ACE Team Interview (Zeno Clash)

Andres Bordeu, from ACE Team, the developers responsible for the critically acclaimed Zeno Clash, graciously agreed to be interviewed via e-mail.  You will get there take on DRM, piracy, DLC, life as an indie dev and much more. 

1.    Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Zeno Clash.

I am one of the co-founders of ACE Team and I work as Game Designer at the studio. Since ACE is a small independent studio my role in Zeno Clash encompassed a lot more than just game design –we all had to get involved in multiple areas of development. Asides from design tasks I created 3d characters, made environments, developed particle effects, worked on the sounds, did voice overs, etc. At the time we were working on Zeno Clash for the PC we were only 7 guys. I still get involved in most of those areas but not as directly as in those days.

2.  How did you get started in developing PC games?

My brothers and I have been interested in game development since we were kids. Carlos and Edmundo (also co-founders) spent hours with me drawing pixel art on our Macintosh Plus for the games we wanted to create. Eventually we started making mods and when we were developing larger projects we got approached by a scouting agency that was looking for games with commercial potential. That was the defining point where we decided to convert our hobby into a profession. After working for a couple of years at Wanako Games (currently Behavior’s Chilean branch) we decided to found our own studio with our other partner David Caloguerea.

3.  Where did the idea for Zeno Clash come from?

Zeno Clash was conceived from an abandoned project. After we were approached by the scouting agency we set ourselves to prepare a new project that we could pitch and turn into a commercial game. This project was named ‘Zenozoik’ and it was in some ways the spiritual predecessor of Zeno Clash. At the time we were just too inexperienced and ambitious so the project never really took off, even though we put nearly 2 years of working during the weekends and the afternoons while we dodged other responsibilities. It still was a great experience and it helped refine our game developer skills. 

4.  What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Zeno Clash?  How did you use those experiences to develop your upcoming game, Rock of Ages?

I think the main success of Zeno Clash was that we demonstrated that a committed & creative can set out to create something new and risky and still succeed in an industry that has aversion to unfamiliar ideas. This is a concept that we’re again passing on to Rock of Ages and so far the community’s reception and the media’s reception have been very positive to what we’ve shown so far.

Perhaps the biggest mistakes we made when developing Zeno Clash were made when we were working on ‘Zenozoik’, which I mostly consider to be as a part of the development process of the final game. As I previously mentioned we were too ambitious at the time and that caused us to make important mistakes at the startup of the project. From my perspective the worst kind of mistakes are those that are introduced in the conceptual & design phases. This because once you commit to these ideas your game is essentially defined by these, and if they are not good or realistic you can’t make a good game.

I think the most important part of the development process in our studio is the conceptual phase, and it wasn’t until we had a clear vision of what Rock of Ages was going to be did we commit to the project.

5.  In its current form, how close is Zeno Clash to your initial vision?

Zeno Clash was a long process of trial and error –two years of experimenting and adapting the mechanics to fulfill the design choices we made. The essentials of the project were unchanged, but I’d say that our vision was refined during the whole process.

6.  Some indie devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game.  Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Zeno Clash and if you faced a similar challenge.

Yes, this is somewhat true in our case as well. I don’t think we missed the mark by too much, but we had to tone down the difficulty for the Xbox Live version because some PC players had considered that the final two levels of the game were just too overwhelming (specially the final battle). Still, during the development process we did a lot of play testing with people who were unfamiliar with the game. This helped us identify a lot of issues, but we were mainly using the sessions to prove if the mechanics were solid. Some testing sessions exclusively oriented to provide feedback on the difficulty would have been helpful.

Zeno Clash is a relatively complex title and people who are used to first person controls are accustomed to “pulling the trigger” instead of throwing punches and eluding attacks. The interactions weren’t necessarily intuitive for an experienced FPS player so it was a big challenge to create mechanics that were accessible but gave the game a proper level of complexity.

7.   Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Zeno Clash would run on the various PC system configurations?

Source (Valve’s game engine) did most of the work, so we had to deal with very little customer support past the game’s release. The game had similar requirements than Left 4 Dead.

8.  Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?

I suppose that many indie developers would agree with me that financing a project on your own is a remarkable task. When we were making Zeno Clash we soon realized that we had to destine part of our budget in annex areas such as marketing (we couldn’t put all the resources only in to the production). This was not as obvious when we started and it was quite overwhelming when we thought that to break even we’d be depending on an unknown title that nobody had ever heard about before.

9.  Tell us about your relationship with Valve.  How did making Zeno Clash available via Steam come about?  Also talk about how you created Steam Achievements.

We were able to establish a relationship with Valve after sending them a preview demo of Zeno Clash which we had been developing for some time, thus it looked quite polished even though the mechanics were still very early. This project had been developed like a mod, only that we had not publically released it. After sending them the demo we got excellent feedback; they really liked it. Apparently our short demo caught the attention of a bunch of guys at Valve while it was being playtested. After this we were given a licensing agreement to use Source (the engine) and a distribution possibility on Steam. This was the defining point where we decided to quit our jobs, legally form ACE Team and place our bets on Zeno Clash.

About Steam Achievements: This was pretty straight forward, but there was one particular achievement where I think we did something really original. This achievement was tied to an April fools prank we did while we were making the game. Basically we created a small retro flash game called ‘The Malstrums Mansion’ (http://www.aceteam.cl/retro/) stating that after Zeno Clash we would only make small web games because we were worn down by the development of our “big title”. The Malstrums Mansion was a complete game so many people actually thought we were serious about this. How does this relate to the achievements? The flash game included a couple of hints that pointed to Zeno Clash and anyone who finished the game was presented with a keyboard sequence which if inputted in the title screen of Zeno Clash  would award you with the ‘Monocrome Adventurer’ achievement.

10.  How much pull do you have when setting sale and regular pricing through digital distribution channels?  Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?

I can’t talk specifics, but we always do things in conjunction with our partners. For Zeno Clash we got good suggestions from Valve. It wasn’t necessary to look into similar titles, because there really weren’t many and those were typically larger AAA games with established IPs. Our title was kind of ‘in-between’ because the production values were competitive with some of the bigger games, but it was still a smaller indie title.

11.  How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?

I think it’s fantastic, because it’s allowed independent studios such as our own to deliver games that would have never been green lighted for the retail market alone. I think the birth of commercial indie games was only possible with digital distribution.

12.  Were there any plans to take Zeno Clash to retail stores?

It did make it to retail stores (the PC version). We have retail in the USA, Europe, Russia, Poland & Japan. Retail has been significantly smaller than digital in our case, but it allowed us to make great new partners like Tripwire Interactive –the makers of Red Orchestra & Killing Floor- who distributed the retail copies in North America.

13.  You released a PC demo for Zeno Clash in an age where demos are becoming scare.  What made you release a demo and was it difficult to develop one?

The demo came after the release of the game. We thought it was important to have one because we were presenting something that was totally unfamiliar and many people were on the fence about getting the game. It was also a way of attenuating piracy because if there’s no demo you can’t “try before you buy”. I think new IPs from unknown devs possibly suffer more from piracy than established games because users don’t want to take any chances with their money. If you’ve bought the last three Call of Duty games you’re probably not expecting the next one to be a flop –you already know what it’s all about and you are pretty safe on making the purchase without having to try it out first (especially if you liked the previous ones).

14.  How important is it to get instant feedback about Zeno Clash from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?

We’ve always taken user feedback very seriously. We’re still browsing through the Steam forums every now and then looking for the positive and negative feedback players are posting about the game. When we released Zeno Clash on the PC we quickly learned about some gameplay issues we hadn’t identified during our testing sessions by reading the Steam forums and our own official Zeno Clash forum. We addressed these problems and got out a patch as quickly as we could.

Besides support tasks we’re also making sure that our fans and supporters feel that they can be in touch with us. Many of the studio members are active users in the forums and we try to be present as much as possible (mostly on our own site). But we’ve invested a lot of work in using the tools of social networks, such as facebook, message boards, etc. I think the gamers that are more familiar with ACE Team know that we are more accessible than the typical bigger studios.

15.  How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Zeno Clash professionally?

We put a lot of value on the reviews. We were closely monitoring Metacritic when Zeno Clash was released. We thought it was going to be one of those ‘love or hate’ games and we were extremely pleased by the media’s reception. We never thought that the game would be awarded such important recognitions such as PC Gamer’s ‘Indie Game of the Year’ & ‘Top 100 PC Games of all Time’. Some of the more negative reviews (which were few fortunately) have made us reflect on areas of the game that could have been improved to bring it to a broader audience. So in the end reviews provide feedback that can be as useful as the feedback provided by users in the message boards.

16.  How do you feel about the Humble Indie Bundle and “Pay What You Want Pricing”? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?

We’d love to participate in one of those and we think the initiative was a great idea. We’re always open to new ways of promoting our games, so if this ever becomes a possibility we’ll surely be on board.

17.  What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?

I think that as long as DRM is not an inconvenience for the legitimate customer it’s not a problem. Steam has always worked very well and we’re completely satisfied with it. I say this both as a user and a developer. Looking in to the whole DRM situation I’ve often seen circumstances that seem to favor the arguments of people opposed to DRM and in favor of DRM. I think it’s a complex situation because we need to take into account that piracy is a problem that affects different territories in different magnitudes. Piracy here in Chile is very high, but to understand why, one must consider variables such as the exchange rate, associated import costs and other factors that make games quite more expensive here than in the USA. For instance I understand that the Russian retail market has addressed the high piracy rate by lowering the cost of PC titles by offering them in a cheaper jewel casing. So, I think this is a problem that will require the industry to continuously adapt as new tools such as distribution channels, technology and other factors evolve.

18.  How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?

We did some DLC for Zeno Clash, but I’m not very aware of how the feature is being handled in other PC games. DLC has always felt to me as something designed for the consoles. I think it’s natural that if it was a successful concept it would eventually make its way to the PC. I think it definitely has a better mix with specific genres. Still, in some cases it feels unjustified –especially when the content should have been in the game in the first place.

19.  What are some of the games or genres you like to play?  Are you a fan of other indie developers?

I’ve always had a big affection towards the first person genre. I’m also a big Nintendo fan –mostly of the big IPs such as Zelda, Metroid and Mario. But I don’t find as much time to play as I used to so I eventually started to enjoy games that fit better with my everyday routine. Right now we’re playing a lot of fighting games competitively during our breaks at work. Street Fighter 4 and Smash Bros Brawl are the favorites. I’d have to say that Brawl is my preferred pick because I’m a somewhat mediocre Street Fighter 4 player.

There are a lot of great indie titles that I’ve played these past years, but there’s also a lot that I’ve missed. Braid comes to mind as one of the most creative and entertaining.

20.  What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?

Never lose your spirit, but don’t forget that if you want to live off making games you have to understand that the industry is also a business. This doesn’t mean you have to compromise your work ideals, but if you fail to acknowledge the other side there’s no way you can stay afloat. It’s important to be realistic all the way through.

We would like to thank Andres and the rest of ACE Team for allowing us a glimpse into the mid of one of the best indie development teams around.  You can pick up Zeno Clash via Steam.

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