A Valley Without Wind interview with developer Arcen Games

GameZone's David Sanchez had the opportunity to talk with Chris Park, founder of A Valley Without Wind developer Arcen Games. Version 1.0 of the game is currently available for download, and we asked the developer about the trials, thought processes, and hopes for the procedurally generation Metroidvania title in this in-depth interview.

David Sanchez: Let's start by talking about the game's design. What types of gamers is A Valley Without Wind for? Who will get the most enjoyment out of this title?

Chris Park: People with tastes like mine? Haha. That's a flippant answer, but true — we ultimately built this game because it was the sort of game we wanted to play.

The goal for the feel of the game was to have an action-adventure game where you have meaningful choices that actually affect your character and the world over the long haul. Where the combat was tactical and the world itself was procedurally-generated (and so always fresh), but with hand-crafted accents (and so not trending toward the generic).

If that sounds like the sort of game world you'd want to explore, then my suggestion is to download the demo and see if we've built something you think is fun — don't take our word for it!

DS: How would you describe A Valley Without Wind to someone who has just heard of the game or is on the fence about downloading it?

CP: It's a 2D "Metroidvania" style of sidescroller, but without linear levels. It's instead all about choice: you're weak, the Evil Overlord is strong, and you need to fix that imbalance and go kick his or her butt. The cool thing is, to me at least, that you have so much freedom in how you go about strengthening yourself. Do you focus on defense? Some particular element of offense? Movement and defense? The community of NPCs that can lend you aid from afar?

The little "intro mission" that starts out the game is the one linear part of the game, but it introduces you to all the basic mechanics. A lot of people seem to get hooked right during that period alone, before the whole "look at all these choices" bit comes into play. That sort of sidescrolling action is the meat of the game, so if you enjoy that then the chance is excellent that you'll enjoy the rest. But then beyond that, once you get out onto the world map for the first time and start having the freedom to wander anywhere you want and pursue any mission you see, that's when the game really starts to stand apart from other titles.

The demo lets you play for as long as you want, but you can't leave the first continent in any world you create, nor can you progress above tier 2 in spells. That leaves you lots of room for experimenting and exploring to make sure you like what you're getting into.

DS: What's been the toughest challenge for Arcen Games during the development of A Valley Without Wind?

CP: As we always do with our titles, we started with the effect we wanted the game to have on the player — on us — and the general genres. Then it was a matter of prototyping the idea that seemed best at the start and iterating until we had an actual game design that lived up to the initial goals. That was … intensive, to say the least.

It took a full 15 months to develop this one, and that's a long haul for an indie title. The last 6 months of that process were made enormously easier by the gaming being in a public beta state where our players could (and did) give us enormous volumes of feedback. Something like 1,000 to 1,500 specific suggestions from players were implemented during that period; that was an enormous help to us and helped to reaffirm that we were on the right path (or steer us to the right path when we were not).

The hardest part of the project was knowing that we were really going out on a limb to make something so radically different from any other game (I didn't mention the SHMUP influences or the light citybuilding bits or the strategic influences yet). That took a lot of faith in our team and our community that together we'd come up with something that was really fun and lasting. We'd done it before with our game AI War in the much smaller niche of strategy games, but this was in many respects a much more complicated game to create.

DS: I'm a big fan of games that feature randomly or procedurally generated environments, enemies, and situations because you really do get to experience your own game world. Was the intention of using this method in A Valley Without Wind meant for that purpose, so gamers can have their own world and, in essence, their own personal experience? What made Arcen refrain from going the "one universal world" route?

CP: This one is very easy to answer. I like procedural content in my own games because I want to be able to play the games I create. If there's One World that is global for everyone and hand-designed from the ground up, then the people who create that world can't have any fun exploring it; they know all there is to know. We'd be getting to make the game, but not have remotely any fun experience of truly playing it.

Speaking beyond my own games, I like it when other developers do procedural content because of the personal experiences it makes for me as a player, as well as just the replayability that adds. So both as a creator and a player, there are a lot of benefits to procedural content. And since myself and Keith — my co-programmer and fellow designer — are both "algorithm guys" we love to come up with this sort of thing. It's as much fun to make, for us, as it is for us to play it.

DS: Crafting is a big part of the game, but it also seems to rely heavily on 2D action-adventure tropes. How do you strike a balance between having players get into the crafting aspect while still maintaining a strong emphasis on actual adventuring and exploration?

CP: In general, what the crafting represents is your reward structure for the action-adventure bits. But rather than "you enter room A, you get reward B" that only has one purpose, each ingredient that you find has many possible uses. That's where the choice comes in for this game — you go out exploring and adventuring, and when you come back to the settlement you have to decide how best to make use of the loot you collected.

DS: A Valley Without Wind seems to almost tease the whole perma-death element that we've seen in other games. However, even though the player character does indeed die, that doesn't necessarily mean the game is over and it's back to the beginning. Instead, upgrades are lost, but items and attacks are carried over to a new character, thus allowing players to continue exploring their custom world. What was the thought process behind this gameplay mechanic?

CP: This was something that we iterated on heavily throughout alpha and beta, so our thinking on this really shifted quite a lot as the development progressed. The core thought at the center of this is: death in real life is not a temporary state, and the fact that it is treated as such undermines the narratives of many games.

Now, AVWW isn't a narrative game by any stretch, but in any game that you play for an extended period, you build up a narrative in your head about what's going on and what it all means. Having Mario fall in the hole doesn't have narrative impact because he just reappears at the start of the level again. It's an invisible event; it's a do-over that isn't part of the "true" narrative of Mario jumping through all the levels and ultimately defeating Bowser.

In a strategy game, on the other hand, death is a little more permanent: sure, you have an endless supply of more guys, but when somebody dies that's it for them. If it's a platoon of your tanks out in the middle of a forest getting smashed by your opponent, that has narrative significance and consequences.

Ultimately, what we settled on for AVWW was something more like a strategy game in that sense. Yes, your characters are somewhat interchangeable. No, you won't care about them individually any more than you do your average platoon of tanks. But when one dies there are consequences — not a complete failure state as in a roguelike, but rather longer-term consequences like in a strategy game. Your position worsens, you lose small upgrades you'd given to that specific unit, etc.

The "vengeful ghost" of your character that pops up in the area in which you died can make that area much harder to go back to, which in turns means that sometimes a tactical retreat is smarter than just throwing another character into the meat grinder of the enemy. It's something that I think works well from a game mechanics standpoint, but it's also an idea I don't feel we've fully fleshed out as much as I hope to through post-release content.

It's really kind of a tricky concept, and what we have so far with the permadeath is intriguing … but more could be done with it. At various points in the alpha and beta, other things did happen based on death. NPC morale was affected by high death rates, tombstones were littering the towns as characters died, etc. These were things that sounded good on paper, but weren't all that fun in practice. Through working with our players to figure out what was most fun and interesting, this is what we've wound up with so far. And like I said, I think it's pretty interesting this way, but a year or two or three I hope that we'll have had some breakthroughs on that particular mechanic that will make it pop even more.

DS: A Valley Without Wind has a very distinct art style that manages to look retro-inspired yet still has a modern quality to it. What's the inspiration behind the game's unique visual design?

CP: Thanks for that — as the main artist on the project, I appreciate that. Reactions to the art vary from person to person, but it's come a long way since early beta if I do say so.

I would say that the inspiration for the art style is "it's what I was suited to make," if we're being perfectly frank here. I didn't have the budget for a real artist, and so I decided to use my own skills with 3D art plus a lot of "commodity art" that I could purchase and prerender into 2D sprites. I've done 3D art my whole life, but prerendered 3D models in a 2D game of this sort tend to look pretty bad and bland on their own. Retro not in a nostalgic way.

I've always liked games with a painterly look to them, and so the idea to leap to that — especially after our last game, Tidalis — made a lot of sense. It took a lot of experimentation to get it right, but ultimately it was a matter of getting the color balance and saturation right, and all the brush strokes and levels of detail right in the post-processing, so that the whole thing meshes together well and makes sense visually.

Pieces of that puzzle have been slowly coming together right up until the end of beta, but with constant feedback and criticism from players it's come to a point that I'm really proud of. It's not Crysis, but it's pretty cool.

DS: What games helped to inspire Arcen in the creation of A Valley Without Wind?

CP: I could give you a list of games ridiculously long and in depth; every game I ever played is probably at least a slight influence on any game that I make. But perhaps two of the biggest influences on me were Zelda II and Castlevania II for the NES.

Before you go running away in horror, let me assure you: I know there's tons wrong with both of those games. The thing is, when you're a kid, that doesn't matter as much. I grew up with those two games, and they were hard and frustrating and wonderful at the time. They made me feel like a fearless adventurer in a way that nothing else has before or since.

In the case of Zelda II in particular, that one really did a lot of things right, but so much wrong that a lot of the good ideas got tossed out with the bad. I like to think that AVWW takes some of those lost-to-time good ideas and reinvigorates them with a more modern design sensibility (and hopefully without the bad ideas that dragged them down in the first place).

Certainly there were a lot of other influences, though: Actraiser for the SNES; Minecraft from more recent years; basically every other Metroidvania game I've played, including the true classics like Metroid and Super Metroid; SHMUPs like Tyrian in particular; and our own strategy game, AI War, including what we learned about procedural generation and player agency from that one.

DS: Hey, Zelda II is one of my favorite NES games! The developers who created Terraria recently said they were moving on to new projects after nearly a year of keeping up with the game and releasing updates and fixes. Do you plan to keep up with A Valley Without Wind for the next year? Can gamers expect some new content and updates in the game down the road? To put it plainly, how long after launch do you intend on working on the game?

CP: To put it equally bluntly, as long as players will let us. Haha. For me, I'm not remotely done with this game — or with our first game, AI WarAI War came out three years ago and we're still doing almost weekly free updates for it. We've done three optional paid expansions for that one, including one that generated over $30k for Child's Play, and we have at least two more planned. Even if AVWW has Terraria-like success (which I don't expect), we won't abandon AI War — because we love the game and want to keep making it and playing it for its own merits.

My hope is that AVWW will follow a similar path to AI War.  During the periods of focused development on AI War, as you can see from the release history on our wiki, our beta updates come almost every weekday. In the slower periods, such as when we're working on another game, it's averaging more like once a week. As for when the first free post-release content will drop for AVWW? Monday, the day the 1.0 version comes out. We'll develop it on Monday, and release it as a beta on Monday.

Anybody who's been a part of our beta for AVWW knows pretty much what to expect for the next three months at least with this game. And assuming that the player support is there so that we can keep paying the bills while doing that, I hope that we'll still be doing that sort of support for the game 3+ years from now, let alone one year from now.

That's my ideal scenario, because not nearly all the ideas that Keith and I had for this game made it into 1.0. And players are fonts of awesome ideas as well. Lastly … when we someday halt development on the game, we'll also give advance warning. I own the company outright — have no partners or investors or people I owe money to. There's nobody to have irreconcilable differences with to "break up the band," so to speak. That gives us a whole lot of freedom to not get pushed out of development on the title unless player support dries up and we simply can't pay the bills for some reason.

And fact is, I really like big games. Just look at AI War and AVWW both, for crying out loud.  As big as AVWW already is, it's tiny compared to where I hope to be able to take it. Whether that materializes depends on player reception, but so far it has materialized for AI War and I hope to be able to do this a second time with another game. I don't have plans for making any other games in the next three years other than more AI War and AVWW free content and paid expansions — unless I simply can't afford to.

DS: A Valley Without Wind has gamepad support, and I've found myself really enjoying it with my Xbox 360 controller. Any plans of releasing this or maybe future games on consoles?

CP: It's a possibility, but I don't want to be the one to code that. I feel like indies who get bogged down in too much porting to other platforms risk really taking their eye off the ball. If this game does really well on the PC and Mac, then what we need to be focused on is more updates to the game. If it doesn't do really well on these platforms, then we're not going to be able to afford to port it anyhow.

I'm more of a PS3/Wii guy when it comes to consoles, but I'd certainly love to see it come to anywhere and everywhere that makes sense — so long as it's not impeding our ability to serve our core platforms and existing players. I'm not here to wring every drop of money I can out of my "intellectual property," I'm here to make games for as long as I can.

DS: Lastly, the game's environments can be a bit daunting at first. What main tip would you offer gamers who are entering the world of A Valley Without Wind for the first time?

CP: That's a great one. First of all, don't go on long treks unprepared. Having wooden platforms and crates with you is essential for being able to fully explore the exteriors and undergrounds in particular, but also the interiors of buildings.

Beyond that basic tip, though, remember that your mobility will be increasing as you play more. You can explore underground buildings to find scrolls that let you turn into a bat. You can quickly look for the resources to craft the Ride The Lightning spell, an air-element spell that lets you double-jump at the cost of mana.

You can use Leg-Seeker enchants to focus on getting lots of enchants for your legs, and so getting double and triple jump enchants faster.  Note that you won't get the native triple jump enchant until at least your second continent, but you can combine double-jump and Ride The Lightning for a triple jump much earlier in the game.

Lastly, if you don't like the falling damage that can come from using really-high-jumping spells, then either use a featherweight enchant with Ride The Lightning (or Lightning Rocket, its big brother) or turn the platforming difficulty level really far down. If you're not into jumping around with precision, then the lowest platforming difficulty is the one for you. If you like Super Meat Boy or other more difficult platformers, then the harder platforming difficulty will give you a much more intense experience on that score.

As with any other part of the game, how you explore the environments really comes down to your own personality and choices! There are a lot of other options that I didn't even touch on there, but that's a good starting selection for new players.

DS: On behalf of GameZone, we appreciate you taking the time to answer these questions. I look forward to continuing my quest through A Valley Without Wind!

CP: Thanks for taking an interest, in return!  We're all really glad to see people connecting with the game and having a fun time with it.