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[Interview] Chris Park of Arcen Games Talks AI War, Indie Strategy and Post-Launch Support

Posted under Interviews by Erik Johnson on Wednesday, December 9th, 2009 -

Arcen_Games

Amazing news folks, Gaming Dead recently had the opportunity to pull away Chris Park–head honcho of Arcen Games–from his work long enough to pick his brain on a few topics. Even better, he was kind enough to provide plenty to snack on, including new info on his ever evolving space strategy game AI War: Fleet Command, its upcoming expansion The Zenith Remnant, and a pair of new games the developer is working on for 2010.

For those who don’t know, Park has created an indie RTS game that brings many times the amount of content than that of several retail titles combined. The game has been given a free monthly DLC update since it launched earlier this year, and the dev has no plans to stop that pattern anytime soon. The philosophy Park brings to game development is a fresh one, and one I’d love to see more in his line of work adopt. Read about it and a bunch more in the monster interview after the break.

Gaming Dead: We’re joined by Chris Park, CEO of Arcen Games, developer of the constantly evolving mass-scale space RTS title AI War: Fleet Command. The eight player co-op title has been provided with fantastic post-release support, receiving standard updates based significantly on community feedback since its release earlier this year. Chris, thanks for taking some time out of your busy schedule to chat.

Chris Park: My pleasure! Thanks for having me.

GD: We certainly welcome your kind! Your title AI War’s full release came all the way back in May, but just this past month its seen a Steam release, reached v2.0 and had a full fledged expansion announced. We’ll get to the expansion more extensively in a bit, but first we’d love to hear a short address on the state of the game.

Park: As always seems to be the case with AI War, there is a ton going on at the moment. The expansion is in the full swing of development at the moment, but there’s also a large amount of DLC content that will hit sometime in December. Normally our plan is to have monthly free DLC, but in this case some of the changes (mainly the new unified command queue, but also the new, more efficient autoattack simulation logic) simply need more time in the prerelease testing cycle. So instead of having a November free DLC release, we’re having a December free DLC release that is twice as large.

Even for those players who aren’t interested in purchasing the expansion, there’s a lot of great stuff in the works — from a number of new mechanics, to an online game-finding service, to a number of smaller new units. After the expansion is released in January we’ll be moving on to other projects for the bulk of 2010, but a second expansion is planned for late 2010 and we’ll be doing monthly free DLC during that entire period with balance updates, bugfixes, AI tweaks, and a new unit or similar in every one. At present our plan for AI War is to never do a sequel, but instead to keep building it through monthly free DLC and yearly-ish paid expansions for another 2-5 years or however long there is player interest. We’re quite pleased that AI War is still seeing excellent growth in its playerbase, with over 15% growth in November, so hopefully that means we’ll continue growing the game for a long, long time. My view is that, in the strategy genre, expansions are preferable for players because they are additive with existing content. And of course everyone loves free DLC!

AI-War-Interview

GD: Absolutely no argument there. The observation has been made before that developers who support titles after release have a better chance of seeing significant sales further down the road than those games that see the end of development at launch. As someone who has first hand knowledge on the subject, do you feel this is valid and has it played a part with AI War’s cycle?

Park: Well, for indies who are just starting out, I can say that it is true that strong post-release support is almost definitely critical. For the big publishers, I’d like to believe the same thing holds for them as well, but I don’t have the data to make any meaningful conclusions on that. I mean, I have a strong hunch they would see a good return from that sort of practice, and it’s certainly better for longer-term player communities in general, but the entire model of the AAA retail game is fundamentally different from the indie market. They rely heavily on advance PR and marketing, and then see a huge number of sales in their first few months followed by a steady drop over time.

A few indie titles see a lot of advance PR and marketing, but most of them seem to start out small and then see a steady build. In that sort of model, the best way to keep players engaged and excited and talking about the game is to keep adding little things to it, making little improvements that sweeten/ease the experience in general. It’s the same sort of thing that MMOs have to do, in their case because they are dependent on keeping players subscribed and sending in monthly fees, but in our case to keep the good buzz about our game and keep expanding the playerbase through word of mouth.

I certainly prefer the indie model to the “finish it and largely forget it” model of many AAA titles, but at the same time I don’t think there is any one right way to make games. For certain styles of game there certainly are best practices, though — for strategy games or MMOs, ongoing updates are required in order to keep those balanced properly and the players interested. For RPGs like Square-Enix puts out, those tell a finite story and so unless some bugs slip through or some other problem is discovered, I don’t see any reason to have much in the way of post-release support for those. I strongly believe that developers should take responsibility for their products and fix whatever is wrong with them, but I’m not sure that every game needs the sort of post-release content that AI War has seen. A lot of the upcoming Arcen titles are not strategy games, and so I imagine they will have very different development-to-post-release arcs, as appropriate for their design and genre.

For those not too familiar with AI War, let me just be clear about the scale we’re talking about here: our post-release release notes so far are over 40,000 words in length between 1.0 and 2.0. We revamped the art completely, we improved performance so much that we lowered the minimum system requirements by 33%, we introduced a dozen or more major new mechanics based on player suggestions, and we added more than 50 new units to the game in a six month period. This is the sort of post-release support I’m referring to above, and I don’t think it is universally needed although it is great for certain types of games. It’s been the foundation of a lot of AI War’s success, but I think that effect has been amplified by the genre.

I do feel that community involvement is very important in any case, and to that end we are going to be having demos of our beta versions, as well as full access to our betas for players who preorder, with our upcoming products. That way instead of focusing on all that improvement based on player feedback after release, we can wrap that right into our development cycle. The goal is to get better games out at initial release, rather than having to develop it in isolation with a few teasers for players, then release and see what they think. By the time we release any product, I want to already have detailed knowledge about what players think and like, and to have tuned the experience heavily so that it is as fun and as optimized as possible. For me personally, I’d feel absolutely blind trying to release a future product that wasn’t thoroughly vetted by players before release.

GD: Let’s talk about The Zenith Remnant, the recently announced expansion for AI War coming in January. How was the add-on conceived and what made you decide that what you had was an expansion versus just a standard content update?

Park: I knew from the start that I wanted to make AI War larger than just the base game, even though that was already huge. I like big strategy games, what can I say? Empire Earth was absolutely massive for its time, but I absolutely loved the expansion for that as well. I would have bought more expansions if they had made them. Same for Supreme Commander and the Age of Empires series, I love them and all of their expansions, also. No matter how huge an RTS/4X game is, at some point eventually you are going to come to the end of its life with any given group of players if it doesn’t get updated in some way. With the best strategy games, and so far AI War as well, hardcore players can get hundreds and hundreds of hours out of each title, but there’s still a limit out there somewhere if the game doesn’t grow with the players.

Generally my complaint about expansions with strategy games is that they feel a bit smaller than I would like, just adding maybe one or two significant mechanics and otherwise just a large amount of ancillary or slightly-different content. The Zenith Remnant is focused on adding an absolutely massive amount of new content, to address that pet peeve of mine. With the free DLC, we give new ships here and there, but they are typically support ships or something specialized (like the mercenaries, warheads, and a few starship lines). They aren’t the core ship classes that make up the bulk of most fleets, in other words. Those are reserved for expansions only, along with new map styles (2 billion individual maps per style), and new AI personalities.

AI War expansions are always going to be about about taking the game in a bit of a new direction. The new Golems and all the new capturable ships and superweapons that are in the expansion really change the feel of the game, adding more options and excitement to the grand strategy side of it. There are a lot more hard choices about which planets to take, because more planets have stuff on them that you might like to have. The addition of the new NPC faction, the Zenith aliens, should also really shake things up to a heavy degree. By contrast, free DLC is more about augmenting and refining the base game experience, even if it does introduce major new mechanics every few months. It’s in general not about huge scope and focus shifts. A lot of expansions to other games do what we do in our free DLC, so I can very much see why you’d ask the question. By comparison, I guess our expansions do what a lot of sequels do, except that our expansions are additive in their content instead of mutually-exclusive separate products.

AI_War_The_Zenith_Remnant

GD: With all the recent announcements and expansion work, I imagine it’s been pretty busy at the office. Are you balancing everything out and still putting the time into supporting the core game? Or is that on hold at 2.0 for now with all the expansion work to be done?

Park: Absolutely, it has been a really busy time. The players of the base game have nothing to fear, though, there are a ton of free updates currently in public beta, which will have an official release as free DLC in December. Part of our secret as to how we can accomplish that much with one programmer is that we use a “unified binary” system, which means that there is only one current version of the game code for all the expansions and the base game itself. By contrast, many other developers have a separate copy of the code for the expansions, so that means that many of the changes for the expansion are not retroactive with the base game — the more expansions you have, the more the project forks, and that can lead to a number of unpleasant situations for players.

For my own part, I never want to force players to buy more content in order to get fixes or improvements to the base game, and the unified binary approach addresses that. All of the bugfixes, internal improvements and performance tweaks, plus any interface tweaks and other similar player-requested changes, are going into both the base game and the expansion simultanously because it’s all one codebase. When reviewers start looking at the expansion in January, I’m sure they will also notice all the various improvements aside from all the new content — but what they might not realize is that while a lot of that was developed concurrently with the expansion-only features, those non-content-related improvements are also available for free to existing customers of the base game. It’s an unusual model, to be sure, but it’s one that I hope other developers will pick up as it is both easier to code and friendlier to players. Players should only need to buy expansions if they want more content, not if they want to fix or improve the content they already have, ideally.

GD: What’s the future look like for Arcen and AI War? Any new Arcen Games titles you’d care to mention?

Park: AI War: The Zenith Remnant will release in January, and then for AI War it will just be the monthly free DLC until later in 2010, when we’ll see another expansion. Expect that cycle to continue for at least 2-5 years, or as long as there is player interest — AI War already has more scope than a great many strategy games, but I’m interested in seeing it becoming the largest one around by several orders of magnitude over the years. We’ll see what happens as our playerbase continues to grow! We also have more digital distribution partners who will be making AI War available to new audiences, as well as a number of regional retail deals in various stages of finalization; hopefully this will be an evolving and expanding project for a long time to come.

Our next game after The Zenith Remnant is a casual puzzle game that is currently untitled. That will be out sometime in Q2 of next year, and is basically a fresh new mechanic (not another match 3 clone) that is shaping up to be really fun and addictive, with a beautiful painterly art style that we’ll be previewing later in December. After the puzzle game will come A Valley Without Wind, a tower-defense-style game that is a unique new take on that fairly overcrowded genre. My goal as a game developer is to bring a fresh cross-genre spin to a lot of various existing genres, and so we’re hopping all over the place with our projects. I enjoy games in a lot of genres, but all my life I’ve found myself thinking “this would be so much better if only.” So now I’m going back through all those genres and making the games I always wanted; AI War is the first example of that, and hopefully people will enjoy our future titles to the same degree.

GD: It sounds like an all around really great approach to making games. We look forward to what Arcen Games will offer in the future. Care to add anything else?

Chris Park: We’re currently a part of the Indie X-mas 2009 Calendar promotion that is featuring a variety of indie games whose developers all decided to band together. We happened to pull the first entry in the list, but there are a ton of more indie gems that will be showing up throughout the month there. So be sure and check them out if you’re looking for other great indie titles you might not have heard of before!

Gaming Dead: Sounds solid. Thanks again for chatting with us Chris! AI War: The Zenith Remnant is set to arrive this January, with the current beta accessible to those who pre-order.

Interview by Erik Johnson

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3 comments… read them below or add one

  1. [...] the Holiday Spirit here at Gaming Dead, well at least not this year! We’ve teamed up with Arcen Games to offer up a five copies of their ever-growing RTS title AI War: Fleet Command and its upcoming [...]

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