Chris Park is the wonderfully open and honest chap who heads up indie studio Arcen Games, he has been extremely open about the financial troubles the company has been going through recently, excellently detailed here on PC Gamer. I knew I had to talk to him about everything that was going on both financially and in regards to current and future games from Arcen.
The Reticule – You have been fairly upfront about the financial problems Arcen has gone through recently, why did you decide to share your experiences?
Chris Park – I tend to be pretty open about most things — I guess I just don’t feel like there’s a reason to hide. I grew up in a family where talking about how much you earn was basically a taboo topic, so maybe this is a form of delayed youthful rebelliousness? But in all seriousness, I can’t see how hiding this sort of information would help me or my company, and it might actually help some indies (and in some ways, us), so it seems like a no-brainer to talk about it.
The main drawback of talking about this publicly is that you get the “armchair quarterbacks,” so to speak, who know nothing about the company and often little about games development, and love to pronounce what an idiot I’ve been or how it’s “market forces” speaking against us or whatever. I guess this sort of thing is what makes most people keep quiet. And it is hugely demotivating, I really hate having to deal with comments like that (though my method of dealing with them is just to not respond).
But even knowing what I know now, if I could go back in time a few weeks I’d release the numbers again. It’s the sort of information I would have wanted a few years back. Not that it would have been overly actionable, because every indie is different, every game is different, and the timing of release makes a big difference. But it’s still interesting, and if more indies released that sort of thing then we could actually start to build a better picture. I don’t really expect that to happen, but my publicizing of our numbers is at least a start.
TR – How are things looking now, have things improved at all?
CP – Financially things improved by about a half month’s income. Not much different, really, despite a huge mountain of support a couple of weeks back. That said, we’ve been approached by various publishers, various other businesses offering help of various sorts, and so forth — so our options have definitely improved, at least.
One interesting thing is that I’ve been talking to a number of other indie developers, and the general consensus seems to be that sales are just awful at the moment. Some of them had a great summer while I had a terrible one, but the last month or two have seen sales volumes that some are describing as the lowest in 10 years, or the lowest since they’ve been around, etc. So perhaps some of this is just market forces at the moment. I think a lot of game companies are banking on having an awesome October through December, and we’re one of them.
TR – Tidalis was a fun puzzle game, but how did it fare sales wise? Did it live up to your expectations?
CP – I’ve written about that at some length, but the short answer is that sales were not good. It’s so far earned only about 1/16th of what we spent to make it, so it’s been a huge money hole so far. That’s despite it having had been in the top two slots on Indie and Casual games on Steam during the week after it launched, and I think #4 in family games there.
When we hit similar levels of exposure on AI War on Steam and other platforms in the past, our actual sales volume was 10x higher than it was with Tidalis. So, again, it looks like aside from whatever I messed up with the PR for Tidalis, we also are a bit victims of the timing of the release — something else is going on with the games industry, especially downloadable PC games, if we’re able to hit that high on the sales charts with those poor of sales. Hopefully things will rebound soon, I know some other indie devs are feeling glum at the moment, too.
TR – You are still constantly updating AI War, do you have an end point in sight for work on the game?
CP – Definitely not — I expect to be updating it in some fashion for another five years at least. Granted, we don’t have the same volume of work being done on it when we’re also working on another title, but for the moment we’re focused on finish the AI War 4.0 porting, and getting the Children of Neinzul expansion balance finished, etc.
TR – With one of your expansions, Children of Neinzul, you donated all the proceeds to Childs Play. Why did you choose to do this and what has the feedback been like?
CP – I’ve admired Child’s Play since it first began, and I always wanted to be in a position to do something to raise money for it. A few months back, when Tidalis wasn’t yet out and we thought it was going to be layering a whole new level of income on top of our existing income, it seemed like the perfect time to give something back. Then the bottom fell out, but a charity pledge isn’t something we’d go back on (people have asked), so here we are. Aside from my general desire to support Child’s Play, the Children of Neinzul expansion and the fact that it’s for a children’s charity is in celebration of my son, who was born September 1 of this year.
TR – When we last spoke this time last year you dropped hints about Alden Ridge and A Valley Without Wind, why did you take so long to reveal more details on them?
CP – Well… to be honest, I don’t think we’ve announced anything new on these games since January. We’ve recently gotten rather a lot of press about these games, which we’re very grateful for, but it’s just because games journalists were looking through our site and found the information. I believe I sent our press information when I put up these previews, and a few sites like Co-Optimus actually covered them back then, but largely I think it hit during a holiday period and press folks missed it.
Again a demonstration of my “amazing” PR skills, I think — I’m foremost concerned with creating new games, and this business about the PR is definitely something I have to work at to make work. Sometimes that works better than others.
TR – Have you been working on these two games while continuing work on AI War?
CP – We aren’t. Alden Ridge saw 8 months of development from January 2008 to September 2008, but hasn’t been in active development since I started working on AI War. We’ve internally had a lot of design discussion about that game, since it’s coming up on when we were planning on working on it again (post AI War 4.0), but that’s where things are at. The game was about 70% complete when I stopped working on it in 2008, but it was on a pretty bad platform (Managed DirectX and GDI+), and I want to update it to a newer platform — and re-envision the game in general, too, incidentally. This project dates back to before Arcen Games was even formed or had a name, and when it was just me and absolutely no-one else, so the art is all free or made by me, and the music is all free, and in general that tells you right there that the production values aren’t wonderful.
Similarly, A Valley Without Wind has seen a lot of design discussion, and in fact makes use of a lot of ideas that I tried out a bit in AI War. I absolutely adore certain tower defense titles, and while I incorporated some of my love for that into AI War, A Valley Without Wind is basically the huge overflow of stuff that didn’t fit into an RTS/4X context. But it’s an ambitious project, so I imagine that it won’t be happening until 2012 at the earliest unless I really re-imagine the scope of it.
TR – A Valley Without Wind is your tower defense game, in a crowded tower defense market, what will make this one stand out from the rest?
CP – To sum it up pretty briefly: tactics, AI, and strategic depth. At core, the tower defense genre is really a puzzle genre, because it’s all about optimization of paths, etc. Enemies are predictable and the variance in each playthrough comes from how your actions impact the future actions of the enemies; if you do the exact same thing every time, so will the enemies, and so you “solve the puzzle” by figuring out the optimal thing for you to do.
I actually really love that about some TD games, PixelJunk Monsters in particular, but A Valley Without Wind intends to marry some of the other concepts of TD games with a more emergent, interactive AI that doesn’t do the same thing every time. I think that will make it feel more like a cross between a tactical battle — say, Final Fantasy Tactics or similar — and a regular TD game. I like swirling genres together, and I think this is a mix others will enjoy as much as I would.
TR – Alden Ridge, a top down zombie adventure game with co-op. That just reaks of awesome! What else can you tell us about this one?
CP – At the moment we’re actually thinking of doing a more scaled-down version of it in the shorter term, called Alden Ridge Arcade (working title). But the idea with the scaled-down version is that it would only make use of the arrow keys, and would focus heavily on sequential, procedurally-generated content. All the emphasis on zombies, co-op, traps, and environmental interaction would still be there, but having the input methodology be more limited than most adventure games (or the current versions of Alden Ridge) should accomplish two things: first, it should make it more accessible and arcade-feeling — easier to pick up and play for a while; and second, in procedural levels it actually will enhance the strategy of the game.
In other words, the main game of Alden Ridge sees you picking up traps and then deciding where to place them to kill the enemies, and how to adjust your environment. That works exceedingly well with hand-crafted levels, I think for the same reason that the heists in Monaco work so well. But can you imagine having completely random levels in Monaco? I don’t think that would tend to work out nearly as well as often as the hand-crafted stuff does.
But, with Alden Ridge Arcade, having movement be your only input vector actually solves a lot of the design challenges there, aside from making it quicker and easier to play: traps and environmental objects are all fixed in position, and to interact with them you just walk over them. With levels that are large enough, that means you have a choice between options of a variety of different qualities, in terms of item, it’s position, the position of your pursuers, the local environment, etc. The strategy comes from figuring out the best way to maneuver and to activate the traps to thwart your enemies and move on.
In a lot of senses, the Alden Ridge Arcade game lets us experiment more with the core mechanics and ideas of Alden Ridge without the burden of a lot of hand-crafted content and the adventure elements. Then hopefully that first title provides both some income and an accelerated framework for actually building the full Alden Ridge game with the hand-crafted levels and the adventure. The 2008 version of Alden Ridge already had about 80 levels completed, but with the amount we plan to re-envision the game a lot of those will have to be redone pretty heavily.
TR – Finally and most importantly, will Arcen games survive to release these two titles?
CP – I wish I knew! But we certainly haven’t be announcing any long-term projects anytime recently, because of all the uncertainty. I feel confident that we can get through Alden Ridge Arcade at the least, and hopefully the revenue from that, plus the new AI War stuff we’re doing, plus hopefully from Tidalis if that continues to catch on more, will give us the breathing room to get through the larger projects we’d planned. If not, then we might see some other smaller titles in the meantime, as a way to build ourselves back up. If the studio collapses back down to just me, then that’s going to really restrict the sort of games I can make, although AI War 1.0 is a good example of what I can make with just myself and a composer.
Right now it’s one day at a time for me, and we’re working like crazy on AI War 4.0 to make sure we get that done in time for a big launch this month. Depending on how that goes… well, we might find ourselves in the same boat, or we might be in much better circumstances. I think there are a number of other indies in similar sales dearths these days, so hopefully it will pick up soon for all of us!
For more information on Chris Park and Arcen Games check out Arcen’s Website.