The state of VNs on Steam

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#1 by bunnyadvocate
2018-09-05 at 18:56
I’ve recently read a few thoughtful discussion threads on the state of the VN market here in the West. Some taking a negative stance, some with a more positive outlook. I thought I’d try to put some numbers on these statements and look at VN ownership on Steam, still the predominant market for PC games, and use that to analyse whether VNs are on their true route or have stumbled into a bad end.

I'd recommend reading this on my tumblr post as I can embed the graph images into the post rather than require external image links.


***Data collection***

I checked just over a million steam profiles to try and get a random sample of gamers. With Steam’s new private-by-default profile settings, only 8% of those users had public game lists, but that still gave us 80k user profiles to work with. I could then compare my sample with the “leaked” owner data and scale up my numbers accordingly to represent Steam as a whole.

Steam is rather haphazard with what gets tagged as a Visual Novel (RPGMaker games like A Bird Story are tagged as VNs), so I’ll only be including games that also have a VNDB entry.


***Steam VN releases***

So let’s start simple, with a simple plot of how many VNs are being released each month.

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At first glance things seem rosy for VN fans, there have never been more VNs being released in the West. But let’s break down those results a bit:

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Note that these trends are cumulative but NOT stacked. The EVN, JVN, and other VNs trends include only non-free VNs.

Here we can start to see the reason for the differing perspectives on the state of the VN market depending upon whether you read more JVNs or EVNs. While the rate of EVNs releases has steadily increased, the number of new JVNs has remained fairly static since 2016, despite Steam’s lowered release requirements. Steady release rates aren’t definitely bad news, but in general profitable industries want to expand, so the lack of expansion tells you something about the industry. But as someone with a plan-to-read list that grows longer by the day, I’m not complaining if the rate doesn’t increase.

One under-reported development in the VN market is the recent rapid growth of Chinese VNs (listed as other here), who have quietly been doing well in their home markets, but are rarely translated.

So while more VNs might be good for us fans, how does the market look for developers? Let’s have a look at VN sales.

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Note that these trends are cumulative but NOT stacked. All sales are back-dated to the release date of the VN on Steam. Free VNs count sales as the number of users who have logged some playtime in it.

Unfortunately Steam’s API doesn’t list when someone bought a game, so we’ve got to group sales by the release date of the VN. That means there will be a bias towards older releases which have been out longer and so had more time to build up sales.

Here we can see some justification for the doom and gloom perspectives, with more recent VN releases selling significantly less than older ones. With new JVNs in 2017 selling only half what they did in 2016. The EVN downward trend is especially stark given that the number of new releases has been increasing, so that’s less revenue split among even more VNs.

Not all VNs are equal, some are priced higher, so let’s look at total revenue rather than total sales.

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Note that this assumes every user pays full price, so this is more the maximum possible revenue than actual revenue.

Here we can see the difference between EVN and JVN markets. While JVNs sell only half as many as EVNs, they earn almost as much revenue due to their higher price. We again see the same dip in more recent revenue though, 2017 was only 46% of 2016′s revenue, and 2018 looks even worse so far.

Remember, this fall in revenue coincidences with an increase in the total number of releases, so to fully comprehend the drop on revenue, let’s look at the average sales per VN.

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First, we should note that this massively overestimates the average revenue generated as it assumes every user pays full price. I know devs who would sell their soul for 282k per VN. Oh wait, they already did when they signed up for Steam... (just kidding, I do like Steam, but it has issues). The important aspect here isn’t the y-axis total which is unreliable, but the consistent downwards trend.

But it might not be as bleak as it seems, older VNs are more likely to have been in bundles and in Steam sales, so their revenue is likely overestimated compared with more recent releases. So I’d be hesitant to claim that revenue is necessarily dropping, but I think we can confidently claim that revenue isn’t increasing.


***VN Reviews***

Nostalgia for a past golden age is common everywhere, not least among VN fans. It’s not uncommon to hear that newly released VNs aren’t as good as older ones, but can we get any empirical data on this point? We can get close by looking at the Steam reviews of VNs over time.

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Each dot represents the average thumbs up/down ratio for any VNs released that month.

Within the JVN market, we can see some truth to the nostalgia viewpoint. Older releases were more consistently rated higher. But that isn’t to say there aren’t new highly rated JVNs. They still maintain enviously high scores overall.

As for EVNs, while they had consistently scored lower than JVNs, they’re catching up and are now pretty comparable in review ratings of JVNs.

Just for fun, let’s see how the total review count compares between VNs.

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The two free-VN spikes are for Emily is Away and DDLC.

As I’m sure anyone familiar with the VN community can tell you, JVN fans are vocal, and it shows in the total reviews VNs get. Despite there being only half as many JVNs as EVNs, they still attract more reviews than EVNs do. This is perhaps because JVNs are typically far longer than EVNs, so might be worth the time of writing a review.

What free-VN fans lack in the wallet, they make up for in their word-count. Although this is massively skewed by two free VNs which compromise 70% of all free-VN reviews: Emily is Away and DDLC. They seem anomalies rather than trends. As shown by the graph when we exclude those two:

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*Excluding Emily is Away and DDLC.

Despite the drop in position, free-VNs still out-perform what we’d expect given their lower count of total owners, but that may be because EVN and JVN totals include users who own the VN but have never read it. Whereas the free-VN total only includes those who have logged playtime in that VN, so there’s a larger pool of possible reviewers.


***Potential Issues***

There are a few sources of uncertainty in the dataset. The selection of users who have set their profiles to public might not be representative of the wider Steam userbase. It probably undercounts more casual fans who are less likely to configure their Steam profile.

We also don’t know when someone purchased a VN, so it’s possible VN sales are increasing, but a lot of that money is going to older releases, especially if they’re in bundles and Steam sales.

In inclusion of VNs in game bundles may be distorting the image of the VN fandom, as it’ll include those who have little interest in the medium and only own a VN by happenstance.

We should also remember that “Steam” is not synonymous with the VN market. There are plenty of competitors in the VN scene, namely Mangagamer and itch.io, who tend to cater to different tastes than Steam does. So we’re only getting a partial picture of the Western VN scene.


***Conclusion***

There’s data here to support both the optimistic and pessimistic commentary. On the positive side, there have never been more VNs being released as there are now. EVNs are improving with higher average ratings and a few have reached mainstream attention.

On the pessimistic side, it seems like there are ever more VNs competing for a fanbase that isn’t significantly growing. While I’d be wary of claiming profits are falling, it seems highly likely they aren’t increasing, and a stagnant market is not a healthy one.

Personally, I think the future is bright. While VNs might not be destined to become blockbuster successes, there is enough of sustainable fanbase to support lots of indie developers, who are the most prone to innovate and write interesting new stories. As a VN fan, I’m excited to see what comes next~

---

I hope you found the article interesting. I had wanted to include a section analysing the Steam users, how many VNs do JVN fans purchase compared to EVN fans etc. But I want to spend a little longer going into more depth on it, so I’ll have a post up next week on that. If you’re interested in more until then, check out my other tumblr analysis posts, look out for updates on my twitter, or give me a yell on Discord (Sunleaf_Willow /(^ n ^=)\#1616). Special thanks to /u/8cccc9 for collaborating on the analysis, and Part-time Storier for proof-reading.

I just do these analyses for fun, but if you want to support my work with a tip, I accept small donations at ko-fi.Last modified on 2018-09-05 at 18:57
#2 by pendelhaven
2018-09-05 at 19:24
I'm worried that we are getting too mainstream. and by we, I mean anything with anime artstyle, not just VNs. and if there's anything I learned from mainstream, is that these people are too normie. actually calling them normies is crime; they are filthy casuals. filthy because they will try to ban anything and everything because "think of the shilldrinzz!!1" or things like sexism, misogyny, women hating, etc.

I know, the words I'm using is total cringe. unfortunately that's precisely what these filthy casuals are. and unless people call them out on their bullshit and tell them to GTFO, it's only a matter of time before they ruin our hobbies. censorship is goddamn real, LOLcalization is a big joke, and its all thanks to these total whiners who are not their customers in the first place. unfortunately for us, it's a losing battle. we don't gain anything by calling out on their bullshit, and yet if we don't more censorship will be placed and it would hardly be the devs' fault.
#3 by bunnyadvocate
2018-09-05 at 20:06
@2 While I think talk of censorship is overblown, I agree there will always be some types of content that won't be welcome on Steam, nukige/loli stuff especially, but Steam isn't the sole source of VNs here in the West. There's Mangagamer, itch.io, and Denpasoft among others. So I think there will always be a platform to all types of VN content.
#4 by pendelhaven
2018-09-05 at 20:10
#3 your statement alone is already an admission of defeat. what about Frontwing? or Sol Press for example?

or how about the sales between MG and steam?
#5 by bobopop
2018-09-05 at 20:25
This is so cool #1, I'm curious on how long it took you to compile all this information.

Will you ever analyze sales and copies sold on MangaGamer/Jast/Sekai/Frontwing as well?Last modified on 2018-09-05 at 20:25
#6 by kominarachromer
2018-09-05 at 20:39
#2 The radical leftist/censorship "problem" only affects companies who give in to it. Just stop buying games from these companies if they embody political positions that you don't like.

#4 Frontwing is selling their games on platforms other than Steam.
#7 by bunnyadvocate
2018-09-05 at 21:07
#5 It took around a month for my program to collect the Steam data, as I was checking around 40k profiles a day. Then linking that data with VNDB entries and collecting various release information took a couple of days. I spent a day or so analysing the results, then another day writing up the post and creating the graphs.

I would absolutely love to analyse the sales stats from those other sites, but unfortunately they're all kept confidential. Even Steam officially tries to hide its sales stats, but the public user profiles allows you to estimate it.
#8 by being
2018-09-06 at 12:38
your work is always interesting & appreciated!
I personally never liked steam and am still waiting for the day when the VN publishers can focus on a better platform and have that be enough to sustain the business.

But I don't think it's just steam I also think it's a matter of oversaturation, VNs generally are very time consuming and the western market just isn't big enough to keep up with all the titles that got released the past years. I think as fans we should keep shilling the VNs that are the best, word of mouth in this day and age is really strong and is healthy for the scene to support quality over quantity. Cause if there's one thing there's too much of clearly it is quantity which just buries all the good stuff.
#9 by pendelhaven
2018-09-06 at 15:45
#6 please tell me you haven't forgotten the rapelay incident?
#10 by bobopop
2018-09-06 at 15:57
What is that #9?
#11 by encrypted12345
2018-09-06 at 16:08
@10 Basically, a long while ago (maybe 10 or even more years ago), CNN caused an such an uproar about the Rapelay eroge being sold in Amazon that Japanese 18+ companies stopped releasing to the West. IIRC, it killed what ever H-manga and H-anime companies were around at the time, and it's said to be the reason why localization companies like MG and JAST have had a hard time getting notable titles until Sekai opened the way to Steam.

Incidentally, the advent of the H-patch was first done by Huniepop before companies like Sekai and Frontwing tried monetizing it, and led to Sakuragame and Cherry Kiss Games into trying and successfully selling nukige on Steam. You could say that all of the longering effects of the Rapelay incident have disappeared.

I would argue that the Rapelay incident won't be repeated any time soon because the mainstream media is too busy having the time of their lives with Trump, and Trump severely weakened the moral authority of the media with the fake news meme.Last modified on 2018-09-06 at 16:15
#12 by pendelhaven
2018-09-06 at 16:21
which essentially means we don't want CNN and... I guess ultimately every mainstream outlets to ever get noticed by eroge-senpai.

sekai opening the way to steam, as #11 would put it, wasn't even 3 years ago. the huge boom of VNs on steam if you could call it that was definitely unexpected.
#13 by any13th
2018-09-06 at 16:29
This was pretty informative. Thanks bunny for writing the article and everyone else for sharing your opinions.
#14 by kominarachromer
2018-09-06 at 17:58
#9 Rapelay was a strange combination of 80s-style "save the childrun" paranoia and American-style game phobia (I doubt that the same fuss would have been made over a JAV title of the same nature).

Also, it's kind of surprising that you of all people are bringing that up, considering that right-wingers were the main group advocating against Rapelay.
#15 by encrypted12345
2018-09-06 at 18:04
@14 Were there right-wing groups involved at that particular incident? There is the Jack Thompson stuff, but he focused more on violence. CNN is now obviously left-wing, but even if they weren't as left-wing back then, I don't think they were ever really right-wing. I don't remember Fox News getting in on the fun, just CNN.
#16 by bakauchuujin
2018-09-06 at 19:22
#15 I think calling CNN left-wing is a bit odd. CNN is the propaganda wing of the democratic party. The democratic party is very far right leaning in terms of economics, not as much as the republicans but really far compared to most countries in the world and the opinion of most americans. To mask the fact that they are not left-wing in regard to economic issues they take social left-wing talking points and pervert them into something that doesn't make sence. By doing this they can seem like an extreeme left leaning channel while they in reality just serve the corparate donors the same way republicans and their propaganda wing Fox News do.Last modified on 2018-09-06 at 19:27
#17 by azengar
2018-09-06 at 23:43
Really cool stuff you got there, thank you for posting this!

In the end I believe the question is, do we really want VN to become popular?
I would prefer it if VN were to remain underground, far from western censorship, even if it means less translated "games" and I'm saying this even though I'm not able to read an untranslated VN.
#18 by bunnyadvocate
2018-09-07 at 01:59
#17 I think a certain degree of popularity is necessary to save the industry. The Japanese anime/VN industry had been struggling of late due to an increasing reliance on an ever smaller group of dedicated fans. I also think that generally popularity is a good thing, as increased popularity means there's a viable sized audience for any niche interests. Whatever it is you're into, you're more likely to have VNs catering to it if the VN fandom is larger IMO.

There is a risk of censorship as you say, but I think there's enough alternative platforms these days that it hopefully won't be too big a risk.
#19 by encrypted12345
2018-09-07 at 04:10
@16 Fair enough, I speak from an American standpoint (I think Western Europe is jumping off the deep end). Still, being economically left wing and socially left wing are different matters. For example, Libertarians are economically right and socially left.

@18 I personally think no issues would arise if VNs became as popular as light novels (in the West).Last modified on 2018-09-07 at 04:39
#20 by kominarachromer
2018-09-07 at 05:11
#19 VNs are arguably more popular than light novels over here. It's actually a very similar situation; most people in the "otaku" community know they exist, but most people are content enough watching anime adaptations, and the only ones that really get popular are the ones with anime adaptations. Sure, you'll see some "normies" reading SAO or NGNL light novels occasionally, but the audience has roughly the same investment as those who only play F/SN, Clannad, and Steins;Gate.

Light novels are even worse off than VNs in a way, since most projects are either lightly edited MTL or got abandoned halfway through. The only chance a lot of them have for a translation is an anime adaptation, and anime studios tend to only pick safe options (rom-coms and isekai). Even then, novels like Jintai get dropped 1 volume in. The entire industry is a disaster zone, especially since they're trying to appeal to an audience of American anime fans who hate reading anything more complicated than subtitles and Reddit posts.Last modified on 2018-09-07 at 05:11
#21 by azengar
2018-09-07 at 19:41
I agree with you on this #20, many people know they exist (all of my friends who watch anime know about VN) but have no interest in them at all.
It's pretty niche stuff after all, you need to enjoy anime culture, reading and most of the stuff is romance. So I doubt it'll ever become really popular.Last modified on 2018-09-07 at 19:42
#22 by bobjr2000
2018-09-07 at 23:31
yep reading is not making a come back as of now and signs seem to be point in opposite direction in USA. I know in one article adults that read at least a few books a year has dropped to just around 40%ish. The reading is also for pleasure not work/school and include online material.

Its a funnel of bringing similar interest but narrows down greatly at end.
#23 by encrypted12345
2018-09-11 at 07:03
link

I wonder what kind of sexual content Steam is willing to admit. inb4 Euphoria.
#24 by pendelhaven
2018-09-11 at 07:18
is gaben really our lord and savior of steam?

it would be VERY bad if steam suddenly was required to employ a "diversity quota". if you don't know what I'm talking about, uber would be a good example of a company that suddenly went bankrupt all because of this diversity hire because... something about diversity is our strength bullshit. it started with employing one diversity hire, then she decided to hire more SJWs in the company, and it didn't even took 3 months before everything went under. my prediction is steam will go under in less than 5 years although I sure as hell hope I am totally wrong.

but really, the best bet I'm seeing is that sexual content should be released as dlc separate from steam.
#25 by encrypted12345
2018-09-11 at 07:35
I think that sexually explicit games will be barred from appearing in the front page. I'm curious if they'll show up as recommended if the user has sexual content enabled. If it doesn't then that takes away some of the usefulness of Steam as a marketing tool.Last modified on 2018-09-11 at 07:36

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