Interview With Arcen Games

By Scott Parrino 23 Aug 2010 0

Christopher Beck, (WG):  First off, congratulations Chris on the apparent success of your breakout title AI War and its companion expansion, The Zenith Remnant. For a while the gaming scene was buzzing with praise for a little know developer, Arcen Games, that appeared out of nowhere to deliver one of the most strategy-packed RTS gems to hit the PC in quite a while. Were you surprised at the critical response? How did you react as sales went higher and glowing reviews started to appear?

Chris Park, Arcen Games (AG):  Many thanks for the congrats!  In a lot of ways, AI War was a huge surprise for me as much as anyone else.  Of course when you?re an aspiring indie you have grand dreams of selling a million copies or having a breakout success or sweeping all the indie competitions, but I think for most indies the harsh reality hits pretty fast ? it did for me.  The first six months for AI War were something of a hockey stick curve for AI War, starting out with absolutely nothing in terms of sales or critical response, and then gradually snowballing to the point where AI War was the 40th best-reviewed PC game on MetaCritic for 2009.

When AI War initially released, it became clear to me what a niche game it was ? it doesn?t have the immediate accessibility of a game like StarCraft, or the quick sessions, or the marketing budget.  Once that realization hit, my expectations for the game dramatically changed, and I was just relieved to hit 1,000 units sold, which took many months.  Since then it?s gone on to sell around 30,000 units (and still counting), including the first expansion, which is far and away more popular than I?d expected such a hardcore niche title to have any right to be.  It?s really rewarding seeing that players are still talking about it on forums around the Internet, and recruiting their friends and fellow forumites, etc.  The game has definitely taken on a life of its own!


WG: I remember reading, when AI War first came out, that you still held a ?day job? and due to AI War?s success you were able to change your focus and devote all of your time to Arcen Games and future game development. Was this a long time dream of yours and how did it feel to be going ?all in? like that?

AG: For sure, it was challenging to balance the Arcen work in my spare time back when I was still working elsewhere during the day.  I?d been at the other company for 9 years when I left, so that was pretty bittersweet despite the fact that I was finally pursuing my dream of working for myself doing something creative.  I?ve been doing hobbyist game development since I was a kid, but oddly I never thought it would actually be my career.  I guessed I lumped it up there with being an astronaut or a sports star or something, those all just seemed like fantasy to me.

My dream growing up, therefore, was to be a novelist, since writing was my other passion.  I?ve been working on both novels and game design my entire life, but I also did a lot of 3D modeling and art.  Since I was a kid, I?ve always had a special passion for movie and game soundtracks, too.  Without realizing what I was doing, I?d been pursuing all of those things my entire life, taking classes and doing hobbyist and professional work in all those areas, and the only profession that I can think of that ties all those things together is? game development.  It only hit me a few months ago: I?ve apparently been preparing for this my entire life, without ever meaning to.  That was a really surprising thing to realize.  Now that I?m doing it fulltime it?s definitely a dream come true also occasionally very stressful, being a small, new company, but still a dream.


WG: When I reviewed AI War, I made mention that the game took pieces often seen in other genres and games but meshed them together in a ?the whole is greater than the sum? sort of way. In fact, I called AI War a ?reverse Tower Defense Game.? Could you discuss some of what inspired you to do AI War and where you got the idea for this rich, yet nearly desolate and mostly bleak universe?

AG: Well, the main thing is that I love both RTS and 4X games, as well as more recently Tower Defense games.  I?ve had a running weekly strategy gaming session with my dad, my uncle, and one of my uncle?s colleagues since 1998, and we?ve played a lot of strategy games during that time.  We play a lot of the classics like Age of Empires, Empire Earth, Rise of Nations, Supreme Commander, and so on.  We?d play each game and its expansions until we got good enough that the AI was a joke, and then we?d move on to another game or a sequel, basically.

AI War came out of my frustration that we were going through that cycle so much faster as we became better players.  Worse, there were awesome innovations in all these various games, and it was getting really painful to give up one set up features that I loved for a non-overlapping set of new features.  Once you?ve had the camera in SupCom, you can?t go back!  In the end, once we passed a certain skill threshold, I was really having trouble finding a strategy game that actually had much long-term strategy to it when playing in a comp-stomp fashion.

To get around that feeling, we tried playing Civilization IV in a co-op comp-stomp fashion for a good while, and I thought that was a lot more strategic on an ongoing basis.  A lot of the best turn-based strategy games are that way, and I?d been playing a number of them on the side by myself through the years, but most don?t have co-op.  Civ IV is an amazing game, and we all just loved it to death, but it was also very frustrating for us in multiplayer, because the turn lengths can vary so much between players.  My uncle would do lots of attacking, and so my dad and I would literally be sitting there reading books while waiting for him to finish his turn.  At first you try to keep busy with managing your cities or whatever, but there?s only so much you can do when someone else is taking so long that you?re spending 75% of your game time just waiting around for him.  The Civ designers of course anticipated that by putting in turn timers, but that didn?t go over well with my group; nobody wants to feel rushed.

Anyway, so when I set out to create AI War, these were the problems I was trying to solve.  I wanted something that would keep surprising me, and that would have actual strategy, and that would NEVER make us just have to sit around waiting.  I also wanted something that was organized around the comp-stomp idea, since that?s how my group plays.  When it comes to the story, that was something that just evolved over time; it was definitely inspired by the gameplay, rather than the other way around.


WG: It is no secret that you have been very active in updating AI War with monthly patches at first and major content updates every few months. Can you talk about your design philosophy and what keeps you committed to improving the game?

AG: The main reason I keep improving the game?  I still play it, and I want to keep playing it for a long time.  When it comes to my personal tastes, AI War is like a greatest hits album of everything that I love most about the strategy genre, and it has a lot of new stuff that I?ve not seen anywhere else, either.  It would be very hard for me to play another RTS game in my weekly co-op sessions after this, unfortunately, so if I want to keep playing co-op strategy games I have to keep improving this one!

Kidding aside, I really think that the evolution of the experience is appealing to other grognards as much as it is to me.  A year after release, AI War is more popular now than it?s ever been, and I think that?s because of how the game evolves.  People always talk about how they wish that RTS games would have a ?learning AI,? and that?s something that no strategy game has at present for a lot of technical reasons.  But AI War has the next-best thing, with both an AI and a game world that is constantly growing, constantly surprising players and giving them something new to do.  I think that?s pretty core to the AI War experience.


WG: Have you found your method of releasing a ?pre-order fully-playable beta? which slowly gain in content up until release has been successful?

AG: Definitely!  It?s not terribly exciting in terms of revenue ? the vast majority of sales still happen after the beta period ? but the feedback we receive from early players is immensely valuable.  Having player feedback early and often is really a cornerstone of how we do business, and I think that?s something that the core fanbase also really appreciates.


WG: With all of these tweaks, expansions, patches, graphical updates, and ongoing balancing, do you feel you will ever be ?finished? with AI War? What will this final product look like?

AG: To be honest, I think that the day it is ?finished? is the day it dies.  Think about any MMO ? those are the main genre of games that continuously evolve.  I think that the main reason that players stick around there is for the community, as well as the fact that the game worlds are constantly getting updated.  I?ve never been into MMOs myself, but the idea that there?s always more to explore and to do is appealing to me. 

A strategy games gets boring as soon as it becomes predictable.  AI War has been engineered from the ground up to be as unpredictable as possible, but any game design is a finite experience unless it continues to evolve.  That?s why so many players wax philosophic about learning AIs, I think.  In the case of AI War, you?ve got myself and the other Arcen staff behind the scenes, adding more content and AI rules, etc.  I?ve always liked to be the dungeon master in pen-and-paper RPGs, and I see the role of Arcen as being very much the same as that: D&D wouldn?t have been popular if there were only 10 quests that were the same every time.

I?ve said that my intent was to support AI War in this sort of fashion for around 5 years, and we?re currently into the second year with no signs of slowing down.  But honestly, new ideas just keep pouring in from the Arcen staff as well as the fanbase.  So who knows, at the end of that 5 year period we might just keep right on building more and more AI War for however long there is interest from the fans and the staff.  I really don?t know what the final product will look like, it?s too far into the future!


WG: Let?s talk about your latest micro-expansion, Children of Neinzul, currently in beta and now available to pre-order and play. What makes this expansion different from before and what will it add?

AG: I think the main thing that any of our expansions will add is variety: more ships, more AI weapons, more AI personalities, etc.  The more complex the available set of units becomes, the more realistic the simulation starts to feel because there are just so many options around.  It becomes easier to come up with clever sideways solutions that no one else has ever thought of.  I was really big into Magic: The Gathering when I was growing up, and that was a big part of the appeal for me there: the sense of exploration paired with the ample opportunities for cleverness.


WG: These Neinzul, according to your website, are a very short-lived insect race that seems to shares experiences and knowledge in some sort of group mind. Are these allies in the war against the AI, or do they want to reduce humanity to extinction as well?

AG: Well, in the world of AI War, pretty much all of the alien races aren?t unified groups, but rather are complex groups of individuals with varying personalities and interests ? like real aliens presumably would be, if humanity is any guide.  The most obvious way that this manifests is that the alien ships become available to both human and AI players.  But more substantially, the aliens themselves actually act as ?minor factions? that are third parties that might be friendly to everyone (Zenith Traders), hostile to everyone (Devourer Golem), just hostile to the humans (Neinzul Preservation Warden or Rocketry Corps), just hostile to the AI (Rebel Human Colonies or Resistance Fighters), or a moody mix of both (Dyson Sphere or Neinzul Roaming Enclaves).


WG: I suppose practically the Neinzul allowed you to create a back-story for adding mobile ship yards. Is this an example of a fan-requested addition? What sort of things have you added that came from fan requests?

AG: That?s a good guess, but actually I had the idea for the Neinzul race first. Then later I realized that the mobile ship yards would not only be helpful, they would be all but required.  That?s been probably the longest-standing fan request that hadn?t already been implemented.  When it comes to fan requests, the Arcen forums community actually has organized a nearly-weekly poll where they nominate suggestions, vote on the ones they collectively like the best, and then we give those extra primacy when considering what to add in either expansions or free DLC.

All in all, we?ve completed some 1400 items in the last year, most of which were either suggestions from players or bug reports.  Looking back at the community DLC poll results thread, there are certainly some highlights there, such as riot starships, formation movement, heavy turrets, clickable alerts, flak turrets? et cetera.  It?s really hard to explain the scope of what we?ve been doing with the game: the release notes from 1.0 to 2.0 were 46,000 words by themselves ? that?s basically 184 pages of a novel!  And there were even more changes from 2.0 to 3.0, and now between 3.0 and the upcoming 4.0 ? which will finally be adding Mac OSX support, which has also been long requested by fans.  It?s pretty cool looking back at all that, though honestly 1400 items seems like a lowball figure!


WG: Another addition you mention is a new type of AI enemy, the ?Hybrid Hive? which is part AI and part Neinzul. These guys sound pretty challenging, and I can say from experience that AI War is already a pretty challenging game! What makes this new enemy particularly fearsome? Can we expect to see any new and surprising AI personalities?

AG: Hoo boy, this is definitely an ?anchor? feature of the CoN expansion.  It?s completely the design and implementation of Keith LaMothe, the other programmer and designer who has been working on AI War since version 3.060 (prior to that, it was just me on programming and design).  In the early beta versions of CoN, the hybrid hives were grouping up and launching surprise attacks that were killing most experienced players within 2 hours (most games last 10+ hours), so we had to tone that down a bit in the later betas.  Now we?ve got it split into the regular hybrid hives, along with ?Advanced Hives? that have some of the trickiest and most dangerous techniques.

You?re definitely right that there was already a lot of challenge to AI War, so to explain why we added these death machines I have to back up a bit.  I mentioned before that the 4X genre was a big influence on AI War, and I think that most of the AI War fanbase has reacted really well to that.  The players wind up having the ?tempo? most of the game, which makes it so that you?re having to figure out what goals to pursue and how to go about achieving them.  The regular AI can certainly throw some surprises at you, and frequently will gum up your plans, but it feels like a long-form 4X conflict.  There?s none of that rushing and frantic defending that get emphasized in most online RTS games.

That I-have-the-tempo feeling is something that suits most of our audience very well; we have a lot of players who had been disenfranchised with RTS until AI War came along, or who came to us from turn-based strategy backgrounds.  But, we have also had some ongoing requests from a minority group of players who wanted something more action-oriented where they didn?t always have the tempo and where they were having to combat roving fleets of ships each with their own personalities and goals ? and especially that would sometimes recapture planets, which is something the normal AI is never allowed to do.  So that?s what hybrid hives are, basically.

The hives are completely an optional feature, so for those players who want to always have the tempo, they can just ignore them ? there?s plenty else in this expansion.  But a big part of what we try to do with each expansion is to find something that we?ve never done before with the game, and then do that thing.  In this case, making more aggressive sub-entities that pursue you like a pack of predators seemed like it would be a good way to really explore something new and excitingly different.  A lot of the more experienced AI War players seem to be gravitating to these hybrid hives, even if they do have 4X leanings, which is one thing that has surprised me in the beta so far. For them, I get the feeling that the hybrid hives are just a new way in which the AI and the game have evolved.  For new players just coming to the game, though, the hybrid hives are probably best left off unless they?re a hardcore RTS action-fan.


WG: Certainly one unique aspect of Children of Neinzul is that 100% of the profits from its sale is going to the Child?s Play charity. Child?s Play has been very popular with indie developers, what made you decide to create a strictly for charity expansion and what made Child?s Play a good recipient?

AG:  It?s really a multitude of reasons all coming together at once.  I?ve admired Child?s Play since it was initially being talked about on Penny Arcade, first for the ?let?s show those gamer detractors what gamers are really like,? and then even moreso for the stories from parents and hospital staff about all the good the charity does.  I?ve wanted to do something for Child?s Play for a long time, but I?ve never had the means to do anything significant before.  At the same time, I really wanted to do a new expansion for AI War this year, but there just didn?t seem to be time in the schedule for doing a full expansion like The Zenith Remnant

So I looked at the time we had, and thought that doing a micro-expansion would be a great way to hold AI War players over until the next full expansion in Q2 2011; and since it would take us comparably little time to create, we were in a position where we could comfortably donate all the proceeds to charity, making a really obvious statement and gesture without going into debt or anything on our own end.

What really had me thinking about Child?s Play this year, though, is that I?m about to become a new dad myself.  Some of the other staff at Arcen are already parents, but my wife and I are due to have our first son pretty much any day now.  I think when you?re about to become a new parent, it?s natural to worry that something will go wrong, even while you?re envisioning all the good stuff, too.  I?d read the testimonials by parents of terminally or chronically ill kids and the effect that Child?s Play had on their quality of life, and? well, let?s just say they stuck with me over the years.  They were hard to read at the time, and I think they?d be about unbearable now.  Fortunately everything looks to be great with my son, but I was certainly thinking about those other parents over the last few months.

Hopefully we?ll be able to raise about $14,000.00 USD for Child?s Play in 2010, and if this is successful I think we might make charity micro-expansions for an Arcen title an annual thing.  We?ll just see how this one goes.  I?d also like to raise money for the Alzheimer?s Association and various others, but Child?s Play was certainly the one most on my mind this year.


WG:  Outside of AI War, Arcen Games just released a pretty innovative block-matching puzzle game called Tidalis. I?ve spent some time with it and I can honestly say I?ve never played anything quite like it! Why did you decide to make the pretty big shift between the gritty, dark, and rather in-depth AI War, to the more colorful and quick-playing world of Tidalis?

AG: AI War is actually the first strategy game I?ve even contemplated making; most of my past level or game design work has been on platformers, adventure games, action games, dungeon crawlers, RPGs, and first person shooters.  I was really pleased with how well AI War was received, but at the same time I was dismayed at how I was clearly being labeled as a ?strategy game developer.?

Much as I love strategy games, and as much as they have always been a big part of my life, I never want to be pigeonholed into any specific genre.  Or any specific tone of game story, for that matter, though I do trend dark more often than not.  I wanted to do Tidalis as our second project partly because the time was right and we had a game design in hand, but also partly because I felt like it would show the range of what Arcen was capable of as a company.  AI War is about as hardcore as you can get from top to bottom, whereas Tidalis has a pretty casual surface and is really easy to get into.


WG: Tidalis, from first impressions, might seem like your regular, casual, puzzle game. But I quickly found that Tidalis required far more thinking and planning than other entries in this genre. I should not have been surprised, given your track record in making a simple-to-play, but highly strategic game with AI War! How do you feel that Tidalis is different from other puzzle games? What makes Tidalis unique in a market pretty saturated with casual puzzle games?

AG:  I like to say that the difference between Tidalis and most other casual puzzle games is the difference between Chess and Checkers.  Kids can and do play both of those board games in a really non-strategic and casual way.  And you get expert players who are really hardcore into both those games, too, from kids all the way up to the cliché old guys in the park.  But especially at the highest level of play, I think most people would agree there?s something fundamentally different about Chess versus Checkers.

I think probably most of our games will aim for this sort of surface accessibility paired with as much depth as we can pack in.  I think that mindset really pervades Tidalis, in that we came at it from an entirely different angle from most casual games, and in that we?re not a casual games company any more than we?re a strategy games company.


WG: I would certainly say that Tidalis is an in-depth puzzle game that still has that casual feel. In what ways do you think Tidalis not only appeals to new fans but also to your older fans of AI War?

AG: Can you tell I like Chess?  I?ve previously compared the structure of AI War to that of Chess, and now I keep likening Tidalis to Chess in a different fashion.  Like Chess, it?s a little more surface-complex but not so much so that you can?t pick up the basics in five or ten minutes.  And, like Chess, you can keep playing it at a rather superficial level and have a lovely time if that?s all you want to do.  But, as you said, there?s a much more strategic layer to it if you really want to get into it.  I think the game is walking the line between those two worlds pretty successfully, and so it can capture both soccer moms and grognards with the same mechanics; but each group might get something really different out of those mechanics.


WG: Can you give us any idea of the future of Arcen Games? I?ve heard rumors of a zombie-apocalypse survival game, Alden Ridge? Also, there were some mysterious press releases about a longer term project called A Valley without Wind? What can we expect to see in the near and far future?

AG: Well, lots and lots of AI War is certainly on the schedule.  There?s all the CoN stuff and AI War 4.0 stuff going on right now, and a lot of the 4.0-related stuff (which is free to all existing owners of the base game) hasn?t even been fully announced yet, although two exciting chunks did just recently come out.

We also have some free Tidalis DLC planned, some of which is already in public beta now.  And we?re probably going to be doing some new things to encourage community involvement with that game, like having ?community free DLC? that gets packaged into the main game patches with fan-made levels, etc.  Probably no other game that Arcen creates will be a ?living game? like AI War ? we could never afford to do that with more than one game at once ? but that doesn?t mean we can?t drop some goodies and some free DLC on Tidalis and our other titles every few months.

Our next large project is indeed Alden Ridge.  That?s a top-down adventure game with zombies that you have to thwart with traps, using the environment around you, and other indirect means of combat.  Right now we?re in a lot of internal design discussions on how exactly we want to proceed with this game, based on budget concerns, etc.  That?s a very ambitious game, and we?re not sure we?ll have the funding to make it all the way through a huge, sprawling, content-heavy title at this time.  So we?re looking at doing something small and tight with procedural content (which we?re super experienced with thanks to AI War), and really seeing if we can do some new things with more focused, immediate, arcade-style gameplay.  And then if that is successful, we might do a larger, narrative-driven sequel.  A lot of it will just depend on how Tidalis sells in the coming months, as to whether we have to staff to take on such an ambitious project all in one go, or if we need to split that into multiple smaller project.

A Valley Without Wind is in much the same situation.  That?s an absolutely enormous project, the indie-company-killing type of rathole that you don?t want to go down unless you have a certain amount of capital on hand in advance.  We don?t.  So mainly that?s on hold until the other projects are cumulatively able to finance it.  It?s a dream project of mine, basically a tower defense + JRPG game, although that?s kind of a lame explanation.  The overall flow of the game would be like a SNES-era JRPG title, but instead of going into classic turn-based battles like most JRPGs, you?d go into tactical confrontations using tower-defense style mechanics.  But rather than the enemies just brainlessly coming in after you, they?ll use real AI.   That will be the main point of interest with the battles themselves ? trying to outthink those incoming hordes, to create setups that they can?t maneuver out of.  The focus will be on the back-and-forth of combat, not about maze-building or memorization.

There?s a big chance of post-AI-War-4.0 projects shifting around depending on what income is like during the fall.  Running a small, self-funded indie development studio is a lot like playing AI War: you have to shift your goals as needed, you have to think outside the box from time to time, and you have to know your limits at each stage.  In our case, we?re doing our best to play it somewhat safe in terms of project scope, while going out on as many limbs as we can with innovation inside the games themselves.



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