Casper Swann is the mastermind behind the psychological otome thriller, Heart Fragment: Book One which was fully funded on Kickstarter. With countless updates to the first game and attention to player feedback, they are currently working on Book Two of Heart Fragment!
We sat down with Casper to discuss their start in making visual novels, their stance on pirating indie games, and of course what’s to come for the future of Heart Fragment.
Can you tell us a bit about you and how you got your start making visual novels?
“For a very long time, I knew I wanted to write Heart Fragment, but originally it started as a regular novel. This is very apparent in the old version of the common route and some of Kay’s route (the first that I wrote) because I was adapting it a bit too literally from full word-only novel to visual novel. The idea to change formats in the first place was simply that Heart Fragment was originally written as a short tragedy, then expanded to a happy ending later… then expanded again, and again, until I had too many ideas to make it a linear story. I have ADHD and my most consistent hyperfixation throughout my life has been otome games and dating sims, so it seemed like a fairly obvious switch once the idea came to mind!”
Are there any games you can credit for getting you interested in this medium?
“As I mentioned, I love otome games & dating sims. What first introduced me to that genre was the Harvest Moon series which I loved so much that I sought out games with similar relationship-building mechanics. That led me to my first visual novel, Hakuoki on the Nintendo DS. It’s been years since I picked up the game and I don’t remember much of the plot anymore, but I was totally enchanted by it. I can also give huge thanks to Magical Diary: Horse Hall for helping me realize making a game without being in a huge studio was possible in the first place.”
Can you tell our readers about Heart Fragment? What is the game about and what inspired the premise?
“The “TL;DR” version: you play as a cynical protagonist whose life is turned upside down when a strange figure appears at your window, warning you of danger. Things further spiral out of control as bizarre realizations begin to pile up – that a man named Jasper seeks to kill you… because you are “not entirely human”. Your supposedly mutated DNA puts you – and everyone around you – at risk.But to further expand…Heart Fragment follows the story of Xani Green (name is customizable), a protagonist who was once a happy-go-lucky child. Over time, Xani’s personality shifted to their current cynical, distrusting self. The loss of their mother was the catalyst for this, reinforced by a withdrawn and distant father who they hadn’t met until their mother’s funeral, and an ever-present sense of being disposable because the second most important person in their life – babysitter Lana Kojima – disappeared despite her promise to always be there. Xani’s life is largely empty, reliant on their best friend Shannon LaFae, but they don’t really notice that emptiness until meeting Kay Jamison. Kay appears at their window and immediately sets that boring, empty life off balance with a warning that Xani is in danger of a man named Jasper.Set into motion, Xani discovers numerous truths that shake their empty-yet-peaceful life into an increasingly bizarre set of mysteries.I think some of the things that I ended up expanding into Heart Fragment back in the early stages were influenced by Hakuoki, now that I think about it! It hadn’t even occurred to me until just now when I mentioned it. Weird how that works. But the concept of a drug that makes you more powerful at the expense of your sanity as part of the Heart Fragment backstory definitely seems reminiscent there.”
Heart Fragment was originally released with a female protagonist. What influenced the decision to add a selectable male protagonist once the game was released?
“My friend Riley can be thanked a lot for that! He is a huge supporter of Heart Fragment and has been since day one, and I wanted to make a version of the game with a male protagonist for his sake. At first I was just going to change the pronouns and send him a dedicated copy, but I realized it would help a lot of other players get more enjoyment from it as well. I would have loved to make a fully customizable protagonist, but that didn’t pan out. I also added in a neutral pronoun option so that players can choose their appearance and switch between she/he/they pronouns at any point during their playthrough.”
You’ve been vocal on social media about piracy. Can you speak on the detriment of this phenomenon to indie game developers, particularly visual novel developers?
“At first, this seemed like a standard thing. If you create something that has a price tag, people are gonna try to get it for free. Doesn’t matter what it is. But the turning point was when people discovered they could use an issue on Steam’s platform to get the game for free, and some of the ones who posted that method tried to make it look like that was an intentional giveaway or workaround done by the developers. Basically, a free package of Heart Fragment existed on the Steam store and Steam support had told me it was hidden and unavailable. Turns out ‘hidden’ didn’t actually mean ‘disabled’, so people still managed to get access to it. Steam disabled it completely after I let them know the issue, but I admit I was pretty discouraged that the way their system works allowed it to happen in the first place.Indie game developers don’t typically expect to get rich off their release, or at least they know it isn’t a realistic goal. But a LOT of hard work is putting into making a game, even a visual novel. And that work should receive at least some amount of actual financial payback. I’ve spent more hours than I can count working on Heart Fragment. To put things in perspective, Steam shows how many free copies are obtained. If I got even 5 cents for each of those free copies, I’d have made more than I do over the course of 4 months of sales! That’s a HUGE loss.
If you can’t afford an indie game at full price, wait for a sale. If you don’t want to buy it, you can even try asking the developer for a copy directly. If you absolutely insist you must pirate an indie game and you get enjoyment out of it, buy a proper copy afterwards or donate to the developer directly (even if you donation is less than the retail price). Anything helps. You might be shocked by how much buying a creator a Ko-fi ($3) or supporting their Patreon helps out.”
Has any of this influenced your decision to make Book One of Heart Fragment free to play?
“Absolutely. That’s the number one reason. If people get the game for free by means of piracy, they are doing it without me knowing in most cases. If I make the game free on my own terms… then at least I’m maintaining a sense of control over what I’ve created. It’s like… I made the game. I own the game, I’m the creator. So it’s empowering in a weird way, if that makes sense!”
Heart Fragment has six routes and over 40 endings. What’s the most difficult part about managing and developing a massive visual novel like this one?
“It’s often easiest for me to work with a linear thought pattern. So while there are lots of choices, sometimes I have it in my head that one choice/event is more likely to happen during one of the routes/endings. And all choices have an impact, some with lasting effects that you won’t truly see the fruition of until later on in the story. So on the programming side of things, the hardest part is making sure each ending is set to happen with the right variables. I might write an ending with the original idea for an event to be specific to that part but expand it so it can be part of other endings, thus making lots of variation in dialogue.
Another thing, though smaller… Consistency between routes is important to me. The hardest thing is making sure the timing of certain events match up. If it’s going to rain on a specific day of every other route, I want to make sure the timing of events is appropriate so that it isn’t magically clear that day in another route. Which sounds really simple, but when trying to make the pacing work well across all routes, I found it particularly difficult for some reason.”
Players have the ability to not only romance other characters but cultivate purposeful close friendships with them. What gave you the idea to focus on different kinds of relationships?
“I fully believe that friendship can have just as meaningful of an impact on our lives as romance. And to be honest, sometimes I play otome games/dating sims where I just don’t feel any romantic connection or chemistry between the characters. But usually a good end requires romance as the end goal. Friendship isn’t enough in those cases. So I wanted to include endings where the friendship you kindle with the characters can still lead to a happy ending.”
Heart Fragment was fully funded in Kickstarter and reached well above it’s original goal. Do you have advice for any devs who are looking to do something similar?
“Plan worthwhile stretch goals! Whether that’s offering physical merchandise, extra CGs/epilogues, expanded content… if people love what you’re creating, they will want to see more. Which brings me to the next suggestion – have plenty of assets ready in advance. The more you can show about the work you’re creating, the more chances people have to fall in love with your idea.”
Are there any challenges you’ve faced developing This VN because it was funded on Kickstarter?
“It definitely makes committing to deadlines and updating regularly seem a bit more daunting. You have all these people who cared enough about your game that they put their money on the line for it. So even if you have a valid reason to push back a release date, it’s kind of nerve-wracking to actually do it, at least for myself! Especially early on, I worried that any delays would seem like negligence on my part or that people would worry the release date will just keep getting pushed back until it gets canceled altogether. That makes keeping people informed about what’s going on through regular updates and, when possible, visual proof of progress super important. But it’s worth it at the end of the day. Any time you put into updating backers helps your sincerity come across. And in my experience, most people would rather have a slight delay with regular updates than a rushed product!”
Are you working on anything currently that VN Game Den readers can look forward to?
“Right now, Heart Fragment Book Two is in the beta testing phase. It’ll be coming out in July 2022 with the full routes for Shannon & Lana. So far, feedback has been very positive and I am really excited to share it with everyone!”