The Business Of Making Gorgeous Visual Novels And Releasing Them Outside Japan


Visual novel publisher MoeNovel recently published their first English-language release—If My Heart Had Wings, a visual novel about a boy, Aoi Minase, and a wheelchair-bound girl, Kotori Habane, who revive their school’s defunct Soaring Club. “A tale of boys and girls who loved the sky,” is how the game is described on its website.


If My Heart Had Wings is different from most current-day visual novels on PC, in that it has been rated by both the ESRB and PEGI. Additionally, the game has also had any explicit content taken out of it. This is because MoeNovel hope to target a broader audience with their games than your average visual novel does.


Siliconera caught up with one of the producers at MoeNovel, Fujisan, to ask about the game, why MoeNovel made the choices they did, what their thoughts on the Western visual novel market are, and where they plan to go from here.


MoeNovel’s “About” page says that you’re a company that will focus on visual novels with high-quality visuals and cinematics. Is this something you feel the visual novel market in the West is lacking?


Fujisan, MoeNovel producer: I don’t think many visual novels released in the West are of high picture quality yet. In the past couple of years, more HD visual novels like IF MY HEART HAD WINGS have been slowly coming out in Japan, but it’s not as if all of these titles are being localized and released in the West. With that reality in mind, I still feel that most visual novels in the Western market are released with a resolution of 800×600 pixels.


I think there have probably been titles that have a theatrical flair to them that were released in the West before, but not many like IF MY HEART HAD WINGS, which add in animation and script-acting to create a product with a sense of movement.


What else do you think the visual novel market in the West lacks at the moment?


Officially localized and released visual novels are few in number. That and also makers that actively try to spread the Japanese-born visual novel game genre to the West are few in number too. Perhaps for that reason, I feel that there are also few Western-made visual novels. Of course there are visual novel creators out there in the world, but not to the extent that you could say the visual novel genre is commonplace.


This is still a sort of far off dream, and of course MoeNovel is simply a company that officially localizes and releases visual novels in the West, but sometime in the future I’m hoping that we can help out people wishing to create visual novels in various countries on a commercial level and perhaps offer them help by lending know-how on the matter from Japan. I think if we could do that, it would lead to the stimulation of the visual novel market.


We’ve heard so many stories over the years about various visual novel publishers being wary of the West and also being difficult to work with. Especially since you intend to focus on more “high-end” visual novels, are you worried about being able to license the kinds of projects you want to work on?


In working on this project, of course I discussed this with many industry people, but I was repeatedly told, over and over, that “The Western market is difficult.” Thinking of it business wise, I’m sure it’s not uncommon to not see any results for a long time, and we have to move projects along somewhat blindly, so I’m sure it won’t be easy. I fully understand that this isn’t going to be an easy ride. But our number one motivation is in wanting people all over the world to know about the Japanese-born game genre known as visual novels. Business is important too but that motivation is stronger.  Rather than quitting because we hear that the Western market is a difficult, we’re going to give it a try. We at MoeNovel really take this to heart.


The reason we’re sticking to high resolution graphic visual novels is because of the changing user environment. Nowadays even smart phones have high-resolutions, and PC monitor resolutions continue to get better as well. Amidst such circumstances, we thought that customers might feel unfortunate about being stuck with titles in the 800 x 600 size resolution, so we decided to stick to high-resolution visual novels. That’s not to say there aren’t interesting visual novel titles in the 800 x 600 resolution. MoeNovel runs on the idea that it wants to spread to visual novel genre to people that might not know about it, so it’s not as though we’re only going to release high-resolution visual novels like IF MY HEART HAD WINGS. If there are any titles that we really feel we want people from around the world to play, there’s always the possibility that we might release such titles even if they aren’t high-resolution.


Tell me a little more about MoeNovel. Are visual novels for the West currently your only business? Or are you associated with any other publishers?


MoeNovel isn’t trying to restrict its focus to the West, and is set up as a brand that aims to release visual novels to all areas that have an understanding of English such as South-East Asia or South America, so visual novels are our focus for now. We expect to continue working around that concept, but as our brand becomes more familiarized to people around the world, if there are any interesting requests or opinions, we may very well give those a try as well.


We do have some interaction with other publishers too. The only thing, though, is that everyone seems only to be looking at where MoeNovel is headed in the future, so they are only casual relationships. We may become more involved in the future depending on circumstances, but to be honest I can’t say too much.


Why pick the name “MoeNovel” if you intend to release games that Westerners will enjoy? “Moe” tends to have a certain stigma attached to it in the West, so I’m curious as to whether you think this will affect people’s perception of you or not.


One of the reasons we used the word “moe” in our brand name is of course because “moe” is an important keyword within the otaku culture of Japan. But more than that, the word “moe,” written in kanji as 萌, originally means “to sprout,” as in grass or saplings, or alternatively to forecast events or to indicate the future. This original meaning has more meaning as to its application to our brand name.


We thought this apt for a new brand that’s meant to spread the Japanese-born visual novel genre throughout the world, and so we chose “MoeNovel.” In the west the word doesn’t have a very positive connotation? I find that unfortunate. It traditionally has a very positive feeling to it, and is used in very old traditional Japanese songs (waka) as well. Perhaps Westerners are more used to seeing it be used in ways like, “Ooh, I like you!” or something, and unfortunately this is what’s been focused on regarding the word.


Within the otaku culture, if you analyze the term “moe,” perhaps it could be described as a “sharing of a feeling.” They feel a character someone else create is cute, or that they’re cool (燃え). Maybe they feel a story to be wonderful, or get sucked into it. To sprout such feelings and share them with one another is what we think of when we think of “moe.” If Westerners don’t have a very positive impression of the term “moe,” we at MoeNovel would like spread our interpretation of the term “moe”.


One game I feel that recently did manage to find a different audience than the typical visual novel crowd in the West is Kara no Shoujo (above). 5pb’s games tend to be popular as well, so I think what a lot of people are looking for is games that are a little more “adult” in nature. Do you have any thoughts of your own on what the West wants?


Regarding the popularity of Kara no Shoujo, I feel that the illustrator Miki Sugina’s influence is quite strong, and I like his illustrations as well. Miki Sugina’s delicate visual style plus his unique worldview match very well, resulting in an inspirational piece of work. The music is also quite good in Innocent Gray’s games.


I think things like unique atmosphere and worldviews are what draw people in more than the adult themes, but am I wrong? If that’s incorrect I apologize. Whether adult themes are what are sought… This debate is brought up frequently in Japan as well, but there are people who think that visual novels should have adult themes while others don’t think they’re necessary. I also think some people choose to not to pursue adult themes in some games while insist on them in others, and this can naturally occur as well.


There’s been a lot of talk about the sexual content and even kissing scenes that were taken out of the game. What was your vision when you decided to do that? And why go to the trouble of getting an ESRB rating? What do you think that will accomplish?


As mentioned earlier, our greatest motivation in getting people who aren’t familiar with the visual novel genre to become familiar with it all over the world. This is why we decided to pursue ESRB and PEGI ratings. We wanted to be able to spread the title name IF MY HEART HAD WINGS or the genre name visual novel all over the place. This is so that people who never knew about the game genre or people in their teens can access this topic.


It’s possible to take the exact same version as in Japan and localize it and bring it over to the West. But the reality is that we would be unable to bring such a title to people who are unfamiliar with it. So we thought, “What do we need to do in order to get people to become familiar with IF MY HEARD HAD WINGS? How do we get people to become familiar with the Japanese born genre, the visual novel”?


The answer was to get an ESRB or PEGI rating. “There are many people all over the world who don’t know about the visual novel genre. We want those people to become familiar with it and take an interest.” This is what we thought. Those who were unfamiliar with visual novels or those who couldn’t take an interest in it, if we can appeal to those people I would consider our work a success.


That’s not to say that I look down on visual novels with sexual content. We’re just trying to spread the visual novel genre around that world and increase its reach. Although we’ve cut the sexual scenes, it’s not as though we just cut them out and left the rest as is. We added in new scenes to fill those areas or edited the game to make the plot make sense and have added to the story. And of course we’ve added new voice-overs for such areas as well.


Visual novels have proven to be a very challenging market in the West, partly due to piracy and partly due to very few games actually being the right kind of “fit” for the audience here. What do you hope to do differently from other publishers?


I’m really hoping that getting the ratings, which other publishers haven’t bothered to do, will make a difference in how well we’re able to diffuse the game. “I love Japanese anime and manga subcultures, but I’m not so sure about so-called hentai games.” People with such opinions are the people we’re trying to reach out to, and we’re hoping they might finally take up the genre.


I also want to appeal to South-East Asian and South American youth who understand English as well. When talking about game markets, of course the first areas of discussion are North America, Europe and Japan, but we at MoeNovel want to appeal to people of other countries as well.


Is If My Heart Had Wings more of a one-time experiment or do you already have other games that are in the works as well, that you hope to keep feeding to the West, in order to build up an audience over a longer period of time?


This is not an experimental sales scheme. As stated previously, our number one goal is to get people unfamiliar with the visual novel genre all over the world to get to know about this Japanese-born genre, and while this might take time, in order to do so we’ll need to release other titles as well.


What was it about If My Heart Had Wings in particular that made you want to pick it up? What traits do you look for in the games that you want to license? Is there something in particular?


There were other candidates as well, but we wanted to choose something new and something that received high praise from Japanese players. There’s also the fact that the story is one of youthful exuberance, where the main characters and the heroine of IF MY HEART HAD WINGS all strive through adversity and reach for the sky they’ve dreamed of.


Fujisan, MoeNovel Producer

Lastly, thanks to all the people who’ve taken an interest in IF MY HEART HAD WINGS. Thanks to all the people who’ve spread knowledge of the existence of IF MY HEART HAD WINGS. Thanks to all the people who have pre-ordered IF MY HEART HAD WINGS.


If I meet anyone who’s bought IF MY HEART HAD WINGS, I’ll buy you dinner (laughs).


Favourite Manga: Ushio and Tora

Favourite anime: Gintama, Kamisama Kiss, Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day

Favourite visual novel: Portrait

Favourite movie: Kids Return

Favourite movie director: Takeshi Kitano

Ishaan Sahdev
Ishaan specializes in game design/sales analysis. He's the former managing editor of Siliconera and wrote the book "The Legend of Zelda - A Complete Development History". He also used to moonlight as a professional manga editor. These days, his day job has nothing to do with games, but the two inform each other nonetheless.