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Living the Dream: Arcen Games and the Indie Recipe, Pt 1.

Saturday, 4 August 2012 07:51 GMT By Brenna Hillier

How do a couple of bright sparks with a liking for gaming grow into a team of full-time indie developers? Jamie Dalzell talks to Chris Park of AI War and A Valley Without Wind developer Arcen Games.

“If it wasn’t for Steam I would probably still be working in business software, occasionally working on hobbyist game development projects. At best I might be half-time in each job, but that would be tough to sustain in the long term. Once we got on Steam, suddenly Pablo and I were able to quit the day jobs and do this fulltime.”

“You know the story about how they boil live lobsters, right?”

I’ve just asked Arcen Games’ founder Chris Park what it’s like to finally move from videogame idea to videogame production, and his response surprises me. I ponder what a crustacean and boiling water have to do with game development.

The creation process draws many similarities to cooks in kitchens, it seems, as Chris would inform me: if the mainstream kitchen is one of Gordon Ramsay hurling expletives in every direction, the indie kitchen is a quiet place that we all have at home, where groups of one, two, sometimes ten, work away far from prying eyes.

In this indie kitchen they tweak the recipe not by diluting it with water, but by pouring their own personalities into their game, until they look into that pot and see themselves reflected in the lid, keeping their project under wraps.

Chris Park is a developer who began in that kitchen, messing with videogame mods, trying his hand with experimental ingredients. From Neverwinter Nights campaigns through to Counter-Strike levels. His videogame kitchen was one strewn with tools of the trade, from notepads to PC monitors full of code, and then, one day, he had more than just a twisted dish, but a meal he thought others might enjoy.

In many ways he was already an indie developer, but from that moment on Chris threw open the doors and invited others in to try his speciality. His team’s latest dish? A Valley Without Wind.

Rustic Beginnings

If Arcen Games could now be considered a commercial kitchen, what with all six members of its team , then it’s one that started from humble beginnings. Just a test-kitchen of one.

“I’ve been doing hobbyist game development, modding, level design, and so forth since the early 90s,” says Chris. “I never really viewed it as a viable career, though, so I went into business software instead. But I kept working on game stuff during off-hours as a hobby.”

What Chris refers to as “game stuff”, others know as AI War: Fleet Command, a game he had been working on since November of 08. In many ways, AI War was the typical indie game, before “indie” was seen as an art project or a time-bending platformer: it was rustic, it was raw, it was a game defined by an overall genre of “Strategy Game” but it was an amalgamation of many ideas. A melting pot of game design from a single man, with a single, personal, vision.

Even as far back as 2009, AI War was still very much a work in progress, and when Chris found one day that his work had cumulated in a product others might be interested in, he ramped up his efforts to find those final ingredients.

This is AI War, where it all started for Arcen.

“In 2009 I realized I had a game worth selling. I then contracted an awesome composer, Pablo Vega, to do the score for the game.” he continues.

From there Chris could only rely on personal funds to drag the game over the finish line, to the point where he was searching the internet for freeware art and sound assets.

“AI War started off small and then really started to snowball, winding up on Steam and doing really well on Metacritic. As that game first started making money, I reinvested that into hiring an actual artist to do better art for that game.”

“[If it wasn’t for Steam] I would probably still be working in business software, occasionally working on hobbyist game development projects. At best I might be half-time in each job, but that would be tough to sustain in the long term.”

“Once we got on Steam, suddenly Pablo and I were able to quit the day jobs and do this fulltime.”

An Indie Valley Without Wind?

The team’s third, and latest, game, A Valley Without Wind, was announced in 2010, but the opportunity to bring that game to life wasn’t always a certainty.

By the time AI War had found its way to Steam, and from the team’s continued expansions and updates, Chris could devote his attention to game development, slowly but surely bolstering that kitchen of designers, but the team’s second game, Tidalis, almost heralded their closure before they’d ever really begun.

“[Before AVWW] we had just had to shrink some because our second game Tidalis had flopped financially despite having great reviews. So we were a smaller team of just Pablo, myself, and Keith, and Keith was part-time in those days,” says Chris.

To this day, Tidalis is still one of Arcen’s highest rated games, but the release of their own rendition of a match-3 puzzle game – despite being praised by critics as an interesting take on the burgeoning “genre” – almost sunk the team.

“It seems to me that reviews are no longer the driving force behind game sales that they might once have been,” Chris offers. “At least if you’re already established and getting coverage at all, I mean.”

And this is Tidalis, which … not so much.

With the team smaller than it once was, Chris turned his attention to his ideas for A Valley Without Wind, returning to the familiar, and more manageable, territory of procedural content and their signature style of zany, freeware art.

“We figured that this [A Valley Without Wind] could be somewhat of a smaller project. And in fact the early prototypes did move ridiculously fast,” says Chris.

“But then AI War kept having surges of income for us, and we wound up with some windfalls that let us expand the scope of the game rather substantially. Things we might have had to do in post-release content or expansions we instead focused on during the game’s 1.0 phase.”

“Erik joined shortly after we started work on the project in order to take over PR so that I wouldn’t have to spend time on that, and also so that he could help out on some various development-oriented work such as map design or bits of writing. At a later point Keith came on fulltime (him already having been the only other programmer/designer other than myself). Then during our private alpha of the game, right before we opened the game in a beta form, we brought on Josh to handle support and QA, and he turned out also to be quite useful for a lot of development-related things such as map design and some art-related work.”

Steam, and the continued support the team were showing for their previous game, AI War, ensured that they were not only able to make a start on A Valley Without Wind, but also expand both in scope and in team size.

Arcen decided the time was right to turn up the gas, and begin work on A Valley Without Wind.

It was time to cook those lobsters.

“You know the story about how they boil live lobsters, right?” asks Chris, and now, I think, I finally catch his drift.

“Put them in cool water, then turn up the temperature gradually so that eventually they get cooked without ever realizing to jump out of the water? Going from idea to finished concept is very much like that, in any creative endeavor.”

“Arcen titles rarely come from any one idea,” Chris continues. “Rather, I always feel like they must be the intersection of several great ideas before the game has any chance of being great.”

“Sometimes I’d be reading previews about a game and getting really excited, then play the final product and realized I’d misunderstood what they were going for. And sometimes I thought my original conception of their idea was cooler, and I’d mentally file that away.”

“All my life I’ve been a gamer, and that involves a lot of looking at what other people actually make as well as what you think they were going to make. So sometimes I’d be reading previews about a game and getting really excited, then play the final product and realized I’d misunderstood what they were going for. And sometimes I thought my original conception of their idea was cooler, and I’d mentally file that away. I think that all game designers do this, unconsciously or not. It certainly was unconscious for me.”

For Chris, A Valley Without Wind came about from a desire to construct a large, procedural world, where interesting things could happen, and players could feel as if they were intrepid adventurers, in what would ultimately become an amalgamation of a side-scrolling RPG filled with crafting and exploration. Yet as Chris describes, the design process is an ever changing one, and with the help of some Google-fu, you can still find the remnants of AVWW in its original form: a top-down, isometric game that resembles the final product in nothing more than its art style. The recipe changed.

“We didn’t even know it [AVWW] was going to be a sidescroller at first,” says Chris, “but that was one of many things that evolved along the way as we prototyped and saw what worked and what didn’t, and ultimately what felt most fun to us.”

“Originally the game was top-down and included EXP and levels and a different style of focus on NPCs. It was a lot more traditional hack-and-slash dungeon crawler in a lot of respects, and now that doesn’t even really describe the game at all.”

Like many who involve themselves in a creative endeavour, Chris echoes many of our thoughts, in that the original idea isn’t always the best. It’s the spark that lights a bigger fire.

“At the start you are very excited and the world seems full of possibility. You can literally do anything, because you have a pretty blank slate at that point. You have ideas you think are better than others, but you’re hopefully open to trying things a few different ways and seeing what works best. Ultimately the final way that things get implemented won’t look like anything you started with in your mind, but that’s okay because otherwise it wouldn’t be all that creative in the first place – anything you can think of right from the start of the project can’t possibly be that creative.”

“Each day you sit down and work on different bits and pieces of this idea,” he continues, “and gradually the excitement fades and is replaced by just lots of hard work and tough choices: it’s not always clear what the best path is.”

“The key thing is not to be designing from a position of fear. That leads to very conservative, derivative games.”

“The key thing is not to be designing from a position of fear. That leads to very conservative, derivative games. You must start from the assumption that “if I can make something that I feel is fine and good and that I love, at least some others will also love it.” And that has to be enough. If you’re trying to trend-follow in order to be the next Minecraft, I suppose that could conceivably work, but even there the game has to come from the heart rather than from a feeling of need for acceptance.”

And in many ways, while that lobster of a game idea cooked away, the team were cooking themselves. Under the pressure of a game that was shifting shape and form so quickly, as they distilled that idea down to its core.

“That’s the trap of game development: you’re being boiled like the lobster, and all those ideas you were excited about and, which seemed new and interested at the start of the project, now seem ordinary to you by the end.”

“Think of how you feel about Ocarina of Time now, if you’ve played it, versus how you felt when you first played it. Of course you play the ocarina like that. Of course you Z target like this. Etc, etc. These ideas seem obvious to you because you’re so familiar with them by now, a decade and a half later.”

“As a game developer, it’s like compressing that decade and a half into months or just a few years. You’re focused more intensely on the game than even the most devoted hardcore fan ever will. By the end of the project, all of your innovative ideas seem obvious to you, because you’ve been accustomed to them “for so long,” however long it has actually been. But the players – well, for good and for ill they are just now coming to meet those innovations for the first time.”

“If you’ve introduced those ideas properly then they are delighting in the innovations just as you originally did. If you’ve not done it right, then the learning curve is frustrating and jagged, and players feel confused and don’t find it as fun as they would if they understood it better. So for us, the biggest thing we keep thinking about is if we’re being clear to the player, and communicating ideas to them effectively. Ideally through as little text as possible, and instead helping players to have those flashes of insight for themselves.”

Turne in tomorrow for the second half of the journey, where we discuss what it means to be indie and what the last few years have taught Arcen.

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2 Comments

  1. Pytox

    Interesting interview :)

    #1 3 years ago
  2. OlderGamer

    AVWW is an amazing game, one of my recent favs. A great example of why I play indie/ Nice to hear a small dev priase its release platform(Steam) rather then condem it.

    #2 3 years ago

Comments are now closed on this article.

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    GTA 5 is the highest-grossing title at the moment in terms of digital revenue, and the PSN is absolutely minting it. Digital games industry analyst Superdata has extended its scope to include console games, which means we suddenly have access to a whole bunch of data we’ve only been able to guess at, or extrapolate […]

  • Destiny: Inferno playlists debut next week

    Destiny PvP will shake things up next week with a new way to slaughter your mates in the Crucible. Destiny is already a skilled PvP game, but the new Inferno playlists will turn things up a notch with a focus on “basic gunplay”. The first of these, Inferno Control, kicks off on March 3 and […]

  • First-person camera coming to Guild Wars 2 next month

    ArenNet has announced its adding nonrestrictive first-person view to Guild Wars 2. Here’s what top expect come March 10: First-person Camera: Zooming in all the way will allow players to experience a first-person view. First-person mode is available while standing in place, walking, running, jumping, playing PvP and just about anything else. There aren’t any […]

  • Shadowrun Online signs on with Nordic

    Shadowrun Online has been given a nice little boost thanks to a distribution deal with Nordic Games. Shadowrun Online is a new team tactical RPG from Cliffhanger Productions. Although it’s already available through Steam Early Access, Nordic has agreed to distribute the finished version, which is due on Linux, Mac and PC in the second […]

  • Final Fantasy 15 is 60% finished, game world ten times the size of demo

    Final Fantasy 15 is 60% finished, according to director Hajime Tabata. Speaking with IGN, Tabata said development will kick into high gear once the Episode Duscae demo is released. “It’s about 60% now. People may look at that and say ‘well, you’ve only done five more percent!’ [since 55% in September] but it’s actually a […]

  • Destiny: you don’t need to visit the tower to access your vault

    Destiny players, you asked for it and Bungie has delivered it: you can now swap items in and out of the vault using the companion app. “Destiny needs more vault space” you cry – and yes, this is true. But while we all struggle with the limitations imposed on us by Bungie, we face all […]

  • Mortal Kombat X will contain over 100 Brutalities

    During the Mortal Kombat X stream today, NetherRealm Studios revealed Brutalities are back for the game, and stated there will be over 100 to pull off. You won’t gain any extra experience for being overly cruel with your painful moves, but you will at least get to laugh at some and “cringe” at others, according […]

  • Numenera: Strand is a film based on the game up on Kickstarter

    Numenera, the 2012 Kickstarter success and foundation for Torment: Tides of Numenera, could become a film if the Kickstarter for the movie is successful. With five days left, Monte Cook Games and Swedish film company Valdes/Eriksdotter needs £22,542 to reach its goal. Titled Numenera: Strand, it tells the tale of a drifter who “roams a […]

  • Gran Turismo 6 update adds MINI Clubman Vision, more

    A Mini Cooper has invaded Gran Turismo 6 via a new update. The Mid-Field Raceway track has also been added, and its a new and improved version of the original track from previous Gran Turismos. The new B-Spec Mode feature has also been added which allows the AI driver to race on your behalf. Additional […]

  • Nintendo is bringing New 3DS Xl and some playable titles to PAX East

    Nintendo is bringing New 3DS Xl and Splatoon with it to PAX East next month. The E3 2014 build of the game lets eight players transform into squids in a race for “splattered-paint dominance.” Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. will also be playable and featured in stage presentations at the Nintendo booth. Upcoming or newly released Nintendo […]

  • Battlefield Hardline Premium information seems to have slipped out early

    Battlefield Hardline Premium perks have apparently leaked a bit early, according to a post on Reddit. Over on the Hardline subreddit is an image which was take at a GameStop location, noting two week early access to content additional Battlepacks and more. Here’s the rundown: Four expansions Two weeks early access 12 additional Battlepacks Exclusive […]

  • Final Fantasy: Record Keeper arrives in the US this spring

    Final Fantasy: Record Keeper will be released in the US on iOS and Android this spring, DeNA and Square Enix today. The mobile titles allows players to “relive favorite moments” across all Final Fantasy installments and build a team of classic characters from across the entire franchise. If you sign up for email updates, you […]

  • Battlefield Hardline now available for pre-order, pre-download on Xbox One

    Battlefield Hardline is now available for pre-order and pre-download on Xbox One. You can pre-order it now from the Xbox Store and once you have paid for it, you can start your pre-download. Battlefield Hardline releases on March 17, and will be made available to pre-downloaders come 12.01am EDT. Check pricing and availability for your […]

  • Dying Light interactive video allows you switch between day and night

    A new video for Dying Light has been released, which allows you to hit the Z key to change between day and night. Titles Life and Death in the Quarantine Zone, the interactive story video showcases how the game changes between day and night. Daytime and nighttime are shown side-by-side but the z key allows […]

  • Havoc DLC for Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare out on PS3, PS4; PC delayed

    The Havoc DLC for Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is now available for PlayStation 3 and PS4. Havoc contains the four multiplayer maps Core, Drift, Sideshow, and Urban along with the AE4 directed energy assault rifle, its custom variant, and the Exo Zombies cooperative mode. You can purchase the DLC separately or pick up the […]

  • Here’s a teaser for Resident Evil Revelations 2: Episode 2

    A teaser video for the second episode of Resident Evil Revelations 2 is available, so if you’ve yet to play the first episode, you may want to skip this. Resident Evil Revelations 2′s first episode is out now. Thanks, GamesHQMedia.

  • North American eShop update is full of Donkey Kong games

    Nintendo has updated the North American end of the eShop with Titan Attacks, Donkey Kong Land, Donkey Kong Country and more. eShop on 3DS Ironfall Invasion Titan Attacks! Donkey Kong Land – Virtual Console Donkey Kong Land 2 – Virtual Console Donkey Kong Land 3 – Virtual Console Luv Me Buddies Wonderland Around the World […]

  • Venture into the Valley of the Yetis next week in Far Cry 4

    The next batch of Far Cry 4 DLC, Valley of the Yetis, releases in March and Ajay Ghale will be tasked with surviving violent cultists and the mythical Yeti. Apparently the cult is looking for a secret hidden in the valley, and Ajay has discovered their motives. The DLC features co-op with a friend taking […]

  • The Butcher’s AK/CAR Mod Pack out for Payday 2, has dino masks

    The 19th DLC pack for Payday 2 title The Butcher’s AK/CAR Mod Pack is available on Steam from today. The pack will run you $4.99/€4.99 and features: 11 new weapon modifications for the AK rifles in the game 11 new weapon modifications for the CAR rifles in the game Four new masks together with their […]

  • Battle Chasers slated for PC, consoles; comic picks up where 2001 storyline left off

    Darksiders creator Joe Madureira and Vigil co-founder Ryan Stefanelli have confirmed a Battle Chasers game and a new comic are in the works at their new studio Airship Syndicate. Speaking to Polygon, Madureira and Stefanelli wouldn’t provide details on the the game, but did divulge it will be an adventure RPG with player-controlled Battle Chasers […]

  • Shovel Knight, Hotline Miami 2 discounted for Sony’s annual Spring Fever Sale

    Sony is hosting its annual Spring Fever Sale which runs for eight weeks and features a new title each week. The sale starts next week on March 3 with the launch of Helldivers. Here’s just a few items included in the sale: HELLDIVERS (PS4/PS3/PS Vita) March 3 Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number (PS4/PS3/PS Vita) March […]

  • The gold Super Mario amiibo is a Walmart exclusive

    The Super Mario Gold amiibo which surfaced via a CPSIA certificate earlier this month will be a Walmart-exclusive, Nintendo has announced. The gold-colored Mario amiibo will be released the same day as the Mario Party 10 game for Wii U and will run you $12,96 at 3,000 participating Walmart stores in the US. Along with […]

  • Here’s an overview trailer for Final Fantasy Type-0 HD

    As new gameplay overview trailer for Final Fantasy Type-0 HD, culled from the Active Time Report, stream has been sent over by Square Enix. The video provides a look at the history and environments of the Kingdom of Orience; the 14 memebers of Class Zero; the battle system with customizable magic spells; and the ability […]

  • Final Fantasy 15 video gives you a look at the game’s wildlife

    A new video shown by Final Fantasy 15 director Hajime Tabata during the latest Active Time Report, contains a look at the game’s wildlife and ecology. You can watch the full stream two hour stream through here, or a smaller clip courtesy of GamesHQMedia below.

  • Lionhead ventures into the free-to-play space with Fable Legends

    Fable Legends will be free-to-play when it launches on PC and Xbox One. According to Lionhead, the one versus four cross-platform title borrows from MOBA games such as Dota 2 and League of Legends as it will contain free, rotating heroes which will be added to a roster for a two week period. Once the […]

  • Win! 5 pairs of tickets to the Call of Duty European Championships

    We have five pairs of tickets to giveaway for the Call of Duty European Championships, taking place in London this weekend. The event takes place this Saturday February 28 and Sunday March 1 at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Winners can watch teams will go head to head for a $10,000 prize pot […]

  • Republique Remastered has released on Mac and PC

    Republique Remastered, which was announced earlier this month, is now available for Mac and PC. The game is 20% off through Steam, GOG and the Humble Store for $19.99 until March 4. Thereafter, it will run you $24.99. The Remastered edition contains all five episodes of the game, with 1-3 available now and the remaining […]

  • LA Cops coming to Xbox One in March

    Isometric shooter LA Cops is coming to Xbox One on March 13. Already on Steam Early Access, the game looks like it’s been heavily inspired by Hotline Miami. Walk into a room, open fire, leave bloody puddles in your wake. It’s being published by Team 17. Check out the video below for some 70s cop […]

  • We have $500 of Steam Wallet funds to giveaway!

    We’re giving away 10 Steam Wallet prizes worth $50 each to VG247 readers, courtesy of Bundle Stars. All you need to do to be in with a chance of winning $50 Steam credit is to enter your details below. Join the Bundle Stars Steam group for entry in the sweepstake, and gain extra entries for […]

  • Lapsed Final Fantasy 14 players tempted back with 10 day freebie

    Square is offering lapsed FF 14: A Realm Reborn players a chance to come back to the game for 10 days worth of free adventuring. Provided you’ve already bought and registered an account you’ll be able to play free of charge from Feb 27 to March 9. Square wants you to sample the new content […]

  • Advanced Warfare: Sledgehammer looking at “opportunities” to recreate classic Call of Duty maps

    Sledgehammer Games has told VG247 it’s looking at opportunities to recreate classic Call of Duty maps in Advanced Warfare. According to co-founder Michael Condrey, players of the latest Havoc DLC are asking how Exo abilities and verticality can be added to classic franchise maps. “We’re taking a look at some opportunities to really highlight the […]

  • GTA Online reader playlist week 7: and the winner is…

    Stuff was shot. But only one player emerged victorious. GTA Online player e031271 won last night’s VG247 reader playlist, beating myself, Matt and regulars solidorwot and Revolting. Congratulations, Mr e031271. A deserved victory. We play a GTA Online playlist in an open session every Wednesday on PS4, because it’s both funny and fun. Anyone’s welcome […]

  • Leaked screens reveal The Reef as Destiny’s new “social space”

    A handful of leaked Destiny screens seem to confirm that The Reef location will be the new social space in Destiny. The new addition is likely to be revealed as part of the upcoming House of Wolves expansion. Reddit user Megamanexe4 dropped the screens on the site earlier this morning, along with grabs that reveal […]

  • Darksiders creator teases Battle Chasers game

    Joe Madureira, creator of Darksiders, has released art that strongly suggests a Battle Chasers game is in the works. Battle Chasers was a comic book from the late 1990s that suffered notorious production problems between issues and was never finished. Madureira formed Airship Syndicate after the collapse of THQ, where he co-created Darksiders. His latest […]

  • Infamous video nasty Axe recreated in GTA 5

    The trailer for notorious horror movie Axe has been recreated in GTA 5. The shot for shot remake is the work of gigerbrick who has previously recreated exploitation flicks like Machete and Hostel using Lego. The original Axe movie was banned in 1984 in the UK but passed with cuts in the late 1990s. Movie […]

  • Payday 2 for PS4 and Xbox One includes “a year’s worth of paid DLC” for free

    Payday 2: Crimewave Edition will include a year’s worth of paid DLC from the PC version of the game for free. The new-gen version of the game will be available June 2015, and includes almost all of the paid and free DLC released so far for Overkill’s popular first-person shooter. That DLC includes The Big […]

  • Yes, Mortal Kombat X will require Xbox Live Gold or PS Plus

    Mortal Kombat X won’t bypass Microsoft and Sony’s premium online play requirements. Reports that Mortal Kombat X wouldn’t require PS Plus or Xbox Live Gold started circling earlier this week thanks to a communications error. Answering fan questions on Twitter, producer Shaun Himmerick accidentally gave the impression that premium console subs would not be required […]

  • This is what Destiny players most want next

    Destiny patch 1.1.1 has resolved or at least addressed a number of complaints voiced by the community, but there are plenty more. des Destiny community manage David “Deej” Dague has put out a call for Guardians to share their concerns – or rather, what they think the community is most concerned about. “Set aside your […]