In part 1 of our Q&A with Chris Park, Founder/CEO/Lead Programmer/Lead Designer of Arcen Games, we discussed Arcen's unique approach to game design and development; specifically, how none of their games can really be classified by one genre but are an amalgam of different concepts and mechanics. We then went on to discuss one of their recent releases, A Valley Without Wind 2. In part 2, we look at the other recent release, Shattered Haven, and a glimpse into what's next.
Co-Optimus: Shifting gears now to your most recent release, Shattered Haven. I really like this game, and I really want to like it more. So let’s knock out a couple of the issues I see with it. First, in all honesty, why 100 levels? While the first few levels are meant for tutorial, was there ever consideration to maybe trim down the overall number (and possibly lengthening a few levels) to offer less quantity and more variety to the player?
Chris Park: Well, I think there’s already a pretty hefty amount of variety here, to be honest. Having 100 levels certainly makes for some repetition, but I think it’s well spread out and there’s something uniquely challenging in each level. It’s not something tight like Limbo, though, you’re right -- you don’t just solve each vague kind of puzzle once. Instead we explored many permutations of each kind of idea.
It’s a different sort of design philosophy, and I guess an older one. My model for this game was Lode Runner: The Legend Returns, which is an old favorite of mine. It had tons of levels, but I never felt like it had enough. And some of its earlier levels were pretty direly simplistic, so that made the number of real levels much lower. None of our levels are remotely that simple, so to me we’ve made huge strides over that.
Co-Optimus: I realize that those 100 levels also represent a huge amount of investment in level design and careful planning - the placing of the “Grays,” obstacles, and weapons is no happy accident. How much time did it take for the average level? How many levels were left out of the final product?
Chris: Well, it really varied. It was also spread out over four years, so it’s hard to really answer that definitively. Most of the levels were created in the span of 8 months during 2008, by my wife and I. She did around 30, I did around 60.
Then starting in 2012, all of the levels were tweaked and updated heavily by myself and Zack, an excellent level designer friend of mine that we contracted for this title starting in late 2012. We (mostly Zack) did things like improve level layouts, add bits of extra interest to puzzles, and most of all completely revamp much of the overworld areas so they were more interesting. Erik, Zack, and I spent a lot of time on the phone fleshing out the nuances of the story and its various branches, and then Josh and Zack and I spent a lot of time actually scripting that stuff out for the cutscenes and so on in the game.
So it was really a concerted effort by a small team over a span of several years. In terms of how long it takes to do a single-screen level just starting from scratch... well, I did one for Youtube as a Let’s Play of how to use the level editor, and completed it in under 45 minutes. That was a fairly straightforward level with only one screen, and I already had the design pretty solidly in my head, though; some of our overworld areas have 27 screens, which takes vastly longer not only to implement, but to design.
Co-Optimus: So the second issue. The top-down perspective is a great design for this type of game, but the characters and objects can be easily lost. This is especially true at the higher resolutions at which a lot of PC gamers play these days. Was there, or is there discussion, to tweak the graphics in some way so there all the different on-screen elements don’t blur together quite so much?
Chris: The game defaults to a lower resolution, and anyone who is increasing the resolution is doing themselves a disservice unless they have a larger monitor. That’s like taking To The Moon and trying to look at it in 1080p resolution: it would be tiny. Same with Lone Survivor and other pixelart games. You increase the resolution and they get smaller, not crisper. All that said, we provide the option because there are lots of different monitor setups, and if you have a 30-inch screen in front of your face then smaller is actually better.
I don’t really agree with the criticism that the elements get lost in the background if you’re playing on a reasonable resolution for the game, to be honest. Except for the things that we intentionally made blend in, like snakes in the weeds, etc. Some of those things are intentionally made a bit hard to see, and they stay very still for that reason -- this is a horror game, after all. But in the main, 97% of the time the enemies are moving and chasing you, and I think the motion along with the style of the graphics makes them appropriately easy to see.
This is just my opinion of course, but it’s also not an issue that we’ve had any feedback on from players that wasn’t solved by “use a smaller resolution.” The response to that was “oh, all right, now I can see what’s going on!” If To The Moon let you change the screen resolution and you didn’t have a large enough screen to where that made sense, it would be utterly incomprehensible, too. I did consider taking away that flexibility to choose resolution, but I felt like just defaulting to something sensible and keeping the options open for players would be better in the end.
Co-Optimus: Ok, now here’s what I really like: the overall gameplay. Where did you come up with the idea to do a zombie puzzle game? What inspired this sort of approach to a genre/theme that has become plagued with so many first-person shooters?
Chris: Thanks for that! I came up with the idea in 2008, actually, so it was a genre that was at least less-saturated back then. I actually thought of this as a promotional item that I would create to get the word out about a novel that I was writing. I never finished that novel (though I have finished two others, both unpublished), but the game wound up captivating me so much that it took on a life of its own.
The biggest inspiration was definitely Lode Runner: The Legend Returns, where the monks are always chasing you. I felt like there was a lot to be desired in the trap variety and level design variety there, though. Part of the problem it has is its side-view layout only lets you make so much use of the available screen space. Having it be top-down solves a lot of that. Also its levels were literally smaller in terms of the number of tiles, so that also stifled the possible creativity. Still -- that was a game that absolutely captured my attention for many years, and which I still have very fond memories of. I wanted to take those general ideas to the next level and infuse some ideas of my own, and the setting of the novel I was writing seemed perfect for that.
Co-Optimus: How about Shattered Haven’s overall story and themes of family? Why this kind of a focus instead of just looking at humanity attempting to survive in a harsh environment?
Chris: This again goes back to the origins of the game as a companion to a novel. The novel is more of a character study on people in really trying circumstances, and in particular on how they try to carve out a good life for themselves in a world that is utterly horrible and twisted. Most stories about zombies focus on the apocalyptic event itself, but I wanted to look further ahead, to after things had stabilized. If we’re not going to die out as a species, that means we’ll be having kids and starting to reform some small societies, and so forth. But still -- zombies everywhere.
Taking all that as a premise, Shattered Haven actually wound up having a pretty divergent story that Erik, Zack, and I fleshed out together. We specifically wanted to avoid over-done tropes, and I wanted to explore something more novel. The giant squid was part of the novel, but Shadow Man was something that came up during our writing/plotting sessions last year. Having both Shadow Man and the giant squid be huge antagonists, along with “zombie mom” being out there with her own motivations, was really interesting to us.
Perhaps regrettably, it starts out more conventionally than it ends. But I’m really proud of how this story evolved, and key ideas for it came from all three of us.
Co-Optimus: I found it interesting the weaknesses you chose for the “Grays” (iron and water), and many of the weapons you use against them are not what you typically think of packing in your “zombie defense kit.” From a gameplay perspective, why make that kind of a shift away from “anything that shoots or has a blade?”
Chris: Interestingly, this was all in the novel as well. From a story sense there, it was mainly because it created more of a situation where characters were dependent on specific objects that were not always at hand. In a normal zombie story, you’re able to dispatch them with anything at hand, as you say; but usually their threat is just one of numbers. For story reasons, I wanted them to be more individually threatening.
The game kind of took that idea and twisted it and expanded on it. It turned out to make for a really cool mix of puzzle elements, but it wasn’t something that originally came from a desire from that sort of gameplay. Just kismet that all the elements that I needed for the gameplay side of this happened to already be present in a novel I was writing!
Co-Optimus: Again, I’ll leave the last question about the game to Andrew. One freedom that independent game developers can enjoy from AAA development is that little nuances and shadows of the developer seep into the game they offer. Essentially, the player gets personal view of not only the developer's ideas and views of the world. What personal thematic overtures do you feel are present in Shattered Haven?
Chris: In my life I’ve been in a number of dangerous situations, including having a knife at my throat at one point, and a couple of incidents involving other people with guns. I spent a year in a school surrounded by quite a few bullies, and it was a very hostile sort of environment. When I played the game Silent Hill 2 as a young college student, it really spoke to me on a very deep level, and quickly became one of my favorite games. Entering that town of Silent Hill brought back all of those feelings, the horror and dread and general powerlessness.
But at the same time, as in life, I pressed on in playing that game because I felt compelled to. Through doing that, I started to have an idea that is best summed up by one phrase: “taking power in a world of horror.” In other words, being so thoroughly bathed in something you find horrific, and standing (reasonably) tall in it anyway. Not being numb to it or desensitized -- fully understanding what you are in the midst of -- but being able to take that next step forward anyhow.
Shattered Haven is a lot tamer than Silent Hill when it comes to the horror elements (although a couple of scenes in there, especially one at a prison late in the game, get even my heart thumping). That said, it’s still my way of exploring those themes of taking power even when things are really horrible. The parents have lost everything, they don’t want to be going on some adventure, and Shadow Man and the Squid are both terrifying and alien. Everywhere they go they are met with malice, with the one exception of Stantonsburg. But -- minor spoiler -- not everything is what it seems even there.
There’s no gore or anything in Shattered Haven, but there weren’t in the events of my life, either. Sometimes it all comes down to the oppressive atmosphere and the feelings that engenders. The thing that I like the most about Shattered Haven is that despite the atmosphere, it doesn’t create a situation that is utterly terrifying like Silent Hill does. Silent Hill was built to break you, whereas Shattered Haven is built to help you feel personally powerful despite how unsettled you are.
Co-Optimus: The last and final question for you is simply what’s next? I’ve heard murmurings and seen a couple posts for a game that takes inspiration from Oregon Trail, and another that’s a 4x type game. Will these also feature cooperative play? When did the development of these start and can we expect to see them this year?
Chris: As you’ve alluded, we’ve got two new games in the works at the moment: Exodus of the Machine and Skyward Collapse. Both of these games are expected to be out by June, with betas prior to then. Both will support co-op, and actually it looks like Skyward may even support PVP (a first from us aside from Tidalis).
Asking when development on a title started is a bit of a tricky thing with Arcen, because we always have a lot of irons in the fire. The concepts both started being marinated back in 2012, and of course they are both making heavy use of the engine development that we’ve been doing since 2003. At this point we have a huge library of code and related tools that get wrapped into each new game we do, making each one quicker to produce.
As to when the actual first this-game-only code was started on, that’s been within the last couple of months for both titles. Each of these titles is a lot smaller in scope in terms of development time compared to many of Arcen’s recent titles. Though as fans of AI War know, we’re able to pack a crazy ton of content into an expansion for AI War in just a few months. These titles both have a longer development cycle than that, and I think fans will be surprised at the amount of replay value and content in each.
Our estimate is currently multiple dozens of hours just to see all the content once in each game. So that’s a bit smaller than AI War, for instance, where it takes north of 100 hours to see all the content. But it’s still huge! And since we’re able to produce these faster thanks to our improved development pipeline, that means that we can also hit a lower price point right out of the gate: both games are expected to sell for $5, which is something new we’re trying.
So just what are these games? Skyward Collapse has been described in some excellent detail on my blog here and here. The short version is that it’s a turn-based “god game” mixed with 4x-style strategy elements. You play as “The Creator,” and you’re tasked with shepherding two warring factions of villages through their conflict. Your success comes from having as much economic growth and fighting as possible, while preventing all-out genocide on either side.
The coolest thing, to me, is how easy to get into this game is. Because of the nature of a god game, we were really able to streamline your interactions with the boardgame-style map and the pieces on them. But there’s a huge amount of depth here, because there are all sorts of indirect tricks for getting your populace to do what you want. High-scoring is a big part of this, but so are secondary missions that you can accomplish as you play each game; these secondary missions are the key to leveling up your profile and unlocking new buildings and even new units.
Co-op consists of multiple players all playing their turns in parallel, trying to work toward a common victory. It’s very much “the same game as solo, just with more people,” which is something that I love. But the co-op experience is enhanced by multiple players, because you suddenly have a lot more options. Because of the turn-based nature of this game, technically it can support some ridiculous number of players, possibly as many as 256. However, I don’t think that will be a very fun game because it would just get way too large (and might have other issues). So we’re likely going to say “officially supports up to 4-8 players” (whatever we test and determine works best as an upper bound), but that you can play with larger numbers if you wish in an unsupported fashion. After all, sometimes as a player it’s fun to take a game and do something crazy with it!
Exodus of the Machine has scant information out so far, mostly here on my blog. This is a trickier one to describe, and so we’re still playing this one a bit closer to the vest so that we make sure our first communications are clear and people don’t get the wrong idea. At core this is a strategy game, but with an interface and a “you’re on a journey” mechanism kind of like Oregon Trail.
The strategy game components come into play mainly based on how your journey plays out: every decision you make has some impact on later events. If you lose HP on one of your characters during combat, that’s not something you can just magically heal later on. If you run out of food, you’re in trouble. But if you don’t help some starving native by sharing your food, you might find that your reputation suffers and thus key characters later on are less willing to help you. The whole journey is a mass of compound decisions like this, and so successfully navigating to the end is a challenge.
There’s a goodly bit of randomization in there as well, so each journey is different. And as you play you unlock more equipment and other new options for how to play. Oh, and it’s also set in the AI War universe, providing some extra insights into the story of that game. We’re quite excited to be able to start sharing both of these titles with folks soon!
We'd like to thank Chris for taking the time to answer all of our questions and letting us know what's next for Arcen; we're eagerly anticipating checking out both of these titles. For more of Chris' writings on game design, check out his "Games by Design" blog, and check out the Arcen Games' website for more information about their catalog of games.