Today, we’re in for a treat as we dive deep into the realm of visual novel development and game marketing. We’re thrilled to be welcoming a true powerhouse in the industry, the mastermind behind Crystal Game Works and the marketing genius for Studio Élan – none other than Arimia herself! Hold on to your seats as we journey into the heart of her creative process, explore the birth of Crystal Game Works, and uncover the secrets behind effective marketing in the world of visual novels.
How did your journey as an artist begin in 2010, and what were some of your early influences?
I first got back into anime in 2010 after growing up on shows like Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokemon thanks to a friend I made that year. That friend was an artist and by Christmas I was sketching anime with her. I started off with fanart but quickly became interested in making my own characters as well, since a lot of online artists at the time based their online presence around a main OC. My main influences were Shounen Jump series like Yu-Gi-Oh! and Bleach (I was always buying the monthly edition when I could) as well as, funny enough, anime visual novel adaptations like the When they Cry series. I didn’t learn what a VN was until a few years afterwards.
What prompted your transition from being an artist to a game developer in 2014, and how has your artistic background contributed to your game development career?
For a lot of artists, if you wanted to tell stories with your characters using your artwork, you went into webcomics. Other avenues just weren’t as well-known back then—the visual novel scene in the West was still relatively small (it still is, even though it’s grown so, so much over the past few years, but I digress) and webnovels/light novels hadn’t quite taken off like they have in the past few years, so many people assumed webcomics were the way to go. I was definitely one of those people and tried to make webcomics, each of them failing to get finished. One day while I was watching Let’s Plays (namely RPG horror ones), something clicked. I realized that RPGs use anime styles to make amazing stories and knew that’s what I wanted to try. While looking into how to make those types of games I found Ren’Py and the rest is history.
Can you share some insights into your creative process when developing a new visual novel or RPG?
When I decide to make a new visual novel—or at least begin concepting one—I start a new journal. I like to hand write my notes and outlines, even if it gets really messy and convoluted. There’s something nice about having a part of the game in a physical form, as basically everything else in game dev is digital work. Also, my notebooks serve as the main planning spot for each of my games- they have character bios, quick outlines, detailed outlines, assets needed, game scope, marketing ideas, etc. It’s just nice to write things down!
How did you become involved in indie game marketing, and what inspired you to specialize in this field?
I became interested in marketing games after my first commercial game, That Which Binds Us, was a commercial flop—I made back the small amount of money I’d spent on it but that was it. I’d posted the game on Twitter, Reddit, and Discord so I was confused how I’d get it to sell better. I started researching marketing and became invested in my college’s business programs (though I was a computer science major). Marketing quickly became fascinating to me because it’s a means of communicating your project to others and better understanding what you’re making. It’s not just advertising, but rather a form of communication. People out there want your game, you just have to figure out how to find them.
What are some unique challenges and opportunities in marketing visual novels compared to other types of games?
Visual novels come in all sorts of flavors, ranging from linear horror stories to queer comedy dating sims to tiny, introspective art pieces. People have their own preconceived notions of visual novels (like that they’re all porn games, or that all visual novels are romances, etc.) which can be hard to tackle. There’s also people who go “reading? ew” and immediately turn around, even if the story and art style in the VN is right up their alley. If you look at Steam you’ll always find some reviewers on VNs who comment “too much reading”. And then you have newcomers who make VNs and try to pitch them as being “better” than other VNs, that they’re “not like the rest” and such. There’s a lot of nuance to marketing a VN!
We also don’t have gameplay in our games, for the most part. A lot of online marketing guides tell you to show your flash gameplay in clean gifs and videos and have that be the center of your marketing, but that falls completely flat for VNs! One of the biggest issues I ran into early on was finding guides that would fit VNs, as so many marketing guides were tailored to platformers or FPSs and such. That was one reason I started blogging—I wanted to share my findings with others, since there weren’t other VN marketing blogs out there.
Can you share some tips and best practices for marketing indie games, specifically within the visual novel genre?
Focus on what makes your game your game! Some devs worry about it being different from the rest or super individual—but what exactly makes up your game? What are you making? Why are you making it? Why should other people care, truly? A lot of marketing (and our culture in general) has shifted to social media as our primary concern but this mindset leaves behind some important things. I want more devs to focus on understanding the game that they’re making and the story behind it—not the story they’re writing for the visual novel but rather the story of its development, of why they’re making the game.
Another thing—don’t make your first game a big commercial game! It’s a creative process, just have fun with it. Enter a game jam with friends or strangers. Download Ren’Py or Twine, play around with it for a weekend, and never release the outcome. Enjoy the process, then worry about social media and community building and Steam publishing.
How has your degree in computer science influenced your approach to game development and marketing?
Even when I was in college, people assumed my degree was in marketing or business because of how invested I was into it, hah. In general though I don’t use my degree much, though. Most of my creative process comes from things I learned as an artist.
What led to the creation of Crystal Game Works, and what are the studio’s core values and goals?
I established Crystal Game Works when I realized I wanted to not only continue to make games but also venture into commercial games. I want our games to feature queer characters in fantasy settings (though my current game isn’t in a fantasy setting!), with several being more action-oriented. Shounen Jump was a big early inspiration to me (and still is) as well as Fate/stay night for the kind of games I want to make.
What are some of your proudest achievements or milestones as the owner of Crystal Game Works?
Earlier this year we passed 100k downloads on itchio across all games. I’m just happy to make more niche games that people enjoy.
How did you become involved with Studio Élan, and what are some awesome experiences working with a Yuri visual novel studio?
I joined Élan in 2019 after Josh found out I enjoyed marketing. They were about to launch their first Kickstarter for Élan and wanted more help with it. I’ve learned a lot while at Élan about marketing and game development, though I’d say my favorite was last year when we hosted Élan Festival, a livestreamed event on our YouTube where we showcased various LGBT+ games and gave announcements on our own titles. It was our first foray into hosting our own event and it was so much fun that we want to do it again in the future!
Can you discuss your role in marketing at Studio Élan and how your experience with Crystal Game Works has informed your work there?
I currently handle most of our social media as well as our newsletter and reaching out to press. I also sometimes help with the Patreon and anything else that comes up. Last year we welcomed a new team member, Mado, who runs our Tumblr now and helps me with other tasks. Our workflow is pretty similar to what you might expect from other studios—we keep our social media active and post consistent updates when we can. However, we also all try to help out where we can—some of the other members help answer messages or reach out to events and such. It’s a team effort!
What are some key differences between marketing games for Crystal Game Works and Studio Élan?
The main differences are the games’ scope and their audiences. I think as a basic overview our audiences are pretty similar—with both studios tailoring to queer women—but it’s the core of the games that’s very different. When people read a game published by Élan, they expect it to be a mostly uplifting story centered around queer women and possibly other LGBT+ identities with high production values and attention to detail. A lot of Élan fans are excited for good queer representation and tell us that that’s a big factor for them playing our games.
At my own studio Crystal Game Works, though, I don’t spend nearly as much time marketing those games as I do at Élan. The games I make at CGW are a break from my day job and my own creative outlet. Most of the marketing I do for my own games is through longer form content like devlogs, where I can give lengthy status updates and just talk about my games. Meanwhile, at Élan we have a lot of different moving components, ranging from long form content on our Patreon to quick posts on Twitter to sharing art on Reddit and making videos on Tiktok and—you get the idea.
How do you maintain a balance between working with two different game studios, and what strategies do you employ to ensure success in both roles?
Like I said before, most of my marketing effort goes to Élan while I spend some of my other free time tinkering on my own projects. Sometimes when we’re about to release or launch something I’m unable to work much on my own stuff; sometimes when I’m fixated on something I’ll let the other team members handle the Twitter for a few days. It’s all teamwork.
What are some of your favorite visual novels or games, and how have they inspired your work?
Some of my favorite visual novels are Fate/stay night, Umineko no Naku Koro ni, the Ace Attorney series, and more. I’m currently playing Mahoyo (Witch on the Holy Night), another game by Type-Moon, and absolutely loving it. The visuals and scene composition are truly a sight to behold. Another one I’m playing right now with friends is ghostpia, a beautifully strange indie visual novel that’s also stunning to see. I love how visual novels keep being innovated!
How do you see the future of the visual novel and RPG genres, and what role do you envision yourself and your studios playing in that future?
I see a future where visual novels continue to gain notoriety and acclaim, where we can shake off the misconception that they’re all 18+ romance games, and bring to light some of these truly innovative ways of storytelling. I want to continue playing VNs and tinkering with ways of developing them, of communicating to the players their stories.
How do you stay up-to-date with industry trends and developments, and how do you incorporate this knowledge into your marketing strategies?
Twitter, Discord, and itchio, mainly. Sometimes friends will share new VNs with me (like with ghostpia), sometimes I’ll see them in game jams I cohost like Otome Jam. Word of mouth is still one of the best ways to hear about new titles.
What advice would you give to aspiring game developers or marketers looking to break into the visual novel and RPG genres?
Have fun with it! Game development is a special creative medium kind of like filmmaking where it combines several other creative films to make a new experience. Treat it like its own creative process.
Are there any upcoming projects or collaborations that you’re particularly excited about, and can you give us a sneak peek into what to expect from them?
Right now I’m working on Canvas Menagerie, a slice-of-life boys love visual novel about a transmasc actor falling for his celebrity co-star. It’s my longest visual novel to date with currently 80k written out of an estimated 150k so I’m pretty excited about it. I can’t quite share anything we have planned over at Élan, but there’s definitely a lot of cool stuff coming up very soon. I’m also pretty excited about us getting the physicals in from our last Kickstarter—we had one run of physicals for our games with our first Heart of the Woods Kickstarter, but now we’ve been able to bring even more of our games (and artworks and soundtracks) to reality.
And that’s a wrap! From the start of Crystal Game Works to her marketing magic for Studio Elan, we’ve explored every nook and cranny of this fascinating journey. As we sign off, remember to let these insights inspire your own creative adventures. Until next time, stay curious, and keep exploring the incredible universe of geek culture!