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Interview: Arcen Games on A Valley Without Wind and future plans

Indie darling Arcen Games has created two incredibly stellar titles: the difficult co-op strategy title AI War and the refined puzzler Tidalis. They aren't going to simply sit around and continue updating those two games, however, and their latest announced title is the intriguing A Valley Without Wind. Set in a post-apocalyptic world where monsters roam, supplies are scarce, and magic is rampant, it aims to bring procedural generation to the realm of adventuring. Set out in a direction and explore while interacting with inhabitants in interesting and meaningful ways. Erik Johnson and Chris Park of Arcen Games sat down with us to talk a little more about previous successes, the direction of A Valley Without Wind, and the future of Arcen Games.

Just for clarity's sake, let's hear a little bit about the two of you and your work as Arcen Games.

Erik Johnson: I've worked in the industry as a freelance journalist going on around five years now. Back in 2009, I joined a small team to form upstart indie blog DIYGamer.com where my focus changed dramatically from the console mainstream to the independent and obscure on PC, XBLIG, App Store, etc. Around the same time, Chris and I formed a working relationship when I interviewed him regarding AI War. I (very) recently joined Arcen as sort of a jack-of-all-trades, specifically in the PR/Marketing department, and still (more or less) keep up with my blogging/reviewing work as well.

Chris Park
: I founded Arcen in early 2009 when I was nearing completion on AI War, and before that I was only a hobbyist in the games industry. I spent eight years before that developing various kinds of business software, but my whole life I've been fascinated with level design, game design, writing, art, and programming. Making new games or making content for existing games was a fundamental part of my free time activities since I was about nine years old, but for some reason I never felt it was a real career. It was too much like being a football player in the NFL or something, far too abstract for me. So I sort of fell into the industry after watching it for years, when the game I was making in my spare time actually turned out to be something a lot of other people were interested in, too.

A Valley Without Wind (AVWW) is your next title, and you just announced it. Is there anything outside of the press release you'd like to talk about?

Erik: I'll mostly defer to Chris on this, but I will mention one potential result of the "character upon character" and "permadeath" mechanics we didn't necessarily emphasize which I find to be a particularly cool concept. Over time, players (hopefully) should feel as if they're assuming and controlling the game's society as a whole, and subsequently the world they're forced to adapt to and live in as well; rather than the standard convention of seeing it all through an individual character's eyes. So at the game's core you're not just defining one person, you're defining the human spirit.

Chris: That's absolutely right. I do want to add that this doesn't mean you're disconnected from what's going on, but just that you've got even more of a sense of permanence and -- to some extent -- reality to the proceedings than normal. If death just means "replay the last 5 minutes of the game," that's boring. But if death means "someone I liked has died and is gone forever, but the game goes on while still remembering them," that can get pretty poignant. Not that the game is going to be full of Deep Meaning in a pretentious sense, but that it's aiming to create this world that you care about, and that is full of memories that, on varying levels, matter to you and the characters that are still alive. That's the goal, anyway.

In regards to the concept of persistence, a few games such as Dwarf Fortress have really pushed the mechanics of a "continual, memorable world." They also tend to suffer from a lack of scope, as you rarely see the impact that a loss of a character or fortress has on the populace. How to you plan on preventing this sort of thing in AVWW?

Chris: One of the big differences between Dwarf Fortress (great game by the way) and AVWW is that Dwarf Fortress is a true simulation. Like SimCity or the like. The entire world is living and breathing around you, and damage to individual fingers of individual dwarves is tracked. Things evolve consistently whether you are looking at them are not, etc.

That uses an immense amount of CPU power, though, and is just really a different genre of game. Our goal with AVWW isn't to make an accurate, incredibly detailed simulation -- it's to create a fun adventure game in a world that seems to be alive. Therefore, from a technical standpoint, the simulation isn't run for anything that isn't in the current "chunk" of the world that you're looking at. It isn't even in memory -- if it was, that would bound the size of the game world to the amount of RAM you have, and we wanted no such limitations.

A lot of games have that sort of not-in-sight-not-simulated aspect, but most of them are traditional RPG or adventure games where the only things that change are scripted, and not much is scripted to change with time, anyway. For AVWW, the new technical concept we have is "rapid aging." When a player first re-enters any area, there is a quick, sub-second rapid-aging process that the game goes through. If it's been ten minutes or ten years, the game quickly does a shortcut simulation of what happened while you were gone, and shows you the result.

This is important because it allows for us to have a truly massive world without causing a linear increase in CPU/RAM costs to simulate the whole thing -- in fact, it allows us to have almost no increase in CPU/RAM costs -- and it also allows us to focus development time and effort on the parts that actually matter, and that are fun. We don't need to simulate ten years of NPCs walking around while you were gone all that time. We just need to simulate births and deaths, feuds, construction, etc. I'm not saying those are things we necessarily will be simulating even in rapid aging -- some of that aspect of the design is still a bit open-ended at the moment as we wait to see how the underlying mechanics take off with players first -- but the point is that it gives us the flexibility to "get right to the point" and just simulate aspects that are meaningful to the players. If the player doesn't care what happened precisely, then neither does our simulation. As with many things in gaming, it's all about the illusion rather than what really goes on backstage.

Will there be things such as family trees and (potentially) jumping from father/mother to son/daughter?

Chris: Probably not -- we might get into something vaguely like that over time -- in the post-1.0 era for the game, or even in a future paid expansion in the style we've done for AI War. But that's definitely not a focus for anytime soon. When your character dies, you assume another character you've been in contact with in certain ways, chosen by you at the time of death. If all your interacted-with characters are dead, you get a random new character.

You announced the game in pre-alpha, rather than after it had reached a beta stage. It's especially obvious in the graphics department. Did you feel pressured to announce the game based on the success of other pre-alpha games, such as Cortex Command or Minecraft?

Erik: From my short time with the team I can say that this is more standard protocol for us than anything that has to do with a reaction to an outside influence. Not to say we're turning a blind eye to both the success stories and pratfalls out there, but since Arcen has made it a point to commit to openness and transparency since its inception, this is just par for the course.

Chris: I will say that we really felt like we -- meaning I -- botched things in terms of the pre-release news about Tidalis in particular. So I did feel some pressure to get the news out there a little bit earlier than normal. Pre-alpha instead of alpha. But as Erik says, we're always really open and transparent, so when it comes to alpha that's going to be public and people can play with it and give us suggestions and submit content, etc. That's something we've done with all our games and expansions since AI War.

Speaking of Minecraft, it's going to be impossible to truly step out from its shadow as an infinite, procedural adventure game. What do you plan to do to differentiate your game in the eyes of the players beyond the setting?

Erik: Oh! I believe several things, but I'll defer to Chris on the matter.

Chris: Minecraft is all about the crafting and building of the world. Exploring in that game gets a bit repetitive after a while, because frankly that's just not the point, is it? There's only five or so monsters in there, but that totally doesn't matter because that's not the focus of the game -- it's about building, about creation. That "everything is a block" design works wonders there, because it lets players do so many things.

AVWW is really a different premise from the ground up. The world here isn't elemental, and creation is very limited in what you can do. You can't build houses out of component blocks, or anything like that. You can't dig down to the center of the earth. But the combat, exploration, and story elements will be so much vastly more evolved than something like Minecraft. In a lot of respects, procedural world generation aside, AVWW has far more in common with your typical action-adventure game than it does with Minecraft.

Will anything besides the world be generative? In specific, will the combat be mostly pre-determined?

Chris: I presume you're referring to dynamic spells, like in Magicka? That's definitely something really unique and cool about that game, though I've not yet had a chance to play it. That's not somewhere we plan to go, though, as the focus in this game really isn't on combat to the same degree it is in Magicka. The crafting aspects of AVWW will likely have some degree of discovery to them, letting you create unique objects out of various components. That's something we haven't really gotten into hugely yet in terms of design, either -- the idea was sparked by some recent player discussion, so we're just sort of wrapping our heads around it.

In terms of other aspects of the world, things like story from the start will be pulling from a finite pool, but combined in various dynamic ways. Characters themselves will have a fixed number of appearances obviously, but they'll have dynamically-created names (from lists -- not with alien-sounding results like the plants in AI War), randomly-rolled stats, and all that sort of thing.

These other aspects are interesting, but not as unique as the world-building -- most western RPGs have dynamically-rolled characters for instance, and even in terms of the crafting there are other games with unique item variants. Borderlands springs to mind, for one recent example, but there are many more. Given enough time and player interest, we hope to push those aspects beyond what other games have done in the past, but that's definitely not a given and our first priority is the worldbuilding.

Will the visuals be receiving an artistic overhaul, or are the pre-alpha screenshots indicative of the game's final art style?

Chris: There have already been some improvements based on early player comments -- the borders of the trees in particular look better -- and we'll be sharing new screenshots on a weekly basis. The overall visual style will be the same, and there are quite a lot of assets in our most recent screenshots (after the press release) that are considered quasi-final (meaning they might be improved, but we don't have any definite plans to do so). For what it's worth, the fan's reaction to the new screens has been a lot more positive.

That said, those early screenshots look kind of rough partly because they are so empty. With the actual normal amount of content in there -- monsters, buildings, more variance in the terrain, etc -- it's going to look really different. Right now it's sort of like looking at Zelda with only roads, one character, and three different trees. No matter how good or poor the individual components look, there's only so much you can infer from that as to the final style. I think people will be pleased with the final style, and actually the screens we'll have this week should be a lot more exciting even just compared to a week ago. This game evolves fast!

Is AVWW built on a middleware engine (such as AI War being in Unity) or is it an in-house engine?

Chris: Absolutely! Like all our titles for the foreseeable future, AVWW is a Unity 3D title. Switching middleware engines is really tough and time consuming, so that's something we do as infrequently as possible. And it's our good fortune that the Unity guys are really on the ball with their product, so much the better for us. There's still a lot of higher-level engine-on-an-engine work that has to be done, of course, and the core of that is pulling from a combination of AI War and Tidalis, and then building up its new mechanics from there. Unity 3D is, well, built for 3D games, so to do 2D at all we have to get kind of tricky.

Will there be built in mod support, especially for new events and new visuals?

Chris: I wouldn't call it "mod" support, because to me that implies being able to build an entirely new game on top of an existing game. We won't be supporting that. But, we will have the ability for players to define all sorts of custom content, from text-based stuff like names and dialogue, to script-based stuff that affects how the world is populated. The best of that will make it into the official versions of the game, with permission and attribution. In terms of art and sounds and similar, all of our games support asset replacement for those files we provide, but we won't be supporting adding all-new images that have new behavior attached to them. That said, if players are creating art that we think is appropriate to include in the full game in addition to our art, then we'll do so -- that's happened quite a bit with AI War, for instance.

Is there any aspect of AVWW that takes into account things said in critical and popular responses to AI War or Tidalis?

Erik: With AI War and Tidalis I feel we've established a reputation of being second-to-none when it comes to updating our games, especially when it comes to post-launch support. We certainly don't want AVWW to be a betrayal of what our community has come to expect in that department. Being involved in these games both for longer and at a much more intensive level, Chris will likely have a different perspective here. But since we're talking about three very different games each fitting under their own separate genre, the main items I personally look to take from critical and popular reception would have to do more with our aforementioned style of development. Things we as a dev team can more or less continue to mimic or tweak if needed regardless of the game we're working on.

Chris: Definitely. Though I would add that we've really been looking to our strengths with this game. Doing a large amount of hand-crafted content was really a challenge for us with Tidalis, and not something we wanted to repeat at this time. Doing procedural world generation with AI War was something that was extremely well received, but there's only so far you can take that in the vacuum of space. So we wanted to push that further, too. And lastly, it's clear that a certain subset of players hunger for a concrete way to affect the game, so with our content-scripting tools and such for AVWW, we're aiming to achieve that to a larger degree than with either of our prior games. It's all a learning process, and with this particular game we're leaning on our strengths as much as possible, while still pushing out into really new territory.

Are there still plans to continue updating Tidalis and AI War with content, or will AVWW take precedence?

Erik: While AVWW is certainly our main focus for the majority of 2011, both AI War and Tidalis will continue to see ongoing development for the foreseeable future--just less frequently than in the past over the next several months. At current, we plan on releasing AI War's fourth expansion around the end of the year, and since we didn't see the initial success we had hoped for Tidalis, there's plenty of ideas on the table on how to potentially reach more players.

Chris: Exactly.

Do you expect to have a pre-order system in place for AVWW?

Erik: Yes, we'll definitely begin taking pre-orders once we have something to offer for the players, in this case the Alpha. We've talked about giving those who pre-purchase during that phase a 50% discount, and a 25% discount for those that jump in during Beta. That's not in stone yet so don't hold us to that exact format, but we'll definitely be showing our appreciation to pre-order customers in some way beyond being able to play the latest version of the game.

Chris: Exactly. We're really excited about that. And as always, whenever we have something available for preorder, that means that of course the preorder customers can play whatever we have done on the game thus far, but also folks can try out an alpha version of the demo without having to spend any money. We don't like making people buy things sight-unseen!

Do you have any plans beyond AVWW for new titles?

Erik: Of course! Personally, since I joined Arcen last month I can speak to the overflowing amount of collaboration and brainstorming the team participates in via email seemingly every day. My inbox has literally blown a fuse since joining the team, and I mean that in a good way. While it's top priority to stay focused on the development of the project we've scheduled the lion-share of our time to, we're always exchanging ideas. As for more concrete items, Alden Ridge is still on the table as a potential release in the future, and we're very interested in making a title in the tower defense genre if it financially makes sense and the timing is right. Though, how we continue as a development team, and ultimately at what capacity we can implement our ideas into final products, will be greatly determined by how well A Valley Without Wind goes sales-wise.

Chris: AVWW really will be paving the way for us in terms of being able to do a lot of more titles using some of the technical things we build out for this title. That is always true for any of our games, but this one brings us into a new realm of types of games we can make: games taking place on an earth-like world with characters walking around and interacting with that world, etc. That's an engine that we can modify and reuse for a lot of different things, and with that in mind we're making it as flexible as possible to save ourselves time on future projects. We'd really like to do a tactical turn-based game at some point, for instance, along with the various ideas Erik mentioned. I'm not sure what our next project will be, but this definitely won't be our last!

How is Arcen Games doing as a company? Is it sustainable with current sales of Tidalis and AI War?
Erik: I believe so. I'll largely defer to Chris on the matter, but as I mentioned what we're able to do going forward beyond our three major titles will be largely based on AVWW sales.

Chris: Right now we're in much better shape than we had been. Assuming some sort of reasonably good baseline sales of our existing titles, we're looking good until the middle of the year or possibly beyond, even without considering AVWW. We're hoping that the game is compelling enough even in alpha to really start taking over as our flagship project, though, to be on the safe side. Quibbles over the early art aside, there definitely has been more excitement for AVWW than for any other project we've ever done. A lot definitely hinges on how compelling we're able to make even the early alpha, though, to be sure -- but, as always, we'll keep our eyes open and our wits about us and adapt as we go. There's uncertainty and risk with any new project, but at this point in time the future looks bright for Arcen.


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