May 16, 2011

Arcen Games - The Interview

Arcen Games, the studio that has already given us the impressively deep AI War RTS, the unique action-puzzler Tidalis and will soon release A Valley Without Wind, encompasses the true spirit of indie gaming and isn't afraid to focus on the PC. What follows is an interview that will hopefully shed light on the intricate and mysterious going-ons inside this brilliant indie studio.

I think we should start with a proper introduction of Arcen Games, shouldn’t we? So, well, who are you?

Chris Park:  I'm the founder of the company, and I basically started out Arcen Games doing solo work on projects, and then have been pulling in other folks as we've become more successful.  I had been working on making C#-based Mario Bros clones on the PC since about 2003 in DirectDraw7 and then Direct3D8, and then in early 2008 I finally decided to start doing my own original work -- none of the Mario stuff was releasable because of copyright, it was just for my own amusement.

I worked on a game called Alden Ridge from January to October of 2008, using the engine I'd built up for the Mario stuff but switching to Direct3D9 via SlimDX.  After a certain amount of time on that project I realized I had hit a point where I simply couldn't go any further, because I had combined aspects of some genres that simply couldn't play well together.  The chief problem was that adventure games need a persistent inventory, and my design for a environmental level-based puzzle game absolutely required that you not have a persistent inventory.  Oops!

While I was trying to figure that conundrum out, as a side project I started working on AI War in November 2008.  That then turned into a bigger thing than I expected, and so I founded the company in March 2009 and contracted Pablo Vega as our composer; he now works with us full time.  Everyone else on the team has come in sometime post-release of AI War, as its success has grown and supported more staff.

Erik Johnson: I started out as a games writer back in 2007 and have been working freelance in different facets of the industry since 2009. Currently I work at Arcen Games heading up PR/marketing for all of our games as well as other various tasks such as making maps and wiring objects for A Valley Without Wind. The latter items I'm picking up on the fly in an effort to assist and take some of the work load off of Chris and Keith as we gear-up for beta.

Outside of Arcen I write/act in sketches and web series for, do my best to expose indie games on, and manage a couple dozen other sites and projects -- some of which relating only tangentially to games.

And why did you decide to be all creative in the indie gaming arena?

Chris:  Game and level design has been a passion of mine since I was a kid; my first real taste of it was with doing levels for the game Demon Stalkers on the family PC back in the early 90s.  It wasn't until the early 2000s that I got into programming in a major way, and then it was natural to combine the two.  3D art has always been a hobby of mine, too, so I guess I was unconsciously setting myself up for this job my whole life.  My main reason for wanting to be an indie is that, simply, I like doing all of those things.

Even when there are other artists and programmers and designers on the team, I get to be involved with all those things, and make producer-level decisions when needed, etc.  We've never had more than five people on a project, and usually have had no more than three or four, so that keeps it small and gives everyone a lot of responsibility.

In terms of why I particularly try to forge a creative path with the games that Arcen creates, I think it's because of my time with the Mario clones.  I mean, I poured hours and hours into those games, because I really wanted to play a Mario adventure game that controlled like a Mario platformer (unlike Mario RPG or Paper Mario).  So after all that work, what did I have?  Something that still wasn't finished, that I couldn't take any real pride of authorship in, and that I couldn't share with anyone else.  I decided right then that I was not a fan of just imitating what other people did; and right about then they started doing things like New Super Mario Bros, so that was enough for at least my Mario platforming fix, anyway.  Other people will take care of their own franchises; I need to do something different if I'm going to be doing anything worthwhile.

Erik: Gaming has always been a huge hobby of mine. Not just video games -- board games, cards, paper and pencil, competitive sports; basically anything you can play, compete in, or have fun in. When I started following the indie games scene as a writer, I became enamored with the corner of the industry (specifically in its general beliefs and values of the developer community,) and after a while it wasn't enough just to cover it from a journalistic perspective. Being fully immersed in conversations with different developers was amazing, and it gave me a lot of the experience I had to have going forward; but it sort of sucks when you don't have anything of value on your end to share in the conversation, you know?

As for Arcen Games, that's definitely Chris's vision, but I will say I looked to join his team after seeing his work ethic, passion for making good games, and the way he goes about his business in general. It goes above and beyond what you'd expect from most, and he sees it simply as standard protocol. Those items made Arcen a company I wanted to be a part of.

On to A.I. War then. Weren’t you afraid that a deeply complex and quite amazing sci-fi RTS was a risky move?  How did you decide to focus on such a game?

Chris:  Not at all -- I wasn't in any way trying to start a business.  I spent seven or so months working on a game that was purely for the amusement of my dad, my uncle, my uncle's colleague, and myself.  We had been playing RTS games roughly weekly for about a decade, always in a co-op fashion, and we were all getting really frustrated with how lame the AI always was once you knew the game.  And I was frustrated with how I always fell into the same rut with my gameplay: build up economy, find a most-effective trio of units, and then roll the enemy.

Of course I had it in my mind that I could probably sell this thing, and it would probably sell a million copies or something -- hey, if Starcraft could sell 8 million, then why not?  I think that anyone who devotes so much time to a creative endeavor winds up with really unrealistic expectations the first time they go public; every new author expects to be the next mega-bestseller, every new indie movie is going to be Slumdog Millionaire.  So I just went about my business making this game in the way that I would enjoy most, and that my other teammates enjoyed, and I didn't think too much about outside people.  That was probably for the best, I'm sure.

What were your inspirations?

Chris:  In terms of controls, the most obvious inspiration is Supreme Commander 1.  The looping build queues, the awesome camera zoom -- these were things that I thought should be in every strategy game ever made from now on.  I seriously want those things to be the mainstays of the genre from here on out, so it was a no-brainer to also put them in my game.

But in terms of feel, the game I kept coming back to that I admired the most was Civilization IV.  I'd played the original Civilization a long time ago and had enjoyed it pretty well, but I'd missed all the ones in between.  What a shock to come to the then-latest one!  My main beef with Civ IV was that the multiplayer could get incredibly boring when other people took different amounts of time on their turns.  My uncle was a war-monger, so his turns always took forever; my dad and I would be sitting in our houses reading books and magazines, waiting two or three minutes per turn for my uncle to finish.  Of course there are turn timers you can use, but that didn't really solve the issue for me because sometimes I'm the one that needs three or four minutes to really orchestrate a turn.

Thing is, I don't really play strategy games solo very much.  I made an exception for Civ IV because the game was so exceptional, but even that only lasted a few months.   I wanted that sort of experience in a co-op realtime context with SupCom-like controls.  So that's what I made.  I was also hugely enamored of PixelJunk Monsters at the time, and so some of the tower defense aspects of AI War are inspired from that and other tower defense games.

Do you actually believe there’s some sort of average gamer?

Chris: I think that, the more gamers you know, the more they start to slot into "types."  There are plenty of people that have almost my exact tastes, or that have other overlapping sets of tastes that almost mimic one another.  These people find each other on forums and are always surprised; as a forum moderator, you see it even more clearly.  I don't know if there's an average gamer or not, but I would instead say that there are probably a few thousand micro-archetypes of gamers.  And then there are always outliers, of course -- the people that only like Star Wars games, Barbie's Horse Adventures, and The Killing Floor, or something.  There's always people with unexpected, somewhat contradictory tastes.

Erik: This may be a weird take, but when I hear average gamer I think of a concocted term like casual market, phrases conceived somewhere in a stuffy boardroom to help define things for publishers who see the industry as a vessel to make lots of money. There's always been these overarching trends in gaming that will largely determine what the "average gamer" is considered at the time, and often publishers will seek that "average audience" out, see what games they're into, over-produce and eventually cause the collapse of a certain genre (see: Activision and rhythm games.)

I think it's more of a sound thought to take into account that gaming consumers are growing-up, getting older, or otherwise evolving, and you can't really predict what's going to appeal to the majority at any given span of time. As Chris said, people will have their preferences, but to be able to determine what those would be on a grand scale would be next to impossible. Things are constantly changing, so any findings on the average gamer, accurate or otherwise, would soon be meaningless anyway.

Was it the success of AI War that led to its continuing development and constant release of incredibly hefty expansions?

Chris:  Oh, you bet.  First I started out just doing free DLC, because the game was doing really well and I was also trying to get it to a point where Steam would be interested in it.  We hit the top three or four slots on the charts at Impulse and GamersGate for a few days or a week at a time back in the summer of 2009, and the early major reviews in places like Crispy Gamer were suddenly really calling this an important twist on the genre standards, and so on.

So for the first half year after AI War 1.0 was released, mostly what we worked on was AI War 2.0, which was a free upgrade; we did beta releases pretty much daily, and official releases weekly for a while, and then monthly, and then bi-monthly.  I hired an artist, and every cent that AI War made before 2.0 came out was invested back into the improvement of the game itself.  I was still working full-time as a CTO at another small technology company, so I didn't have anything in particular to lose -- I hadn't taken on any debt to create the game, or anything like that.  It was just an interesting experiment that was growing far beyond what I had expected it could do (after my unrealistic expectations came crashing down when 1.0 came out).

During that first summer, I think we sold about 5,000 copies of the game, which is really respectable for a small indie that's just starting out and has such a niche game.  Then 2.0 hit, and we got on Steam and Direct2Drive, and it was a whole new ballgame instantly.  Sales went up with all our vendors once 2.0 was out, and suddenly we had all this money pooled, and more coming in.  So in December 2009 Pablo and I went fulltime, and Phil Chabot was contracting with us pretty much fulltime on art since August of 2009, and we made The Zenith Remnant, the first expansion to AI War.  At the same time, we also improved the base game a ton, and called it version 3.0.

That was also a huge hit, and suddenly we had even more money, and thus more breathing room.  I took on a part-time programmer/designer, Keith LaMothe, and he's since become instrumental on AI War and other projects.  Combining AI War and all its expansions, we're somewhere around 50,000 copies sold now, which is really gratifying to see.  Even more gratifying is that we're still getting major reviews and lots of people talking about the game, which is now at version 5.0, two years after 1.0 came out.  I mean, it was just a month or two ago that Eurogamer reviewed it, and there was a two-page "how to play AI War" in this month's PC Gamer UK.

So it's really snowballed in a way that has surprised me, but I think all of that is because of how we've done such massive free DLC and paid expansions on an ongoing basis.  We even ported it to a completely new engine, and added OSX support, for free to existing customers as part of the 4.0 upgrade.  If you have the windows version, you get the OSX copy for free, and vice-versa.  People have really responded to that sort of thing in a positive way.

And then, after a deep, hardcore, strategic offering, you went on to develop the stunning yet much simpler, vastly different and more accessible Tidalis. How come?

Chris:  Two reasons: I didn't want to be typecast as a strategy developer, and we had the design in hand.  The original design was actually by Lars Bull, another indie game designer friend of mine that I've known for years.  We'd always been used to critiquing each others' work, and he'd helped me out with a lot of free QA and design advice on AI War and other games, but we'd never collaborated directly on a project before.

Summer of 2009, when AI War was just getting off the ground, we worked on some prototypes for a game called Feedback, which turned out not to be any fun at all.  It was a clever idea on paper, but in practice it was just way too fiddly and too difficult -- I'd generally lose in a few seconds, and Lars only did marginally better and it was his idea.  That's just the way of things; my first ideas for AI War during alpha weren't any fun, either.  These things have to evolve.  So we started working out ways in which we might change around the design, and did I think six different progressive prototypes that changed the game more and more.  The end result was the core mechanics of what is now Tidalis.

Then AI War really started taking off, and that got stuck on a shelf.  After The Zenith Remnant came out in January 2010, suddenly we had this cash buffer and I wanted to do something new.  It had to be something reasonably small, because we didn't have so much cash that we could make an AI-War-sized game again.  And I wanted it to be something other than just more expansions for that game, because I wanted people to know Arcen as a company that makes all kinds of interesting games, not just strategy games alone.  I love strategy games, but I don't want to be solely making them for the rest of my life.

Since we had a design for feedback in hand that was actually loads of fun -- it was already addicting staff wives and girlfriends who had tried it -- that was an easy decision.  The original plan was to make it in something like three months, but we ran into lots of snags -- engine changes, scope creep, the works.  That project was a study in poor project management on my part, but the team was incredible and so we were able to actually make something really awesome despite that.  In six months, rather than three, though, which all but exhausted our cash reserves.  Which led to much-publicized later trouble that fall for us.

Were you satisfied with the reception of Tidalis?

Chris:  The critical reaction was great.  The MetaCritic view of things is pretty narrow, and I think the MetaScore there wound up being 75.  But with a lot of notable gaming sites and bloggers that aren't on MetaCritic, we were getting lots of 90% and 100% scores.  And we did get one 100% on MetaCritic from a major source.

When I look at all the reviews for Tidalis versus AI War, in aggregate they are even better though AI War has a five point higher MetaScore.  In terms of players who play the game, the reception has also been really awesome.  So, from a lot of angles, it seems like Tidalis has been a major success.

Except the one critical statistic: sales.  We spent a lot more money to make the game than I'd intended setting out, but that was a conscious decision as we went because we could all tell we had a good thing going and we wanted to follow through with it.  And that's been well received by the press, and those players we did have.

The real problem has been in attracting a large number of players, and I think that's because of an error in judgment on my part.  I thought that by having casual production values and gameplay that was simple on the surface but deep, we'd be able to dip into two pots: the casual audience and the hardcore puzzle fans.  Instead, what we've mostly wound up with is a few casual players, but mostly those hardcore puzzle fans that don't mind the visuals.

It's been a hard sell on two fronts: first, because it's block-based people assume it's just a match 3 clone, when it's nothing of the sort.  And secondly, because with the casual production values, to some hardcore puzzle fans that's a clear signal of "light gameplay here," which is also not the case.  So that turns many of them off.

On the other hand, when it comes to casual audiences, that's a troubling thing, too.  It's not an audience we are good at reaching, first and foremost.  There's no Casual Gamer Magazine or anything like that; it's not a cohesive group, it's just a loose collection of people who like playing casual games when they find them.  The other trouble with the casual folks is that we packed this game with SO much stuff, so many options, that I think that can come across as overwhelming for some of them.  We took a lot of care to make it as unobtrusive as possible when you're getting started, but I think that on reflection even the feature list for the game is kind of intimidating, talking about so many modes and blocks and options and so forth.

I'm convinced that there is an audience for this game -- and we have sold about 45,000 copies so far, although 40,000 of them were at 90% off.  But we've been just having trouble reaching that audience and communicating why they might be interested in the game.  We're still plodding along with it, though, and gradually we're reaching new people.  So there's hope!

You did, in what can only be described as a bold move, openly discuss the financial woes of Arcen Games. Would you say the storm is finally over?

Chris: Yes, I think it's safe to say we've weathered that and are back on track.  Most game studios seem to be one or two major flops away from closure, so I'm really glad that wasn't the case with us.  A lot of the reason for the turnaround was the generous support that we received from fans, from the press, and various other parties when we were down.  But also, it just turned out that we were in a seasonal slump, and when October 2010 came around we had a huge boom -- having AI War 4.0 and the Children of Neinzul charity expansion out at that time didn't hurt.  Then we did the Light of the Spire expansion in January, and that gave us some good cushion.  We also are running with less staff now, but we've found ourselves in a position where we're pretty secure through October of this year or later, and that's our release target for our next title.

That Tidalis situation had been particular trouble because we put all this money into the game, and we all but exhausted our financial stores at that time, and then the game basically flopped commercially when we released it.  The other part of that was that we released in the summer, during a really dead period when our other game sales were in a seasonal downturn, too.  That made it doubly hard on the company, and it completely derailed the plans we'd had for the fall of last year -- and for a while it looked like we might be heading for closure if things didn't pick up.  Once the season changed, things instantly changed and AI War was suddenly carrying us again.

So we've learned our lesson, and are keeping lower overhead now, and we're not courting the casual side of things in anymore because we just don't understand it.  I'm not sure how bold I would really call my move to discuss this openly last fall -- my view was that it was better to rally support than to risk closure and having all of our staff's collective dreams collapse in a heap.  Transparency is something that I really believe in, anyway, but if there was a chance that being open about that could help the company -- and it certainly did -- then I was all for it.  I had to eat some humble pie, and some people said some mean things, but overall everyone was incredibly supportive and it was really reassuring.  My son had just been born the month before all that, so that was doubly stressful.

Your latest project, besides constantly updating your previous games, is called A Valley Without Wind. Care to shed some light on it?

Chris:  This one is an action-adventure game set in a procedural post-disaster world.  We had been planning to go with a far-future setting, but we've actually just this week switched things around to be more fantasy-fcoused, while still keeping up a lot of parallels with the modern world.  It's kind of like how Chrono Trigger sort of matches the real world but in many ways doesn't, that sort of thing.  This is a world where magic has always existed, and it's a key part of life, but that hasn't stopped technology from appearing at the same time.

This is an open-ended world in that you can strike out infinitely in any direction, and you can find settlements and NPCs and things to do wherever you go.  I'm trying to bring a bit more of a tactical focus to the action-adventure combat, though, and in terms of item progression we've got a crafting system that is straightforward but powerful.  We're also trying to build in some interesting strategic and almost city-building type of aspects into what you can do with the settlements, although a lot of that is optional if you just want to run around adventuring into deep labyrinths and murdering every NPC you meet.

There are stories here, and big evil overlords, and peoples with hopes you can help fulfill, but none of it is required.  As you adventure, when you see something that interests you, that you want to follow up on, you can do so.  And doing so has various rewards and various permanent consequences on that part of the world.  Being able to change the world by your deeds is something we're focused a lot on, too, although it's early days yet for that portion of the game.

So it's a pretty exciting project for us, and so far the player excitement has been greater than for anything else we've ever done.  It's not casual like Tidalis, but it's also not so niche like AI War.  Things are looking up for this to be our biggest title yet, in all senses.

You weren’t afraid of another radical genre change, were you?

Chris:  Not at all afraid!  Switching genres wasn't our undoing with Tidalis.  I think that if we had kept the budget smaller, and done more hardcore-puzzle-game themed art and music, we'd be in a different situation with that game.  Instead we tried to court two major audiences at once, and we fell into the cracks between them.  This time we're after only one audience: that mainstream/hardcore mix of PC gamers that is into adventure games.

Erik: Chris and I have talked on this point several times and agreed that the AVWW should turn out to be our least niche title yet. The radical change is part of our development vision to create great games in every meaningful genre, so one of the deciding factors in choosing AVWW in it's current form is that we believe it will appeal to a wider amount of PC and Mac gamers than either Tidalis or AI War has.

And will you keep on developing Tidalis and AI War?

Erik: That's the plan. As long as Arcen Games is open for business we'll keep on working with our community to further our games. It won't be a constant series of updates like it has been in the past for these titles, but our long-term schedule is built to include further improvement and expansion to our current releases, as well as continue the development of unreleased titles such as AVWW.

Chris: Definitely.  AI War has more expansions to come, and plenty more free DLC will drop later this year.  Right now we're sort of in a lull, because we did so much stuff with version 5.0 of the game that even the players were getting a bit fatigued with all the rapid changes.

The general consensus seems to be that the game is in a really awesome state at the moment, and the fans are just having fun with that as it is.  Once they've had some time to kind of settle in with that, and once we've had the time we need in this early stages of AVWW's life, then we'll be doing a lot more with AI War.  And we've had some beta patches even during this slower time.

With Tidalis that's a bit harder, because we're not actively developing new content for it when there doesn't seem to be a need for that -- it's a massive game as it is.  But we've definitely been doing tweaks and fixes and minor additions to it on an ongoing basis, and we don't plan to stop that anytime soon.

Any advice you’d care to share with budding indie developers?

Chris:  Stick to what you love.  You can only do a really good job on a game that you yourself would love to play.  If you're not genuinely in love with your own game, few other people will be.  The only reason I want to make games in a lot of genres -- I wouldn't say all genres, but a lot of them -- is that I love games in almost all genres.

Erik: Balance is key, not just for how you go about development but for how you go about your life. When you take on all the responsibilities of an indie developer, there's generally a lot to juggle. You have to be able to take stuff one thing at a time and make sure you're only biting off what you can chew as far as how much you're working day-to-day and such. Make sure you sleep! It's also important to have hobbies that take you completely away from your work for at least an hour or two a day. I can't tell you how much more productive I am with my work when happy and well-rested. Also, eat your veggies.

Oh, and to finally let you work on some games, is there some sort of fantasy/dream project you’d like to develop?

Chris: A Valley Without Wind, actually, is pretty much an amalgamation of a lot of my fantasy projects.  I've always loved adventure games, and I've always dreamed of having infinite worlds.  But I've always had a ton of game concepts rattling around in my head ever since I was a kid, so it's not like this is the only one.  I'd love to make an interesting FPS game.  I'd love to make a streamlined turn-based tactics game.  A true turn-based 4X game might be a great fun thing to do at some stage.  Some sort of kart racer with an original twist would be a real fun side challenge to do if I had extra time and budget someday.  And I'd definitely love to do an epic JRPG-style story-driven RPG sometime in my life.  So there's always a lot of things I'd like to do, but the current project tends to absorb all of my focus and enthusiasm while I'm working on it.

Erik: I'm a true scatterbrain, I don't think I could say I have just one fantasy/dream project I would do anything to develop. I just hope to complete a few of my WIP projects, that's my fantasy/dream.

Thanks a ton and best of luck!

Chris: Thanks!

Erik: Appreciate it!

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  1. Great interview, Gnome-like one! Even better than the interview I did with Chris a while back.

    "there are probably a few thousand micro-archetypes of gamers" - now there's a fearsome sound-bite for you! :-D

  2. Why, thank you for the kind words dear Captain! Always, deeply appreciated. Oh, and do keep up the excellent work!