This is the second part of our massive interview with AI War’s Chris Park. The first part went live yesterday Hit the jump to see the rest of our discussion along with more shots from version 2.0 of AI War.
The Reticule – The game may be 2D, but it still looks great, quite like a number of other 2D indie games’ like World of Goo and Machinarium. Do you think 2D is seeing a resurgance in popularity with developers? If so, why?
Chris Park – I love that you put AI War at all in the same league as those beautiful games; that’s certainly a testament to how far we’ve come since our initial release. For the bulk of AI War’s life, we had no artist on staff, so it was just whatever I could cook up myself or find from free sources (most notably Daniel Cook’s work, much of which was originally from the classic 2D shooter Tyrian). AI War was something that I cooked up in my off-hours time, on a $0 budget, so paying an artist was pretty much out of the question. So, for me, I worked with what I had, which was mostly the ship pixelart that Daniel Cook had made available.
In July, I decided that AI War was making enough money to support bringing in an artist to overhaul the game (for free to existing customers, mind you). We’re just at the tail end of that process now, and the difference is pretty amazing — Philippe Chabot, our new artist, really does a tremendous job of bringing the game to the next level visually.
So, looking at our history there, you can see that the 2D aspect was initially somewhat by neccessity. However, I’ve always planned on making every Arcen title in 2D-in-Direct3D (as with AI War), even now that we have the resources to do 3D if we wanted. I think that’s more the situation that the other titles you pointed to were already in — they picked 2D by choice — but there are certainly plenty of indie titles that will be 2D simply because they can’t afford to do 3D. Personally, I love me some AAA 3D goodness, I’m a fan of FPS games and kart racers and pretty much every other genre that wouldn’t work except in 3D. But there is a real soft spot in my heart for 2D, which I and most other indie developers grew up with.
I think we’re all trying to push the envelope with 2D in various ways, basically delivering on the promise of the SNES era, when no-one knew that consumer 3D was about to take over everything. The modern PC hardware lets us do things that could never have been dreamed of back then: the vast units on screen at once in AI War, the various special effects, the dynamic zoom — or the level of alive-ness in World of Goo, or the dynamicism and seamlessness of Machinarium, for that matter. I think a lot of indie developers are probably excited to explore that space partly out of a sense of nostalgia, but also because the bigger studios really aren’t doing much there. I think a lot of us would like to see 2D gain some stature as simple a different form of artistry, rather than as something that is viewed as purely “retro.”
TR – 2D is just one trait that AI War shares with those other games, the other is the lack of DRM, do you think it is important for indie developers to operate without any DRM in order to build customer faith?
CP – I do think that operating without DRM is a great way to build goodwill and trust with fans, and it’s also financially sensible. DRM costs upfront money or a percent royalties, and I just can’t see where the value is. All PC games get cracked and pirated pretty heavily, and I just can’t see why anyone thinks that DRM works when it clearly has no effect (except occasionally to make legitimate customers have to pirate games they bought in order to play them, which is just terrible).
The piracy problem is quite distressing for any digital content producer — it’s really a slap in the face to have someone steal something you worked so hard to create, and then act like they think they are Robin Hood for distributing it — but I’ve always beleived that DRM isn’t the solution. At the moment, I don’t really think there is a solution, but anything that harms real customers is certainly out.
TR – What are your plans for the future of AI War? Your site lists an expansion for release in Q4 2009, what do you have planned for this?
CP – We’re just coming up on our big 2.0 release, which is basically the culmination of a huge overhaul (visually and otherwise) since our initial release in May, and then we’re diving straight into the expansion. Player feedback has been absolutely invaluable with this whole post-release process, and we’re really open about our plans with all of the work items publicly available for comment on our forums, etc.
This openness will continue with the release of our expansion, which we are going to start taking preorders for through our site in just a few weeks. Fan suggestions are already a big part of the expansion plans, and there are polls and suggestions forums where fans can continue to contribute to the expansion as it is developed out; people who preorder will have full access to the alpha and beta versions of the expansion for play, which has already proved quite a popular decision with our core fanbase.
The name of the expansion will be AI War: The Zenith Remnant, and it will basically focus on alien technology and a third minor faction for the game. There are currently around 220 ships in the base game, and the expansion will add around 80 to 100 more; there are currently 26 AI styles, and the expansion will add at least 12 more; and then there are various other features that are more minor. The nice thing about an expansion is that it can cater specifically to its existing audience, giving them more content to round out the experience and provide even more variety, etc.
AI War is a game that I plan to continue to expand for another 2-5 years at least, depending on player interest. The idea is that we’ll be running a monthly free DLC campaign during that entire time, as well as having a new paid expansion every 8 to 12 months for those who are interested. I still play AI War with my weekly play group myself, and my goal is to make this into a really long-term game that eventually will have a wealth of strategic options and content that is unmatched by any other game in the genre. Whether we really hit that point is up to fan interest in the game, but so far it looks very promising. I don’t see ever making a sequel to AI War, I just plan on making continuous expansions so that players don’t lose all of their past content when making an upgrade.
TR – Your next game is listed as ‘Alden Ridge’ an undead adventure/puzzle game, have you started work on this yet? How do you expect the game to turn out?
CP – Alden Ridge was actually inwork for around 8 months before development on AI War was ever even started, and the (completely custom) engine from Alden Ridge is what became the basis of the AI War engine. The game is quite fun, but right now there are a number of challenges in really getting the adventure aspects just right, and the graphics need a pretty massive overhaul (even moreso than AI War ever did). I’d say that, overall, this game is in the neighborhood of 75% done — the code is very far along, and there are currently around 80 levels to it, but I am hoping to hit 200 or so at least.
However, that’s not really the next thing on our schedule at this stage — that’s a game that I’m letting fallow for the moment, so that I can come back to it fresh next year and really make it shine. Our next title is a casual puzzle game called Feedback, sometime early next year. Feedback is just past the prototype phase, and will probably go through an open alpha/beta process for people who want to preorder starting in November/December. Lars Bull, who is one of the forum moderators for Arcen and who also has provided a lot of design insight during the beta of AI War and after, is the lead designer on that game. We also have a tower defense game planned for mid 2010, and that will also come out before Alden Ridge. All of these games, like all Arcen titles, will be in 2D, and will feature either local or online co-op (as appropriate for each individual game).
TR – Do you have any closing comments about the upcoming Steam release?
CP – I’ve been a Steam user since Half Life 2 came out years ago, and so it’s really cool for me to see AI War coming to the platform. Our 2.0 version adds local leaderboards and achievements (over 120 achievements in all), and these are also features that will hook into Steamworks, which is quite exciting. As a tiny company we don’t really have the server capacity for those sort of online features, so the partnership with Steam really lets us take things to the next level. Here’s hoping that the Steam playerbase is as excited about the game as the Impulse playerbase has been!
AI War will be releasing later this month on Steam. For more information about the game check out its official site.