GameLoop: Dating Sims

Earlier this August, I attended Boston GameLoop, an annual game development unconference. I’ve been going for years, and I’m always impressed by the sheer wealth of knowledge available.

I take notes. Lots of notes. And I’m writing up my notes from this year (in fleshed-out form) for everyone who wasn’t there.

GameLoop participants: Apart from the discussion leaders, I have not attached anyone’s names to these writeups, and I’ve mostly scrubbed personal anecdotes out to maintain the privacy of attendees. Please contact me (carolyn at if:

  • I included something you said that should not be included, or
  • I quoted you without attributing (when you would prefer attribution), or
  • You think I got something from the discussion wrong

…and I’ll make a correction. Thanks!

Dating Sims

Discussion leaders: Arden Ripley and Amanda Cosmos

Arden Ripley: created Kindness Coins, currently working on Date or Die
Amanda Cosmos: ran the #iluJam dating sim game jam, also wrote “How to understand and play dating sims” on Polygon

There’s been a huge resurgence of dating sims lately. Many Japanese dating sims are getting localized, particularly on PS Vita and Steam.

There’s a big difference between Japanese dating sims and Western dating sims. In the Western perception, any game that involves dating someone is a dating sim, so all romantic visual novels qualify.

Dating sims are character-driven stories. It’s a challenge to make characters that actually induce emotion.

Hatoful Boyfriend was released in 2011, but it’s becoming increasingly popular lately because it’s been ported to modern systems. It was originally a commentary on dating sims. Why people love Hatoful Boyfriend is what happens after you date all the pigeons – it unlocks another story entirely.

Dating sims should be seen as story databases. The expectation isn’t that people will play once – it’s that people will play repeatedly and see all the branches.

Another way to look at this: dating sims are completionist puzzle games. You’re not being asked to roleplay. You’re solving puzzles based on how well you know the characters.

The dating sim experience isn’t really about dating. It’s about observing stories + completionism.

Virtue’s Last Reward – a visual novel, but not a dating sim. A good example of the completionist puzzle view: make all the choices, see all the paths, put together the real story. Handles branching and relationships well.

People have “favorite routes” through dating sims – but that doesn’t necessarily correspond to “favorite character”. It can mean that route has the best story instead.

Dating sims can be a safe environment to explore problematic things. Magical Diary – this is the story of a super toxic relationship, and it doesn’t pretend otherwise. Diabolik Lovers – extremely popular in Japan; visual novel about being preyed upon by vampires.

Dating sims are essentially a safe space. In both of the examples above, you know what you’ve signed up for and you can walk away if you want to.

If you want to write a dating sim, Ren’Py is a fantastic tool for making dating sims. It’s very user-friendly.

Use static art assets. Animations take too much time.

This genre is easy and nontechnical, but rein yourself in. The more branches and more characters you have, the more overwhelming the writing will be.

Stat-based sections are whole new layers of complexity. Handle with care.

If you’re doing a dating sim game jam, you want a good vertical slice – maybe just one route, not many. Save writing time by constricting the main story and reusing narrative beats.

Some sims shift you down routes as you make choices. Others give you the opportunity to explicitly choose what path you want to go down.

Japanese dating sims are highly restrictive – they usually don’t allow you to date both guys and girls. Western devs have been increasing diversity and changing the ways PCs are represented.

Some games go over the top in ridiculousness – you can date skeletons, date the school mascot, etc.

Procedural generation + dating sims don’t combine well to date. People are into dating sims for the story, and procedural generation reduces the amount of story available. The more you substitute systems for writing, the more generic everything gets. Remember that character and story are the draw!

Some games change the dialogue if you delay (Ladykiller in a Bind, Alpha Protocol) <– keep in mind this technique reduces accessibility.

Mass Effect syndrome: when players make choices, but don’t feel the results match what they chose <– this is why playtesting is so important!

It’s OK for players to die, get dumped, etc, as long as the story is interesting.

80 Days (also not a dating sim) is an interesting example of collaborative play, because you’re not making in-world choices so much as directing the narrative.

Some dating sims have blank slate characters, some have preexisting characters.

Increase story richness by decreasing story width. With too much breadth, players get lost. Limitation matters.

Exciting new elements gaining traction in the genre: interesting failure states, and games that are not necessarily 1:1 monogamous.

Entry level dating sims
Sweet Fuse
Hatoful Boyfriend
Analogue: A Hate Story
Magical Diary
Loren the Amazon Princess
Tusks: The Orc Dating Sim (this is in development)

King of Dragon Pass was also mentioned – it’s not a dating sim, but has some similarities.


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