Indie developers are the starving artists of the video-game world, often brilliant and innovative, but also misunderstood, underfunded and more prone to writing free-form poetry on their LiveJournals. We at Joystiq believe no one deserves to starve, and many indie developers are entitled to a fridge full of tasty, fulfilling media coverage, right here. This week, CEO and lead programmer for Arcen Games, Chris Park, talks innovation, ghosts and game creation in A Valley Without Wind.
What's your game called and what's it about?
A Valley Without Wind is a Metroidvania-style adventure game set in a procedurally-generated post-apocalyptic world. There are also some strategic and city-building elements layered on top of this core game -- you can literally help your settlements to rebuild, expand and reclaim the world from the forces of evil that now oppress it. The game focuses on magic and crafting, which leads to a pretty interesting take on action-adventure combat.
How does it work with the team never having met in person?
For me, as the company owner and founder, it works pretty much like having staff that all works in one office; in past jobs I've done that, too. When you get right down to it, the number of hours put into a job does not really mean much. If there is somebody who works for me who can do 8 hours of work in 15 minutes and then call it a day, well, that's fine with me, really. It all comes down to results, and being clear on both sides about both what is expected and what is reasonable. Ultimately this would not work for every kind of company, but I've been fortunate to find people who are as passionate about making games as I am, as well as having similar views on general ethics, and so it works really well for us here.
The main drawback I've seen with Arcen is that it can stunt the growth of a sense of team spirit -- new staff tend to talk to me and only me, since I'm the one who hired them. It takes a little longer for them to get to know the other staff. But over time, the team has formed as strong a bond as I've seen in many companies working in the same office day in and out. And, seriously -- no commute for any of us? That lets us all get more done for the company while at the same time not cutting into personal or family time.
What inspired you to make A Valley Without Wind?
I think most gamers dream of having an infinite game world that they can go explore and do interesting things in. I know that's been a game I personally wanted to play ever since I was a kid. But while there are many games that include procedural content these days, or which even have infinite worlds, there's none of them that really focus on truly adventuring in those worlds in the way that Keith (my co-designer on this project) and I wanted to see. So we decided to create it ourselves.
How long did it take to create?
Thus far the game has been in development for about 11 months, and we hit public beta on the 26th of September. During this period, players are able to play the beta demo for free, or preorder at 50 percent off and get access to the full beta. We've done this with our three expansions to AI War, and with our game Tidalis, and that was really popular and really beneficial to the game itself as well.
We're expecting to hit 1.0 in Q1 2012, but even after that we plan to keep releasing free DLC updates and probably some paid expansions, like we've done with AI War over the last two years. It's been a popular model with players because it makes a large game even huger!
What's the coolest aspect of A Valley Without Wind?
That your past actions actually matter. For one example: If you die, your character is dead forever -- you get a new character and you get to keep all your inventory, so it's not a penalty to you, the player, too much. But a grave pops up for your character in the settlement they were last visiting, and the character turns into a vengeful ghost that guards the place where they died.
So if you die in a boss room, for instance, now you have to fight both the boss and the ghost. If you die more than a few times, then the ghosts band together into a pack and come after one of your settlements in the strategic part of the game. Players have been responding hugely positively to mechanics like this, because it's so different from any other game and makes for some pretty interesting situations and decisions.
Anything you'd do differently?
Always! We're all about the iterative improvement at Arcen, as the last two years of mega-updates to AI War show. With A Valley Without Wind, we're super excited to finally be in the public beta phase because all that feedback from players is so integral to how we do things.
We can get feedback on what players find confusing, or un-fun, and actually do something about it rather than just releasing and forgetting about it; that's been a cornerstone of our business since before we were ever on any of the major platforms like Steam. I really like to have highly polished gameplay that a wide variety of players can enjoy, and there's just no way to do that without having an incredible amount of feedback and iteration.
Why develop independently, rather than work for an established company?
Pretty much just the obvious reasons: Creative freedom, avoiding the unpleasant work environments that are at a lot of the AAA companies, and so on. Almost everyone on the Arcen team entered from outside of the industry; I worked on business software for housing developers for a decade before making the jump to my own indie company, for instance. I absolutely love being an indie and wouldn't trade it for any other job.
Do you see yourself as part of a larger indie movement?
I feel really lucky to be doing this when I am, because while this has been a lifelong hobby for me, I never considered being a game developer a viable career until a few years ago.I certainly think that indie games are a very real phenomenon that is here to stay, rather than some sort of shorter-term trend. Garage (or bedroom) developers were always a part of the gaming industry since its inception, so it's not even that new of a thing, really.
But I think that it's only recently that the idea of games without AAA graphics, but with much more interesting gameplay or ideas, is becoming a mainstream thing. I feel really lucky to be doing this when I am, because while this has been a lifelong hobby for me, I never considered being a game developer a viable career until a few years ago.
Sell your game in one sentence:
Survive and explore a vast, persistent world filled with dangerous creatures, powerful magic, broken shards from many time periods and ancient technology.
We're still working away toward our 1.0 goals, releasing one or more updates on most weekdays. The game is growing really quickly, and this is a favorite time in the life of an Arcen title for me personally. Multiplayer is coming for A Valley Without Wind in a few months, which is also something we're excited about, and lots, lots more content.
After A Valley Without Wind 1.0 comes out we're planning another expansion for AI War, and of course we're going to be continuing the free updates for both AI War and A Valley Without Wind as well. We love to develop our games out over the long-haul!
A Valley Without Wind can't blow your mind if you never play it -- not that it can blow anything, really, as a non-blustery environment. But metaphorically... you get it, no?
If you'd like to have your own shot at converting our readers into fans, email jess [at] joystiq [dawt] com, subject line "The Joystiq Indie Pitch." Still haven't had enough? Check out the Pitch archives.