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Beautiful Strange: Travels through A Valley Without Wind

Thursday, 10 November 2011 09:00 GMT By Brenna Hillier

Randomly generated worlds, replaceable player characters and a blend of adventure and strategy; what’s not to like? Brenna Hillier checks out A Valley Without Wind, and talks to Arcen Games CEO and lead programmer Chris Park.

A Valley Without Wind

From AI War developer Arcen Games.

Enormous procedurally generated worlds – and characters.

Gameplay broken into two distinct phases: side scrolling action and strategy.

Defeat enemies, gather resources, and rebuild civilisation with the help of fellow survivors.

A Valley Without Wind speaks directly to players who never wanted to leave the sidescrolling action-packed worlds of Metroid and Castlevania. What if those worlds went on forever? What if you never ran out of things to do? What if you had total control over how your character’s abilities progressed? What if your friends could play, too?

That’s A Valley Without Wind, right there: never-ending Metroidvania fun with multiplayer, endless surprises and an accessible grand strategy element for the taking.

“For me, adventure games have always been one of my special passions – and actually, so have platformers, although AVWW didn’t start out as a sidescroller,” Arcen Games CEO and lead programmer Chris Park told us.

Park took inspiration from several places: an unreleased top-down zombie survival adventure called Alden Ridge, a love for procedural generation gained during the development of previous title AI War, and a new-found fascination with particle effects and how sparkly they make magic.

Co-designer Keith LaMothe had a vision for a simple yet fun turn-based 4X game, and with the introduction of city management elements during alpha, A Valley Without Wind found the mechanism to tie its disparate threads together.

Your experience in A Valley Without Winds begins with the selection of an initial player character from a small pool of colonists. These characters are randomly generated with varying stats, but also utterly replaceable – die in the wilds, and a little tombstone appears in your home base, as observed by the next colonist you choose to send exploring.

Once out of the village, you’re confronted by an extensive world – different on every playthrough.

“There’s nothing sadder than coming to the end of a game you adore and not having anything else to do that you’ve not already done before.”

“I think that procedural content has been a dream of gamers since the 90′s or before, because the idea of unique and endless worlds is just inherently attractive,” Park said.

“Players also like the idea that you can replay a game multiple times and it will be different every time – there’s nothing sadder than coming to the end of a game you adore and not having anything else to do that you’ve not already done before.”

This scenario unlikely to ever concern players of A Valley Without Wind. In fact, the worlds are so large and expansive that Arcen has spent some time fine tuning what Park calls the “signal-to-noise” ration, ensuring players are more likely to be rewarded for exploring.

A forgiving teleport system negates the need to return to previously-explored areas, and in-game signalling makes it clear whether a player is ready to handle the risks in each new environment.

What now?
After spending some time leaping back and forth between platforms and trying out the handful of starter spells, rapidly diminishing health and mana suddenly make the numerous predictable enemies seem far more threatening. Boss encounters? Don’t even think about it. Go home.

Back in the colony home base, players can craft new potions and if they’ve been lucky, invest in some new spell types – the available arsenal seems almost dauntingly diverse, granting an opportunity for significant customisation. Support spells light up the environment, restore health or still monster spawners; the destructive options available push the limits of ingenuity.

Bang out enough of these abilities and you might just get your civilisation up a few levels, and that’s where things get really interesting – if you want.

Beta gameplay footage.

“For us, the adventure part of the game has always been the core, and the strategic stuff is an optional layer on top of that,” park explained.

“If you want to ignore your NPCs, or even murder everyone, you should still be able to get around the world and do your antisocial adventuring. Of course, using the NPCs makes things a lot more convenient for the adventure side of things.”

After level three, players unlock the strategy map, and the natives start to get restless. Enemies advance on the player’s base and must be countered in the field; while the player has endless time to adventure between turns, each one ticking over can bring threats nearer. Happily, you can spread some of the burden around to the afore-mentioned NPCs, sending them to help gather precious loot and deal with problems.

If bad-ass sidescrolling spellcasting isn’t enough for you, this unlock unveils a whole new world of play, a dramatic change of focus. As such, it’s somewhat baffling that it isn’t an obvious part of the game right from the start.

“Strategy games, by nature, are seen to be more complex than sidescrolling platformers. That has its good and its bad points, but it’s something we consider more advanced and so try to introduce to players after they are more comfortable with the core parts of the game,” Park said.

“A lot of the depth of this game comes from what you can do with NPCs and the settlement, and some of the cooler things you can do with crafting. The problem is, there’s only so much information that is fun to absorb at one time as a player.

More representative assets here.

“So a lot of that stuff we really have to level-gate so that you’re not seeing it until a few hours into the game. As a new player you really need to get a handle on the basics of world navigation and exploration, and the basics of crafting, all of which are involved enough compared to your traditional Metroidvania game – since you can explore in so many directions at once, you have to use the maps to really pick your exploration targets,” he continued.

“I think that we’re getting there in terms of finding the balance between introducing cool things soon and yet not making them come at an overwhelming rate, but that’s a work in progress for sure. It’s a hard thing to tune, and yet another reason why we do public betas on our games.”

A world of complexity
“One of our goals from the start with this game has been to make a game that doesn’t need a substantial tutorial – one that you can just pick up and play, but which has increasing depth the longer you play it,” Park said.

In the early days of beta testing, this had not been a universal player experience. After including five hours of tutorials with its previous release, Arcen is understandably reluctant to introduce hand-holding to A Valley Without Wind.

“With this title we’ve been trying to make a game that is easy to get into, but hard to master. To some extent that has meant doling out the complexity in a natural progression as you play more, and in other respects that means having tooltips on basically everything so that if you don’t know what something is, you just hover over it and the game tells you,” Park explained.

“What we found when we had private alpha testers was that this simply wasn’t enough. Plunking people down in this huge world was inherently overwhelming. We had some alpha testers who just ran out of the settlement with their pitiful little fire touch starting spell, and played for multiple hours with that – that’s as bad as playing Half Life for hours with the crowbar.”

“We had some alpha testers who just ran out of the settlement with their pitiful little fire touch starting spell, and played for multiple hours with that – that’s as bad as playing Half Life for hours with the crowbar.”

Arcen’s response to player bafflement has been substantial and varied. Tooltips have been increased, some gating has been introduced, helpful talking advisor stones have turned up in colonies – and a Getting Started guide has been posted to the Arcen website.

But as Park himself noted, players expect to be able to sit down and play immediately, so the team has turned to streamlining the game mechanics themselves. As an example, crafting has been simplified from three steps to two.

“Sometimes it’s a matter of needing more documentation, sometimes it’s a matter of actually needing to tighten some aspect of the design,” Park admitted.

“During this process it has also become clear that new players needs more hand-holding at the start than we’re currently giving. If we just give you wooden platforms and no context, do you think to open the inventory and look at the tooltip explaining what they are for?”

Even those who do may not remember the information when it comes time to actually use them. Park relutantly admits A Valley Without Wind will ahve to shed a little of its openness in order to organically guide players into understanding.

“It’s clear that we need to be briefly linear right at the start in order to really get players up to speed in a span of ten or so minutes where they are playing and having fun,” he said.

“A vast world is great, but most players tend to want a more gradual progression right at the start from what I’ve seen.”

Go outside and play with your friends
Although it’s not available yet, eventually the beta release will support multiplayer, too – possible even some sort of PvP option, although primarily focused on co-operative world building.

Given that player actions can have a substantial effect on entire colonies, Arcen has a vision for substantial multiplayer support, and expects to provide in-game admin tools, a central server list, and robust anti-griefing options.

“For instance, maybe only a few players are allowed to run the strategic side of the game, and maybe nobody is allowed to kill NPCs except the admins,” Park suggested.

“We’ll have a few ways you can set that up as a server admin so that you can run an open server without having to worry about strangers wrecking all your stuff.”

After 30 weeks development.

Currently, Arcen expects anything from 8 to 16 players to be a good size, but won’t impose limits if it doesn’t have to.

“It’s possible that servers might handle 30-50 players, but that’s something that will have to be answered by beta players who actually set up servers and see how it does,” Park said.

“For our part the goal is to program the networking as efficiently as possible, and then let server admins set a player cap that works for their specific setup.

Voting with your feet
Player response to the beta has so far been all Arcen could ask for.

“Most of the people who are getting it seem to really get it from the start so far, honestly – we had hundreds of players who were really excited to get the game as soon as they possibly could, and they’ve been the bulk of our new customers so far; or at least the bulk who have written to us,” park said.

“The people who get into the game at all have to get over that early learning curve hump, and to do that they have to be really taken with the idea of the game. And those people just are going nuts with it, and often are getting into the 30s-40s of levels within a week or so of starting.”

That said, there’re still plenty of players – myself included – continuously restarting the game to get a handle on how it works rather than charging right through.

“I think that right now one of the biggest things holding us back is the perception that the game is complex when you first start playing it,” Park agreed.

“I think that right now one of the biggest things holding us back is the perception that the game is complex when you first start playing it.”

“As we get the new player experience smoothed out, I think this will really hit a new level.”

A Valley Without Wind is Arcen’s fastest-selling beta so far, and players are clamouring for new content.

“You can play for a few dozen hours before you really see everything even now, and even after that there’s plenty to do in terms of building up your settlements and so on, but it’s not yet to the level of AI War where you have to play hundreds of hours to even see every ship or AI type,” park explained.

“For Keith [LaMothe, co-designer] and I, there is just so much that fits into the world of AVWW that we’re really just scratching the surface now. I think we could develop the game for years and years and come up with something even more massive than AI War (but infinitely more accessible).

“It all depends on if there’s really the long-term of interest in the game from players, but so far early signs are excellent that a lot of players are as invested in the game as we are.”

Seeing the massive enthusiasm fans hold for the game and its relative obscurity elsewhere puts me in mind of the early days of another little indie title you might have heard of – Minecraft, which recently passed 4 million sales.

“Well, that would be nice, but I have to be realistic,” Park said

“Minecraft and Terraria are both, at core, Lego-style building games. That taps into an absolutely fundamental urge in a lot of people, and the other bits – the crafting, the exploration, the monsters, etc – are perhaps icing on the cake. For AVWW, it’s another fundamental urge in some ways – that of exploring and taming a hostile environment – but it’s inherently a bit more involved.

“I keep seeing new AVWW players who played those other games and wanted more on the adventure side, though, so who knows. I could see it going either way in terms of being one of the big-name indie games of the next year, but it certainly looks to be the biggest-name thing we’ve ever done to-date, which is exciting either way.”

A Valley Without Wind is currently in public beta, for Windows and OS-X. A free trial allows players to progress to level six, while a $10 special beta price nabs the whole game and all subsequent updates.

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    The Assassin’s Creed movie will start production this fall, actor Michael Fassbender (Prometheus, 300, X-Men:First Class) as confirmed. Speaking with ComingSoon.net, Fassbender said filming will start in September, which is inline with Ubisoft’s announcement in February. The actor will star in the film alongside Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard, both reuniting with their MacBeth director Justin […]

  • Eve Online boss states VR won’t be as big as we think next year

    I don’t think I’m the only one who wants VR to hurry up and manifest into a Sword Art Online-esque reality. Unfortunately, the chief executive officer at the studio behind Eve Online doesn’t think that will be happening any time soon. Talking to Venture Beat, Hilmar Veigar Pétursson touched on his excitement at the prospects […]

  • The Last of Us: Left Behind goes standalone in May on PS3, PS4

    Naughty Dog has announced that The Last of US DLC Left Behind will be released as a standalone experience next month. It can be purchased for both PlayStation 3 and PS4 through the PS Store and a two-hour demo of the Factions multiplayer will also be made available. “The Left Behind standalone game will have […]

  • EA’s annual E3 press conference takes place on June 15

    Electronic Arts has announced its annual E3 2015 press conference will take place the day before the show kicks off on June 15. EA, Microsoft, Sony and Ubisoft always hold press events the day before E3 officially starts, so this isn’t any surprise, really. The presser, dubbed “Live to Play”, will last one hour and […]

  • Steam exchange rate mix-up closes down community market

    The Steam community market was buggered up big time today after a mix-up with currency conversion had items selling from practically nothing, to millions of dollars. PC Gamer picked up on the news after a thread on Reddit appeared with screenshots depicting just how silly things were getting over there. The currency exchange rate data […]

  • Britney Spears signs five-year deal with Glu for new mobile game

    Pop star Britney Spears has signed a five-year deal with Glu mobile for a new, untitled game. The mobile game will feature her “voice, likeness, and creative influence,” and is due for release sometime next year. Glu also signed a deal with Katy Perry in February, so expect a game revolving around her to hit […]

  • Large Activision publisher sale on Steam discounts Call of Duty, Prototype, more

    Activision has put the majority of its library on sale through Steam this weekend, and if other titles weren’t included, it could be referred to as a Call of Duty sale. Below are a few standouts. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare – Gold Edition 25% off Call of Duty: Ghosts 67% off Call of Duty: […]

  • The Dota 2 International Compendium is out, second Stretch Goal almost complete

    The International Compendium has been released for Dota 2 with the prize pool sitting at a lovely $1,917,155 as of press time. Valve said over the weekend to expect the International Compendium to drop sometime this week. As with previous years, those who purchase the Compendium can earn rewards by completing challenges, making predictions and by […]

  • If permadeath RTS games are up your alley, check out indie project XO

    The Square Enix Collective showcases projects for a limited time to help drum up community support and potential backers, and RTS title XO from Jumpdrive Studios is worth taking a look at. The teaser trailer is fairly brief, but if you visit the page for XO over at the Square Enix Collective, it’s understandable – […]

  • GTA 5 PC patch disables mods. Here’s how to get them working again

    A new patch for the PC version of GTA 5 was released yesterday and, as it turns out, has wiped the ability to use mods with the game. The wasn’t great news for some players, but YouTuber taltigolt has already figured out how to play the PC version with mods after installing the patch. Matt […]

  • Xbox One ad stealth launches a mysterious Halo 5 competition

    A new Xbox One advert released today isn’t as straightforward as it appears. The trailer has a couple of pretty conspicuous ‘glitches’ throughout, and members of NeoGAF wasted no time in breaking it down. The first item of interest is the screen from the hunt the signal site, which displays an error message when accessed […]

  • Battlefield 4 Jungle map improved with latest update

    DICE LA has updated the Battlefield 4 Jungle map, adding more foliage and a new route. As demonstrated by Westie in the video above, the map now has the kind of foliage you’d expect in the jungle, helping to conceal infantry players. The update also tweaks positions of objective points and has added a concealed […]

  • Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate free DLC pack for May includes Metroid and Mega Man armour

    The May DLC pack for Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate boasts some big ticket items, including Metroid, Street Fighter, and Mega Man gear. This big fat chunk of free DLC, detailed on the capcom unity blog, includes Hunter equipment: Metroid’s Varia Suit Metroid’s Zero Suit Metroid’s Arm Cannon Taiko Drum Master Hunting Horn USJ’s Star Rook […]

  • Destiny: Xur location and inventory for May 1, 2 – Hard Light edition

    Here he comes with his weird face, dealing goods and gear for Guardians. It’s Friday. Xur: Agent of the Nine is back in the Tower. Of Course he is. Got your Strange Coins? Here’s what’s in his bag this week: Ruin Wings [Exotic Titan gauntlets] – 13SC Don’t Touch Me [Exotic Hunter gauntlets] – 13SC […]

  • Dragon Age: Inquisition Jaws of Hakkon DLC drops for PS4 on May 26

    Dragon Age: Inquisition DLC has now been announced for May 26 for PS3, PS4 and Xbox 360. The announcement was made on Twitter via the official Dragon Age account. Mark your calendars! #DAIJawsOfHakkon pic.twitter.com/mU1WfkSrQV — Dragon Age (@dragonage) May 1, 2015 The DLC was released for PC and Xbox One back in March thanks to […]

  • New Witcher 3 screenshots highlight Geralt’s questionable fashion choices

    Even though The Witcher 3 release date is drawing closer, it still feels like a million year away. So here are some more screenshots to tide you over until then. We got to look at in-game shots yesterday, but these new screens show Geralt riding through some gorgeously vibrant mountains, in the midst of combat […]

  • Sims Gurus patch out pregnant men

    Say goodbye to The Sims 4 unique take on fatherhood, as The Sims Gurus confirm that male pregnancies are no more. The Sims 4 players have been reporting high numbers of alien abductions, leaving their male characters with sore bottoms and a bellyful of alien baby. Kotaku reports that not everyone was getting their knickers […]

  • Black Mesa countdown probably points to Half-life remake release date

    Half-life remake Black Mesa may have a release date at last. Black Mesa is a Source Engine remake of the original Half-life, which like everything related to Half-life feels like it’s taking forever to come out. The first part launched in September 2012, and it looks like we might have a release date for the […]

  • Spector puts down rumours of troubled Epic Mickey development

    Epic Mickey seemed like a surprising follow-up project from the man who made Deus Ex, but Warren Spector has put down rumours of a difficult relationship with Disney. Epic Mickey displays several qualities found in Spector’s other games and which he has always espoused in interviews – heck, this is the man whose dream it […]

  • Ubisoft makes good on Child of Light promise with free eBook

    Child of Light fans can check out a gorgeous new illustrated book set in the world of Lumeria. Earlier this month, creator Patrick Plourde confirmed that there were more Child of Light projects on the way. As we expected from the cagey wording, at least the first of these projects isn’t a game: it’s an […]

  • Half-life episode from Junction Point would have featured a magnet gun

    Half-life seems to be on near permanent hold, but at least we can glean some insight into what might once have been. Junction Point’s cancelled Half-life game came up in Warren Spector’s Reddit AMA overnight. Commenting that he isn’t sure whether he’ll get into legal trouble for discussing the project, Spector gave a few comments […]

  • Destiny: exclusive shader, emblem on offer with Nepal benefit shirt

    Destiny developer Bungie has asked Guardians to offer their aid, and they’ve already responded in troves. A new Destiny shirt added to the Bungie Store is the object of a fundraising drive to provide aid in Nepal following a devastating earthquake this week. Bungie popped the pretty stylish shirt on sale earlier today, offering an […]

  • What does the creator of Deus Ex think of Human Revolution and Mankind Divided?

    Deus Ex creator Warren Spector seems pretty positive about the direction the sci-fi series has followed under Square Enix’s hand. Deus Ex was created by Spector and his team at Ion Storm, and remained with Eidos after the developer shuttered. When Square Enix purchased the British publisher, it put new studio Eidos Montreal to work […]

  • Protest Goat secures future for Elite Dangerous destruction derbies

    One of the stranger and more beautiful stories to manifest in the gaming world this week, I think. Elite: Dangerous has given birth to an unintended, emergent style of gameplay; a destruction derby like affair where players gather in no combat areas to both race and gleefully smash into each other until a victor limps […]

  • Destiny’s stunning landscapes captured in panoramas

    Destiny has some beautiful environments, which screenshots don’t necessarily do justice to. Walking around Destiny exclaiming over the lighting effects and the tiny animated details is the best way to experience Bungie’s tremendous achievements, but these panorama images stitched together from in-game screenshots are a good second. Click to see them fullsize. Redditor CenturyEagle made […]

  • Star Wars Disney Infinity re-release on the cards – rumour

    Star Wars is a no-brainer for Disney Infinity, and at long last it looks like it’s happening. A Star Wars re-release called Disney Infinity 3.0 has reportedly leaked from German retailers. We have to lable this one a rumour as we haven’t seen the original source, but the story was originally reported by DisKingdom, which […]

  • Award-winning mobile indie Monument Valley out now on Windows Phone

    Windows Phone’s game selection can be a bit restrictive, but has expanded delightfully today: Monument Valley is now available. Monument Valley is one of those gorgeous, mind-bending puzzlers the indie scene produces on the regular, winning awards and consuming everyone’s lives for weeks on end. Developed by Ustwo Games, with beautiful, understated art from Ken […]

  • Old-school EverQuest servers safe from legal troubles thanks to Daybreak agreement

    EverQuest rights holder Daybreak Game Company given its blessing to the wonderful Project 1999. EverQuest: Project 1999 is one of those lovely ideas that it are all too often crushed by the realities of the games industry. An entirely fan-managed affair, it provides an emulated version of the classic EverQuest experience, which is no longer […]

  • Free Dragon Age short stories fill us in on Corypheus’s followers

    Dragon Age: Inquisition developer BioWare invites you to learn more about the lore and characters that make up its beautiful role-playing setting. Dragon Age is set in Thedas, a world still only partially revealed by the three core games to date. BioWare puts a heck of a lot of work into its worldbuilding, employing a […]

  • Remember that gorgeous Luminous Engine tech demo? It now utilizes DirectX 12

    Remember the gorgeous Luminous Engine tech demo Square Enix showed off three years ago? The firm showed it again at Microsoft’s Build Conference, this time utilizing DirectX 12. The Witch Chapter 0 [cry] real-time tech demo was created from research Square conducted using real-time CG technology and DX12 in collaboration with Microsoft and Nvidia. The […]

  • Stealth Inc 2: A Game of Clones sneaks onto GOG and Steam services

    Stealth Inc 2: A Game of Clones can now be purchased through GOG and Steam. On both services it will run you £12.99/€14.99/$14.99. Links here and here. The game features: Fully explorable ‘Metroidvania’ style overworld, laying siege to a diabolical cloning facility with varied and detailed environments. A variety of special equipment to unlock new […]

  • Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare DLC Ascendance has arrived on PC, PlayStation consoles

    Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare players on PC and PlayStation consoles can now download the Ascendance DLC. The second content pack contains the OHM weapon, the OHM Werewolf custom variant, and the second entry in the Exo Zombies saga, Infection. Four new maps are also included: Perplex, Site 244, Climate, and Chop Shop. Ascendance was […]

  • Latest Xbox 360 system update is live, now supports 2TB hard drives

    Xbox 360 now supports 2TB hard drives via the latest system update for the console. Support for the drives was announced earlier this month and has been available for preview members. “In addition we will also no longer reserve space in advance on your hard drive,” said the firm. “If you are using 16GB of […]

  • Kickstarter for Banjo-Kazooie spiritual successor Yooka-Laylee launches tomorrow

    Playtonic Games has announced the Kickstarter campaign for its spiritual successor to the Banjo Kazooie series, Yooka-Laylee, will launch tomorrow. The title of the game was announced today along with the Kickstarter date. Formerly known as Project Ukulele, the 3D platformer is said to be “between the size of Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie,” and stars Yooka […]

  • Console version of Mistwalker’s Terra Battle is in development

    Now that Mistwalker’s Terra Battle has surpassed 2 million downloads on mobile, the developer is now working on a console version of the tactical RPG. As part of the original Download Starter campaign, the 2 million milestone means the company will begin development on Terra Battle’s console version with details to be announced at a […]

  • Prison break game The Escapists is heading to PlayStation 4 from May 29

    The Escapists, Mouldy Toof’s prison break game originally released as a timed console exclusive Xbox One, has a release date for PlayStation 4. For those unfamiliar with the title, which is also a PC release, it tasks players’ time management skills as they do a bit of digging and crafting, and other prison-type stuff as […]

  • Dead Island 2 delayed into 2016 to ensure series is “taken to the next level”

    Dead Island 2 has been delayed into 2016 by Yager in order to ensure the sequel “takes Dead Island to the next level.” According to a tweet from the developer, it set “big goal” for the game, and in order to deliver what fans expect, the team needs more time to reach development goals. “We […]

  • Project Cars: here’s a list of all available cars at launch

    Project Cars will contain many, many cars and if we are counting correctly, there will be 74 total at launch. The standard edition contains 65 total, and when factoring the free car as well as the Modified and Limited Edition cars packs, you can add an additional nine cars to the mix. Comb through the […]

  • Competitive matchmaking support is coming to Team Fortress 2

    Team Fortress 2 will soon feature support for competitive matchmaking, which Valve says is a “high priority” project for it at the moment. According to a report from TeamFortress.tv, which visited Valve headquarters recently, Valve is looking into the possibility of 6v6 or 9v9 matches 9v9, a possible quick play option and it is also […]