Scheduling an interview with Anthony Tan, the lead designer behind upcoming PC adventure game Way to the Woods, was tough. Not just because of the 15-hour time difference — the Melbourne, Australia native and I are separated by more than 10,000 miles — but because Tan, age 16, keeps to an unusual schedule much unlike my own.
"Being a teenager, I'm up all night," he wrote in one of our first email exchanges. His waking hours ran from noon to 5 a.m., he said. He suggested we schedule something between 1 and 3 in the morning.
That worked better for me, though I couldn't help but re-read the message in shock. I can barely function past midnight these days. Would he really be coherent at those witching hours?
But what really struck me wasn't his sleep schedule; it was the young, newbie game developer's reminder that he was still only a teenager.
That's what drew me to Tan in the first place, though. Along with the indie gaming communities on Reddit and social media, I discovered the promising teen game designer through the first screenshots of the narrative-focused, animal-centric project — art which has since been viewed over a million times, been the subject of fan art and won accolades from professional developers, most notably Sean Murray of No Man's Sky developer Hello Games.
Did I mention that he's only 16?
Wow! Way To The Woods is the most gorgeous thing you'll see today. Developer is 16 https://t.co/3HVutlxe7Q pic.twitter.com/fU4AT0Twf2— Sean Murray (@NoMansSky) December 10, 2015
"I could probably attribute all of my success to Reddit.com," Tan said with a laugh back in early December. We'd settled on a meeting at 1:30 a.m. his time; he sounded perfectly awake, as promised.
The Reddit community discovered Way to the Woods only a week or two before Tan and I spoke, after he posted some of the art in an effort to draw attention to his labor of love.
The development team — Tan and his friend Jarad Baker, a programmer — was in the process of applying for an Unreal Dev Grant. Hosted by Unreal Engine developer Epic Games, the program offers projects anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 in funding if approved.
As the pair approached a build that they felt stood a chance of winning a grant, Tan decided to drop a link to the screens in a thread on the popular Unreal Engine subreddit.
Way to the Woods, in which players take control of a deer on an emotional journey alongside another through a forest, is still very much in utero. There's no release window in sight yet for the narrative-focused title, let alone talk of a demo.
But all it took to catch the internet's attention — most notably that of Murray, whose excited tweet about the project spread like wildfire in the indie game community — was that handful of beautifully rendered, watercolor-like screenshots Tan posted. The idea that a game that looked like this would one day be playable was enough to generate excitement.
A front-page Reddit spot and tons of views across Imgur, Tumblr and Twitter later, here Tan was: talking to a video game outlet about his own potential to create — and become — a big indie hit. If it struck the high school student as surreal, he hid it well.
Perhaps it's because, while Tan found his quickly increasing profile exciting, he's not just the average game-loving teen with a dream. Garnering attention with Way to the Woods even in this state, and with only viral promotion, speaks to a thoroughly modern beginning for his future in game design. He's accrued fans and fame solely over the internet; he speaks the language of social media and online communities. He's known them his entire life.
But breaking ground on Reddit isn't where Tan's history as a designer actually began. As it turns out, a shout-out from an established developer isn't the sole bullet point on his resume.
Although Way to the Woods might be Tan's first serious project — he devotes hours to crafting assets in zBrush, slaving over Maya, learning how to translate his illustrative work to the interactive space — the 16-year-old's design dreams began much earlier.
Tan's start in game development was humble. As a kid, he and his brother were big gamers, which hasn't exactly changed. His parents, immigrants from Vietnam, supported the hobby then, just as they did his devotion to art, and continue to do so.
When we spoke, he called out Warcraft 3 in particular for shifting his love of games to an interest in design. Blizzard's PC real-time strategy title came out in 2002, when Tan was 3 years old. He didn't pick it up until several years later, around the age of 9 or 10.
"Me and my brother would mess around in Warcraft 3's map editor thing," he said; the game includes a World Editor mode that invites the creation of custom maps and mods.
Tan was born into a world that had become accustomed to games, in which games had become embedded. Modding Warcraft 3 wasn't a novelty to the grade-school Tan; it wasn't impressive that Blizzard was handing him and his brother the tools to create within and adjust the game they were playing.
This is how, it seems, the postmodern game developer of the upcoming generation is born, and will continue to be born in the years ahead.
Tan moved on from Warcraft 3's built-in development arsenal and expanded his tools of the trade to include Adobe Flash.
"I just have good images to show to people."
"Years later, when I was 12 or 13, I made terrible Flash games based off Homestuck," he said. The webcomic is massively popular on Tumblr, which Tan cites as one of his vices and influences. ("I'm pretty 'Tumblr,'" he said. "'Tumblr' in air quotes.") And although he dismissed their quality, even these small Flash-based projects are totally likable; the game Tan passed along to me expertly nails the distinct Homestuck style, imbued with the designer's own sense of humor.
As an internet-addicted 13-year-old, he would share his work on DeviantArt, where it can still be found today. He still updates the account, too, with fan art and original work. But even back in 2012, when he started the page, the comments he received were overwhelmingly positive; friends and admirers begged for advice, assuring him of his talent.
Tan was extremely grateful for the compliments, now as he is then, and he didn't deny them. He was aware of his own artistic prowess, as were his friends and fans.
The strong reaction to Tan's art emboldened him to reach out to his supporters beyond the screen.
"As a kid, I used to be active on the internet," he said, as if that had changed since, or wasn't already clear from his frequent endeavors across the web.
"I used to go to internet meetups when I was 13, and I don't know why anyone talked to me, but they did."
With the encouragement of these online friends and his own generationally inbred use of the internet, Tan continued to both make games and art, and share what he was working on with the public.
Alongside the Flash games were some made in RPG Maker, and even one in Unity. But Tan's first "actual" game was November 2014's Modern Bugfare 3, which he referred to as "a terrible in-joke with a friend that had gone too far." (It's the sequel to the Homestuck-like text adventure Modern Bugfare 2: The Desolation of Seinfeld, for which he produced a tongue-in-cheek trailer.) Modern Bugfare 3 is available as a free download on the itch.io platform, which independent developers often use to distribute their games.
As is his wont, Tan passed the game around to his circle of internet friends and fellow design enthusiasts. By this point, he'd become more serious about the craft of game development, self-deprecating he might be about the quality of his work. Reddit, with its diverse communities dedicated to, well, everything, was a particular favorite of his.
"A lot of people browse Reddit," he said — game designers in particular. As both a talented artist and a hopeful developer himself, Tan was drawn to the Unreal Engine subreddit, in which both established members of the industry and amateurs posted what they were working on.
Tan wasn't shy about sharing his work, which he's done for two years now across many different subreddits. "When I post stuff on there, people like it and it gets seen by a lot of people," he said. "I just have good images to show to people."
A style at once familiar and unique
He wasn't saying this to be cocky; it was simply a matter of fact. Anyone who's seen his work can attest to that — it's good; great, even. His art style is familiar, yet unique; it's reminiscent of his favorite cartoons, like Steven Universe and Over the Garden Wall. Just like those shows, his illustrations are sweetly affecting. The fact that he's in possession of such a strong artistic vision is impressive, regardless of his age.
Admittedly, though, the fact that he's still in high school certainly plays a part in the intrigue.
The Unreal subreddit is filled with many talented designers. Unlike most of the unknowns who post to it, however, Tan and his artwork caught the eye of a development studio, which liked what it saw so much that it offered him a job.
It wasn't an unknown studio, either; it was an indie upstart, one that Tan had long admired.
While his taste runs the gamut from The Last of Us to Destiny (he's posted fan art to those games' subreddits in the past, and names The Last of Us as an influence), Tan is also a huge fan of indie games. It makes sense, considering what he's working on.
He named Toby Fox's Undertale as a recent favorite ("so good," we said in agreement), but it was another one of his favorites, Owlchemy Labs (Smuggle Truck, Job Simulator), that ended up knocking on his door.
A thread about the gag-game-turned-serious-project Modern Bugfare 3 asking for advice on how to improve the project led to Tan's first big break. Commenters flocked to remark on how great it already looked — including Owlchemy Labs' CEO, Alex Schwartz.
"His art looked fantastic," Schwartz told me, "so we reached out and found out that [Tan] was not only familiar with Owlchemy Labs but also a fan."
"Alex Schwartz messaged me and we had a Skype chat and I just kind of turned the charm dial up," Tan said. After hitting it off, he was hired as a remote intern to help out on Job Simulator, which is Owlchemy's first virtual reality title.
It was a logical fit for Tan, whose meme-heavy, funny games up to that point were reminiscent of Job Simulator's own reliance on humor. Plus, he was now seriously dedicated to game design as a pursuit and possible career. It helped that the studio was offering to pay him, too, of course — making the internship his first paying job ever.
"He helped us prototype some of the early scenes and did an awesome job with whatever we threw at him," Schwartz said. The Austin, Texas-based studio kept its Australian teenage intern on for a full year, with his contract having ended recently.
Schwartz sounded like a proud employer, but was Tan intimidated by him? Was he worried that the success he'd found in the insularity of subreddits and Tumblr wouldn't translate into a real, professional development setting?
Short answer: No, not really.
Tan went on. "Everyone was really nice. It wasn't intimidating because I felt like I was doing good work for them."
We were speaking over the phone, but I swore I could hear Tan shrugging off my implication that he should have felt anxious as a new artist on an actual game. But his response did make sense; he'd been at this — creating art, studying game design — for the majority of his life. And he'd done so in a public fashion, regardless of whether the art he posted to DeviantArt, Tumblr and Reddit was widely seen. Working with Owlchemy was a continuation, even culmination, of years of hard work.
Early 2015, during the first few months of Tan's stint with Owlchemy Labs, was when Way to the Woods really began, although he made some "really janky-looking models" a year prior. Free time not spent on the internship went to designing and animating the deer that would become the focus of the adventure game.
The rest of the time, the teenager went to school, as one does. But even the hours he spent in the classroom were dedicated to his first serious game project.
During 11th grade, he said, "I took a creative industry subject, which is where I got to work on the game." His dedication was such that he traveled to another school in order to take a course that allowed students to pursue independent creative projects.
Well, that wasn't exactly the whole truth. "They had their own thing they wanted us to do," Tan admitted. "But they didn't teach us that much. It was just the basics of game design, and I was a bit ahead."
He paused, reflecting on whether he spent the majority of the class period working on Way to the Woods instead of his assignments. "I guess I did just work on it."
Inspired by his own growing skill set, the validation from a professional studio (not to mention online commenters), plus the increasingly cinematic games that he'd become fascinated by, making Way to the Woods became the top priority for Tan. This was unbeknownst to his teachers or parents, and at the possible expense of his schoolwork. (He gave the credit for his continued academic success to SparkNotes, the literature study guide and shortcut popular with students who can't be bothered with assigned reading.)
Tan needed as much time as he could find to get the project looking good and functional. Even with all of his experience, though, Way to the Woods wasn't coming together right away.
"I didn't really know the programs I was using," he said. "It was six months of me trying to learn that, with a lot of that being thrown-away work."
Roping his friend Baker in to handle "the math" side of things certainly helped matters, though, as did Tan's own persistence and his parents' continued support. Baker and Tan launched a development blog for the game on Tumblr in September 2015, sharing updates on their progress.
Those screenshots that eventually made it onto Reddit originated there, but Tan and Baker also offered an FAQ explaining their design influences — Life is Strange, Journey, the works of Hayao Miyazaki — and posted a brief video of the current build in action.
The Tumblr holds proof that this third-person exploration game does exist beyond its art, although it's still not very playable yet.
"You can play it in that you can walk around and knock over a box," said Tan. "You can initiate some animations.
"Play-wise, as for it being fun, I don't think it's that fun right now," he admitted.
Tan's frustrations with that aspect of the development led to December's Reddit thread. The Way to the Woods team had been working on the game to prepare for the Unreal Dev Grant application, making sure it was good enough to submit. That process wore Tan out.
"I kind of posted the screenshots because I was kind of done with the game," he said. That had long been his inclination — once you've made something, share it with the internet.
"I sent in the Grant app, called it a day, and just left. Nothing really happened after that. It was just kinda chill." Until, well, it wasn't.
Instead of going for his usual, smaller Unreal Engine cohort, Tan put the images before a wider audience: the Gaming subreddit, one of Reddit's biggest.
"I was like, 'Ugh, I'm tired, I don't care,'" he said.
Despite not caring — he even forgot to include a link to the game's blog — the post blew up. Twice, in fact: once on Reddit, and again because of Sean Murray's tweet.
Tan put it succinctly: "When you don't want it, it happens."
Then came interviews and news stories and social media chatter. No longer was he in control of his online output; finally, the internet was approaching him first. He described "crudely explaining" articles about him to his parents, who don't speak English (and he doesn't speak Vietnamese) but expressed pride. Friends, too, were excited.
The teen dev made sure to note his own excitement, too. "I'm just kind of screenshotting things like tweets, making sure they're real and having a record because I don't really quite believe it," he said.
The increased profile benefited him in a number of ways. After seeing the screenshots on the Gaming subreddit thread, indie pop musician Jeremy Warmsley was so taken with Way to the Woods that he reached out to Tan personally.
The power of his work
"[I] got in touch straight away to ask if he needed any music for the game," Warmsley told me. "I didn't realise at this point that he was a high schooler, something he volunteered in his response to my e-mail."
Tan's age didn't faze Warmsley, who quickly signed on as the game's composer, upping the number involved with the project to three. "To be honest it's not really a factor either way for me. I would want to work with him if he was 16 or 61 — such is the power of the work he's doing.
"People (including myself) really respond to [Way to the Woods'] visuals and premise," Warmsley added. "I've never really seen anything like it."
Others, like Sean Murray, have reached out to Tan to offer advice about the industry, too. "I'm surprised I can actually talk to them," he said, comparing himself to Troy Barnes in the canceled NBC comedy Community, who literally freezes up in the presence of his idol LeVar Burton. This image was distinctly at odds with the one of the calm, present, grateful person on the other end of the phone.
So where does one go from here, having considerable talent at this stage and already receiving approval from two notable heads of indie studios? Was the incoming senior thinking about college?
Tan wasn't sure. "I feel like I'd be in class a lot, staring out the window, saying, 'Yeah, I know what Photoshop is," he offered, wary of sounding arrogant but emphatic about being honest with me.
"But at the same time, you meet so many cool people. Like this year, in that games course, I met a lot of cool friends. But at the same time, I also want to be working and running a studio and stuff."
He's in the throes of one of life's most difficult decisions, but whichever path he chooses, the end goal is the same. He wants to make games for a living; he has to.
"I don't see myself being able to do anything but video games," said Tan. "It's do or die for me."
This is something his peers would surely echo; for many Tan's age, there is no life without gaming. It's always been there as a populist medium, one their parents took no issue with.
Then, there was that age-appropriate flippancy: "I can't predict the future. Maybe I'll suddenly decide I hate video games."
Above all, Tan is not one to have a big head about his success. All he wants, he told me, again with an inaudible shrug, is to keep making "cool games." He wants to start up his own studio, and he hopes that an Unreal Dev Grant will be the first big step in making both Way to the Woods and his bigger dreams a reality.
When I reached out to him again recently, he was still hard at work. He hasn't heard back from Epic Games about funding yet, although he feels positive about it; he also said that some exciting things were happening, but he couldn't reveal them yet.
"Attention comes in waves"
In light of his persistent professionalism, it was important to remind myself that he was still only 16 years old. It was easy for me to forget that during our 45-minute conversation; he had a mature gravitas, a self-awareness, that many twice his age lack.
Tan, on the other hand, is fully conscious of his youth. He splits his time between game development and hanging out with friends. Just before we spoke, in fact, he had gone to a Taylor Swift concert. "So there's your normal teen stuff."
He's into comics, animation and art, too, and he of course spends a lot of time online. The internet's been kind to him thus far, he knows, but he also knows that could change.
"The internet is fickle, and I'm totally aware that attention comes in waves," he said, again sounding wise beyond his years. Teens are often thought to be emotionally driven, irrational creatures of habit. But by the time we signed off — around 3:30 a.m. his time — I was convinced otherwise, at least when it comes to Anthony Tan.
Correction: Tan is a frequent visitor of the Unreal Engine subreddit. We misidentified the engine in the original story. The text above reflects the change throughout.
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