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 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.
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.
"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.
"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."
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.