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.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Oh no! Sparseness in 3D games

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

9fy0ew

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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

 

“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.