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Down to Earth: Arcen Games and the Indie Recipe, Pt 2

You're making money and the critics love you. Where can you possibly go from there? Chris Park tells Jamie Dazell how lauded indie developer Arcen Games keeps its feet on the ground.

This is the second of two parts; catch up on yesterday's episode here.

"Someone has to strike out and do new and unexpected things – failing sometimes, succeeding others, but ultimately increasing the pool of knowledge for all of us either way. Couching these things in terms like 'saviour' or 'genius' is only going to lead to inflated egos, however."

On Being “Indie”

The indie scene, market, spawning ground for fresh ideas, whatever you want to call it, has changed a lot since Arcen Games' Chris Park first set out along the path of game development, even as recent as while AVWW was still in production. Games like Braid and Fez bring the spotlight to, at the very least, perceived personas, as something like Indie Game: The Movie shows - a far cry from the limited amount of attention indie games once vied for. But rather than bristle at the attention and the personalities, Chris has modest views on the bright lights and superlatives those big names draw.

“I was very proud to be called an 'indie darling' by Polygon,” says Chris, ”even though I felt it was premature by more than a little bit. Certainly reaching that level of notoriety as an indie developer is a great thing, and every industry needs its pioneers and its leaders. Someone has to strike out and do new and unexpected things – failing sometimes, succeeding others, but ultimately increasing the pool of knowledge for all of us either way.

“Couching these things in terms like 'saviour' or 'genius' is only going to lead to inflated egos, however. And that in turn will make those same creative minds more conservative, since they then feel like they can never fail since everyone is watching them. The ability to occasionally fail is key – and if someone believes that their public status as a “genius” is on the line if they should ever take a misstep, that’s going to make them very conservative indeed. I can’t express how much that must hobble them.”

For Chris, notoriety or the personal spotlight isn’t the reason he started making games. Chris’ dream, as an independent developer, is to be known for how he, and his company, do business. They’re a team open to criticism, even heaping it on themselves, all in aid of that single goal they hold so dear. Making games.

“We strive to be innovative, and we listen to customers and think about what they say no matter whether we are succeeding or failing. None of us have such pride that we believe a player can’t come up with a better idea than us. In this way I hope to always remain bold and a pioneer, where some of the more notable indies of the day may become less so.

“To be a game developer, I think it’s important to love the journey as much as the destination. I guess that’s part of why our biggest games wind up staying in perpetual development even after their 1.0 versions, because we know there’s so much more potential there and we just can’t stand giving up on that. For me, the process really can get quite addictive.”

Yet alongside the spotlights, the superlatives, the adjectives that flood every article where “indie” comes into sight, there’s a Chris Park for every Phil Fish. And Chris doesn’t feel the need to fit the mould that those with perhaps more recognition have created. In fact, he finds it motivates him.

"All of us were making games long before these personalities were famous – so were these personalities, for that matter. The only thing that the fame changes is that now indies are seen as 'cool' rather than as 'fringe,' and obviously that has benefits for all of us. I hope that lasts."

“I honestly don’t think much about them. Most of the indies I know are more like me – making a good living for themselves and maybe a few others, and having a nontrivial fanbase but not making front covers of magazines.”

“All of us were making games long before these personalities were famous – so were these personalities, for that matter. The only thing that the fame changes is that now indies are seen as 'cool' rather than as 'fringe,' and obviously that has benefits for all of us. I hope that lasts, but beyond that I don’t think much about what any other individual has achieved; I have my own internal yardstick.”

“If you think about it, that’s how it must be. I don’t think most novelists are constantly measuring themselves against Charles Dickens or Stephen King. Maybe they want that level of success, but they have their own style and goals and plans.”

And Chris has plans. He has a lot of them. Most of all, contrary to the belief that many indie developers are working towards AAA development, he wants to remain independent.

“Being an indie means that I get to do things my way,” says Chris, “for better or for worse. And I can keep the counsel of the people who I come to trust rather than the people who are thrust upon me by a bureaucracy. That’s a freedom I relish.

“Most developers are one failure away from dissolution, even the AAA ones – as we’ve seen recently with so many studio closures. Having the backing of a publisher does not mean the publisher will keep backing you if you fail. Ultimately I hope to rise above that by getting a degree of financial independence where we can survive the occasional failure without being at such risk as we were after Tidalis financially bombed. That’s something that both Valve and Stardock have achieved, as they are both independent despite also being AAA.”

...and a pinch of seasoning

It’s now 2012. A Valley Without Wind was released on the 22nd of April, and its Metacritic rating sits at the lowest of any of Arcen’s games. Mysteriously, as if echoing Chris’ earlier point, it’s selling better than Tidalis did, and Chris, amongst all of the flood of emotions in bringing a game to release, does his best to keep the balance right when faced with criticisms.

“Of course, everyone seeks validation. From the usual sources where we had validation on past titles, instead we mostly had a 'meh' for this game [AVWW], so that was disheartening. On the flip side, big sites that have never covered us before have been paying attention to this one, so we’ve been doing something right.

“IGN and Gamespot both skewered us with 5/10s, but Kotaku and Joystiq and Polygon and Boy’s Life have all had much nicer things to say.

A Valley Without Wind.

“That’s the awesome thing about gaming, is that it’s so diverse and not everybody has to agree. When it comes to other people reviewing your own work, however, that can be soul-crushing if you let it. The bad stuff is always easier to believe. I regularly get mail or forum posts from players lauding the game, but because a reviewer who I respect wrote a lot of scathing things in Eurogamer, that’s what weighs more on my mind.

“In the end, that’s just a part of this job. Being any person who puts a creative work out in the public eye means that you will be flogged, repeatedly, by some party or another.

“Ultimately, reviews are just one more – valuable – data source. There’s also players, and what they have to say. Each group has different strengths and weaknesses in how they go about their analysis, and we listen to both as we decide how to go about improving our works. That’s all we can really do, and the rest will shake out as it shakes out. I have no idea how this game will be thought of ten years from now.”

Ten years from now, A Valley Without Wind may very well look a whole lot different to the product we see today. Arcen have already announced AVWW will be back in the kitchen sooner rather than later for its graphical overhaul, and they are slowly, but surely, defining themselves as an indie developer with an eye for detail and an ear for listening to the feedback they receive on every front. It’s a tough balancing act, in the end, to ensure they tread that line between personal and profitable, but as it seems, Arcen are well on track to being known, as Chris wants, for how they carry themselves.

The team are simultaneously looking back on the game they’ve made, and ahead to the game they want it to be.

“Whenever there is an intensive R&D process, of course everyone looks back and thinks 'if only we’d have thought of the solutions faster, we could have accomplished more.' But the process we went through is what led to the final product that we have, and that’s a product that I’m proud of.

“The thing is, I also don’t view it [AVWW] as complete. Our game AI War first came out in mid-2009. Now in mid-2012 it is on version 5.0, and we have another expansion planned for it later this year. And we’re still doing free updates to it, too. That’s the sort of longevity I dearly hope for from AVWW, because there is so much more that our entire team wants to do with it compared to what we’ve already accomplished.

“Right now we’re just starting to explore some options on ways we might be able to improve the art; some people really do seem to judge a book by its cover. And beyond that, more substantially speaking, from a gameplay standpoint our 1.1 release that just came out is practically like a whole new game compared to 1.0.

“When it comes to AVWW 1.1, despite it being a self-contained 'complete' experience, I don’t view it as being any more 'done' than AI War 5.0 is. I hope to spend the next three years expanding and improving that game, following the same pattern that AI War’s post-release development did, if players are willing to support us in that.”

And it certainly seems that players are willing to support the team in their endeavours, as if they’re along for the ride even though they’re looking from the outside in. If nothing else, Arcen are a team open to criticism, feedback, and their own thoughts on how well they execute on their ideas.

Aside from Tidalis, the team have never set a game to one side, and their continued support of their products is, in many ways, similar to Valve’s philosophy of “games as a service”. It was through that continued support that AI War both stayed at the forefront of the attention pack, and continued to sell well enough to fund Arcen’s latest Project.

And while its ratings have been mixed, there’s no denying that even on its most basic level, watching the evolution of A Valley Without Wind over the coming years will be an interesting prospect. In the end, players have come to Chris’ videogame kitchen, and when Arcen, and Chris, finally decide on their next idea, I can only assume there’s going to be a nice large pot of boiling water awaiting that next videogame lobster.

“We have a number of ideas floating around that I’m not really ready to talk about. One of them is to finish off the Alden Ridge game that I had talked about publicly a few years back. That game had 8 months of development put into it, and right now is just kind of sitting on the shelf collecting dust; it’s a fun game, but it’s not complete.”

“We [also] have a variety of other ideas for completely new games that we’re interested in pursuing; if there’s one thing we never have a shortage of, it’s ideas. It’s choosing the right idea at the right time that is tricky!”

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