My name is Jonas Manke. I’m 35 years old, a father of three wonderful kids, and I live in Bielefeld, Germany. I’ve been working in the film and games industry as a freelance character animator since 2007 and started my company, Studio Inkyfox, in 2019 after a successful Kickstarter campaign for my hobby project Omno.
Omno is, in many ways, an exemplary inspiring project. Not only is it solo developer Jonas Manke’s first game, but the father of three opted to quit his full-time gig as an animator to develop it.
Dabbling with Unreal Engine in his spare time, Manke eventually created an early prototype for the upcoming adventure title. After getting positive feedback from family and friends, he decided to risk financial hardship and eventually sought funding from Kickstarter to finish Omno. The campaign became a huge success, tripling its € 32,000 goal with over 3,000 backers. This opened the door for Manke to increase the game’s level of polish and paved the way for him to become one of the first Epic MegaGrant recipients.
Omno features a dazzling, colorful, and minimalist art style that makes the game look extremely polished. The title looked so promising that people thought it was too good to be true and refused to believe it was made by one person, let alone someone making their first game. “Whilst very flattering in a lot of ways, it’s hard to prove that you are not hiding a team under your desk,” Manke previously wrote. Still in the midst of this unbelievable journey, he joins us to talk about the most challenging aspect of being a solo developer, what it’s been like learning Unreal Engine, shares game design philosophy, and more.
Omno has often been compared to Journey. Did the game have any major influences, be it from games or other mediums?
Studio Inkyfox founder, Jonas Manke: Journey and Omno have much less in common than the desert surfing clips on social media might suggest. In Omno, there are mechanics like dashing, teleporting, and platforming coupled with a wide variety of animals and different biomes. However, both games tell the story of a journey in the wider sense, and it might feel similar in some aspects.
I really loved Journey and, to me, it is a masterpiece that certainly influences my work. I imagine all other creatives consider great works to be inspirational; among those are things with less obvious similarities. This includes everything from Final Fantasy 7, Mario, and ABZÛ, to Ghibli movies and Lord of the Rings. There are numerous games and movies that dazzled me and changed the way I perceive my world, and have affected my creativity.
Omno features a beautiful, colorful, and minimalist art style with varied biomes that span icy, sandy, and forest environments. Was there a lot of iteration involved in nailing the look of the game?
Manke: It took me many iterations to find the style and design rules for Omno. In the beginning, like most naive indie developers, I was trying to achieve something much more realistic and AAA-looking, which is obviously very time-consuming (especially for a solo dev). I knew early on that, with my limited resources, I would have to find a style that allowed me to quickly generate a wide range of game assets while iterating on the world design effectively.
What I ended up with is sort of a compromise, turned into its own style, if I may say. I use very low-poly objects for economical reasons but focus more on the hard-edged shapes and silhouettes while still allowing soft surfaces to exist. That play between hard edges and soft surfaces is something that you see throughout the game. The character’s head, for instance, is round like a pumpkin but still has some hard-edged angles at the back of his head.
With these design rules in mind, it wasn’t too hard to come up with different biomes. For the environments, I knew I wanted players to feel like they were on a journey. I started with the green biome, finding the style for the plants, stones, lights, and more but with the goal of creating a variety of landscape experiences. I quickly iterated on other extremes like the desert and its counterpart, the ice landscape, which all felt good once I found the right style for the assets. The cloudy biome was the hardest one for me to pull off so that one came pretty late in production, but I think I am most proud of this one because it sort of combined all my experiences working on the other biomes.
Image courtesy of Studio Inkyfox
Omno doesn't shy away from its effective use of god rays, which cast beautiful light and shadows across the landscape that lend the game a surrealistic look. Can you share your approach to implementing this aesthetic?
Manke: With the low-poly and simplified look, which tends to make games look unnatural and technical, I still wanted to achieve a sense of vast landscapes and a dense atmosphere, so I knew I had to go strong on light and atmosphere effects.
Back in the days when I was a professional animator, I had learned that when you want to achieve significant visual changes, you should start at the extreme and pull back from there until it feels right. So, let’s say you play with the contrast value: You shouldn’t increase the values slowly from where you come from, but instead just go to the very maximum and slowly decrease from there. The observation you're going to make is, you stop at different values. When coming from the extreme, you end up with a much bigger change. That’s probably due to some relativity mechanisms of our eyes.
With that effect in mind, I tortured the Depth of Field settings, did some purely crazy things with the colors, and definitely overused fog and god rays. Actually, it felt pretty good even at those extremes. By pulling back slowly from there to an amount that’s achievable within performance constraints while feeling “realistic enough,” I pretty much ended up with what’s in Omno now. Of course, there were numerous tweaks over the course of years along the way.
The world features large, mysterious levels that don't seem to hold your hand, which fosters a yearning for exploration. Can you shed any light on your level-design philosophy?
Manke: The level design was probably one of the hardest aspects of the design process. I always aimed for the impression of a vast world with a lot to explore, not necessarily being open-world, which would be overkill for a solo dev with the style I chose. Yet, I still wanted the player to “get lost” but in a good way. Nevertheless, it is a linear single-player adventure by a one-person company, so I had to implement some sort of guidance and direction for players to progress. There’s always been a really thin line here that took many iterations on area sizes and mechanics to make feel right.
The initial plans for Omno looked quite different from what’s there now, but I am super happy to have made those decisions early enough, so I was able to come up with something that gives the player a lot of freedom and still doesn’t feel weirdly experimental and confusing.
I like comparing my world design with the shape of a pearl necklace. We have quite big open areas, tied together by short linear passages, so the player can stay in an area and explore it as long as they want to, but they’ll always know how and where to leave when they decide to.
Consistent design patterns and repeating mechanisms along with visual guidance by height differences, perspectives, leading lines, silhouettes, and such, are the tools that I tried to use to shape the landscapes in a way that allows players to orient themselves while still enjoying different landscape designs.
While platforming, puzzle-solving, and exploration seem to be core elements of Omno, unlike many other third-person platformers, the game seems to be devoid of combat. Was there a conscious decision early on to leave combat out of the equation?
Manke: Yes. Most games out there use combat as a form of conflict resolution. As a solo dev, I have the freedom to do whatever I want and can be a bit more experimental with design choices. So, I tried to find satisfying and fun gameplay mechanics that would allow me to get a message across without the use of any sort of violence. I cannot spoil the story of Omno here, but players will hopefully understand the background of that decision once they play through the game.
Image courtesy of Studio Inkyfox
Omno features imaginative creatures from the tiny to the larger-than-life. How did you approach designing them?
Manke: I enjoyed creating those immensely. I always liked drawing weird fantasy creatures and wanted them to feel natural and realistic but still otherworldly and interesting, just like the rest of the game or the character himself. Creature designs were mostly influenced by the biomes they lived in. By thinking of creatures you might see in those habitats, mixing them up on paper, combining them, drawing some weird shapes and silhouettes around them, and trying to think about how they would live, I was eventually led to the results the player will see in the game. In fact, players can read a line or two about each creature in the journal once they discover it. Those animal descriptions were part of my personal notes about them while they were conceived.
Giving up your day job to pursue a solo game development career path sounds like it could be an intimidating proposition. What motivated you to do it?
Manke: I was motivated to go that road by a friend, by the community, and by my wife—in that order. After I had some very rough tests for Omno, long before it even had a name, a close friend of mine told me to show it to some devs on Facebook groups to get some feedback. I was hesitant about that at first, being a non-professional hobbyist (despite being a professional animator), but he pushed me over the edge. I eventually posted it online and the response blew me away. My inbox was flooded, and I received a couple of hundred likes (which has never happened before), and people were asking many questions that I didn’t have the answers to. Like, “What’s the name of it? Is there a newsletter? Where can I subscribe?” Not having experienced anything like that before as a small gear within big movie and game companies, this changed my view on my abilities and made me think that I might have something here. So I kept working on it for a couple more months, did more and more public interest tests, and eventually, with my super supportive wife beside me, made the decision to go all in and give it a try full time. A couple of months later, I ran out of money and started the Kickstarter campaign to finish the game, not knowing that this would change my entire life and the production for years. Omno is now much bigger than it was planned initially, and I am grateful for the chance I was given by many people every single day. No matter how it sells, this journey has been a blast and was definitely worth taking the risk for.
Manke: Everything. The campaign and the following success, the MegaGrant, taught me a valuable lesson that I will hopefully never forget: If you really put all you have into something you believe in, it will pay off. It’s not guaranteed, of course, but you will have little chance of success if you are not fully committed. The months of hard work before the campaign, the long nights, the struggle, it was suddenly worth it! And that felt so incredibly good and meaningful that it still motivates me to this day.
Financially, I was able to think much bigger than initially planned, fulfill my wildest dreams, and take much bigger risks as well. The more I worked with Unreal Engine, the more I became a fan of Epic, their software, their support, and the community around on the forums and social media. Receiving the MegaGrant felt like a huge confirmation of my plans and ambitions. I felt honored to be noticed by them and that they had the trust in me and Omno. It was a big motivational push that is hard to describe and opened so many doors that I didn’t even think of before.
I was able to speak to publishers, investors (learned a lot from that), secured some great help from my country, founded my one-man company, hired a composer, got marketing help, and really started a business that I was previously just dreaming about to eventually make Omno a game that feels like a serious grown-up project.
Image courtesy of Studio Inkyfox
As someone who was a freelance character animation artist, who mostly worked on films, were there any skills or experiences working in that industry that bolstered your game development work?
Manke: Working on movies taught me a lot. Most of it involves the crafting side itself. Animation, bringing things to life, just has magic to me that I enjoy so much. Working in 3D, creating content, and iterating on output is something that I was very used to before diving into the gaming industry, which certainly helped me quickly understand the basic concepts of working with the engine. Over a decade working on films shaped the way I work, my efficiency, my choice of tools, and taught me what to focus on. However, the gaming industry is totally different in most aspects and still feels relatively small.
Manke: Massively! Watching people play the demo has taught me so much! It is incredibly valuable to see where people go, what they look at, what they notice, what they enjoy, and what they dislike. Despite the demo being part of the success of the campaign, it still has many flaws and issues that I’ve since addressed. Climbing over edges, camera movement, control schemes, the size of the landscapes, and the way I communicate the goals to the player; so much has changed since. What hasn’t changed at all is the overall look and feel. I always tried to stay true to the heart of Omno and what it made successful in the first place.
What has it been like learning Unreal to develop your first game, and why was the engine a good fit for Omno?
Manke: As mentioned before, I’m not exaggerating by saying that I’m a huge fan of Unreal Engine. It’s not just the software itself; it’s the entire infrastructure around it. Learning it was really enjoyable to me, unlike with many other complicated software packages I had to learn for my animation career. There is great and well-structured learning material, which is very accessible and easy to understand. They have the best online tutorials I’ve seen in my entire career. I’m not exaggerating. Go watch them. They are really good.
Back when I started out, I was planning to learn Unreal for one to two hours a day after work, and a few weeks later, with my previous knowledge from being an animator, the engine just felt like an extension of my arm while creating stuff. I find the tools focus on the artistic side of things, which is perfect for me with my limited technical background. And I haven’t even brought up the visual-scripting system, which feels like a gift from heaven to someone like me.
Image courtesy of Studio Inkyfox
Given that this is the first game you've developed, what would you say has been the most challenging aspect of the process, and how did you overcome it?
Manke: The business stuff for sure. I often think about how much easier everything would have been if I just had kept Omno for myself and had no funding pressure, no expectations, and no contracts. The thing is, without my community, the excitement, the trust people and other partners put into me, I certainly would have given up in the meantime, and it would have become one of the many unfinished “test projects'' somewhere on my hard drive.
What really helps is finding partners you can trust and who can help you out with the many questions and issues that come up when running a company in this business. My co-publisher is amazing, Epic has some super supportive employees, and I’ve met many fellow devs who are always helpful. Don’t hide the fact that you don’t know everything. Ask for help. And if you can, give help back whenever possible.
As both a solo developer and someone working on their first game, do you have any pearls of wisdom you've learned through this process that might be beneficial for other aspiring devs to hear?
Manke: It sounds cliché, but don’t give up. On that note, I failed too many times and learned the hard way that you should show your work early. The longer you work in your dark room, the longer you won’t know if people will like it, how to improve it, or if it’s even worth working on. Showing your work early allows you to focus on the right aspects, not waste time, iterate faster, and eventually have a better product while being less exhausted.
Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about Omno?