So You Want to Make an Erotic Game? 10 Lessons From 2 Years of Development.
A SFW Love Letter to NSFW Game Development.
I’m an amateur game developer 2 years deep into my indie “passion project” of making an erotic computer game on RPGMaker MV.
I’m going to be up front with you—it is a BRUTAL process.
Don’t get me wrong, I am developing this game as a hobby and I enjoy it, but you have to have a really solid reason.
In the sections that follow, I highlight 10 of the key challenges to think about if you’re thinking about trying your hand at this. Many of these are relevant to any indie game dev, but my experience is as in making an erotic game. If you make it to the end, I’ll tell you why I find it worth the effort.
The great irony of making an erotic game is that it requires LOVE and SACRIFICE, to make something that will be generally viewed as trivial or (in the case of erotic games) even obscene.
It is no secret that game development is HARD. When you pour your heart and soul into a game to make it high quality, you have to be prepared for when you release it into the wild.
If its effective at being erotic, people will use it as pornography. If its not effective, people will laugh at you and ridicule you. But most likely, you will simply be ignored.
Porn is not seen as respectable in polite society lives (for good reason), so you will have to be discreet. I disclosed to my wife what I was working on shortly after I started, however, its a lot tougher keeping my kids away from a big part of my life.
They know I'm working on a game, but they also know that they aren't allowed to play it or see much of it, because its for "adults".
I also balance a day-job that would frown on my hobby, and it is a challenge to both be discreet about it in my professional life, and yet actively promote and share my work as a developer in my online life.
I've become active in indie dev and RPGMaker communities on discord, reddit and in forums.
Its important to join communities for learning and staying motivated, but I have to be just as discreet with the mainstream communities as I am with my kids.
You can’t post links to your game in official RPGMaker Forums, and its important to be respectful and keep a safe environment for minors in any channels that do allow you to post.
It can be quite tough to share things that I have created in those contexts, even if there is a NSFW option. Many people don't want to interact with me as they don't necessarily want to be associated with a taboo subject like porn games.
This is totally understandable, and not saying that people should behave any differently, but if you are considering making this kind of game, you should know that you will be something of a pariah in the community.
Marketing is tough in general, but marketing a NSFW sidehustle is a real challenge. Since you can’t leverage existing networks, you have to build new ones ... and your art is king.
First off, much of indie game dev marketing is centered around social media and by offering NSFW content you are essentially painting a scarlet letter on your profile. This means that you can't leverage your personal or professional social media networks, (unless you are already in a similar space), and you will have to start from zero followers.
You will have to create a new online persona, and hang around forums and networks of people who specialize in smut and build communities around porn.
If that sounds fun to you, it's really not.
I mean, I don’t mind the people, I appreciate the artwork, but its mentally and spiritually exhausting to be inundated with sex and it can be time consuming. Being active in these communities also means being exposed to a LOT of pornography, and given the wide spectrum of human sexuality, there’s a good chance you will not care for a good portion of it.
If you want to compete in the NSFW indie scene, there is tremendous pressure to produce “content”. By content, I mean porn. Good old fashioned erotic images.
Content is what gains likes, followers, patrons, purchases and attention. It is essential for marketing to gain interest in your game, or to keep your fans happy (if you are lucky enough to have fans).
The successful NSFW indie developers are generally creating a piece of content (an image) per week, 2 weeks at most. Bonus points if you share a WIP mid-week and then a completed work at end of week.
Usually these are still images, perhaps lightly animated, but mostly still images. Mostly still images because animation (like game dev) is HARD and TIME CONSUMING.
I was a halfway decent amateur artist before I started this game (that's not false modesty, I'm legitimately mediocre), and I can’t compete with the pros.
I have been training obsessively over the last 2 years, spent hundreds of hours doing figure drawing, reading art books and theory, watching videos, posting in art forums and learning anatomy. I’ve improved for sure, but even with all of that, I regularly get blasé responses when I share my work.
Your audience has access to free high-quality images in nearly endless variety, so you will have to have a high level of proficiency to be even remotely viable.
On top of the actual skill of drawing, I've had to train myself to draw in digital mediums with a stylus, learn gimp/photoshop, digital coloring and painting, pixel art, etc. This translates into more hours poured into the game.
If you want animation, that means learning Dragon bones/Spriter, rotoscoping software, and/or piskell, etc. This software has a steep learning curve, but is much more time-efficient than any other kind of animation. You can forget about traditional 2d cell-style animation as you won’t live long enough to complete more than a few minutes.
This is all for the more traditional, western animation look. Some people prefer an anime-style "hentai" look, some people exclusively like the 3d, Blender-model look.
Just in case you thought that the 3D blender style is easier than drawn pictures...its not.
Blender requires whole new skill sets in addition to some of the same mentioned above, including learning new software, building and posing models, clothing, lighting, creating sets, the list goes on.
Once you do all that, chances are, your CG will look terrible. As it is a skill that takes time and effort to learn. We have grown accustomed to amazing content, so looking at the feeble attempts of a newbie on their first try will probably not get you the results you were hoping for.
There are two key shortcuts to produce content: stealing and paying.
Paying is the easiest and often the smartest move. You can pay artists to create the content for you, which is a great way to go if you are interested in doing this as a business. Its also smart just to manage your own time. You can guarantee a higher quality and produce the content faster.
If you are doing 3D CG you can pay for someone else's poses and models which will cut down on your workload, but it gets quite pricey to add multiple models, and it takes skill to make these models look like anything but mannequins posed by mischievous teenagers. It also takes quite a long time to "render" images once you have designed them.
You can also pay for software. A sexual sandbox game like “Honey Select” lets you dress and pose the models to create a scene for your game and then you can snap a screenshot and include it in your game.
This has its own challenges too. I understand that you may need many plug-ins, working knowledge of Japanese and a fair amount of skill to make this work right.
There is also the problem of similarity. Any software that is too easy to use, becomes ubiquitous, so you will have a hard time differentiating your game if the characters look like the same characters in a slew of other games.
You can also steal stuff, ie take other artists work without permission and incorporate it into your game somehow.
"Stealing" is actually a great resource, with some important caveats.
First of all, if an artist says, “don't use my stuff,” don't use it.
Second, don't pass someone else's work off as your own. Its unethical and probably illegal, especially if you are collecting money for it.
However, if you are using the art as placeholders, stealing is a great way to save time. When mocking up my own art, I will often make a digital collage of artists that I like to convey a feeling or a scene. It’s a smart way to try something out to see if it works. Just don't include it in anything you’re selling.
Even without the revenue aspect, Patreon is an excellent option for developing a following and communicating with a fan base.
The standardized format means you don't have to reinvent the wheel to show off your game. You just fill in some boxes and upload some images to get yourself set up. You can get a pretty good idea of how it is supposed to look by checking out a few other Indie NSFW patreon pages.
The community interaction features are solid. Your followers and patrons can get email updates from you. Potential followers can check out the webpage and see how many posts you have made. Your patrons can get new artworks from you once a week, the platform is trusted and its large user base makes it easy to get donations from existing users.
The downside is you have to abide by Patreon's rules.
If you don't follow the rules, they can boot you off, and this will disconnect you from your supporters and your revenue source.
For my own part, I have decided not to use Patreon because the rules are quite grey around my particular content. Since my game is about an evil wizard who essentially bewitches young ladies into getting frisky, that could conceivably fall under glorifying non-consent.
Subscribestar is less restrictive on content, but they have far fewer subscribers and it is not really a viable competitor yet. Even very popular games have comparatively tiny followings on Subscribestar vs Patreon.
Since Patreon won’t have me, I have my own webpage, which means that I need to add "web developer" to the list of hats that I wear on top of art, programming, writing, marketing and design.
Having an email list is essential. Since I don’t have a platform like Patreon to reach potential users, email is my primary method of contact.
With all these negatives, costs and challenges, you may be asking "why would anyone willingly subject themselves to this?"
For most people I would say, it’s not worth it.
Trying to make it (or even just participate) as an indie NSFW developer, its kind of like trying to make it as a porn star. You are offering your labor to try to create erotic fantasies. It's a long shot that you will succeed, and even if you do, the benefits are mixed.
On the off chance that you are successful people will simultaneously respect you and look down on you. In the more likely case that you fail, you will feel like you have debased yourself, your art and your labor with nothing to show for it.
To put up with all of the costs and challenges, the time away from work and family, you need a pretty big "why" to keep going. If the why is just a piece of smut to get your jollies from... that probably won't sustain you very long.
I'll share my “why” with you.
I started this journey as a pornography addict.
As mentioned in the beginning, I think that pornography is considered unsavory for a reason. It cheapens beautiful things: human bodies and human beings. It reduces them to a means of sexual gratification.
When I compulsively consumed pornography, it created an emptiness in my soul.
In some sense, emptiness is part of the allure of pornography. There is a French expression "le petite morte", “the little death”, that refers to the spiritual calm immediately after orgasm.
Much like drugs or alcohol, sexuality can be a way of escaping from the world. When experienced with another person, an orgasm can make you feel bonded and intimate. But alone… when you open your eyes to the harsh glow of a computer screen and reality returns, the emptiness returns along with it, a little larger and a little emptier than before.
The loneliness and emptiness of compulsive pornography viewing can lead to unhappiness that spirals into more escapism.
It was in one of these spirals that I stumbled onto erotic games and my experience with my sexuality changed.
Don’t get me wrong, most of the erotic games out there are utter garbage. Barely worthy of the word "game". Certainly not art.
But some of these games…are beautiful.
Hilarious, erotic, thrilling, disturbing, engaging... fun works of art. These few games that were exceptionally well done inspired me to develop my own game.
What I find exciting about developing an erotic game is it allows me to integrate my sexuality with my desire for self-expression.
I’m a heterosexual male with a stereotypical male libido. Sexuality is a large part of the male psyche, it’s a large part of the human experience.
Repressing sexuality is also part of the human experience. Famed psychologist Carl Jung talked about how people must repress emotions like aggression and sexuality in order to coexist in a civilized society. Jung called these darker parts of our personality the “shadow”.
However, if we simply repress core parts of our identity, we risk them emerging in uncontrolled and dangerous ways. Jung taught that we must find ways to integrate our shadow in healthy ways rather than repress it. These games allow me to integrate my shadow through art.
Erotic games with character and meaning have to come from the indie side because they are risky. The above 10 challenges outline in detail why this endeavor is foolish.
Big money and AAA cannot afford to take foolish risks. They either double down on the porn-part of games or they tease sexuality but don't deliver—much like Hollywood vs the adult film industry.
Indie games have the potential to do something bold that the mainstream cannot. Independent erotic games can integrate sexuality and art.
This is why I have chosen to develop an erotic indie game. Developing my own erotic game allows me to incorporate my whole personality into an artwork.
That is why, for me, it is worth it.