From AAA to Indie: Interview with Jeff Spoonhower on Anew: The Distant Light

ANEW The Distant Light

Is it just me or does there seem to be an influx of AAA developers and designers jumping ship from major studios. Hey I’m not complaining, that means more quality developed indie games for us. Whatever the reason, it is clear that these days the indie market is attracting more than just college hopefuls. I had the chance to interview Jeff Spoonhower who previously worked on AAA games such as such as Borderlands 2, Bioshock 2, NFL Street (1,2) Saints Row (1,2,4) etc. Jeff currently balances his career as an indie game developer, father and Professor at the University of Notre Dame, teaching said college hopefuls. Jeff and his development partner Steve Copeland decided to leave their AAA studious and start a project of their own. Under the name of Resonator Games this two-man team is now calling all the shots for their upcoming title ANEW: The Distant Light. The only previews available at this time are some in game screen shots and their Pre-alpha trailer.

Since ANEW is still in the Pre-Alpha stage that means these guys have a ways to go before any release. However, the trailer does give a sufficient glimpse of what to expect. If you are found of Earth’s apocalyptic demise, aliens, spaceships, and badass weapons the ANEW trailer may be something you want to check out. Oh! And babies…well one baby who happens to make it off earth in time, and lands on an alien moon 20 years later. Unfortunately, cryosleep does not keep the main character in infant form so you don’t get to fight aliens as a baby. But it does raise the question of whether or not this young man is potty trained. Fortunately, we have Jeff to elaborate on some of these questions.

Alright let’s get this interview started.

At Resonator Games you currently have a Pre-Alpha trailer out for ANEW: The Distant Light. The trailer presents a sole survivor scenario of Earth’s destruction, with the main character traveling to a foreign planet. What’s interesting though is that the main character was a baby when he left Earth. So what kind of a backstory will be presented here? 

It’s been fun to see how video game press websites have interpreted the game’s backstory after the trailer came out. Many sites have assumed that the character you play as – the child – is trying to get back home to Earth after being sent to this distant alien moon. Without saying too much about the story – that may not be the case.

In the first 90 seconds of the game you learn that you are a baby, and you’ve been sent out into the far reaches of space on a ship launched from a severely damaged planet Earth.

The trailer you’re referring to includes a few shots pulled from the opening cinematic. The cinematic sets up the story in a mysterious way. We’re not going to give away too much up front – hopefully just enough to grab your attention and set the mood for the game. In the first 90 seconds of the game you learn that you are a baby, and you’ve been sent out into the far reaches of space on a ship launched from a severely damaged planet Earth. You travel for twenty light years and arrive on an alien moon as an adolescent. As you play the game and explore the world, you will discover who you are, why you are on this alien moon, and what happened on Earth.

We’re focusing on telling our story as “purely” as possible – without text or dialogue – through visuals, sound, and music. The world will reveal the story. I’m really excited about this approach because games in our genre (Metroidvania) are typically very light on narrative, or often times present the story through paragraphs of on-screen text that most players just skip through. I’m treating the story in our game as a “cinematic” experience, a primarily visual medium that you experience through playable spaces in the world. The soundscape, lighting, and physical construction of these narrative areas will tell the story. Some questions will be answered, and others will be left open to interpretation. Those are the types of stories I like!

On a slightly more academic note, I think there is a misconception about what “cinematic” means in games. Games with lots of cut scenes are deemed cinematic, when in the purest sense, they are more “filmic”. A game like Limbo or Journey is truly a “cinematic” game because the story and the characters reveal themselves to the player through the use of visuals, sound design, and music, not dialogue or film-style cut scenes.

I am curious about the main character. He leaves earth as a baby and it seems that he is twenty years old after landing. How is this character functioning? How does he know how to walk? Can he speak? Is he potty trained?

Haha, well I’m glad to hear that you are raising some questions in your own mind, and that your imagination is being stimulated. The script went through much iteration. Early versions had lots of dialogue and a much longer cinematic scenes addressing exactly the questions you’ve raised. They are questions that I’ve given thought to, but in the end I decided not to address many of them, because it’s not central to the game’s story or gameplay experience. I like leaving things open to interpretation and discussion. I also understand that some players get angry when their questions aren’t answered, so I’m doing my best to walk that fine line between telling too much, and not telling enough! It’s really hard to please everyone when you are making a game with one other person. It’s an intensely personal experience. The game is still in development, so I may end up changing my mind and explaining some more things about the character’s journey in the ship after all. I guess we will both have to wait and see!

Steve and I have done a ton of market research, competitive analysis, and have played most games in our genre. We’ve collected a lot of data and have had many discussions about game design, art direction, and story structure with this research in mind. After collecting all of this information, we’re still making a game from the gut! We know what we like to play, what is fun and what looks and feels cool. So we’re trying our best to nail those aspects while at the same time taking a few design and narrative risks. In the end, we’re making a game that we would personally want to play, and we hope that a larger audience will find joy in it as well. I think this is all you can do as a game designer and developer, make something you would love to play to the best of your ability. If you nail it, everything else as far as audience reception, sales, etc, will fall into place.

How did you end up deciding on the 2D style of ANEW, were you debating between other visual styles?

The art style came pretty naturally, as it is my own personal drawing style. I’m the sole artist on the project, so the art direction is an extension of how I see this fictional world and how I visualize it. What I mean by that is, the art style is not the collective vision of many artists, designers, managers, producers, marketing and PR folks, etc. It is the creative vision of one person. Steve offered me a ton of freedom to create an entire world when we initially partnered up. That’s one of the many liberating aspects of making a two-person indie game; you do not need the approval of an entire team of people to make things happen! I generally run my creative ideas past Steve, we chat about the direction I want to take things in, and then move forward with it once everything has been taken into consideration. “Everything” includes game design, world layout, creature and puzzle functionality, and much more. It’s not as easy as just drawing a blood-sucking 28-armed alien octopus and pressing the “GO!” button in Unity to make it work. It’s a super-complex process from head to toe.

[That alien probably gives great hugs, when its not sucking your blood] – Emily

Anew The Distant Light

The same can be said for deciding on the overall art direction of the game. At the highest level, my creative goal was to make something that looked and felt unique. I wanted to make a game that could only have been made by one person or one small team, and not look like anything else on the market. We also wanted the game to have an overall level of audio-visual polish that is normally attainable only by larger development teams. Since many indie games in our genre have a retro pixel-art aesthetic, we decided against going in that direction to help us stand out in a very crowded market. Again, this is the beauty of making an indie game, creative freedom and the chance to take risks. Hopefully when we ship the game, players will see and appreciate this.

Creating a fully 3D game is extremely time consuming and expensive, especially when all of the art is created by one person. Early on, Steve and I both agreed that making art primarily in 2D would be the best way to go on both an aesthetic and budgetary front. I would say that 90% of the game is hand-drawn 2D art (Photoshop), and the other 10% is 3D art (Maya). The main character and all weapons are created in 3D. The world, props, set dressing, enemies, bosses, etc, are mainly created in 2D. Although, we developed a nifty hybrid between the 2D/3D system for the rigging and animation of these assets. We’ve spent a great deal of time and effort developing pipelines and tools that will allow the two of us to build a large, varied, visually and gameplay-wise, and beautiful world.

ANEW The Distant Light

Currently you and Steve are the only two people working on ANEW what kind of workload are you looking at each week with just your dynamic duo?

We are doing our best to maintain reasonable working hours, which is an ongoing challenge. Working in the games industry isn’t a 9-to-5 punch-in-and-out kind of career and lifestyle. You have to know and accept that going in. We are passionate about what we do, and the project we’re working on, so that fire in our bellies keeps us going over long stretches of the development timeline. Since we are the only full-time developers on the project, we both wear multiple hats. We each do the work of 5-6 people, or more, in a tradition large studio setup. We jump back and forth between disciplines rapidly throughout the workweek, which takes a lot of energy. I would say, as far as number of hours per week, we are working normal games industry hours. So, that would boil down to 45-60 hours/week on average. Of course things get crazy, and we have to work longer nights and weekends when we approach big deadlines like demo submissions to industry shows and game festivals.

I have a family and an academic career in higher education as well, so my actual game development hours are a bit less than Steve’s, who spends all of his working days on the game. I tend to work really fast to cram a 45 hour development work week into 30 hours. I developed this valuable skill while doing a lot of freelance work over the years. I also squeeze in bits of work time in the evenings and also on weekends when I’m not being a full-on dad and husband. It’s not easy and I don’t really have any secrets to offer beyond working hard and persisting. My wife, Marie, likes to say, “focus and finish.” I also love this image, which is 100% spot on.

ANEW The Distant Light

You have to work extremely hard and sacrifice a lot in your personal life to make a game. I’m sure most other developers would agree if you asked them.

I must also mention that the third member of our team is the amazingly talented composer, Wilbert (Will) Roget, II. Will is writing a completely original full-length electronic/orchestral score for Anew: The Distant Light. Will is a freelance composer, so he works with several game developers, filmmakers, and musicians around the world. He doesn’t work full time on our game, but collaborates with us in an ongoing basis. That’s not to say he hasn’t had a profound impact on the game. He has! His music adds an incredible sense of emotional weight and mood to our world, and we consider Will to be a key player on our team.

Exactly what I was going to bring up next. Along with striking visuals and character creation, the previewed music so far has been spot on. How has the development process been with composer Wilbert Roget, II on making sure the music remains captivating and makes sense with the scene?

Steve and I knew early on in pre-production that music would be critical to the telling of the game’s story, and to the establishment of mood in our world. Music has this incredible power to subconsciously direct the emotions of the player, to make them feel something at the right time and place. Which we knew would be very important. A huge part of our game is exploring this weird alien environment, and we wanted the music to support that notion of feeling like you are in a truly unknown space.

Anew The Distant Light

I discovered Will after listening to his score to Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris. Square-Enix released the full score online for free, and I devoured the entire thing. I kept coming back to it over the course of a few weeks. The musical ideas, themes, structure, and orchestration everything just clicked with me immediately. It was incredibly well written, emotional, and sophisticated music. The score was also nominated for several industry music awards from the Game Audio Network Guild. That score blew me away, and I knew I had to get the guy who wrote it for our project! I sent an email to Will introducing Steve and myself, and also sent some very early video capture from the game. Will wrote right back, which was really exciting! He was interested in the themes of the game and the overall art style and mood of the world. Will and I had a few conversations about the musical direction and style for our game, negotiated a contract, and the rest is history.

Will is a fantastic human being. He’s been a pleasure to work with, all the way from contract negotiations to discussions about musical direction, through final composition and implementation in game. Not only is he one of the best composers working in games today, he’s also humble, friendly, and easy to communicate with. If I had a t-shirt with “WILL ROGET: #1 PERSON” printed on it in huge letters, I would wear it in public. Maybe we can get some of those made up.

As far as the way we work together, it’s pretty fluid. We have similar tastes in symphonic music (I am a lapsed trombone player) and we also understand the language of music, so we can communicate pretty easily as far as what we are shooting for with themes, style, mood, orchestration, etc. We brought Will on very early in the game’s development because we wanted him to help guide the emotional vision of the game. Many times, composers are brought on very late in production, when the game is a few months out from completion. The same thing happens in film and television, the composers will only have a few weeks to write, arrange, perform, record, and master the entire soundtrack. I didn’t want to work that way on our project. I wanted Will to feel loose and creative with his musical ideas, not rushed or pressured. I think this approach has paid off, as he is writing some really inspiring exciting music for us that really feels at home in the game world.

Anew The Distant Light

Process-wise, we approach the music in a scene-by-scene fashion. A “scene” in our game can be thought of as an area, or zone, that has its own unique visual, narrative, or gameplay identity. We start by figuring out what the mood of that zone should be. What does it look like? How should the player feel in this space? What is happening in the story here? Are there any “big moments” visually, or in gameplay, that could benefit from music? Once we answer those questions, I send WiIl a few reference tracks of music that I like and feel could be a good jumping-off point for his own original compositions. I love 20th century orchestral composers such as Béla Bartok, John Adams, and Samuel Barber, as well as Jerry Goldmith’s film music from the 80s and early 90s, so the music that Will is writing definitely has a mix of those flavors.

Will sends me a concept track, or tracks, for the scene, and I review and make comments on the music. Will takes usually one or two iteration passes on the music until we come to an agreement on the final track. Since I am also the sole sound designer on the project, it is my responsibility to get the music working in game. Which is another complex process in itself. Once the music has been implemented it may require a few additional tweaks, for timing purposes and how it feels in actual gameplay context. There is a lot of back and forth between the two of us. Again, it’s all about the feeling you get while playing, so we just do our best to make sure the music supports that emotional goal, area-by-area in game. We also have several actual themes that are tied to specific characters and situations, so we need to make sure those themes are used appropriately, and are developing and maturing over the course of the game, as the subjects also evolve.

Previously you worked at major developers such as EA, Sony Computer Entertainment, and 2K Games. Your team now is far smaller than those mentioned do you prefer this? And do you have any plans on expanding the Resonator team?

Yes, much smaller! Steve and I were both used to working on teams of anywhere between 50-200 people per-project. Now it’s the two of us.

I wear the hat of the art director, animator, character artist, level artist, lighting artist, cinematic designer, sound designer, narrative director, webmaster, and marketing/PR coordinator.

Overall, we like it this way, and it’s one of the reasons why we decided to make a game together. It’s a [different] reaction to working on games with many layers of management and “approvers” – people who look at others’ work and say if it is good or not. You see this a lot now with indie games, the people making them are former AAA developers who have decided to strike it out on their own, to call their own shots, and take creative risks.

It is liberating, because we can move very quickly and not get bogged down with lots of meetings, reviews, and approvals. Steve and I have great momentum and have been creating content at a pretty good pace. It is also extremely challenging, because we are both taking on a massive amount of responsibility, and doing the work of several specialists. For example, Steve is the lead designer, gameplay programmer, AI specialist, graphics optimizer dude, and tools engineer. Each of those titles are full career tracks on their own, and make up for entire sub-teams in a larger studio environment. Did I mention that Steve is freakin’ awesome?

[It seems that everyone Jeff works with is awesome… Does that mean Steve will get a t-shirt too? …I interviewed him, does that make me awesome now? I want a t-shirt…] – Emily

I wear the hat of the art director, animator, character artist, level artist, lighting artist, cinematic designer, sound designer, narrative director, webmaster, and marketing/PR coordinator. It’s a lot to keep track of! I’ve worked harder on this project than any other game in my career, which is saying a lot. Making an indie game with a small team is kind of like crossing the country in a covered wagon in the 1800’s, or trying to climb Mount Everest. It’s a journey.

All of that said, we plan to stay small for as long as possible. It has been worth the effort so far. We do have a few long-time trusted industry friends and colleagues who have expressed interest in helping out on the project. It’s reassuring to have these folks on standby, should we need them later on in development.

You are also professor at Notre Dame and I heard that you are using your work with ANEW as your research project. First off that’s awesome! But how did that go over with the school was there any negative pushback?

On the contrary, Notre Dame has been incredibly supportive of my project, and my teaching goals. They hired me to teach students the very skills I use on a daily basis in my game development career. Students want jobs in games, film, visual effects, and animation, and I am here to help them realize their dreams of working in these fun, challenging, competitive industries. The administration at school, the chair of my department, and my teaching colleagues all see a huge amount of value in the processes I am working through while making the game. My students think it is cool too! They like to be a part of the process, to see how I work and to witness first hand what it is like to make an indie game. I also have a pretty large pool of future QA testers at my disposal!

The amount of quality experience that you have must be a goldmine for students in your courses. How have you been able to influence those students interested in pursing careers in gaming?

Yes, absolutely. I remember when I was finishing up grad school in early 2002 and applying for jobs in the games industry, there was virtually no information available on the inner-workings of game development beyond the print edition of Game Developer Magazine. There were almost no websites with information on studio life, getting your foot in the door as a newbie, etc. Very few college professors at that time had any experience working in games, so they weren’t able to pass any first-hand knowledge of the industry to their students. Making games back then was like voodoism, or some sort of black magic that was impossible to comprehend. It was frustrating, but also empowering, thinking about it now, because I focused purely on my work and wasn’t distracted by anything else. And at the end of the day, as student trying to break into the industry, that’s really what counts – your output – the work you have to show for yourself to an employer, be it 3D models, textures, animations, code, a small game demo, whatever it is you want to do professionally.

Several of my students have landed jobs at big feature animation and game studios over the past few years, and I’m incredibly proud of their accomplishments.

As a professor now, I really get a kick out of giving my students that first-hand development knowledge that I missed out on as a student. It really is an honor and a privilege to be able to pass whatever wisdom I have on to my students in the form of lectures, hands-on production tutorial assignments, and meals in the dining hall! I love being able to help them, to see them “get it” while learning a process, and to give them direct feedback on their work and advice on getting into the industry. Several of my students have landed jobs at big feature animation and game studios over the past few years, and I’m incredibly proud of their accomplishments. I think any good teacher has their students’ needs at the forefront of their attention. I certainly try to balance out their needs with the demands of my professional work and family life.

I do a lot of encouraging, but I also feel as though it is my responsibility to be realistic with my students about what it is like working in creative industries, games specifically. It is a really tough nut to crack. It’s not easy to get your first job, as there are literally thousands of other talented students graduating each year, all competing for the same few open studio positions. You also have to factor in industry vets who are looking for jobs as a result of studio closures and layoffs. All of these good people are in the same pool, vying for the golden tickets. I try not to discourage my students, but rather give them the truth, to guide them and offer them hope that their hard work and perseverance will eventually pay off with a great job.

For now ANEW: The Distant Light does not have a set release date. But the team at Resonator are still working diligently and are eager to share updates in the future. If you want to stay updated with their progress be sure to check out the ANEW blog, As well as their twitter, facebook, and youtube pages.

According to my license I’m an adult… I think that means I can perform a citizen’s arrest now. When I’m not protecting civilians I enjoy indulging in sci-fi or martial art movies. I play videogames when I can’t fall asleep, and if that doesn't work I fistfight the ghosts in my basement. Nice to meet you.

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