Anthony Tan - Episode 15 Inside ACMI X
Stories & Ideas

Tue 11 Apr 2023

Ep 15: Managing expectations as a solo game developer with Anthony Tan – Inside ACMI X

ACMI X Art Industry Interview Videogames
Amber Gibson

ACMI X Community Coordinator

We spoke to the artist and solo game developer from about his highly anticipated adventure game, Way To The Woods.

Since 2016, artist Anthony Tan has been working on Way To The Woods, a third person adventure game where a deer and a fawn must embark on a journey through an abandoned world to get home. Anthony joined ACMI X as resident in 2022 to put the finishing touches on his highly anticipated game, which has received global attention for its gorgeous art style, mechanics and soundtrack.

In this episode of Inside ACMI X, Anthony spoke to us about the highs and lows he experienced making Way To The Woods and navigating the expectations of the game’s fanbase before release.

Throughout this episode you will hear snippets of music from the game composed by Aivi & Surasshu, the electronic music duo behind the soundtrack to the animated show Steven Universe.

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Amber Gibson: Welcome to Inside ACMI X: a series where we discuss TV, film, videogames, creative technology, and art with practitioners in Melbourne. Each episode, we interview a resident that works at ACMI X: ACMI's screen-focus coworking space. I'm Amber Gibson, the Community Coordinator.

Before we begin, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, on whose land we record this podcast here in Melbourne, and I extend that respect to any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Peoples listening in.

So today we're chatting to Ant Tan, who is an artist creating videogames from Melbourne, Australia. Currently, he's working on his soon-to-be-released debut videogame Way to the Woods. One of the unique aspects of Ant's process is that early on in the development of his game, Way to the Woods attracted a large fan base. So we're going to chat about the making of Way to the Woods, but we're also going to talk about managing expectations as a solo developer and producing works that have already caught the public's eye before release. Through this episode, we will hear snippets of music from Way to the Woods composed by Aivi & Surasshu, which will give you some insight into how the game feels. Welcome, Ant.

Anthony Tan: Hello.

AG: How are you feeling with the release of your game coming up?

AT: It's monumental. It's coming out this year definitely, 100%, and I just have to totally immerse myself in that and not think about all the possibilities, what could go wrong, what could go great. I'm just in the moment and enjoying what's happening.

AG: Can you describe Way to the Woods?

AT: Way to the Woods is a 3D adventure game where you play as a deer and fawn journeying through this world of the unknown, trying to get back to the woods. It's very much inspired by the types of games I was playing when I felt the idea, which were Journey or Ico or The Last Guardian, and also a lot of movies that I was watching. So Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, I was playing The Last of Us. All these things that were really, I think, fundamental to me, coming up.

AG: You mentioned those influences. Where did the initial idea for the game come from?

AT: Very initial idea... Seems like all of my ideas are just subconsciously in a dream. I woke up one day and I just had to draw this thing and it was this painting of a deer standing in front of this giant robot. I didn't know what any of it meant. And then I showed a few of my friends and they were like, "dude, that's so cool. You've got to do something with it."

AG: So you were always creative?

AT: Yeah, I've always been pretty creative since I was a kid.

AG: Drawing? Or painting?

AT: I started off drawing. I had one of these little magnetic sketch pads and that's the only toy I had, and a few Legos, and so I would just draw (with) that all the time. I remember my brother, who was the only person in my life basically coming up, we would play games together and then he went on this trip to Brisbane, and so all I had was just the sketch pad. So I would just draw these things in it and then just wait for him to come back and show him.

AG: Oh, that's very sweet. So then what happened once you drew the deer and the robot? You showed your friends?

AT: I actually had two ideas and I was like; "hey, which one should I make into a game?" It was this robot one with the deer, and then it was also one with a guy in a spaceship going off far, far away, and they just told me the deer is cooler. And so I trusted them and then I followed up by learning how to make that. So I learned how to 3D model the deer, how to put it in a game engine and how to shade it and how to make it look pretty. And then I just posted that screenshot online and then people were like; "oh my God, I have to play this." And I was like; "oh, shit."

AG: Oh wow.

AT: People really like this. And it got a million views and just a bunch of attention and I was like; "thank you friends." And also; "yeah, now I have to make this."

AG: So you always knew that your art: you wanted to make it into a game. Was it around the time you were, 16 I think I read, that you started creating the game?

AT: Yeah.

AG: That was the first time that people saw it and you developed this fan base?

AT: Yeah.

AG: What happened then?

AT: So from then on I started getting offers and publishers and people reaching out because it seemed like the style of the screenshot wasn't something that we were seeing in games a lot, especially back then getting a stylised game, seemingly non-violent, very cute, very appealing style. It was a sea of Call of Duty's and obtuse indie games, I think that generally don't sell very well on screenshots. And so I was then tasked with making the video game in order to capitalise on the attention I was getting. And so I was in this position where I was feeling a lot of hype, like; "I should do this now," but I realised that I was good at art. I wasn't necessarily good at everything else that's involved in making a game. The same reason that I like to make games or play games was the reason I couldn't make one at the time.

I really love that videogames are every single art form or every single craft that I enjoy put into one thing; writing, visual art, animation, there's music, tempo, filmmaking, there's all these disciplines put into it. And so I felt the rest of my skills weren't up to par with the screenshot. So I was (feeling) like, anything I make is going to be pretty disappointing for a lot of people because it looks great, but I don't know if it plays great. I don't know if it is worth making in terms of story or fun or gameplay. And so I spent a long time just learning and catching up and just failing over and over to get everything else passable.

AG: And during that time where you were learning animation and programming; you were steadily building this fan base that wanted to see your game (and) that were interested to know when it was being released. How did that make you feel? Did that add pressure or was that exciting?

AT: It was exciting. I felt very lucky and I felt very blessed. I also felt like you said, the pressure wasn't super healthy, so I tried my best to ignore it and not think about it. The fans did their own thing and I was not involved. I tried intentionally not to feed into the hype or drag this on because I really dislike that - when a game is marketed five years before it comes out. So I've been pretty quiet online across every platform just while I do my thing. And I'm very blessed that there are still people who are looking forward to it and I'm very proud that I've been able to do that. So I think about them sometimes and I'm very grateful.

AG: Yeah. And do you think of your audience when you are making a game or are you purely making it for your own experience and what you would like to play?

AT: I used to, a lot, and I feel like that was holding me back quite a bit (and) making me feel inauthentic to the game. I know I said that my friends inspired me to make it but it's still pretty much just me in my head drawing on a little sketch board. And I like it that way. And I feel like I like art that is that way, or I like media that is very intentional and comes from somebody's soul or life. So over the past few years, I had to unlearn the audience and just make it for me and a limited audience of people in my life that I want to like it. So I'll ask the people around me, (such as) my friends, what they think of what I'm making and listen to them. But at the end of the day; if I don't like it, then there's no point to making it and spending half a decade to make it.

AG: Yeah, totally. And so now we're here today, a few years later. Can you talk us through the development process a little bit more? So you're a solo developer, but you work with different artists. How does that work?

AT: Yeah, so the solo developer title is pretty contentious in the game-developing community because no game is really solo-developed. You can do music by yourself, but then it's like; "did you invent the guitar? Did you invent the scales that you're using?" No. And then in games, it's like that too, but to an extreme. You're working on this software that's built by thousands of other people. You are learning from all these resources that other people have very graciously taught you. You are constantly asking people; "hey, how do I do this? Hey, what's this?" And then there's just so much work that goes into a game that either you are very lucky with having a lot of time or a lot of money. At the time, I didn't have either of those, still don't really. But I was lucky enough to have funding to kind of contract animators, animator musicians, (and) people to just help me think it through. So yeah, I've had a lot of people that I just, if I admire their work, I'll ask them to come do this thing for me.

AG: Yeah. And did you have to apply to a lot of different funding bodies? Because I know a lot of creatives applying for grants and funding. It's a really competitive process.

AT: Yeah, it's a brain drain. It just takes up so much of your life. So you have to learn that as well. I did go through three years of idling, waiting for the right people, reaching out to people. I kept working on my craft as well so I could have goals in mind. So at first, there was the screenshot and then I worked on a trailer to sell it. And then that trailer got the attention that I needed and that's when Xbox saw it and they reached out. And I was also working on other games at the time to see what other studio processes were like with people who were more experienced.

AG: So let's talk about the art in the game. Can you talk through the visuals and the style of animation?

AT: Yeah, I could talk about this for days. Basically I have a specific taste, things that I like to see. I don't like too much noise in a video game or a movie. I don't like a very artificial feel. I like it when a game knows what it is visually and it 100% goes for it. I really, really liked this game growing up called Halo 1 - Halo: CE. And it's not intentional, but at the time, because games were so limited in terms of hardware; the graphics were really simple. Metal was just grey-blue and emphasised through lighting and fog and atmosphere and feeling. And then growing up I just watched mostly cartoons and anime and the movies that I tend to like were really lit supernaturally.

I like Dune, I like Denis Villeneuve kind of stuff where the lighting is just... it's so leagues above something else (and) you can't put your finger on why, it just all feels natural. So those are the things I like. And the way it's translated into the game is that I'll try to keep all my textures really clean but not too clean, where it just looks cheap. I like to put brush strokes and very subtle touches to elevate it. I also really clean distinct silhouettes and easy-to-read scenes. It's really tough for me to develop levels because I want to make every single view of it look decent. And then in a 3D environment, you don't have control fully of where everyone's looking.

AG: What is your process for finding a visual style?

AT: So for me, I think about what I can reasonably achieve. I also think about technically; "how would I do this in a videogame?" And then I think about what I want to make. I'll look at concept art and I'll look at other people's art and I'll decide; "I don't like this, I like that. This is my holy grail." And so I'll get a key piece and then I'll just dissect it; "how does the light work? How does this person emphasise bounce light or how do they sell concrete? What does concrete look like to them?" And I'll do this a bunch of times and then regurgitate it through my own brain, and that becomes unique. It's only in the past couple of years that I feel like I've been able to put my personal voice into it.

AG: Yeah, it's very strategic; the way that I hear you talk about that visual style. And were you certain that you wanted it to come from an animal's perspective - the story?

AT: And I always just felt like that was the most interesting part to me. I would often daydream, I think I'm really interested in how people perceive things. I don't know how people perceive me. I wonder how people think I perceive them. And then from an animal, it's just so much fun to think about; "what does a dog think about my phone?" I always notice when I pull out my phone, cats immediately look away and I'm like; "what does the cat think it is?" And so that stuff is just hilarious and I'm always curious about it.

AG: And so you are having the deer responding as a deer?

AT: Yes. I think that was the reason that I drew the deer looking at a robot because it's just so hi-tech and something that I would have no idea about seeing as a person. So what does a deer think about it? I feel like me and a deer would be in a similar situation if we saw a UFO, we'd be like; "I have no idea."

AG: And so how does the world fit into that story? Because it's very apocalyptic.

AT: Yeah, so I, over the past couple of years, shifted away from the sci-fi and the super post-apocalyptic stuff. And I went more into why I chose those, the feeling of it. So in the game, you come across tons of relics left behind by people. So phones or TVs or trucks. And to you these are ordinary things, but to the deer, they're completely novel and just mysterious magic basically.

AG: It's beautiful. So what stage in the process did you bring in a composer and how did you find the right composers?

AT: Straight away. So as soon as I got any attention, I was like; "oh, I got to make something cool." At the time I was really into this cartoon show called Steven Universe, and it was the main focus of my life at the time. I was just waiting for the new episodes to come out. And so I emailed the composers for the show and I was just like; "hey, here's my game. Can you please make music for it?" And then they were really excited about it and it seemed like the game that they also wanted to make. So I was very lucky. I am still very lucky to be working with them. I work really, really strongly with music and a lot of my ideas come from music, like misheard lyrics or just intangible feelings you get when you listen to it. And so I got them really early on and they would write pieces based on images I would draw or words I would describe. And then I would make game scenes based off the music they would give back to me. And so I've been doing that back and forth with them for five years. So there's a lot of music.

AG: You mentioned the writing in the game. Can you describe how it helps tell the story?

AT: Yeah, it's funny when I say writing because it's a deer. There's not a lot of words, but there's words in it. I have to think a lot about what is a story that I can tell with this deer and I have to think about what's meaningful and what works well with the game's mechanics. And so I had a long struggle because I was like; "I have to make this meaningful, beautiful story." I'm also 16, so I was like; "I don't even know what I want to say." I don't know if it was intentional or if I was just procrastinating, but I was basically like; "let me just live some life and do other things because I can't really generate a cool story from nothing, especially if it doesn't mean anything to me." So I just let things come into my life that were meaningful. So at that time it was basically just hanging out with friends or experiencing normal stuff like relationships, deaths and learning what I cared about.

AG: Do you think that is why you had that extended period of time off social media during the development of your game?

AT: Yeah, I'm grateful for it because I think taking that time to find myself makes me a lot more confident in what I want to say and what I want to do. And I feel energised when I know that everything's intentional. And I know that when I'm making people smile or have fun through the game or just working with people that it's all the life I want to live basically.

AG: Lovely. And what are some of the mechanics that people can enjoy? I saw the lights on the deer's antlers.

AT: So the funny thing about deer is that they don't have hands or fingers. So a lot of the mechanics are about that. How do you open a box? You just kind of smash it. How do you open a truck? You just kind of smash it. The mechanics; you can absorb light from objects or anything that has light in real life, you can kind of absorb from it and you can use that light to clear away this scoop, this oil. And that's kind of it. It's very physical and there's this very physical part of the game where you are the animal. And then there is a bit more of a magical part of the game where you can use light to clear the way forward. And I try to keep it really simple so that anyone can play it, but also, I try to take it to the fullest-to-be- extent that it can go to make it fun and engaging and rewarding.

AG: The last question is for any emerging game developers out there who are fans of yours, do you have any advice?

AT: Make your game really small and scope it half as small as you think it should be because it's going to take years. Games just take years and they are such huge things that go across so many disciplines. It's going to be a long, slow process and the game's not going to be fun for a long time unless it is, in which case you've got to hit. But yeah, be patient with it. Just love it. Have fun.

AG: Thank you so much for joining us, Ant.

AT: Thank you for having me.

AG: That was Anthony Tan with his soon-to-be-released game, Way to the Woods, coming to PC, Game Pass and Xbox.

Thanks for joining us on Inside ACMI X. All references we mentioned are available in the show notes of each episode. If you would like to learn about ACMI X and keep up to date with the next episode, follow us on Twitter at @acmiXs.

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