Visual Novel Maker: First Look

Over the course of several upcoming articles, we’re going to be taking an in-depth look at Degica’s Visual Novel Maker, a new addition to the lineup of game creation software available for home computers.

At the time of writing, the software isn’t yet on sale and I’ve only just started spending some time with it, but I wanted to take the opportunity to give a high-level overview of what the software is, what it’s capable of and what to expect from it. In the subsequent articles, we’ll take a more in-depth look at its various aspects and how to accomplish things with it.

For now, enjoy the tour, and get thinking of some ideas for your next bestseller!

Visual Novel Maker is based on an engine called KorteX by André Radomski. KorteX is a project that goes back a good few years, though it, in the author’s words, “collapsed” in its original form before being reborn a few years later as a Web-based engine that made use of HTML5 and JavaScript, much like RPG Maker MV. While Visual Novel Maker doesn’t require you to be online to use it, it’s still clearly based on Web technologies to such a degree that hitting the F12 key while working on a project pops up Chrome’s developer console!

The advantage of the system being built on something as platform-agnostic as HTML5 and JavaScript means that its output is similarly platform-agnostic. In other words, using Visual Novel Maker, you can produce games for Windows, macOS, Linux, Android or iOS devices, or even build your project to be played on the Web in a browser. While Windows is still a dominant platform for video gaming — particularly for Japanese visual novels, which tend to be Windows-exclusive — the option to export to all these other destinations allows a creator using Visual Novel Maker to expand the scope of their audience considerably.

As you’ll see in a moment when we take a tour of the main components of Visual Novel Maker, the application has a lot in common with RPG Maker in terms of how it is structured and how it works. This is entirely deliberate; Radomski’s original intention for the KorteX engine was to make it into an alternative to RPG Maker, but build it in such a way that veterans of that system would be able to pick it up without having to re-learn everything all over again. To that end a lot of interface design and components will be very familiar: the core of a project is a database, just like in RPG Maker, for example, and projects are assembled using a form of pseudo-code, with the option of using full-on JavaScript to extend or adapt the default way the engine does things.

It’s immediately apparent that this is an enormously flexible engine, designed to be ripped apart and put back together in different ways by the community. And if the incredibly active online RPG Maker community is anything to go by, it will almost certainly be no time at all before we see Visual Novel Maker doing all manner of exciting and wonderful things.

Before we take a look at the application itself, I want to take a moment to acknowledge how good its documentation is. It’s a component of software that is often neglected nowadays, particularly as the “digital age” means there are no demands for developers and publishers to add value to a game package with nicely presented manuals or other goodies. Even with expensive software for professional purposes, documentation is also severely lacking; how many times have you wondered how to do something in Microsoft Office, for example, and found the answer on a forum somewhere rather than in its help files?

Visual Novel Maker’s documentation harks back to the ’80s and ’90s, a time when software came in big boxes and was accompanied by manuals that were substantial enough to read over the course of several extended visits to the toilet. This being 2017, it is all in fancy-pants HTML form for easy referring to while you are using the software, of course, but were there ever to be a physical release of Visual Novel Maker, I sincerely hope Degica will consider including a full printed manual, because it really is that good.

Why is it so good? Well, aside from including a detailed, illustrated breakdown of pretty much every component of the application, it also bothers to include quite a substantial section explaining what visual novels are, the difference between different types of visual novel presentation (such as ADV vs NVL presentation, for example) and even how to structure a narrative effectively according to the conventions of literature. It also links to places where you can find further information about planning your projects and writing effective stories and provides practical examples of how the theory outlined relates to real-world examples. And it does all this without being dry and boring. It’s a masterclass in how documentation should be done.

Enough gushing about the documentation for now; let’s take a look at the software itself. (Click the screenshots to see them full-size, if that wasn’t already obvious.)

Fire up Visual Novel Maker and you’ll see this screen, which allows you to organise your projects, start a new one or delete an unneeded one. Creating a new project provides you with the options to base it on a template, or start from a blank project — though the blank project still comes with some basic features included such as default UI elements and menu backdrops.

One minor niggle that may be fixed by the time the software is actually released is that upon creating a new project, the software immediately complains that said project was created in an older version of the software and must be migrated. This is even before you’ve done anything, and may well be a confusing message for new users. It presumably relates to the template files being built in an earlier version of Visual Novel Maker than that which is currently available, but it’s a strange way to start things off. Not game-breaking by any means, though.

The first thing you’ll likely see after starting or opening a project is the Scene Editor. This is where you’ll be doing the majority of your work, using the software’s pseudo-code to make various things happen.

In the main part of the window is a “Live Preview” of the scene; this allows you to test out the scene as a whole or individual parts of it without having to run a full test play of your game. This is very useful indeed, particularly when working with things like screen effects or transitions that often require precise timing to look right. The Live Preview options are buried in the View menu at the top of the screen — they can be accessed with keyboard shortcuts, but it would perhaps be good to see them included on the toolbar at the top of the window. There’s a lot of empty space there, after all!

Underneath the Live Preview is the Scene Content editor. Here you can add individual actions either by starting to type their name (which brings up an auto-complete option) or by using the Commands browser in the lower-left. Each action has a clear set of parameters you can pass to it; showing messages, for example, allows you to choose who is speaking, a voice file to play to accompany the text, the expression the character should be displaying while speaking and whether or not the text should auto-advance.

There are a broad array of actions you can take on a scene, ranging from simple text display to manipulating variables and flags in the background, adding clickable links and triggering special effects. Right out of the box (metaphorically speaking) the software features most of the things you would need to produce a competent conventional visual novel, and with the possibility of adding additional features through JavaScript and Extensions, there’s a ton of potential here.

The Database screen features a number of different sections. Since we’re dealing with a type of game rather simpler than an RPG, this isn’t as complex as the default database found in RPG Maker, but there are still a lot of things you can customise in here — beginning with settings for the various characters in your game, which include their name, the colour their text or nameplate appears in as well as variables that are specifically attached to that character. This latter aspect is very neat, as it’s eminently suitable for things like tracking relationship values and suchlike — though the ability to store text strings in them also allows for things like custom nicknames or all manner of other fun possibilities. And death flags, of course.

Separate from the Characters section of the Database is the Character Expressions component. Here you can define the graphics used for each of the different expressions you want to be available to your characters. They don’t have to be static images, either; by loading several images into an expression, you can create animations. The software also supports the popular Live2D animation system, though at the time of writing the DLC (correction: this is a paid addon; I previously incorrectly stated it was free) required to make this work isn’t available so I couldn’t try this out. When it is up and running, however, the software comes with a few Live2D models for you to play around with as well as the sample character sprites.

Every good visual novel needs a CG gallery to track your progress and make you feel like you’ve accomplished something, and handling this in Visual Novel Maker is a simple case of setting up your gallery ahead of time in the Database, then using a simple “Unlock CG” line of pseudo-code as part of a Scene to make it appear. By unlocking things this way rather than automatically as they appear, it allows you to do things such as unlocking bonus CGs that don’t appear as part of the story.

An animation editor allows you to import sprite sheets, define their size (unlike the preset sizes used in RPG Maker) and their behaviour, then use them within your project. The default content in a new project includes a spinning wait cursor to mark the end of a page of dialogue, but animations could potentially be used for all sorts of things.

Again like RPG Maker, Visual Novel Maker features a Common Events section of the database, featuring snippets of pseudo-code that can be used independently of the main part of your game that is running at the time. The way you use these will vary according to what kind of project you are creating; conventional linear visual novels probably won’t need them much at all, but more complex affairs such as life simulators will almost certainly make heavy use of them.

The final part of the Database is the complex-looking but very useful System section. Here you can set default music, sound effects, backgrounds, colours and all sorts of other helpful settings. There’s also an incredibly handy section pre-populated with formulae designed to automatically and accurately position graphics (such as character sprites) relative to the screen size — something that you’d typically have to do manually in RPG Maker. You can customise these formulae and add your own as you see fit, too.

Then we get into slightly scary territory with the Script Editor. The JavaScript routines found in here are what make the game work, and everything can be customised as you see fit. Existing routines can be customised or new ones added, allowing those competent in JavaScript coding to make Visual Novel Maker games go well beyond the capabilities of the base engine, which is already pretty damn capable.

Perhaps even more interesting than the Script Editor is the Extensions Editor. This is something new to Visual Novel Maker that wasn’t found in RPG Maker; it allows you to actually fiddle around with how the editor works, either by customising its existing features or adding new ones. This helps get around the issues that RPG Maker had with plugins, which often had to rely on peculiar workarounds such as “notetags” — parameters stored in comment fields for maps, characters, enemies and items — to pass information to the new code. With the addition of this Extensions feature, anyone who creates a plugin for Visual Novel Maker games can also add interface elements to the editor itself. Pretty cool.

Finally, those wishing to publish their games in multiple languages will find a lot to like in the Language window, which allows you to translate individual terms, lines of dialogue within Visual Novel Maker itself, or import and export .CSV files to work with external translators who may not have the software themselves.

All in all, you can hopefully see from this whistle-stop tour of the interface that Visual Novel Maker is a very substantial package indeed, even without any plugins or extensions available at the time of writing. There’s everything you need here to create conventional visual novels and even some more ambitious projects — one of the sample templates includes a functional Blackjack minigame, for example, and a number of features are clearly designed with creating full-on adventure games in mind — plus the possibilities are endless as to what this software will be capable of once the talented coders of the RPG Maker community get their hands on this.

It certainly compares very favourably to other visual novel solutions on the market. It’s quite a bit more straightforward to get started with than the excellent Tyranobuilder, for example, particularly with the inclusion of some good quality sample resources to experiment with, and the highly customisable nature of both the editor and the game engine have the potential to make it a very convincing rival to the popular Ren’Py — though tempting veteran developers away from that will likely be a challenge, especially given Ren’Py is open source and free, while Visual Novel Maker is a premium commercial product that, at the time of writing, we still don’t know the price for.

It remains to be seen how the community will take to Visual Novel Maker once it launches on November 16. Given the scope and flexibility of the application, though, it certainly deserves to be a big success; I know I’m certainly looking forward to seeing how people customise the engine and editor, and I’m also eager to put some of my own projects together. GameCast Season 2, perhaps…?

In the coming articles, we’ll take a closer look at the various components of the application and how to use them to put together a new project. In the meantime, I guess we’d all better start fleshing out that half-finished narrative masterpiece we have in the back of our minds…


More about Visual Novel Maker

A review copy was provided by Degica. 

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3 thoughts on “Visual Novel Maker: First Look”

  1. Sounds like it could really be what I hoped for. A problem with selling a VN creation tool is that it has to compete with a free engine: Ren’Py. Ren’Py requires scripting, but isn’t too complex and can do quite a lot of things (especially when you can use Python code directly). To compete with that, a VN creation tool would need to be more easy to use, at least in basic functions, but also offer many possibilities.

    That’s where Tyrano, from what I saw, failed. It’s easier to use, requiring no scripting, but is rather limited in its possibilities.

    When I first heard of Visual Novel Maker, I thought that it could do it right, if it does things like more modern iterations of RPG Maker, from XP onward (many easy to use basic functions that make it possible to make a game without scripting, like earlier versions, but also allows for actual coding to dig deeper). And from the looks of it, it’s exactly what I wanted, which could be described as “RPG Maker for VNs” anyway. I certainly look forward to it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah. I think the real strength of this is the fact you don’t have to rely on scripting at all if you don’t want to. If you’re happy to use default assets and interface elements, you can get something up and running in seconds, and the documentation gives full details on how to customise things to varying degrees.

      In fact, you can even do things like adventure game-style hotspots and custom interface elements without having to do scripting. The built-in functions seem to be pretty damn powerful; I’m looking forward to exploring them in more detail over the next few articles.

      I liked TyranoBuilder and had fun making the GameCast with it, but it fell down for me in a few areas: lack of preset assets for beginners wanting to experiment with the program, and the fact you have to build pretty much *everything* from scratch if you don’t want your project to look incredibly amateurish. It also had a pretty clunky interface — copy and pasting things could be a bit of a pain, for example.

      A lot will depend on what the price of VNMaker ends up being, but so long as it’s on a similar level to RPGMaker I think they’ll be all right. The two programs are certainly comparable in terms of functionality… and with the Extensions option in VNMaker allowing you to customise the editor it has the potential to be even more powerful.

      Like

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