Postmortem: Spooktober Visual Novel Jam


Hi! This is shino, the director, scenario writer, and character designer for Lachesis ∨ Atropos.

I'd like to talk about various topics regarding our horror mystery yuri visual novel entry to Spooktober Visual Novel Jam 2022: the jamming experience, the story of the game itself (including parts that didn't quite make it in), and other miscellaneous tidbits.

This time I'll be writing about:

The Jamming Experience!


Development

Spooktober Visual Novel Jam is a one month jam that takes place in the month of September, judging happening in the month of October. It's a standard length one month jam with the caveat that it's also a competition! 

Judging, money, and the general festivity of the best holiday of the year (Halloween, according to some folks) can certainly galvanize folks to make bigger, more polished games for the jam.

Incidentally, I simply make what I like (cute girls doing gay things).


Pre-Jam: August

If you were in my head or possibly just hanging around me during the first week of August, you might have heard the little bird say something along the lines of: "If I don't finish this outline within a week, then I won't do Spooktober this year!"

Spoiler: I did not finish that outline within that week.

As you might have guessed, I definitely did participate in Spooktober this year, considering the game that was created. However, it certainly slapped me with a number of realizations, the biggest one being:

Spooktober might be one month long, but it's really a two+ month ordeal.


Why? You might ask, having participated in another month long jam such as NaNoRenO or Winter Jam.

The answer is essentially reiterating on the topic of scope. I won't go too much into what scope is. Word count, asset count, general polish, so on—the more you want in a game, the more pre-jam planning you're going to have to go through. You can certainly take the scope knife to your idea, but...

Follow your dreams and make a game that shines! A game that makes you happy to have worked on it, whether long or short, gay or not. Actually make it gay. 

As it happens, the more team members you have, the more preplanning you'll have to do as well. While getting extra teammates to distribute the workload is great, be aware if you're in a directing role that more people on the team means more people to direct. 

Lachesis ∨ Atropos had a pretty moderate sized team in my opinion, but it's certainly got some scope to it, coming out to 45k+ words and multiple endings.

Here's a quick to-do list:

  1. Premise
  2. Story outline
  3. Team recruitment
  4. Character designs
  5. General logistics


Premise

The first thing to do is decide on what game you're going to make. Look at that 20 page ideas document from Fall 2021 to 2022 and pick! (Am I the only one with annual idea documents?)

Jokes aside, have a premise. From there you can expand it and make a pitch to find teammates.


Story Outline

Ideally, have a story outline: the characters, the plot beats, the endings, and so on.

I generally prefer to have this done before doing recruiting, but... if you're predicting what I'm going to say next... I did not have this done before recruiting this year. That was not great as it led to ambiguity in story and delays in logistics such as what backgrounds, what sprites, what CGs, etc. are needed.

Regardless of the incompleteness the outline, I was generally still able to give an estimate of the above based on a number of factors:

  • The character list did exist (who is the protagonist, who are the major characters, etc.)—this is very important for estimating sprites although a certain missing woman did end up getting a sprite instead of our favorite detective, Mana.
  • What's the general scope of the game? (Even if you don't have an outline, you should have a vague blob of "this game is going to be something like this" in your mind before even thinking about assets)
  • How much is it okay to ask someone to do?
    (If you're asking a background artist to draw 20 backgrounds in a month, that may be cruel and unusual punishment and I will report you to the shino police, which is run by me. I am a dictatorship.)

    I'll address quantity notes in the recruitment section, but if you're asking for too much, it might be hard to get people on board!


Team Recruitment

One thing coming after another, or rather in this case overlapping in slightly juggled chaos, I chucked out my first recruitment messages in DevTalk, the visual novel development community, somewhere near the start of August.

By the start of August, I mean the middle of August, but in this household, we round down.

"I won't do Spooktober this year," said shino as she writes up a Spooktober recruitment message.

As it happens, once you put out a recruitment message, you are in fact going to make a visual novel. I'm happy that I was able to make this great game with these awesome people! And I'm happy that folks, many of whom I've had the opportunity to work with before, were interested in my pitch... 

But before I go rambling on about how much I love my teammates, I'll go back to the topic of recruitment message.


So, shino, you have a game premise, a somewhat incomplete outline, and the power of lesbians (guaranteed, 4noki trademark) behind you. It definitely does help that I've released games before—game jam games—but still, how do you write a recruitment post?

I can't say this will work for everyone, but here's the list of things that I try to address:

  1. Who am I? (I've made games in the past! I'm also active in the community that I was mostly recruiting from)
  2. What genres are the game? (yuri, horror, mystery, denpa-esque... although admittedly the denpa-level of this game is so low that I wouldn't consider it such after it was made)
  3. Plot summary (in my case, my favorite things: gibberish!)
  4. Recruiting (list out those people and the scope!)


Here's an example of the initial recruitment post I made this year:

I'm looking for some teammates to make a denpa-esque, horror-mystery yuri visual novel for Spooktober! You can find some of the games I've written (and drawn - though this time I'm not doing the art) here: https://4noki.itch.io/ I will be doing the writing (estimated ~30k words, 2 routes) and character designs.

Lachesis ∨ Atropos

This world is woven of strings, of fate and of hate. The seeing-detective finds herself entangled in the threads of Parca, destiny and disaster.

A private investigator visits a small town after recovering from a coma. She searches for her mentor's lost beloved, but the very eyes she was born with, those that can see the black strings of hate, drag her down into the darkness of conspiracy.

A cult, two priestesses, and the threads that puppet the world.

Searching for:
- GUI Designer/Programmer
- Sprite Artist(s) (min. 4 characters)
- Monster Artist
- CG Artist(s)
- BG Artist(s) (~4 custom BGs)
- Logo Designer
- Composer

Additionally, if you are any other role that I haven't listed and are interested in this game, do feel free to reach out to me (^^

Please DM if you're interested!


You might have noticed that I put my estimated scopes for the roles that I could as well as the size of the game that I was expecting to write. Now the game turned out to be longer... but having an estimate always helps!


Folks might reach out to you. You might have to reach out to folks. While I don't typically link a document with all the nitty-gritty details of the game in the initial post (info overload?), I try to answer clarifying questions when asked. 

You are a team. This is a game jam. Someone interested in your project is not trying to steal your idea, so please answer their questions to the best of your ability and let them love with your project just like you do (hopefully?).

If you're in a stage where you're unsure about details, estimates are still good! And you should try to let them know that it's an estimate, and if things change, double check if they'd be okay with the updated scope amounts and adjust from there.

Communication is key!

Incidentally, I also like to ask the following question to make crediting folks easier:

  • What handle (username) and links would you like to be credited as for this game?


Character Designs

Character designs and similar aesthetic planning is also important. You might be wondering why I place this after the recruitment section on the to-do list, although the list itself is not linear.

The reason is:

It's nice to have character designs before recruiting, but it's not necessary. Just make sure you have them before the jam starts for the artists!

  1. Character designs are the main reason I call this a "two+ month ordeal"
  2. Please do not spend the actual jam period (September) trying to figure out designs
  3. Having separate character designer and sprite artist roles works well with the jam rules


You might have an easier time getting artists if you can show some sketches and ideas, but I won't comment too much on that as I've had experiences with and without preliminary character design sketches ready.

The character designing process is the part of pre-planning that made me realize that I really needed more pre-planning time for Spooktober. I hope everyone enjoys how the characters look (and think Mana is cute too even if she doesn't show up on screen very much), but the designing process was rather rushed.

Having only decided for sure to make a Spooktober entry over a week into August (it might have almost been 2 weeks in?), I was left with less than a month to scrap together all of the designs. It's definitely harder to sit on a drawing if there's no time to sit around.

In the end, while I did manage to design everyone in time, some of the character sheets were a bit scrappier than others, not even being a full-sized sheet. Luckily these are internal documents anyways!

Please note that while shino draws, shino does not draw very often or very fast.

Depending on your drawing speed or if you're even an artist at all, this may not be a problem. However, I'd definitely liked to have started planning and drawing designs earlier. Please keep in mind what you're good at and what you're slow at when deciding when to start doing certain tasks for Spooktober.

Or else you'll be like me: What are colors??? How to draw??? 

Thank you to the heroines for literally being twins and looking like Mikami Itoha, which was very helpful. _:(´ཀ`」 ∠):_


Logistics

Note that if you're using pre-made assets, having a folder compiled before the jam is probably useful. I was pretty sloppy on this end, but it turned out well (?), so I won't comment too much on it.


Before even getting into asset specifics (which you really need the outline ready for), I like to have home bases set up for various pieces:

  • Discord server 
  • Shared Google Drive
  • GitHub repository

I try to organize the Discord server for the team in such a way that the important links are easily accessible such as with an #important-links channel! 

Additionally, I make a spreadsheet to keep track of info, but I don't entirely expect folks to be looking at it. 

(Thank you, team members, who amazingly actually looked at the spreadsheet!! Even though the spreadsheet was kind of scrappy... dogeza)


Some other information to tackle before you even start talking about asset specifics include:

  1. File types (music, art, etc.)
  2. Dimensions (1080p)
  3. Schedule 

I personally like to add a few notes in there about potential scope cutting. This year, I'd said that I would condense the "bad" major end (it's really more of a normal end in my opinion) with the "happy" major end for each heroine if I didn't manage to write the common route by a certain date.

No scope knife. Only yuri.


After that comes asset specifics such as what CGs, what backgrounds, and so on. Some questions but not all include:

  1. What characters have sprites? (have a basic list of expressions based off of the outline per character so the sprite artist doesn't need to wait for the script to be written)
  2. What locations have custom BGs? (and what time are these BGs used—I hadn't realized the difference between afternoon and morning lighting, so that was a great lesson that the artists taught me this time!)
  3. What are the CGs? (and their priorities—don't be afraid to list out extras but note what's MVP)
  4. What are the tracks? (the general moods—I typically don't provide example track references)

One way or another everything will come together. 

Sometimes there are miscommunications here and there (I'm sorry, scrappy spreadsheet... you did your best too, but you were always a little scrappy.), so I always appreciate when folks pinged me or just asked in the server. 

Communication! Yay!


Miscellaneous

One item to note: please Google your game title beforehand to check the SEO and other aspects!

I am forever in the developer hell that is randomly picking a title that I think sounds cool, getting attached, and then suffering. I am pretty sure no one can type Lachesis ∨ Atropos (read: Lachesis or Atropos), and it's also somewhat hard to Google. 

If you are typing it with \or ( ∨ ), you get some shino points. (o´▽`o)


And so with what was done pre-jam done, we headed into September—the jam period.


Jam Period: September

If you have not guessed already, my jamming style is inherently:

It'll work out somehow!

I am possibly too laissez-faire, which is something I'd like to work on going forward with organization and backup plans. Plus, I should really learn some Ren'Py screen language properly... 

That aside.

Given that I've already rambled for so much, I'll just roughly go over the actual jam period, which was hectic in its own ways.


As a director, try to be available to your teammates. Not everyone's going to be in the same time zone, and that's okay.

Try to plan in some wiggle room in the schedule just in case there's some delays because the delay will be longer if you have to wait till 1AM to talk to the person in the other time zone.


Writing

As scenario writer, a lot of the work in the initial parts of the jam was just writing. Write at the speed of light! And hope that your pace doesn't slow down!

There's not much to say here, so I'll just list out the lessons:

  1. This is why you write an outline.
  2. Add in wiggle room in case you get writer's block.
  3. You will cry when you have to script it in.
  4. Writing at 1AM is not efficient.
  5. If you're going to get sick, try to get sick earlier so you can empathize with the suffering of our protagonist Mana more when you're still writing it—I mean, don't get sick.

    (This one is a joke, but I unfortunately did come down with a bit of a bug in the last week of Spooktober)


You may note that point 3 mentions scripting. I tend to lump scripting together with the writing part of the job and don't leave any sort of comments or notes about what the character expression or background at a scene is aside from the text of the story itself.

If you have a separate programmer who will script in expressions, music, etc., please leave some notes.


Additionally, I tend to aim for writing done within 3 weeks. (This basically never actually happens, but 3 weeks gives some wiggle room) Unfortunately that means there's very little time for the following:

  • Editing
  • Voice acting

If you want anything like the above that would require a complete script, leave some extra time because it's cruel to leave your teammates no time to do their part.


Schedule Woes

Speaking of that matter, I really messed up with the scheduling on the UI and programming side this time around.

Naturally there's a lot of pieces going on in the jam process. I won't bother addressing everything in this postmortem (is it more of a guide now?) since some parts would be kind of boring and also cause this post to become even longgggggeerrrrrr.

But I'd like to address a major point:

If the UI design and UI programming are separate things, then they are separate things!


This sounds obvious because I have, in the above sentence, literally stated the same thing in both clauses. 

However, I had always previously lumped the two items together even when different teammates were working on them and scheduled it to one deadline for "Programming."

I learned this year that such a thing will not always be great.


Try to set a deadline for the UI design to leave ample time for the programmer. Especially if the UI designer is newer to Ren'Py, make sure that they provide the correct assets for the programmer to put into the game. 

Directors should direct. Tis the job description.

shino why did you not actually take a closer look _:(´ཀ`」 ∠):_


I would like to thank papaya for not only the amazing CG art and accessibility features but also helping out with the programming when things looked tough!

(Now go read Soundless because it's so amazingly good.)


Miscellaneous


Something something jam jam gay gay mostly gay really. The game was made!


To close off this topic, I'd like to link the talk I gave at VNConf earlier this year on visual novel jams:

And... next time, I'll write about the story, world, and inspirations for Lachesis ∨ Atropos.



May you live in a warm, beautiful, and kind world!

shino

Get Lachesis ∨ Atropos

Comments

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(+1)
If you're asking a background artist to draw 20 backgrounds in a month, that may be cruel and unusual punishment and I will report you to the shino police, which is run by me. I am a dictatorship.

Thank you Officer Shino for keeping the BG artists sane

😎