March 14, 2013 6:00 AM | Konstantinos Dimopoulos / Gnome
Following the release of the highly divisive A Valley Without Wind, Arcen Games was, for its first time ever, in the awkward position of having to explain unpopular design and aesthetic choices. Its response was equally novel, as it went on and released its very first sequel: A Valley Without Wind 2. A sequel that was actually gifted to everyone who had bought the original game and tried to address all complaints without alienating its core fans. A risky sequel.
Here's Arcen Games discussing it:
Arcen Games haven't been known for their sequels, but rather for their constant updates on existing games. Why A Valley Without Wind 2 then?
I have actually stated in the past that I never wanted to do a sequel to anything, that I believe post-release updates and expansions are the way to go, but here we are. Never say never! The reasoning behind Valley 2 was that there were a lot of huge changes we wanted to make to the game to really get it improved the way we wanted, but there were plenty of people who really liked the first game as it already was. To make those sort of changes to the first game would basically be to erase it. So we decided to make a sequel and give it away bundled with the first game for free, and vice-versa. That way people could experience the first game, which is pretty cool in its own right, as well as the much-improved sequel, without having to choose.
Didn't you entertain the thought of, say, a radical update to the original?
In fact we did go through three months of radical post-release updates to the first game, and those were very well received. The thing is, those were all refining the core vision of what that game had become, though. In other words, nothing took away from the mission structure, the infinite worlds, the sandbox nature, etc. However, those very things were constraining us from being able to make an interesting strategy game, or an interesting narrative arc, and so on. There are always tradeoffs with any design elements, and we wanted to make changes that were more radical than our fanbase was going to accept if it was erasing a game they already liked or loved. The sequel approach was a great way to make everyone happy, particularly because everyone got it for free if they already had the original. In some ways that actually makes the sequel a "standalone radical update," if you will.
How about a Kickstarter? The strain of a sequel for an indie developer can be rather intense...
We did indeed consider that, and heavily. Certainly the financial strain from this project was intense, and it's going to be a long while before we even break even on having made this sequel. That said, we believed in the project and had a clear vision for what we wanted it to be. The problem was that communicating that to a bunch of potential kickstarter backers is less easy. We couldn't just say "oh this is x and y that you've seen before, with z as a twist." In other words, for a kickstarter backer to really know what they were backing, they'd have to read through pages and pages of explanation and then really think through all the ramifications of how those things would interact. Who wants to do that?
I think the things we make are so unusual that kickstarter is risky for Arcen -- there's always the chance of "this isn't what I thought you were going to make!" And plus if we DO have to make some radical design shifts for some reason during implementation (sometimes things sound better on paper than they work in practice), then we've basically got a large group of people who may not agree with us. That's trouble when people have already given us their money in advance. I'd rather have people able to buy once things have already solidified to at least the beta level, so that they have a good sense of just what the game is, and can see videos of how it works, and all that.
The original AVWW was one of the most divisive games when it came to its visuals. I personally liked it, but you seem to have drastically changed it. What are the new visuals aiming at?
The new visual style has basically been aiming at being an HD version of classic SNES graphics, but with some painterly styling thrown in. "HD" is a risky word to throw around, so let me clarify: when it comes to 2D art, the older pixelart stuff tended to be 16x16 pixels for a Goomba, for instance. In Valley 2, a similarly-scaled monster is 64x64, an increase of 1600% in number of pixels. That allows for a lot more detailing, and things like painterly brush strokes and smooth curves instead of pixelart. Various 2D games on the playstation consoles, or some of the newer handhelds, take a similar approach to mixing the nostalgia factor with modern visuals.
You've also added a new strategic level? Why? And why did the original game lose its own?
The original game lost its strategic and citybuilding layers because, frankly, we had bitten off more than we could chew in terms of scope. There were some things that were working well at the start of beta on the original, and other things that players didn't like as much. We cut the things that were not working as well, and focused on what the players liked more. That resulted in a really cool, unusual game -- but it also really strayed from our original design intents enormously. With the sequel, we rolled back the clock and went back to our original intents for the first game, bearing in mind all that we'd learned after 18 months of working nonstop on the original.
What are your goals with A Valley Without Wind 2?
Well, there are a lot of ways I guess I could answer that. At core, we wanted to make this game, and we did. We thought other people would also enjoy it, and that has also turned out to be true. Nothing is universally loved by everyone, but this one's reception has been enormously more positive than the first game -- that's certainly been gratifying, and was also a goal. I felt like the first game's design had drifted quite a lot from where it had started, and plus we learned a lot of things about what works well and what works less well, and so we wanted to take all that knowledge and turn that into something focused, polished, and fun.
One big goal was also to have something that was easier to just jump into and have fun with immediately. Not that you'd be completely understanding the game at that point -- we wanted to retain a high degree of depth -- but we wanted to have a learning curve more than a learning cliff, heh. Another big goal was to have more tactical combat to the game; the first one was more about the spell crafting and the character progression, whereas the combat was more point and shoot. The enemy design, enemy placement, spell design, and general balance of Valley 2 is so different from the first game. If you're playing on a difficulty that is appropriate to your skill, you really have to be careful and tactical with how you play. It creates a more Contra-like experience, which is a lot more interesting to me.
By the way, giving the sequel away to everyone who bought the original game was a very generous move. Do you think it actually helped the new game?
Thanks. In terms of reception, yes, I think it has helped -- nobody is feeling betrayed that they bought the first game and here we are with a sequel less than a year later. In terms of actual sales volume, that's a mixed blessing I think. All of our early adopters that normally buy everything Arcen puts out, or who were really excited for the sequel, didn't have to buy the game -- they already got it for free.
The first Valley game was tearing up the sales charts for a few weeks after it first came out, and got up to something like #8 on the Steam top selling lists for a while. It may have gotten as high as #6, I honestly don't remember because it bounced around daily. Anyhow, with Valley 2 we saw a very different picture: reception to the game was way better, but it only reached #75 on the Steam top selling lists so far as I saw, and that's not just because of more competition on that distributor or something; the numbers were appropriately number. THAT said, Valley 2 is still selling surprisingly consistently day after day, and has occasional spikes when some particularly positive review at an influential site comes in.
So it's kind of a tortoise and the hare situation: Valley 1 just obliterated its sequel in its first few weeks in particular. But I have a feeling that Valley 2 is going to actually be the game that performs the best in the long run sales-wise. And in terms of reviews, Valley 2 is clearly already obliterating Valley 1, so there's also that. Let's say I'm cautiously optimistic.
What else have added and/or changed for the sequel?
Oh, goodness! It's almost easier to list what hasn't changed. And that's not hyperbole -- as you've kind of hinted at, the games aren't really in the same genres or subgenres anymore. Valley 2 is in no way a sandbox or an infinite game, but instead is more focused and narrative-driven. The lightweight citybuilding elements of the first are replaced by a way more fun strategy component in the sequel. The way that the random terrain generation works is completely revised, and includes many more handcrafted bits instead, giving better enemy placement. The sequel has around 3x more enemies than the first, and around 4x more player spells (127 and 200, respectively).
The character progression mechanics are entirely different, and a lot more robust in many ways in the sequel. The narrative is stronger in the sequel, and there are specific villains with interesting backstories, rather than a stream of generic villains with none. The emphasis on boss fights and exploration from the first game is gone, and instead is replaced by a more Contra-like bullet-hell-style platforming focus. The art has been completely redone, the characters are all different, the sound effects have been massively improved, the number and quality of particle effects has more than tripled, and the music has been completely remastered. Among many other things!
How do you see A Valley Without Wind 2 evolving? What changes should we expect?
Valley 2 is actually a complete experience already, in my view. It's got a really defined arc, and has solid replay value, without being something that is sandboxy like the first game or (to some extent) AI War. Like our game Tidalis, this one really stands alone and doesn't need further updates other than minor tweaks. That said, if there is sufficient player interest then we may do expansions down the road, and those are also always paired with some bonus features for players who just have the base game (see AI War and its four expansions as an example of what I mean).
With AI War, it's continued to evolve and see expansions because there has been such huge player interest in it, and that interest has never wavered. With Tidalis, it saw nothing but small bugfixes because while reviewers loved it, the game did not sell well. With Valley 1, sales started off immensely strong, and so we matched that with tons of post-release updates for free. Then Diablo 3 came out, and the next day our sales for that game fell off a cliff and never recovered; so we had to shift to other things, which in this case included the sequel as well as Shattered Haven.
For the moment, we're focusing on other games while maintaining bugfixes and so forth as needed on Valley 2 and our other titles. Our post-apocalyptic, environmental-puzzle-based adventure game Shattered Haven is coming out next Monday the 18th of March, actually -- one week from today! That was in development for eight months during 2008, and off and on in bits since then. When we started working on Valley 2, we also started working on Shattered Haven in earnest again, too. So both of them are coming to a close pretty close to one another. We also are working on another game for the middle of this year, called Exodus of the Machine. And as soon as Shattered Haven releases, I'm going to be working on another strategy game, Skyward Collapse.
All in all for the remainder of 2013, Arcen has another 6+ projects planned, including the ones mentioned above. Where there is sufficient player interest, we'll do expansions -- we're passionate about all our projects, and love getting to keep working on them. Whether or not an expansion is going to happen for Valley 2 is something only time will tell; it honestly depends on the voice of the market. If the market isn't interested in an expansion, that's okay; we've got no shortage of awesome game ideas, a lot of which are already in work!