Alternatively, click here to listen to the interview on Soundcloud.
I’m here with Christopher Park, Founder, CEO, and lead designer of Arcen games. They’re known for making a wide range of games, but probably most known for the 4x real time strategy game AI War and probably the diplomatic space manipulation strategy game The Last Federation. But, as you’ll find, if you’re not familiar with their work, Arcen tends to have a pretty unique angle with every game they make.
First Person Scholar: Thanks again for agreeing to do this interview. I figured I’d open with a quote from Adam Smith over at Rock Paper Shotgun that encapsulates my understanding of Arcen’s design ethos: “[A game made by Arcen runs] with an idea and doesn’t stop until it finds the extremes of that idea.” Does that kind of cover things? If you had to describe your games to people who’ve never heard of you, how would you do it?
Chris Park: Well, yeah, thanks for having me. And absolutely. One of the things that frustrates me with a lot of games that I play is when I see somebody have a cool idea and then they kind of nudge the idea, you know? And they’re like, “that’s nifty, now moving on” — it’s like whoa whoa whoa wait a second here. We tend to try not only just to fully explore whatever the idea is, but, if we’re given the chance and there’s a lot of community support and therefore post-release content is a thing that can happen then we’ll just keep on trucking and explore every permutation of that idea. I find that really interesting because those rabbit holes can go, just, I’ve never found the bottom of one.
FPS: I think that desire to explore those different ideas is something I’ve appreciated. I’ve been playing a lot of The Last Federation in preparation for this interview. For me, it felt like an answer to: “why is diplomacy so bad in so many strategy games?” — it felt like I was dealing with a variety of factions with very specific personalities and very specific agendas and needs that I would have to address at some point in time. The game required me to take them at their word instead of buy them off with gold or find someone who has a bigger stick.
Your work frequently comes across as kind of experimental, but certain themes emerge: an emphasis on building mechanics and systems rather than scripted narrative, or seeding that narrative throughout those systems. I’ve noticed a fixation on bullet hell shooters in The Last Federation, Starward Rogue, and, to a slightly lesser degree, A Valley Without Wind 1 and 2. Some clear inspiration from roguelikes here and there (you even made a blithe reference to the Amulet of Yendor from Nethack with Starward Rogue). Even though you gesture towards these elements, they are frequently brought into your games in unexpected ways. What about these things draws you to them?
CP: I like playing action games, that’s one thing. I also like playing strategy games. Sometimes one of the things that bugs me about action games is that there’s not enough to think about in there. So I try to bring in more thinking elements, which tends to mean blending in some strategy a little bit. On the strategy side, there’s an immediacy that’s missing and I try to bring in some sort of actiony thing to help with that. When it comes to the space shooter type stuff — with The Last Federation in particular, one of the problems is there’s no terrain in space. Y’know, space is just big open ground. There’s no high ground, no cover, nothing. It’s just space. Despite what Hollywood would have you believe, relatively speaking I don’t feel like in a real space battle there’s a whole lot of interesting things that can actually happen. Probably range in a real situation is a thing, and the best strategy is to use mass drivers and fling rocks at each other. That’s a rabbit hole right there. The idea with the [bullet hell mechanics in The Last Federation’s space battles] is that they create terrain in space. Because when you’ve got all those sprays of bullets in different ways then you have to maneuver around a shifting terrain that is just bullets. In AI War, we solved that by having tons and tons of ships and then having these little guard posts that have various objectives at them and often hundreds of ships at a guard post and you’d get some kind of meta-terrain in that fashion. Because of the way we that have wormholes networked — basically a variety of different kinds of nodal networks — we used everything from trees to linear stuff to grids. We used every permutation of node network there is, I think. Maybe not all of them, but all the common ones. Each one makes for different strategic challenges. You do not want to be on a planet that’s got too many hub connections because you’re vulnerable from all sides. That sort of thing can create a metamap terrain in terms of having planets that can guard other planets in AI War. So a lot of those things come down to trying to figure out ways to create interesting space. If you’ve got levels that are hand-designed or, y’know, a bunch of trees and walls and corridors and whatnot, then interesting space will somewhat emerge, at least. But when you’re talking about these more sandbox-y games with large open areas, how do you make that space interesting?
The roguelike elements that you mentioned — those started coming in not really because of a love for roguelikes initially. I didn’t really get into that genre until well after AI War. But AI War is heavily procedural, so you could say there’s some inspiration there, even though there’s not. The reason that I really like procedural generation in general is because, if you hand-craft the game in a very discrete sense, then you can’t really play it and enjoy it. You know what I mean? Like, you know what’s in that level. Other people can enjoy what’s in your game, but you, the creator, are never going to be surprised by it. One of the big goals for me with AI War was to make something that I could enjoy playing, that could surprise me and give me just as much fresh stuff as somebody else that’s coming to it new. So procedural generation has been a big thing in all of our games ever since then, pretty much for that reason because we can’t even gauge if we enjoy it if there’s not that.
FPS: I study interactive fiction and roguelikes, which kinda seem like genres that are at odds with each other. But when you go all the way back to when Rogue first came out, Rogue was a sort of response to Colossal Cave Adventure. The response was: I want to go explore this cave system and I want to have this adventure but once I’ve beaten Colossal Cave Adventure, which, at the time, when you were connecting to a mainframe through a university campus, that took awhile because they were waiting for a few minutes for responses, what they wanted was something they could play over and over again. So procedurality and more scripted narratives kind of inform one another and that has led me down weird rabbit holes where I’m trying to make a Twine game that has a lot of procedurally-generated content, which is not really what Twine is intended to do. Coming from the perspective of genre theory in games, where everything is borrowing mechanics from everything else, almost every game is an adaptation of another game, so almost everything’s a role-playing game because people find experience bars filling up a very fulfilling thing, even if say the game is difficult or you keep dying, there’s a hook to keep you coming back because there’s some kind of progress there.
CP: That’s exactly right. That’s part of what I’ve wound up doing is intentionally cultivating ones that other people haven’t looked at yet. With The Last Federation, with some sort of diplomatic simulator, there are those that existed previously, but it’s just a lot of text. With role-playing games in general, if you want to take out battle systems in those, then you wind up with something that’s a lot more akin to, say, To the Moon, where that’s pretty much just the story of a role-playing game, they added those TV puzzle things and that’s about it. But then there’s so many different action rpg [battle systems], all sorts of different turn-based, so many different sorts of systems. You throw in a combat system and for one thing, that slows down the story, and for another it gives you, hopefully, a legitimately interesting game to go with that story.
FPS: Or some kind of system that is rewarding to put some time and thought into. Some strategic aspects or something like that. Our book reviews editor posted a short write-up of Starward Rogue where he talks about how fun and good the game is, and then asks if it’s enough to even be a good or great game at this point. He also talks about how, once a game is deemed “important,” discussions of how fun it is tend to fall by the wayside or even seem kind of perverse. The example he gives is Undertale, which is a singularly very charming and fun experience; it’s very playful, but once you start talking about Undertale as an Important Video Game, it’s hard to talk about it as also just a fun game you like. This comes up a lot in criticism, too;he idea that critics just hate games or are pissed off all the time. It’s like, no, I like games, I talk about them critically because that’s how I express my enjoyment of them, even though that maybe makes me look like I’m broken inside. I wanted to seize on the idea of fun and ask: how do you define “fun” in terms of Arcen games, and how much effort goes into ensuring that vision of “fun” is carried out?
CP: You know, that’s really depended on the game for us, because for a while there with some of them we weren’t really focused on fun per se, it wasn’t something that entered our head. We focused on: “Is this an intellectually satisfying set of systems that we can enjoy?” We had a certain set of players that would really respond to that. From the A Valley Without Wind period on through Bionic Dues, I guess that was our mindset: is this an intellectually stimulating thing? We wanted to have it feel fun while we were doing it, but at the same time if there were long stretches of reading or thinking or inaction really, it didn’t really bother us. With The Last Federation, we stopped doing that and started saying, “Okay, we have to have this be, at core, fun. Let’s find the fun first and then build around that.” That was quite a challenge. With AI War, I kind of intuited my way into that more or less.
FPS: It seems like, with AI War, you kind of knew what you were going after or at least had some semblance of what you were looking for?
CP: Yeah, for the most part. I mean, it went through a lot of iterations at the start, before anybody ever saw it. It started out as turn-based. It went through a lot of periods where it was like vs. like sides, y’know, where there were no wormhole connections and you jumped between planets. Eventually I hit the point where I was — I realize now I was in search of what would be a compelling AI opponent and what would feel like solid RTS mechanics that were fun and that would have long games. I knew I wanted those things. Originally, I went with turn-based because I didn’t think I could do real time. I didn’t think the networking would be something I could get working, and then the turn-based [versions were] so awful that it was just like a couple of days I was like, “This is never going to be fun so let’s try and figure out that networking thing” and that worked out fine. There was a lot of intuition that went on with AI War. That’s always one of the risks when you’re working off intuition overmuch, it’s that you may not know why exactly certain things worked well or you may not have necessarily gone through a proper process to get the result that you’re pleased with now. You may not be able to replicate it, is what it really boils down to. You may not be able to take that idea of how you made a fun game the one time that was novel and interesting and fun and then turn that into something else that’s novel and interesting and fun but not a copy of the first game. I think a lot of developers run into that — I know I did. With The Last Federation, and then Stars Beyond Reach, and then Starward Rogue, we’ve started going for the fun first. We really nailed that with Starward Rogue. It was like, we’re not going to build out anything that’s systems-based until we have mechanics that feel good. And when we had mechanics that felt good it was like, “Cool. Now what systems can we build that don’t violate these mechanics?” versus making mechanical systems and then going “Okay now we have these cool systems, how can we make that fun?” Because that second question is often a lot harder. You can come up with really robust systems that go around pretty much anything so long as it’s already fun and then you don’t break the fun as you add systems.
FPS: A friend of mine and I go back and forth about A Valley Without Wind every now and then, and he really liked the first iteration of it because he thought it was very laid back and he just kinda liked poking around and exploring these procedurally-generated worlds. Whereas I really connected with the second iteration — I liked both of them but I thought the changes in the second one were really interesting. I was kind of going after that intellectual pleasure-enjoyment of it. It’s the same way that, for example, I’m watching the new X-Files and not that I’m necessarily engaged and excited about a new X-Files thing, but I’m curious to see what X-Files looks like in 2015 or 2016. You wind up with these odd, squishy definitions of fun.
Now that you mention it that turn towards “Let’s find the fun first and build the systems up around it” is definitely evident, I think, from The Last Federation on.
On Success and Steam
Okay, this next question comes with a bit of preamble, just to give people who are listening to the interview that aren’t aware of the whole backstory. You just put out Starward Rogue, a kind of top-down bullet hell roleplaying game with procedurally-generated levels and permadeath. In a recent blog post about the financial situation of Arcen, you mentioned that Starward Rogue came together very quickly and was a way to hopefully put something out and get some cashflow so you could keep developing Stars Beyond Reach, an ambitious space-themed 4x citybuilder, which was delayed back in October. I’ll link to your post in the interview notes, which is far more detailed than anything we could reasonably cover here. However, in that post, you wonder briefly if perhaps the market changed around you while you were making Stars Beyond Reach. Judging from some of the comments on twitter made by other indie game developers, it does sound like the launch that Starward Rogue had is perhaps the norm for some indie game releases now, thanks to the changes to the Steam storefront. Did you have any thoughts about working with Steam as sort of the platform? For a while, you were sort of separate. I remember buying, I think A Valley Without Wind, I think directly from your site at some point. There were expansions for AI War that were available through your site and not on Steam, but now you’ve fully gone over to that. What might those implications be for Arcen going forward, if this is sort of the norm now for releasing games onto the Steam storefront?
CP: Well, I wouldn’t say that we have completely gone Steam-only. It’s true we don’t have the DRM-free build for Starward Rogue on our site yet mainly just because on the one hand, I haven’t fully had time. On the other, there’s some other little logistical things that I’ve been trying to deal with. We’ve been upgrading our version of Unity and a variety of reasons, but it’s one of those things that’s going to happen this week. I haven’t really made time for that because the sales volume through our site has been low enough that there’s been no point. And with a lot of the expansions for AI War, we’ve done, y’know, the saying goes: “you only get one release on steam.” If you go early access, that’s your release. Your marketing stuff, all the notice you’re going to get happens at that time. With a lot of the expansions we’ve done for AI War, probably four of them, I guess, we’ve done six in all, we released them first on our site. We said, pretty much from day one, “There’s one new ship and you can buy this expansion for 10% off from us and get the one ship right now and we’re going to be building this out over the next few months and you can be a part of that from right off and if you have suggestions, fine, and if you have feedback or whatever, then fine.” We’d get people buying in that way. And usually, this goes back to 2010, the first couple of times we did that, we had 200 people, and then it would be 1000 people by the later ones in. We did about an expansion a year until… I guess the last one was late 2014, so it’s been a little while. We did that process specifically so that we could have some revenue capture from people who wanted to buy-in through our site and then we could have a full polished release on Steam and get a proper release, basically, on Steam. With the fifth and sixth expansions for AI War we did a private alpha and beta with those, where it was kind of the same idea to get players from our forum. We just said, “Hey, if you’re interested in this and want to help out with testing, shoot us a PM or email and we’ll get you added in and we’ll give you a copy for free and you can play with it.” That’s let us restrict the flow of who comes in and when. That’s been useful because with Stars Beyond Reach and Starward Rogue, for that matter, we’ve been using that process too. With Stars Beyond Reach we have about –and this information is about four months out of date, I haven’t checked updated numbers –four months ago, we had about 250 some-odd people that had signed up for that alpha, but then we had only maybe 140 of them in, something like that. If people had a burning desire to get in soon then we’d say “yeah, sure, that’s no problem” but with others, we’d be like “tell us when you’d like to be in.” Some of them want to be in there for the final polish and testing type stuff, and don’t want to go through the bigger iterations. Some would just say, “Slot me in any way you want.”
The reason we would do the waves –and I would usually try and mix up people that I knew, and people that I didn’t know, and that were novice and that were experienced in each wave –the reason we’d do the waves because you can only get somebody’s first impression once. And so as we were making changes to the game, then we could say alright, well, here’s first impressions from another thirty people or another ten people or whatever it is we wanted to do at the time, let’s see what they think. They come with less baggage than the people who had already been in. The people from prior waves would get upgraded and you get two totally different types of reactions.
Your core point was about: okay, how bound-in with the Steam store are we and I went off on a complete tangent.
FPS: No, it’s been really interesting. I guess to summarize a bit of that stuff before we press on to that, it’s really interesting to me to see the changing relationship between fandoms or hobbyists in the games industry — the players, and how those relationships are changing. You have AAA publishers saying, “You guys can get in on the alpha!” and it’s like, no, this is not an alpha build. What you’re showing to people is you’re about to ship this thing, but you’re calling it an alpha because it sounds cool, and it sounds to the players like they’re getting a certain level of access that’s only hinted at by the press. They’re kind of adopting the press terminology for talking about games as a sort of surrogate for access for players. You answered one of my questions from later on which was whether Steam Early Access had been considered. I’d assumed it had been at some point. I think Arcen is one of those rare instances where you have a really active forum and a pretty engaged user base. Maybe not enough to keep the lights on all the time, but enough that you’ve got a lot of committed people — you’ve hired out of your forums and stuff like that. It’s been really interesting to hear the understanding that you only get that one first impression and sometimes releasing on Steam Early Access. And, if you look at the Steam reviews, they can be really blunt.
CP: Yeah, that is a big problem there, too. That goes more to the point of: you only get one release on Steam, and that’s a problem. Also, if you’re going to just let people in whenever they want to buy it on your own site, then people will buy it and they either give you feedback immediately — they came in from whatever news outlets or from your own forums or whatever. Or they just buy it and they put it on the shelf for later and they may not get around to giving you feedback at all. When you’re letting people in in waves like that, the important thing is collecting the fresh first impressions of like, okay, this game mechanic was confusing to the prior wave of testers, how does this wave fare? So if we’ve got a mixture of people who are familiar, not familiar, expert, novice, et cetera, then we kind of get a cross section of, roughly, the demographics we might be seeing. A lot of developers do that with going to trade shows and they show off their stuff at each trade show and see what people say as they’re standing over them and watch how they fail. This is not exactly a new idea.
FPS: You do usability testing and watch how people interact with a thing you stare at day in and day out and go, “Huh, okay. I would’ve never done that, but okay that makes sense.”
CP: Right. That only works if you do it in waves. Otherwise if you get a bunch of feedback it’s all pretty similar the first time and then you supposedly fix it, then what happens? Did you fix it? Did you not? You don’t know. The people who had the problem the first time, they don’t know either, they cannot tell you because one way or the other, they’ve figured it out now and they have too much information. Nobody that’s been involved so far knows the answer to: Is this now clear? So you have to have somebody else that has not been a part of that process yet that comes in and you’ll see what happens to them. It’s either clear or not to them. And if it was clear to them, then, quite possibly they’re going to get hung up on something else that the other person didn’t even get to. They were so confused by the one thing that by the time they figured that out they had figured out several other things in the process of searching that out. It turns out that actually this other thing is pretty hard to figure out too if you haven’t gone through all the head-scratching to figure out the thing that you have now made easy to figure out. That’s lot of vague terminology right there.
FPS: Yeah, no. I followed. Maybe that says more about me than it does about anybody else. GOG is coming up as a solid competitor for Valve, but I don’t think they’re quite there yet. I have a slightly more pointed question about Steam that we can move to and then we’re covering both of those things. In games studies, we talk a lot about platform studies. So look at the affordances of a platform. A platform could be, like, the NES. The people that wrote the book about it wrote about the Atari, and they looked at how the technical aspects of the Atari dictated certain design principles. You’re starting to see the term “platform” crop up in other ways like AirBnB and Uber — things that use technology to re-organize existing markets, there’s a lot of credence given to the idea that any particular market can be disrupted by the creation of the right platform that makes everyone dependent on it. Like, don’t make anything, just make something that everyone is dependent on. With Steam, the feeling I got for a while was that Valve did a really good job of making the case for the level of control they exerted over the sale of PC games through sales, or better in-game matchmaking or achievements or trading cards. However, with the changes to the storefront, do you feel like they might have started burning through some of that goodwill and maybe they’re not as friendly a platform as they once were because they have this level of control where it’s kind of hard to eke out a living as a indie developer without going through them?
CP: Goodwill with who? The consumer or the developers?
FPS: I think both, I think you need both for that continuing strength, right?
CP: Right. From a consumer side, I think that’s easier to address. I don’t think, I mean, you tell me what you think. I don’t think that they have been really burning my goodwill as a consumer. There’s some things that have been a little bit of a step back here and there. Like the way the winter sale was handled this year in terms of no periodic discounts and so on. Overall, as a consumer, I’m finding what I want, more stuff’s available to me. Do you find that too?
FPS: If anything, the disappointment is more that, when there’s a Steam sale, it’s less of an event. There’s less need for that spectacle on their end as well. It’s the ongoing joke of like, “Why doesn’t Valve go to E3?” because every day is E3 for them. All they have to do is put up a notification on Steam and the masses will come to them. Looking at it from the perspective of a developer it’s a stickier relationship.
CP: I probably know forty people at Valve by now and we’ve been working with them since 2009. Some of them are actually not at Valve anymore, but almost all of them are because their employee retention is very high. To a one, they’ve all been really nice people and seem to legitimately have an interest in what’s going on. They’re not just, y’know, Wal-Mart. You don’t get a good feeling about Wal-Mart. Steam, I don’t think, is Wal-Mart. There’s some degree of keeping their cards close to their chest, which I think is probably appropriate because they have so many cards, it makes it really easy for lots of people to come begging in a certain respect. It’s kinda like what happened with Notch, y’know. He’s got so much money now, and everybody and his brother is like, “Notch, I have the most amazing game idea, if you could just spot me $200,000 out of your billions. It would mean the world to me and it’s hardly anything to you” and it’s like, holy cow, for him, because yeah he could do that, but how much time is he going to spend vetting the person and this that and the other. So there’s this whole dynamic that goes on where people are going to be blatantly asking for something, and sometimes it’s something they’re going to want to give, and sometimes not, and if their answer is no, they’re not necessarily going to say why. Because, if I don’t want to come on your podcast and the reason is that it sucks, I’m probably not going to say that. I mean, just as a nice person in general, I think we all try to say, “I’m really tied up for the near future.” Which, by the way, anybody I’ve said that to, it’s not because your thing sucks, I really have been busy. But at the same time, it makes it so, when you’re dealing with somebody that you want something from and in particular with somebody that a lot of people want something from, then it becomes a very challenging situation very fast.
Even I’ve seen that sometimes where you get emails that are like “Hi, my name is Bobby and I’m seventeen and I don’t have any money and I really like your game. I bought it for my brother and now I don’t have any money to get it for myself. Could you just give me a copy?” I’m like, wait, that doesn’t make sense on so many levels, and like, nooooo. So of course, what is my response to that? Am I going to be like, “No Bobby, I’m sorry” or “No, Bobby, I think you’re lying to me, Bobby.” The best response is to either say nothing or if he keeps emailing you then be like, “Thanks for your enthusiasm, can’t do that right now but I really appreciate it.” Some sort of really generic brush-off. That happened with some regularity for a little while a few years ago. Now everybody that wants to do that sort of thing tries to pretend to be a YouTube channel, but they’re not. So now they’re outright scamming so you can easily catch those. It wasn’t a super-frequent thing, though.
At any rate, with Valve, with GOG, with Humble, with any of these sort of stores where there’s some sort of premium space — whether that’s marketing visibility or inclusion in a particular promotion or bundle or whatever — hey all have to play it really close to their chests. You see that with those three groups. With a lot of the other partners, they don’t really have that problem because they have unlimited shelf space and nothing really limited about what they’re doing.
That does create some strange situations, I suppose. For a while, like in 2009, almost nobody could get on Steam. AI War got turned down and I was very persistent in a respectful way and eventually got them to say they’d take a look at it once it had a Version 2.0 out that I was working on. And then they heard from somebody else, “Hey you should look at this” so then they came back to me to ask, “When’s this going to be ready?” I was like, “Well, October” and they said “We’ll see you in October” and I was like “Sweet, this is awesome.” But that was only the 74th or 76th indie game on Steam since 2004. So from 2004 to October 2009, that’s seventy some-odd indie games. And when we came out, we were on the front page for a while. It was maybe a month? A month and a half? Can you imagine?
FPS: Actually, I remember that. It was heartbreaking reading that blog post about how Starward Rogue came out and sort of disappeared and didn’t necessarily hit as many eyeballs as some of your previous work had. In my mind, Arcen was one of the come-ups when Steam was really starting to get into “Okay, this is a platform now. We’re selling other people’s games. This is what we do.” I looked at AI War going, “Man, this is something else. I probably would have never seen this otherwise.”
CP: Around that time period, there was a tremendous amount of anxiety for us. Our second game was Tidalis: Are they going to carry this? What are they going to do? Are they going to say no? They said no to AI War. What are they going to about Tidalis? Tidalis came out in June 2010. They were starting to get more stuff on their platform. Still not a lot, but it was speeding up a little. There was always this intense anxiety and a lot of uncertainty because again they were playing their cards close to their chest. They had people emailing them all the time, trying to get on their platform. They were saying no to almost everybody. They said yes to [Tidalis]. They said yes to our stuff going forward, but it was intensely worrying every time. A lot of other indies I knew that were making an existence outside of Steam, either maybe on Impulse, maybe on Direct2Drive, maybe on GamersGate, otherwise pretty much through BMT Micro or whatever through their own sites, the ones that couldn’t get on Gteam, my god there was so much fury. And I mean, I can understand that. I was lucky and got on, but there were a lot of other really deserving games that didn’t get on and so you really couldn’t make a living — not a comfortable one at all — even as a solo developer, if you weren’t on Steam at that point. So there was no market outside of Steam.
Then, we hit this kind of golden age period, in my opinion, from 2011 through 2013 or so. That was a period where lots of people were starting to come onto the platform. You could still be on there on the front page for the first few weeks, at least on the front page when you did a release. Whenever you did a discount promotion, boom, you would get a bunch of money — depends on your game — some people really flopped with it but for us we could do a discount promotion and reasonably assume we’d get to our pockets something like thirty or fifty thousand dollars off that. That was really nice, because we weren’t making ends meet on the other months, so we had to periodically do those in order to make up for the shortfalls. At the same time, we always had to ask. There was this anxiety around, “Will they say yes to us just doing a random proposal?” “Can we be the midweek madness thing this coming week?” “Can we be a weekend promotion?” “Can we, can we, can we?” — so we always had to ask. Most of the time they said yes, and we were pretty respectful about trying not to ask too much. There was a real feeling of power imbalance there.
Like I said, they were good folks and I could tell that they were trying to do, in general, the right thing. But at the same time, they were trying to do the right thing for themselves and for the market, and not just for me, so sometimes our interests might run counter to one another. Of course, I want to have this as being part of the sale, but that’s not necessarily the most attractive product for this particular sale as far as they’re concerned, so they’re going to say no. I would too, if that was me.
Then we got Greenlight, and then the store really opened up a ton, and then they got the new storefront and a whole bunch of different things changed and for those of us that were already on Steam, possibly it is more difficult to make a living now. For those who were not on Steam before, it’s way easier to make a living now. Which is to say, it’s still way hard, but it’s nothing like it was in 2009. It’s also nothing like it was in 2012 if you weren’t on Steam. In terms of, if Steam is burning goodwill with developers, that’s a tough question to answer because, what does that really mean? What developers? And what goodwill are we assuming? There were a lot of developers that had bad will towards Steam at various points in time because they weren’t on Steam. And then there were developers that were on Steam but felt very anxious about the fact that all their stuff might not be on Steam or that Steam might control their pricing a little too much or whatever. But now Steam is more hands-off with that, so there’s a lot of goodwill that’s been gained there. At the same time, the club isn’t exclusive now, you know what I mean?
So now you get a little more of that Apple app store problem. I’ve been fearing that since 2010, and it’s been a lot less bad than I thought it would be. Part of that is just because Steam actually has some discoverability and recommendations based on things you’ve already played and the ability to search and tags and genres and all these different things that the Apple app store does not have. You have to go some external website if you want to to find something that’s not in the Apple app store or you have to know exactly what you’re looking for.
It’s a tough thing. It’s a worse situation for some of us developers, and I liken it to the death of the mid-list author in publishing for novels and so on. I think that may be happening a little bit. It’s probably harder to be a middle-of-the-road studio at this point. What we had there for a little while was only for some people and it could only last so long partly because of that. It’s a really nuanced thing to discuss and it’s not because of any reluctance on my part to say something bad about Valve or anything.
FPS: Yeah, there’s a lot of layers there, and I’m sure we could fill an entire podcast, we could do a panel — get a bunch of indie developers together and have them yell at each other, or rather, get Valve there and have everybody yell at Valve.
CP: We really could. You see this with GOG now, too. They’re curating more. Our game Starward Rogue got curated out of that process. Boy, I was kind of cheesed off about that. Y’know, they did it off an earlier version of that game. And GOG is trying to do what Steam had been doing and be a little more exclusive so they can give marketing oomph to the ones that are there, and if you’re one of the ones that’s chosen, GOG is a good income earner now. A very strong #2. If you get weeded out, woof. Once you’ve been working with Steam and they know you as a developer, and they carry umpteen of your products, maybe they just wave you on through. And it’s like, oh! That’s not the case with GOG, so, okay. I can see their point there, too. So, I’m on the outside of that one, but I understand what’s going on.
FPS: Have you ever looked at itch.io or something like that? Where there’s no barrier to entry but they do have some kind of process to recommend games. It’s typically used by a lot of independent developers as a way to handle a storefront without putting together their own webspace. Has that crossed your mind at all?
CP: I don’t remember if we’ve done itch.io or not. We’ve done so many storefronts over the years. We still work with a variety of ones that are outside the big three. With a few exceptions, it just costs more in manpower, even if you’re not directly paying or if you do it yourself, you’re still dealing with an opportunity cost. You’ll see that with like Desura. That was kind of the case.
On Accessibility and Sustainability
FPS: In games studies, there’s a lot of talk about accessibility and sustainability as two of the biggest issues the industry needs to grapple with. As games start to reach a wider audience, there’s this realization that we’re encountering markets that don’t have 20 years of built-up gaming knowledge, and as AAA budgets grow, the need to produce games that will make that money back often leads to homogenous, focus-tested projects (or simply fewer large games coming out overall). Given your experience making (for the most part) pretty dense experiences, how have you approached the idea of explaining your games to new players? What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were working on AI War?
CP: Well, one of the things is, with AI War, there’s not really anything I wish I would’ve known at that point. The reason for that is, if you play to a niche within a niche sort of demographic, there’s a certain amount of exclusivity that they like. I’ve heard the stories about, y’know, cell phones in Japan. I have no idea if this is a true story or not, but supposedly the reason why the iPhone didn’t catch on there was because their cell phones are dense and complicated and they like to study the manual in depth and really get a mastery of the phone or whatever it is that they’re using and that’s something they take enjoyment and pride out of. Whether or not that’s true, that is certainly how the niche within a niche strategy gamers are. For them, having some barrier to entry in terms of complexity actually is more of a challenge than anything else. The thing that’s a barrier there is if they’re not sure that it’s going to be worth their while, they’re not going to be inclined to do it. But if they’ve got enough reviews and peer recommendations and whatnot that say, “This is going to be hard, you’re going to spend like six hours in tutorials, but once you get it oh man it’s awesome!” then that sort of person is really on board.
FPS: The Dwarf Fortress conundrum: all these games that are trying to do that kind of level of simulation, but they don’t have that added aspect of oh god you’re going to have to bang your head on this for nine hours before you do anything, and even when you do something, everything’s going to die.
CP: Right. Exactly. We’ve had an enormous crossover between the Dwarf Fortress community and ours.
FPS: I’m not surprised.
CP: Yeah. AI War is kind of the Dwarf Fortress of strategy games in some respects. It’s worked out very well for us. AI War has grossed somewhere between $1.2 and $1.5 million. That’s a sizable niche, but it’s still a niche. When you get to something else like A Valley Without Wind, then you have to, it’s not pander to the masses or something, but you really do have to lead people into things. There were some hilarious things that we learned from humorous bug reports or bad reviews or watching people at some trade shows. There was this one thing in the tutorial section of the first A Valley Without Wind where there was this red slime thing that would set you on fire if you went near it. There were tombstones you’d have to walk past to get to it and they all said something like, “killed by the red slime!” or “don’t go near the red slime!” and getting more and more explicit about, like, “turn around!” But of course gamers see something that says “turn around” and they assume that means actually go forward because we’ve been trained that way, right?
So, you had to have something that wasn’t a fire spell in order to beat that thing, and in order to get that you had to go into this house and go through a secret passage and find that. There were clues to lead you to it, but you had to know that there was even something you were supposed to do. A lot of people would pass the house and not think about it and would just go up to this red slime and it would set them on fire and kill them while they frantically tried to kill it with fire magic, which was doing nothing. So then they’d run back over there again and try try try, die, and run back over there again.
So we changed it so that it would take something like a hundred thousand hits to kill it with fire magic. Presumably, people would look at the health bar and think “Maybe this isn’t the way to go.” But then we get this one review on Steam where somebody’s like, “This game is stupid, they expect me to sit there for like an hour clicking on this one thing that’s got like a hundred thousand health.” And I’m like, “This is the conclusion you came to? This is your assumption, that we thought this would be a good design for our tutorial?”
And then it’s like, okay, we’ll try this again. We went back and we made it so that it just popped up IMMUNE! every time you did it. And then people were like, “Huh, I guess there’s something else” and then they’d walk back the other direction. Nothing I could tell them, not the gravestones, nothing subtle would catch everybody. It did not work. We used to joke, not in the mean-spirited way because anybody can have a brain fart. We used to joke that the red slime was, the “You must be this smart to pass through here” sort of thing. It’s a really bad joke. I could totally see myself doing that in some other context. That’s the challenge now. You have shave off every slight rough edge, at least enough so that people can get in there and have fun. If people couldn’t get an awesome item because of that, that would have been okay. If they were still able to go play and do whatever else they wanted to do, it wasn’t feeling like a complete game-blocker. Eh, I’d be fine. They would just be playing at a different level than everybody else. I think that what is shaping up now is that you’ve got two levels of gameplay that have to be in most games. There’s level 1, where everybody can hopefully just fall into it and do stuff. Whatever it is they’re doing, they’re having a good time. They may never win, it doesn’t matter. I mean, back to the Atari, you didn’t really win games. That wasn’t really the expectation even on the regular Nintendo.
FPS: Even into the late-90s, I would pick up PC games thinking, “I am never going to beat this.” I got Daggerfall and went into the first water-filled procedurally-generated dungeon and went, “Okay, I guess I’m just not going to do any quests that involve dungeons in them.”
CP: I just didn’t think about the act of winning when I was a kid. If you beat Mario or something, that was different — there was a certain number of levels, and there were shortcuts and you could practice it over and over. But for most other games, it was just kinda like you play them, and then at some point you’re like “Oh, hey! I won!” or “I stopped playing.” One or the other, it doesn’t matter. There may now be a need for “false victories” where you’ve won but you haven’t really really won. Like in Starward Rogue, we made a “final boss” that you can beat after five floors and it’s hard and it’s something you’ll really need to work up to. But if you beat that one three times, then it opens up two more floors that are way harder and there’s a super-final boss that’s way harder and then there’s a bunch of completion percentage stuff with doing all these specialized runs. So you can play this on two levels. You can play it on very easy difficulty mode, it’s not really that bad. You’re a damage sponge, you do a reasonable amount of damage to the enemies. You’re still going to die a lot. They have a pretty good shot of beating the game after putting in a respectable amount of time and they can be done with it. They had a good experience and value for the money, etc. Then there’s another level for the serious gamers.
FPS: Super-engaged audiences?
CP: Not even that level, really there’s more like three levels: you’ve got the really engaged audience, you’ve got the ultra-hardcore crowd, you’ve got the people who are gamers and they expect a certain level of difficulty but they’re not going to make this their new lifestyle. You really have to have all those gradations.
FPS: When you encounter people who throw around the term “roguelite” or the idea of games that are inspired by the roguelike genre: your Binding of Isaacs, your Spelunkys, where you have a mid-level pleasurable experience, but sometimes there’s not always that hard-level, super-obtuse experience where you’re pulling from very abstract or esoteric mechanics to make your way through the game. Your Tourist run in Nethack, or something like that, where you don’t start with a weapon. You just have a camera you use to stun monsters. It’s really fascinating to look at the delineation of these audiences and how that’s changing over time.
CP: For sure. I think that you can wind up with having users that graduate. If you have something that has multiple gradations and someone who’s a quasi-gamer or not really a gamer or whatever, and they get in and have fun with one complexity level and then past a certain point, they may get bored and they may come to the conclusion, “I’ve been having so much fun, I’m bored of this though, can I do something more difficult in this?” or it may mean, “I’m ready to do something else.” It’s time to go outside or whatever. But if they go to a higher difficulty level, I mean, who starts out playing Nethack on the Tourist mode. You graduate to that even if you are a hardcore gamer to start out with. That’s not your first run.
FPS: With your downloadable content, you address that, too. Almost everything I’ve seen has had a dramatic impact on the way that your games function and play. You added a story mode to AI War and I was like, “What? Okay. I was looking for that, but I didn’t know that there were other people out there looking for that.”
CP: Right, but we wanted to make it so that it showed up procedurally and was something you could engage in or not, and not just a scripted campaign. We had certain things that we tried like a Defender mode, which a number of people explicitly asked us for. “I don’t want to have to go out and conquer stuff. I just want them to beat on my doors and try to survive for a certain amount of time.” There were some design albatrosses there for sure, that I will readily admit. Part of that was because we couldn’t get people interested in even helping us refine that mode in the testing stage. They were all busy doing some of the other modes. I think that was the same expansion where we added the story mode, so they were all playing that. So Defender mode got no love and it’s still there and nobody likes it and nobody wants to play it. I’m glad that there were a bunch of other features in that same expansion that everyone really loved, but apparently that one was a waste of time on our part, but so it goes.
On Accessible Tools and Modding
FPS: You got your start making levels for the 1987 dungeon crawler Demon Stalkers and went on to create levels for a variety of first person shooters, as well as campaigns for NeverWinter Nights and Forgotten Realms: Unlimited Adventures. How did the existence of fan-accessible tools to mod games shape you as a designer? Was that the catalyst, or just a part of your history?
CP: That was kind of a part of my history. It was something I took a little bit for granted. There was some racing game that I don’t remember the name of for the 2600 that let you design little race courses in. When I was four, seeing my dad do some of those and helping him out with those things. We weren’t doing it for any purpose. We weren’t going to share it with anybody. It was just neat. It’s like when Microsoft Paint came out or some of the other paint programs. We had a stylus for the 2600. It was all black and white and it was a cool thing. We weren’t drawing anything for any purpose. You get in there and draw and shut off the console and it’s gone. So I took that sort of thing for granted and then Demon Stalkers really took that to a new level. This was a refined level editor for that period in time.
Then, when Unlimited Adventures came out in 1994 or something like that, I was really shocked by that game at the time because there wasn’t really a story or anything. I think it had maybe three example quests, but they were all really short and not that interesting. They weren’t supposed to be interesting. They made that abundantly clear in their giant manual, which I still have. It was just for me to make stuff with, which was cool. So I made a bunch of stuff and played it myself and that wasn’t all that interesting. AOL was becoming a thing around that time, so we’d share our FRUA stuff on the chatrooms. We’d play each other’s things and give commentary. It was never like, “This could be a career.” The industry conditions were crazy and I didn’t even know where to go to start finding out about how to do this as a job. I graduated high school in 2001 and it just wasn’t a thing too much back then.
FPS: I don’t think we even had high speed internet at home until probably 2004? I had it at school, but whenever I went home, it was still dial-up.
CP: We were one of the very first Time Warner cable customers in our area in 1998 and it was freakin’ awesome. We went from 28.8 to megabit. It was quite a jump.
FPS: I played MUDs in high school, and I had a friend who had DSL and it was unfair because he was able to play whenever and it wasn’t tying up the phone line. So he got way past all of us and made the game no fun to play. At any rate, part of the reason I brought up the fan-accessible tools is: have you thought about implementing Steam Workshop for your games? Or does it even make sense to do that? Every time I look at your patch notes, there’s always shout-outs to forum members that have suggested ideas or caught bugs or whatever.
CP: When it comes to bugs and whatnot, we have an issue tracker where we take bug suggestions. It’s just a hosting of the Mantis bug tracker. We’ve got around seventeen thousand reports since 2011, across nine games. A lot of them are suggestions, some are bug reports. We set up modding sub-forums on our site and link to those from the Steam forums. We haven’t done workshop integration mainly because I’m not a C++ programmer and neither is our other programmer. We can do it, but it’s painful. A lot of times it doesn’t work the way that we want it. If it was just on Windows, that would be one thing, but having to cross-compile the C++ for both Mac OS and Linux has really been the nail in the coffin for that. I have a Mac and obviously virtualizations of Linux and so on. I ran Linux as a kid, too, but I don’t run it as my main OS. It means I have to get out Xcode, which I really don’t know my way around because I’m more of a Visual Studio guy or Eclipse or something. I’d have to use the command line for the Linux one, which is not too bad. All the manual linking of the libraries: yeah, I know how to do this, I have a good portion of a computer science degree, I switched to business after a while because I was already doing what I wanted in computer science and figured business would be more useful. So it’s like, okay I know what’s happening here and I understand the processes, but I don’t remember all the lingo for each of these particular OSes and I don’t have a lot of familiarity with these tools. It’s usually six months or a year between times I use it, so I have to go back to my notes and a lot of times they’ve updated Xcode or something and I have to learn it again. It just gets very frustrating. The iteration time is slow because I have to move stuff back and forth between my Windows computer and my other computer. It’s just a pain, it’s like pulling teeth, it’s slow and annoying and I hate it.
It has to be a pretty compelling feature for me to want to do anything with C++, and nothing there has been super compelling to me. There have been a number of users that were like, “It’d be great if you did a mod server or something, but don’t use Steam Workshop!” and I was like, “Why?” and they had some reasons, but I don’t remember what they were. It’s like, okay, well, easy enough. I didn’t want to in the first place. Possibly, at some point, we’re thinking about getting a little more structured with that. One of our main processes right now is that when people create new enemies, for instance, they want to see people play those. They’re not necessarily looking to create a whole total conversion or something like that. So for me, it makes the most sense for us to be able to integrate that into the main game for them. We have art and sound effects and stuff and combine that with their design and maybe tune it a little if it needs some performance tweaking and make sure that it seeds in an appropriate place in the overall balance of the game so it’s not just this thing that wrecks people on floor one. I guess we’ve had maybe fourteen enemies and I don’t know know how many rooms submitted from people [for Starward Rogue]. We just integrate those with the regular patches. Here’s a new enemy from us, here’s three new enemies from the community, from so-and-so and so-and-so, and so-and-so. That’s something I like a lot better than setting up a mod server where you install and uninstall certain mods.
At the same time, you could do a total conversion or whatever. We made it really easy to do so.
On Games Criticism and Academia
FPS: Okay, really cool. In your blog post, you talked a lot about how Starward Rogue had very positive reception. Is that in terms of reviews and Metacritic rating? Or are you talking about YouTube coverage? Do you read much in the way of games criticism or more longform critiques that are not explicitly tied to a review score?
CP: Okay. A lot of questions in a row there. So, the brief answers to those: mostly a matter of Steam reviews or general YouTuber reviews and Let’s Plays — all those examples of players of getting into it and enjoying it. In terms of outlets in general, we gave them a copy of the game the night before it came out, so there was not going to be any release day coverage. This is not because of some plan to hide from that. I really wanted to get a week’s berth to give it to them. We had a big promotion that was time-sensitive with Humble that we were doing on that particular day. We also desperately needed the revenue to hit in January since there’s a net 30 period before we actually get paid. So if it went a few days later then that means we wouldn’t actually be getting money from sales of it until the end of March which is quite a ways to go. I was sleeping like three hours a night the two weeks or so leading up to release. We were working on weekends, we were going nuts trying to get this thing out the door. Every day, Eric, our PR guy would be like, “Well, can I give this to reviewers?” and I’d be like, “Not quite yet! I don’t think so!” The last thing I wanted was them commenting on bugs or getting hung up on this one thing that’s not clear or not in or not balanced. That happened over and over again and the day before it was like “Well, send them out.” It came out of the gate the way we wanted it to, but it was a last-second thing.
We’re just now starting to get any longform reviews let alone more extended critical thinking about it. People are only just now having time. I’m a little worried that a lot of the bigger sites are probably going to give it a miss now. They want to talk about stuff that’s not out or higher profile or both. I knew that was a gamble coming in, but yeah.
FPS: I want to spend some time talking about where game development and academic scholarship on games intersect. Or, rather, whether they intersect at all. Several years ago Kill Screen magazine published an article titled “Toppling the Ivory Tower: Are Videogame Academics Irrelevant?” The article was written by Mitu Khandaker, a PhD student researching videogames. She opens the article with a loaded question: “Is games academia irrelevant?” I want to flip this question around and ask you, as a game designer, is the idea of people writing critically or writing longform, thoughtful pieces that are not necessarily tied to the idea of consumer advice, is there value in that?
CP: I think that there’s a tremendous value in critical thinking about any sort of art or science. Games creation is a bit of both. There are a couple of ways that that question can be interpreted, though: on the one hand, do I think that, if you want to be a game developer, you need that sort of knowledge: do I think that has value to Upcoming Indie Person #97? To that I would say, probably not? I mean, it doesn’t hurt, but I come from the business software realm prior to getting into games. It was my lifelong hobby, but it wasn’t something I set out to do because I didn’t think it was a viable career. I spent eight years in business software. I started out doing a computer science degree and I enjoyed the theory, but then I was hitting a point where I was promoted to lead developer where I am. We’re doing business software and a lot of it has to do with tax credits, real estate stuff, and legal stuff. I didn’t understand that side of things and I wanted to understand running a small business better. I thought I maybe should have a business degree. Also, I was learning 10 years out of date stuff in this computer science degree. While I appreciate the theory that I’m learning, this isn’t really contributing to anything I’m likely to do in my job. This was circa 2002. Things have maybe changed and maybe not. I don’t know.
CP: This was a GUI that was so bad that it had five explicit areas on the screen that you could put elements. One big center area and I think, I don’t even remember where they were. Maybe two on the bottom and two on the top. I’ve never seen an application with that design to begin with. This was one of the major Java libraries at that time, but, out of date by five years. This is what we’re learning? Really?
I really enjoyed the Assembly courses and yeah they went with 8086 Assembly which was way out of date at that point, but ARM wasn’t really a thing then. So all of the newer x86 stuff had ridiculously complicated instruction sets and it would not have made sense to do anything other than 8086. So, sure. Now you do ARM, that makes more sense. But back then, that was a good choice.
I went through all of that and I was like, “This is not useful. I’m going to go do a business degree.” I did two years of comp sci and it was useful to a point, but not past that point. Then I wound up hiring various people over the years who had graduated from computer science programs. We’re talking undergrad here, but a lot of them, if they’re self-motivated and have been doing side-project type stuff then they probably kind of know what they’re doing. If they’ve been just working on stuff through the university, they’re fairly useless. If they’re smart, it’s a good jumping off point to train them over a couple of months. So you usually go for the ones that are self-motivated and smart and look enthusiastic about learning for the sake of programming itself. It’s business software so the subject matter is not necessarily exciting itself. So I come from that mindset in thinking, well, if you come out of the university in that fashion, you’re going to need mentorship for, at best, a couple of months. And that’s if you’re one of the better candidates. If you’re one of the best, then great, you’re also partly self-taught, and the university side of things can be a wonderful counterbalance to that self-teaching. Because people who are just self-taught and have no formal training, mentorship or otherwise, those people are a whole other kind of nightmare of stuff that makes no sense because they tied it together with shoelaces and that’s how they always did it and they don’t want to learn what any sort of standard is from academics who don’t know anything.
I think there’s an important balance. That’s for people that are entering the industry. When it comes to people who are thinking critically about the industry and aren’t necessarily looking to create something from a consumer fashion, I think that has enormous benefits and you’re not going to get that out of industry. My wife, one of her degrees is in comparative literature and that’s not really something that exists outside of academia, but it’s a valuable thing and you get a lot of insightful thinking into literature and whatnot in there. I don’t see why games criticism and the scholarly side of game design can’t be in that same vein because it’s one of the places where new thoughts come. That’s a long answer, but anyway.
FPS: It sounds like, in a very roundabout way it can have value, but you have to come at it with a specific mindset. That’s what I took from that.
CP: Yeah. If anybody ever thinks that they can just sign up for something and somebody else is going to show them how to be creative and they can coast through that, that doesn’t happen. It doesn’t work that way. That’d be like going to Inventor’s School, like “Here! We’re going to teach you how to invent things!” What they can really teach you about is the manufacturing process and design. You go to school for industrial design and it’s like the inventing part is up to you.
FPS: There are actually Entrepreneurship courses that are very much like, “here’s how you invent a thing, and here’s how you start a business.”
CP: To be fair, knowing how to get venture capital and do all the entrepreneurship stuff, if you take the given that you’ve got something to sell or build or whatever. Yeah, okay, that’s useful because that knowledge only comes from mentorship and it’s nice to have that codified somewhere.
FPS: Now that you bring up comparative literature, many of us at First Person Scholar are coming from an English language and literature background. One question that comes up in studying literature is whether you need to know how to write a novel in order to critique it. In your mind, does someone need to know how to make a game to critique it?
CP: Absolutely not. Good grief no. I was very very torn on whether I was going to go into a creative writing degree or into a computer science degree. I chose computer science for the practical reasons. I’ve always been a writer. I mean, absolutely not. My wife and I, we love watching movies and so forth. We look at the plots, the production design and so on and we’ll comment on that stuff together. It’s sort of like our pastime where we come out of a movie and do that. It’s a little harder to do with books because usually one of us reads it and we’re itching to talk to the other one, but they’re finishing a book and by the time they’ve finished that and finished the one that the first person wanted to talk about, they’ve forgotten what they wanted to talk about.
I don’t think that our opinions are ignorant or invalid any more than I think that that’s the case with people talking about games. If you do want to talk about running an indie business or something of that nature and giving advice — rmchair quarterback sort of thing — Whenever we’ve had financial trouble, we get a lot of advice with people like “All you need to do is x” and it’s like “No, that’s not true” or “Yeah, we’ve done that” or “Here’s why that doesn’t work.”
To certain people it seems so easy, like there’s some simple answers to things. That’s the risk, I suppose, when you’re not more involved in something. When you’re talking creative, or technical concepts, I don’t think that applies whatsoever.
FPS: I think some of some of the better criticism comes from an understanding that games are hard. Making them is difficult. Stringing together these systems in a way that’s interesting and coherent is inherently a very very difficult thing to do, and also releasing that into the world is a doubly scary thing. So the better criticism I’ve read has retained that human aspect of things. They’re not coming for kills, they’re coming to pull something apart and talk about it, but talk about it with a certain amount of care.
CP: Right. I think that, to some extent, if you’re talking about criticism what’s going on in a game and you say, “well, whether it succeeded or failed in the market is irrelevant for our purposes of critical thinking about it because that’s just the market.” A game could do great on the market but it stinks in terms of critical thinking or whatever. But looking at budgets, that’s going into thinking about techniques we could use that are not so intensive. That’s the joke about programmers: programmers are lazy. That’s why we work so hard. We don’t want to do x by hand, so we work like crazy so we don’t have to do it by hand.
FPS: But hopefully the next time you go and do that, it’s automated.
FPS: As one of those recovering English scholars, one of the things that really appeals to me about Arcen’s games is some of the thematic elements in your work. The asymmetry of defending yourself against an unthinkably powerful foe in AI War, or the idea of a god that can only present themselves through an ever-futile act of balance in Skyward Collapse, and so on. I can sort of see traces of Asimov’s Foundation series in The Last Federation (absent the gigantic space hydra thing). Is there any particular series or author you keep going back to?
CP: Y’know, you’re going to cringe at this. It’s on my list, I have it in my Kindle. I have not read the Foundation series yet. But there’s various other Asimov that I’ve read and enjoyed. Not his most famous stuff for whatever reason. I like a lot of classic sci-fi stuff. With AI War, the thing that I kept thinking about, my original thing was I wanted an Ender Wiggin simulator. I want to feel like Ender Wiggin. So, Ender’s Game, obviously. With The Last Federation, some of that actually did come from the milieus that you see in the Vorsokigan Saga or the later Dune books (book three and four, I would say). I haven’t read past four on those because I was like, okay, that’s enough of that.
FPS: I think that’s a good stopping point. I’ve not tried to go deeper into Dune. Whenever you get around to reading Foundation, definitely think of Dune. As far as I understand, Dune was a specific response to Foundation.
CP: I’m not surprised. So a lot of those sort of ideas were in the back of my head. So with The Last Federation, I was like “What if we had some of these alien races from these various books and put them together?” So the Burlusts are kind of Klingon-y and the Peltians are like more vicious Ewoks. You’ve got various other ones that are just freshly made up as well. The Thoraxians are like the Buggers [from Ender’s Game] except if they stayed evil. Douglas Adams was obviously a bit of an influence, so the Andors and the Acutians are the hilariously overnice and hilariously overcorporate robots. Dwarf Fortress was a big inspiration for me with that game. Specifically Boatmurdered. I wanted there to be stories like Boatmurdered that could come about. TotalBiscuit did, on the Co-Optional podcast, a telling of one of his adventures and they animated it. And I was like “This is the best thing ever, my career is complete. This is my Boatmurdered, finally!”
FPS: I thought about Dwarf Fortress a lot when I played through The Last Federation because you get occasional quests and those characters have names. I want to know more about Oslo, the scientist who wants to defect with his technology. Obviously trying to keep track of that much data in a game is probably a big task. Looking at the performance of Dwarf Fortress, I’m not surprised it’s not in more games.
CP: It’s something that we were kind of edging into even more with Stars Beyond Reach, which is turn-based. The amount of data, keeping track of it is actually not too bad when you’re not talking about a real-time context. Because of vastly multithreading the AI, AIs, really, we’re able to make it so that even in late-game stuff, we’d have sub-second between turns. So you’d hit enter and fwoosh, it’s back after processing fourteen factions. So from a technical standpoint we got that worked out with The Last Federation. I wanted that to be even more of a vehicle for Boatmurdered-style tales of woe. We did a short video series called “Tales of Woe” with some comical stuff. The trouble with Stars Beyond Reach came more from the design standpoint because it got so systems-focused and so intent on making these stories with characters and things that pop up in a Dwarf Fortress-like fashion that there were a lot of elements of Stars Beyond Reach that were fun that were really getting buried under those systems and under the minutia of having to check those systems. One of the beauties of Dwarf Fortress is that there’s all these little stories going on that you can look at, but having to go and check ten or twenty events every turn or something is just like ughhh. Okay, so this wasn’t fun. What’s going on? There’s a lot of retooling going on, I think there’s going to be a lot less of the Boatmurdered-ish nature in the final version. It’s a challenge from every angle.
On Space Hydras and the Future
FPS: Also, seriously, what’s up with the space hydra thing? The Hydrals also get a one-off reference in Starward Rogue, too. What about hydras evokes a sort of wheeling-and-dealing intrigue for you?
CP: So before we made The Last Federation, we were looking at making a different game called Starport 28. It was a sort of spaceport simulator where ships would dock and people would come in. You’d set up shops and you could try to manage the starport. We only went so far on that before we went “Mmm, no.” What we did as part of that is we came up with twenty different alien races that were going to be customers and so on. So when we scrapped that game, we’d just made up twenty alien races and had sketches for them and stuff. So we picked the nine that we liked the best. I just went to the artist and asked for a bunch of creative sketches. We actually created well more than twenty and narrowed down for Starport 28, and further narrowed that down to just the best nine for The Last Federation. It made sense that the Hydral would be a powerful creature, but it’s not completely alien like a bug. I mean, it’s reptilian, but at least it still has a face. I liked the idea that it had multiple heads. I wasn’t sure what might be done with that. So in Starward Rogue, we wound up having fun with that, since you play as one of the heads in a mech. Every time you die, just chop off another head and send it in and it grows one back. It was just one of those happy accidents that came around from the artist originally.
FPS: When you elevator pitch a game, as I have with most of your games to people I think would be interested, when I talk about The Last Federation, I usually open with “You’re a space hydra.” And they kind of go, “What? What’s going on here?” and you immediately have their attention. It’s really interesting from a rhetorical and marketing standpoint.
CP: It is tough though, because sometimes eyes glaze over fast when we try to cram such a density of information into a sentence. Like, “You’re a space hydra and you’re trying to deal with eight different governments and there’s a real-time-type turn based type combat thing it’s like real-time but it’s actually turn-based and the thing is real-time outside of that though and it’s planets and you talk to them and you get them to do stuff and you form a federation and then you win.” It’s just like, whoa, how do you compose that into something coherent and also breathe?
FPS: I just have a question about last final thoughts. Usually we ask what you have coming up next. You’ve got Stars Beyond Reach I think coming in March? You guys are in kind of a rough spot, so it seems kind of gauche to bring up the future when you’re so focused on the present.
CP: We’re focused necessarily on the future, as well. I’m not sure exactly when Stars Beyond Reach is going to be out. What’s going on with us is we’ve just had our major layoff, unfortunately. We’re down to just four of us full-time. We’ve got a few people who are contractors out of our fanbase who are just helping as volunteers at the moment. We’ve got a few longer-term things that we’re going to do that we’re not really ready to talk about yet. The things that are more public are: Stars Beyond Reach is being worked on again. Keith the other programmer/designer is working on that now. He’s basically taking the stuff that I had lead design on and he’s ripping that to shreds and he’s building something that I think we’ll all enjoy playing a lot more. He’s looking likely to have a skeleton of that by early next week so we can toss it to our existing beta players and see what they think and go from there. Exactly when we release is going to be dependent on their reaction to it and how that evolves, what the continued feasibility looks like. It ought to be before the end of May. We’re hoping to have another strategy game project in October-ish. Then I’m working on a completely separate project from Keith. It’s not a strategy game, and it’s a real departure for Arcen because this one’s actually in 3D, our first one. Although I’ve done lots of level design in 3D in the past. I used to be a 3D artist as a hobby, so it’s familiar-ish territory. Myself and Blue, our remaining artist are working on that because the art for Stars Beyond Reach is pretty much done. I mean, she’ll have some HUD stuff to do and whatnot, but nothing real grand. That’s kind of where we’re at. I’m not sure what the time frame is going to be on the new untitled product that I’m working on, but you can bet we’ll be showing that early and often as soon as it’s fun instead of waiting ’till it’s polished because that’s worked out real well for us with Starward Rogue.
FPS: It’s real unfortunate. I’ve been splitting my time between The Last Federation and Starward Rogue. They’re really fantastic. There’s a lot of really interesting things going on there. I think people are going to be like, “Oh, bullet hell shooter, I guess that’s just like The Binding of Isaac.” As our book reviews editor said in his recent post, they go in very different directions with the same general formula.
CP: It’s a lot more roguelike than true bullet hell. For the people who are really skilled at bullet hell, they’d go, “Well, this isn’t that hard.” But at the same time, it’s really different than something like The Binding of Isaac. I mean, obviously there’s no denying that The Binding of Isaac is a key inspiration for [Starward Rouge] but from the same standpoint that ActRaiser was the same early inspiration for A Valley Without Wind or Supreme Commander was an early inspiration for AI War. There’s usually some sort of core genesis to a thing, and [Starward Rogue] definitely strayed closer to The Binding of Isaac than at lot of our other games have to whatever their original source material was, but we felt like there was so much stuff that hadn’t been plumbed in the Isaac-like area. Not even like Nuclear Throne or Our Darker Purpose.
FPS: It’s a tremendous game, and I hope its fates turn around a bit more.
CP: I appreciate it. It’s picked up a little in the last little while since we were like, “Aaah help!” And people were very helpful and we’re incredibly grateful for that. At the same time it’s gone from the pits to just bad. It’s starting to drift towards the pits again. I’m morbidly a little bit glad, because you’d like to see something succeed on its own merits, not “Help this developer you like!” Just play it because you like it and tell people because you like it, not because you’re worried about me. So hopefully it’ll take off for that reason after more people get more hours.
FPS: Exactly. Thanks again for taking the time to chat with us. I look forward to what you’ve got coming up next. It sounds like Stars Beyond Reach features factions I liked from The Last Federation and also the factions that were added in DLC for AI War.
CP: It does. That one has fourteen races, three of which are new, eight of which are from The Last Federation, three of which are from AI War.
FPS: Very cool.
CP: Thanks for having me.