So I was musing while talking about Huniepop on what makes for a good dating sim … particularly, how you should tailor the dateable characters in order to make a great dating sim. And it seems to boil down to a very simple criteria: ideally, everyone who plays the game should have more than one favourite, but shouldn’t have most of the characters as, in fact, their favourites. And, given that people have a wide range in what they prefer in a date, ideally this means that every character you add has some players who have them as their favourites, and some players who don’t care much for them.
Arguably, Huniepop does this reasonably well. If we look at this poll at Gamefaqs, most of the girls get at least some love, with only Lola and Jessie being in the position of “unfavourite”, with percentages so low that very few players actually liked them. By contrast, there are 5 of them with over 10%, and the highest is my personal least favourite, Audrey, at 17% … only 2% higher than Aiko, who’s probably my favourite. Given that and my own personal experience, it’s also likely that there are a number of people who strongly dislike all of the favourites as well.
The reason you need this in a dating sim is that it should become clear which dates the player wants to focus on relatively early, so giving them clear personalities and looks allows the player to quickly decide where to focus their time, since any good dating sim — and, yes, Huniepop isn’t that great as a dating sim — won’t let you get all of them in one playthrough … or else will have that have … consequences or be a special ending. So players should really want to get a couple of the characters in order to foster player choice, and not want to get a couple of the characters so that they can start ignoring them in order to focus on the ones they like. Also, giving more favourites allows for replay, but if all of them are equally desirable then that could make the game overly repetitive, but leave the player unsatisfied; they’re tired of playing the game, but haven’t maxed out all of the dates they want to max out yet.
Note that this is a different model than that of romances in RPGs, where if there’s only one character that you want to max out your romances with that’s perfectly okay, and players are likely to not be terribly offended by romancing the same character in every playthrough. This is because the main plot and the choices in that are what the players want for variety, and if they have a clear favourite romance it can, indeed, provide an island of stability for each playthrough, unless they decide that they want to change it up or that this character wouldn’t find that romance appealing. Dating sim players are not likely to replay a dating sim just to date the same person, however.