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Context

I'm working on a small visual novel-style game, telling the story of a defense attorney and investigator. The story is split into chapters, with each chapter being a new case, and there are also recurring characters who develop throughout the story. It's a mini Phoenix Wright-style experience, with some point-and-click detective work mixed in.

As part of the game, you can embark on optional character-based sidequests, each of which focus on a different character and showcase some development between them and the protagonist. A few of these sidequests unlock after completing each case, and are usually related to the case that just happened. For example, after finishing a case involving a video game convention, you unlock an optional sidequest where you can take one of the supporting characters (the "tough guy who's secretly a dork on the inside", of course) to the convention before it leaves town.

I want to make these sidequests optional, and not force the player to do all of them or make them feel like they have to say "yes" to all of them - that is, I want to establish that they're free to decline an invitation if they don't like a particular character as much as the others and would rather not take them out for ice cream. However, I still want to make sure the player does some of them, because I feel many of them, if missed, would cause the player to miss out on really neat parts of the game. (If it helps, the game doesn't have a "completion percentage" or anything, just small achievements for doing certain things.)

My question

Given this design, I have a conundrum. I want the player to do at least some of the optional sidequests, but I don't want to force it or make them feel like it's necessary to see every single one of them. I don't want to place an arbitrary "you must do 3 sidequests to proceed" roadblock, but I also don't want the player to skip all of them and do the entire story without developing any of the characters. That obviously defeats the point of a heavily character-based visual novel! So, this is my dilemma:

What game mechanics in a visual novel are best to encourage optional sidequesting, but not require it for story progression or completion?

I have a couple ideas for this, since a lot of games have offered solid solutions for this problem already:

  • Making the sidequests optional, but having rewards for doing them. This is the approach that most games take nowadays. You don't have to do the sidequests, but maybe if you do one, it unlocks a palette swap, an item, or a hint coin.
  • Affinity mechanics. Maybe if you do enough sidequests for your prosecutor buddy, he gets closer to you and gives important hints in a later cases. This would work similarly to "friendship" in other games, where there's a number that keeps track of how good your relationships with different characters are and doing quests increases that number. At the same time, I think this encourages too much of a "metagame" approach, where players will just do every sidequest for a character all at once to unlock their bonus. It also makes the difficulty curve of the game wonky, since I want the cases to start easy and get progressively harder, and giving substantial bonuses in the late game might mess with that design.
  • Requiring the player to do at least X of them. This is the roadblock approach - blocking the progression of the story until the player does at least 1, 2, or 3 of the available sidequests. I dislike this because it feels like I'm being arbitrary and might frustrate the player if they don't like the current sidequest options and really want to do the next case.

Ideas and other suggestions are welcome!

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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you elaborate on why you want the player to experience the optional content? We could project our own reasons, but you're more likely to get applicable answers if we understand your intent. Your premise of wanting the player to experience game content (optional or otherwise) is rational, it just helps if we're all on the same page. \$\endgroup\$
    – Pikalek
    Nov 23 '20 at 15:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Pikalek The main motivations would be for character development, small optional rewards, minor plot points that could come up later, and more dialogue with characters that the player likes. I have been thinking of offering more concrete rewards though, as part of the design question here. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sciborg
    Nov 23 '20 at 16:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ Sorry, I didn't clarify very well; I meant more along the lines of: have you observed problems when players do just jam through the game w/out any optional content? Do they complain about lack of depth, that it's too short relative to the cost, etc? Solving those problems can be different than trying to steer gameplay to meet developer intent. \$\endgroup\$
    – Pikalek
    Nov 23 '20 at 16:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Pikalek I understand now, my bad! My beta players have been very completionist about doing all the content and seeing all the dialogue, which tends to be what visual novel players do :) so I haven't gotten major feedback from the type of player who would skip everything as of yet. I asked one player specifically to just play the main story without any optional content to simulate a player who would do that, and they did not mention a problem with depth but said they wished they had talked to some of the characters more. That was the problem I intended to solve by having the sidequests. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sciborg
    Nov 23 '20 at 16:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Sciborg But maybe your test player only said that because they skipped the sidequests because you told them to. If they were interested in doing the quests but weren't "allowed" to, that would skew the results. \$\endgroup\$
    – Llewellyn
    Nov 24 '20 at 22:00
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For the purpose of this answer I will assume you are developing another Phoenix Wright game which is exactly like those of the original trilogy, just with additional optional side-content. That makes it easier to write an answer because I need to make less guesses about what you already do and don't do in your game.

In a Phoenix Wright game, it's crucial for the player to speak to everyone, pick every dialog option, examine everything and assume that every little detail is important. Because usually it will be important during the trial phase. This includes getting to know all the characters as well as possible. Because most characters will eventually appear on the witness stand, and when they do they are going to lie to the player. And then the player has to point out which part of their testimony exactly is a lie. In order to do so successfully, the player needs to understand those characters, what they can and can not know, why they would lie and how they would lie.

This is anathema to optional content, because it's not possible for the player to see which content is really optional and which content looks like it's optional but does actually include an important hint for the case. So the most crucial thing is to develop a UI convention which makes it clear to the player that whatever content they are about to enter is not related to the main case.

The best way might be to put the optional content into separate episodes. One thing the player can usually trust is that they won't require knowledge from previous episodes to solve the current one. So after completing a case, you could add a couple additional "bonus episodes" to the episode selection menu.

If you really want to integrate the optional content into the regular episodes, then you could tell the player which dialog options are part of the bonus quests and which aren't. You could, for example, communicate that via the background color of buttons or by adding an icon to them. You might want to follow this throughout the whole bonus content, so the player does not get confused about whether they are on the bonus content or the regular content. However, I would advise against that. My experience is that completing a regular Phoenix Wright episode (without consulting a walkthrough) already requires 120% of the players attention. Providing additional distraction in form of optional sidequests might make it even more difficult to unravel the contradictions of the main plot.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a really, really good answer, and I didn't even think about the point that players might not realize the difference between optional and non-optional content unless it is clearly spelled out - due to the nature of a detective game. I may implement your idea about clearly distinguishing "main plot chapters" and "bonus chapters that are just for fun and will not be relevant to cases" so the optional content doesn't get tangled up in the main content and confuse people. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sciborg
    Nov 23 '20 at 17:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Sciborg Why not tangle up the optional content with the main content though? Going with the Phoenix Wright example, maybe a witness for whom you've done a sidequest will be more cooperative on the stand, whereas if you don't do the sidequest you'll have a more challenging trial section where you need to grill them harder. Or you get a hint that you could figure out yourself, but it will be harder. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 25 '20 at 12:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MaciejStachowski That's not a bad idea. The Phoenix Wright games proceed to the trial phase as soon as the player collected all the information available. You could modify that by allowing the player to go to the trial phase as soon as they discovered the absolute minimum of evidence required to complete it, but also give them the option to keep exploring in order to gather additional optional evidence and information. \$\endgroup\$
    – Philipp
    Nov 25 '20 at 14:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MaciejStachowski This could also be used for optional endings. The bare minimum will be enough to get your client acquitted, but if you want to catch the real killer, you need to go the extra mile and collect all the evidence. That might not have worked too well with the narrative style of PW, but could be used in a more western interpretation of the game concept. \$\endgroup\$
    – Philipp
    Nov 25 '20 at 14:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Philipp I don't know - in the context of a VN anything that precludes the player from getting the golden ending isn't really "optional", and it does force the player to engage with the optional content to get a satisfactory resolution to the main story - which is something the OP doesn't want. I'd rather go with small rewards - if there's a failure state make it harder for the player to reach it (bring the judge a sandwich and get one more strike in the trial, or do a quest for a witness and they'll volunteer information without having to present evidence, etc.). \$\endgroup\$ Nov 25 '20 at 14:36
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"Visual novel" and "you should only play the parts you want to" are contradictory.

The whole point of a visual novel is to explore the story and characters, or to discover the different possible outcomes of the player's choices. Trying to tell the player that they don't "have to" explore every possible option is like trying to tell a Mario player that they don't "have to" jump.

It's very much possible to beat a Mario game without jumping, and it's usually also possible to "beat" a visual novel while skipping a fair amount of content. But in both cases, that's not really the point of the experience. Your players will come into your visual novel with the assumption that they are "supposed to" see all of the content, because for every other visual novel they have played, that's how it works.

If you really are set on making certain parts of the game optional, I think you really only have a small set of options:

  • Present the player with two (or more) mutually-exclusive sidequests. They can play the other one next time (and many players will do exactly that, so don't worry about people missing content that they wanted to see; this is what the skip button is for). This helps if your main problem with the sidequests is related to pacing rather than player freedom. For obvious reasons, this is no good if you have one mandatory and one optional sidequest.
  • Make something other than a visual novel, by including elements not commonly found in that genre. For example, Telltale Games, before they went bankrupt, would often include a lot of quicktime events, timed dialog options, and frequent reminders that "[character] will remember that," all of which are uncharacteristic of the VN genre. Of course, many players of TTG's games would still go back and experience everything anyway, so this only goes so far.
  • As Philipp suggests, break the optional bits out into a separate episode, or give a clear UI indicating that they are truly optional. If you go for a UI indication, you will need to explain this to players up-front, because you will be violating genre expectations.
  • Just accept that many players will play through all of the content. Don't worry about it unless you gets complaints of pacing or "boringness."
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    \$\begingroup\$ I largely agree with this, but would phrase the premise a bit differently. Almost everything in a visual novel is optional, but the appeal for most players is replaying the game to see every possible plot sequence which translates to there being no practical distinction between optional and mandatory content except from a development perspective. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 24 '20 at 15:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AustinHemmelgarn: That's a fair point, will look at rewording. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kevin
    Nov 24 '20 at 16:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ I wouldn't call Telltale games Visual Novel games. Like, at all. They're full-on point & click adventure games in my opinion, and are marketed as such. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nzall
    Nov 25 '20 at 10:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Nzall Another label you could put on Telltale Games is "interactive movie". But I think TTG don't fit neatly in any existing genre. I would not classify them as point&click either, because the focus of most P&C adventures is on puzzle solving, not narrative decision making. From a narrative point of view, TTG are indeed very similar to visual novels, so I can understand why people make that association. But many other people categorize VNs by their user interface conventions. Which TTG do not follow. \$\endgroup\$
    – Philipp
    Nov 25 '20 at 12:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Philipp: To be fair, TTG did make a few Sam & Max point-and-click adventure games, and those really were point-and-clicks. But I'm talking about things like The Walking Dead and Tales from the Borderlands. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kevin
    Nov 25 '20 at 18:32
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Look to Persona

In the Persona games, between bouts of dungeon crawling, there are long segments heavily influenced by the visual novel genre, that consist of talking to and hanging out with friends. Whilst this can affect the dungeon crawling to some degree, with perks (of varying utility) unlocked, it mostly functions as a separate way to have the players relate to the characters.

Why does this matter here?
Whilst you could incorporate minor perks (the outfit swap/item works, but more engaging may the characters having more tailored, unique skills from the events; or even just an extra line of dialogue referencing it); the part that compels new players to try talking to the characters is that they have a set amount of (in-game) time to do so, with few other options. This seems like it would map very well onto your game. Give the player, say, one week with five character events and some chores they can choose to do instead, and instead of seeming like a chore, it becomes a challenge to optimise their time to do the events they want. Or the can ignore everything and decide to nap or whatever the "secret" skip button is. And of course, it doesn't hurt to guide the player to the first event.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I like the idea of getting some kind of (bonus) outfit or keepsake out of each sidequest. If the game doesn't otherwise support choosing outfits, it could be bunch of keepsakes piling up on the detective's desk or photos taped to the evidence locker. \$\endgroup\$
    – Llewellyn
    Nov 24 '20 at 22:05
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It's great that you've already collected feedback from play testers. Based on that, it sounds like you might be trying to fix problems that aren't there. If your core audience is choosing to experience the optional content & enjoying your game, it sounds like you've already made a good product.

That said, if you're still concerned about player's skipping optional content, I would look for ways to communicate your intent. You could do this either in game, outside the game or both.

Communicating your intent outside the game play is the easiest solution because you don't necessarily need to worry about breaking immersion. By directly communicating the intent in the game description, your message is less likely to be misinterpreted. Ideally, this allows potential buyers/players to make informed choices. Unfortunately, not everyone reads product descriptions carefully.

Communicating your intent in game may require more work. If you are trying to tie the optional content to game mechanics I recommend respecting the player's time by clearly indicating the material is in fact optional. This avoids player's feeling tricked into doing work that doesn't change the game state or confused as to why nothing changed in the game after doing optional things. Again, the idea is to allow players to make informed choices.

In terms of game mechanics, I would consider giving the player some way to see how much optional content they have explored. Second, I would consider unlocking cosmetic changes; it's difficult to give on point recommendations without knowing the specifics of your game, but here are a couple examples:

  • If your art style lends itself well to layering or you can afford extra assets, allow the player to customize some characters' appearances. This may also work well if you had more art than you needed, but be mindful of including stuff that was cut because it was of low quality or poor fit.
  • If the game supports it, consider cosmetic dialog options. For instance, if the player consumed the background content about a character's time abroad, include phrases that reflect that.

Ultimately, you have to accept that optional content means that players may not see everything; if you feel that detracts too much from the experience, then the content isn't optional.

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Ration how much optional content the player is permitted to do.

In the main plot line, have some measure of success. Depending on how well you do in the main plotline, "reward" the player with the ability to (optionally) do 1, 2, or 3 "side quests" as the end of the episode.

This "this side quest is a reward" should motivate players to consume the side quest even if it is otherwise pointless. The side quests should include "Easter Eggs" that put later parts of the story in a new light, but are not required for the main plot to make sense or progress in it.

For example, on a side quest with someone, they might talk about wanting to set up a restaurant (by name). Later, that restaurant can be in the background (physically, or an advertisement for it), or even a location where another scene happens.

That scene can occur regardless of if you did the side quest or not; the side quest just makes that scene have more meaning, rewarding the player with story connections but not mechanics for the main plot.

By labeling them as rewards (explicitly), and bonus content, the player won't feel obligated to do them all (and possibly unlikely to be able to on their first play through). But they should feel motivated to do them, and rewarded when the main story does callbacks that they'd only understand if they did the bonus content.

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