The Cost of Making a Visual Novel

(And what I mean by that is the cost of making a game like Cabin Fever)

Hey everyone! Artist Panda here.

I’ve wanted to do a blog post on this subject for a while now, because as an indie game developer I find articles on this topic extremely helpful for understanding the actual costs of making a good game. I’m talking about articles written by devs who outline all their costs that went into making the thing, and in this post ‘the thing’ in this case is Cabin Fever.

Key Art for Cabin Fever (available here: https://store.steampowered.com/app/1336600/Cabin_Fever)

If you haven’t checked it out, Cabin Fever is a short visual novel with lovely artwork and full voice acting, and it’s available on Steam. You can read more about that game in my other blog post from July 2021. This post is going to go into some depth on the costs associated with making a game like Cabin Fever. Why? Because maybe it will help aspiring indie devs who want to make a visual novel the same size as this, but have no idea about the scope of the project and need some help budgeting for something like this. In this post we’ll talk about cost in terms of hours worked. The reason for this is that a dollar value isn’t as applicable to understanding what goes into a game like Cabin Fever, as hourly rates change depending on where you are around the World.

I’d like to stress that it’s possible to make a visual novel like this 100% for free if you have the time to spare, or talented friends to help out. There are lots of amazing resources online now such as https://opengameart.org and https://pixelsticky.wordpress.com/2015/06/27/free-ui-resources-for-game-developers/ that have oodles of open-source/royalty-free stuff you can use in your games. The Unity asset store also has some freebies, and there are sites like https://www.storyblocks.com/audio that has hundreds of royalty-free music files you can use (for a subscription fee). 

I don’t want this post to discourage anyone, it’s meant to be an eye-opener so you have a realistic idea of what costs go into making a visual novel like the one we made. Maybe it’ll also help people understand why we charge money for games like this, and can’t make everything free. So without further ado I’ll dive into the costs!

The main categories I’m going to break these into are Art, Audio, Writing, Miscellaneous/ Development time. Those will be broken into subcategories for more details.

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Art: My favorite place to start 🙂

The artwork for Cabin Fever can be separated into 4 parts; the Background art, Character art, CGs, and logo. Usually the UI would be lumped in here too, but I made all the UI and it was pretty basic (took me less than a day to put together) so I won’t count it.

Background art: There are 167 unique backgrounds (including some that were never used) in the game. Some of those backgrounds were used in the CGs, but I’m classifying backgrounds as any illustrations of a setting (no characters). I worked with 1 artist for all of these but had a heavy hand in crafting the settings; so if you don’t have an art director then be prepared to spend some time putting together reference images and writing out descriptions for all the backgrounds your game needs. This will help save lots of time later on so your background artist knows exactly what you’re looking for.

Total cost: 400 Hours

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CG & Character art: There are around 80 unique CGs and over 1,000 unique character poses (not all of them are used). Like I mentioned above, all the backgrounds for the CGs were counted in the above subcategory. All of the CG art applies to just the character illustrations in the cutscene/fullscreen CG images; and the Character art includes every unique pose/outfit/expression for all the characters. I worked with 1 artist for all of these but also spent a great deal of time adding extra expressions, drawing over top of the sketch and final art to keep it on brand, drawing the different mouths for lip-sync etc. I spent quite a few days of my time working on all that, so some of the cost associated with my time is lumped in here.

Total cost: 760 Hours

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Logo: Normally I would make the logo myself, but I’m not super great at making them and I wanted to get a professional to create something really pretty. The logo can play a huge role in your game’s branding, and when you consider it’s the first thing many people will see on your game’s thumbnail – that might make them want to click on it to learn more, so it’s super important. I was happy with the result but it definitely wasn’t cheap!  :”)

Total cost: 36 Hours

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Audio: Music & Voice Acting

All the music and voice acting really helps set the tone and breathes so much life into the static 2D art. Personally, I feel that one of the most important parts of creating a good visual novel is to have a strong cast and beautiful music. I found the best people to make that happen, and they delivered fantastic results. I’ll break the audio into 2 subcategories; Voice-acting and Music. All the sound effects were either found on a royalty-free site or made from scratch.

Voice acting: A game the size of Cabin Fever has a surprising amount of lines. The count for all the voice-acted words totals 20,412. That also includes a few lines used specifically for game trailers. We don’t have many characters in the game, but we do have 2 different voice options for the main protagonist (that’s something I really wanted for this game). That doubled the amount of voice-acting lines just for 1 character; a feature that not many games would bother to worry about. Something else that’s kind of silly but I’ll mention here – there were a few small parts that I ended up voicing myself 😛 Hopefully I didn’t bring down the quality bar by including myself but I really enjoy voice-acting and it’s kind of fun (and cheap!) to voice some lines yourself if you can. 

Total cost: 20,412 Words (we used words here because many Voice Actors/websites will quote on word count, and not by the hour)

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Music: Ahh the music is my favorite part about this game. I constantly find myself humming the main theme’s tune, it’s just so catchy. There are so many wonderful tracks that just suit the scene so well, and that wouldn’t have been possible without my super talented friend who somehow got inside my head and pulled out the exact music I was picturing in my mind. There are 18 tracks, a few of which are ambient sound (crickets or rain with a tiny bit of music added, that sort of thing). All of the tracks loop, and most are around 2 minutes long. One last thing to mention here, is that I did spend some time putting together a detailed list of all the tracks I needed and pulled lots of reference songs I could point to. So if you’re working with someone to make custom music, it’s really helpful if you can make time to do something like that – and time is money 😛  

Total cost: 240 Hours

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Writing: Words ‘n stuff

Writing is crucial to the Visual Novel genre. I’ve played games that have walls of text and little to no visuals, and still managed to suck me into their great story. You can have crappy art, music, and no voice acting as long as your story (the writing) is strong. There’s always the outliers that can pass a ‘meh’ story with gorgeous art and gameplay, but for me personally I feel like the story is what carries the game, and draws you into that world. Oh – I should also quickly mention that writing doesn’t just apply to the game’s script. You’ll need writing for the game description (for Steam/whatever game store you’re releasing on) and marketing (if you make a trailer) etc.

Script: I am not a great writer, but I wanted to challenge myself with this game. I had a story in mind and really wanted to tell it, so I worked after hours in the evening and on my weekends to jot down my draft and finessed that over and over until it started to sound like a half-decent script. I used my 3rd draft of the script to hook up into a prototype so that Witchy Panda (one of our writers) could take a look and see what needed fixing up. She graciously spent a few weeks collaborating with me to refine the script and make it sound awesome. There were lots of back-and-forths and we pulled in Assitant Panda (Alanna!) to help spellcheck and read through it a bunch. OjiPanda gave me some really great writing tips and once I had all the art in, he was the first person to play it (I was so nervous he would hate it haha but he gave it so much praise).

The final word count for all narration and dialogue in-game is 40,827 words. It went through around 7 drafts before the final game-ready script was in.

I also spent a good chunk of time formatting the game’s scripts into an easy-to-read document for the voice actors, and added direction notes for them. Then I made a draft for the game trailers, which later on was cleaned up and rewritten by Witchy Panda. There are always little things like that you don’t plan for, that end up eating into your time. That’s just part of the fun of making your own games 🙂 You gotta wear many hats!

I’ll preface the total writing cost with an explanation of what contributed to them – tons of hours of my time writing the initial script, then Witchy’s punch-up script time, Alanna’s time reviewing it and acting as editor, plus all the other miscellaneous tasks (store descriptions, etc) that took writing time.

Total cost: 400 Hours

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Miscellaneous: Everything else

We had some of the Pandas help with this project, even if it was just to play the game and leave feedback. Their time is valuable; I pay them a salary, so I’m rolling some of their time into the miscellaneous costs. On top of that we had the usual software license costs, subscriptions, etc. I also worked with someone to help make the trailers.

Unity pro license – yearly subscription: $2,000  (sidenote – if you are developing a game on your own / solo dev then you can get Unity for free, the personal license)

Audio Blocks (I grabbed some royalty-free sound effects from here) – yearly subscription: $200

Adobe Creative Cloud: $2,000 – multiple yearly subscriptions

Panda time (editing the voice-over files, programming, playtesting, QA to find bugs, setting up the game in Steam) : 700 Hours

Trailers: 60 Hours

Total Cost of Cabin Fever

~$4,200 CAD in tools, 2,536 Hours of work and 20,412 Words of Voice Acting

As of writing this, Cabin Fever has not made back its money. It launched in July 2021 and has had over 19,000 wishlists but around 4,400 actual installs. It’s worth mentioning that Steam takes a 30% cut, and there are also chargebacks and fraud that can diminish the total number of sales.

There’s usually a peak of interest at the launch of a game and then it peters off pretty quick. Something random I’ll mention here – the reason why Cabin Fever doesn’t have Trading Cards, Backgrounds, or Emotes on Steam is because the game hasn’t met the ‘target revenue’ yet. My guess is that’s around 50k USD so when/if that happens then I’ll be able to add those in.

There’s no easy way to market the game, since Steam doesn’t support that and your best bet is just word-of-mouth or to have a big influencer shine a spotlight on the game. So it’s hard for people to discover the game organically. We’ll do the occasional news alert to let our players in Crush Crush know about it, like when it goes on sale etc. But it’s leveled out to only get on average around 3-5 installs per day. The ROI (return on investment) might happen before the end of NEXT year (2022), but it’s hard to tell. You can’t predict how games are going to perform, and not every game you make is going to be a hit. It’s always a risk… But for me, making Cabin Fever was something I wanted to do to prove it to myself that I could. I’m really proud of it and whenever I read the comments on our Steam forum, my heart fills up seeing all the positive things players have said ❤

Final thoughts:

As of writing this, I am super happy to announce that Cabin Fever has been approved to launch on the Nintendo Switch November 26, 2021!! I really hope it finds an audience there, because I know the people who have found it on Steam said they enjoyed it. And honestly, if just 1 big YouTuber discovers it there and plays it on their channel then that would change everything. I could write a whole blog post about the impact of having someone like Markiplier play your game, but I’ll save that for another day. In any case, wish us good luck!! And thanks for reading this long post – I hope it helps give some insight into making games and the costs/time involved.

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