Feb 3, 2012

A Valley Without Wind Interview

Despite not having particularly enjoyed either Minecraft or Terraria there is one game sporting crafting that I simply love and it's none other than A Valley Without Wind by Arcen Games. Must have something to do with its brilliantly alienating and definitely unique setting, its strategic elements, its procedural landscapes, its crisp yet delightfully odd graphics, its deep combat system and its excellent arcade-adventure-exploration gameplay methinks... Anyway, here's Erik Johnson explaining us stuff and telling us what the future holds.

A Valley Without Wind, its ever-evolving BETA to be precise, has been out for quite some time now. Have you been happy with the coverage of the press and the engagement of the gaming public?

In some ways, open development seeks its own attention, and we've been sharing information about A Valley Without Wind's progress since February of last year -- just three weeks into development. So to answer the question, yes, we're happy with it, both through people contacting us about the game and through our efforts to seek coverage from some key members of the gaming press.

As for the gaming public, we find that those who have tried the demo and/or bought into the full beta have really taken to it, some logging in hundreds of hours in the first few months of the beta's availability. The critical thing for us is to just get people to try the game, because we find when people give it a try, they tend to really enjoy it.

You've been providing us with steady and at times really impressive (let alone, huge) updates. What does the future hold? Will the game keep expanding and getting better indefinitely? What major additions could we expect?

At the moment we're gearing up for the final phase of AVWW's beta stage. That puts the game's 1.0 version roughly 8-10 weeks away (not accounting for any unforeseen issues that may come up). Obviously that makes it an extremely exciting time for us with official release coming up rather quick (likely prior to our PAX East showing in April.) That said, our development schedule is to continue to update the game well past the game's launch just as we have throughout the beta. It all really depends on how the game does sales-wise, and subsequently how long after release the community wants to see it expand and evolve. As long as we have a fair amount of people who'd like us to continue to update the game, that's precisely what we have planned -- much the same as we've done with our space strategy title AI War over the last couple years.

Major additions are difficult to predict in a lot of ways, because we tend to work in collaboration with the players to brainstorm and refine the core vision of the game. We have our immutable design goals that we continue to work towards, and everyone is welcome to join AVWW's forums to share any ideas in the active brainstorming section.

How radically can we expect the game to change?

The past several weeks the game has been through a series of those, and is just finishing up with one more bout of fairly major changes, so hopefully we're settled in for a while with most of the radical stuff behind us. That's definitely one of the main purposes of the beta: to get the game to a point where the majority of our current player base finds it fun and engaging. However, if there's something that's in need of drastic change, count on it being addressed, whether before or after launch.

Also meant to ask you: When will AVWW be considered finished? Will there be some sort of official, more or less final release?

As far as being finished, as in no more updates, it will probably be years before we consider it absolutely done. AI War is currently on version 5.0, two and a half years after its own 1.0 release, and it still isn't "done" with another expansion planned for later on this year. Again though, it's all really based on community support.

Regardless of the post-release support, 1.0 for the game is intended to be a self-contained, satisfying experience even if players never chose to update beyond that version. That's the point where we start seeking reviews rather than previews, and courting a larger audience, before we continue evolving the game on top of that foundation.

Now, for those that have criminally not joined AVWW, how would you describe the game?

The game is a 2D side-scrolling action adventure (read: Metroidvania) that hearkens back to the 16-bit era, taking place in a post-apocalyptic world that's been ravaged by an ice age along with several other factors. As the player, you take on the role of a glyph bearer, a chosen one of the Ilari, a mysterious race of non-corporeal beings that look after what's left of the planet Environ. (This is a very different world from our own.)

There's heavy emphasis on exploration, crafting, spellcasting, civilization building, and tactical missions. AVWW is procedurally generated, so no two players' worlds will be alike, and with content updates arriving all the time, there's always something new out there to discover, new resources to harvest, and new enemies to battle.

And why did you decide to add strategic elements to the already rich action-adventure-exploration-crafting gameplay mix?

Because at our core, Arcen is a strategy game development team, that's especially true about our programmers Chris and Keith. They both live and love strategy. We're known at the moment primarily for AI War, an intensive strategy affair we're still updating and expanding, and our puzzle game Tidalis, which while not in the same genre, includes its own bag of strategic elements.

Like Tidalis, Valley is considered to be in a genre that doesn't innately bring about thoughts of a strategy game, but having a variety of methods to solve a problem just sounds like a better experience for more people. I'm not at all a natural at strategy games, but I find the inclusion of those elements in the game gives players more of a choice, even allowing development of individual play-styles as they explore and interact with their respective world.

In more recent versions of the game, the game has actually taken on both more and less strategic elements. More in the sense that we're tying in more and more strategic decisions, and have implemented an "Enemy Progress" concept that is very much the same idea as "AI Progress" is in AI War. But also less, in the sense that we no longer are including a traditional strategic-style map overlay -- we've no longer split our interface into two. Instead of trying to mash two very different game interfaces together, we've opted to make all the strategic bits controlled through the existing action-adventure interface. Most of the core decisions boil down to what missions you undertake, what spells you craft, and otherwise what you choose to do in order to thwart the overlord of each continent.

How about the utterly unique look of the game?

Our intention was to pay tribute to some of the classic 16-bit games of our childhood, while still creating our own feel and an entirely original setting. We've received plenty of positive feedback on it thus far, especially later into beta as some of the rougher edges have been polished off.

As I mentioned, Environ is a very unusual place, and our aim was to have that reflected in the visual style. When we showed the game at MineCon the various locales and enemies (specifically the bosses) took many attendees by surprise. Abandoned futuristic buildings, quiet snowy expanses, and lush undergrounds fertile with flora and fauna closer to what would be described in fairy tales as opposed to anything real. Odd, intimidating creatures that seemed to intrigue as much as strike a bit of fear into players--and that was only the intro portion of the game! Several asked about what else there was to find/fight out there, and where else they could go if they played deeper into the game. That part specifically hooked them in. It was fun to watch.

We've certainly seen the reader comments on some of the press coverage the game's received questioning the incongruity of the artwork. All we can say to these people: Download the demo. Try it out. We think it's quite pretty ourselves, and we've found that screenshots and YouTube videos (even high definition ones) just don't do the art justice compared to actually playing the game. There are details that only at full resolution you're able to see, and a lot of subtle animation that gives life to the exteriors in particular.

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  1. I hadn't heard of this title before coming across your excellent interview here. That's a beautiful little trailer, and the art looks brilliant. The gray, retro tinge of the protagonist is very striking, set against the colorful backdrop of the game's landscapes. In addition, the developer seems devoted to continuously perfecting their product.

    1. Indeed it is all this dear Alex and -shockingly- quite a bit more. I'd strongly suggest grabbing the demo... It's a rather unique game, you see. Words can't quite do it justice.