We asked Tony about the game’s red-hot Kickstarter campaign, why 30 different publishers rejected ANTONBLAST, and who has stronger arms - Anton Blast or Dynamite Annie?
Were you surprised by the enthusiastic reception of ANTONBLAST?
There’s been a lot of fanart, a lot of fan media and a lot of fan games - the kind of stuff you’d only expect if you were Shovel Knight or something like that. We’ve been very blessed.
What other games, aside from ANTONBLAST, have you worked on?
The big one is Antonball Deluxe, which is a part of the same series but not quite. People look at Antonball Deluxe and think it’s a spinoff of ANTONBLAST, when it’s the other way around.
ANTONBLAST was inspired by Wario Land, and gets compared to it a lot, but for us it’s more of a Shovel Knight-type game. Antonball Deluxe, on the other hand, has so much Nintendo flavour. It’s not very innovative.
The gameplay and the art direction are great, which matters the most. It was also our first game with a publisher, which was an… interesting experience.
In a good or bad way?
It’s got its lessons. I’m still friends with the publisher. He was absolutely the right choice for that game, and gave us that chance to get onto Switch.
At the same time, because it was also the publisher’s first game, it was a learning experience for both parties.
Are you considering working with a publisher for ANTONBLAST?
If we meet a really awesome partner who can benefit the game’s budget and development greatly, then sure, but we’re our own guys, and that was the choice that we decided to make with this one.
ANTONBLAST will be self-published.
Anton in his whole explosive glory
Who is Anton exactly?
That was a question I had to ask myself when we were making ANTONBLAST. I never really had the time to consider it, because the development cycle of the game was so unconventional. I can’t stress how tumultuous the development was.
I started working on Antonball Deluxe as a pet project while we were still pitching Harm Yarders. A publisher reached out to us saying they found us on Twitter and wanted to release our game. except… it wasn’t Harm Yarders. It was Antonball Deluxe.
Anton suffered a lot in Antonball, because despite being the lead of that game, he was probably the least popular character somehow.
After Antonball Deluxe came out, we got a lot of feedback from people asking about Anton and his story. At the time he looked very Wario-esque, so everyone suggested making a Wario Land-type game.
Despite Antonball not really showing it, I’m precious about being unique, and making an artistic statement. I didn’t want to just do ‘Wario Land but you can play as Anton’. To inform my unique twist on it, I had to go back and look at Anton and consider what makes him a unique character, and what he would do differently to Wario.
I looked at him and thought to myself, ‘Well, he’s red, has a big spiky beard, looks angry and loud, the type to scream a lot, and he’s got this saucy New York accent.’ Anton was actually supposed to have a taste for drinking, but our publishers made us take it out, but since we’re publishing ANTONBLAST ourselves, we can do that now.
In the first game he was an exterminator, because I always liked the everyman thing, but it wasn’t that interesting from a gameplay standpoint.
So, he’s an angry guy, he likes his drinks, he’s probably rough and tough and not very smart. I started to think about what I would want to do if I got very angry. This office chair I’m sitting on? I want to flip it over and break it and punch a hole in the wall. Everyone has that primal urge to break things.
What is the story of ANTONBLAST?
Deep down in the depths of Hell, resides the Devil. Our Devil is a little different than what you expect. He’s not concerned with being evil - all he wants is to be the reddest thing in existence. He’s got all these tanning beds, but the thing is, he’s not very good at it. He’s like a salmon colour, almost.
One day he looks into his magic mirror and asks, ‘Who’s the reddest of them all?’, and it turns out that Anton is. In a fit of jealous rage the Devil commands his legions of Satanic moles to steal Anton’s prized collection of ‘spirits’ - we don’t want to call it alcohol of course - while he’s asleep. That’s what sets Anton off on this journey, to go right down to Hell.
He’s not scared, he’s not worried, he’s angry his booze was stolen, so he decides to march down to Hell and just blow everything up. It’s a very serious premise, very emotional - we’re trying to tell a deep story here!
Will you free the poor spirits?
Are you really?
To tell you the truth, we applied to showcase our game at various events, and they always ask, “What kind of artistic statement are you trying to make with your game?”, and that applies to so many indie games, but not ours. I grew up watching Ed, Edd ‘n Eddy and Beavis and Butthead, - Anton and Annie, they basically are Beavis and Butthead, if you think about it.
It’s not really meant to be some grand artistic statement other than an expression. It’s not satire in that way or trying to be vapid. ANTONBLAST is not this noble vision, some people do that and they’re amazing at it. Maybe one day I will make a game like that too, but that’s not this one. It’s not that deep.
Is that what inspired ANTONBLAST’s mechanics?
There aren’t that many destructive platformers, weirdly enough, you would think that was something more games would do, we have the technology to make things move and not have static level environments. But that really wasn’t a thing, so, boom, I found my angle. There’s Anton, that’s what he does, he breaks stuff.
Why did you decide to go for Kickstarter?
We pitched ANTONBLAST to - get ready for this - 30 different publishers. All the big names you can think of. You know how many of them said yes?
In the olden days, there was an expectation of a 70/30 split, because there weren’t that many indie games out there, and publishers would be willing to take risks and throw stuff at the wall. Nowadays with so many games out there what ends up happening is, as a publisher, you have to have more hits than misses.
We already had an established IP of a game that had made its money back. Antonball was successful by all metrics, and then ANTONBLAST came in. It’s a massive step up. Maybe the difference is I was asking for the amount we needed to make the game. Publishers just didn’t want to take the risk on it.
I’m a big fan of the old independent devs. Renegade Kid, studio behind Mutant Mutts, was a big favourite of mine, and they had a whole story of, ‘We’d worked with publishers and that ended up not really being fruitful for us, so we released Mutant Mutts on the eShop, and boom, we became an indie dev.’.
That was what they did for the rest of their career, for as long as their studio was still operating. I looked at that and thought ‘Kickstarter is something I’ve never done before’. I’ve never even supported a Kickstarter before, but how else are we going to get the money to make this? We needed to do it, since we weren’t making enough money to keep the studio doors open.
Anton's life is not all roses and rainbows...
How did you go about preparing your Kickstarter campaign?
We worked on the game in secret, took the vertical slice-up we'd made for publishers, and basically built the crowdfunding campaign around it. Shovel Knight Yacht Club was a big influence. If you want to be an indie dev and you want to do a Kickstarter, look at Shovel Knight.
I sat up late into the night creating a spreadsheet of 500 different media outlets to reach out to, scheduled emails, made sure that they were all personalised. And finally, we built a great trailer and kept teasing our small-ish audience of maybe around 2,000, maybe 2,250 people on Twitter about a possible sequel.
Finally, we dropped the trailer, which was this flashy silhouette of Anton against a nuclear explosion. It said ‘Come back May 17th for your first look at game two.’
We went a very different direction from other indie devs, where they’re like, ‘Hey, here’s my game, and I’m going to show clips and GIFs and all that.’ That’s a good approach, but we said to ourselves ‘Nah, we’re Triple-A. We can do that, people will be excited.’ And people were excited! They kept sharing it around like, ‘What’s this? Who are these guys?’
We got 350 likes - not bad for a studio of our size. May 17th comes, we drop the trailer and the Kickstarter, and the announcement that, hey, you can play it right now, free demo, and that was it. In three days we got fully funded, beyond even what we imagined we’d get.
My personal expectation after the performance of Antonball was we would get funded, but it would be a long limp, but no, it took off. People started doing fanart because they loved the game, the idea, the characters.
And this was all our marketing! We didn’t go for an external firm, we didn’t go with a publisher - we did it ourselves with the help of the community. We got so much love, and we couldn’t have done it without them.
What were you worried about the most while running the campaign?
Not meeting the goal was the biggest thing. People always say, ‘Oh, you can always do another one’ when your campaign fails, but there are tertiary consequences to that. You’ll always have that stigma, and that’s going to be an uphill battle the second time.
How many games fail on Kickstarter? Tons, right? You can’t take success for granted.
Our studio was in really dire straits. If you want to feel inspired by our story, if we did not succeed, and we did not get our pay out by June, we would’ve been on the streets. No more Summitsphere. We wouldn’t have been able to keep paying ourselves to do it. There was so much riding on making that Kickstarter successful.
Was I worried about anything else? I can’t say that I was, honestly. This isn’t to be cocky, but I knew that the game was going to come off the way that we wanted it to. If people liked it then great, I was prepared that people wouldn’t, or it would jive only with a niche of people.
One of the levels you'll be demolishing in ANTONBLAST
What is your goal as a game designer?
As a designer, my goal is not to emulate anything that’s come before. A lot of people compare ANTONBLAST to Wario Land 4. I grew up on Wario Land 4. I’m the biggest Wario Land fan in the world. If Nintendo came to me today and said, ‘Hey, wanna make a Wario Land’? Dude, I’m there!
I’m such a big fan of Wario Land, Crash Bandicoot, Shovel Knight, Cuphead, Earthworm Jim, but my job isn’t to do those games again. I can take those designs and, boom, new Earthworm Jim, but that’s not really what I want to do. My responsibility as a designer, and the every-day challenge, is to create something that’s familiar but new.
If you do something that’s entirely new, you don’t really have a jumping point as a customer. Customers are the start, because they need to actually buy your game in order to play it, so you need to have that hook. It needs to be familiar to some degree for the player to know where to start.
It comes down to having a finger on the pulse - to know what’s fresh and new as a designer, but also what people want. I know a lot of my friends think about making only what they want, but if you want to be a professional, that is a very precarious direction, in my experience.
ANTONBLAST is a raw expression of what Summitsphere wants, but we also reconcile that with what a player will want. You want to maximise that to make as much money as possible, so you can make more games. It’s a vicious cycle.
Do you have any plans for the future, aside from releasing ANTONBLAST?
We have very big plans. We’re looking at helping other developers publish and bring their games to consoles. There are a few titles we want to announce, which will be coming hopefully soon.
You may or may not see more Anton titles in the future. Those are really the two main components, and we also have some third-party stuff in the works.
Maybe we’ll have a big announcement for a third party GameMaker game - a big, licensed title.
Anton and Annie being their best selves
Who would win in an arm-wrestling match between Anton and Annie?
To tell you the truth, I think that both of them, they’re kind of designed as being equal to one another.
I suspect one of two things would happen: they would both keep going at it, staying at the exact same height, for several days, until one of them gets bored, or their superhuman dynamite strength going against one another - unstoppable force meets immovable object - would generate so much power, we’d have a second Big Bang.
Unfortunately, there’s no boring answer.
Check out the second part of our interview with Tony, where we discuss the origins of the Anton character, and the time he gatecrashed Devolver’s E3 exhibit.