AI War, the co-op RTS/4x title from Arcen Games, LLC, has been out for some time now, but the game is about to hit a major milestone this Wednesday. Not only will the game hit version 2.0, which will include new features and a few bug fixes, but it will also be available on Steam with 129 Steam achievements and online leaderboards. We chatted with Christopher Park, CEO, Lead Programmer, and Lead Designer for Arcen, about this unique co-op game, how the taking on the AI with a group can be more satisfying than going alone, and the power of co-op gaming.
The number and types of planets are randomly generated for every game to keep each campaign fresh
Co-Optimus: How long have you been working on the game and how many people are involved?
Christopher: I originally started tossing around ideas for the game with my dad at our July 4th cookout in 2008, but I was working on the game Alden Ridge at the time, and so didn't actually start on AI War until early November 2008. The game was then in development until April 2009, when we went into a beta testing cycle, and in May we released version 1.0 on our website and Impulse. Since May, we've been going through an incredibly extensive post-release process, culminating in our big 2.0 release that is just now coming out on Steam and Direct2Drive. Fan reaction to my requests for feedback was such that this game has just grown and grown and grown, far beyond what I had ever imagined.
Originally it was just I working on the game, with my three alpha testers (my normal co-op RTS playgroup: my dad, my uncle, and one of my uncle's colleagues) providing feedback each week. In March 2009, Pablo Vega signed on as our composer. There were around a dozen beta testers who provided excellent feedback about the game in April, most notably Lars Bull, who in June joined the team as for forum moderation/support and as the lead designer for another upcoming Arcen title (a casual puzzle game -- with 4 player online co-op, by the way). In July, Phil Chabot joined the team as our new artist, and began the long process of upgrading the game's graphics, which you see the culmination of in our 2.0 release. Before that point, all of our art was from free sources (most notably Daniel Cook's work, which players may recognize from the classic game Tyrian), or stuff that I had cobbled together myself. One of the AI War forum regulars, Calvin Southwood, joined us in August to help with our growing needs for support/forum moderation, and to create a printable game manual (prior to that there was only our extensive online wiki).
So how many people really created this game? Several magazines have called this a "one man passion project," and in some senses that is true -- I'm the only designer and programmer and the main person on support and marketing and everything else -- but as you can see it really does take a lot more people to make even a "one man" project successful these days. I couldn't be happier with how the team has turned out.
Players who don’t rely upon their teammates for support will quickly be overwhelmed by the AI
Co-Optimus: Any inspiration from Sins of a Solar Empire or Galactic Civilizations?
Christopher: To be honest, not really... My inspirations were more Supreme Commander, the Age of Empires series, the Rise of Nations series, and the original Empire Earth. Those were the games that I most enjoyed playing co-op "comp stomp" in over the last decade or so. Civilization IV was also a major inspiration, so a lot of the 4X influence comes from that side.
Co-Optimus: In "The Case for Co-Op Games," you cite the creation of an unbalanced team in the player’s favor as one reason why co-op works as it allows players of varying skill levels to enjoy the game equally. How is this design concept implemented in the game to allow first time players the same easy access as seasoned vets?
Christopher: AI War is primarily geared at people who already love strategy games (RTS or otherwise), but want more -- for the single player game, that's pretty much our core audience. For solo play, having really robust, informative, and fun tutorials, as well as tool tips all over the place in the game itself, is how we basically have made things accessible for people who might be newer to the genre. When it comes to a single player game -- or competitive, for that matter, which AI War is not -- I think that's about as much as anyone can hope to do. And honestly, that approach works pretty well in the main, as there have been a lot more new-to-RTS players writing in to the forums than I had expected. However, this is one of the places where any co-op game really shows the power of the co-op model. I have even more forum members who enjoy RTS games in general and who tried out AI War solo, and who are then drafting friends and family who aren't really into the genre much at all. The initial players get a feel for the game through the tutorials and a bit of solo play, and then can't wait to get others in to the experience. The draftees usually don't go through the tutorials, but get some on-the-fly explanations from the expert players that got them into the game. This works amazingly well, and I don't think it's because of anything I've done in particular with the game, other than designing it in such a way that new players can have handicaps or easier starting positions. The experienced players can give better territory to the weaker players, or can avoid putting them on the most hostile parts of the perimeter, etc, and that gives the new players time to catch up, but other than that it's all down to the peer explanations and enthusiasm to carry them fully into the game.
I think a lot of other developers could take advantage of this sort of concept in a co-op scenario without having to go overboard with new design concepts to support it; the very nature of co-op gaming is in support of this sort of "new player bootstrapping," so long as the game design supports having the experienced player take more of the difficulty load. When I was finally able to get my wife to play the game during late alpha, she quickly became quite enamored of it, which surprised us both. She's a fairly hardcore gamer, but not into strategy gaming at all, so for me that was an early indication that I was on the right track.