Upon its release in 2017, Doki Doki Literature Club! quickly became an internet cult hit. Released entirely for free online, Team Salvato’s debut title expertly adopted the aesthetics of a lighthearted Japanese romance visual novel, only to reveal its dark horror underbelly in a third-wall breaking twist.
Given its popularity, the announcement of Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!, an expanded version of the game which launched on PC, Switch, Xbox and PlayStation consoles in June, perhaps wasn’t an enormous surprise.
What is a surprise, and an interesting challenge for Team Salvato and publisher Serenity Forge, is that Plus! is releasing as a premium game, while the original remains free online. Now, re-releasing a game with new bells and whistles is hardly anything new – and Plus! certainly boasts that, with added side stories, new images, music tracks and more. But how do you encourage players to buy a game they can legally acquire for free? And now that its secret horror twist isn’t so much of a secret anymore, can the game still surprise players?
We spoke to both Team Salvato’s Dan Salvato and Serenity Forge’s Zhenghua Yang to find out more about the thinking behind the release.
Doki Doki Literature Club! has been out for almost 4 years now – What prompted you to release a premium version of the game?
Dan Salvato: The project started from our desire to port DDLC to multiple platforms, but it quickly grew much bigger. We really wanted to make the experience accessible to people who can’t play games on PC platforms. This was a challenge not just from a technical standpoint, but also from a creative one – DDLC is not a typical narrative game, so I had to ask myself if the essence of what makes it a unique and memorable experience can be maintained in console ports. That question led to some really cool creative decisions that I’m excited for people to discover.
Aside from that, the chance to write the Side Stories was another major factor for me. DDLC’s characters face some very real, relatable challenges and insecurities.
For the players who really connect with them, I wanted to deliver meaningful stories about friendship and literature that can help motivate and inspire us in our everyday lives. DDLC is a game about the player’s personal relationship with fiction, and DDLC Plus expands on that core theme through the new content.
What were your expectations for the original game’s release – Was it a surprise when it turned out as popular as it did?
Salvato: The popularity of the original release exceeded all possible predictions, even the ones I considered to be ‘unrealistic’. It was like every month, I thought it had reached its peak, but it just kept spreading even more. I really couldn’t believe it, and I felt so grateful to all of those who got the word around and shared the game with their friends. But also, it drastically changed the course of my life, going practically overnight from a tinkerer who works on stuff alone to the manager of a huge brand. I wasn’t prepared for that, and I’m still getting used to it.
What was the reasoning behind releasing it for free? Were there ever regrets over releasing it for free, or do you feel this helped bring attention to the game?
Salvato: I really believe DDLC would not have caught on if the game wasn’t free. Paying for a game, any amount, is a commitment – many times, you want to be fully convinced of the game’s value before paying for it. DDLC is so weird because it’s a game that practically can’t even advertise its own gameplay, so it would have been impossible to convince people of the game’s value, especially people who aren’t interested in visual novels. DDLC literally invites those players to not take it seriously, and you wouldn’t buy a game just to make fun of it. So many people have told me that they convinced their friends to play it with these words: “It’s short, it’s free, it’s a wild ride, and you have nothing to lose.” So I never felt like it was the wrong decision to make DDLC free.
Will the free version of the game remain available?
Salvato: Absolutely. DDLC will always be a free game.
Is it a challenge to entice players to the premium experience, rather than simply downloading the free version?
Salvato: DDLC Plus is priced at $15 because that’s what I believe is the value of the new content provided alongside the original game. I think DDLC Plus is great for those who love DDLC and would love for the chance to support us in exchange for some great new content. So no, we’re not trying to steer people away from the free game and convince them to spend money instead. I’m honest in my principles, and I strive to maintain a strong relationship between Team Salvato and our fanbase.
Success to us is making a difference, large or small, to people who experience our work. DDLC enables that, and DDLC Plus is symbolic of the mutual gratitude between us and our fans.
Do you think there’s maybe more appetite for a premium anime-style visual novel in the West than there perhaps was in 2017?
Salvato: I think the question is more about visual novels themselves, rather than whether it has an anime art style. Relative to the games industry as a whole, VNs are still extremely niche. Part of why I wanted to start making VNs, especially one that appeals to non-anime fans (by inviting them to make fun of it!), was to help demonstrate the emotional power that interactive fiction is capable of, and the unique kinds of storytelling that it enables.
I really hope that DDLC helps demonstrate to the industry that people really want these experiences, so that more companies can feel confident enough to develop and invest in unconventional ideas.
A lot of the game’s success was down to the surprise dark twist. Now that the game has more of a reputation, do you feel this element has been lost somewhat?
Salvato: DDLC has never tried to trick people into thinking it’s a normal dating sim. Upfront, it’s a psychological horror game, with a disclaimer that it contains highly disturbing content. Almost everyone who played DDLC already knew going in that there was something horribly wrong about the game. The memes you see on social media are just people joking about the juxtaposition.
The key is that people are left wondering: What on Earth could this game actually be about? What could the horror be? How seriously am I supposed to be taking what these trailers are showing me? That’s why the game has been played by so many people who aren’t fans of anime or VNs; the dichotomy of messaging makes you want to find out what the heck this game is actually about. That enticing factor will never be diminished.
Content warnings were added to Plus! – What were the motivations behind this? Is it difficult to balance the need to avoid spoiling the game too much while also protecting the player?
Salvato: Content warnings are a fantastic optional accessibility feature. Millions of people, more than we see, feel safer when using content warnings.
Ultimately, players deserve control over how they want to be exposed to sensitive content, and the optional content warnings enable more players to enjoy the story that we wrote. There is not one “best” way to enjoy the game; everyone has their own preferences and needs.
Insisting that DDLC must be experienced in one specific way would be a very elitist and pretentious mindset for us to have. We want people to make their own unique experience out of it, and enjoy it in the way that they prefer. ‘Spoilers’ are often treated as sacrilegious – they can be, when they are unsolicited. But so many people just want to know what they can expect to be exposed to ahead of time. We care about giving them a good experience, too.
Zhenghua Yang: This was a conversation Dan and I had very early on, and that was the original DDLC worked because it’s a free game. With DDLC Plus, it’s now a paid product, from an ethical and socially responsible standpoint, it was very critical that we are upfront about what customers are paying money for.
Additionally, the DDLC IP has always been designed as an IP that’s misunderstood at a glance. Taking these two elements together, we found that the best way to dance on this line is to heavily emphasize the misunderstanding and be blunt about its presentation.
Joseph Boyd and Alecia Bardachino from Team Salvato worked tirelessly to ensure that there are proper content warnings throughout the game, and we continue to work on improving content warnings as well as accessibility options every day even as we speak.
How did Serenity Forge become involved, and what attracted you to Doki Doki Literature Club?
Zhenghua Yang: Serenity Forge started as a company that aimed to create meaningful and impactful games that challenged what people think. Even back before we started the company, we would toy around with the ideas of creating games that would ‘install viruses on your computer’ as you played it, so that it’s a sentient game that distracts you during a boss fight or something.
When DDLC came out, it immediately became one of my favorite games of all time (and also subsequently made me a bit depressed because Dan beat me to the punch!). Regardless, we had an extremely fortunate opportunity to eventually meet Dan through the help of Derek Douglas and Alison Sluiter from CAA. We clicked instantly regarding what we each personally care about in the video game industry, and the rest was history.
What was the motivation behind the physical release? It won’t be available in the UK on launch, right?
Zhenghua Yang: The common perception in the industry right now is that physical is dead. However, I think it’s really important to note that new physical games come out every week!
As the medium of physical titles changes, I feel like it’s important for publishers to adapt to it. Tons of people still play physical games, and it’s not just the folks who collect games either. There are people around the world buying games in retail because they’re unfamiliar with game downloads, or simply do not have access to the internet as readily. Additionally, physical games still make amazing gifts. It’s just not quite the same buying a digital code and giving it to someone for Christmas.
Serenity Forge is a studio that values accessibility and inclusion as our top pillars with all games we work on. We wanted to make sure everyone in the world from all walks of life is included when we release DDLC Plus, and that each time when someone buys and opens the game box, it’s an exciting and magical experience.
The physical edition will be available globally through our very hard working distribution partners. It’s true that some releases will come sooner than others, but trust me that everyone on each of the teams is doing the best they can to bring the game to as many people, as quickly as humanly possible!
What technical challenges were involved in re-releasing the game, and on so many platforms? It has been ported to Unity, I understand?
Zhenghua Yang: This question may seem simple but there’s a lot that went into it, definitely too much to explain in a short interview. The simple answer is yes, the game was ported to Unity. However, there were a tremendous amount of hurdles we had to go through.
In the beginning, Unity’s programming team started the project and worked to port the game (yes, THE Unity Technologies), and eventually the project was handed off to the Serenity Forge programming team. Accomplishing this game in the given timeframe was only possible due to the incredible Serenity Forge programming team, led by Kevin Adams, and the Team Salvato engineers Joseph Boyd and Dan himself. They really were the MVPs of this entire project.