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.
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.
“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.”
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.