A Valley Without Wind Preview
It is the year 2888. Wind-blasted snowfields have covered earth for centuries. Survivors in this ice age are few and isolated, caged by the bitter cold. Most rely on newly-discovered magic powers to stay alive, though a few bastions of high technology still remain.
[dropcap2]I[/dropcap2]n August of 2010 I sat down with lead dev and Arcen Games head man, Chris Park, to talk about starting an indie game studio and their newest game, a puzzler called Tidalis. Towards the end of the interview, I asked him if there were any projects he could tell us about and he said yes. He proceeded to tell me about a survivalist game with loads of customization options called Alden Ridge; I was instantly intrigued, as were most people.
He also talked about a game called A Valley Without Wind which, at the time, was a drastically different game than the project which currently bears that name. AVWW was originally pitched to me by Chris as a tower defense game mixed with JRPG elements. Naturally, I was amused and curious about this weird amalgamation of genres with the melancholy title. Sadly, we’ll likely never get to see the concept that originally bore the AVWW name and we’ll also never know what that original version of Alden Ridge would have been like.
Thankfully, however, Chris and the team at Arcen decided to splice the two ideas together, taking the best of both concepts (art from the tower-defense/JRPG and story concept from Alden Ridge), slapped the better of the two titles on it and now we’re looking at what may be one of the best indie releases of 2011 — A Valley Without Wind.
Most good games, like most good novels, are not from one good idea. It’s the genesis of several cool ideas that you put together.
Chris Park said that in our 2010 interview, speaking specifically on Alden Ridge. Only nine months later do I realize the full extend to which he would practice that theory. AVWW is literally two games combined into one, with the lackluster elements of each carved away. While AVWW still has several months of development in front of it that will hopefully polish off its rough edges, it already seems ripe with ideas and content to a degree fitting the duality of its genesis.
Visuals and style
The two concepts — lofty visuals and sparse, survivalist setting — didn’t initially appear to be a perfect match, but they seem to be meshing as development continues. Early on the post-apocalyptic environments seemed unevenly depicted — noticeably sparse in some areas, oddly lush in other. The textures were realistic enough to be uncanny, but character animations gave away something that looked good, but moved awkwardly.
[pullquote_right]”The colors are more attractive and vibrant, and the overall style of color hues has more in common with games like Bioshock and Crysis than they do with any 2D games I can think of.” – Chris Park[/pullquote_right]Recently, Arcen has touched up the visuals with a soft focus look that adds dramatic styling to the game and adds a distinction to its appearance that relieves the uncanny and stilted look it showed in early images. AVWW has a “style” in the way it looks, a unique one. Even if the characters do still walk a little funny, everything does seem to make more sense now that the world has a softer, but more saturated look.
It’s relevant to note the initial stages of the visual direction in order to definitively say that the current softer, more saturated, slightly Gaussian blurred style the game currently sports is the best look for the game. Fallout always looked so gray and brown; it’s counterintuitive to think a post-apocalyptic setting can look so good with this kind of color, but it does, maybe because it’s so different.
Chris Park, on his blog, wrote of the new look: “It makes our colors more saturated and dramatic, it ties all the elements together, and it’s really a big improvement.”
The look of AVWW will be a draw for some people, but unfortunately a barrier for others. Personally, I enjoy the look of the game; it’s more realistic looking than most 2D games, but it doesn’t evoke the same response as the remarkable 3D visual powerhouses it attempts to emulate. The result is a look that doesn’t possess the charm of simpler 2D games, but doesn’t dazzle the senses like high budget 3D games. Conversely, you could also say that it’s simply a brilliant looking 2D game.
Chris always said AVWW would have procedurally generated content, even back in its Alden Ridge days. What this essentially means is that content in the game (terrain, characters, etc) will be generated by predetermined algorithms, as oppose to being determined manually by designers. Chris Park details how much of AVWW will be random on his blog — check it out if you want to get into the details of their process.
Overworld chunks now use heavily-randomized maps to generate a structure of obstacles, entrances, lost-in-windstorm points, and open paths. This marries designer creativity with procedural processing, resulting in thousands of possible obstacle setups per individual map.
I remember Chris telling me about how excited he was when he first heard about some randomized content in Left 4 Dead, but how disappointed he was when it didn’t live up to what he expected. Chris, consider us all as excited for the included quote above on AVWW — please, don’t disappoint us.
Currency and crafting
One of the first features I remember reading about for AVWW (again, from the Alden Ridge days) was the crafting system. From what’s been described, the mechanics of the crafting system seem typical: you find materials necessary for items and with a recipe craft the item. Within the simple mechanics, however, there will be a healthy amount of options and customizations.
Park answers a player question on his blog, “An iron rapier is an iron rapier and that’s pretty much it. However, that would be just the most basic recipe. There would also be recipes for an iron rapier with slots, or possibly with something like a fire gem inside it or something. And when you put crests or spell gems into slots, then you get other combinatorial effects such as a rapier with a speed crest to swing faster, or a fire gem to have fireballs shoot out when you swing it. Or both, if there are multiple slots in there.”
The Arcen team is also putting a heavy emphasis on what they’re calling an “economy of choice” by featuring crafting and making the focus on attaining pieces for your customized gear a major reward item, in place of simply trying to win or find a bunch of gold, or level grinding to get experience points.
“Here you’re not bartering with other folks or buying things from shops — that whole survivor mentality and all that — but you are bartering your time against the types of activities you undertake,” Park writes. “You want a [pullquote_left]”When it comes to game design, and we’re always looking for ways to add in interesting decisions rather than the time taxes that are common to RPGs.”[/pullquote_left]level III fire spell? You can’t just go grind monsters and then build it. You’d better go find a level III ruby, which requires figuring out where level III rubies might be, and then going there and essentially going through the “dungeon” (to use the Zelda term) to find one or more. Then once you have that level III ruby, suddenly you realize you can build a lot more than just a fire spell — but you can only choose one of the available options per ruby you have, so that creates an economy of choice.”
The economy of choice will expand beyond just simple loot grabs, however, and into affecting choices and relationships in the world. Arcen isn’t planning on having any kind of currency system in AVWW and won’t use a barter system in a traditional sense either. Park juxtaposes the post-apocalyptic setting of AVWW with real life disaster situations he’s personally lived through, noting the sense of community and fair exchange of deeds that emerge in the most adverse of circumstances.
“This is a post-disaster situation. I don’t know if you’ve ever been through one of those, but I’ve been through several — mainly hurricane and tornado aftermaths, though this has more in common with hurricane aftermaths because those affect everyone. I’ve observed that in those situations there’s a lot of neighborly help going on. You have a chainsaw and I don’t, so you come over and cut the logs off my driveway so that I can get my car out. This isn’t in exchange for anything, and I’m not obligated to you in any way after that. You just were helping out because you had a chainsaw and I didn’t. And the power is out inside for everyone, so it’s not like any of us have anything else to do, anyway. But later, it’s perfectly natural for me to help me lug tree remains down to the woods if you lost a ton of trees and I didn’t. And so on.”
Mind share currency
Arcen Games has been providing a bevy of updates since the beginning of the year on AVWW; screenshots, developer blog posts and trailers are released almost weekly. Chris has said in the past that he regretted not properly leveraging PR for AI Wars and Tidalis and that he wouldn’t make that mistake again. Looking at the Arcen website, and their overall presence now, as compared to last year when they faced one of their toughest financial stretches, it’s clear the difference is a decided effort to show their current project to as many people as possible.
As a result, we’ve been seeing images and video on AVWW since pre-alpha. The initial images showed an unpolished game; it wasn’t impressive, but I was slow to judge. It was clear we were seeing a game before it was meant to be seen, but for all the right reasons. Arcen needs people to know about their games before they release as much as any indie developer does, maybe more so considering the lack of pre-launch awareness their previous titles had. They’re also getting key feedback from inside and outside of their established community early enough to correct course on any designs or visual elements that are met with wide spread disapproval.
It’s transparent, bold and risky, but because Arcen is an indie without access to major funding for advertising, it’s also necessary. It’s a decidedly indie move that wouldn’t exist at a larger, publisher funded studio; it’s more democratized and open than anything we would see for a triple AAA title that couldn’t risk the potential doubt created by letting people see something so infantile in its development. As a gamer and a consumer I admit that I’m guilty of being endeared to the developer for their transparency, but as a writer and commentator I’m compelled to say that this might back fire if less thoughtful spectators (and potential customers) of AVWW see the early images and say, “this looks lame.”
It wasn’t until the last couple of trailers and screenshot releases that I started to think, “wow, this looks really good.” For those of us who have followed the progress of the game through the past 14 weeks of development, it’s an interesting look into the development process, but it’s an insulated notion to assume there weren’t a handful of people who saw early videos of AVWW on YouTube and not only stopped paying attention to future updates, but unconsciously filed anything AVWW into the “don’t like it” cabinet and locked the drawer.
I find myself considering whether these videos and screenshots are supposed to be advertising for the game or educational insight into the developer’s process; maybe the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Perhaps Chris and Arcen have purchased a segment of our mind share with whatever currency they could cobble together. Maybe Chris’s lengthy posts on the nuts and bolts process of developing are providing an educational resource to a community of aspiring game developers and as a side-effect his game not only keeps in our attention, but gets inserted into conversations that otherwise wouldn’t include it. Debates on procedurally generated content versus designer input can now legitimately include a game called A Valley Without Wind and maybe through some mental exchange rate that equates to a similar value as a polished cinematic trailer with a professional voice over.
When A Valley Without Wind releases in October of 2011, we’ll find out.