Five years ago this month, Night School Studios released its supernatural thriller Oxenfree.
Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz to mark the anniversary, studio director and co-creative director Sean Krankel and lead writer and co-founder Adam Hines share what they've taken away from their experience with the game.
"It's been this beacon of how to not linger in the decision-making process too long, to go with your gut and make something the team feels is special," Krankel says. "Just follow what feels right and what's cool for the team, and don't get overly caught up in focus-testing and overthinking certain decisions."
"You can overanalyze something to death because everything will have a flaw inherently; nothing is perfect"
Oxenfree may have reinforced that insight, but it doesn't appear to have been the origin of it. Krankel says it's something informed by his and Hines' past experiences working in creative roles at larger companies like Vivendi Universal, Disney, and Telltale Games.
"At each of those companies, everybody's best intentions were to make something great, but you always find yourself sitting in a meeting room noodling something to death and finding ways to very objectively poke holes in a decision," Krankel says. "But what happens after a while is the purity of an initial creative decision can just get totally muddled. You can overanalyze something to death because everything will have a flaw inherently; nothing is perfect."
He dove way back in his work history to his experience as a production assistant on Toy Story 2 for an example.
"During that film they basically got three-quarters of the way done with it, then scrapped the whole thing and had to make the whole movie, basically, within like a year and a half," Krankel says. "That movie is still one of the best Pixar films and has some of the most subversive messages and heartfelt moments, and a lot of that is because they just didn't have time to sit and overanalyze it and put it in front of executive eyes. We've tried to keep that ethos in the studio for Oxenfree and everything since so that way it can feel more personal and less like a product."
"We had to make a lot of decisions in succession very fast because we were a very small team with a limited budget and just wanted to ensure we didn't overanalyze things"
Or to put it more simply: "Making a decision is just as important as the quality of the decision. We had to make a lot of decisions in succession very fast because we were a very small team with a limited budget and just wanted to ensure we didn't overanalyze things."
As for who gets input into those decisions, Krankel says the fewer voices outside the team you hear, the better.
"It's not because you don't want to hear other parties, but because you want to maintain a really clear visions and ensure that vision is carried throughout the project," Krankel says. "The flipside of that is to ensure that every voice that is working on the game is heard, and that those fingerprints and DNA are all over the game. With Oxenfree and everything we've done since then, we've tried to maintain that, to ensure the whole team has a very personal stake in the vision of the game and how it's executed."
When Night School was founded, it had just four people. Now it has 14 full-time employees as well as outside contractors year-round. Krankel says juggling that growth while placing weight on the purity of the creative vision has been and continues to be "the most challenging aspect" of running the studio and working with the team, something that hasn't been helped by having to work from home in a pandemic.
One of his biggest concerns is the tendency of new hires to defer to the more tenured staff or co-founders.
"It's almost like drawing that out for new team members and ensuring they know they consistently have a voice, and that voice is not just some touchy-feely concept but is very real," Krankel says. "Their actionable feedback and direction in various areas is needed. They shouldn't just focus on their discipline; if you're an artist or a level designer, your voice matters in all other disciplines. I don't think the core ethos has changed, it's actually just harder to enact."
He stresses that every feature and sequence in Night School's games has a stakeholder with final say on what happens to it, which both ensures that conflicts can be resolved and empowers the stakeholders, fostering a sense of ownership in the game. Still, he finds himself having to reassure people that it's OK to speak up.
"I don't want to change this, but we've made a habit of hiring people who aren't dicks," Krankel says. "So people don't like to step on each other's toes. And we're trying to reel out a bit of the more vocal component of what it means to be in a creative business. It's OK to beat up an idea; let's just not beat each other up."
Hines' big takeaway from Oxenfree was the importance of evaluating and adapting the studio's marketing and communications and lean into the aspects that seem to resonate with players.
"From a pure creative perspective, it's always interesting and surprising what people are really jazzed about when the games come out, and what they don't like or completely miss," Hines says. "There are things we work really hard on and feel it's so complicated, interesting and amazing how this one tiny feature will work, and no one really cares about that when the game comes out; [instead] they care about this beat that was just a quick little thing we put in the game at the last second."
With the launch of Oxenfree, Hines thinks the studio maybe approached it too much like someone would release a movie, selling a general sense of mystery instead of clearly communicating the heart of the game.
"We started to tweak the messaging and tweak how we talk about the game to lean into the fact that you really do get to control the story..."
"When you would see our trailers, they were very story- and animation-focused, and not really telling you exactly what the fun of the game was, necessarily, to a large swath of people," Hines says. "It was kind of hard to grok exactly what you're going to be doing beat-to-beat in the game."
The first few weeks of sales were a bit soft, and Hines admitted the reception had them getting nervous.
"So we started to tweak the messaging and tweak how we talk about the game to lean into the fact that you really do get to control the story, that there are aspects of the ending you 100% get to control," he says. "And also for lack of a better term for it, the mindfuckery of how the game will mess with you and twist your choices in an odd way."
They stopped selling it as a horror experience so much as a Choose Your Own Adventure-style game "with a lot of psychological stuff under the hood." Word of mouth and award nominations also helped, as did a New Game+ update that encouraged people to make multiple playthroughs, but it still took about a year to a year and a half to really get traction.
That tweaking of messaging was also helped by the game's ports. After launching on PC and Xbox One, the game was later ported to PS4, Linux, Switch, and mobile platforms. Hines said the PS4 release was particularly helpful, giving the team a second round of press with a more finessed way of explaining to people what the game really was.
Night School's follow-up, Afterparty, launched in October of 2019 and Krankel says it too has benefitted from the studio iterating on the way it talks about the game.
"With Oxenfree, we weren't afraid to take [the sales pitch] from a pure mystery to, 'This is mind-bending and coming-of-age' and making sure the marketing messaging changes with that," Krankel says.
"On Afterparty, we led with the idea of you playing a crazy pure comedy, but as we went along we realized the things people were attaching to were actually quite similar to the aspects of Oxenfree they attached to: player agency, the amount of secrets that exist in that world, and just a ton of heart. By the time you get to the end of the story, it's not just a ridiculous comedy but much more about a lot of the same themes Oxenfree had. It's really almost a spiritual successor to that just in a very different wrapper."
A 2020 Switch launch and arrival on Steam gave Night School more chances to refine the messaging, and this year's mobile ports will offer another chance to make the right first impression with customers.
"It's important that we look at all of our games as something evergreen that we can continue to push on different platforms and change that messaging as we go along," Krankel says.