Sephonie Development Timeline
Some spoilers for Sephonie here. You have been warned! They've been hidden with dropdowns, though. Please note that this does contain light spoilers, so if you want to go in totally fresh you should read this later!Have questions? There's a comment section at the bottom of this post!
Hi! Melos from Analgesic here. Well, Sephonie is out! Have you played it yet? https://store.steampowered.com/app/1248840 If you're enjoying it, this is a great time to leave a Steam Review if you left it there! Yes, yes...
Before I forget, I wanted to write up a brief overview of the development timeline (from my perspective of things.) This won't be thorough (especially re: preproduction and influences) but should give you an idea of how the game came together and why it took about 2 years of production and 4 months of preproduction. As I'm writing it it'll be a bit more influenced by my side of things, although I did try to include what Marina was working on as well.
A few weeks after Anodyne 2 released on August 12th, 2019, Marina and I chatted on Twitter about some game ideas. Eventually this led to discussing our next game's ideas. We had some ideas of setting the game in space amongst planets, but we shifted this to an uninhabited island.
In September, Marina came up with some initial prototypes and we thought of the basics of the story - 3 people getting to know their nations better by learning about others' backgrounds. I did a lot of brainstorming and reading of nonfiction and thinking about themes relating to nationalism, identity, etc, coming up with the initial plot. And also fleshed out the trio's backgrounds, political views, etc. Some books I read around now include Soldiering through Empire, Stamped: An Anti-Travel Novel, Asia as Method: Towards Deimperialization, Imagined Communities. Past relevant books include Envisioning Taiwan, Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia, All Our Asias (oops not a book), Yoshie Hotta's Judgment. Future relevant books include Akira Yoshimura's One Man's Justice.
Marina helped to think about the events getting the group to the island, being shipwrecked - although that wasn't fully finalized till later.
We had the idea of 'scanning' creatures on an island, and initially the game had a very minimal approach - exploring an abstract map (think radar), finding pockets of places to explore in 2D. We threw around a lot of ideas relating to roguelike runs that went 'deeper' into the island, time loop visual novels, sidescrolling 'Snake Game' action stuff where you'd circle around creatures (think Snake / Voidrun / Pokemon Ranger).
We decided against that action approach, and started thinking about other ways to 'scan' creatures. I played Atelier Sophie and suggested something grid-based, Marina came up with the idea of placing puzzle pieces on a grid (first prototype was cutting out physical pieces from graph paper and coloring with markers).
The rest of 2019 we tried a bunch of things with the puzzle pieces - initially the placement had stricter rules involving proximity, so you sort of had to travel around the board and could get stuck/cornered. But that quickly felt finicky to visually communicate and design around. I had a lot of ideas relating to damage, almost card-game like (you'd place pieces to activate moves), but that eventually proved too complicated (although some of those ideas turned into the idea of creatures using moves on their turns.) Some influence came from Magic the Gathering, which I played for a bit in 2019. I think there's a lesson here in being careful about letting the most recent thing you consume inform a design! (Although I think it was good to play MTG and think about its strategy.)
Story spoilersIn October I started working on a story outline, much more linear. The trio was to go to the island with another group of 3 - the "Recon" team (Alex, Noa, and Yung-yu). The Recon team would slowly die, one by one, tempted by some 'presence' within the island. Over time, little items from the Trio's lives would pop up around the island, eventually forming entire surreal spaces. It was much darker and kind of overexplainy, and didn't have much of an ending. There was a sort of detailed logic to how they work and appear, and were meant to partially represent strands of individualism. Characters would appear out of the bigger, area-sized leaks. A few revisions later and books read, there was a stronger outline. By November, many of the areas were on paper in really rough descriptions, and I'd say characters' personalities were pretty set. The plot had all these annoying things like mapping out how character emotions' would vary - stuff that got simplified into what the final plot is. I think maybe I approached the plot too much from a novel-writing point of view where words are very easy to add. I also spent some time fiddling with testing out various dialogue tones of writing, ways of adding prose to the game and alternate kinds of narration, which kind of precede the eventual Mindshares. At the end of December we decided the "presence" of the island should be a character, and that there should be some kind of hopeful epilogue.
The Linking system was closer to the final version, almost with a prototype level! Honestly, we should have prioritized the linking prototype much more instead of futzing around with these more complicated ideas. Although one could argue that Linking is only the way it is because we combined/simplified a lot of these complicated ideas, so who knows!
Anyways, in sum, 2019 had a lot of progress, but things were also kind of scattered, with us recovering from Anodyne 2's development, as well as me dealing with Anodyne 2 localization, ETO's console port stuff, various interviews, moving to Japan. I can't speak to Marina's side although I think I remember her finishing a pretty big comics project around this time? (Marina: Oh yeah will be getting published soon! Stay tuned...)
However, at the start of 2020, the game's overall design was still VERY vague. We had intersecting puzzle ideas, weird skill leveling up, nonlinear-ness... kind of a jumble of things! I believe we had settled on the main gameplay being 3D, though, as in December I was porting some Anodyne 2 movement code over.
Anyways, at the start of 2020 I got to visit Taiwan. While I was there I panicked a bit with the setting (I have this tendency) but Marina kept us on track. Somehow on this mini-vacation we also figured out a key design choice in Linking - up to this point, we hadn't decided how you 'win' the fight. We realized the metaphor of 'defeating' a creature didn't make much sense, and we were trying to figure out what it meant to 'link' with the creatures. We didn't figure this out till next month, but I think we were moving away from the 'defeat the enemy' paradigm of design to something that felt more like 'cooperating' with whatever the creature's linking board looked like.
Story spoilersMarina had the idea for there being a future 'protege' who comes back to do something with ONYX after the main events of the plot. We also decided on the framing device with the future Observer/Sephonie. We also had to figure out what Sephonie's voice/perspective was, exactly, leading to a fairly complicated diagrams of the 'real world' and 'Sephonie's world', and what overlaps and how information flows. Luckily the final game doesn't read as that complicated, haha...
Marina started working on the game in full around this time, starting with figuring out art style stuff, etc. We started working on the 3D platforming (Marina developed the teledash and wallrun ideas), which led to figuring out level sizes. Initially the dash was meant to be used to teleport through thin walls like grates or vine “fences”, but that thread brought up way too many camera issues. So eventually we came up with the dash vault which really made dashing click. The Linking system FINALLY came together as I managed to prototype actual encounters.
Still, we had weird overscope-y ideas relating to linking. There used to be ideas where you'd have to do stuff in 3D to make creatures in a "Linkable" state - we had an idea called "Copy Pulse" where you'd get certain abilities to do puzzly things in the environment, or reach certain areas (e.g. temporarily gaining a spider’s powers to climb along a wall or something). The design of the game was more nonlinear at this point.
I started working on a draft of the script, and also developed the "Mindshare"-style of writing around this time. The pandemic also hit Japan and the USA, which
Story spoilers(spoilers) influenced a bit of how the ending went!
Most of this month was Marina working on art style and me revising drafts with Marina's feedback. Marina was also learning about IK, more 3D animation. We were also developing graphics tools and the cel shader the final game uses.
Marina started working on revising a lot of the intro of the game, I was working on the 3D motion as well as writing drafts of later portions of the game.
We started developing the first 3D entities (the Grip Shrooms in Layer 1!), I was working on camera code, and made the first version of Layer 1.
At this point, Layer 1 was called 1_1 (still is in the game!), because we were planning to have more open levels connecting to each other. This got scoped down in the end, though. I ported over Ano2's UI at this time too.
More level design, entity programming for me. There were some 3D entities cut (like a cloud you ride in lol) or ideas that didn't make it past paper (gravity jelly! Pushes you in a direction while you're in it..)
I also worked on cutscene tools based on making what I did in Anodyne 2 better. Marina was revising some of my drafts as well.
For level design, I did research of Even the Ocean and looked at what things from that game would work well in Sephonie.
We also for some reason thought it would be good to put a hoverboard race section in
Level spoilers(spoilers) Layer 3...??? I actually coded that... it's in the postgame... but broken... lol. You were supposed to race some creature, who would then give you a gem that uh... lowered a lake leading to Ing-wen's area. Yes...
By the middle of June the script was revised! Hooray. I think I was still writing NPCs, though, and much of the creature/item text wouldn't be till 2021.
More shader stuff, level design (through Amy's level), finalizing of the game's ending was done through end of July.
Oh yeah, and I worked on more of Layer 1's music at this point. I had been slowly chipping away at figuring out music over the first half of 2020, but much of that wasn't done till 2021.
Story spoilersMade Riyou and Ing-wen's level. Made ideas for the Core level.
Localization for Anodyne 2 (lol). Figuring out better code for the ONYX Links. Marina was doing art for Layer 1 and Layer 2.
I started brainstorming all the Linking ideas and coding them this month!
..I also got into the Trails series around now...
I coded maybe the rest of the Linking mechanics and levels except the Key Species. We also started planning cutscenes and 'emotes' for the cutscenes. The Surface was heavily revised by Marina, from the initial idea I made.
Started working on more music! The song that plays on the boat scene, song that plays on the surface...
At the end of October we took a week or two for vacation. At the end of the month we had the epilogue's dialogue and were able to start organizing it into in-game dialogue files.
Designed the Linking UI, I designed the Key Species linking mechanics, and we started implementing the actual art for ONYX Links. Also a lot of behind the scenes stuff on the pieces you get from each creature, etc. Added the concept of health in the Links at this point! Added more engine stuff relating to Linking (showing the names of the moves that creatures use, etc.)
We ended the year doing art stuff and me working on some cutscene things, fixing some 3D movement, lots of random crap. And as usual the last few weeks of December are holidays!! We also had VERY initial ideas for our next game...
Still in full production!! I was dealing with Anodyne 2's console release around this time, Marina was doing Sephonie's visual design. I was making rough drafts of the cutscenes in the game in debug areas. Implemented the basic epilogue logic at this point.
More music, shader stuff, VFX help for marina.
Story spoilersOh, and for some reason I put off making the Core Level until now (although I had the individual ideas of the platforming sections from it made already.)
At this point I should mention the workflow of making the levels. I would make ideas on paper of individual challenges, then make them in 3D and revise them as needed. Then I'd conceptualize a flow for the whole level with those ideas (based on how your height changes as you move through the idea, and how complex it is). I'd then make a greybox of those ideas and pass it off to Marina, who would adjust the level design, and then begin working on art for it, a complex process involving not only making an area look good, but figuring out how to keep all of the level geometry readable and parseable to the player.
We also started prepping Sephonie for its reveal, getting the Steam page ready, trailer, etc.
I was also doing a lot of music! Layer 2's song, the first Mindshare song...
April: More music! Finalizing the pause menu design! Fixing shaders! Finalizing the ONYX Link UI!
May: More music!! Linking SFX! Started finalizing entity (Grip Shrooms, Ribbats etc) art! Making a trailer! Making a demo! Sprinting to finish Layer 1 and part of the surface for the demo! Keyboard rebinding! QA! At some point around now I started writing creature thoughts and item descriptions, adding some items to Layer 1 (in the demo.)
June: We released our demo ahead of Steam's Next Fest which we participated in. Revised some UI in the Linking. Added those nice radial icons! Fix stuff relating to the demo, etc... music... controller rebinding (pain)! More gameplay settings!
July: I got my vaccine! I wrote more item descriptions. More music. Marina was making more art. I started connecting levels with doors. I think I started finalizing what Linking ideas go in each level, then Marina started designing creature ideas based on the levels.
August: More implementation of entity art (e.g. geysers). More music.
Story spoilersMarina actually did the event scripting for the first two mindshares (the ones with fancy 3D art.)
September: Entity art. Music. I guess this was a calm point, because we started planning our next game much more concretely, hehe. We added the warp system around this time. I started work on the illustration project where I hired friends to make illustrations about the game (which will be merch soon!)
Story spoilersMarina came up with some cool ideas while revising the Core level (to make it more dramatic - those infinite dash walls, the magnetic walls, the infinite fusion dash area), so I coded those. Footstep sounds (lol). I added and organized most the Postgame content.
October: Some more audio. I visited the USA for vacation (finally). I started developing GI issues around this time from stress. I added more postgame stuff, tiled the Links, added SFX, even started coding stuff for our next game! Music's all done!
November: Coding events for the ending. Polishing mindshare ambient audio. Working on our next game (hehe). Adding cutscene vfx, putting final cutscenes together with Marina's art
Story spoilers(especially stuff with Sephonie in the framing device).
I also started going to the gym and eating McDonalds and ordering out more. Didn't expect a lesson on health here, did you?? Well, here's one: if I don't have time to cook, it means I'm working too much! Eating McDonalds or ordering out is a danger sign! Anyways, I cook every day now.
December: More SFX, VFX relating to the level entities. Fixing lighting. Organizing stuff related to NPC position in some of the levels. Epilogue stuff (making Gael playable). I think at the end of this year Marina had modeled (but not rigged or textured?) most of the creatures. More visual polish, finalizing cutscenes all over the place, still have GI problems... I went on vacation though...
January: Prepping for release! Testing the game out, bugfixing, add stuff like the 100% stars, finalizing the script for localization, started adding Bubble Adventure stuff, achievements. I decided to make
Story spoilersThe postgame stuff into bubble adventure rewards at this point.
February: Hey my GI stuff is getting better! Phew... well, anyways, added exciting stuff like STORE INTEGRATION, VFX bug fixes, cutscene camera bugfixes, my taxes, code for VFX polish, more VFX. I added screenshot mode too, and final art for the gems in Linking.
March: Store page stuff, trailers, organizing QA, merch stuff, taking screenshots, organizing press releases with our PR team, playtesting, helping implement german and japanese, fixing stuff found in QA, bug fixes, blah............... taxes........... emails..........
Over the past few months, Marina did a lot of really amazing and important art polish in every area. It REALLY brought everything together in an amazing way! (Marina: This was an absurd time in which I binged the entire back catalogues of several podcasts... probably slightly unhealthy. But also really satisfying! Early on, I really had to settle for being dissatisfied in order to manage the sheer volume of the task. So being able to finally focus on making things look how I envisioned them felt great.)
The game went out to press at the end of the month and we also announced the release date!!!
Oh yeah this whole quarter we were discussing story and design stuff for our next game... heh
April: Wow! Very relaxing! Actually I just like hung out with my spouse for a week and played video games and stuff. Added and patched a few things in the game here and there. Then the game came out! Actually the release has been so smooth, probably because it was planned so carefully. Hooray.
...And now it's today! Well, that was Sephonie's development. It was pretty good, except for some of it, and the pandemic. As for further reflections, that'll be saved for some other post after we have a bit more distance from the release.
Well, if you read this far... have you played Sephonie yet? Do it here!! . And leave a review too if you get a chance. Thanks!
See later this year when we announce our next game!! I'm not sure when exactly work for that will ramp up, but probably over May.