Conducted By Adam Ames
The gang from Arcen Games (pictured above left to right: Pablo, Hunter, Chris, Marisa and Erik) just released their newest title, A Valley Without Wind. Founder, Chris Park, took some time after the big moment to speak to TPG about what it took to develop, AVWW. You will read about his origins in the modding community, setting difficulty levels, the do’s and dont’s of being a successful indie, thoughts on the PC industry and more.
Here is a taste:
Where did the idea for A Valley Without Wind come from?
CP: There wasn’t really one central idea from which the entire game sprang. We wanted to make an adventure game in an interesting world, and we wanted to have choices matter over the long haul. We also wanted tactical depth to the combat. So we started prototyping ways of accomplishing those goals, and just kept refining that — with massive help from our playerbase during beta — until things felt right. Fifteen months of that was a long road, for sure!
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of A Valley Without Wind.
Chris Park: I founded Arcen Games back in 2009, back when I was pretty much working on my own. Now there are 5 of us full-time, and I was the producer, lead developer, and main artist for the game. Also one of only two programmers on it, and we pretty much split that workload between us.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
CP: I started doing fan levels for the 1989 game Demon Stalkers back when I was around 9 years old. Then I moved into mods and levels and content of various sorts for a lot of games throughout the 90’s — it’s always been my hobby. Round about 2003 I started programming my own engines and games as a hobby, and then in 2008 it suddenly dawned on me that this might actually be a viable career path. Turns out it was! I’d been preparing for it my whole life without realizing it, but I kind of backed into the whole thing. When I was a kid, there wasn’t digital distribution and so the opportunities for indies were drastically more limited (shareware only, basically).
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing A Valley Without Wind?
CP: Haha, we learned at least a hundred ways not to do this game in the course of learning how to do it right, that’s for sure. The most notable shift from the game came during alpha, when we shifted from a top-down view to a sidescroller. I think that was a really solid decision because gravity and the other benefits added a whole lot to the game; as well as finally making the art gel in a way it hadn’t before that point. But there was definitely some fallout back last summer on various news sites and gaming forums when people thought we were going more casual with the game. Fortunately I think everyone’s come around by now!
In its current form, how close is A Valley Without Wind to your initial vision?
CP: I could honestly tell you 0% and 100% and both would be equally true, in different senses. In terms of our core vision for how the game would feel — in what ways it would exercise your brain and your reflexes and your emotions — it’s pretty much exactly what we had in mind. In terms of the actual mechanics of how the game goes about accomplishing that feel, it’s not remotely like anything we could have thought of 15 months ago.
I’m strongly of the belief that if an idea is really original, you can’t think of it in advance. If you can think of it in advance, it’s too obvious and is something that is fairly derivative. The really interesting ideas come from lots of prototyping and experimentation and ongoing thought, and so you wind up reaching places you hadn’t expected when you set out. Platforming and SHMUP influences were nowhere in the original game plans, for instance, but it turns out they complement and extend our core vision wonderfully.
Some 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 A Valley Without Wind and if you faced a similar challenge.
CP: We always put in difficultly levels ranging from “Grandma plays it” to “Ultra Hardcore,” so we don’t tend to run into that problem. We also do a lot of testing with players (6 months of public beta by now), so that sort of thing also tends to get ironed out by all the feedback prior to release.
What we do run afoul of, however, is that exact same problem but with complexity instead. During alpha the game grew enormously complex, and we still thought it was too simple. Turns out we had the opposite problem of what we thought. During early beta in particular, one of our big challenges was to streamline the ideas of the game so that they were more accessible to players. And the other challenge throughout beta was making the game adequately explain itself to players as they progress.
That’s a kind of difficulty in and of itself, of course, but it’s different from something like simply being really good at the action mechanics of the game. I don’t think that our staff is actually that unusually good at the action mechanics of the game; despite lots of playtime with it, there are already players who are far better than us at it. Of course, some of those players have already logged dozens of hundreds of hours with the game in beta, so they have almost as much advantage as we do.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring A Valley Without Wind would run on the various PC system configurations?
CP: In the main, thanks to the Unity 3D engine, no. We also don’t do much in the way of fancy shaders or similar, partly because we like to maximize compatibility.
That said, recent ATI drivers have some bugs with power management where the cards were not spinning up to full power with the game because the game was batching too much data to the card; so that was leading to vastly worse framerates (30-40fps) than we wanted with the game on those cards, but you could double or triple your framerate by playing a couple of youtube videos in the background on loop. That was a really odd one.
Fortunately, we got it fixed up so that we stream the data more to the GPU rather than batching as much, and that avoids the power management bug in the drivers as well as leading to better performance even on nVidia cards simply due to having more constant use of the GPU in parallel to the main game runtime. So that one issue turned out to end up in a big win all around, which is always a happy thing to have happen.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for A Valley Without Wind.
CP: I’ve been a 3D modeler and mostly landscape artist since 1998 or so, but I never had the idea to put that to use in games until the last year or so. I wound up going with a lot of “commodity art” from various artists that I could light, render, and occasionally rig, and then which I could heavily post-process in Photoshop to give it that painterly look for 2D sprites instead of something that was quite as clearly 3D-based.
Some folks dislike the art, but thankfully due to a lot of feedback throughout the alpha and beta I think a great many people are pretty pleased with it. I’m certainly proud of it by this point, anyway, even though I know it’s not Crysis. But I didn’t set out for it to be!
The world and terrain generation was something that Keith (my programming partner) and I worked on a huge amount. I would say that a good 40% of my time on this game was spent on creating the procedural generation’s many layers. That’s really something that just takes a lot of algorithm work, which is thankfully one of our favorite things to do here at Arcen.
For the music, I asked Pablo — the fulltime composer for all of Arcen’s games — to come up with something that had a chiptune throughline, and which was heavily melody-driven and varied enormously through each track rather than ever repeating within the track itself. He took that and really ran with it in an amazing way — having 15 months to develop the soundtrack was I think really helpful to him as well, because it gave him an enormous amount of time to develop a large number of memorable tracks.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
CP: Work/life balance, in particular. It’s way too easy to just work all the time. Today is actually my third day off in the last five months, including weekends. And it’s not like even on the days off it’s possible to do no work. When you’re small in particular, you often have to make a lot of sacrifices in order to make your passion projects a reality. Hopefully this game does well enough to give us a little more breathing room, though!
How did you go about funding A Valley Without Wind and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
CP: The $200k+ that has been spent on creating AVWW has mostly come from the sales of our first game, AI War: Fleet Command. You might not have heard much about that one, but it made big waves in the hardcore strategy niche; top 40 of metacritic in 2009, too, come to that. Some of the funding also came from beta preorders of AVWW itself, but that’s a comparably small sum compared to what AI War contributed.
Working on such a large game for such a long time is always very difficult for a multitude of reasons, and thankfully all of our families have been really understanding and helpful. And in a lot of cases, our spouses have been directly involved in some aspect of the creation. Pablo’s wife Hunter does all our female voice acting, and came along to help show the game at PAX East. So did my wife Marisa, and she also wrote all the mysteries for the game. And so on.
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?
CP: We pretty much have complete freedom, within reason. If we wanted to do something stupid, they wouldn’t have wanted to go along with that. But we had a pretty good range of pricing we were already thinking of, partly from past experience and partly from knowledge of other titles. We went to the distributors and asked them their opinion on where we should fall in their range, they gave their feedback, and we set a price.
For the most part, big budget studios no longer release PC demos while almost every indie developer does. Why do you think this trend is occurring? Tell us why released a demo for A Valley Without Wind and the difficulties in doing so.
CP: I think that the bigger studios are riding on their reputations and advertising. I think the smaller studios are trying to reach everyone they can, which is always the hardest part as an indie. But especially if you have a large game, there’s no reason not to have a demo; we’ve always done demos in a shareware-style for our game, with generous play limits, because we only want customers who actually like the game. If you don’t actually like our game, but just like the vague idea of it, you should keep your money and spend it somewhere else.
Using the model we do, you can always play the latest and greatest official or beta version of any of our titles even in the demo, without us having to remember to constantly update the demo separately from the main game. That tends not to happen. I would say that our demo has been one of the biggest causes of success for our game AI War, so we would have been mad not to do the same with Valley.
How important is it to get instant feedback about A Valley Without Wind from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
CP: We have an online forum where players come and discuss the game, but generally speaking all of our feedback ultimately needs to wind up in our mantis idea tracker. We tend to implement several thousand player suggestions a year into our games, and we get many times more than that in suggestion volume per year, so we have to have some way of organizing all that.
But that ongoing feedback on our work is definitely the lifeblood of Arcen and how we develop such large and unique titles; we couldn’t do it without our playerbase, and if you look at the release notes and how many players are thanked for their ideas, you’ll see why.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review A Valley Without Wind professionally?
CP: Is that the sound of me stepping into a minefield? Haha. The honest answer is that I place roughly the same value on professional reviewer opinions as I do on any logical, well-thought-out suggestion from players. There are lots of intelligent people in the world, and lots of them do some critical thinking about specific games or gaming as a whole.
With reviewers in any industry, or creators in any creative industry for that matter, sometimes they can have pretty wildly different opinions from the actual consumers. That can be positive or negative, but it’s a factor that creators have to bear in mind when evaluating feedback from any source. A consumer might have a less refined view about games as whole, but a reviewer is equally at risk to be over-saturated and jaded by having played too many games (many of which they might not have liked much or at all).
With movie critics in particular, I notice that this leads them to criticize movies that the consumers love because the critics have “seen it before” 20-30 years ago. And it leads film critics to really go for artsy and indie films that consumers don’t care for as much — some could argue just because those critics are so desperate for originality at that point.
The parallels aren’t remotely exact between the games industry and the film industry, because I think we have vastly fewer jaded critics and are just a younger industry all across the board. But what I am saying is that I think any person, be them professional or “layman,” brings with them the baggage of their own past history of playing games, and their own likes and dislikes, and so forth. So when evaluating feedback from any source, one has to separate the signal from the noise, as Gabe Newell put it a couple of years ago, and then look at how that fits with your own vision for the game you’re creating.
At the most basic level, I wouldn’t want to do without professional or player feedback, as I think both are enormously useful in their own ways. Sometimes professional reviewers can articulate something about a game that even its own creators simply don’t appreciate or fully understand the import of. When Tom Chick lauded the “AI Progress” mechanic in our game AI War as one of the most novel strategy mechanics of 2009, I was frankly a little surprised; other reviewers agreed with him, but I’d been thinking of other aspects of the game as being more notable.
Those reviewers really gave me a whole new framework for viewing both what I’d done right and wrong with that game up until that point, and it definitely had a major impact on how AI War developed from version 1.0 to 5.0 in the three years since. That’s a good example of something you can’t ever get from combined feedback from a large number of players.
How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?
CP: I’ve talked with a number of people who have been involved in those sorts of projects in some capacity, and I think it’s pretty interesting. We don’t have any definite or short-term plans in that direction, though. I think that aside from a very few players in that market, nobody else is making what I would call serious money at it, though; a lot of people are trying to duplicate what the HIB has done, and I don’t think anyone else is coming remotely close.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
CP: I think that, on the one hand, if the big-budget AAA studios weren’t messing some things up, then the indies like myself could never exist. I say that only partly in jest. Of course, it’s not like indie projects are perfect either, so it’s really good that we have the diversity throughout the market. I think that right now we’re seeing more overall diversity throughout the PC landscape than we’ve ever had before, and that’s super exciting and encouraging.
In terms of DRM in particular, I think it’s a bad idea and we don’t do it. I think that the AAA folks are barking up the wrong tree and alienating consumers. I think that pirates are also in the wrong if they think that they can just take what they want because “information should be free,” though. I fully agree that information should be free — and I think the patent system is broken and horrible, and there’s a ton wrong with copyright.
But I also remember how it felt when I had made AI War, and was selling it and not even making a living at it yet. It was just me and the early adopters supporting the project, and then some pirates swooped in, torrented it, and posted on pirate forums like they were Robin Hood or something. If they were Robin Hood, they were stealing from Friar Tuck to feed themselves and their Merry Men. That’s really stretching the analogy.
Ultimately, life goes on despite the whole piracy and DRM arms race fiasco. I mostly try to stay out of it because folks have such incendiary polar views on both sides. My games get pirated and that doesn’t exactly feel good, but life goes on and so far we’re still here.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos of A Valley Without Wind?
CP: I think it’s awesome — Let’s Plays are an amazing tool for sharing about games that people enjoy. I really don’t understand the mentality of companies that want to be litigious or threatening about their fans posting videos or screenshots about their games. Consumer: “I like your game!” Response: “I’ll punch you in the face for that!” I’ve just never understood that on any level.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
CP: That’s hard to answer globally, because it gets implemented so differently everywhere. We’ve done three expansions for AI War, all of which you could class as “DLC.” One raised over $30k for Child’s Play so far. The others let us stay in business and keep developing out free content for AI War for three years so far. These were quite large expansions, and I’ve never heard anyone complain about them being a poor value.
And that’s ultimately where the rub lies: DLC that is a poor value. If you give me content that is a good value, and I like your game, I’m more than happy as a consumer to buy your DLC. But when it comes to the infamous horse armor or three maps for $10 in an FPS… yeah, that’s not so hot.
Recently, there has been a lot of talk about modding of PC games and the relationship developers have with modders. How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for A Valley Without Wind?
CP: I’m completely behind the times on this topic, it would seem; I’ve been down in the trenches too much to follow the news the last couple of months. I will say that I started out as a modder, and spent a great amount of my time on that sort of work in the 90’s. So I think that, as a general rule, modding is great and games/engines that support modding are really cool.
But I also think that creators should have some say over their work, if they’re still actively developing it. We don’t support modding on our own games for the same reason most modders don’t support other mods modding their mods (say that three times fast).
The simple fact is, for most games that are heavily modded the game development of those original products is done; so absolutely, rather than letting those projects die, it’s time to let the modders in. And hey, sometimes whole new games grow up out of those mods, like Counter-Strike or Defense of the Ancients or a hundred others. That’s awesome.
The tricky thing for my own products is that we haven’t stopped developing them yet. AI War is still getting almost weekly releases even now, three years after initial release, and we have at least two more expansions planned. We hope to be able to do the same thing with AVWW.
So when it comes to the question of modding these games, it’s a great challenge: we depend on player feedback on our core game, rather than on a hundred offshoot mods. We also depend on the flexibility to radically and completely change our codebase as is needed, which of course would break any mods that sat on it. We also depend on the speed of being able to update the games almost daily when need be (as is currently the case for AVWW), and trying to build modding support on top of the regular codebase means a lot of extra work to expose those parts of the game in a moddable fashion.
For our own games, I really prefer player feedback and involvement in the form of either suggestions or content creation. If players write dialogue lines or make boss room templates for AVWW that are good, and submit them to us, we’ll include those in the official builds so that everyone gets the benefit of them (as opposed to just those few players who go actively looking for mods, which I can safely say is a minority based on my history as a modder). And that’s really the whole thing there: with a game like AVWW, we depend on having one community that is involved in trying to cumulatively help us make the game into the best possible version of itself; having a hundred splinter sub-factions for various mods would be really counterproductive in our case.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
CP: Make the games that you’ve always wanted to play but that nobody else was playing. Be weird. Don’t try to beat the AAA boys at their own game, because they have millions and you don’t. If you have a unique vision and are able to execute it, it’s very possible to make a living in a niche without being broadly known: look at AI War and Arcen.
Most of all, make sure you love what you’re doing because it will demand the utmost of you to see your ideas to fruition! Even when I don’t get any time off or to myself, I still love coming to work every day; and that’s the most important thing. -End
We would like to thank everyone at Arcen Games and wish them well in their future projects. Of course, a special thanks to Chris for taking the time to allow us inside a great studio. You can pick up A Valley Without Wind on GamersGate, Impulse, Steam (in a few hours) and the official site.