Wednesday, August 1, 2012

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.


RCIX said...

I just feel bad that you guys got slammed in a few reviews at the start and now they're up there, and won't reflect your game at all for long, if they even do now. =/

Christopher M. Park said...

Thanks for the condolences -- yeah, we took a beating on metacritic, for sure. That hasn't helped things, I'm sure.

On the plus side, both Kotaku and Polygon were really positive on it. And a number of smaller indie sites were super positive on it. It's just all those sites in the middle that were more negative to it, or just kind of "meh."

Adam Sams said...

I've loved just about ever bit of the 50+ hours i've dropped into it. And the patches just make it greater.

Christopher M. Park said...

Thanks, I really appreciate that!

EmperorPenguin said...

I own the game and would have been willing to toss in some money for the Kickstarter, but I'm relieved you've managed to work out a way to fund the project without it. I worried about the appearance of doing a Kickstarter to redo a part of the game that the naysayers were complaining about since the game was first shown. As unfair as it is, I'd imagine the attitude of the naysayers would have been "You should have changed it to begin with", ignoring reality.

Anyway, I'm really looking forward to what you can do with the new look. I hope you can coincide it with a push on Steam (AVWW 1.5 or a graphics DLC, something to get you on the front page). This is a gem of a game you've got here and I'd love to see it more accessible to those who couldn't get past the look.

Christopher M. Park said...

I'm hoping this will provide an incentive for Steam to do a feature for it, too -- I think that will prove enticing enough for them to give it a shot, anyway.

freykin said...

I hope the art changes bring in more people, as I'd love to see AVWW continue to expand in the way it has these past couple months. Even if it doesn't, what it currently provides is an awesome amount of fun :). Also, new project? I'm excited! So far for me you've been batting a thousand.

Blight said...

I have to refrain from using ALLCAPS... because the new look is absolutely awesome. I think it will really make a good impression on prospective gamers.

GameBlaster64 said...

Chris, it's entirely possible that the name "A Valley Without Wind" now is well-known and so any future upgrade will simply be seen as more of the same.

In this case, no amount of re-tooling to the game will EVER get the sales or reviews that you want.

Have you ever considered re-releasing the game with the new graphics as "A Valley Without Wind: Reloaded" ?

Re-releasing it would let you start fresh with sales as it's a 'new game' that isn't anything like AVWW on the day of its launch (so much has been upgraded since).

This is the same method that MMORPG games (which receive numerous upgrades weekly over time) use to relaunch/invigorate their products over time. Each of the expansions in their case are essentially cumulative upgrades and some new content.


Christopher M. Park said...

gameblaster64: That's certainly been something that we've been really considering.

I'm not sure how that would work mechanically, as I would want the new game to be free to all existing customers (because when the "new game" comes out, all support for the "old game" would cease forevermore).

It's something that we were discussing earlier on into the brainstorming for the art revamp, because that also would provide a solid incentive and breaking point for reviewers to do a re-review. Whereas they may already feel that they "have the verdict" on the game as it currently stands even though it's an entirely different game now. And going along with that, the whole Metacritic thing.

Potentially the easiest way to handle this is basically doing a "replacement game" and naming the game "A Valley Without Wind II" or something. By the time the art is complete, it is definitely a completely new game (moreso than a lot of actual sequels you get asked for money for, actually).

It's a whole tricky thing, though, because I don't want it to be something that seems (or worse, IS) dishonest, either. There's a fine line there somewhere, but I'm not sure exactly where that line is yet. Fortunately we have until November or so to figure that out. ;)

Gameblaster64 said...

You can give a free key to whoever has a key for the original. Those who enter a valid key in the new game receive a "founders item" (a weapon or spell or somesuch).

This way, all existing AVWW fans get the new game (plus an extra thank-you item), the new game truly is a re-release, and you can start fresh.

Christopher M. Park said...

Something like that, yeah. Internally we've been discussing this again, and the idea of calling it a sequel seems more shady than we're comfortable with.

So right now the idea I'm leaning most towards is doing a "re-launch" like what you're talking about. "A Valley Without Wind: Rewound" or something else that's more clever than that.

I don't know how metacritic and the press will treat a re-launched game, but that's less important to me than changing the name somewhat, as you noted.

EmperorPenguin said...

Yea, I think calling it "A Valley Without Wind 2" would be misleading, but a "Reloaded" or some other subtitle would be great. Internally, it could simply be AVWW1.5 or whatever and everyone patches up to it, but it'd be a shame not to get a splashy name out there to draw some attention - especially given that the massive additions in 1.1 and 1.2 were largely ignored (and those patches were far larger than most games' DLC packages). Those updates along with completely overhauled graphics is reason enough to slap a subtitle on there, at the very least.

You've got your proton torpedo of marketing and a window approximately two meters wide. Get set up for your attack run!

S. Michael White said...

It's great that you guys take, assimilate, and respond to criticism so well. This will benefit Arcen in the long run if the obstinate critics don't eviscerate you in the meantime. Staying power. I can see you guys getting frayed but keep up the good work, do what you do, and I personally believe it'll pay off.

I bought and played AVWW yesterday and did see a few improvements to be made, but reading changelogs and reactions since Day 1 instills me with confidence. As always, your transparency on executive decisions endears you to the masses as well.

I'll continue to say good things about you guys on my site, and will inform those "people on the bus" about you all as well. Best of luck.

Jeffrey R Dean said...

Thank you for the insight into how sales and updates have been going, I'm fairly new to the game (summer sale) and I've loved each of the 15-some-odd hours I've put in so far. I don't see the problem with the graphics that others seem to have. I think they're quirky and different and that's what attracted me to the game other than the idea of 'unlimited' procedurally generated platforming.

The answer to this is likely 'no' but do you have any intention of allowing users to toggle graphics to a 'retro' or 'original' setting once the changes are in place? it would be neat for new as well as returning players to be able to see how assets changed over time. I would highly value such an option if it were possible.

Christopher M. Park said...

Cheers, thanks for the kind words all of you. :)

In terms of keeping the original versus the new graphics, I don't plan on doing that unfortunately because a bit more than a reskin is going on here. Some new pieces of art will be put into the game in order to break up large repeating backgrounds, for instance, and some of the monsters will be resized and have new hitboxes that won't match the old art. Plus as soon as we add any new monsters, they will be only in the new style and won't have a retro counterpart at all.

That would mean that to keep the retro style, we'd have to resize all of it as well as keep doing new art in that style as any new piece of art is later commissioned for the game. That would be expensive and also would take up a ton of space in the installer. Which then also costs us in monthly bandwidth in a nontrivial manner, and so on.

I would if I could, because I sure worked hard on all that original art! But in the end it's more important to move forward more smoothly rather than looking back at it.

Michael S. said...

I just left a positive review on my Steam account, trying to do my part to help you guys out. It sounds like you've got a pretty good plan going forward though, best of luck to you!

Shardz said...

Everything about Arcen is fantastic and their support and transparent development policies with extensive constructive feedback makes it even better. AI War is my favorite project overall, but the same qualities adhere to all their products and you can always expect some rather rigorous development along the way.

Arcen is on my Top Five of true Indie developers who integrated Steam seamlessly without pestering everyone else with it. Quite a few have been with Arcen *way* before they went on Steam (for those avoiding those complications) and I'm SO happy that nothing on my end has been affected one bit from that endeavor. Quite a few developers get that Money Hat on nice and snug and you can forget about external support elsewhere. But it is not this developer this day!

Blessing and kudos to the Arcen gang; your methods are most sound.

Kesvalk said...

i really like how you guys are transparent in your plans and keep in contact with us...

is a great way to communicate that the big devs never does, they only say things like "we're doing stuff, and you guys will love it!" and keep us in the dark the entire process.

keep the good work arcen, i am one of the guys that really didn't liked the graphics, and i am VERY, VERY happy to see it changed, i will play the game as normal, it's just that my eyes will not burn while i am playing =P

malkav11 said...

I have been on record as not being a fan at all of the current art style, so I'm pleased to see it finally being addressed. Between that and the changes in AVWW 1.1 and 1.2 it really will be a substantially better game than at launch. I hope that gets picked up on and translates to sales, because I'd love to see further development (and expansions) for the game. Alas, I had already bought it long ago during beta, so I can't give you more money. I had to settle for getting two friends into it.

Studio X said...

Soz, but you picked the wrong studio.

Lets hope you wont get too disappointed when the change of graphics doesn't bring the multi loads of buyers you are hoping for (i am sure it will get some, but not remotely close to what it could have.)

Anonymous said... gave it a perfect score, but for some reason you apologized for a five star rating on your forums....:/ So in a way what you were putting out there is "our game isnt quite that good yet", please don't give us high scores...

Christopher M. Park said...

@Anon: I don't recall ever having apologized for a good review. Obviously I think a lot of the game or I wouldn't have spent so much time and money on it, and still be putting more into it now.

That said, I can see where you had that impression if you read some of the comments out of context. I did indeed feel that a perfect score was, while kind, a bit overgenerous. I say that because I feel that the number of games that are deserving of a perfect score I can probably count on one hand. Most of my favorite games of all time I still would not give a perfect score to. For me, a perfect score means there's nothing left to do, you've already achieved perfection and to add more or make changes would be to start harming the game. There are very few titles that one can say that about.

Anyhow, I hope that clears that up. In the same thread where I would have made comments to the above effect, I also said I felt that the game was not deserving of the lambasting that a few other reviewers gave it. And my overall point was that I was a bit unhappy with the apparent need for people to take polar positions about it one way or the other. There is a middle ground!

wabbyboy said...

I love this game and in a way i will be sad to see the current graphics go. But i am sure you will do a great job on the new graphics.

Are you changing the animations as well?

I will certainly miss the little ninja leg lift when you cast a spell.

Anonymous said...

I just wanna say that I really liked the demo and didn't mind the graphics. Besides that I find your honesty, support for mac and online very refreshing.
I don't know if the path you're taking is the right one, but I sure wish you luck making this great game profitable.

There were some screen tearing and overall I thought the controls and the shear amount of content were intimidating, but that didn't stop my enjoyment. I fail to understand why the metascore (which I just checked) is "average".

I didn't bought the game so far, but that's because I'm unemployed and have no perspective of finding a job soon. That said, the 4-pack is super cheap right now, maybe I can convince some friends to finally buy it.

Christopher M. Park said...

Cheers, I appreciate it!

To the recent questions:

1. Yep, we're redoing all the animations as well. There should still be some cool casting poses, though. :D

2. Note that when it comes to screen tearing, that's simply a matter of vsync not being turned on by default. If you enable that in settings, that will fix that. However, on some lower-end computers that can cause the mouse to become a bit floaty-feeling, so we leave that off by default for that reason.

S. Michael White said...

About the floaty-feeling mouse thing when using V-sync:

Yeah, I noticed that. Very weird, though I didn't feel my 2.4ghz, 4 GB ram, with a GX2 NVidia card was considered lower-end in light of the traditionally low specs required for Arcen games.

I ultimately decided to ignore the screen tearing in lieu of tighter controls. Maybe technology is just passing me by again....

Christopher M. Park said...

Re: floaty mouse. That has nothing to do with system requirements, and instead has to do with how in sync the system is able to get with its graphics card. Some systems are more floaty than others, and I'm not sure precisely why. I've got an exceptionally nice computer and it's floaty for me, but the PCs we used at PAX East were not as nice and were tight even with vsync on. Go figure.

Mostly what the vsync is related to is how the unity 3d engine is polling the mouse. That doesn't play very nice with vsync mode, unfortunately.

I believe that if you use triple buffering via your graphics card driver software (that's not something unity 3d supports directly, but the modern driver software lets you override any program), then it should work without the floatiness.

S. Michael White said...

Great suggestion. I just destroyed the first overlord with a single character and no residents lost (woot!), but whenever the graphics reboot comes out I'll pick the game back up and spend some time tweaking the buffering on the card.

Thanks for the feedback.

Anonymous said...

Hey Chris,

It sounds like you could use some encouraging words over this. I have to say that AI war, Tidalis, and AVWW have all been some of the most engrossing games I have ever played, period (indie or not).

Something about your style of game design just seems to naturally lead to games you can play for a long time, you have a dedication to depth that I really appreciate.

I hope that you get the sales that are required to polish this game, because as I play it, and as I see more content coming out I can just feel the greatness there- it's still under the surface, but you seem to be working hard to expose it (That's not to say its not already a GOOD game, but I see the potential for it to be even better and you seem to be getting there).

Anonymous said...

Hey Chris,

It sounds like you could use some encouraging words over this. I have to say that AI war, Tidalis, and AVWW have all been some of the most engrossing games I have ever played, period (indie or not).

Something about your style of game design just seems to naturally lead to games you can play for a long time, you have a dedication to depth that I really appreciate.

I hope that you get the sales that are required to polish this game, because as I play it, and as I see more content coming out I can just feel the greatness there- it's still under the surface, but you seem to be working hard to expose it (That's not to say its not already a GOOD game, but I see the potential for it to be even better and you seem to be getting there).

loudwhitenoise said...

But I like the art style already! It's distinctive rather than being generic. I even have the cave backgrounds set as my desktop background. Will you keep the current textures available as some sort of texture pack?

Christopher M. Park said...

Nothing to worry about! We actually wound up not doing a new art style for the first game at all. Instead we did a full sequel with entirely new art and new mechanics, and gave it for free to everyone who already had the first game (and vice-versa).