Lessons Learned After Making Anodyne with Sean Han Tani- Episode 160
Sean Han Tani is a composer, independent game developer, writer and teacher. He is best known for making Anodyne game and is currently working on the sequel, Anodyne 2. His past work includes All Our Asias- a surreal, lo-fi, 3D adventure, about identity, race, and nationality. Including also, Even the Ocean, a narrative action platformer about balancing the Light and Dark energies that hold the world together.
Sean balances his life nowadays “teaching part-time at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago. [He also] teaches music composition and a little bit of game design and [while working] on [his] Studios projects.” He loves teaching because “because it's nice to be able to try and think about my own process and like give that back to people who are just starting.” However, now that he is developing Anodyne 2, Sean is considering to “take some time off from teaching. Just go back to just you know working on game stuff and then you learn a bit more and come back with more to teach.”
His journey in indie development started roughly seven years ago when he debut his breakout success with Anodyne in 2013. The accomplishment of his first game, although was rewarding and jump started his career in game development, offset his expectations towards the reality of making and selling games. So it isn’t surprising, that Sean’s follow-up projects all needed an adjustment for realistic results. “I think a lot more seriously about how to manage the business side. I found that I kind of had it easy for a few years and then in recent years I've really realized ‘Okay. No, I really have to start taking it even more seriously than I had before.’ Because it's really hard to make two people's incomes which is not surprising, I guess. But it feels harder than it should be.”
“I had been making small games for about nine months and then I started Anodyne because I wanted to make a bigger game. Because I had been making small games before that, I made a little money off of this one bike flash game. And then I wanted to sell something commercially so I started working on that. But the beginning of 2012 is when I met Marina Kittaka who I've been collaborating with. In January we released it and we were kind of thinking about how if it did really well... that would be good. So that's kind of what pushed us to really finish the game and send it to a lot of people.”
Sean started making games in “something called Flixel. It's like an action script, so it's based on flash. It's an engine and for ActionScript 3 and I used that for Anodyne. I had been using it for about about nine months before making small games. That really made my life easier when it came to making Anodyne.”
It’s always hard to attribute the success of a game while going through it, but Sean was able to study his first game’s accomplishment in retrospect and breakdown how it all came to be. “I think a lot of Anodyne, when I try to analyze how it went... a lot of it was luck. But we were advertising on Twitter and on a few forums. The nine months before the release we sent out a demo to get feedback and get people on YouTube to be playing it and talking about it a little bit. But initially when it came to release, you know, I sold not that great...maybe a couple hundred copies. But there's two really big lucky things. The first thing was Pirate Bay, which you know, I could talk about it length, but the gist of it is that I uploaded Anodyne to a torrent site and then I posted some keys there. I saw someone else do this and then someone on reddit wrote about it. Because game developers aren't really doing this at the time. And then the owners of the Pirate Bay contacted me or something and then they ran my game doing a free promotion for a weekend. I combined that with a pay what you want sale that got a lot of press. And at the same time steam greenlight was going on and we had not gotten through yet but that kind of gave us the push we needed to get through onto steam. Then the last part was that gave us some notoriety so I could meet with some people at GDC that gave us the Humble Bundle later that year.”
Inspiration on Visuals for Anodyne
“I was working on it by myself at first and I knew that ‘Okay, I have to set some limitations.’ Because I'm not a talented visual artist and so I gave it that very slow 160x180 pixel resolution and based a kind of on Gameboy screens with tile based art. So it was kind of a mix of practicality and just an interest in that kind of art style. Then the gameplay was just because I kind of like those small Zelda games and wanted to make my own minimal spin on them. So I would say for me nostalgia came in a little bit. But most of it it was on just the practicality of that kind of art format.”
What’s great about setting hard limitations with practicality is that the result ends up becoming a style as long as it stays consistent. After many years of shipping Anodyne, Sean has always felt it to be an inferior product to all his later projects. However, upon revisiting Anodyne “recently I think it's surprisingly polished and has a surprisingly good atmosphere. For a first big project we definitely want to use that success to our benefit for the future as optimally as we can. Now we're pretty proud of it.”
Follow-Up Game with Even the Ocean
Even the Ocean was Sean’s second game and wasn’t a commercial hit. Although, reviews were great, marketing the game wasn’t a priority and the project suffered for it. “Essentially the idea is that the main gameplay takes place in kind of these individual areas. So it'll be like a town and then a like a power plant... and they're all these 2d size growing areas. But the game is basically that formula. The area copied nine times- I mean all the areas are very different but essentially you advance the main story then you walk out to the area, go talk to some characters, go to a power plant and then repeat. So that was kind of the more weaker parts of it. But even then it wasn't too weak. It's a pretty well designed game overall and most people or everyone really seemed to like it. The biggest issue was that the development cycle was too long. We didn’t plan our schedule ahead well because we were too comfortable from Anodyne’s money, and as a result we didn’t really take marketing seriously. By the time we tried to, it was too late. ”
Difference in Making Anodyne 2...
Sean is a true professional and was able to take the hard lessons in stride. He carried all the positives and negatives from his past experience and is on his way to make Anodyne 2 a success story. ”The second time we've been planning a lot better now. So for one we've taken it much more seriously about scale. And I mean, we try to do that with Even the Ocean but we didn't really realize just what goes into that. So as a start we're falling back a bit on our styles that we have done before. So a lower fidelity 3d and then like this kind of gameboy [graphics.] That saves us a lot of time but in general we're just marketing a lot more seriously. We've hired help from marketing and we have plans in terms of what our big announcements are. We didn't really start posting about the game publicly until we had a small trailer to show. And I've actually planned the next six months or whatever to try to make sure we actually police on time. Because we do have a budget now. The game development side of it hasn't changed too much. Anodyne 2 is pretty different from a design point of view but it does reuse certain concepts that make it easier for us to develop. Like there is a little bit of overlap in its design and in the visual arts. But yeah, we're just combining that with a slightly smaller scale and then also basically getting better project management and marketing.”
Everything seems to be in order as Anodyne 2 is having a clearer and more precise business strategy. However, Sean is very careful and realistic about how Anodyne 2 will perform compared to his first game. “I don't think we would be able to replicate Anodyne’s success. But when it came to Even the Ocean, we did expect it to do really well but I think we were kind of fooling ourselves into feeling better at the time. Because by all accounts, it's obvious it wasn't a complete commercial failure. We still [made] thirty thousand dollars the first year. So it's not like no one bought the game. It wasn't a sinkhole or something. But for Anodyne 2, I'm not expecting for it to do amazing.”
“Anodyne 1, in the first year, made maybe almost two hundred thousand dollars. We're not hoping for that kind of success because I don't think it's necessarily feasible nowadays. But we are aiming for trying to make at least I think somewhere like fifty to sixty thousand copies. That would be a really good amount because it would buy us some extra development time on top of all the passive income we already have. So we're just trying to improve our chances the best we can through hiring outside marketing help. I have these people coming in who've worked on 30 indie projects and they're finding a ton of past writers of Anodyne, Even the Ocean, All Our Asias- our games. And then they'll help communicating all that good stuff. We know we're not gonna have that gigantic level of success but we try and ensure at least a modest success. We're doing everything we can and really thinking about what didn't work or what was luck with previous games, etc.”
Passive Income from Older Projects
An open secret about game development, especially within the indie scene, is that as time goes on a developer gets less and less reliant on making new games for income. Planning on long-tail sales of previous projects help keep a small company stay afloat long enough to try out new ideas and take more risk. With three projects in the bag, and working on the fourth one, Sean is definitely benefitting from his past success and using that passive income smartly. “ I can see why so many big companies do HD remakes because you have to kind of revive your passive income every now and then as much as you can. And then we do those ports. Anodyne 2 is kind of a mix some conservatism and experimentalism because we are reviving a previous IP. If we take advantage of an existing brand, I guess this is why people do sequels a lot, that really helps with capturing an existing audience. And my thought is that if we can more practically manage the schedule of this game and use the existing brand name recognition. Then even if it only does modestly well and that passive income combined from the previous two games, that can give us enough to maybe hire extra help or do something a little bit weirder. I mean Anodyne 2 is pretty weird actually but it it does have a lot of traditional game play.”
“ The way I kind of think it is, if we don't have a good passive income being increased over time or coming in then we have to go to do more part-time work or full-time work. Which means less time for working on stuff. Part-time work is good for meeting other people and talking and stuff but you can also do that without working. So Anodyne 2 is [about] to create a project but we're also thinking ahead and how we would like to spend a year doing something that maybe we wouldn't have thought of doing a few years ago. If it means that one we can establish this brand Anodyne that we can come back to over the next few years while interweaving it with more experimental stuff.”
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