How AFK Journey aims to make anime into a global art style

I haven’t interviewed learned anything about Chinese game developers in a while and so I took some time for a discussion with Xiaodong Tian, chief product officer of Lilith Games and Farlight Games. I wanted to see how the team approached making a global game.

He joined Lilith Games in 2013 as the 66th employee of the company. He’s been the producer of AFK Journey, AFK Arena, and Soul Hunter. And his company just unveiled the Song of Strife update for the game,

Headquartered in Singapore, Farlight Games is a newly established game publishing company and the global publishing brand of Lilith Games, a developer based in Shanghai, China. In 2022, the company published Dislyte under the Farlight Games brand, and it has since been available in more than 200 countries with over 1.2 million downloads within the first week of launch. AFK Journey was released in March 2024.

The new Song of Strife update will be available for AFK Journey servers that have been active for 42 days. To unlock this and all future seasons, players need to reach Resonance Level 240, clear all AFK Stages, and complete the quest “The Last Leg”. Once they’ve gained access to the content, players can pick up the main quest in Holistone.

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AFK Journey is now available for free on Windows PCs via the official website and on iOS and Android devices via the Apple App Store and Google Play. I communicate to Tian via a written Q&A through a translator. Here’ s an edited transcript of our interview.

Getting a welcome in AFK Journey.
Getting a welcome in AFK Journey.

GamesBeat: This seems like a very big project. How many people work on this game?

Xiaodong Tian: Currently, there are about 190 full-time employees dedicated to the project team. Additionally, many other departments within the company are supporting our development and publishing efforts.

Our team was inspired to create AFK Journey after a particular meeting with players of the previous game in the series, AFK Arena. A player expressed confusion, saying that they felt lost and didn’t understand why they were developing their heroes or constantly progressing through levels. They felt aimless in the late game, questioning the purpose of continually getting stronger and pushing through stages.
This sentiment really struck us. We decided then and there that we wanted to bring the world of Esperia to life with compelling storylines to motivate players, and offer rich character backgrounds to give the game a deeper meaning. We wanted to infuse Esperia with real vitality and create a truly dynamic IP. That’s when we decided to start this project.

GamesBeat: When you think of the audience for this game, how do you describe them?

Tian: The common traits of our players might include a passion for RPGs, a preference for the fantasy adventure genre, an interest in collecting unique heroes with diverse personalities, and a penchant for strategic and tactical gameplay.

AFK Journey kicked off in February 2024.

In terms of the types of gameplay these players seek out, we aim to be as diverse as possible, because the gameplay offering in AFK Journey compared to AFK Arena is much more varied. There’s rich RPG storytelling, open-world exploration elements, social features, and more strategic casual competitive mechanisms. We want to welcome different players because we believe the world of Esperia shouldn’t be monotonous and dull; players can discover their own unique experiences and enjoyment in the game.
Additionally, we implemented various designs in order to ensure these different gameplay offerings don’t conflict with each other. For example, in the Honor Duel mode, we remove the impact of stats and individual progression, considering the need for fairness in casual competition. This enables players who enjoy competition to experience the fun, and allows the heroes of Esperia to demonstrate their strategic diversity in a fair setting.

GamesBeat: Where are most of the fans in terms of geographic areas?

Tian: We’ve discovered through data and conversations with players that we truly have a global audience for our titles, and this is especially true for AFK Journey. This diversity is intentional as well, as we want our company and products to service a global audience. Lilith Games started in 2013 in Shanghai, growing steadily over the years as we released new prodcuts. A few years ago we established Farlight Games as the global publishing arm for all Lilith Games titles. Ultimately we want our companies to mirror the needs of our players, ensuring that we’re serving all our fans across the globe.

GamesBeat: How do you describe the art style?

Some pretty anime art in AFK Journey
Some pretty anime art in AFK Journey

Tian: The art style is very distinctive. We’ve been trying to give it a name, and internally we often refer to it as the “Magical Storybook” style.

Our art director and art team place great emphasis on the consistency between the gameplay experience and the visual effects. We want the visual style to convey a sense of casualness and leisure, just like the gameplay. The art team has done a lot of detailed design and polishing, from character design to UI interaction, and after around three years of continuously listening to player feedback and observing data, we finally achieved the unique style we were after.

Our artists are avid gamers themselves, and their personal experiences help them integrate our art style and visual details with AFK Journey’s gameplay, so they complement each other. Everything ultimately serves the player’s experience, and what’s appropriate for the players is what’s best. For example, the initial design of the game’s maze featured a complex transition effect that looked cool but made the process too tedious. We simplified it to enhance the player’s actual experience.

Additionally, our art style has continuously evolved through constant updates and optimizations. The game went through more than half a year of updates before its official release. We kept refining it based on player feedback and data. Even the final version before launch underwent significant changes. This iterative process will continue as we strive for excellence. With the release of new updates and characters, we believe there is always room for improvement.

GamesBeat: How do you keep the quality high for this game? What choices does that lead to in terms of updates and development?

Tian: First, we focus on the consistency of the game. This includes the coherence of characters and scenes, the way players interact with the world, and the balance between stats and visuals. We value team communication and collaboration. It’s not just about simple division of labor; we encourage everyone to work together. Our art and writing teams get involved early in the character design and world setting, and our UI/UX team participates in functionality discussions from the start. We promote collaboration through communication, ensuring that everyone understands the design intentions. This helps every team member contribute to each feature from their professional perspective, ensuring that every character and feature in the game feels cohesive and unified.

Song of Strife is a new update for AFK Journey.

Details are also crucial, our team puts a lot of effort into refining details. Every team member strives to add more details to the game within their capacity. The vivid world of Esperia is built on numerous small things. For example, in the character display interface, heroes from different factions have corresponding weather effects to make them feel more integrated into the background. Additionally, our scene design takes into account the limitations of a vertical screen, which can make top-down views feel cramped. To address this, we incorporated a “rolling log” effect to maintain the distinct top-down perspective while providing a sense of smoothness. This ensures that players don’t feel constrained when exploring the vast world for extended periods. We also spent a lot of time tuning the tech behind the game, such as iterating the resource loading mechanisms over a dozen versions to ensure a smooth player experience.

I also attribute our quality to the value we put on player feedback. We encourage our developers to engage with the community and listen to players’ voices. We hold regular weekly community meetings and have dedicated staff to collect and organize player opinions and suggestions from various channels. We periodically involve core project designers in discussions on high-interest topics raised by players. As a long-term service-oriented game, co-creating the game with players is a key philosophy for us. Lilith Games has a culture of making friends with players, meaning developers are not just game managers who design based solely on their ideas. Instead, we are closely connected with players, collaborating to build the game together. We carefully analyze player pain points and translate them into innovative designs that meet the needs of the majority of players.

Alsa in AFK Journey

We’re dedicated to being a long-term live service game, aiming to make it just as exciting ten years from now. Keeping the game fresh and engaging, so players always have something new to explore, is essential for us. We’ve designed a unique seasonal update mechanism, releasing new maps, stories, and characters at a steady pace. This is complemented by cross-server gameplay, stat resets, and environmental changes, ensuring players always have something new to enjoy. In future seasons, we will continue to improve our craft and design, experiment with new game modes, and keep the features players love while phasing out those that aren’t as well received. Through this extensive updates, we hope the game will become even more engaging over the years.

As for the social features, we also aim to minimize the impact of the stat differences among players. For instance, in Arena mode, we use a baseline level to compress the gap between players’ AFK progress, equipment levels, and other major stat systems. This ensures that victories in the Arena can be achieved through strategy adjustments and skills rather than stat superiority.

For platforms, we strive to accommodate both mobile and PC users. We want both PC and mobile players to enjoy the world of Esperia. While ensuring a smooth gaming experience on mobile devices, we have also invested efforts into optimizing the horizontal screen version for the PC.

Currently in the gaming industry, many games are moving to fit into the metaverse. We hope that the world of Esperia can also develop in this direction—inclusive, rich, and diverse—allowing as many players as possible to experience its beauty.

GamesBeat: How can you make it more appealing to the West?

Tian: I believe that what attracts Western players isn’t something entirely Western. If something is already very familiar, it’s unlikely to deeply captivate a player. However, if something is 70% familiar but has 30% novelty, the blend of familiarity and suprise makes it more appealing. From the early stages of developing AFK Arena, we based it on a Western fantasy worldview and cartoon style. Then, we added our own interpretations and innovations, gradually finding a balance where Western players feel both familiarity and novelty.

In fact, this approach is very appealing to players around the globe. Everyone can find something familiar and something new in the game, which is the effect we want to achieve.

GamesBeat: What do you consider to be the most important features in the Song of Strife and future updates?

Soren in AFK Journey

Tian: As mentioned earlier, the seasonal update is a revolutionary experiment for a traditional card RPG’s updating pace. Beyond just an update, it introduces a whole new season with new maps, stories, characters, and enemies. There are new seasonal goals for development and collection, as well as cross-server gameplay. Players can meet new friends and rivals, embarking on a completely different journey each season. Personally, I’m most excited about the new maps and stories. They reveal more about the characters’ fates and storylines, help me understand the heroes’ motivations, and fulfill my desire to embrace courage and strength. We aim to create a vibrant, imaginative world in Esperia through these dynamic and lively seasons.

Additionally, during each four-month season, we will continuously release new stories, activities, and gameplay, which players can look forward to throughout the season.

While we’re proud of the content currently available, we generally consider this to be very early on in the game’s long-term development. What players see now is just the tip of the iceberg of our imagination – the Esperia we envison is much richer, so we hope to surpise and delight players in future seasons as well.


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