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An interview about Exodus of the Machine with Arcen's Keith LaMothe

Yesterday, we gave you an information-packed interview with Arcen Games founder Chris Park about Skyward Collapse, which is one of two games currently in development at the indie studio. Today, we're focusing on the other game: Exodus of the Machine, set in Arcen's AI War universe, is another game with a recognizable concept given a generous amount of creative tweaking.

Exodus is described as a combination of "Arcen's love of all things strategic within a framework reminiscent of our old favorite Oregon Trail." This, of course, piqued my interest as a lover of old favorites. We shot the developer some questions, and the lead programmer and designer for the game, Keith LaMothe gave us a better idea about the concept. We also had more questions for both Keith and Chris Park about both games, which we have also published here.

Read on for more Exodus of the Machine!

We’re not too big on Oregon Trail here in Asia. Could you give us a brief rundown of how Exodus of the Machine will play out in a single playthrough?

Keith LaMothe: Sure.

- You pick initial settings (mainly how difficult you want it to be, and how much randomness the game is allowed to throw into combat rolls, skill rolls, etc).

- You watch (or skip) the intro.

- You select your initial loadout for the run, or simply take the default loadout. This is critically important as it's basically your only source of high-tech weapons, medkits, and such. But even though you can get more food during the journey you have to balance the need to take some food straight off. But you can only bring a limited amount of stuff total.

- You start the first travel stage, and each day (turn) of that you can change what each of the four team groups (initially just 1 person per group, but they can each get subordinates) will do. Who's carrying how much of the load, who (if anyone) is scouting during the travel, who gets how much rest, who should do what when not traveling or resting (like tending wounded, repairing broken items, foraging, etc), and other decisions like that.

We at OMGeek are thinking THIS, but with more sci-fi guns and man-eating plants

- Every few turns you'll run into an encounter that's randomly chosen from a list defined for that part of the game. This can be contact with the native population or local "wildlife" (which is pretty monstrous) or whatever. Sometimes it's combat but if your scouting and stealth is good enough you can usually avoid that (though you may not want to, as bandits have loot and animals can be cut up for food). Other times it's a less violent situation, but even there your choices affect your reputation, and certain kinds of rep make your life harder, easier, or more violent in future encounters.

- Once your total distance traveled reaches the next threshold, that's the end of the travel stage and you get a scripted encounter. Some of these are fairly simple ("do we take path A or path B to the next destination?"), others are much more complex ("do we help group A defend their fort so they'll let us through, or do we help group B take the fort, or do we just shoot through all of them, or do we try to force a truce?") and depend on your previous encounters and choices, etc.

- Then you start the next travel stage. Repeat until you die, or reach the end of the game. The ending (and score) you get is based on more than just whether you survive, however.

Will there be a co-op game mode added in the future?

"Okay, who picked those poisoned berries for breakfast?"

KL: Co-op is currently a part of the design for 1.0. Instead of 1 person giving orders to all 4 team groups, up to 4 players can divide up who gets to give orders to which team groups. The whole team still travels together, so it's still playing the same game. Just together :)

Are there any end-game goals, besides surviving?

KL: Yes. Your decisions and how efficient you are with time factors into the ending. But the primary goal, and the only one the game really presents you with on the first playthrough, is to get to the end alive. The others are there to reward more advanced play. There's also a scoring system for those who like that kind of thing.

What steps have you taken to ensure replayability?

KL: It takes several playthroughs to see everything. For one thing there's the different endings, but the big difference to the bulk of the gameplay is that reaching certain outcomes in the scripted encounters unlock new choices for the loadout selection at the beginning of the game. Stuff like increasing the maximum number of Energy Bomb Launchers you can take (though you'll have to make room by leaving other stuff behind) for a higher-firepower run. Or being able to take a new kind of item that wasn't available at all in the first playthrough. There's one unlockable weapon in particular that's quite handy for pursuing... "alternate" resolutions to certain encounters.

It takes a multitude of timelines to experience everything!

There's also the different initial settings and the randomized encounters during travel stages.

Which platforms are you targeting for these games?

Chris Park: At the moment, just PC and OSX, like our other games. We'd like to get to Linux support, but there have been a few technical barriers. Most of our games run great on WINE, though, so we expect this will as well.

How are you applying your experience in developing your past games to these new titles?

CP: That's a very broad question! I think that you can't separate out any past experiences as not having an effect on your present actions, you know? Back to that whole "butterfly effect" idea. With our past games we have built up a huge custom engine for 2D games on top of the general Unity 3D engine; we've developed a very large codebase for various sorts of effects and GUIs and networking and so forth; we've built up an increasingly experienced team; and we've developed a lot of techniques in AI, procedural generation, and so on. Our perspectives on game design in general have also matured.

That's a fairly generic answer I suppose, but there's one big thing that we've taken from our past experiences: a desire to make games that are easier to get into -- less of a steep learning curve -- but which have the same depth as the deepest of our titles. That's a harder problem than just making a complicated strategy game for hardcore players, but we're getting better at it. The basic idea is to make something that has a pretty simple set of surface rules -- like Chess, a game you can explain in 10 minutes -- but where those rules have far-reaching implications.

In our case of course, we still like a more complicated ruleset, but we ease the player into it a bit better than in our past titles. Not in a way that is dumbed-down for experienced players, however; that was another big concern. If you make a game that is deceptively simple at the start, the hardcore players assume that's all there is and get frustrated. Or they can't wait to "get to the good part." However, a game like Chess has this idea of a beginning, middle, and late game. There are broad distinct things that players at all skill levels are doing during each of those phases. For Skyward we literalized that sort of structure, and made it so that the game is played in three rounds of increasing complexity. But the first round is not boring: it's absolutely critical for setting up a strong position for the later rounds, and quite a bit happens during the first round anyhow. Then when round 2 starts and the first of the gods come out, things really start to heat up.

KL: All our past projects have taught us valuable lessons that go into future work, but for Exodus we're drawing particularly heavily on what we've learned from AI War and the AI War community. There's a big audience out there that likes making strategic decisions that have a real impact on how the game unfolds. Some like it easy, some like it difficult. Some like it RIDICULOUSLY difficult. We're catering to that whole range here. We've also got a good-sized community who want to know more about the AI War universe, so we're exploring some of that backstory here.

What other genres do you plan to tackle and “riff on” in the future?

CP: Oh, we have a never-ending supply of ideas. Both in a backlog of things we've wanted to do for a long time, plus new ideas that are occurring to us all the time. Tactics games, roguelike games, and more strategy titles are definitely among those in our future, though.

Tactics, roguelikes, and strategy: a mix that sounds just right up my alley. We'd like to thank Erik Johnson, Keith LaMothe, and Chris Park for taking the time to discuss their games with OMGeek! We certainly had fun sifting through your thoughts about the games you're working on. We'll have more news about Skyward Collapse and Exodus of the Machine as development progresses. We'll keep you posted!

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