. If you need help with finding the right VN format or figuring out how to time a good story’s release with other market forces in play, contact a mobile app developer.

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