The Weird Dating Sim Business

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I’ve been going to GDC – the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco – for many years now, but this year was different. Usually, I put a lot of effort into reaching out to potential clients and industry allies, but rarely hear from them after the conference is over. This year, it was like an alternate universe version of the same show. Lots of potential clients reached out to me, and I came away with a studio interested in producing my sexy X-Men visual novel. As Beast would say, “Oh my stars and garters!”

GDC is a conference in March where thousands of people from the gaming industry gather to see talks, network, and scream in a nearby park about how terrible the industry is for workers. This year, my aim was to reconnect with past clients and co-workers, and to check out a free party thrown at an upscale bar by a social media app whose name I literally can’t remember as I write this. I want to say… Gamer Juice? Oh man, whatever the app’s called, they wasted a lot of their marketing budget on this event.

GDC has a built-in messaging platform, where developers and executives can setup meetings. It’s kinda like LinkedIn, but only for game developers and there’s no timeline with deranged posts like, “I love my company so much I gave it all my blood and now I’m dead! #Dedication” In previous years, I would send out a ton of meeting requests to narrative directors and producers, hoping to make contacts and get some value out of my show badge. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a gig doing this, but it feels like something to do. Generally, when I’ve gotten work out of GDC, it’s usually from a client messaging me.

One message in my GDC inbox caught my attention. I received a very nice and professional note from Jessica Delfanti, the VP of Creative Development at Dorian. Dorian is a game platform and publisher, where creators design and publish their own mobile dating sims via a user friendly interface. In case you’re not familiar, “dating sims” are narrative-based games where the player chooses between a selection of glittery anime people to date. (Generally speaking.) In her invitation to meet, Jessica said Dorian was offering mentorship, marketing, and monetization assistance. I’d heard of Dorian, because my former boss Stacey Mason, a genius narrative designer, is one of their advisors and helped launch the company.

Jessica was looking to meet narrative designers interested in making their own dating sims and publishing them on their platform. This intrigued me, as I’m a fan of indie dating sims! My taste in the genre is very eclectic. I like the ones where you date ghosts, Santas, or pigeons. For example, I really enjoyed Raptor Boyfriend, where the player dates either a velociraptor, a fairy, or a bigfoot in a small Canadian town in the mid-90s. The tone and art style reminded me of my favorite TV show of all-time, Daria, down to the way the game is directed with sitcom style close-ups and wide shots. I thought it was an ambitious indie and surprisingly personal for a game about dating a dinosaur with shades and a skateboard.

After ending a frustrating job last year, I considered starting a visual novel (VN) publishing house. I hired a consultant, an expert in VN marketing, who advised me that hardcore dating sim fans who buy multiple games a year wouldn’t even consider the games I like to be dating sims, but rather, unappealing parodies. 😞 Now, to be clear, I enjoy writing a “spicy” story. “I like sex,” he wrote, bravely! But according to my consultant, the weird novelty VNs I like don’t satisfy the core desire of most dating sim fans, which is to engage in un-ironic anime romance. No “yuck” from me, but that’s not my “yum.” (He says, quickly hiding a Faye Valentine body pillow into his bedroom closet before company arrives.)

I decided to take Jessica up on her offer to meet in the Hilton lobby, since I had a lunch meeting across the street, but I was skeptical. If Dorian was looking for serious, traditional dating sim concepts, I wouldn’t be a good fit. Would Dorian want to spend their company’s precious marketing resources on one of the many dating sim ideas rattling around in my head, including one I actually made a paper prototype for where the player is a matchmaker for post-apocalyptic sewer monsters?

The hotel lobby was busy. Jessica flagged me down. She was wearing smart business attire, and I was wearing one of my classier hoodies. She took me to an alcove with small tables and free wi-fi that was surprisingly empty. A good hack for not having dedicated meeting space setup. After some pleasantries, Jessica took me through a Powerpoint presentation on her laptop. The core pitch was a series of charts and graphs showing that creators could make real money publishing dating sims on their platform. Creators earn a 50% cut from in-game transactions (some choices in Dorian games are “premium” and require purchase, which is how their business model works) and a royalty when streamers on Dorian play their game. That is a neat element of Dorian: they have an in-app streaming community with hosts cosplaying as characters from Dorian games. I’d love to see a fan cosplaying as a character I created. Again, neat!

When I asked what percent of creators make real money from the platform, Jessica didn’t have a solid answer. But since I’ve worked in digital content my entire adult life, I can guess the answer: ~1%. If a platform is healthy and there’s money to be earned, you can bet less than 10% of creators are taking home any of that money. When a platform gets really big, another set of creators earn real money by teaching other creators how to earn real money, or “teaching” in the case of scams. If my goal was to publish a dating sim on Dorian to earn a passive income, I would most likely be disappointed, statistically speaking.

However, I’m in my Equip Story era. Making money off my projects is a secondary concern. I want to have fun making something, and a weird dating sim would be very fun to create. The aspects I could see being a challenge are producing art assets, like “sprites” (character poses) and backgrounds, which can be expensive depending on the game’s scope. I’m not an artist, so I’d need to hire a contractor. Another aspect that would be less fun is giving away the rights to the game I create. Some publishers want IP rights (film/tv rights, etc) and control over what platforms you port your game onto.

As a platform, I wasn’t sold on Dorian, but then Jessica started laying out what Dorian’s terms were as a publisher. She said Dorian hires artists for games, which would be a blessing on my slim wallet. They spend money to market their games, and I would retain all the rights to my intellectual property. That includes the right to re-release the game myself on Steam or consoles, though she wasn’t sure if I could use any art assets Dorian produces in a port. (If the game was a huge hit and I did make “real money,” then I’d have a budget to create new art assets.)

Those are great terms, as far as I’m concerned. If I was pitching to most publishers, I would be expected to create a demo (called a “vertical slice”), which could cost thousands of dollars to develop. If my pitch was successful (a big “IF”), the publisher may give me a poor royalty split or ask for IP rights.

There was still the question of whether the Dorian audience would like a weird dating sim. Jessica was very encouraging, saying their users in particular enjoy left of field premises, citing the success of a recent game about dating shark people. By the end of the meeting, I was giving this serious consideration. I came into it skeptical, but against all odds, I left with the feeling that I could create something fun and weird for a publisher that would support it on multiple levels.

As I left the meeting, I immediately had a creative partner in mind. Someone with equally eclectic tastes and with experience editing romance comics for an LGBT sex and romance imprint. I hadn’t collaborated with her creatively since before the pandemic. I wondered if she’d be interested…

In an email follow-up with Jessica, I asked what she thought about me bringing on a co-writer. Jessica was very excited!! (Yes, two exclamation points!!) I thought she might be. After all, I’d never heard of a dating sim developed by a husband and wife team before.

Enter… Amanda, My Wife! (In two weeks!)

📨 Next Week: I’ll play imagineer and redesigning the game elements in Disney’s Star Wars hotel. Just in time to not save it from being closed!

🎲 Your Turn: Have you ever played a dating sim or visual novel? Reply to this email with your favorites or opinions on the genre. Or tell the whole universe by hitting the comment button below.

Image Credit: Hatoful Boyfriend

Geoffrey Golden is a narrative designer, game creator, and interactive fiction author from Los Angeles. He’s written for Ubisoft, Disney, Gearbox, and indie studios around the world.

11 responses to “The Weird Dating Sim Business”

  1. I absolutely love dating sim style games! I’ve been working on one slowly for myself since the animation industry imploded and I have the time since I remain unemployed. I haven’t heard of Dorian before to be honest, most of the stuff I check out is on There are some real gems out there!

    1. Oooh, I can’t wait to play your dating sim someday. Boo animation industry, yay indie games!

      Oh, is the best. I agree, the site is a gift for indie game devs. Not only for the incredible breadth of games and ease of publishing, but also for development resources like sprite sheets and music.

  2. Only visual novel I’ve actually beaten is Arcade Spirits, but doki Doki Literature Club, Katawa Shoujo, and the sequel to Arcade Spirits are on my list of games I want to play and in general, it’s a genre I want to play more of since one of the widely used engines for such both runs under Linux and has some accessibility features built-in and its a genre where the -5 penalty to dexterity from being blind isn’t a big deal.

    Really need to figure out why Renpy games won’t launch properly on my desktop.

    Also, those terms don’t sound good, they sound like, “this should be the legally mandated level of respect creators get from publishers”. Then again, I’m a strong believer that IP law is a good idea that was corrupted to hell and back by corporate interests, has been made nearly unusable to the people who actually need it, and that what was intended as a tool to protect creators has been perverted into a tool for corporations to abuse creators… Plus, I think the doctrine of work for hire is absolutely disgusting and should be outlawed.

    1. I played Arcade Spirits, too. I thought it was very charming and did a good job threading references to gaming culture naturally into the narrative. Hope you figure out the issue with Ren’py.

      I’m very much pro-creators, and I agree that IP law has been abused to hell, but I’ve been on both sides of it. My wife and I ran a small press together and the margins were tough. We gave as good a deal to our authors as we could, but book distributors and retailers took big percentages of our sales, and we were investing what little profits we had back into the business. So I appreciate that companies have expenses, particularly smaller publishers like this one. When I get to keep my rights and get the benefit of their resources, I take that as a win.

  3. Hey! Congrats on the impending wedding. I’ve read Smoove City (one of the books your future wife edited), what a weird coincidence.

    This Dorian venture is a cool boon, hope you get to make something really weird… I mean, unique.

    1. Okay, I see where my phrasing was confusing. I meant I’d be introducing y’all to Amanda in two weeks. We’ve been married for nearly 10 years, lol.

      That is a funny coincidence. I’ll tell her and the author, who’s a good friend. I hope you liked it!

      Weird, unique, it’s all good!

  4. Willa

    Technically I met my husband thanks to a visual novel! He never goes outside, only video games. But a visual novel collab with the escape room I ran brought him to the real world.

    I messed up his game and apologized over email and he asked me out. Got married last year!

    Congrats on your soon to be wedding!!!

    1. I love that, Willa. Visual novels bring couples together!

      Thank you for the congrats, though we’ve been married almost 10 years! ☺️

  5. Emily

    I’M IN.

    1. Emily

      Also (so excited I forgot to answer the question) I’ve played and loved Dream Daddy, Doki Doki Literature Club, Monster Prom, and Later Daters. I tried to play Fish Out of Water but even with the filter on (blurs out some spicy stuff) it was just a bit much for me.

      1. 💖 YOU ARE IN! 💖

        I didn’t mention them, but I’m also very much a fan of Dream Daddy, Doki Doki Literature Club, and Monster Prom. I heard about Later Daters and I should probably check that one out. Looks like a lot of fun!

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