Sunday, April 22, 2012

Explaining "A Valley Without Wind." What The Heck Is It?

Just what is this game "A Valley Without Wind" from indie studio Arcen Games all about?  Read on to find out.

Procedural World Filled With Choice And Customization
At first glance it looks like your average 2D Metroidvania title, just with magic instead of guns.  The difference is choice: except for a brief linear intro mission, this is all a procedural open world. 

Rather than linear levels, the emphasis here is on tactical combat and strategic planning.  The overlord is strong, you're weak, and you need to figure out how to fix that and go kick his or her butt.  In a lot of respects the mentality is that of a strategy game (makes sense given our past games, eh?), but rather than it being an army of characters you control, it's just one character at a time. 

The amount of customization is pretty crazy.  There are "only" something like 40 spells you can directly craft at the moment, but there are also passive enchant buffs that you can apply to yourself.  Enchants change anything from how you move; to how your spells behave; to how you light your way, or if you can breathe underwater, etc.  Enchants are procedurally generated like loot in Borderlands or Diablo, and there are a few hundred thousand unique combinations possible at this point.  Various items can be scavenged out in the world, too, such as magic scrolls to turn yourself into a bat, heatsuits that make lava easier to deal with, and so on.  Figuring out how to best customize your character to match your skills as a gamer is one of the cooler aspects of the game.

The Community Vs The Self, Permadeath, And Thinking Outside The Box
When you choose your first character, the game warns you not to get too attached.  It's not a question of IF your character is going to die, but WHEN.  Upon death, the character is gone forever -- and most of the time, a vengeful ghost arises from their corpse and makes the area you died in even harder.  So, uh, tactical retreats aren't just for the faint of heart in this game.

It's not like permadeath in a roguelike, though, where the mechanics are overtly punitive -- we're not out to punish the player.  When you die you get to choose a new character immediately, and you keep all your inventory, enchants, and general progress in the game.  There are some minor character-specific things that are lost, but it's nothing remotely heart-breaking.

We've also tried to emphasize choice with "community focus versus focus on self."  There's a lot more that we want to do in that area in the future, but what is there is pretty nifty already.  You can rescue NPCs and construct buildings for them, and in return those NPCs can help you out via long-range magic scrolls, for instance.

I really love games where players get an opportunity to show their cleverness, rather than just jumping through a set of hoops the developer set out.  In your average Metroidvania title, each challenge has one solution (see red door in Metroid = shoot with missiles), and that can be really fun in its own right.  But in AVWW each challenge tends to have four or five solutions (at least), each with their own pros and cons.  If you play as a bat you don't have to worry about jumping, but you also deal less damage, get blown about by the wind more, and can't go into lava or ice age areas.  And so on. 

I like to tell the story of this one player who, during the beta, made essentially a melee fighter using the spell Death Touch and some jump-related and defense-related enchants; he managed to kill an overlord with this build, and I was blown away that this was even possible.  It took a lot of sideways thinking to make the build in the first place, and then a lot of skill to bring down an overlord using that build.  That's what I mean by encouraging players to show their own cleverness (as well as skill).

Adaptive Gameplay, And True Freedom Without Being Directionless
In a linear game, the difficulty curve can be set by level designers.  In an open world, that's not possible because we don't know where you're going to go.  So what we did was make it adaptive to how you play: monsters have a general baseline difficulty to start with, and then they upgrade as you demonstrate your proficiency.  Killed 100 regular bats?  Okay, we get it, you're good at killing bats.  Time for... bats on fire!

You can literally go almost anywhere you see in the open world -- including right into the overlord's keep at any time.  Come on, it's no secret where the oppressive dictator lives.  The problem is that the monsters surrounding his keep will probably kill you before you even reach his front stoop.  But if you're so good that you could avoid getting hit at all by enemy shots, you could just go right into his keep and take him out with your starting pea shooters.  Realistically it's a lot more fun to actually play the game and buff your character appropriately before going for the take-down, but even then you get to choose when and how that take-down is going to happen.

Each world is literally endless.  When you beat one overlord, and thus save one continent, a new continent that is bigger and more complicated opens up.  Some things carry across continents, others don't.  It's kind of like a "New Game+" option that a lot of RPGs have, except better because you can still go back to your old continent any time, and there's a lot more direct continuity.  Each continent should take most players 8-14 hours to complete, but that really varies enormously depending on how much side exploration they do.

One immediate worry with a game of such scope, with such long-form goals, is players feeling directionless.  That was certainly something we struggled with early in the public beta, and with AI War as well.  Thanks to the help of our core fanbase, we've managed to put together a system that guides without being directive.  The "planning menu" in the game gives you suggestions on what to do at all times based on your current status, but you're free to ignore those suggestions and do whatever you see fit.  It also includes the equivalent of an entire wiki right in the game itself, so that you don't have to go looking at external sources to find out where arcane ingredient #7 is, etc.

Where We Hope To See This Go Next
This has been our most successful beta so far by a factor of at least 4:1, and we had really positive showings at both Minecon and PAX East.  Players willing, my hope is to be able to focus on building more of this game for the next 3+ years to take it from what is already massive (30-40 hours to even see all the content at the moment) to something gargantuan like AI War.  As with AI War, the hope is to do tons of free content on an ongoing basis, and then a few optional paid expansions with larger content-drops along the way. 

Speaking of AI War, that game has been out since May 2009 and we're still doing almost weekly free updates to it; and we have at least two more expansions planned regardless of how well AVWW does.  We know that some folks' faith in post-release content has been shaken in light of various recent events with other developers, but we have a three-year track record of being there on an ongoing basis.  We don't intend to stop that anytime soon.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Launch Trailer For A Valley Without Wind!

Reminder: the launch for the game is coming right up on this very next Monday, the 23rd of April!  Now is your last chance to get it for the preorder discount of 33% off!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Our New Agenda For The Last Week Prior To AVWW 1.0.

The short version: we're going into bugfix, polish, and usability mode between now and about Thursday.  Then Friday I'll be getting stuff to the various distributors so that everything can be all hooked up for a release on Monday. 

Then this weekend I'm going to take the weekend off (barring unforeseen catastrophic issues); it'll be my first days off, weekends or otherwise, since February 16th, aside from last Monday when my wife and I toured around Boston before coming home from PAX East.

And then next week, after our release on Monday, we'll see what happens.  Keith and I have a ton of new stuff I wanted to get in prior to 1.0, but that stuff will just have to wait until... dun dun dun... next week or the week after (gasps).

Rationale For The Shift In Focus
In some recent releases from last week, we added a few new spells and various other major new features.  Initially, my plan for this week was to keep doing the same.  However, other releases from the last week focused more on general polish, bugfixes, and improvements to usability and the new player experience.

The former is more exciting for existing players, sure.  But the latter is a lot more important to new players, and to broadening the playerbase in general.  And if we want to keep developing AVWW out over the long haul, like we have AI War, then we have to actually have a playerbase big enough to support the staff we have.

In that light, the only sensible thing to do is focus on making the experience as fun as possible for as many players as possible, and to lower the barriers to entry as much as we can without actually changing the game that the experienced players already love.  Sometimes it's something as simple as improving our support for the XBox 360 controller; other times it's something like allowing custom mappings for key items like wooden platforms or light spells.

This Happens Every Time
Whenever a big release is getting near, I always start getting worried that there isn't enough content.  Because, however much content there is, it's never as much as I've thought of.  Which is actually a good thing -- it's a sign that we didn't just wring every last shred of possible interesting ideas out of our central premise.

Well, I guess Portal 2 was actually criticized by some indies for not doing exactly that sort of wringing (which is a whole other matter).  But in our case, our style of post-release support is such that having lots of untapped potential is something we view as a good thing.  That way we can still be making lots of additions to this game three years from now, players willing, and everybody is still interested and having fun, including us.

That's how you get something like AI War 5.0, which is a game so massive at this point that I don't think any indie could have made it behind closed doors on a fixed budget before releasing it into the wild.  That's what I want to see with AVWW, years from now: I want us all to be looking back at the game in its current state and going "can you believe how small it was back then!?"

And of course, by "small" I mean that there's only about 30-50 hours of playtime required to see everything the game has on offer (after which you can still keep playing because, you know, procedural).  Compared with AI War, where it probably takes 300+ hours at this point to even see all the ships and AI personalities if you're playing full games.

So, yeah -- this happens every time.  Shortly before AI War 1.0 released, I still had another 30ish ships I'd been planning on adding before release.   Then I finally hit a point where I realized "you know what?  This came is more than large enough already for 1.0."  So I focused on this sort of polish and fixes, pushed the game out, and wound up adding most of those ships in the weeks following its release.

On That Note, We're Looking For Feedback
Both on general polish, as well as multiplayer in particular.  If there's anything that's not working quite right, now's the time to let us know!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Bits And Pieces From PAX East

Volatar on the forums reminded me that I needed to do a post about how PAX went -- so here I am!  It's been a whirlwind since getting back from PAX, and I still have an enormous backlog of emails that I've not yet had a chance to respond to.  I'm getting to them -- if you've sent me an email and I've not yet responded, it's nothing personal and I will get to it soon!  Just trying not to drown here.

I'm going to do a bigger writeup about lessons learned from PAX sometime in the next month, probably after the 1.0 because ohmygod-there's-no-time at the moment. ;)  But some highlights for now:

- Coverage is already coming in, as Erik posted earlier today.  That's only a small slice of what we actually did, though, so every day there's more that seems to crop up.  Which is great!

- People seemed to really love the game; we had almost universally people walking away happy, and an enormous percentage of them saying they wanted to get the game.  Caveat: people self-select, obviously, so the people who came into the booth or stopped were the ones with the most interest in the first place; not sure how much that means in terms of wider acceptance yet.

- We had numerous people bringing back their friends, though, so that was cool.

- It quickly became clear how much of an unknown Arcen is with the US press.  The UK press and other European press knows us really well because of AI War, but in the US strategy games just aren't news unless they are Starcraft.  Out of some 30-40 interviews (not sure how many exactly), there were only 3 who had ever heard of me.  One of them was a certain major gaming TV channel, so that was wicked awesome actually. :)

- Given that basically nobody knew anything about us or our game there, that gave us a really good opportunity to figure out how best to explain the game to people who are coming to it cold.  We got really, really good at it.  I definitely plan to make a video with a short version of my explanation of the game with voiceover and video clips prior to 1.0.  Also we have some marketing copy adjustments to make based on what we learned.

- I felt like all but maybe two of the press that I interviewed with seemed really impressed with the game and excited about it.  The other two were hard to read, and so I just don't know what they felt like.  With some other members of the press they were clearly telling other press about it because by the third day we were getting press stopping by and saying things like "I hear this is one to watch."  And at least one guy who I had a really great session with sent his senior editor back later in the day, which was quite cool.

- Four or five people said, literally verbatim, "so this is like Terraria but better?"  That's certainly positive, and I'll take it, despite the fact that I don't know that I agree with the sentiment -- Terraria and AVWW focus on really different things and each fills a different niche.  I took those comments to mean that those people had wanted more on the adventuring side rather than the construction side, in which case AVWW is going to be the one that's potentially more tailored for what they were looking for.

- We quickly learned that the first half an hour of the expo hall is just a waste for indies.  You can pass out some little things to folks as they pass, but nobody is going to stop.  At ANY of the smaller booths.  Everyone is running to the largest AAA games on the floor to try to avoid the super long lines that otherwise form there.  Then as soon as those lines fill up, the rest of the expo hall floods and it's time to get down to business.  Even places like the Wizards of the Coast booths were pretty dead for that first half an hour simply because they were more open and not prone to lines -- players were able to get at them all day, anytime they wanted, and knew it.  Kind of an interesting effect.

- We did indeed learn that dry air (compared to North Carolina) and talking for 8+ hours a day straight is a bad combination for the throat.  Erik and Pablo and I kept getting into a pretty bad way and really didn't sound like ourselves a lot of the time.  Monday morning Pablo apparently couldn't speak at all.  My voice still isn't fully back to normal yet, but it was totally worth it.

- Personally I thought I would have been more nervous, especially with the video interviews.  Over the last three years I've gotten really used to audio interviews and podcasts, and I'm always super pumped up to meet and talk to people (introvert? me? well, yes, but in a somewhat nontraditional way).  But normally being on video would have been butterflies-city, and I had to do that maybe five or six times.  I'm not sure exactly.  Thing is, once that first half hour of dead time is past and players are in your booth and press is coming by at a good clip, it's all one big thing.  You don't have time to get nervous about anything, and there's never the sense that all eyes are on you -- to the contrary, even if you're working the largest booth there, I think the scale of the expo hall still must drive home your own relative insignificance.  I mean, that place was absolutely enormous in all the best ways.

- Pro tip for anyone who plans to expo at PAX or similar: bring granola bars, power bars, or similar with you.  Friday we did not do this, and we wound up eating nasty pizza for $60 way late in the afternoon.  It was welcome, because there had been no break until then (and I had to eat during interviews anyhow, because they were so nonstop).  Saturday was even more busy, and I was constantly behind.  Thankfully the others started out the press sessions with the press getting some hands on experience with the game before I wrapped up my prior press session.

- There were at least two press sessions on Saturday that I just missed entirely because I was somehow double-booked (I think someone just showed up unscheduled, actually), but Erik took those and handled them really well.  Anyway, on that day there was literally no time for food at all, so it was just powerbars while still trying to talk and not be rude about eating.  People could see we were slammed and were understanding, though.

- Sunday was surprisingly more quiet, by comparison.  The last hour or so of the convention in particular, the expo hall was noticeably emptier.  A few companies were actually tearing down their booths early in violation of their contracts.  And by "noticeably emptier" I mean probably "only 3,000-5,000 people in the hall."  So we still had people swinging by, but we were actually having terminals open more.

- Oh yes, the terminals!  We had four computer stations that people could play on for 15 minutes.  In all, we estimate about 300ish players were able to partake of this over the three day span, and there were another 300 that stood very close and watched intensely -- friends or family, or just people who wanted to watch rather than play (some people get embarrassed they will do badly on their first try with a game and don't want to check it out in an expo hall, even if they do want to watch, which I can understand).  Anyway, the terminals were a really big success.

- For that matter, so were the banners, the 32" TV screen, the flyers, the AVWW cards, and the buttons.  The banners really grabbed people's eye it seemed, and the TV in particular was something that people could see from the MTG booth and the Sega Aliens line.  Lots of heads looking our way, and several people mentioned stopping because they saw the video, even though they had no idea what the game was.  With the flyers, cards, and buttons, those were things people seemed genuinely interested in, and hopefully those are now things that people are finding in their swag bags and reminding them about our game.  We'll see.

- I ran into perhaps a dozen or two players who were fans of AI War, which was super cool.  Never have met any AI War fans in real life before (this was my first gaming convention).  Actually, never had met anyone who had even heard of AI War before, so you can perhaps appreciate the scale of how cool that was.

- Also cool?  On the unpacking day (Thursday), I saw Jerry and Mike walk by, not 40 feet from me in the expo hall.  They were just walking along talking about something, and didn't notice myself or anyone else right around there.  Probably for the best, as I would likely have gone all fanboy on them.  Seriously, I've been reading their strip since something like 4-5 months after they started.  I was in high school, and tried getting one of my best friends into the strip.  I made the mistake of showing him the current day's strip, which involved a lobster, a handgun, and a wristwatch.  I believe his words were "it seems kind of low-brow."  Gah!  Thirteen years later, I still hold that against him, a little. ;)

- If you are going to the expo hall to exhibit your game, don't expect to see much other than the expo hall.  We had offers to go out with other indies, and we chatted with them some during the exhibitor meet and greet on Friday in particular.  But at the end of each day we were just beat, and we also had a lot of shop we still needed to talk on our own team; each person was learning different things about how best to handle the booth and how best to explain the game, and we needed those nights in order to collate all that data and make sure we were all on the same page.  We did manage to stop by the retro arcade, which was pretty awesome, though.  And we did catch a little bit of one concert, but it wasn't one of the better ones; I would have loved to have seen the Minibosses in particular.  And why weren't The Protomen there?  Seriously, they should have been there.

- Lastly, we really learned a ton from watching the attendees play our game.  It's not a substitute for the forums and mantis and our whole beta process that we go through, but neither is our normal beta process a substitute for this, I'm learning.  They're just two completely different bands of data, both valuable.  At this point I think that the cost of the trip (about $10k) was worth it even just solely in terms of what we learned and are thus able to improve about the game.  All the rest of the stuff makes it even more of a win on top of that, so that's good.

And with that... I'd better get back to work!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Images Of Our AVWW Banners For PAX East!

These are all at a lower scale, of course, but I thought you might enjoy these.  The first two are being printed at 3 feet by five 5 feet in size and will go on either side of our 33 inch video monitor mounted at the back of our booth. 

The third image is being printed at eight feet by three feet and will be running along the outside of our booth toward the adjacent walkway outside our booth.  That wall is only three feet high, but is ten feet long, so we'll be covering part-but-not-all of that otherwise-just-black wall outside our booth.

Our booth itself will have four computer stations in there where attendees can try out the game, and you'll be able to stand outside the booth and see other people play, too.  We have several kinds of swag we're going to be giving away, but quantities are limited so if you want a button in particular be sure and get there early on each day; we'll be rationing the buttons so that no matter what day you come to the conference you can get one if you get there early enough.

And now back to work for me on the game itself!