Sunday, 16 August 2009

Interview with Chris Park of Arcen Games

Chris Park is the man behind AI War and head of Arcen Games, an independent game developer. AI war has some unique features and has already developed quite a fan base, so we decided he’d be a good chap to interview.

What inspired you to start writing AI War?
I've been into gaming and game design since I was a kid -- my first big project was making a whole new set of around 60 levels for the classic game Demon Stalkers, and then I was pretty much hooked. I didn't get into actually programming games until much more recently, but I've been working on various C#-based games since 2003. The idea for AI War struck in July of 2008, when I was looking for a good co-op focused RTS title with a lot of variety and a strong AI.

I was just coming off of playing Supreme Commander with Sorian's AI Mod, and I was basically looking for something to top that in a co-op setting. I couldn't find anything I was happy with, so the concept for AI War was born. It actually started out as a turn-based strategy game, somewhat along the lines of Civilizations IV but even more streamlined for multiplayer. It didn't take too long for the game to evolve back into an RTS, though, since I'm primarily an RTS player when it comes to strategy -- the only reason I had started with TBS was that I felt it offered more opportunities for actual, honest-to-goodness strategy. Fortunately, I figured out how to carry a lot of those TBS ideas over into an RTS context, which has a control scheme and flow that I generally prefer. I made AI War primarily for myself and my play group, but I knew from the start that I also wanted to venture into the indie market starting with this title.

In terms of RTS games, what are your favourites and did any particular games provide inspiration for AI War?
The first RTS that really drew me in was Warcraft II, so it has a special place in my heart. I had played a few before that, but Warcraft II was the first to really hook me. From then on, I've played around an RTS per year, and notables were the entire Age of Empires series, the original Empire Earth, Rise of Legends, and Supreme Commander. I think you can probably find at least a small bit of inspiration from every RTS I've ever played in AI War, but of course that's common -- this genre, like most genres, has evolved a lot over the years and a lot of consistency has formed.

As for specific inspirations, you can really see a lot of influence from SupCom in parts of the interface of AI War, especially the zoom and the build queues. They had a lot of cool innovations that should become standards for the genre in my opinion -- I recall reading one of their devs say something along the lines of "we can't remember how anyone lived without this sort of zoom anymore," and I completely agree with him! CivIV also has a similar zoom, and I hope to see that become a staple of RTS as the genre moves forward. Same thing with the build queues that loop and require less micromanagement, that really frees players up to focus more on the actual strategic elements.

The original Empire Earth was also a particularly big inspiration for AI War, too. The scope of that game was just unprecedented for its time, and that hugely impressed me when I was playing it. I really liked how there were just hundreds of units available, and the maps were procedurally generated and large. It gave a sense of near-infinite replay value, which I think is really important for the RTS genre. A lot of more recent tiles such as AoEIII or Rise of Legends were really fun, but without random maps and a larger roster of units per civilization, that made them feel more limiting to me. The trend away from procedurally generated maps, which used to be quite common in the genre, is one of which I am not a fan.

The last game that was a really huge inspiration for AI War was actually Chess, so not an RTS at all. I'm a competent but not expert Chess player, but I've always been fascinated by the game. There is a huge amount of variety possible based on just a small board and a few set peices, and a lot of that comes from the unique pressures of a turn-based environment. This is part of why AI War started out as a TBS game, but since that just didn't feel right I had to figure out ways to try to provide a bit of TBS flow into AI War. That led to the adaptive AI, the AI Progress meter, and various other gameplay mechanics.

AI War has several distinct differences to your average RTS, most notably adaptive AI and no PvP. How early in the game design process did you decide to develop the game this way?
From the very start I knew there would not be any PvP. I don't play PvP RTS games much anymore, so I would probably do a pretty poor job of making one just because I don't know that style of play like I do co-op. The adaptive AI (something I've written a well-received series of articles about) was something that evolved over time, as I got more comfortable with AI programming and really discovered what I could do with the unique style of AI design that I wound up developing.

There were dozens of features that I tried during the alpha phase of AI War: making it a turn-based game; having planet surface combat in addition to space-based (that idea never got off paper); having a complex ship grouping system; forgoing resources entirely in favor of an experience system not unlike a lot of the node-capture systems in many modern FPS games; and a universal warp system in place of the wormhole system that made it into the final product, to name just a few. In every case, my play group tried out the features, made commentary, and then we kept what worked and eventually discarded what didn't.

In a lot of respects, I'm kind of like the sculptor chipping away at a block of marble to sculpt an elephant. "Keep chipping away everything that doesn't look like an elephant," as the joke goes. But that's very true here as well. I didn't know exactly what sort of game I wanted to make, what the specific mechanics would be, but what I did have very specific ideas about what I wanted the effect on the players to be. That's the direction I approached everything from: what will this make the players do, what new decision points will this provide, what sort of activities are fun for the players to be carrying out throughout the bulk of the game?

I knew that I wanted to have player activities forcibly varied -- in too many games, I tend to turtle for a long while, just booming my economy, and then a bust out and do the fighting near the end. In AI War, the AI attacks are done on intervals that prevent this, and the players are also forced to expand in order to get access to new technologies, so this creates a constant mix of gameplay activities that is not usually so enforced in other RTS games. The AI Progress meter came about because I wanted all decisions to have strategic importance, as in Chess, rather than just taking any territory you see as a matter of course. In real war, or in Chess, you have limited resources and can't just take everything you see.

The same is true in AI War, and a similar system is in effect using the per-ship-type unit caps, where you can't just spam a lot of high-powered ships and overwhelm your enemies by waiting them out until you are huge enough to engulf them. The caps are very high -- in a typical game you could easily control 6,000+ ships just yourself, nevermind what the enemy or your teammates have -- but even so, having these caps forces players to really think about what they are building and where they are positioning their units, rather than just moving everything around in an amorphous blob.

That's one of the keys to strategy, I've discovered: limitations. It's the limitations that make you think, that give you interesting decisions. If you're able to just do anything, build a fleet of only your favorite ships and scour the galaxy with it, then all the challenge and variety tends to seep right out. That was a huge realization at one point during alpha, and the fun-factor for the game really jumped sky high after that point.

What’s your next big project? How close is it to completion?
At the moment most of my focus is still on AI War, as we are ever-evolving that game and expanding to it with free DLC, art upgrades, and more. That takes up a surprising amount of my time, actually, so a lot of the other projects in our pipeline are on hold for the next couple of months. I'm driving towards a big "AI War 2.0" goal, which will basically be the cumulative effect of an entire art overhaul, all the AI/interface/gameplay upgrades and extensions we are continuously going through, and all of the added free DLC content. We should hit that point in another month or two, and then I'll still be doing free DLC, but will have a lot more time to focus on our other titles.

We're not just an RTS developer, though -- AI War will continue to evolve and should have its first expansion by the end of the year (with more expansions planned for 2010 and beyond), but the next title from Arcen Games will actually be a puzzle game called Feedback. We haven't officially announced that on our website yet, but the prototype has been progressing nicely and it's looking to be very promising. That should also be out by the end of the year, in many ways it is a smaller project overall, though it's going to have a lot of features packed in for its genre (co-op multiplayer as well as competitive multiplayer, for one thing).

Beyond that there is a rougelike adventure game that is currently about 70% done but still has a long way to go before beta, and then there is a laundry list of other titles that are in various stages of conception. Finances permitting -- things are promising right now, but it's still early yet -- Arcen Games is going to be putting out 2D games in a variety of genres for a long time to come. There's certainly no shortage of ideas!

The Indie gaming scene seems to have advanced considerably in the last few years. Just how big do you think it will get? Does indie gaming offer scope for games that would never be developed by commercial software houses?
You know, I think it is something that is really going to continue to grow. I think we are seeing a cycle a lot like what happened back in the 80's, when tiny teams can put together worthy projects. Maybe it's not with the graphics of the huge AAA titles, but there's a lot of room for smaller 3D projects and the 2D slate is wide open. The technology is there so that anyone can make and distribute an indie game if they want to -- the challenge is actually making one that is fun and original, which is a lot harder. And then the next challenge is actually marketing the game, and reaching your audience.

When I look at book publishing, with authors teamed with agents as well as publishers, I can't help but wonder if we'll see something similar evolve here. I think that increasingly sophisticated systems will evolve to help players find the games that they want to play -- AAA titles will probably always be king, but you're asolutely right that the indie scene is filled with great games that never would have gotten the green light from a publisher. That's the freedom that the indie scene offers: you can make it up as you go, keep chipping away at everything that doesn't look like an elephant, and in the end you probably are going to have something pretty unique and original that couldn't come into existence any other way.

Any final thoughts?
Right now the indie scene is a bit of a "wild west" situation, where you have all sorts of different groups doing all sorts of different things, and that's very exciting. However, I can't imagine that it will stay like this forever -- like so many niche markets before it, indie gaming is expanding and thus is likely to get a lot more rigid and organized. You'll see really specific patterns for how to promote and distribute indie games after you develop them, and that's something that will have its good points and its bad. That sort of structure will help some indie games get noticed, whereas now without contest wins or grassroots promotion efforts, most indie games stay pretty obscure.

I'm happy to have entered the indie scene when I did, because I feel like the timing is just right for the sorts of games that I like to play and create, but I also think that we're going to be seeing a lot more impressive things as time goes on. Right now you have the really trash indie games that clearly weren't serious endeavors, the semi-undiscovered gems that are great but don't get much mainstream gaming press, and then the indie darlings that get a huge amount of coverage and attention. Right now to make it as an indie development company you have to be a darling, or get relatively close to it, and I think that's a key thing that will (and should) change as indie games become more popular. When the market grows to support more fulltime indie developers, we'll have a real gaming renaissance on our hands!

I'd like to thank Chris for agreeing to do this interview, and wish him all the best in his future endeavours. I certainly agree that this is an interesting time for Indie game developers - which means, of course, that it's a very interesting time for those of us who actually play the games as well!

CaptainD - PC Gaming Blog

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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