Thursday, August 30, 2012

Shattered Haven Website Page And First Teaser Video

We've now launched the Shattered Haven page on our site, which has a variety of new information about the game that we've not revealed before.  For one thing, it includes a bit more of the story of what is going on with the family at the center of the plot of the game.

Also out today is our first teaser trailer for the game, which you can see below:


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Shattered Haven Artwork Preview

So, you may remember that we're currently working on a project called Shattered Haven:

Heavy Cat Studios, who are also doing the art revamp for A Valley Without Wind, have been hard at work on the graphics for Shattered Haven as well.  The two games have a very different in-game style, as SH is a more retro pixelart style whereas AVWW is more of a painted/drawn modern style.  I'm extremely fond of both styles.

However, for the main menu of Shattered Haven, we're doing a more modern painted/drawn style as well to set the mood.  This is how it's turned out thus far (you can click it to enlarge):

There's a lot of cool elements going on in that image.  For one, you have the parents -- Darrell and Mary -- protecting the kids on the left side of the screen.  Lela is clinging to her mom, and Pierce (who is slightly older) is also sheltering a bit.

You can see some of the grays looking out from the forest on the right, and a very large monster obviously closer up on the right.  On the left, behind the family, you've got a squid-like monster with razor hooks at the end of its tentacle.  Perhaps most significantly, on the right you've got a specific gray that we half-jokingly have internally been referring to as "zombie mom," although that's not her real name.

You can also see the interesting weapons that the family are using -- Darrell has a pitchfork with the outer two tines broken off, while Mary is holding a grenade in one hand and a bottle of water in the other.  All three are effective weapons against the grays, but for reasons you'll discover in the game, guns and most traditional weapons like swords or knives are not effective.  The bottles of water are actually traps that you lay rather than weapons that you directly throw or swing.

This image turned out so amazing that I'm actually going to be looking to Heavy Cat to do some more panels in this style for the various endings of the game as well as for some other key scenes as the story of the game unfolds.  If you can't tell, I'm a bit giddy as to how well these are turning out!

I know that we've not shown any real screenshots of the actual game itself, but that's because it's been so heavily in progress.  I've been porting the old Alden Ridge game over into the new AVWW engine, and making tons of improvements to the game we now call Shattered Haven as we go.  Plus obviously all the Heavy Cat work on the art is still ongoing.  The old way that the game used to is here:

There again, you can click to enlarge if you like.  All of that was either art that I did, or art from free sources.  It doesn't look horrible, but it's not as remotely nice as it could be, either.  There were some screenshots of this on Co-Optimus and Rock Paper Shotgun back in 2010 or so, but they are woefully outdated.

Here's how things are shaping up thus far, although there's still a lot more to do in the coming weeks:

Definitely click that to see the full quality, if you wish.  A lot of the art has been swapped out here, but the enemy grays are still old art, and plus all of the pixellated weapons and traps are outdated, too.  The older game was at a smaller scale, so I had to scale up the images for prototype purposes, and they look pretty rough.  It hardly matters, because by the time the game is really in the hands of players, those will be swapped out.

The water also has not yet been upgraded, but we plan to do something a lot less blocky if we can.  And the roof on the building is also still out of date.  Oh, and the dead brown trees.  All the other trees and bushes shown here, and the bricks, signs, cattails, HUD, and Darrell himself (in the bottom left) have all been updated.

So it's coming along!  We're still 2-4 weeks away from being able to start a public beta (probably closer to 4 weeks), but we're really excited about how it's turning out.  The all-new inventory system in the new version is one of my favorite things, as it makes the game so much more fun to play, heh.

Until next time!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Soundtrack Previews For Shattered Haven And Ancient Shadows

Pablo has been hard at work as usual, and is producing some of his best music ever.  He's learned some improved mastering techniques, and at some point in the coming months is going to be working on remastering the AVWW and AI War soundtracks in general.  In the meantime, here's a couple of new tracks that he's recently completed.

First up is the title theme to Shattered Haven, our upcoming environmental-puzzle top-down adventure... game.  Hmm.  I'm going to have to get a lot better at explaining what the heck that is before too long.  At any rate, it's really fun and the music is really cool already:

Additionally, if you missed it here is one of the tracks from the upcoming AI War: Ancient Shadows soundtrack.  This is actually on the descriptive page for Ancient Shadows, but a lot of people seem to have missed it because they went straight from the forums or blog to the store. ;)  Enjoy!

WIP Images From The A Valley Without Wind Art Revamp

These aren't final yet, but it's been a while since we've shared any images from the art rework project and I wanted to give you a taste of what's coming.  These are coming along well!

Part of a scrolling parallax backdrop

Desert Building

Desert Building 2

Desert Hut

Again, bear in mind that none of these are final yet, but it's cool to see how the progress is coming along, no?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Revised Logo For Ancient Shadows

In case you missed it from our main news blog, the beta and preorders for AI War: Ancient Shadows began yesterday!

One particular complaint that caught me by surprise was about the logo for the expansion, which was using a font that apparently is widely-reviled.  Algerian wasn't a font I was terribly familiar with (not like Comic Sans, which everyone knows to hate), and I had done enough post-processing on it that I though it looked reasonable, anyhow.

Ultimately that was a font that was going to rub a lot of people the wrong way, though, and the more I looked at it the more it bugged me, too.  The player who suggested changing it, doctorfrog, also was so kind as to actually suggest a specific better font!  Evidently he works with typography quite a bit.  I looked around at a number of other fonts last night, couldn't find anything remotely as nice as the one he suggested, and so went with that. 

Here's the result as applied to the main banner on our site:

That's way stronger than the old Ancient Shadows logo, and so I definitely wanted to give a special thanks to doctorfrog.  All of the images on the site and store and blogs have been updated to use the new logo, and the installers have also been updated to include that.  The next beta release of the game will update everyone who already installed the game to have the new logo.

For the sake of comparison, the old logo:

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Shattered Haven -- Another Upcoming Project

I've mentioned a couple of places now that I'm working on "another project."  Shattered Haven is that project.

This project is already extremely far along, because savvy Arcen lore-fiends will recognize that this is a revival of my old Alden Ridge project under a new name and with a ton of revisions (including 100% new art from the ground up thanks to Heavy Cat studios).  It's been a project that has been on hold since 2008, before I even started working on AI War or thought about founding Arcen.  I'm extremely excited to be able to finally come back to it and to finish it with all that we at Arcen have learned since I was last working on it.

For now that's all I'll say about it, but now I can at least refer to it by name.  We should have many more details for you within about a month, and we're currently hoping to have it to the preorder/beta phase by mid September.

Now you know what I'm working on, at any rate!

UPDATE: The forum thread for this post has been steadily prying more information out of me, starting here, if you're interested.

Update On The "A Valley Without Wind" Art Rework Project

So!  You may or may not know, but we've been working on getting a variety of mockups for A Valley Without Wind in order to significantly improve the quality of the art.  The art quality of the game has been really divisive among players since before beta for the game even started, but we never had the funds to do anything about it directly.

After almost a month and a half of mockups and work and rework, we've finally selected Heavy Cat Studios to do the rework.

No More Kickstarter Plans
There had been much talk of our running a kickstarter campaign to fund half or more of the art rework project... but that just hasn't sat very well with me for a lot of reasons.  A few of them, in no particular order:

- If the kickstarter succeeds and we redo the art, BUT then sales of AVWW don't pick up, we would still be obligated (in our minds and in the minds of at least some of the backers) to keep pouring on lots of free updates for quite some time.  "What do you mean I invested $100 into the art of this game and now it's only getting small updates only 4-5 months later!"  The last thing we want to do is either be put into a situation where a project is becoming a financial drain on the company (thus threatening overall company stability) or where players feel ripped off if the tides of fate don't go the way that we want.  I much prefer it if they get an excellent value right from the start, and then any of the updates are just gravy/bonus; that wouldn't be the case if we did a kickstarter of this style.

- Doing a kickstarter would not be the most efficient use of your money, or our time.  Not all the money you give through kickstarter actually makes it to the person or company you're giving it to (which is of course understandable), and so that makes the amount of money we'd have to raise from you higher than the amount of money we'd have to put in directly.  And to make matters worse, to do the various incentives on kickstarter typically requires a lot of work on our part.  Plus making videos and all the other administrative things.  Not doing a kickstarter lets you keep your money and us keep our focus.  If you're looking to support us as a company, I hope you'll tell your friends and acquaintances (and strangers you meet on the bus) about us.

- Running a kickstarter also somewhat undermines the natural flow of development on the new art style, as well.  As I'll show you below in this post, the art style is coming along really well.  However, there are many details that are not yet hashed out (more on that in a bit).  Having the kickstarter as a goal after just a month would have meant that we'd have had the artists distracted with that and trying to rush through the early style-setting phases rather than taking the time that is properly needed for them.  We're going to have five major milestones in this project with Heavy Cat, and the first of them is going to be substantially longer than the last milestone -- that's just the nature of any project that begins with substantial R&D (like AVWW itself did).  Though on the positive side we are really winding down in the R&D phase thanks to the last month and a half.

- Lastly, if we were to do a kickstarter asking for more money to redo the graphics of a game that is already out, there's a good chance of some negative reaction to that from some parties.  Our core fanbase was either neutral or jumping up and down at the chance to contribute, but this would just give further fuel to people who are already (for whatever reason) skeptical of us or the game.  All in all, I think that we can agree that on principle it's really a good thing to not ask your customers for more money for something they already bought.  From the outset I hadn't wanted to do that, but I had also not wanted to shoulder the burden of an art revamp project all on Arcen's own.  I thought it would be a lot more expensive than it is turning out to be, which is one thing that helps, but additionally I had viewed the kickstarter idea as a "let's see if those people who say that they'd want the game if it didn't make their eyes bleed are serious" test.

Given that the forum thread about the art is now nearly the most popular thread we've ever had on our forums, and the reaction from some of the press who happened to notice what we were working on, that the interest in this revamp is self-evident.

So How Are We Avoiding The Kickstarter?
Heavy Cat have a really efficient way of working that let's them get work done in volume quickly.  This has made them really cost competitive for us, which in turn has made the entire project more feasible.  Even the estimates from the other two studios were half of what my original projections has been, however.

Further, in order to really maximize the use of funds, there are certain key areas where we are able to reduce the scope of the art rework in order to keep the costs down.  For example, there are many redundant backgrounds of middling (or in a few cases low) quality at the moment.  Instead of trying to redo all those, just focusing on redoing a few of them and reusing those makes a lot more sense.  If you think about most games, this is what most of them do already.

Not to say that you'll be running through identical corridors all the time or something.  But that's where things like furniture and other goods come into play.  We'll be able to make those stand out a lot more (in a good way) as part of the rework process, and that in turn will help to make the building interiors feel more unique than they did anyway just by having four or five different variants of brick walls.

I'm as confident as I can be that the art rework project will at least be cost-neutral to Arcen as a whole.  In other words, the existing players all get better art for free while the upgrade drives enough new sales that we make back enough money to at least cover the cost of the upgrade.  Nothing is ever certain of course, but the financial outlay is low enough (and we're coming into a key time of year) that it seems like it will really be likely.

What's Next For A Valley Without Wind, Anyway?
When version 1.2 came out, I talked a lot about plans for what we would be doing as part of version 1.3.  Unfortunately, this summer has not been a good one for us in terms of income, so we have had to adjust our plans.  The summer hasn't been horrible, either, mind you -- it just isn't nearly as good as last year, and so it became evident that we needed to make some course corrections or else we were going to run into trouble a few months from now.

Originally when AVWW came out, it was selling 3x faster than our best-selling previous title, AI War, had on its debut on Steam.  This was really major for us, and was the sort of thing that would have supported us just continuing to do lots of free updates for AVWW on an ongoing basis to keep people's interest.

Then a funny thing happened -- Diablo 3 came out.  Literally the next day, our sales plummeted to 1/10th the value they had been the day prior.  The whole game industry saw a contraction, even on the iOS, for a week or two there, from what I could tell.  Keith remarked that it was like "a massive whale jumping out of the ocean and the ocean level falling for everyone else."  That seems an apt analogy to me.

The thing is, our AVWW sales never recovered after that point.  We had hoped that the Steam summer sale would spur things back to where we wanted them to be.  But while the sale itself was a success, we earned a lot less this summer with all our products than we did just with AI War alone last summer (man that was a good summer; it added 6 months to the development time of AVWW and let us hire Keith fulltime and Josh at all).

As fate would have it, the Steam summer sale coincided with the 3-month mark of AVWW being out.  Prior to release, we said that we'd be running hardcore post-release support for the game "as long as player support is there," or at least three months no matter what.  Well, the support of players isn't there at levels that can sustain us without my having to lay off at least Josh and Erik, unfortunately.  So that's why we're having to do some retooling now.

The biggest thing that players who have not bought the game gripe about is the graphics.  And almost every review griped about the graphics, too.  So that's something that we've decided to address instead of the things we had previously planned for 1.3.  Our 1.1 and 1.2 updates were huge and ginormous, and made the game worlds better than it was at release simply from a gameplay and design and fun-factor standpoint.  However, those releases got very little attention from press or from players outside our existing fanbase.  Sales continued to slide rather than being buoyed or even sustained.

So, again, hence the course correction.  Since art seems to be the main barrier to a lot of people taking this game seriously at all, that's what we've decided to address next.  That actually frees up our staff to work more on other projects, anyhow, which is a good thing.  All our eggs aren't in one basket anymore, so to speak.  Keith is heading up the new AI War expansion, and I'm working on a new project that will be fully revealed in mid-September or so.

Meanwhile, Heavy Cat is doing most of the hard work on the new art for AVWW, and I'm overseeing that as well.  I'll also be putting a new spell into the game every week on average; last week there were no new spells, so this week there are two.  That's a really big shift from what I'd planned on doing for AVWW, but it's quick enough to fit with my overall workload/schedule, and it's also something that players really seem to want as well, so that's win/win as far as I am concerned.

By the time Heavy Cat is done with their reskin, it will be about November or so, and we'll have another 12ish new spells in the game alongside the usual bugfixes and balance tweaks and the all-new art (the spell particle effects, in the main, are one of the few bits of art that are being retained, hence my focus on them for now).  The new version of AVWW that results from that will be called 2.0, because it's going to really feel like a completely new game with the new art.

After that, if interest in the game picks back up -- which we hope it will -- then we'll be revisiting the 1.3 plans for 2.1 in December and January.  What happens beyond that is really down to what the verdict of the market is over the holiday season.  If we think that there's sufficient interest in an expansion to the game, then I'm sure we'll start one in the first or second quarter of next year.  But if the interest isn't there for whatever reason on the part of players, then we certainly have oodles of other game ideas.

So What Does This New Art Look Like, Anyway?
That isn't yet finalized, but we're getting a lot closer.  The actual broad structure of the art is something that has been settled on now -- which means that we can start the process of doing pencil sketches, animation rigging, and all sort of other things -- but the actual final shading and coloring is still not quite there.

We're getting there on the actual color values, and I'm quite fond of a lot of what is going on in the image below, but there's a bit more of a cartoony look than the final art style for the game will have.  Here's where things have evolved to so far:

And here's an example of what I mean about the pencil sketches.  This is an example of the character in a pencil sketch form, ready to be animated and then later to be colored and shaded/textured.
This process that Heavy Cat uses is really something that gives us a lot of flexibility to get exactly what we want in terms of the art, because we're able to look at it at each stage of creation and request changes.  That keeps them from having to do too much rework while at the same time getting us to the final result faster.

More news to come soon!

UPDATE 1: The forum thread on this post has had a lot of interesting discussion, if you're interested in more.

UPDATE 2: More WIP images can be seen here.

AI War: Ancient Shadows Marauder Starbase Teaser

We had hoped to be at a point where we could reveal a lot more information about Ancient Shadows this week, but as it turns out most of that is going to need to wait until next week. 

Still, we don't want to leave you empty-handed -- so here's a screenshot of what Keith is working on code-wise, and what I've just completed visually.

Keith's notes on the screenshot:
- Is that a nebula in the background?
- Why is that wormhole blue?
- What are the Marauders doing with a starbase?
- Wait, starbase?
- Backwater areas?
- What is a H-S-FF?
- And what is in that planetary summary sidebar? (the ship images in the sidebar are placeholder, fyi).
 We should have something a lot more meaty for you next week -- knock on wood!