Sean Han Tani > Game Developer / Composer > All Our Asias
I sent Sean interview questions before the release of his most recent indie video game All Our Asias and I was curious how everything was going a couple of months after its release. Scroll down for the follow-up interview!
----------------------------------> BEFORE RELEASE INTERVIEW <----------------------------------
Who are you and what are you working on?
I'm a game/electronic music composer, and game developer (...and budding fiction writer for games!). Right now I am working on a 3D game by myself, All Our Asias
I also work on a few small music projects, some short essays, and I teach a class on Game Design and a class on Game Music Composition at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which in some ways are pedagogy projects for me.
What triggered you to make this video game and what was the very first practical step you took to start it?
Other than narrative ideas floating around, All Our Asias (AOA) was from wanting to do my next Analgesic Productions game (collaborations with Joni Kittaka) in 3D. I wanted to get a better understanding of Unity so the best way was to just make a game in it. The big first step was outlining a story and writing all the dialogue in May 2017, which kind of set the skeleton for the whole game.
Who are you working with to create the game and how did you find these people?
AOA is mostly all me, but I did hire Joni Kittaka to help with the user interface, and painting for some portrait art. I hired Ray Chen to do the linework for the portrait art. And I've hired a few friend musicians to contribute to the soundtrack. I met Joni through a mutual friend back in 2012, and we've worked on Anodyne & Even the Ocean together. I know Ray through an online gamedev circle, and the musicians just through experimental music circles that overlap with games culture.
Which programming language and game engine did you choose and why?
Do you have a specific player’s mind in mind when working on this game or are you led by how you would respond yourself in gameplay? Could you give an example of one of these thoughts?
Yes, the story in particular is aimed at young adult male players living in America who are coming to terms or starting to think about the term "Asian", feeling out the limits and problems with the label, deciding how they relate to it. Especially more privileged ones, like myself, who I have met throughout life - bringing up ideas of how one might decide to use their power for good, rather than furthering inequality or the military industrial complex, etc. Is there a way to get them to think about standards for success other than those of assimilation into upper class culture, toxic masculinity? Overall, I think AOA is a small step in this direction.
Other than that, mostly myself - from the beginning I know that people like slight mystery and surreal settings to explore in 3D, so that's enough of a hook to get them through the 2-3 hour game. So mostly I think about whether I find the space in the game to be interesting and unique relative to other places in the game. Things like, "oh, it's interesting that I ended up here now, I wonder what will happen?", or "this area gives me a strange sublime feeling from the way it is made." So I wrote an interesting narrative, and now I'm mostly thinking "how do I make this particular space of the game a really nice accompaniment to the part of the story it takes place in."
If my copy of the game had a bug and I could only play your game backwards, so from end to beginning, what would be a reason for me to play it anyways?
Well, in AOA there is no challenge curve, so you could still enjoy the game's spaces and music. The story would be more confusing, but since the story is also linear, you could probably piece it together as you work your way back.
You mostly make the music yourself, but I read you've now also worked with other composers for your newest game. How do you explain your wishes for the music to the other composer? Could you give an example of a particular scene/level/screen?
It's interesting since it's more of a managerial/director role. I'm still learning the best way to do things - ideally, I would be able to give the person a demo of the game to play, but I haven't been able to for AOA. What I've done is give direction and references. Direction is just a description of how I'd like the song to sound, or ideas. References include that composer's own music I'd like them to draw upon, as well as the game's narrative, and screenshots/video of the game. So for example in the game there's a building you have to go up through - with kind of an onward, steady pace to it. So I picked a composer I thought could do a good job, and found some of their music and asked them to use some elements of that music as influence.
What did the very first sketch look like? (e.g. Was it on paper, digital, what style, was it a character or a background or an item?) Can I recognise this first draft in your current game design?
This one seems to be pretty early: https://www.instagram.com/p/BQ9Ap81BXIl as well as this one https://www.instagram.com/p/BQ_AJuLBE0s. I also have a few paper sketches of the game's UI. I still have an area with the art style of the first video, but I don't have that kind of 1st-person movement. The movement and camera from the 2nd video is closer to the final game (3rd person, 3D, limited jetpack-style movement).
What surprised you in the game development process?
How great Unity is! Once you get used to it, it's a pretty amazing tool, and for 3D games, outclasses pretty much everything else out there, except maybe Unreal depending on your use case.
How do you place yourself in the wider game community? Do you compare yourself to other game developers and their projects and if so, what elements do you compare?
Between mainstream and experimental/alternative games, but more towards the experimental side.
The narrative themes I'm interested in are uncommon in at least English games (to my knowledge), but they are explored in work from other mediums like novels and film. Though AOA's art style and gameplay are kind of minimal and lo-fi, I do strive for a level of marketability with some of the visuals and public-facing materials, so I can sell them and keep on making a living.
Nowadays I mostly compare myself based on what I'm working on. So in particular now I have been thinking a lot about games that have effective writing. In the past I might compare myself based on really interesting level design, or effective music, etc. Comparing yourself can be bad if you let it get you down but can also be very inspiring.
Did you eat well yesterday and how do people from the ‘outside’ still recognise you?
Yes! I have a part-time job as a lecturer at an art school and I now and then meet with friends in real life. I'm not rich, but yes I can buy food to cook or eat out now and then.
If you could choose to be given one thing to help you make this game, what would it be?
Better writing skills! I know my writing could be better... but the only way to make it better is to read more, finish the game, and see what people think, so that'll come in time.
Is money a worry for you and why?
No, my family has a middle-class level of wealth and I'm financially stable from games/teaching job, plus I have 'employable skills' (programming, music...)
I wake up in the morning and it’s the day of your game release. How will I know that?
There will be a newsletter sent out! (Which readers can sign up for at...http://seancom.nfshost.com/ ). Also, maybe people will retweet the trailer on Twitter. And also, if the stars align, YouTube/Twitch people I send keys to will play the game (yeah, right!).
Is there anything I haven’t asked that I should have asked? Now is a good time to let me know :)
I don't think so! These questions are quite comprehensive.
Sean Han Tani, USA Chicago, 14 October, 2017
--------------> FOLLOW-UP INTERVIEW A COUPLE OF MONTHS LATER <--------------
You’ve released your game, YES! What was the first thing you did after its release?
I think I shared it with friends and family, and then went out for BBQ with my partner!
Was there anything you hadn’t thought of which you will think of for a future release?
There's a decent list of ideas I didn't use from AOA, listed in my artbook. I might use some in future games - NPC or story theme ideas, various art direction ideas, but for the most part I start the idea generation process anew for new games.
Did the reception shed new light on your game as opposed to how you imagined beforehand? Could you please give an example? If it hasn’t given you new insights, how were your expectations met?
Yeah, I was pretty surprised at the way in which it seemed to serve as a base of open-ended questions for people to explore. While I was specifically thinking about the ways in which East Asian Americans can have mistaken conceptions of racial solidarity, I was pleased to find that other people of Asian descent had responded in ways relating to their own immigration histories.
This has made me more interested in more complex layering of themes and ideas for future games.
What bugs were you made aware of or what did you have to adjust to the game after release for a better game experience? How do you feel about revisiting the game-making process of a finished work?
Mostly a few untextured surfaces I missed here and there. And some typos. Some people mentioned getting out of bounds, but that was always intentional so I tried to add an NPC in an area people were likely to go out of bounds, one that said: "It's ok you're here!"
Revisiting is always a little weird... like you think it will be unfamiliar to dive into the codebase and make an adjustment, but it surprisingly tends to come back to you quickly, and feels a little like you've traveled back in time.
You’ve made the most in-depth and amazing fan pack (which people can buy here http://store.steampowered.com/app/769140/All_Our_Asias_Fan_Pack/) with a humongous amount of background information, the OST and its cutouts, and artwork sketches. You must have rationalized a lot of your thoughts to be able to document this all. I sometimes find it difficult to not let reasoning and conceptualizing block my creative mode, which to me is often fueled by feel and first impulses. How do you stay in the flow of creating while at the same time giving your work rationalized meaning?
Thanks! I like to plan a lot ahead of time before working on content, so revision is reduced. Like for two current projects there's been a ton of planning for a few months now, with a little bit of coding and level design here or there.
If I just start writing or modeling then I tend to not make much progress or spend time in dead ends.
My view of it is that having a goal in mind while creating content - like the plot beats to hit in a conversation, or themes to touch on - will make the end result stronger. I don't worry too much about this making things less creative as you always get interesting ideas during the content creation process - which can either immediately be incorporated, or written down and used elsewhere.
So a lot of the ideas in the artbook were either explaining things I had planned, or explaining some of the decisions I made during the content creation process. I find that music making tends to be the least planned for me (starting with loose ideas and needs, working till something sounds good), while writing and level design are the most planned (sketching the level, multiple drafts of writing, etc.).
What made you decide that people can download the game for free?
Mostly an experiment to see what would happen with pricing.
I had a small fantasy that the game would explode and I'd have 10,000,000 downloads! But hey, that didn't happen... hmm, maybe I should have added anime girls. (Just kidding.)
The experiment failed financially but there's been a shocking number of essays and critical response to the game, so I think the free aspect worked there. I'm pretty surprised how few people chose to pay for it, though - only 2% of Steam users and 6% of Itch users! Maybe I should have charged a dollar or two.
What changed for you after the release of your game?
Well, I was invited to speak at the NYC Asian American Student Conference and do a live playthrough of my game! That was kind of cool. I don't think that would happen with a more traditional game, for sure.
My mindset towards games have changed a little - I'm more convinced that the right kind of game can be as compelling or layered as good films or novels, based on people's reception to AOA.
Other than that not much - however the number of critical essays, I think, has gotten a few friends or people I know to take games a little more seriously (though admittedly, most games are corporate products that aren't worth much critical thought...).
How did you promote your game after release? Could you please give examples of specific platforms or places or people that were important to you and in what ways they helped you?
Just e-mailing to people. I tried sending the game to some other game developers who might be interested but have mostly gotten no response! I highly appreciate the efforts of writers at various websites who decided to cover the game, or longtime fans making videos or tweeting about it.
What made you laugh after the release of your game that involved your game?
Nothing I can think of! Well, ha, I've seen a few bad takes. Some puns I can't recall. Oh, someone on Steam left a review calling Yuito "Mr. Animeguy," I guess that was pretty funny. Actually, two friends noticed I made an edit in the artbook where I edited my favorite snacks into the last page... that was pretty funny. Usually you get away with those kinds of edits!
Are you already thinking of or working on a new project? If yes, what kind of project? If no, what are your other plans for the coming future?
Yep, I'm working on a 3rd game with Joni Kittaka. It's in 3D! And 2D. We're not speaking publicly on that yet, but have been chipping away and looking for funding.
I've been working on the narrative planning and preproduction for another solo game. It will be a little more writing heavy than AOA, but feature fewer areas and music. I've been planning to announce my design idea for that, but I'd like to get into the writing of it first, so I don't have to backpedal publicly too much. Right now it's a twist on dating sims, 3rd person adventures like AOA. It is rather linear though.
Sean Han Tani, USA Chicago, 11 April, 2018
Owner of Analgesic Productions