A Chat With Indie Game Developers
Two weeks ago I reviewed a then-just-released indie game called Anodyne. It was a familiar style of game set in an unfamiliar world, with quirky characters, dreamy landscapes and great music. I took my chances and emailed the developers, Sean Hogan and Jon Kittaka, to see if they’d be open to a brief interview.
First off, thank you for agreeing to this interview! I’ve been pretty excited for the past few days in anticipation of learning more about the game and the development process. For starters, mind sharing a little bit about your history with video games?
Jon: I’ve been playing and making games for as long as I can remember. First with pencil and notebook paper, then with ZZT, the OHRRPGCE, Game Maker and recently with Sean on Anodyne!
Sean: Played all my life (mostly Nintendo console/handheld, some bigger PS/PS2 titles, then pc games), and I did some pencil/paper game world design stuff throughout childhood, some Cave Story modding, and made some really awful games, less awful but still awful games and then Anodyne!
Have you attempted developing games before Anodyne?
Jon: Yep, although I haven’t really completed many projects. I’ve mostly just worked solo and gotten hung up on things, especially the programming.
Sean: Yeah. Made like two awful/unfinished things in high school, then a bunch of smaller (finished) and bad things in the eight months or so before starting Anodyne.
Besides Legend of Zelda, did you find inspiration from any other games while developing Anodyne?
Jon: Not super directly, but I think that a lot of games that I’ve played have influenced the way I think about graphics, dialogue, and design. Games like Chrono Trigger, Shadow of the Colossus and Final Fantasies are some that stick out.
Sean: I always had Yume Nikki in the back of my mind for world design and the layout of the areas, as well of the reminder to have a strong aesthetic to the game, and to also keep a sense of exploration to it all. Plenty of other passive influences for the music/game design/etc. — Fez, An Untitled Story, Metroid Prime are a few.
It says on the Anodyne website that Sean began the project in March of last year before meeting Jon. Sean, what inspired you to start developing Anodyne, especially given that you were going solo at first?
Sean: I decided I wanted to combine GBC Zelda with the dream ideas/gameplay of Yume Nikki. This was after finishing a platformer game, and I decided I wanted to move onto something bigger since I’d always wanted to implement Zelda-like dungeons in a world that interested me. I also wanted more chances to work on composing music, too!
How did you first conceive Anodyne and how has it changed from that original conception, if at all?
Sean: Mostly the “make a game with Zelda mechanics,” and then wanting to put a bit of my thoughts/ideas into the game, which I felt worked well with that aesthetic of Yume Nikki. The biggest change is that the game was going to be a lot less structured, and have no written narrative. That is a hard thing to do, and we decided early on to structure the world more and give a written narrative, which I think made it a lot better than if we hadn’t.
What was Step 1 for you in developing Anodyne? Do you think that was the best way to start the project?
Sean: Implementation of the Zelda-like screen scrolling — video . It was a good way to start because it more or less confirmed that it would be possible to program, with that in place. Everything else is just layered on top of that screen-scrolling!
Jon, what got you interested in joining the project? How much had already been developed by that point?
Jon: Sean had a little sort of tech demo of the game worked out. There were a couple incomplete areas that you could walk around and you could move dust and kill some enemies. Even though it was very rough and simple at that point, I was really impressed with how much atmosphere it already conveyed. Although really, it didn’t take that much convincing because I had been wanting to make a game forever.
Were there any major roadblocks in the year it took you to develop Anodyne, besides the difficulty of balancing schoolwork?
Jon: Hmm, not too much that I can think of. Managing time, commitments and motivation were sometimes tough, but there weren’t really any big or unexpected problems for me.
Sean: Nope, there were things that I feared throughout development (putting it on mobile! making the music all work together! window resizing! Cross-platform deployment! Marketing the game! Release date! Controller support! Testing! Bugfixing!), but those were overcome — nothing really got me too stuck. Working in parallel with other commitments became second nature after a while, though during deadlines (self-imposed/competition entries), it got a little crunch-time-ish.
It feels like you packed a lot of polish into that one year, which undoubtedly took a lot of play-testing. Do you still play Anodyne at this point?
Jon: Sean played through a lot more than I did. I have actually just played through the entire game once, and not even 100 percent. Maybe one day, but I’ve been really busy with school during and since release.
Sean: Yes, I have play-tested every area far too many times. Especially the dungeons, agh! No, I don’t play Anodyne anymore, though I might have to for the mobile versions (theoretically they should just work because we just wrap it differently for mobile with AIR, but you never know). I played through it completely 3-4 times, and could basically play through the entire game in my head at this point!
Anodyne was released just a month ago and has garnered good reviews from many popular websites; given that success, should we expect another game from you in the future?
Sean: Yeah. Jon and I are working out what to start on next, though that might be slow since I am dealing with 1,000,000 different ports and the Steam release at the moment, and Jon is finishing up some schoolwork.
In my review, I praised the soundtrack for being particularly fresh, especially for video game music, and satisfying in its complexity. What were your inspirations, if any, in composing Anodyne’s soundtrack?
Sean: Thanks! I really liked game music that strongly accompanied the current gameplay, and easily conjures up the memory of the feeling of that gameplay when listened to outside of the game — so David Wise (DKC2), Rich Vreeland on Fez, Terence Lee on Dustforce, a few of Yasunori Mitsuda’s tracks from CC/CT, etc. And outside of that — Mussorgsky, Satie, Debussy, Ravel, Liszt, Chopin, etc., the pieces that vividly paint scenes were important, as well as just paying attention while going through life. I still think that listening to a lot of music (attentively), paying attention in life, you build up this subconscious vocabulary of what sounds might work to convey a certain atmosphere. So yeah, game music, other music and life!
Is there any one thing you think an aspiring game developer should know?
Jon: If you love making games, then keep on trying! Also read Edmund McMillen’s tips on his website.
Sean: Work your butt off! If you are pretty young and well-off, you have (or can have) much more time than you realize…so just go for it now before you start to accumulate other responsibilities.
Coke or Pepsi?
Sean: Cherry Pepsi.
Boxers or Briefs?
Mac, PC, or Linux?
Jon: PC mostly.
Sean: I love Linux more, but Windows just has more useful stuff for me — flash development, REAPER. I am indifferent to Macs. They have caused me nothing but pain throughout development, but at the same are Unix-like so, it’s a wash.
I’d like to thank the developers again for taking the time to answer my questions and reveal a little more about a great game from the developer’s perspective. In case anyone’s curious, I side with Jon: Coke, boxers, PC.