Interview – The Body and Spirit in Anodyne 2

This interview of me originally appeared on Ludica mag. I answered in English and the interview was translated to Italian. https://www.ludicamag.com/il-corpo-e-lo-spirito-in-anodyne-2-return-to-dust/

I’ve reproduced my original English answers below.

Ludica Mag: The first Anodyne was a Zelda-like RPG (being it based on puzzle-solving) a bit extrovert (like Undertale) and a bit weird (like Lisa). (Do you agree with this description?) Anodyne 2 is a very different game: how did you work to expand the original concept in this direction?

Sean: I think Anodyne 1 is a game that, despite its flaws, has a very unique atmosphere that very few games have come close to replicating. What we borrowed from Anodyne 1 was symbolism through the dust, a generally fantastical and at times tense atmosphere, and the general surreal juxtaposition of the game’s levels. In Anodyne 2, we combined this surrealism with a story conceit: the areas are so vastly different, because they are the interiors of characters. We aimed to keep that surreal, whimsical feel, but make the game far more communicative with the player on a narrative level.

L: Playing Anodyne 2, I find it a very original gaming experience. How did you ‘give birth’ to this story about the dust, the vacuum cleaner, a 3D world that contains 2D worlds that sometimes contains other 2D lower-res worlds? It’s something at the same time viscerally bodily (since Nova physically enters the 3D bodies to access the 2D worlds), powerfully metaphorical (everybody has its interior life) and very speculative, as imagining other dimensions can be (from the 2D world of Flatland to the 26 dimensions of the Bosonic String Theory!).

S: Marina had a prototype of a platformer where you shifted between 3 sizes. Dust came from Anodyne 1, Vacuum Cleaner came from an ‘evolution’ of Anodyne 1’s broom. We generally like to find some sort of ‘traditional’ game mechanic that makes the game interesting enough in a tactile way to pull the player through the game’s story, and vacuuming/sucking worked (a bit inspired by Kirby.)

From there we brainstormed certain ideas we wanted to explore with the Anodyne series’ surreal landscapes – eventually we came to the idea of putting the ‘action’ into 2D and the exploration into 3D – thus taking advantages of the efficiencies of both visual formats. 3D is easier to quickly make a vast feeling world, 2D is easier to create little one-off action sequences or dungeons.

At the same time, we came up with the story themes we were interested in – the trappings of religious or familial structure, the power of communities, and used that to build the core story of The Center and Nova, exploring the island, etc. The ‘shrinking’ idea ended up being a great way not only to tie the process of ‘cleaning’ into the main story, but a fun way to create self-contained substories that were also interesting on their own.

LM: There’s lot of existential /metaphysical /religious (C Psalmist!) references in this game. Many NPCs wonder about their place in the world, their past lives, and their destiny. I’d like to hear more on this topic.

S: For the NPCs you clean we generally started with the thematic framework of: early NPCs would have very ‘straightforward’ cleanings, though they wouldn’t quite be fixed of their problems. Blue Vale NPCs would be more complicated… cleaning wouldn’t change much of anything. As the game goes on we wanted to draw more complications with the idea that ‘fixing’ someone can be something that’s straightforward.

The general existential tone and quirky NPCs is a tonal choice we use for the Anodyne series – it fits into the vastly diverse landscapes and levels.

The religious ideas mainly come from Marina, partly from her background of being raised Christian, the various literature she read growing up, and extensive experience with the Bible. Generally Anodyne 2 deals a lot with considering how to deal with your life under certain social structures, and ‘religion’ is a common one to think about. There’s also the general notion of control with The Center, or corporate working life with C Visionary.

L: The 3D world has a graphic that reminds me of the first PlayStation games. This is interesting (on Ludica there’s an old article that invites the developers to keep exploring the aesthetic of polygons in the first 3D games, comparing them to the brutalist architecture and its exposure of structural elements), so I’d like to ask a) the reason of this choice and b) how you designed the world (also with which development tools) and c) if you were inspired by any particular game.

S: a) We think it looks good, and it’s also faster to make. It also works well with the surreal setting we have – it’s easier to convince people they’re in a fantastical place, as their brain has to do the job of filling in some details. It’s like how a visual novel screen can be really, really tense and immersive… just with words and a single image! Other reasons: art and level design workflows with HD art quickly become too hard for small teams, and also, it’s a lot easier to make a visually unique game with ‘lo-fi’ art.

b) The world was designed based on the story’s needs – as Nova becomes more complicated of a character, the world and levels almost seem to fall apart and break logic in the Outer Sands. Cleaning becomes a much more morally dubious affair. Earlier in the story, when Nova has a simple mission and thought process, the levels are almost too straightforward (Cenote).

For making them, Unity and Blender. 3D worlds I’d sometimes block out in Unity, or sketch on paper, then Marina would create the final 3D area using tools or whatever, adding decoration. Same with 2D areas, but using tilemap systems. We’d always have visual moodboards/discussion of the area before Marina created final art or I created music.

c) We were inspired by many games for small aspects (e.g. some visual ideas borrowed from Panzer Dragoon Saga, Shadow of the Colossus. Some game ideas from 2D zeldas, Kirby. Story tone ideas from Nier, LUCAH), but of course for the more innovative ideas (streamlining a game across a 3D world, designing how exactly 2D/3D works) we had to innovate and figure that out ourselves. Our inspirations list is quite large and spans not just film, literature or games, but also experiences in real life communities or friend groups, etc. So, I would say there isn’t one influence that takes precedence over the other. We tend to use influences more like moodboards, vs. worshipping/paying homage to one platonic ideal game.

L: What about the choice to insert some meta content in the form of commentaries and prototypes?

S: It’s good for developers to be transparent about how games are made, so I always look for nice ways to fit unused content into a game. The way some developers want to create this perfect, 1 hour condensed experience with no flaws is a little odd to me – games are imperfect and a sort of taped-together medium… I think it’s important to reveal how humans are behind each game.

In our case, Metaclean framework also gave an opportunity to enhance the story ideas of C Visionary and motivation. I also want to explore the idea of ‘canon’ existing in works like games… to suggest the idea of there being a ‘grey canon’ where certain parts of the game are both true and not true. A bit of the extra areas like no such scene goes into this – the idea that you can choose to read some of the extra areas as ‘canon’, or not. While obviously I want to include a ‘canon’ story, I do think there are interesting thematic things you can do by including story elements that don’t cleanly fit in, leaving some room for interpretation. I don’t always like doing that with games, but it does work in some cases like Anodyne 2. A game is a bizarre, bizarre thing. There are so many aspects that are never explained or make sense in games. Why can Nova double jump? Where do those coins go? So it feels natural to extend those questions to the written story itself.

L: The meta game content also refers to the need to contain the budget, and now I’m dreaming of what this game – which is really great as it is – would have been if you had unlimited funds. There’s something important that you could not develop?

S: Something I think about a lot is my philosophy of releasing games. Is it better to release two games in a decade, or 10? I believe it’s 10. Or 20. I think art that takes forever to come out is inherently flawed, it presupposes that there are fixed truths to the world that can be spoken at any point in time and hold power, if the developer only spends enough time and money on it. A game that takes 5 years to come out – certainly it might be ‘good’, but there will be an inherent mismatch between the social situation of its release period, and its development. That is, if the developer is even thinking about these things, which often they are not.

Er, that is to say: If we hire a person, they can 1. help us make the game bigger in the same amount of time. Or, they can 2. help us make the same-sized game faster. I don’t think #1 makes sense. Anodyne 2 would overstay its welcome. If the game had a structure/pacing which was longer, maybe #1 would make sense. But I like 8-10 hour games.

#2 is a valid use. If we had unlimited funds, surely we could make Anodyne 2 sized games faster. Yet… they would be fundamentally different, shifted by the bigger team of 3 or 4. Of course, Marina and I could completely direct this new team member, but it feels better to let them contribute equally. There’s also a danger with more labor, and it’s that you won’t be making as many interesting design compromises or simplifications. A lot of our game’s unique identities come from us working as two and needing to simplify and strip things down, vs. just ‘okay’-ing everything because you have the labor to do it.

So, I think that potentially I might one day entertain working with 3 or 4 people, but not soon. We don’t have the money, and seeking funding makes life just a bit more complicated than I’d like. It creates higher sales goals, too, which compromise the decisions we can make with the game. I’m happy if people can make interesting games with teams of 3 or 4 or more, but it doesn’t seem the right path for us now.

L: The soundtrack is beautiful and is perfect for the scenarios it accompanies: how did you work on the music of Anodyne 2?

S: I made it with Ableton Live. I usually use Ableton’s built-in synthesizers to create my own instruments, or sample manipulation, which is how I achieve a unique sound. There’s a lot of factors I consider when making a song, but generally I think about what aspects of the visuals, the story, the gameplay – of a certain level – that I can enhance with the music. Then I draw upon my knowledge of music to try and find reference songs that have aspects of them that would fit my goals, and I borrow from those references and mix them and come up with a new idea. Sometimes this is as little as a 4-second percussion sound in a song, or sometimes it’s as big as a chord progression… what can be useful is often unexpected, so it’s important to listen to a lot more music than just Chrono Trigger, haha. I try to draw in a lot of influences. I think fans understand that, but my music rarely gets praised via awards or blog posts or whatever, even though it’s better than a lot of music that does win awards! Oh well, that’s okay – I’ll just keep making good music… hahaha!

Some reviews (Yu-No, Yooka-Laylee, Control)

It’s time for “Han Tani Reviews!” Today I’m reviewing three games I played recently. Maybe I’ll post more later… maybe not…

Here’s my rating scale:

Kinda Weird – The highest praise. Something that left an impression, gave something to think about at length.

Pretty Interesting – Had a few memorable qualities that were mostly worth the time investment.

Nice – Had one or two things that were neat, but either overstayed its welcome or was generally conservative/noninnovative in its design

No Impression – A game that failed to leave much of an impression, either through design/story/etc that has been treaded by other games many times, its overall design not resonating much with me, or being plain bad. While in a bad mood I might rename this category “bad” or “forgettable” or “big nani”.

YU-NO: A Girl Who Chants Love at the Bound of this World (1996)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/YU-NO:_A_Girl_Who_Chants_Love_at_the_Bound_of_this_World

A 1990s erovisual novel, one of the biggest first successes of the ‘multiple route mystery’ subgenre of visual novel adventures. I saw the remaster was coming out, noticed that it unfortunately updated all the graphics and music, and got myself a copy of the original to play.

The character designs are suuuper 90s moe, but to my eye in 2019 they’re refreshing and nostalgic. Such is fashion.

The gimmick of the game is you can find 8 gems that act as save state slots. The game is split into distinct time ‘coordinates’, these coordinates represent a state of the entire game. So coordinate “10” might be evening on Day 1, but “20” could be evening on Day 1 where you decided to not talk to a teacher or something. It’s a neat way of representing how these games work under the hood, though I’ve yet to think of an elegant way of representing it in data (it’s easy to think of nightmare hacky ways.)

You can use a stone to set a save state, then you can return to that time coordinate at any time. Your character’s memory doesn’t carry over, but key items do, which are what you use to unlock certain branches or endings.

The goal is to find all 8 stones, which are hidden in certain time coordinates. You get a map that fills itself out as you explore time coordinates. The way the game is meant to play is, you progress the story. The UI will sparkle when you’re approaching a ‘fork’ in the story, at which point you can leave a gem and progress down one branch. But… the problem is… as you start with so few stones which makes it hard to explore freely, and if you use all your stones the map disappears and you have to find another stone to see the map again. Playing blind, you don’t know when the important branches are (some branches will rejoin). So it’s possible to screw yourself by running out of gems at the wrong point, requiring a 20-30 minute replay of content you’ve seen, just to return to a branch.

However, getting stuck without the map is a unique kind of lost – you do get the sense of being trapped within a 2 day nightmare cycle. The game has maybe 20 main screens you frequent, over two days of time. Not having that map must have been awful if you played on the game’s release, without a handy translated visual guide to save you!

jlkcjsad.PNG

“E” represents an ending. There are sometimes gem markers on screen showing various time coordinates. The portal icons represent story events that throw you back to a past point.

Er, so that’s the general exploration mechanic. How it ends up feeling is tedious – you have to click around a lot on the screen to find the next progression flag. The remaster has streamlined this, showing all interactable objects, and probably adding other QoL things like a true skip function and text log.

As for the story itself, it’s split into a prologue, Main Game, and epilogue. The prologue is a standard fixed-choice-based text adventure. Some characters are introduced, and it’s all played according to VN stereotypes of the time, but very knowingly. A boy in school tells you to talk to him when the ‘real game starts’. Eventually things slip into the supernatural.

The core mystery of the game is fun, and each main route (associated with one of the women) will reveal a key aspect of the mystery. I didn’t really find the SF/time travel ideas particularly fascinating, but they were enjoyable, even though the epilogue’s explanation was remarkably complicated and finicky to understand.

So, the characters… I didn’t find any of them particularly interesting, but they weren’t flat, either. The main characters are primarily women, and each had their own personal challenges to deal with. The general moe stereotypical surfaces revealed a nice layer of depth that you would learn over the game’s two days, but I can’t say anything was particularly mindblowing or memorable. Well-done, I guess.

This is an erogame so you do have sex with most of the characters, but I think the sex scenes are mooostly earned, with exception of the epilogue. I do think that not much thought was given to the implications of woman teacher-male student sexual relations, though. This happens twice in Yu-No and it seems to be played off as sort of a ‘hot’ thing where in reality often times there’s coercion and assault.

Removed from the teacher context, I guess it’s okay. The way sex plays out follows these cases:

  • Overlapping moments of emotional turmoil leading to temporary mutual need
  • Hidden feelings surfacing after two people acknowledging mutual interests and building a relationship
  • A woman encountering her first emotionally intimate relationship
  • Sexual coercion in order to get a man to do something
  • Using someone as a surrogate for a passed away partner to recreate certain feelings

I will say some of these are very sketchy circumstances – a stepmom and stepson, for example. Some play into bad stereotypes about women, but sex is used in different ways each time, and nothing seems totally out of left field for the characters involved. The writing during the scenes is… OK but I don’t think it’s the main attraction here. And yet here I am having written 100 words about it… sorry….

The epilogue of the game is cool, but a nightmare in many ways. I don’t feel like writing about it, watch it if you want. It’s isekai, cool at times, drags on a bit, and has bad wish fulfillment sex and a handful of content-warning contexts for sex and stuff… incest, cannibalism… ugh.

Er… other than that, the game’s world is very convincing despite being a few scenes. It is full of horror, happiness, mystery… the music is sooo good, using these FM synths of the era for spooky effect! I had trouble sleeping one night. I don’t see that as a good quality but the music was used effectively.

The main writer and composer passed away this decade, which is sad.

I’d say this is worth checking out for historical value, if anything, if you can look past the problematic parts. I didn’t find the story too thought provoking but it was a fun ride for anime mystery/sci-fi/slice of life. I’m not a ‘time loop sommelier’ so the sci-fi stuff was fun, but maybe if you played Stein’s Gate or Clannad (two games which owe a lot to Yu-No), the concepts in Yu-No will be dated.

The remaster is probably the way to go if you don’t care about the worse “HD” music/art/character art, due to QoL, though the game really could use more save states and hints, less trial and error.

Rating: Pretty Interesting / Nice

Yooka-Laylee (2017?)

For a spiritual sequel, I didn’t see much learning from Banjo-Kazooie 1 or 2 in the first Tropics level. While I give Banjo games shit for various things, I have to commend many of Banjo 1’s stages (and some of Banjo 2, from what I remember) for being quite navigable and easy to parse. N64 had an advantage in the limit of what you could put on the screen, as that also required levels to be more carefully designed, I think.

I only played about 30 minutes but the first main level felt sprawling, visually uniform and confusing so I quit. The tutorial NPC is a dick joke and the voices seemed really annoying this time around or the text slower. The game controlled absolutely fine, but you couldn’t change the button prompts from Xbox to PS4? I programmed Anodyne 2 to automatically do that, and you could even switch at will. And Ano2’s UI doesn’t scream an irritating vocal utterance every time you moved the cursor. AND I added Switch buttons. Yooka-Laylee was funded on Kickstarter for about 40x Anodyne 2’s budget, too…

From the limited amount I played, I felt some similar problems to Hat in Time – overall too much object and visual noise, difficulty of orientation in 3D space. Collectathons aren’t just about tons of stuff to find… I think they’re about spaces with personality, and legibility of goals…

Rating: NO IMPRESSION

Control (2019)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Control_(video_game)

The first game by Remedy I’ve played, the narrative premise was fun – a spatial construction of bureaucracy, of how some people in the public view governmental agencies, or of how some workers there viewing themselves as superhuman, the ways in which a workplace can get shift how you feel over time and control your behavior .

My favorite idea was the ‘altered objects / objects of power’, the idea of a physical object becoming more than it is merely by people’s impressions. Celebrity-ification and parasocial relationships had been known to me for a while for how people can treat other people who have some semblance of power/notoriety, but I haven’t thought about it in the context of regular objects or myths, of how object can take new meaning when rumored about or spoken of in certain ways.

I really enjoyed the few moments where you could have a small branching chat with the other characters, and I totally would be fine with just having it appear as text with no acting. For some more obviously symbolic characters like the janitor, the vagueness was fine and worked well. I feel like there’s a trade-off though – the main characters (Emily, that security dude, etc), work really well BECAUSE they don’t say much, because they seem overly formal and non-freaked-out, because they randomly disappear. But at the same time I kind of wanted to talk to some people more? But I see that as an impossibility as in a way, all of the NPCs in Control act as a sort of “MetaNPC” for the bureau, for bureaucracy, for individual blindness to the absurdity of a system. And if we were to get emotionally attached to some characters, that might contradict the value of that MetaNPC feeling.

At its best, the gunplay was fun, at its worst, it was frustrating, too easy to die, not easy enough to grind to adjust difficulty, or too common. Minmaxing my equipment so I could reduce the number of “bonfire runs”  for a boss was menial. In certain areas like the Black Rock Excavation site or the Mold Area, I could feel a similar texture to the best Dark Souls or Metroid Prime areas.  I think the game really shined there. But all too often, especially from a ‘lore litter’ standpoint of picking up random scraps or 2-minute audio logs, it felt similar to the “Spaceship Janitor” type of game where I was going from sector to sector to fight so and so enemies before maybe maybe advancing the plot (like System Shock 2 or New Prey or Bioshock).

I feel as if Control is around the upper limit of AAA, a demonstration of how the need for marketability  and conservative mechanics in order to meet sales figures, as well as the general difficulty of steering the overall design at AAA scale, lead to obvious compromises where we get way too much traditional shooty-shoot. Control could have been far, far weirder. Stuff like the hotel, the alternate dimension, that ending door sequence, the big black void leading to the deeper areas of the game, etc… that could have all gone harder. I guess the DLC probably will do that, but who knows.

When you see a game being praised for its architecture, it’s hard not to think of a game like Manifold Garden which pursues those premises deeply in an interesting direction. For a game about ‘shifting spaces’ and the mazelike nature of its levels, Control doesn’t have many of them? With an AAA technology budget, rooms could loop nonsensically, have infinite looping architecture, and generally do a lot more. But Control’s atriums are very pretty.

Rating: (Pretty Interesting + Kinda Weird) / 2.0

Why Anodyne 2 Is Not A Niche Game

At last, I can breathe! Anodyne 2’s been out for almost 3 weeks. The excitement and stress has died down, and I’ve returned to more of a ‘research’ and  ‘planning’ phase for my next project.

First, I’m happy that Anodyne 2 has had universal praise. Countless videos, podcasts, streams, tweets, comments, etc – confirm that Marina and I succeeded in creating something valuable, unique, inspiring, humanistic. Something that communicates at the surface as a fantastical tale, but directly draws upon our experience with family, love, and our lives’ overlaps with the worlds of academia, the art industry, local activism, service industry, and even things from analyses of wrestling to Taiwanese cultural practices.

Soo….that post title. “Anodyne 2 Is Not A Niche Game.” What do I mean? Let’s put the focus on something that people who like the game have also said:

“Anodyne 2 is niche / Anodyne 2 is not for everyone”

We see this sometimes when reading reviews. Occasionally it’s at the end of a review that gave us like a 73 or something and then said the music was pretty bad, or like at the end of a highly praising review that then somehow turns out to be an 82 even though on the same site an AAA game with ‘a few flaws’ gets a 96, but sometimes we hear it from people who otherwise like the game!

Our running theory is that this is a way of expressing that you liked the game but inherently understand that the game is odd relative to today’s popular games.

To that line of thought, I’d like to also ask: what kind of game is “for everyone?” For what it’s worth, I’d like to assume for that something “not being niche” means it’s “for everyone”. I can see how that assumption falls apart but let’s just assume it doesn’t, because I’m tired.

Usually the type of game being contrasted here is something made by Nintendo – something that’s so well-known, so common, that we don’t really question the nature of it, we accept it as is, accept it as being the norm. Okay. Let’s do a quick comparison experiment, of Anodyne 2, Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey and Animal Crossing. In my experience I’ve never or rarely seen someone (being reasonable) say the last three “Are not for everyone” or “are niche”.

 

CONTROLS

Ano2: Move, jump, spark, talk, turn into a car. Also has 2D controls: move, suck, shoot, talk.

BOTW: Move, jump, attack, pick up, talk, glide, super jump, bow and arrow, throwing, swimming, etc, often under combat pressure.

Odyssey: Move, jump, long jump, high jump, triple jump, hat throw, hat jump, spin, not to mention 10 other movesets from things you possess. Often under pressure to perform with platforming.

AC: Move, jump, talk, pickup, arrange furniture.

 

GAME DESIGN

Ano2: Talk to characters, find character to enter, walk around a 2D dungeon with light puzzles and combat. Explore 3D to find cards. Turn into a car and ride around. Follow a single main questline. Read a lot of words.

BOTW: Manage health, temperature, armor, durability resources. Scavenge and craft for items. Manage multiple overlapping side quests and questlines. Fight in real-time combat. Search for shrines with physics or combat puzzles. Survive. Ride a horse. Explore dungeons that move and rotate in 3D. Talk to townsfolk. Complex, multi-detail-layered map. Read a moderate number of words.

Odyssey: Explore complex 3D environments in search of Moons. Use many moves to find them. Avoid dying by falling into pits or being hurt. Fight bosses in real time combat. Read map markers and follow side quests. Read a few words.

AC: Manage your time and money resources to accumulate the correct furniture and items to decorate one’s house with. Meet and manage relationships with multiple townspeople while also paying off a loan. Search for items to complete museum galleries with. Engage in t-shirt making and maybe the stalk market.

Note: AC is less demanding dexterity wise than A2, but I’d say AC has more complex things to remember.

 

PLAYTIME

A2: 8-12 hours.

BOTW: 50-60+ hours.

Odyssey: 20+ hours.

AC: Eternity, if you’d like.

An interesting thing to notice is that rarely someone might say Anodyne 2 had poor pacing… because we changed the texture of the gameplay for 45 minutes. But inherent in here is that for some reason, indie games don’t get free passes to be spend time in certain ways. Sure, an AAA game can blow 2 hours on like making you talk to every single minor character in the game before progressing, but if we don’t get our pacing perfectly right for a little bit it’s a tragic misstep or something!

Story Complexity

A2: Straightforward storyline, themes complex enough for adults.

BOTW: Multiple characters and historical storyline, though still simple.

Odyssey: There is no story, until you read into The Cap

AC: None since it’s a life sim, other than the story you craft yourself about the town

While A2 is more inaccessible reading-wise than the other games I chose here, and I have read various valid and interesting critiques of the plot, it’s not like this is a unique problem – there are plenty of popular JRPGS with complex writing/reading (Nier Automata, Final Fantasy 10, etc).

Someone said the story in Anodyne 2 is confusing, and, besides the fact that it is remarkably straightforward, have you played Dark Souls (which I love) and see what *that* game’s vague story gets away with being praised for?


To me, it seems like those other games generally have more complex requirements and expectations. Anodyne 2 on the other hand is much more relatively beginner friendly, other than having a lot of words to read.

In conclusion, it may be better to say is that “Anodyne 2 feels unfamiliar, and may be uncomfortable *if* you’re looking for an experience similar to the more popular console games.”

If you’re reading this and did write a review saying niche or ‘not for everyone’… I’m not mad at you personally, please don’t worry! I just wanted to bring up this issue I’ve seen in a few places.

Okay, Sean’s lecture time over! Let’s end with a quick chart to summarize my points. Basically, I do think that what is “for everyone” and what is “not niche” is generally defined by what is selling the most and the most heavily ingrained in our culture, but I find it more valuable to redefine or interrogate what those terms mean.

hardchart.PNG


 

Well, let’s end this with some reviews I quite liked reading.

And some reviews of the OST, a first for me!


Other than that, I did prepare a bunch of data on sales… but nowadays I feel uncomfortable with that level of transparency. So I haven’t decided what/how much data to share, but I will say (giving vague ranges)

  • We’ve sold between 1k-10k copies across all platforms
  • Our Steam wishlist to first week sales conversion rate was about 0.2 (in case you’ve read Jake Birkett’s blog posts)
  • We did a coupon campaign for owners of Anodyne 1 getting discounts on Anodyne 2, where possible. In particular on Steam it drove a lot of sales so I’d recommend it.
  • We paid off our development costs already (a number in-between $40-90k)
  • We’re not, and are nowhere near being indie millionaires
  • We do have middle/upper class backgrounds and should be held accountable for that, should we ever accumulate a ridiculous amount of money or power. I’ve recently amassed a sizeable twitter following so I’m still learning the best way to handle using that outlet since I’m not in the promotional phase for one of my games anymore. My current intuition is it would be better to put our money towards existing game organizing efforts (rebind.io, other criticism sites, perhaps localization funds for non-English games), versus building up Analgesic Productions (our company.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh no! Sparseness in 3D games

Lately just thinking about – the transition of 2D to 3D. What happens with that.

9fy0ew

eewef9fwe.JPG

Something I’ve thought about as I’m a few weeks from being done with Anodyne 2 is that it’s easier to create an explorable space that can capture your interest 3D, there’s just a sparseness problem to it all.

That 2D Harvest Moon image above looks quite empty, but it still feels like a visual whole. The noisiness of the tilework creates a coherence, a cozy sense of ‘farm’. something about the 3D in the upcoming friends of mineral town remake – looks bizarrely empty. Now I’ve seen the trailer and some shots of it (like the towns) still look nice. But just when it comes to one-off areas in 3D games, they’re so so expensive.I think 3D presents a unique challenge when adapting 2D. Because 2D games really “work” by reducing a lot into a flat plane, and when you unflatten things, you get all this bizarre empty space you have to account for. like see the harvest moon. you can just pixel art a mailbox and wood dividers and stuff, but for 3D boom you have to model and texture all that crap. and most of it is just colliders.

Some games don’t account for the emptyness and you get weird just like… empty places.

How do you account for empty space? Well, to me it seems like:

  • throw money at it, which basically means throwing PEOPLE at it, which means uh oh! now you have ridiculous commercial expectations so this doens’t seem to be a great way to go about it
  • throw time at it (“my 20-year love letter to shadow of the colossus! oops now the universe has heat deathed”)
  • ignore the problem and hope it goes away

REAL FARM (thanks gamefly)

uw0qdqwd.JPG

TIME AND ETERNITY (thanksgamestop)

timeeternithy.JPG

now i’m not saying that an empty feeling game is a problem, but moreso that i think that if a game feels really empty, the ‘spatial feel’ is a dimension of a 3D game you can use to your advantage, so it’s better to figure a way out than just well, not doing anything. Not to mention that having a huge 3d space to fill is anxiety inducing and spending time just throwing assets at it doesn’t really make the game better… idk.. 10 art assets in a 3x3x3 meter room can be more expressive than 10 art assets in a football field, is what i’m saying

so the last option is

* do something about it.

don’t really feel like saying much, but i think shadow of the colossus MUST have seen a similar problem. they went ‘Oh shit, there is so much fucking space to fill in 3D! fuck. we are fucked. wait what if empty space was the point. haha’

As much as banjo kazooie is equivalent to intentionally forgetting your wallet at home after driving to the grocery store, you have to give credit to these early 3D games for being good about space management. Things are kept relatively small and dense. say what you want about good old BK but those levels did have a sense of place and personality, even if it was well, banjo kazooie.

but back to anodyne 2, because I enjoy talking about ourselves. so if you pick up the game next month, there are these interior areas. i call these ‘mistakes’ JUST KIDDING. they’re wonderful but they were EXPENSIVE to make, in terms of time. when you get to Cenote city, that place was.. expensive. marina had to fill it with too many buildings. we then found that SURPRISE outdoors naturey areas that are sparse and hilly are easier to make! hm. should have done that more often. but at the same time, nearing the end of development, I am lagging behind so maybe that giant city bought me time to do all the random programming stuff I needed to do. but that’s a different issue – coding uniqueness and time… sigh, we are still learning so much about how to be careful about time…

anyways, in anodyne 2by modeling a few rocks and ground textures and using a general environmental shape concept, we made pretty neat 3D areas that are big-feeling but still feel like that sparseness is intentional rather than a big ‘oops haha empty’. sometimes it’s a matter of slight terrain variance to break up flat ground perceptions. othertimes visually ‘messy/dense’ textures (like anodyne 2 has a lot) help to create denseness. idk. there are a lot of tricks. Some of the outdoors nature 3D areas in Anodyne 2 could have gone faster if we had better tools, but then we’d need a tools programmer..

Ring

Here’s an area we took out of the game. Well, not really – we used many of these textures in the game in a similar area, but this picture specifically does not show up in the game. There are a few ground textures, grass texture, then a single rock 3d model copy pasted a bunch. The structure on the right was expensive to make because we didn’t even use it in the final game (except the red huts). But it was a learning experience for 3D asset making I guess.

also the other way we dealt with it was moving gameplay heavy stuff into 2D, so you don’t spend all the time in 3D, but that also has various production issues that blah don’t feel like talkign about.

I made the mistake a few times over Anodyne 2 dev of creating these small, one-off areas in 3D that are just entrypoints into 2D levels. I think they were wastes of time. Memorable, maybe. But I’ve been playing Yoshi’s Crafted World, and every single level is this disconnected singularity of 3D art assets that has no connection to later levels. Like a visual explosion.

At least in Anodyne 2’s case, all our areas are connected so we have the coherence benefit of those one-offs still fitting into a big picture. The next time we make a game we can be more careful about these things. In the case of AAA extravagance like Yoshi, you just have a gigantic grab bag of these little party poppers of levels… which look traditionally BEAUTIFUL but there game is just boom boom boom visual explosions so I can’t remember much actually. plus it’s a simple 2D platformer so i don’t really remember the spaces much

ufewfyuew.JPG

It’s funny, another game I’ve been playing is the opposite of Yoshi – 10 beautiful postcards by thecatamites. In some ways there’s a parallel I see between Yoshi and this game in that from a visual standpoint, both are games where you are constantly whiplashed between visually distinct and dense areas. In Postcards you’re travelling in an almost endless maze of colorful areas, but they have thematic overlap. In Yoshi you’re just going into one random mechanic-fest after another. it shows just how much money large Yoshis are wasting on these set pieces when there isn’t a drop of meaning to be found in terms of the bigger picture. On the other hand…

Postcards is interesting because it presents an example of what would happen if small-sized (or in this case solo) developers did a huge amount of unique visual content. Of course when you’re a small team you can only polish so much, so Postcards has very traditionally ‘unpolished’ visual art. which for me doesn’t matter at all outside of various commerrcial implications – But it goes to show that there is an interesting effect in scale, meaning arising as multiple distinct spaces start to connect to each other, like reading one word after another…

Anyways the point of this is for the love of god don’t make an 3d game with big open spaces unless you are okay spending a lot of time.

alright, not really going to edit this. good bye, time to go finish anodyne 2… ho ho

 

“Persona”: splitting myself into two on Twitter

“Are you writing those tweets?”

This was roughly a question someone asked me the other day about my @sean_htch twitter account (where you may have clicked through to this essay). And it’s a good question – if you have met me in person, you’ll know that the stuff I tweet on ‘main’ (@sean_htch) feels a bit distant from talking to me in person. The part of me represented there, perhaps, feels

  • Obsessed with Zelda, especially Link’s Awakening? Does Sean continuously play Link’s Awakening?
  • Wow, this person really loves the PSX, N64, etc
  • Can’t stop talking about their upcoming game Anodyne 2.
  • They are always positive!

Now, of course, that’s very much an exaggeration of some facets of my personality. I enjoy Zelda games as well as old 3D games, but they’re just one of many interests. They just happen to be the best way to immediately convey some of the appeal of Anodyne 2/Anodyne. I do care about Anodyne 2 a lot, as it’s my job, but I care about other things as well. I experience a wide range of emotions. (That was a weird sentence to write.)

If you’ve followed @sean_htch for over a year, you may have noticed that tweets are far less frequent, but when I do tweet, there’s a lot of engagement. That’s all intentional! Here’s why.

This is a graph of my follower count from Feb 2016 to March 2019. The graph continues to the left. In fact, if you follow it to Feb. 2014, followers are at 1700, meaning, more or less, follower count was flat or gently sloping for many years.

I worked on the game Even the Ocean for 3.5 years from 2013 to 2016, so you can see how that corresponds with a nearly flat line on the graph! In the middle of 2018, I decided “something needs to change” about how I approach Twitter. It’s a useful tool for promoting my work and I felt I wasn’t using it optimally. So I changed things and, happily, have had some positive results!

Splitting the Self

Ah… dramatic subheading…

Last year, I asked myself: do my followers, likely who know me through my games, need to hear every little opinion or life thing about me, like that the grocery store near me hasn’t restocked on cookie dough in a month, and that the price of a chicken rice plate at my favorite fast casual restaurant went up $0.50 and it’s ridiculous to charge more money for rice than for a pita wrap?

Well, the answer is no. It didn’t feel healthy to have thousands of people hearing my frivolous tweets. It’s good to have tweets less people see, it’s also good to have parts of you that only offline friends see.

Also, my follower count was more or less flatlined for years, and if I want to stay in this business, I need to stop letting my personal life weigh down my professional work. So as a compromise between locked accounts and mains, I made a ‘sub’. (I know a few other game developers who have done this.)

It’s at @han_tani, and it’s just me using Twitter as a non-professional, i.e. how I’d use twitter if I wasn’t working in games.

Splitting myself into two lets me be more focused.

On my main, I can make decisions that are good for my career as a game designer – I can hyperfocus on making tweets that I know fans of my work will enjoy seeing and sharing. I can tweet important news about my work like console ports. I can share posts like this with a larger audience.

And, I can still do this while having the pleasure of complaining about Tide Pods smelling too strongly on my sub account.

Be a Nintendo

Around August or September last year I started working with The Indie Bros. for assistance with promoting and outreach with Anodyne 2. One useful advice I got was on “being a Nintendo” on Twitter.

Essentially, a “Nintendo” will keep their tweets hyperfocused on getting fans interested in their current work. If there are ever memes or jokes, they always relate to the game. No threads, no arguments, etc. Hearing this sentence made it clear the idea of keeping my main’s presence “all signal, no noise”. Now, I don’t tweet anything unless it contributes to the goal of

  • Promoting Anodyne 2 or something I’m working on
  • Promoting something that helps my company’s stability (console ports, etc)

I will occasionally retweet friends’ work, but I do it less than I wish I could! (FWIW, I do retweet lots of stuff on my sub).

Another counterpoint I always was thinking was “what about using my platform for promoting good things (social justice, etc!)” and that is a fair point! But there are various people with accounts that do a great job at this, and it’s their account’s focus. I feel if I want to do concrete justice actions, I’m better off doing something local – donating to local orgs, or joining a political community, etc.

That is to say, I feel that using Twitter for a career means you need to have a single focus – something the account is known for. And it’s hard for that to be “being yourself,” as everyone is multifaceted.

Being Yourself

As an indie dev, you have a unique advantage, and that is, you can still keep your account as being ‘you’ (in the sense that my main Twitter is Sean, not my company Analgesic Productions). I still think that accounts that are a single person are more attractive than a company, which feels impersonal. (this is basically a fact, given how many fast food twitters now act like they’re a person).

Of course, running a main that’s ‘yourself’, there’s a temptation to tweet more ‘normal’ stuff about your life – but again, that’s what the sub account is for! If you’re a smaller indie, don’t fall into the temptation of trying to show your cool game *and* your cool lunch, no matter how delicious.

The 10-year question

Something I like to think about with curating my online self is – will this curated self successfully age? What should my strategy with Twitter be *now* so that I can still get engagement in 10 years? I asked myself this because near the end of Even the Ocean’s development, I was barely getting much interest in the game itself.

Other questions: how can I frame my tweets so that they’re both appealing but also there’s obviously enough of a weird/experimental edge so that when I make a less commercial game (think All Our Asias), I can still get people interested? Those are all things worth thinking about if you are going to use Twitter for the purposes of a career. I’d like for Marina Kittaka and I to be able to stay in games and work together!

Well, those questions are too complicated for me to fully finish by my 11 AM deadline, so I’ll stop here. I also want to talk about composing tweets that people like to interact with, visual hooks, various strategies with tweets, and how tweeting is essentially grinding out visibility and increasing the chances of ‘lucky tweets’ or journalists/video makers seeing your game, etc, but that’ll be another day.

“Sequel”

For the better part of a year I’ve been developing “Anodyne 2: Return to Dust” with Marina Kittaka.

5 or so years ago, I did an interview about Anodyne 1. I said there wouldn’t be a sequel. Well, now it’s 2018 and, last I checked, I’m sure making a game called “Anodyne 2”. Did something change?

Back then, I was against making a traditional sequel, where we would do mostly the same thing but with new levels. That’s why, instead of just being “Anodyne 1 but different levels,” Anodyne 2 is more the next installment in the “Anodyne Franchise”, like Final Fantasy or Zelda games. Kind of like Nier: Automata, Anodyne 2 is a standalone game, and differs in some ways from the original, but has its commonalities, some narrative continuity, and can be understood more deeply if you’re familiar with the original.

Why didn’t we do a traditional sequel, like Pokemon Gold, Banjo-Tooie, Spyro 2, Dark Souls 2, or most other corporate game sequels?

In this life, we only live so many years. There are certain skills – like making 3D games – that I want to hone and learn, and if a game is entirely just Anodyne 1 again but some additional content and new dungeons, I don’t think that’s the best way to spend my time.

Plus, an “Anodyne 1-2” would be weird. There’s not a great way to create a sequel that incorporates Young. For the most part, Anodyne 1’s story was one and done. Of course, maybe in 5 years I’ll be making Anodyne 1-2 and eating my words. Time changes odd things.

Eh, also, trying to replicate the experience of Anodyne would just lead to it being overshadowed. If you really want Anodyne again… I understand where you’re coming from, but your dream of having a new experience that makes you feel exactly what Anodyne did, is, sadly, impossible. Even if we made the best game ever that was really similar to Anodyne, it would be overshadowed. Anodyne 2 will be a good, memorable time, but it’ll be different.

Some things in life just happen once. In transience is beauty… something, something. Different flavors are good. Spice of life. Etc.

I can’t just keep making more of the same – this world can’t keep doing more of the same.

I think a ‘sequel’ or series installment succeeds when it reflects upon the components that made its predecessor good, and then responds to that material in an interesting way. Nier is a great response to Ocarina of Time. Anodyne is a great response to Link’s Awakening. Likewise, Anodyne 2 is a response to Anodyne. We learn from it, tweak some mechanics, add some new gameplay, remove some gameplay, and incorporate the current narrative ideas and themes and stories that we currently really care about.

As another similarity, the high-level game structure of Anodyne 2 has similarities to Anodyne, but 3D gameplay replaces some of the 2D areas.

The reason Anodyne 2 isn’t just a new IP is because well, the 2D levels play like Anodyne, NPCs are designed with Anodyne’s style in mind, you won’t be able to predict where you’ll go next, etc. The plot is overall clearer but it’s very much still a surreal, dreamy fantasy. Cards and Dust make a return but with different uses. There’s shared elements, just like in a Final Fantasy or Zelda installment. So, it’s called Anodyne 2.

Names

I should mention, we were considering calling it “Anodyne: Return to Dust” or “Anodynia” or something like that. Perhaps one of those choices would show more integrity as to what “Anodyne 2” really is?

But, you have to also look at it from the perspective of us not being Square Enix or Nintendo: it’s going to be far, far more confusing if we don’t put the 2 in there. As an indie, someone might perceive “Anodyne: Return to Dust” as a DLC package! If we use “Anodynia”, that won’t get eyes as fast as “Anodyne 2”. With the ‘2’, it’s obvious that it’s

  • Related to Anodyne
  • A separate game

The ability to call something “Series Name: New Subtitle” and become popular relies on being a series entrenched into culture. We don’t have that clout. So yes, to an extent it is a branding decision, but I hope that makes sense given our hope to continue past Analgesic Productions’ 7th birthday.

Even with this disclaimer, I can predict the exact wording of some negative reviews due to us ‘veering too much off course!’. Well, if that future reviewer is out there, well, I hope you like being screenshotted and used as a joke 3 years from now.

Anyways, I’ll end with this:

We’re the people who made Anodyne 1, Even the Ocean, All Our Asias. We’re dedicated to making excellent work.

Would you really expect us to just make the same damn thing a second time? I hope not!

“Complex”

Every one of the 80 or so collectible dragon in Spyro the Dragon’s remaster is uniquely modeled and animated. They each appear for about 10 seconds on screen. It’s a fact that these dragons are entirely pointless to the overall game and that the amount of work that went into them borders on reckless.

Recently Marina and I have tossed around the term ‘complexity’ when it comes to making Anodyne 2.

Complexity is easiest to explain on the level of visual art. It’s the trap for beginner game developers, especially those attuned to visual art but not other aspects of design. It happens when any of the following get too big for the artist to handle.

  • Number of art assets in the game (characters, enemies, environment objects)
  • Number of animations per art asset
  • Art style

If there’s too many art assets or animations, each asset takes longer to revise, and overall art production takes longer. Risks a revision. Art style being elaborate just makes that worse. Imagine hand-painted or pixeled backgrounds. The iteration takes a very long time. This is why if you see a game with an extremely complicated art style and a tiny team, you can bet that it is probably not coming out soon, or if it does, its design might suffer given the difficulty of revisions or iterating.

This applies to game design, too. For every thing the player can do, you’ve gotta somehow fit that into your game. That’s something to think about. If it needs to be clearly communicated, is it? More playtesting. More bugs. It also creates tasks for the programmer. Or, it creates art to make or music and sound to make.

It also applies to writing. Too many main characters? Now you have even more plot arcs to write, more cutscenes to make, more balancing to do with where you read them in the game. Oops, now the programmer has to code all these things too! More chances for bugs. More things to tweak. Good luck! You’ll need it. Have fun remembering all this alongside the 100,000 other things in the game.

Now, is it worth working 10 years on a game? I don’t think so.

My game Even the Ocean is a textbook example of this happening, stretching out a game’s development to 3.5 years. By not properly setting a good scope for the game within pre-production, we waffled around, resulting in numerous design, writing, and art revisions. The game was also too big – too many cutscenes, maps, levels, mechanics. If the game was drastically shorter or scoped down, these revisions wouldn’t have been as numerous or time consuming.

I think we’ve recognized this while working on Anodyne 2. I think, inevitably, some things will be and have been more complex than I think necessary. Some steps we’ve taken:

  • No dynamic music (less music and debugging to do.)
  • No autosaving (less bugs related to saving in weird places or at weird times.)
  • No baked lighting (less time spent making art in areas)
  • Very simple combat (simplifies the possibility space for 2D mechanics)
  • Reusable boss patterns (reduces programming time)
  • No collectibles outside those that advance the main game (reduces design, testing, coding, writing time)
  • Removing extra supplementary cutscenes we used to have planned (reduces writing, coding, etc)
  • Some level design tricks which I can’t talk about yet (reduces art time as well as design time and code and everything really)
  • Using Unity, saving tons of time on tools programming
  • Use of ‘fade text’ to simplify and reduce cutscenes and animations. This is the use of fading partially to black and displaying text on top, describing a cutscene, rather than actually programming and animating what the text describes.
  • Few custom shaders (less coding!)
  • Very simple models and textures (quicker art!)
  • Relatively loose main story (after the first hour), meaning the player less often must be guided by hand-crafted cutscenes (less coding, writing, etc!)
  • Few main characters, reducing complexity of the script (easier writing!)
  • Minimal platforming mechanics in 3D, due to the difficulty of debugging 3D physics and camera mechanics. (less coding!)
  • Many NPCs share animations or only have a simple bob. (less art!)
  • Little need for optimization thanks to most Unity scenes being small/separate. (less coding and bugfixing!)

Of course, the game is still ridiculously complicated and stressful to work on! Even with all these simplifications! Part of it is inherent to the genre we picked – a story-driven adventure in 3D and 2D, which often requires lots of unique assets.

But imagine if I had all of the above to worry about, too.

Anodyne 2 wouldn’t be coming out next year, that’s for sure.

Remember, your game doesn’t need to be complex to be good. Your ideal version of your game is not necessarily the minimum it needs to be good.

Also, a lot of this matters less if your game is much shorter. Keep in mind complexity mainly becomes a problem based on how long your game is. Also, this advice probably applies most to games that could be called similar to Anodyne, Even the Ocean, Anodyne 2, All Our Asias. I don’t know how to make an elaborate roguelike game.

A lot of what I’ve outlined above falls into a ‘lo-fi’ production ethos – trying to find shortcuts where possible and work within your capabilities. Trying to work commercially, like with Anodyne 2, does make things harder as we have to make some compromises (like putting in extra polish in parts because it helps with marketing the game). But…

I hope we can deliver Anodyne 2 on time! I’m always worried about it… but at least, this time, I’m thinking about these things.