We'd just like to thank Chris again for taking the time to answer these questions. You've been awesome!
First and foremost, how, and why, did you get into games development initially?
Rather by accident! Level design, game design, and writing for games have been hobbies of mine since at least 1991, when I was nine-years-old. But that’s all it ever was -- a hobby. Even in the early 2000s it didn’t seem like a viable career, and the thought never crossed my mind. I was fully immersed in my hobby in my free time, and I loved it; it was a form of recreation for me.
I went to university first for computer programming and then for business, and eventually became the CTO of another small company in the IT industry. For about four years there I was too busy to work on games much, and that was one of the very few periods in my life where I wasn’t making games. But once I had settled into my career more, that old passion reignited and I started working on hobby games again in 2008 -- still not seeing it as anything more than a hobby.
So how did Arcen come to form?
In 2008, I had made the bulk of the game Shattered Haven, which we just released on Green Man Gaming and other platforms within the last few months. But after 8 months of hard development, I had hit some design problems that were stymieing me, so I decided to set it aside for a bit and work on a “side project” called AI War: Fleet Command.
In early 2009, I realized that I had something that was really cool in AI War, and that other people might want to play. So I contracted a composer, Pablo Vega, to do the music for it, and then released the game to mostly silence. But then things started picking up, and positive reviews started flooding in, and the game was by the end of the year on Steam and the 40th best-reviewed PC title of that year on Metacritic (including AAA and indie games). Riding off that success, Pablo and I quit our day jobs and moved into game development full time.
What is your standard development time? Have you found that this has increased as you get more ambitious, or has your experience with each game made you more efficient? dragon_blade
We’re really all over the board on development times, honestly. We’ve had as long a development time as 18 months with five people (so 7.5 man-years), and we’ve had as short as 2 months with two people (0.3 man-years).
In my experience, there are two main components to making a game: engine development, and actually making the game itself. Throughout our first four titles, we were constantly working on both activities. But now we’re starting to hit a certain critical mass where we have this massive amount of engine work already done that is functional for all sorts of games, and so that means that we can focus our development efforts almost entirely on the specific game at hand. That lets us do more in less time.
In terms of getting increased ambition... that definitely also has been a factor. The 18-month project I mentioned was the original A Valley Without Wind, and that was really a very risky project because it was so novel and so expensive to make. In the end we did not make a profit on that game, despite it selling well into the multiple six figures.
Being an indie means constantly learning (well, actually, I guess “being a human” means that). But in our case, what we are learning is to focus on somewhat smaller initial games, and then build those out as players demonstrate interest in an idea. That’s lower-risk for us all, since it costs us less to make and less for players to buy. Then if there’s market interest in growing a game more, we tend to do that via a combination of free content updates as well as paid expansions.
With AI War that led to seven-figure gross sales over four years, as well as an ever-increasing cult following. Most games taper off in interest after a short time, but for AI War the opposite has been true because of the incremental approach we’ve taken, as well as being very open to player feedback and generous with what we give back since they’ve given so much to us.
What advice would you give aspiring indie developers looking to work in the games industry? pecan50
Make what you want to make. You are your own first audience. If you don’t think a game is fun, nobody else will either. If you don’t want to play your own game, ask yourself why. Often that will spark ideas on how to fix some underlying problems you didn’t even consciously realize you had.
Prototype! Almost no game is fun at first, despite sounding great on paper. Prototyping lets you figure out what the sticking points are and address them, rather than just rushing something out the door that has all those original flaws.
Make something original! If you’re just making a clone of some other game, or a clear homage with some minor twists, expect to fail. Bigger studios will have better production values, and typically more polished execution, than a new indie studio. Where most of the top indies shine is in their creativity, if you think about it.
Don’t ignore PR and marketing. Those are “bad words” to a lot of people, but they don’t have to be. All it means is telling people about your game, and sharing your passion for it. It does not mean spamming or astroturfing or doing other unethical things. But if you don’t tell people about what you’re doing, you will be ignored.
When it comes to the press, often if your pitch for your game does not immediately grab them, it goes in the rubbish bin -- they get too many pitches as it is. So make sure you have a clear, concise, strong explanation for why your game is worth their time. If other review sites are saying awesome things about your game, feel free to mention that to the other outlets along with other news about things you are doing to make your game even better. Aka, “here’s our latest post-release patch with all sorts of awesome new stuff for free for players, and also look what site X had to say about us!” Persistence pays off, but keep to the limits of being polite and respectful.
For people without development skills, but with the ability to concept and write stories for games, how would you recommend they get their foot in the door? BrokeMic
Game development is a multidisciplinary art, there’s no question. The tricky thing about having a concept or a story for a game is that -- forgive me -- lots of people have those things. Often the concepts are rather vague and unpractical to actually implement, which is why at least moderate programming knowledge is useful to have. In other words, this starts you off at a big disadvantage; almost all successful indie developers that I know are also the sole or primary programmers on their projects.
But don’t despair, because there are teams of all kinds. Game development programs at schools are excellent at bringing together people who have talent in one but not all disciplines related to the craft. There is always someone who loves programming and loves playing games, but doesn’t have much creativity. Or an artist who desperately wants to work on games, but doesn’t have the ability to program or create any game designs in mind.
You don’t have to go to a game school to find those people, although that seems to be where a lot of such teams do spring up. For myself, I’ve made most of my hires (Arcen’s team is up to 6 full-timers including myself at this point) just based on people I have met online. I keep an open eye for people with the right attitude and talents, who happen to be in the right life stage to be a fit for my particular team, and then I snap them up when I have the means to do so. This is perhaps easier for me because I have the luxury of pulling from my existing fan base -- Keith and Josh were both fans that I wound up hiring, and Erik was a small reviewer that had liked AI War and was a great fit for our team.
But you’ll find smart and talent people lurking about in the forums for most games. Who is making awesome technical-oriented suggestions? Who is doing great fan-art for games they love? Who has a personality that you could personally work with? Virtual teams work very well if everyone is self-motivated, and if you can find the right people through whatever communities you are already a part of; you can put one together regardless of what your specialty is.
Don’t just hold an open call for “I need an artist!” or something like that -- that doesn’t usually come off very well. Instead, find people with common interests, form a bit of a relationship with them, and see if they’d be interested in tackling a specific project with you. Then see what happens from there!
What’s the creative process like when starting development? Do you leave a lot of ideas on the cutting room floor?
Goodness yes, lots gets left behind. Arcen is known for making really experimental games that somewhat defy categorization (typically the intersection of multiple genres, I mean -- not “art games” in the sense of Sleep Is Death or similar). Given that’s what we do, that means that we go down a lot of wrong alleys during the process. That again comes back to why prototyping is so important if you’re making something at all novel.
In terms of how the process starts for us... generally we have a lot of vague ideas floating around that we write down. They occur to us all the time. Sometimes it’s reading a book and going “I could make such a cool game based on a similar scenario to part of this.” Sometimes it’s reading a preview for a game that you are excited about, then playing the game and going “oh, this wasn’t at all what I thought the game was going to be -- what if I made something that was more like what I originally had in my head?”
All of those ideas are something good to catalogue, because a lot of them won’t be the best ideas in the world. So it’s good to have many to choose from when you’re thinking about starting a new project. Once we have a concept we want to pursue, we then start doing much more detailed design on paper on how that would work. In other words, we’re designing the first prototype.
Then we start prototyping, and more and more ideas keep occurring to us, and pretty soon the game is really different from the original designs and way more fun. Most games need at least two great ideas, not just one, in my opinion. Something novel and amazing comes best from the intersection of two cool things, not just one thing that nobody has ever thought of before.
Which is your favourite element of game design? Kazduin
My favourite element is honestly being able to bounce around between all the different elements. I love working on all parts of games (with the exception of sound effects, I guess; ugh), and being able to move from part to part is reinvigorating. In a lot of jobs you can feel stagnant doing the same thing day after day, but one of the best aspects of a multidisciplinary job is that never happens.
What was the biggest triumph and failure during the development of your first game? LeMansRacer
By “first game,” I’m going to go with “first commercially released game,” which would be AI War; though it’s far from the first game I actually made.
The biggest triumph is easy: I had a breakthrough idea on how to make AI that is extremely interesting to play against. It came from upending some of the basic assumptions about the purpose of AI in games in general, and I’ve written extensively on the subject as well as giving a few lectures to audiences of other game developers.
The basic premise of my breakthrough was this: it doesn’t matter what the AI is doing behind the scenes, it just matters what the player thinks the AI is doing. Most game developers approach the process by trying to make an actual thinking AI, as if they are making a real human stand-in. But this usually isn’t very convincing. I approached it more like a stage magician, and focused on the illusion. All AI is inherently an illusion, because no AI is actually sentient at this point in time.
So I focused on psychology and how I could use that to make the player feel like they were playing against convincing, conniving opponents in an interesting scenario. The results have pretty well spoken for themselves, and I really hope to see more developers pick up the idea.
In terms of the biggest failure of AI War... that’s a hard one, because that game has done so well. I could tell you lots about various failures in other titles of ours much more easily!
I think that would actually be more interesting, so let me talk about our second game, Tidalis. You’ve never heard of it. It’s an extremely clever puzzle game about shooting “streams” out of blocks with arrows, and using that to make chain reactions. I can freely say it’s clever because it was not my idea; my good friend Lars Bull was the lead designer on that title.
The problems came in the decisions I made, however. While the game mechanics are extremely novel, and probably the closest distant relative in terms of mechanics is Panel De Pon, from screenshots it looks like a Match 3 game. Ugh. Strike 1. We also wanted to court both the casual and hardcore audiences. So the game has a friendly veneer that says “I am casual.” However, the game is actually super intimidating to casual players, because it’s a hardcore puzzle game.
Strikes 2 and 3 were the combination of the game looking casual but actually being hardcore, thus alienating both audiences when they take a first look at the game. Those who have actually played it seem to really love it, and the game also got extremely good reviews. Sales, on the other hand? Forget about it. Several large stupid mistakes on my part there.
If you had a time machine, is there anything you would do differently when designing your games? And Why? ofx360
Certainly I would go back and make Tidalis look like what it is: a hardcore puzzle game. That would have done much better.
In terms of the rest... I’m not sure that from a design standpoint I would have done anything differently. We’ve made some notable mistakes recently with PR and marketing on our games Valley 2 and Shattered Haven, and with a time machine I’d love to go back and fix those. Those games are both excellent, and players seem to really enjoy them, but they are not getting the traction they should because we did a poor job of getting the word out.
When it comes to design, it’s also not that we haven’t made any mistakes -- obviously, we’ve made plenty over the years. But the thing is, it’s the mistakes that teach you the most. We’re still here as a company, and we’ve learned a lot from everything that has happened to us. So I wouldn’t go back in time and change anything, because who knows what sort of ramifications that would have on the present?
In terms of past design mistakes, that was something we always addressed in the present with fixing them, rather than resorting to time machines, heh. I’m proud to have made every game that is in our catalogue (five full games at this point, plus four expansions to AI War), and there are strangers I’ve never met who love each and every one with a passion, and express this to me from time to time. Regardless of how the majority feels about game X or game Y, or even how reviewers feel, I’ve made some people very happy with every game, and that’s a great feeling.
With much less funding, how do Indie developers get their games in the spotlight? Have you found that using projects like Indie Royale has helped to spread greater awareness of your games? dreaminstereo
You don’t need funding to have a great idea. Nor do you need funding to develop something in your off-hours as a hobby. If it’s not worth it to a potential indie as a hobby, then probably game development isn’t for them; game development is a lot of work, and if they don’t love the process then the industry will chew them up pretty hard.
There are plenty of examples of games with terrible or mediocre graphics that have gone on to sell really well anyhow because of the strength of their ideas. And with Kickstarter now being a thing, the graphics don’t even have to be bad if you can convince enough people that your idea is awesome before you finish making it.
It doesn’t take a ten million dollar budget to make a game that is attractive -- whether or not you think my games are attractive, that’s beside the point. There will always be people who disagree with a given aesthetic, and who are turned off by it. But with the right idea, it doesn’t matter. There are innumerable Minecraft videos that start out with the sentiment “The graphics are effing horrible, but check this out!” Personally I think Minecraft has a great aesthetic and is really pleasing to look at, but obviously that’s a matter of taste and not everyone agrees. Part of being an indie is accepting that universal appreciation is never coming your way.
In terms of Indie Royale or similar, I think that certainly spreads awareness. Any sort of promotion where you can bring in a lot of players (typically at a discount) is an awesome thing if it helps spread word of mouth about your game. It’s not like you’re going to be buying Ads on major gaming sites with no budget, so it’s all about the word of mouth: someone playing your game and being inspired enough to tell other people about this gem they found.
Did your opinion on indie game development change between before and after you developed your first game? How? LeMansRacer
Definitely. First of all, remember that I’d been doing this my whole life as a hobby, so it’s not like the process itself was new to me. But the actual act of publicly selling games, and becoming something of a (very very minor) celebrity is strange.
“Celebrity” is a stupid term, and it sounds like an inflated ego at work. “Public figure” might work better, but it’s not as descriptive. The thing is, when you have created a public work, people start treating you differently. They feel free to say things about you that they would not say before you created that work, for one. For another, suddenly there are a lot more eyeballs on you, and you are suddenly getting fan mail, effusive forum posts, “huge fans of your work” approaching you at conventions, and so on.
That sort of thing was extremely uncomfortable to me at first, and wasn’t something that I had thought about prior to actually becoming an indie. That might sound like an obvious oversight on my part, but remember that in 2009 the indie movement wasn’t really in full swing yet; I happened to release my first commercial game right at the start of when indies were getting into the spotlight in a more major way.
More personally, I had spent my whole life pining for a creative job where I was my own boss. Specifically, I wanted to be a novelist. Game developer hadn’t even crossed my mind, since that was just my constant hobby thing. Anyway, once I realized that it might actually be possible to be a game developer fulltime, that idea really latched on to me. This was the creative job for me - I had unknowingly been preparing for it my entire life.
I had always expected that when I finally achieved that sort of personal creative freedom and success that... something would happen. I don’t know, that the sky would open up and rays of light would come down. The air would taste sweeter. Etc. I remember driving my car home about a week after going fulltime indie and suddenly realizing “hey, everything is the same as before!” With the one exception of getting to do what I love during the bulk of every day, obviously, but the novelty of that wears off faster than you’d think.
Don’t get me wrong - I’m extremely grateful for my job and would not trade it for any other profession in the world. I hope to still be doing this thirty years from now. If I had a hundred billion dollars I’d still spend my days making games, because that’s what I love to do. But the experience was less transformative than I expected it to be. If you’ve graduated from high school or college, think back to how you felt right after that and you’ll know exactly what I mean.
What are your thoughts on piracy and DRM? And how do you think these things should be handled in the gaming industry moving forward? Mxtt
I’ve written at length about this, and Slashdot actually picked up my article on it back in 2009. The short of it is that piracy stinks, and DRM stinks, and there’s no good solution that I can see. This “always on” business is ridiculous, and I’ve never bought a game with it.
As an indie developer, one thing is very clear to me: this is a patronage model. The players that buy my games do it because they want to support my company and see us make more things. Or because they themselves don’t condone piracy or fear malware or can’t be bothered or whatever. But I’ve gotten emails from plenty of people who have pirated my games, and kind of embarrassedly told me so and said “but later I bought the game because I wanted to support you.”
Similarly, I’ve had players who have bought multiple copies of my games just to give to friends, or just to help us keep making more of what they want to see. We had one guy literally give us $1,000.00 out of the blue, no strings attached, back in 2010.
You see the same thing at work in Kickstarters: do you think that the people who pledge $1500.00 on some game really just want the top tier reward that badly? Maybe in a few cases, but most of the time they really want to see the game get made and so they are becoming a patron of that developer. They are voting with their wallet.
In the end, that’s what it boils down to. If you want to see games that are any good, you have to actually pay the people who make them. Some folks expect all software to be made by hobbyists, but I think that’s fairly silly thinking. If everybody pirates, game quality is going to drop massively. If some people pirate, they drive the cost of games up for everybody else. But in the end that’s all semantics: some people throughout history have always subsidized the arts while others enjoy the results at no cost. It wasn’t called piracy: it was called patronage and museums.
Given the nature of digital goods, I think that the patronage model is the only thing that really makes sense. And in terms of piracy being a substantial effect on the bottom line of companies? I think that’s pretty bogus, too: as most people seem to agree, 1 pirate does not equal 1 customer. And if you treat customers right, some pirates will decide to become your patrons after all.
What's your favourite game of all time/last year? What kind of inspiration do you take away from games when developing your own? ally23h
My favourite games of all time are tied between Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI. Silent Hill 2 is way up there also.
My favourite game of last year... hmm, 2012 was not a very exciting year for me. Normally I would have jumped right on Far Cry 3, as I love that series, but I didn’t wind up time for many FPS games last year; I have a toddler now, and so alone time with violent games is a luxury I’ve temporarily lost. I played tons of indie games and iOS games, but I suppose that New Super Mario Bros. 2 on the 3DS would have to be my top pick because of how much fun my son and I had playing it. Super Mario 3D Land was even better, but that wasn’t last year.
In terms of inspiration from games, I take all kinds. Sometimes there is a mechanic that I feel like “every game in this genre should now have it.” The way the zooming system in Supreme Commander worked is one such system, and you can see that in AI War. Other times it’s a matter of “they did that really poorly, but I see how to do it better.” I won’t give any examples there out of respect, but that is a big source of ideas for me.
And other times, when it comes to the many, many games that I consider personal classics, it comes down to trying to recreate the emotions and feel that those engendered in me. In other words, I want to make myself and others feel the way that those games made me feel, without just remaking that game (or even coming remotely close to doing a remake).
For example, there are many aspects of Zelda II that I adore -- among the many other things that I do not -- and you can see the inspiration of the things that I did love in the design of Valley 1 and 2. But there’s also shades of Metroid and Castlevania and all sorts of other games in there, plus a heaping of stuff that is just plain original. I think that paying proper homage to the history of gaming is a good thing, at any rate.
What do you think about the increasing methods of releasing indie games such as Steam Greenlight? Do you think these increasing methods would lead to more indie-clones or increased variety of unique design? LeMansRacer
I think that the monetary success of some games is what is leading to the clones and the influx of people who view making games as a quick way to make cash instead of as a personal passion. I don’t think that any particular method of releasing games has much to do with that, I think it’s all about the financial viability that indie games suddenly have.
In terms of the ways of releasing indie games, I don’t think there is yet One Method To Rule Them All. Greenlight has its own problems, as Valve freely admits. I’ve never used it (I already had a longstanding pre-existing relationship with Steam, so get to bypass that), but I know other Indies who have made it through the process or failed to make it through the process. It has its problems and its merits.
Similarly, something like the Apple app store has its own problems. I don’t even bother looking in there for new games anymore. I pretty much just read TouchArcade and pay attention to the things that they bring to my attention. Without a secondary site like that, I’d never find most of the games that I really enjoy on that platform. That strikes me as a problem with the store itself, but in terms of the actual “does it get me games I want to play” question, the answer is yes. So I guess there’s something to be said for that.
In terms of fostering unique designs, I think that is also encouraged by both the influx of junk as well as the increased financial viability. Let’s face it: you can’t just do a polished remake of an old game and have much chance of success in the indie market. You might have success, but it’s a long shot. Originality is what is going to make you stand out, and so I think that is encouraged in a positive way. There are pros and cons to almost everything.
A lot of devs are seeing profits in F2P, be it AAA devs or indie, do you guys ever see yourself heading to F2P? And Why/Why not? ofx360
With respect some devs I know who use F2P to great success… no, I don’t see our company ever using such a model unless something catastrophic happens to the industry. If I had no other way to stay in the business I love, then I guess I would use F2P methods in as ethical a way as I possibly could.
But to me, I think that F2P is horrible and not likely to last as a long-term major force in gaming. These are basically monetizing the skinner box effect of many games, which I think is unethical. But they also foster lazy game design, because you don’t have to balance your games properly: if something is too hard suddenly in your progression, hey that’s great! Players get frustrated and spend a little money. That seems to break the very spirit of what a “game” by definition is, to me.
Last but not least, if you could be any video game protagonist and antagonist, who would you be?
Haha. In terms of protagonists, I would have to pick Celes from Final Fantasy VI. I don’t have any dreams of becoming a woman, but come on -- she is an absolutely awesome character, and I think people should not let gender stand in the way of this sort of question. She’s always my lead character whenever I play that game, and as a kid I definitely had a crush on her (insofar as you can on a pixelated video game character).
When it comes to villains, that’s also easy: Bowser from the Mario games. I always have played him in Mario Kart titles, for one. But he’s just also a character that I’ve loved; from the cartoons to the comics and so on. I still think of him as Koopa as much as Bowser. Also my son, who is two and a half, is absolutely obsessed with Bowser and loves blowing fire like Bowser does. He has a set of Mario figurines that he plays with, and Bowser is always the main one he plays as; I am typically relegated to Mario, and get stomped on a lot.