Behind the Scenes with Heiden

Behind the Scenes with Heiden

Heiden is a solo visual novel developer who has made over 12 games including visual novels, RPGs, and sRPGs for over 9 years. Some of their visual novel titles include Ziva and the Wolves, The Sun Atop a Column, Heart is Muscle, A New Don (that VN Game Den reviewed here), and Kill the Prince?! (that VN Game Den reviewed here). During that time, they’ve participated in numerous game jams and most recently created A Heart of Butterblue for NaNoRenO 2022 which you can find here.

Read about Heiden’s upcoming game jam participation, and how they approach a new project with what development steps they take!

Hi Heiden! Please tell us a bit about yourself and how you wound up getting into game development.

I’m Heiden, a hobbyist game developer who has made over 12 games- including VNs, RPGs and sRPGs- over the past 9 years! I’ve always wanted to make video games (particularly story-based rpgs like those I played growing up) but I was first introduced to Visual Novels back in 2012 when Hatoful Boyfriend first became a viral hit. I loved how accessible Renpy was and decided it was the best starting point to try to figure out how to make games!

Your first game was Elvine. What did you learn from that game that you put forth into your later projects and in Elvine’s re-release?

My very first release was Elvine, back in 2013. But it actually wasn’t the very first title I ever worked on! When I first started getting into game development (2012) I was actually working on a western-inspired otome game called Fronteria with 3 routes, multiple endings and multiple cgs for each route. I worked on it for an entire year until my computer was stolen and I lost everything. So right after that, Nano 2013 was starting and I told myself, okay, if I’m ever going to make something, it’s got to be now. With a tight deadline I forced myself to keep the scope SMALL and actually managed to finish! (A month late, haha). Even though Elvine is quite rough around the edges, it still means a lot to me because it was the title that showed me that I could make a game if I wanted to. So biggest lesson from Elvine: scope small! I learned so much more during the two months I worked on Elvine than the year I spent with Fronteria. Also backup your work. 😅

You’ve been an active participant in game jams such as Ace Jam, Yaoi Jam, Yuri Jam, O2A2, and various NaNoRenO years. What has drawn you to participate in the diverse variety of game jams?

I love participating in game jams because there’s a set deadline! When you work solo, it tends to be pretty lonely so having other jammers gives a nice sense of camaraderie. Also having a set deadline helps keep the project scope in check. It’s hard to talk yourself out of adding a 4th route if you’re the only one on the team and there’s no deadline. 😂 And I love participating in a wide variety of jams because I just love writing about a wide variety of interests.

Being a solo visual novel developer must have its challenges. In your experience, what have been some of the biggest hurdles to overcome when making games by yourself? How did you overcome these challenges? What are some perks that you find being a solo developer?

Probably the two biggest hurdles are motivation and getting player feedback. When a project hits unexpected hurdles it can be hard to keep motivated to work on the project. The best way to get around this, I’ve found, is to take breaks! A lot of times problems seem bigger in the moment than they really are and just taking a break away from it helps to see the issue in context. It also helps to talk through the problem with someone else (even if they have no idea about anything), because typically in the process of explaining why it’s broken, you figure out what’s going wrong. For player feedback, I’ve found the best way around this is to participate in game jams, actually! It helps to have a build-in audience for the jam and they tend to tell you exactly what they think! For me, the best part of being a solo dev is that I can make whatever it is I wanna make. It’s really nice!

Your games such as Heart is Muscle, A New Don, and Kill the Prince?! have such a unique and distinct art style. Do you have any specific muses or influences that led to this style?

I’m not really sure how much of their influence has ended up in my art (my art has been heavily influenced by the short turnaround times I have for my projects) but I’m a big fan of the Year 24 Group’s art, especially how they draw such over the top expressions. I am also a big fan of George Kamitami’s coloring and rvsa’s figure drawings.

We noticed that some of your games take place in the same world. Ziva and the Wolves, The Girl With The Gray Hair Awakens, and Heart is Muscle all take place in Kondorskiva. How do you approach world-building on the scale of having multiple games? Do you plan ahead of time to have these games, or are you connecting them during individual development?

For the world-building, I plan out in advance big world-changing events with larger games acting as keystones and then fit in smaller games around these events. I try to space the games out far enough that I won’t have characters from one game running into someone from another game, because I can’t really foresee what game I’ll make in 10 years. I’m also very careful that none of my games are dependent on knowing the larger world-lore, because I want players to be able to enjoy a character’s personal story without worrying about knowing everything about their government. I definitely want to make the larger keystone games that deal with the larger pieces of these different countries’ histories but they take a really long time to work on! Haha. One nice thing about having all these pre-created countries and relations to each other is that when I sit down to plan out a jam title, I don’t have to keep redefining new countries, new names and new customs for each game. It’s sort of like a worldbuilding-prefab I can just pull off the shelf and incorporate into my game. It’s fun!

We saw that you released a game for NaNoRenO 2022! Can you tell us a little about the demo for A Heart of Butterblue? What should our readers expect?

A Heart of Butterblue is really exciting because I’m implementing mini-Harvest Moon/Stardew Valley mechanics to the game! The story is about a girl named Phebe who just moved to the frontier town of Edgeville to find her missing grandfather right after her father was murdered. It’s a horror game (with no jump-scares) where if you don’t make it to bed on time, Phebe is attacked by mysterious “dogs” that wander the frontier at night. She can woo two possible men and uncover the mystery of her missing grandfather.

I have this memory of playing Harvest Moon: Save the Homeland as a kid and being TERRIFIED because the game incorporated this really dense fog (to hide the low draw distance…) and really sparsely populated village (memory issues no doubt) and I’ve always wanted to try to make something that recreates that slightly eerie feeling of not really knowing what was going on in the village.

But as for Butterblue– I hope to have the full game out later this year, as I’m planning on participating in Otome Jam this year (lol I sure love my jams), but as soon as that’s over I’ll be coming back to work on Butterblue full time.

We’re excited to see what future projects you have in development. Are there any sneak peeks or details for upcoming releases our readers can look forward to?

I’m participating in Otome Jam this year, so keep your eyes out at the end of June for that. :)) And then Butterblue sometime later in the year~! 😀

As for longer-term projects– I know I eventually want to make a full-blown farming sim (think Harvest Moon/Stardew Valley) as well as a sRPG (akin to Fire Emblem). It’s the main reason I made the jump from Renpy to Unity and I’ve been slowly (but surely) building the systems I need for each of these types of games. I don’t know which one I’ll end up making first, but I know once I make a full-length non-jam title– it’ll be one of those two. 🙂

This question is for our game dev readers. We know all developers have different methods when starting projects. What is your development plan when approaching a new project? Do you follow a specific step-by-step technique?

My personal development plan usually goes something like this:

First I identify the time span (usually a month or two months for a jam title), and then I identify the theme/mood I want this piece to be. Knowing the time span is good to know just how big you can let the game get while still being on track to finish. Deciding on a mood early is important as the overall picture of a game can get lost as you dive deep in all the little details.

Next, I plan out how many characters I need for my story and then try to cut it down by half. (I tend to take inspiration from plays for this! A lot of them can do a lot with only 4 or 5 characters. ) Next, I figure out how many backgrounds I need and then cut out 2 or 3 of them.

Now that I have a general idea of the characters I have to play with and the scenes I can place them in, I start the outline. It’s imperative that you write until you hit an ending or you get stuck. If you hit an ending, great! Go back and write the other route. If you get stuck, that means you’re missing something. Sometimes this means adding another character to act as a “Captain Happen” (a character that instantly energizes a scene. Fia’s pet hog acted as this in A New Don), or adding a new location for your characters to occupy (a dungeon? a boxing ring? pick something exciting and throw your characters into the fray!). Don’t add too much at once, try one thing and if it doesn’t work, take it back out and try something else. Eventually, you’ll find something that clicks and you can get through to the endings no problem.

Now that we have a finished outline, we can see what assets we ACTUALLY need. Any character that doesn’t show up for more than 3 scenes gets axed. Any BG that isn’t used more than twice gets axed. Be brutal. You don’t want to waste your time working on a BG or a sprite that’s barely even used.

(Yes, I haven’t mentioned CGs yet. I don’t plan for them just yet.)

And now that that’s out of the way, we can get started on the actual script. Write it. Finish it. Done. Wait two days (if this is during a jam title, work on art assets during this time) and come back with fresh eyes and reread it. Edit it. Send it off to someone for a second opinion.

ONLY NOW–! Only now that our script is finished–! Do I finally start on the art assets! I start with sprites, then do BGs.

Once sprites and BGs are done I import everything into whatever software it is I’m building it in and hook everything up.

As you play through the game there will be moments where you think “Ah, this would be a great spot for a CG.” Jot these down. Look at all the points where you felt this way and pick which ones to actually turn into CGs.

CGs are nice, they’re a little treat to the player. I find them the most fun to work on, so they’re a treat to work on. But they’re also just that– a treat. They’re not crucial to the game like a BG or a sprite is, so in a time-limited development cycle (you have a month to finish a 20k game, solo) it’s the first thing to get cut. Remember, you also still have to draw the title screen!

So at this point, I look at the time I have left decide to prioritize as follows: Title Screen > End CGs > Romance CGs > Intro CGs > Else.

I do one final playthrough of the game, add sfx, add music and then build distributions!

For my own development plan, I make sure to never go backwards. Once I decide on an outline, that’s it. I need to lock things in so I don’t have the urge to keep tinkering and never actually finishing anything. You learn so much through iteration and actually following a project all the way to the end. Put something out. Learn. Put something else out. Learn from that. And so on.

If you’d like to follow Heiden and stay updated on all their visual novels, you can on Twitter and download their games on itch.io!

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