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Interviewing Arcen Games

Brutal Gamer recently had the opportunity to chat with Chris Park and Erik Johnson of Arcen Games. With two hits under their belt already, this indie company will be releasing an action adventure game titled A Valley Without Wind in the fall. Read on to find out what Chris and Erik think about indie developers, the future of gaming, and….trees?

What originally got you interested in gaming and development?

Chris Park: I got started playing with the Atari 2600 when I was three or four years old, and was forevermore hooked on gaming in general.  Perhaps the very earliest seeds of game design came with a few of those Atari games — I can remember one isometric racing game that let you design race tracks.  I was too young to do much with those sort of things then, but when I was in late elementary school I got the game Demon Stalkers for our 386.  It was amazingly fun in general, but my favorite feature quickly became the level editor.  Over the span of a couple of years, I made completely new versions of about 80 of the 100 levels.  For the next decade I was hooked on level editors, and then I learned to program and got hooked on making my own games from scratch.

Erik Johnson: Gaming was instilled in me at an early age as well. I grew up running away from my parents at pizza parlors and other restaurants in search of the small, dark arcade rooms that have mostly disappeared or been replaced by crane games or candy stations. I also played out the cliché scene of going nuts with my little brother over a new game console for Christmas. As for game development, my career and skills in it are still very much in their infantile stages. I’ve been a games journalist and writer since 2007, and joined Arcen Games in January of this year; my first time working on a dev team. Originally I was just on at Arcen to head-up PR and marketing, but over the past couple months Chris has been teaching/assigning me development tasks for A Valley Without Wind, and my interest in making games has grown exponentially just from that experience.

Arcen Games is a fairly new company, coming on to the scene in 2009 with AI War: Fleet Command, which has had 3 expansions since then. Were you surprised by the popularity of the game?

Chris: I think that most indies that first start out have visions of incredible success.  When your first game comes out, the first thing that happens is that those visions of success come crashing down.  I think that must have happened even for Notch with Minecraft, because it’s not like that game was an overnight success when he first publicly released it.  So expectations adjust and you’re just hoping for any kind of success at all, after that first public outing.  We had literally zero sales in our first two weeks of AI War 1.0 being out, for instance.  Since then it’s become quite successful by indie standards, with something like 50,000 copies and counting being sold including the expansions — so that was a huge surprise after the initial cold silence.  Once my expectations were adjusted to be more reasonable, the level of success the game has had is far and away greater than anything I expected.

What kind of advantages and disadvantages do you feel come from being an indie developer versus working for a large gaming publisher?

Chris: Well, money is always an issue as an indie developer unless you make it absolutely huge.  There are things we can’t do because we’re small.  There are corners that we have to cut because there’s just not budget available.  But on the other hand, we get to make games for a living, and we get to do it in whatever manner we please.  There’s no corporate overseer sitting there telling us how to do things, telling us that we can’t do X or Y feature because it’s risky.  That really lets us experiment freely, and if we succeed or fail that’s down to our own intuition and hard work, and not what somebody else ordered us to do.  If it was a choice between not making games and working at a large publisher, I’d choose the latter.  But the choice between indie and large publisher is obvious when it’s available.  At least for me!

Erik: Creativity is something of a must in an indie, as we’re always on a tight budget in terms of marketing and PR, but that means we can really be innovative and try some new things. Coming from the perspective of an indie developer team member I can say having a boss you work with, instead of for is absolutely fantastic. I’d add that I don’t know if I share Chris’s sentiment regarding working for a big publisher versus walking away from development. To be clear, Chris has a thousand times more experience and talent in game development and is much more professional and passionate about it than I. That said, I’ve heard way too many awful stories from my friends that suggests, in general, publishers almost never care about the network of employees beneath them; specifically referring to items such as work security and quality of life, and moreover they rarely know/understand how to communicate with their potential customers. Basically because they’d rather determine a game’s features or style based on chasing currently popular trends (i.e. where they think the most money is) than actually go out and talk to a game or series’ fanbase who would willing give valuable feedback. Obviously, not every publisher conducts themselves as such, but I live in LA (a hotbed for big publishers) and I’ve heard enough to keep me away from applying to any of the companies around here. Indies are much more about passion projects — work you can really believe in and get behind.

You were originally a one-man operation. How have things changed now that your team is growing?

Chris: There’s always challenges as any team grows, and we’ve certainly had our share.  But it’s not anything dramatic, and the benefit has been that we’re able to get so much more done these days.  Before I was a game developer, I was a software developer for nine years.  For most of that I was a team lead, and then later a CTO, and except right at the start I was working with a team of programmers rather than just by myself.  Working completely alone has advantages in that you rarely have to compromise with yourself, but it’s such a lonely way to do things.  It’s so much more productive for me to be able to sit down with another designer or programmer on the project, and talk about some issue until we resolve it together.  That process might take five or ten minutes sometimes, rather than being hours of internal wrestling when you have to think through all sides of the issue on your own.  A good small team really acts like a force-multiplier, in my experience.

AI War: Fleet Command is a RTS, Tidalis is a puzzle game, and A Valley Without Wind is an action adventure. You seem to be hitting on all the popular genres. What do you have in store for us next?

Chris: Well, these are the genres that I have a lot of personal interest in — my goal was to never be thought of us “just a strategy game developer.”  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I have broader interests than just strategy games, and part of the freedom of being an indie is getting to pursue your interests.  I think we’re going to be busy with AVWW, and expansions and free DLC for both it and AI War for another year or two — ideally, anyway.  Beyond that it’s hard to say with any clarity, but we’ve got a lot of game designs floating around the team.  If there’s one thing we never have a shortage of, it’s ideas!  I think perhaps the most popular next project idea at the moment is a very streamlined turn-based tactics game built partly on the AVWW engine.

So far, your games have all been developed for PC and Mac. Do you have plans to bring any of your current or future games to the console or handheld markets?

Chris:  It would be nice to do so, but I’m wary of getting bogged down in endless porting work.  None of our games except Tidalis are really suitable for handhelds — too much RAM or CPU needed, and in the case of AI War a mouse is really required.  But AVWW would really be a good fit for consoles, I think, and I definitely have interest in that.  Going the console route, though… you give up a lot of the freedom you have as an indie.  You have to get a publishing agreement, you have to go through certifications for the platform, you have to have very distinct and scheduled releases for the initial game, the patches, the DLC, and so on.

Developing for the PC and Mac is a really different experience from that.  So while I’d love to be able to play AVWW on my PS3 or my Wii, I don’t want to take my eye off the ball, if that makes sense.  But finding the right partner that has the console-side experience and can take on the workload of the porting would be a sensible choice — we’ve talked with some other indies about that, but nothing definite has come of it yet.  My hope is that as downloadable games become more and more popular on the consoles, that they will become a bit more open and flexible like the PC side of things.  XBox Live Indie Games is already sort of that scenario, although it requires development using XNA.  We chose the Unity 3D platform specifically to keep our options open between all the available platforms.

Erik: I really think Tidalis has a lot of potential as an iOS, Android or even as an XBLIG/XBLA title, but we’ve yet to see the commercial success we’d like on the game’s current platforms to really encourage us in that direction just yet. That said, from all the feedback we’ve received from press and players we know Tidalis is a good, fun game. It just seems (because of several various factors) to have trouble drawing in those who haven’t given it a chance, something we are actively working on to remedy.

Your newest game, A Valley Without Wind, is scheduled for release in October of this year. What can you tell us about the game, and why should we buy it?

Chris: AVWW is an action-adventure game set in an infinite procedurally-generated fantasy world.  This isn’t a sterile wilderness, but rather is a mix of wilderness and post-disaster civilization.  Magic is rampant, and we’re working on introducing an a bit of a tactical flair to the action-adventure combat.  The game features multiple dynamic storylines that crop up wherever you go, as well as some over-arching mysteries about what happened to the world that you can choose to solve.  There’s a bit of city-builder influence here, as well, and you can basically help to rebuild civilization in a tangible fashion, making the world a safer and more built-up place through your deeds.  It’s meant to be very open ended, though, so you can pursue whatever lines of gameplay or story that interest you, and the world will remember your deeds and in most cases react to them.

Erik: We’re hoping to bring forward a really unique experience when it comes to surviving, sustaining, and eventually growing stronger as both an individual and as a society in harsh conditions. As Chris mentioned, there are may ways you can approach playing AVWW as well. Do you find other survivors and band together as a settlement? Would you rather play the wandering nomad? Or do you choose to be an evil presence in the world? These choices will directly impact your world and the people in it in different, meaningful ways. Additionally, as long as the player support is there, new content and improvements will be a part of the game for the foreseeable future as well. So the product people are buying at beta or even official release should continue to evolve and expand for a long time to come.

What is your greatest inspiration for the games you create?

Chris: Haha, that’s a tough question!  I don’t think there’s any one inspiration.  Growing up, I always wanted to be a novelist, and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized that my passionate hobby for game design could actually be a career.  I remember that my original motivation for being a novelist, when I was about fourteen, was that I wanted to write novelizations of my favorite games.  That game-novelization goal didn’t last long, but I think that the effect that stories such as Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger had on me never left me.  And later they were added to by stories from games like Silent Hill 2.  “This is what a game can evoke in a person,” it’s always made me think.

None of my games are that evocative story-wise, but someday I want to do a game like that.  Instead, I’ve been focusing on a different aspect of gaming: making players think.  It’s a common thread throughout all Arcen’s games that you can’t just button-mash through any of them, and all of them require some genuinely new ways of thinking about something that normally would seem familiar — an RTS, a puzzle game, or an action-adventure game.  I’m always happiest when I’m twisting people’s brains a bit.  My favorite moments are when a player writes in with a clever strategy that they had in AI War that we never thought of; providing an environment where the creativity of players can be utilized is something I really value.

What advice can you offer for aspiring developers?

Chris: Build the games that you always wanted to play; don’t just rebuild the games you already have played.  When I started out making games, I’d build things that could be described as “like the legend of Zelda in a lot of ways, but worse.”  That’s what a lot of indie projects that never get completed or that fail seem to be like.  On the other hand, if you look at AVWW, you can definitely see some Zelda influences there, but we’re not trying to copy them.  Instead, we’re building the game that we always wanted to play, but that nobody else was making for some reason.  I think that sort of sentiment is why AI War in particular has become as popular as it has.  Players respond to that, and I can’t think of a better reason for being an indie developer in the first place.

Erik: Passion is the key, but proper planning and scheduling really opens the door — this especially applies if you’re indie.  You have to be able to wrap your head around the mountain of tasks that’ll need to be taken on to get a game from concept to release. Don’t overwork yourself too much, talk to other developers and industry veterans to gain experience, advice and contacts; and remember to have some hobbies outside of work/gaming if you can. Works wonders for getting away or blowing off steam.

Chris, you celebrated the birth of your son last fall, and Erik-you have a little one as well. As you look to the future, what do you visualize the world of gaming to be when they are your age?

Chris: Honestly, I can’t even imagine.  I grew up playing the Atari 2600, and then the NES, and so on.  Surely things can’t change that radically again… or can they?  Technology didn’t evolve to the same degree between 2000 and 2010 as it did between 1980 and 1990, but at the same time the industry has bounded forward even more.  In the 80s and 90s it was all about the technology, and more graphics and more colors and so on.  More buttons on your controller.  Some of that has remained in the last ten years, but if I had to pick one big innovation from recent times, it would be usability.  When I try to play RTS games that I loved in the 90s, I just can’t — this “dying genre” has evolved incredibly much since then.  FPS games have become incredibly more sophisticated and more accessible at the same time.

I don’t know what the world of gaming will look like in another 28 years, but I think that it will be unrecognizable both from a technology and a design point of view.  Right now it’s kind of the wild west — everybody does their own thing, there are engines everywhere and there’s a lot of duplication of effort.  I think that more emphasis will eventually be placed on using fewer engines — and even reusing some art assets, even in AAA games — to do more creative things.  As we move forward into increasingly-HD gaming experiences, I just can’t see any other path forward that will be both cost-feasible to even large studios and satisfying to players.  I think there are good times ahead.

Erik: I share Chris’s belief that predicting what gaming will look like in a decade, let-alone a quarter century, would be next to impossible. One of my hopes is that my daughter will always have access to the games I played growing up in one fashion or another (mostly so far so good!) Other than that, I believe there will be divergent expansions into a lot of what’s popular today. Extreme-realism in graphics and experience is something I’d guess we’ll continue to see for years to come.  On the media side, things seems a bit tenuous as we go forward with sites/applications such as Twitter and Reddit that allow developers to have more of an open dialogue with their fanbases, but in the end it will depend on where consumers prefer to get their information from. Of course third-party perspective is always important, but we’ll have to see what outweighs what if/when the majority of devs/publishers start really speaking for themselves.

And, my final question, if you were a tree….what kind of tree would you be? I kid, I kid. What is your pivotal gaming moment? The game, or level, or experience that really got you hooked on gaming for good?

Chris:  Winter Tamarack, because they’re tall?  I dunno — but I’ve been learning the names of a lot of trees as I’ve been working on the art for AVWW, so I was pretty well poised to answer your question!  I think the game that most hooked me on gaming was a game called Shamus on the Atari 2600.  It was this big adventure game in four colors where your little explorer guy could wander around and try to find… something.  I’m not even sure what he was doing, but I tried to get him wherever he was going (I never did).

This was a really terrifying game to four-year-old me, because the enemies were hard to kill with your little gun, and anytime you dodged their bullets and touched a wall you’d be electrocuted.  Worst of all, if you stayed on one screen too long then this ominous noise would play and the Shadow Man would come bouncing onto the screen, across walls and obstacles, and would kill you if he touched you.  You could stun him with your gun, but he’d unfreeze a second or two later and be right back on you.  And I kept coming back to this game, again and again, and it never got less scary, and I never got very much further with it despite making maps on pen and paper; you had to do that in those days.

The other pivotal moment was when I saw Super Mario Bros VS in the arcade.  It somehow embodied pure fun, to me.  Still does!

Erik: Probably a tree all the other surrounding trees would hate on account of me not shutting up. The second question isn’t as easy to answer, but I’d say the Resident Evil games (1 & 2) really showed me what kind of impact games can have on you outside of just being fun to play. Opening a door in those games meant risk, horrible undead creatures lurking around a giant structure filled with puzzles they expected you to complete while dealing with these monstrosities. It was really nerve-racking stuff. The part in RE2 when the gunshop owners gets eaten alive still sticks with me as one of the more striking scenes from anything I’ve ever played. I still have nightmares that involve me having terrible control of my arms and legs and being endlessly pursued by zombies. Maybe a little too pivotal, in retrospect…

About Amy

U.S. Senior Editor/Deputy EIC at BrutalGamer, mother of 5, gamer, reader, wife to @MacAnthony, and all-around bad-ass (no, not really)

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