Jonathan Kittaka and Sean Hogan speak to TPG about their recently released indie RPG, Anodyne. Read on as they both discuss life as a PC gaming developers, the struggles of being indie and much more.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Anodyne.
Jon: I am an art major at Carleton College, a small liberal arts school in Minnesota. I did the graphics and a lot of the dialogue for Anodyne. I also worked on the design of some of the non-dungeon maps, and contributed to the general design of the game.
Sean: I’m Sean – currently still in college till June. My main role was programmer and composer, as well as general game design and then level design.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
Jon: I grew up thinking about games. Before the internet, I would fill sketchbooks with maps, character sheets, monsters, and such. When we got dial-up, my brother and I found ZZT, the OHRRPGCE, and Gamemaker, and I’ve sunk a lot of time into those, especially Gamemaker.
Sean: I had been playing games for pretty much all my life, making little make believe games on paper with my sister, etc., and made a few really atrocious things in high school. Then I bit the bullet and dove into Flixel about a year and a half ago!
Where did the idea for Anodyne come from?
Sean: I thought the idea of Yume Nikki and exploring a dream world in a game was pretty cool, so I wanted to combine that with Zelda, and then see if I could possibly express some feelings/thoughts through the game as well!
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Anodyne?
Sean: Related to the game – programming-wise, I think I’ve definitely learned how to go about scaling up a game in a sane manner, without hitting a wall. I’m still pretty bad by industry standards (can’t code my way out of a box with 3D stuff…yet), but finishing Anodyne has really helped me in terms of intuition for design patterns that will/won’t work, etc. With music, I think I’ve gotten much better at starting and finishing a song and getting it closer to what I initially have in my head when I envision the song, or being able to grow an initial stub of a song in an organic way. With all of that there were many failures – there are a few songs I feel still don’t fit the area extremely well, bad code, but that’s all lessons for the next game! Similar ideas go for all of the game design – learning how to design a coherent, immersive world that does not upset the player/kill immersion too much. (not saying there aren’t design failures which do that, there are many!)
Jon: When I first started doing the graphics, I was shooting for a very intricate, realistic style. I wanted to set the game apart, visually, from the cartoony roundness that permeates all the forms in the 2d Zelda universe. I found, however, that working with a small screen size and with pixels made for a very sensitive viewing experience. Even though something looks good as a still image in Photoshop or an isolated animation, it still might read terribly in the actual game. So I had to redo a lot of the initial sprites and tiles in order to strike a balance between the distinct visual style that I wanted and a style that would convey information well to the player and read well in-game.
In its current form, how close is Anodyne to your initial vision?
Sean: Much more “concrete” than the initial vision back in March. I initially wanted no dialogue, healthless gameplay, and sort of abstract areas. That turned out being far too hard to do well at my experience level, so I turned to this more tractable game design.
Some devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game. Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Anodyne and if you faced a similar challenge.
Sean: I do not consider Anodyne to be a very difficult game – I feel as if the difficulty curve is a gentle slope throughout the game, though there are some harder optional parts. The first 20 minutes of the game were heavily, heavily tested (rest of the game far less so), and designed to give you the minimum skill set to figure out the rest of the game yourself – this seems to be working so far, though I think I could have done a better job with the design of teaching jumping later in the game as some people have trouble (though part of that problem is how I programmed it, too). While there are dungeons and fighting and platforming in Anodyne, to mesh with the entire game’s structure, aesthetics etc., the difficulty needed to be something that felt satisfying to work through, but never be a wall for a player in terms of difficulty. This had some repercussions in the dungeon design (combat and the few puzzles there are I think could have been much better), but overall I’m pretty satisfied and people seem to be okay!
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Anodyne would run on the various PC system configurations?
Sean: Mostly my worries over resolution sizing, and distributing. Luckily there was Adobe AIR, which gives us pretty good cross-platform support! It gave resolution sizes which was a relief as I had no idea how I was going to do that.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Anodyne.
Jon: The art style in Anodyne is cobbled together from a lot of different influences. Of course, Zelda is up there, but if you compare the graphics, I hope you’ll see that I avoided the SNES and Gameboy era Zelda’s highly stylized and rounded forms. In Anodyne, I really wanted to focus on creating diverse textures with the limited pixel space. In addition to looking at games like Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, and Seiken Densetsu 3 for inspiration, I also tried to channel impressionist painters like Monet and Van Gogh.
Sean: Level design – I approached the tutorial section of the game as wanting to treat the player respectfully, and as such there are few directions. This way I can just let the player do the rest of the game on their own and preserve immersion! Dungeons – there’s a lot to say, but I would pick a high-level structure of a dungeon, and go from there, adding a few new elements each time for the player to interact with, trying to see what sort of room designs I could make by putting different elements together. These dungeons are then juxtaposed with non-dungeon areas which were a bigger collaboration between Jon and I, and whose structure took a while to cement, as it needed to fit in with the overarching game ideas.
As for the music, I wanted to have each song convey the feeling of each area and perhaps how that area relates to Young or the specific experience of the area, and also work well with the visuals. Each area had to have a certain feel to try and convey feelings we had, this is accomplished through the aesthetic direction and what sort of gameplay actually happens in the area!
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Sean: I am fortunate enough to be well off health-wise and financially, so I would say probably getting noticed – marketing, advertising, business aspects – and learning to deal with fair and unfair criticisms were the toughest parts.
Jon: Marketing and promoting the game is incredibly hard on me. I’m very fortunate to be working with Sean, who is basically a magical wizard of marketing.
How did you go about funding Anodyne and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
Sean: Since I’m in school and have a part time school job and had a summer job, I had some pocket money there. But my family supports me otherwise, so I am very lucky for that and being at an ideal point in life to work really hard to finish a game. My family has always been supportive, and I’m lucky enough that almost all of my friends take an interest in what I do – it would be hard to finish without the words of encouragement. Having Jon to work with may have been the important – often I would lose motivation a bit, and then a new sprite or tileset would be finished! And then magically the motivation comes back. Or we figure out some design problem.
Jon: Since I’m a still a student, I’m buffered a bit from the whole real life business. I had enough money saved up where I was able to work full at my school time for part of the summer, but then devote a good chunk of it to Anodyne. The rest of development has been during school and winter break, so we haven’t really needed outside funding. Certainly I received encouragement from friends and family, but there is a certain isolation about being so deep in a project that you can’t really have a normal conversation about it with anyone. I like being in that space when I can, though, and it was also nice to be working with a partner as opposed to completely by myself.
Tell us about the process of submitting Anodyne to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
Sean: Well, I set my sights on Desura as a goal. The initial application I think we were rejected, admittedly we had no support in press, small fanbase, and the video I had uploaded was atrocious. I tried again after we got some press and fans from our demo, as well as making a good trailer, and we got in! Later, GamersGate contacted me, and I think we will be releasing there soon. GOG rejected us in October but contacted us recently to take a look again, and Just Adventure contacted me so we will be on there soon. Steam Greenlight, well…has been Greenlight. Really, really slow and basically going nowhere for most of development, but now that we have released that seems to be changing
Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
Sean: Yeah, I looked around at games of similar length/team size and dev time. $10 seemed like the right choice as the base price.
Can you tell us why you chose to release a demo for Anodyne?
Sean: For releasing a demo in September, I wanted to at least have some awareness early on, as well as be able to have something to point people to if they were interested in the game. This was also a way to test the waters in terms of whether or not people were interested in the game and the world, and also a source of motivation! As for why we have a demo now, I like to give people a feel for the game first, even though if the numbers show that reduces sales numbers by some percent, I think it is fairer for the players.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Anodyne from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Sean: It’s convenient, and more importantly it can help to build up trust with players that yes, you are a human, and yes, you respect them, when you can have a conversation so easily now! Additionally, the positive feedback is always a motivation, and you even make some friends! That being said, I did not solicit much design advice outside of making sure the intro sequences worked well, and bugfixes.
Jon: It might be more important for bugfixing than for anything directly related to me. It’s been a little bit frustrating for me, actually. After working on it for so long in isolation, I’ve gotten kind of addicted to checking twitter to see what every last person is saying about the game. It’s sort of distracting me from other stuff I need to be doing right now, and the negative comments always sting a bit more than they really should. Rarely is the negative feedback constructive, so it’s just a bit of a bummer. That said, compliments, encouragement, or constructive criticism are very welcome!
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Anodyne professionally?
Jon: For me, I think it depends a lot on the specific review. You can generally tell from a review what the reviewer is looking for in your game or from games in general. If what they are looking for lines up with what you are trying to offer, then it is especially valuable. That said, we haven’t yet had many professional reviews, so I’m kind of speculating! Want to hook us up? But really, I value the opinion of anyone who plays Anodyne and responds thoughtfully to it.
How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?
Jon: Indie bundles perhaps hit the world a little hard and fast, maybe they made some people devalue games? I haven’t really researched or thought that hard about it. However, I think or hope they’ll find a nice stable place to continue to exist. I’d love to participate in a bundle or pay what you want sort of thing once Anodyne has been around for a while.
Sean: I think they are great for exposure, but definitely contribute a bit to this thought of games not being worth much money. It is tempting to not pay enough, and I have done it before. I would like to put Anodyne in some bundles, but probably not for a while!
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
Jon: To be honest, I’m not really that up on how the big companies are handling DRM these days. I pretty much don’t buy new games because they are often too expensive or uninteresting to me. I like how Edmund McMillen and others just encourage people to buy if they can and pirate if they can’t.
Sean: I have no idea what is being done about it at big companies. I guess big companies will do whatever they must do to make the most money, but I agree with Jon, there are so many free or less expensive, and far more interesting games now, that I have little reason to pick an expensive title if I have the choice. I’m a fan of piracy. It lets more people play the game – obviously I prefer that we receive money as that is rewarding, but in the end, it’s more important for more people to play the game, which is the ultimate reward!
How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Anodyne?
Jon: It’s really very fun and interesting for me. I hope more people do it! However, I do hope that if someone is watching a video and is interested in the game, that they go play it, because it’s quite a different experience playing it than watching it!
Sean: It’s cool and exciting. Especially the Let’s Plays! Gives you a nice insight into design. And also makes you self-conscious…
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
Jon: I’m generally uninterested in DLC. I got the Borderlands GOTY edition a while back which comes with all the DLC, but I haven’t played any of it yet, even though I enjoyed the game. I kind of just want to play a game, have that experience, then move on with my life. However I did enjoy the Binding of Isaac DLC, perhaps because it meshed very well with the randomly-generated nature of the game, rather than just being tacked on content to burn through.
Sean: Odd. Unless there’s a really, really good reason for it, it detracts from the cohesiveness of the work and its game world. It feels like it’s saying that the game wasn’t a whole, that some meaning was inherently lacking at first, and now there is some extra stuff that is being cobbled on for the money, etc.
How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Anodyne?
Jon: I don’t know that much about the online modding community. My brother and I did a teensy bit of Jedi Knight skinning back in the day, but my Microsoft Paint Spiderman suit for Kyle Katarn is pretty much the extent of my modding experience. I think the idea is fun and cool, and it would be very interesting to see people mod Anodyne, although I’m not really sure how much sense it would make for this type of game.
Sean: Mods are cool. I did a bit of Cave Story modding before high school and had a lot of fun there. It’s a creativity outlet for many which is great – I remember messing around with Arthur Lee’s editor for The Underside in high school as well – doing those things also gave some motivation towards making my own game! As for modding Anodyne, I guess it would be neat to see what sort of levels people come up with the combat aspect of the game, though modifying the main game itself probably would be strange as its structure and design are for the most part very deliberate. It’s something I’ve thought about doing, though I’m not really sure what the best way to do it would be. There’s a bit of hard-coding in the game and I’d have to write up a huge manual on how things work, etc…
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Jon: Follow your heart and your passions, be positive and thoughtful online, and collaborate with interesting and motivated people. I wish you all the best!
Sean: Find supportive people, and hang on to them (if they’re okay with it.)! Join a supportive community. Be proud of your work, even if it’s not very good at first. And FINISH YOUR GAME. That requires motivation, and motivation is key – if you have the motivation, maybe a goal for what you want to express or reach with the game, then the thousands of hours of work it takes to get there will go by just fine.
We would like to thank Sean and Jon for giving us a brief look into their lives as indie PC gaming developers. You can pick up Anodyne via Desura and the official site. Also, be sure to vote on Steam Greenlight.