Week in Mobile: Dysfunctional Systems — preserving the visual novel
Visual novels are an interesting case study. We often examine how the game industry at large adapts to new trends and developments in technology, but we rarely stop to think about specific types of games and whether they can survive the constant turbulence.
Dischan Media is one studio that has approached the visual novel with a Western audience in mind. That’s good, because these games have struggled to find a foothold on our side of the world, and few gamers here in the U.S. have the patience or attention span to play them.
Success stories exist. Aksys’ 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors is one example. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney series is another. With all the reading, some type light action (such as puzzles) usually helps keep players interested.
As technology changes, the way we experience these games does, too. Touchscreens seem like a natural fit. Having your fingers or a stylus at the ready suggests involvement even when players are only tapping through lines of text.
Mobile makes even more sense. Accompanying the touchscreen controls is the opportunity for episodic content, which works better with downloadable releases than it does boxed content. The ability to purchase individual chapters is more inviting for players who a) aren’t sure whether they want to invest financially in an entire visual novel or b) groan at the thought of playing it all in one stretch.
That’s why Dischan’s second visual novel, Dysfunctional Systems, is so short. Only the first episode, Learning to Manage Chaos, is available at this time, and players can get it on iOS or Windows PC, Mac, and Linux for $4 or $5, respectively.
“In particular, I think that tablets are great devices for consuming visual novel,” Jeremy Miller, Dischan’s director, told me. “They have large vibrant screens, and the touch interface works really well for navigating text and menus.
“The largest disadvantage to mobile is that sometimes mobile screens can be rather small, which reduces the appeal of the art and makes the text harder to read,” he said.
The model also works especially well because it gives players a good impression of what the visual novel is going to be like without having to spend full price. Is it too talky? Too “anime”?
Despite the look of the artwork in Dysfunctional Systems, Dischan Media is not a Japanese company. It’s an international one, with team members from Canada, the U.S., and the U.K, among other countries. That makes a difference. It’s easier to connect to a Western audience when you share its perspective, and many visual novel developers can’t make that claim.
Dischan’s first visual novel, Juniper’s Knot, fared rather well, and Miller has similar hopes for Dysfunctional Systems.
“I think I'm fairly happy with how Dysfunctional Systems has been doing so far,” he said. “The download count is not terribly high, but most people who play it give positive feedback, and I think that is what is important. As long as you create a good product which people enjoy, I think that success will come eventually as long as you don't give up.”
“Juniper's Knot is a good example of that. We created it largely for fun in just over a month for Windows, Mac, and Linux. The iOS port was more of an afterthought, and was done without much expectation or concern about its success. When we released it for free, it wasn't downloaded much, and we never bothered to advertise it. However, its download count slowly began to rise, and now it gets [around] 350 downloads daily and has been downloaded over 100,000 times — plus [approximately] 40,000 for desktop versions. Its success is almost entirely thanks to word of mouth and other organic forms of growth.”
Dischan plans to make Dysfunctional Systems a five-part series. It has not determined release dates. “Most of the team is currently in university or college, and although we are graduating soon, we're not sure if we will be able to make games full time yet,” said Miller. “It really depends on the success of the first episode.”
Miller and the team hope to finish the second episode in the next four to six months.