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User-Created Content

Through Ren’Py
Tyler Ellis Trosper
May 3rd, 2011

Table of Contents
Abstract

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Executive Summary

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Introduction

3

Literary Review

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Methods

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Data

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Analysis

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Findings

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Conclusions

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References

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Keywords
Ren’Py, visual novel, community, collaboration, writing, art

Abstract
Ren’Py is a development program for the creation of visual novels, a type of electronic medium that
mixes art, sound, and reading to create a unique experience. The Ren’Py program has a dedicated
online forum, Lemma Soft Forums, for collaboration and development, which is the emphasis in my
paper. I conducted three interviews and received responses to an online survey from 28 respondents.
The results of this research revealed the importance of collaboration with the community, even when
the forum users vaguely knew each other. Furthermore, the investigation will connect to Clay
Shirky’s theory of the cognitive surplus, connecting the development of Ren’Py and the collaboration
between Lemma Soft Forum members.

Executive Summary
The research paper tackles the concept of the cognitive surplus, thought of by Clary Shirky, in
regards to an online message board and its use of the Ren’Py visual novel engine. In order to tackle
the issue, I posted on the Lemma Soft Forums, the official forum for the Ren’Py engine, asking for
volunteers to fill out my survey. I also asked for three volunteers to do a one-on-one interview with
through private message. I was able to gather the results in a relatively short amount of time and I
was able to connect my findings to cognitive surplus.
However, I did find some flaws within the community, most notably the decline in quality
collaboration with members. This was evidenced through the interviews, especially with the creator
of Ren’Py, PyTom, and through the survey results when asked how many of the respondents had
actually finished a visual novel, which proved to be a large 32%. As a smaller community, Lemma
Soft Forums worked as a place to easily find someone to collaborate with along with gain feedback, as
people only had to sift through a few visual novels at a time. With the increase popularity of the
engine, however, more visual novels are being made and many people are unable to keep up with the
demand for critiques and collaborators. I recommend activities that promote a common goal, such as
more competitions, in order to increase the amount of people collaborating.

Introduction
“Visual novels are just that, visual novels. It can have all the intricacies of a novel with added visuals
and sound to add, complement, and overall craft a better experience. It's an art form like any other, no
one thing being more important, but how you use them is quite key.”
The above quote was taken from an interview from a Lemma Soft Forums member. Visual novels
are a medium that blends reading with imagery at a technological level. Not unlike a child’s picture
book, visual novels have images accompanying text to tell a story. The medium is experienced
electronically, through such devices as computers, consoles or even a handheld device.
Though the medium originates from Japan, visual novels have slowly created a niche in the United
States. Titles such as the Phoenix Wright series, Ghost Trick, and 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors have
garnered rave reviews from critics while also developing a cult following among gamers. Despite this
success, Western game developers have not really jumped onto the phenomenon that is the visual
novel genre. It is still mostly an Eastern concept.
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However, visual novels are being made in the West, but not by big name companies. Instead, small
groups and even individuals are creating their own visual novels to share with others by various
means. In regards to creation of visual novels, creators have a wide variety of tools at their disposal
to help them accomplish their goals. Three of the most significant engines to create visual novels
with are the Blade Engine, Novelty, and Ren’Py. The most popular of the three, with a healthy
online community and a user-created library containing over 100 visual novels, is the Ren’Py engine.
Since its creation in 2004, the Ren’Py engine has gone through many updates based on the feedback of
the Ren’Py community, Lemma Soft Forums. Furthermore, the community itself has developed as
an area for users to critique others’ work, find collaborators on projects, and talk about visual novels
in general or other subjects. It is this area, the collaboration between forum members, I will explore
throughout my research paper.
First, I approached the research of the Ren’Py engine and its user base with several questions in mind.
How does Ren’Py work? What kind of programming went into its development? How much
programming skills do people need in order to manipulate the program? Why are people drawn to
using Ren’Py over other programs? Why do people collaborate with complete strangers on projects?
Furthermore, what I plan to argue with this paper goes along with Clay Shirky’s theory of the
cognitive surplus, that, with more free time that people have the potential to use this spare time to
create and develop something beneficial (27). The members of Lemma Soft Forums are the
consumers, but, at the same time, they are also producers. Also, as consumers, they can determine
the end results of a product, an already established testing group. I will argue that such a tight and
collaborative community is beneficial in resulting in an improved program along with individual
products in the form of visual novels.
In order to argue my point, I will delve into the results of my survey and interviews. Specifically, I
will investigate the extent of collaboration within the Lemma Soft Forums. I will compare the results
of several interviews to determine a common trend and develop a conclusion. Also, I will compare
how much work is being done within the Ren’Py program and at what level a user must be at in order
to collaborate. I will then analyze how the users collaborated, if it was done at a professional level or
anonymously through the internet.

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Literary Review
The primary resource for my study is Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age by
Clay Shirky. Shirky discusses his theory of the cognitive surplus, the potential for creative and
beneficial things to manifest through society’s ever increasing free time. Stemming in roots to Neil
Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, Cognitive Surplus goes beyond condemning television to saying
that our lives are being changed from mere consumers to producers with the advancement of the
internet. Shirky continues to develop his theory of the cognitive surplus through many examples,
such as Ushahidi and its social networking to map out government attacks when the mainstream
media had been banned from reporting it (15). In regards to my topic, Ren’Py is a collective program
that is developed through user interaction, just as Ushahidi developed through the reports of others.
Overall, Shirky finds the cognitive surplus to be a positive thing, a right for every individual to share,
collaborate, and publish whatever they wish. He does acknowledge it could be used for negative
purposes, but, for the sake of my topic, the cognitive surplus is very useful in developing a tool for
expression.
Another source used for the research project was Digital Literacy for Technical Communication: 21st
Century Theory and Practice, edited by Rachel Spilka. I speak primarily of the section written by Dave
Clark, Shaped and Shaping Tools: The Rhetorical Nature of Technical Communication Technologies. The
article discusses the rhetoric of technology through various approaches (87). In regards to Ren’Py, I
believe that the engine is on the path of the “Technology Transfer and Diffusion” approach, which is
“how new technologies are moved into organizations and then used, implemented, and in some cases,
rejected” (94). The article goes on to say that defining the rhetoric of technology is tricky and that
there are many more approaches to make in order to completely define it.
Another source used for the research project was the article Supporting and Transforming Leadership in
Online Creative Collaboration by Kurt Luther. The article mentions that, as a tool acquires more users,
the more complicated it becomes to collaborate, which is a growing issue within the Ren’Py
community (2932). The study within the article investigated the online collaboration of several
groups, such as the videos created on Newgrounds.com (2932-2933). The article discovered that less
than 20% of collaborations on Newgrounds resulted in a finished product, a problem that rose up in
my survey responses (2933). Though the article is only a thesis, the glimpse of data already within
the document proves to be incredibly helpful when comparing the situation of Newgrounds with
Ren’Py and the Lemma Soft Forums.
Lastly, another literary source used in the research project was the article Involving Consumers in
Product Design Through Collaboration: The Case of Online Role-Playing Games by Shu-Yu Yeh. The
article discusses the recent trend of the producer-consumer relationship in developing products, most
notably in online role-playing games. Through a balanced collaboration between the producers of the
game, who are skilled at technical solutions, and the consumers, who know exactly what they want,
development of a product can be more well-rounded for consuming purposes (602). The collaborative
effort between the producer and the consumer connects strongly to the activity on the Lemma Soft
Forums. The users of the forum are both producers and consumers, leading to collaboration amongst
each other to improve each other’s final products.

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Methods
For my methods, I investigated the Lemma Soft Forums directly. I had created a user account not too
long ago, named Jintoki, in order to get feedback on a project. Using that account, I posted an initial
thread on the Lemma Soft Forums with consent information attached in order to draw in participants.
I posted a link to a survey within the thread and also requested interviews from three people.
The survey was administered online through the website surveymonkeys.com. 28 people filled out
the survey, which consisted of 10 multiple choice questions. Furthermore, the interviews were also
conducted online through private messages on the Lemma Soft Forums by various members of the
community. One of the interviewees consisted of the creator of Ren’Py itself, username PyTom.
The data was collected over a short period of time, no more than a week. All of the data was
conducted over the internet, so the collection was a simple process. After the data was collected I
thanked the participants and began analyzing the data.

Data
The results of the survey
proved to be of valuable use,
acquiring 28 volunteers. For
my first question, “What is
your highest level of
education,” 53.6% said that
their highest level of
education was a high school
degree, while 25.0% said they
at least had a bachelor’s
degree. Next, when asked to
categorize their
programming skills, 71.4%
stated that they had decent
to nonexistent programming
skills.

For online collaboration, 77.8% of 27
respondents (one person skipped the
question) admitted to collaborating on a
visual novel online with someone, be it
on the Lemma Soft Forums or elsewhere.
Of that number, only one respondent
actually knew their collaborator in real
life, the rest either being from the
Lemma Soft Forums or elsewhere.
Furthermore, in regards to
compensation, a whopping 85.7% stated
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that they did not pay their collaborator(s) for their work.
For the creating process, 88% of respondents (three skipped this question) stated that the script of a
visual novel, the actual writing, was the most important aspect. Likewise, 96% of respondents (again,
three skipped this question) said that they work on the actual script to their visual novels. In regards
to how long a project usually takes, the majority (again, three respondents skipped), at eight
respondents, stated that they had never finished a project, whereas seven respondents stated that it
took them a few months.
All of three interview respondents at least had a bachelor’s degree backing them, which the founder of
Ren’Py, codenamed PyTom, achieved a PhD. Also, the interviewees had acquired significant
programming skills; one of the respondents having a bachelor’s degree in computer science. Overall,
the respondent’s listed the support of the forum as the best resource for Ren’Py, as stated best by one
interviewee: “It's not the critique but the support which I need. For critique I just compare my work
to others out there and know what to improve for the next work.”
As mentioned by PyTom, with the increase of forum members, however, the collaborative process
has become more and more difficult while becoming more situated for promotional purposes.
Furthermore, another interviewee said how the community can be “quite polarized and biased toward
many opinions”, as the specific interviewee stated earlier in the interview that he had been thrown in
the midst of a “flame war” after requesting assistance on a project. The majority said that they paid
their collaborators sometimes, mainly depending on the skill required and whether or not the project
is commercial.

Analysis
From what can be gleaned from the survey and interviews, there seems to be a correlation between
the highest education level and those who actually complete a visual novel. Those who actually had
competent programming skills seemed able to finish a complete visual novel. However, those who
actually did have experience with programming skills also had to mainly collaborate with others by
request of artwork and sound, whether or not their collaborator was good with programming or not.
Furthermore, critique did not seem to come up very often within the interviews. When it was
addressed, the interviewees seemed hesitant to discuss critique among the forum users, as many
valued the collaborative quality of the forum more so than any critique. At this, one of the
interviewees mentioned the quote I spoke of earlier, how the community can be “quite polarized and
biased toward many opinions.”

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Findings
The findings for the project fell within my predictions, that the Lemma Soft Forums evolved the
Ren’Py engine based on the collaboration between the members. However, the process is beginning
to hit the point where it is difficult to keep up with, as the creator mentioned in his interview. The
dramatic number of members who had not finished a single visual novel in the survey (32%) revealed
how, with a bigger user base, the amount of collaboration becomes staggering to keep up with (Luther,
2010). This problem is alleviated a little with free to use graphics, sounds, and music provided on the
official Ren’Py website, but the problem persists with original visual novels. As mentioned by Clark,
as Ren’Py becomes more and more popular the more difficult it will be to maintain. Recently, Ren’Py
has begun to move to mobile platforms, such as the Android, and there have been several commercial
games created using the engine. Ren’Py is not terribly close to hitting the mainstream, but the path is
similar to the technology transfer and diffusion.
However, it is the producer-consumer relationship that the Lemma Soft Forums has going for it.
With the two in check, the final product (a user-created visual novel or even Ren’Py itself) can turn
out most beneficial for the consumer (Yeh, 2010). Also, instead of relying on critiques to improve,
one of the interviewees had this to say, “It's not the critique but the support which I need. For
critique I just compare my work to others out there and know what to improve for the next work.”
So, instead of relying on normal comments from the forum, some members compare and contrast
their own works with others on the forum, a kind of critique in and of itself. With over 100 usercreated games on the Ren’Py website there are many examples to compare and contrast one’s work to.
According to the survey, many of the respondents (53.6%) had only a high school diploma and
minimal programming skills, which, on the surface, shows how intuitive the program can be.
However, the number of incomplete visual novels makes it appear as though this is not the case. The
interviewees, having at least a bachelor’s degree, all had completed at least one visual novel. Perhaps
more research must be done in order to find a direct correlation, but perhaps the programming in the
Ren’Py is off-putting for some users. However, that is the point of having collaboration between the
members. One member doesn’t necessarily need to be a programmer, just like a member doesn’t
necessarily need to be an artist.

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Conclusions
The collaborative effort in such a niche genre is fascinating. The Ren’Py engine constantly gets
support through the Lemma Soft Forums as well as from its creator with constant updates. However,
as the community develops along with the tool it becomes increasingly difficult for collaboration to
happen, as mentioned by the creator:
Back in the "good old days", the forum was small enough that
everyone knew what everyone else was working on, and pretty much
everyone was working on a similar kind of game. (Bishoujo games.)
Many people would have played every game, at least for a little bit.
With the community much larger and more diverse, we can't do that
anymore. To some extent, that makes collaboration more difficult.
The forum has also turned more promotional, and less technical.
In those regards, the Ren’Py community has to find a way to get back to its niche roots in order to
incite more collaboration and a closer community, but that may not be possible at this point. True,
collaboration still happens on Lemma Soft Forums, so it has not gone too out of control, but the
development could possibly go much smoother if the community was as tight as it was when it was
first started. A possible solution could be a mass project that involves the entire Lemma Soft Forum.
Or perhaps encourage more competitions on the board for more visual novels, encouraging members
to work together toward a common goal. My solutions are only theoretical, but some common goal
could increase the collaborative effort on Lemma Soft Forums.
Overall, the investigation could have been a little smoother with the survey. There were several
people who skipped some of my questions, so I could have had it so that many of the questions could
not be skipped. Furthermore, for the collaboration questions, I could have had the respondent choose
multiple answers on how they knew their collaborator(s) instead of just one answer, since many of
the answers could have went together, such as the respondent not knowing someone who they
collaborated with but the collaborator could have also been a member of the Lemma Soft Forums.
Basically, I could have done a better job articulating my questions and choosing what questions really
matter. Also, with as niche of a subject as it is, it was difficult to find any outside research to go
along with the subject of visual novels. However, I could have researched more areas that are similar
in nature, such as Wikipedia and its use of collaboration. Furthermore, it would have been
interesting if I had designed a question or two asking the geographical background of the respondents
and then compare and contrast the level of collaboration they might do across borders.

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References
Clark, D. (2010). Digital literacy for technical communication: 21 st century theory and practice.
Shaped and shaping tools: the rhetorical nature of technical communication technologies. Rachel Spilka editor.
New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.
Luther, Kurt. (2010). Supporting and transforming leadership in online creative collaboration. Retrieved from
http://delivery.acm.org/10.1145/1760000/1753888/p2931luther.pdf?key1=1753888&key2=1647154031&coll=DL&dl=ACM&ip=147.226.105.156&CFID=19187788&C
FTOKEN=43699427
Shirky, Clay. (2010). Cognitive surplus: creativity and generosity in a connected age. New York: The
Penguin Press.
Yeh, Shu-Yu. (2010). Involving consumers in product design through collaboration: the case of online
role-playing games. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 13(6), Retrieved from
http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=bb08baba-15f7-4c95-a01b04c7bc9672f8%40sessionmgr110&vid=5&hid=107

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