Welcome everyone to the first official edition of Flavor of the Week! In this series, we'll tip the hat to an exceptionally outstanding indie game worthy of the attention of you guys and generally speaking, anyone who plays video games. For this first installment, we'll give Arcen Games the floor as we sit by the pool and chat it up about their origins, a current box-office hit, PixelJunk and where the inspiration came from regarding A Valley Without Wind (a game you should definitely check out)
Smooth Town: Thanks for your time. We at Smooth Town have been concocting ways to showcase the rising developers in the gaming industry and well, we hope to strike something hot with this series because you guys are our Flavor of the Week! Getting right down to business, how did Arcen Games come about? Was it an overnight thing or did it actually take months of planning and determination to get the ball rolling? To put it simply, how the heck did you guys just come out of left field?
Chris Park (Arcen's Founder): Haha, thanks very much -- and always glad to be a part of something like this. We've actually been around since 2009, and are very well known in the hardcore-strategy-game niche. And boy is that a niche within a niche within a niche, quite literally. That's why you've never heard of us. We thought we were pretty well known with the press, but when we went to PAX East literally only three press out of about 40 who came to visit us even knew who we were. That blew me away; but it turns out that because almost all our press has been in Europe, most specifically the UK and Germany. Those are the strategy gaming hotspots.
Not to ramble on about where we're known and where we aren't, but I think it's actually rather an interesting point because it just goes to show how fragmented the gaming populace can be. Games in popular genres, or the very top games with the widest appeal in smaller genres, are things that everyone has heard of. But you can be a big (or in our case lower-midsize) fish in any one of a number of very small ponds. This was something I didn't even realize until a couple of weeks back, and it's been my life for the last three years!
As to how this all got started, I've always made games or content for games as a hobby, since I was about 9 years old. Never thought of it as a career, though. I made our first game, AI War: Fleet Command, pretty much on my own except for contracting Pablo -- the composer for all our games since -- for the music. That game was enough of a success that Pablo and I were able to quit the day jobs in late 2009, and then we've been taking on staff and doing more expansions and games since then. Three expansions for AI War, one of which was an all-proceeds-to-Child's-Play thing that has so far raised over $30k for them; and then a puzzle game called Tidalis that got really good reviews including some perfect scores from some major sources like Tom Chick, but which flopped really horribly and almost put us out of business. It was all over PC Gamer UK and other British-type sites back in late 2010 when that happened.
We then started working on A Valley Without Wind in 2011, and that project started out ambitious and only got moreso. Thanks to a windfall from an AI War Steam daily deal in the summer of 2011, we were able to add six more months of development time and one additional member of the team (bringing us up to 5 full-timers at this point, and a couple of part-timers). We worked our butts off, and I can say that today is only the second day I've had off (weekends included) since mid-February of this year); we also had hundreds of players giving us active feedback during the beta, and a few thousand buying the game on preorder and helping support us a bit financially.
This might be way more than you really wanted to know with the question that you asked, but it's something I think is really interesting as a general phenomenon. Anytime there's somebody that seems to come out of left field, or some big novel that seems to be an "overnight success" or something, there's usually a decade or more of private toil preceding it. Not that we're remotely an overnight success to my knowledge -- the game isn't even out until Monday and so we won't even begin to know how it does for us financially until then. But player response is so far really enthusiastic, and early press like your review has been positive, so who knows. This is our sixth game-or-expansion to go on Steam, so we have pretty tempered expectations compared to what a lot of indies have, but it certainly looks to be our biggest title so far, which is good news for us being able to continue to do what we love!
ST: A Valley Without Wind really surprised us with how deep the gameplay can be and how responsive each continent becomes. Was that a goal within the early development of the title or did you have other ideas in mind in the beginning and then you just made a spontaneous decision?
CP: Tactical depth to the combat was always a goal right from the start, but to be honest we didn't know how we were going to accomplish that early on in. We tried various things, and lots of things really didn't work well. So we just kept "chipping away everything that didn't look like an elephant," to use the old joke about "how to carve an elephant." I'm a big believer in rapid prototyping -- lots of things sound good on paper and then really stink in practice. This project started with a lot of that sort of thing, and even in early beta (way back in September) that was still true.
For the strategic depth, we also wanted some sort of long-term decision making that mattered. After all, we started out as primarily strategy game developers, for cripe's sake! If a game doesn't have interesting decisions, it doesn't hold our interest long enough to get through development on it while still actually wanting to play it when we're all done with it. I really value being able to actually play and enjoy the games I make, so just having something linear that's fun for other people wouldn't have been doing myself any favors.
Like with the tactical combat, the strategic side of the decision making really evolved over time and we didn't hit our full stride on that until about November of 2011. The beta players were adamant that there were problems with what we had up until that point, and they were right, and we all did a lot of brainstorming together and ultimately boiled it down to its essence: choice. The depth of gameplay arises simply from giving you meaningful choices with lasting consequences, and once we realized that the rest all came together.
ST: If you could have the budget a big studio but remained with the same desire for A Valley Without Wind, what sort of changes would you have made to it? Celebrity voice-overs? Better visuals? Christopher Tin?
CP: Hahaha. I'm old school, so I'm not much of one for voice acting. Even the celebrity stuff often sounds a bit wooden to my ear, no offense intended to any other games in particular. Portal is obviously brilliant and wouldn't have been the same without the voice acting, but I think it's great that Nintendo is keeping the Zelda franchise voice-acting-free, for instance.
In terms of better graphics, while on the surface that's something I would have liked to have done, that also presupposes hardware that frankly doesn't exist yet. If you look at something like Minecraft, that game could never make sense or work if it had AAA graphics. I think that both AI War and AVWW take advantage of the speed benefits of being 2D and simpler in that fashion in order to create a world that is richer in a gameplay sense. 3D just would never work here.
That said, having a team of 2D artists better than myself to crank out lots of scriptable actors rather than sprite-dictionary-based graphics would have been pretty neat. Wicked expensive to do on this scale, but hey -- that's what the big budget would have been for, I imagine.
ST: It's no doubt that the indie gaming scene is more alive than ever with many media outlets giving it a bigger focus than before. What is your opinion on just the general outlook of the indie world? Have any gratitude to guys like Notch or developers of Fez and Bastion?
CP: Actually, our game AI War launched around the time that Minecraft did, and Notch just made it way bigger than us, haha. And Fez and Bastion are still "new kids" comparatively speaking. -winks-
Brilliant looking games, though. I think that the indie scene is really picking up a lot of momentum since 2009 -- AI War was only I think the 79th indie title on Steam back then, but now there's tons of them. Plus all these app store successes, etc. I think it's just really awesome, and I've made a lot of professional friends that I really enjoy. Cliff Harris, who has Gratuitous Tank Battles coming up really soon has been a particular help. I've really enjoyed getting to know others like Vic Davis, Ichiro Lambe, both the Project Zomboid guys, and too many others to list.
There are quite a few "professional indies" out there, most of us outside of the spotlight that the Fez's and the Minecraft's of the world enjoy, but we make a good living and meet at conferences and talk shop. It's really nice to know other indies and be able to talk about the craft with others going through the same thing that you are at the time. In the end, we all get to make the sorts of games we love for a living, which is particularly cool; these are all games that we wanted to play, but nobody else was making. So we did!
ST: What idea do you guys at Arcen Games wish you came up with first. This doesn't have to be related to gaming either.
CP: I wish I had thought up PixelJunk Monsters first. Because I would have done it exactly like they did it, except added way more levels. But I'm not bitter!
ST: So...you guys watch any good movies lately? Have you seen the box-office smash hit The Hunger Games? I heard it was good.
CP: With a 19-month old son, my wife and I don't get to see many movies. But we did indeed make time to see The Hunger Games a few weeks back. It was definitely really good, and perhaps the best book-to-movie adaptations I've ever seen. The books are still better, but hey. The scriptwriters on that one really knew their stuff: they knew exactly what to change so as to fit the medium of film rather than the format of a novel; and they also knew exactly what to leave alone so as not to twist the underlying novel into something it wasn't. That's enormously hard to do for a book, as evidenced by all the book-to-movie adaptations that just completely stink, so props to them.
ST: I want to again thank you guys for your time on what looks to be a busy schedule with promised updates to A Valley Without Wind. Is there anything you want to plug or any contact information for the readers?
CP: Thanks a ton as well for taking an interest! As you pointed out, we're the little guys, and so we're always grateful for all the coverage we can get. This weekend we're pretty much taking off in preparation for next week, and then Monday we're starting work on our first batches of post-release content, hopefully the first beta of which will also come out on... Monday. Things move fast with us! I guess the only thing I'd like to leave with readers is this: for any indie game that you love, ours or otherwise, the biggest thing you can do is spread the word. If there's a game that you like and that you want to see more of (or more things by the same developer), the best way you can support them is not via kickstarter, but via spreading the word to anyone you know who might also love the game.
If you want to talk to other players and us devs, and maybe even submit some ideas for the game, be sure to stop by our forums and our "idea tracker" on the ArcenGames.com website. Thanks!
Be sure to follow Arcen Games on Twitter @ArcenGames and continue your support!