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Interview with Ayu of SakeVisual

After playing Re:Alistair++--which was produced by SakeVisual--I was given the chance to interview Ayu Sakata, the owner of SakeVisual as well as the writer, director, and producer of all the company's games. The questions I posed to her are bolded, and her replies are unedited excluding the hyperlinks I added. The art work comes from SakeVisual's website and blog.

1.) What inspired you to create visual novels?
Ayu Sakata: I've spent a good deal of my life wanting to make computer games. At the advent of the internet, I was one of those geeky kids who spent my monthly two hours on dialup playing text-based RPGs. When I was 12, I was already writing fantasy adventure games in BASIC. Of course, most of those were illustrated in Paint and consisted of little more than "click here to enter castle," but I tried. As games started getting more and more sophisticated, I started feeling a lack of plot in a lot of what I was playing. Sure, there was a story, but it often took the backseat to whatever cutting edge 3D engine was just churned out or the revolutionary new form of gameplay. I wanted to return to a medium where the story is the key, and visual novels provided that.

2.) Why did you start SakeVisual?
I wish I could give some romantic answer like "I'm an independent dreamer who wants to reach out and change the world!" Actually, I guess that's not really an untruth, but the cold, hard, immediate reason is that I couldn't get a job out of college. I went to Carnegie Mellon University, studied computer science, and wound up jobless after graduation day. I spent a year doing the "send my resume and cover letter everywhere," dance and nothing came of it, so I decided to take all that time and develop games instead. Also, no one was making the sort of games I like, so I figured I should.

3.) Currently SakeVisual is working on two new visual novels: Hanami x2 and Oneiro. Could you please describe them?
Hanami x2 and Oneiro are both otome games - basically romance novels for girls with an actual plot. Hanami x2 is historical fiction set in Japan in the Heian era. The main character is a girl named Teisen who makes a living selling Japanese dumplings. The story takes place during the "hanami" festival, in which eating lots of Japanese dumplings is considered traditional. During the festival, Teisen meets two boys who seem to have an unbounded rivalry. Its up to Teisen/the player to choose one, search for reconciliation between them, or ignore them completely.
Oneiro is a mystery story about a dead religion and a mysterious curse. ::cue suspenseful music:: The main character is Asami, a girl out of high school who's searching for her road in life. Although the game involves a lot of romance and commentary on humans in general, it's really just about finding who you are and what you want to do with your life.

Sample art from one of SakeVisual's work in progress: Hanami x2
4.) SakeVisual has three completed visual novels: Jisei--a supernatural mystery novel--Ripples--a slice of life game--and Re: Alistair--an otome game. Jisei is $15 and Re: Alistair and Ripples are free. Why do you charge money for Jisei but Re: Alistair and Ripples are free?
I adore free games, and I would make every game I ever produce free if I could afford to. Unfortunately, sometimes artists and composers and programmers wake up one day and think "MAN, I could really go for some FOOD right now." We're all people too, and every person I hire makes a living off his or her trade. This isn't something we do at night or as a side job; it's our very livelihood. No money, no food. I work my hardest to pay everyone a fair wage for their work because they deserve it. They work hard, and they produce quality material. The "Green Tea Line" (including Jisei and more games in the future) all cost money so that I can continue to keep my artists, composers, and programmers alive with food in their stomachs and roofs over their heads. As it stands, I haven't actually used any of that revenue for myself yet. I'm still living off writing commissions for other employers and my savings. Maybe one day the Green Tea Line will generate enough income to feed me too, but until then, it really is for the sole purpose of funding more games (including as many free ones as I can cram in).
5.) Please explain your role as the writer/producer/director for SakeVisual novels.
I do a little bit of everything, but my main focus is making sure that everyone on the team wants to create the same story. I organize the artist(s), composer, programmer, and whoever else is involved so that we all have the same creative vision for the game. While I AM the writer (I write all of sakevisual's novels), I think it's much more important to be a director and make sure that all the elements (art, music, voices) come together to make a proper story.

6.) How many people does it take to complete a SakeVisual novel?
In general, there are 1-2 artists and 1 composer. Sometimes I hire a programmer, and sometimes I do it myself. It depends on the complexity of the programming needed. If it's a voiced game, then there's also the entire voice cast to take into account. I have two proofreaders who pore over all my words and point out the spots where I'm an idiot, and I have a team of playtesters (at least five, depending on the size of the game) who help me find bugs. Ripples had one artist, one composer, two voices, and one proofreader/playtester (it's a linear story, so there really aren't many bugs to speak of). I think that's the smallest team I've ever worked with.

A color test for a character from SakeVisual's other work in progress: Oneiro

7.) How long does it take to produce a visual novel?
Usually it takes a few months if nothing goes wrong. Three or four is the average cycle, but it all depends on the size of the game and the lives of the people working on it. This doesn't account for real life crises and other important things, though.
8.) Why does Sake Visual use Ren'Py to build/create its novels?
Ren'py is one of the most flexible engines I know. There's a world of things you can do as long as you have imagination and a programmer with some knowledge of python. The amount of customization we did for RE: Alistair++ and Jisei isn't possible in other visual novel engines. I also love the fact that it's multiplatform. That means we can share the love with Mac and Linux users instead of being restricted to just Windows.
9.) Please explain the general process of making a visual novel.
The way a visual novel starts changes based on the project. Sometimes I get an idea and I pick out an artist, and sometimes I find an artist I like and I base a story around their art style and what they like to draw. Either way, the process starts with the artist, the composer, and the programmer. We get together and discuss the scope of the game, how much we're willing to do and how long it'll take, and how we're going to collaborate with each other (I've used forums, email, Google wave, and even notes on deviantART). We then get to work, giving each other frequent updates on how things are doing. If the game is to be voiced, I cast all the voices at the end of the dev cycle and do live recording sessions with them. Then we test the game to death and release it.

Set out to woo Travis from Re:Alistair++!
10.) As SakeVisual novels have gotten more popular, what other roles do you find yourself filling besides that of a writer/director?
I make all the websites, and I guess you could call me the PR girl since I respond directly to all the comments left for us at our various social networking sites (twitter, facebook, dA). Although honestly, I really, really enjoy talking with fans (and non-fans) about our works, what was good, and what can be improved, so I hardly think of it was work. I think the sense of community that we have is part of the experience, and I love the fact that people are willing to be so supportive and honest with me.
11.) How do you come up with the visual novel plot lines/characters?
Inspiration comes from a lot of places. Sometimes I'll see an artist who's fantastic at drawing certain things and think "I could weave this into a great story!" Other times, I'm inspired by music or someone else's writing. I keep a text file of ideas I think are really cool. It contains characters, scenario, quotes, gameplay, weapons I dreamt up, and other random things. If I'm feeling like I need inspiration, I go through the file and look for things I like. I rarely use the exact thing I wrote in the first place, but it usually morphs into something cooler.