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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!

Chris Park on Skyward Collapse: "My big fear with games is always that players will find an optimal unbeatable strategy."

You can also grab this wallpaper by visiting the Skyward Collapse forums! Skyward Collapse by Arcen Games has an incredibly interesting concept for a god game -- there is no winning by spamming the most powerful thing to be the last man standing. Players are challenged to apply a subtle touch to ensure that two warring factions generate the most possible carnage without wiping each other out. It makes sense from a twisted and divine point of view. If gods thrive on worship, then surely more devout followers means more praise to feed on.

We wanted to find out more about the ideas that led to the game's development, and Skyward's lead programmer and designer (and Arcen Games founder) Chris Park was kind enough to supply us with his answers, and they are very engaging and insightful answers indeed.

Read on for more about Skyward Collapse!

This is a god-game that sounds legitimately god-like, but also unlike anything we've seen before. Do you have any specific inspirations that led you to this design?

Chris Park: I've always loved boardgames as well as computer games and video games, and in years past I really enjoyed the game Carcassonne. That in itself was an echo of a game I played much earlier in life, called Rivers Roads and Rails. Both of these games used a tile-placement mechanic that I found endlessly fun, however I always wished that I could see the people come to life and do things. I wished as a preschooler to see the trains running on the tracks and the cars driving. As a young adult I wished I could see the commerce in the cities and what was happening with the populace.

The tile-laying game Carcassonne in action

The idea for Skyward Collapse came out of these desires. Though I have played and immensely enjoyed several god-games in the past, I wasn't setting out to make one. I was thinking of a "tile-placement boardgame come to life" and the god-game aspects came forward when Josh Knapp -- my co-designer on this title -- and I were talking about potential themes for the game.

Why aren’t players able to choose a faction to control?

CP: Somewhat a bit inherent to me, at least, for the god-game genre is that your influence is indirect. You may be the god-figure, but your little minions or worshipers or whatever do not do what you want! This also again comes back to the idea of the boardgame-come-to-life idea. It wasn't that I wanted to drive the trains or direct the commerce or anything: it was that I wanted to see the "butterfly effect" of how my larger actions would change the lives of the little people living in the land I created for them.

The butterfly effect requires a subtle touch

But this game had to be about more than just that: I really wanted to make a heavier strategic element than any tile-placement game I'd ever seen, and more than most god-games as well. In order to do that, there typically has to be conflict at the core; so okay, now we have two factions who are at war, logically. Originally Josh and I were talking about the idea of having it be where you could directly control neither faction, but you were rooting for one to win. The problem is, that is a bit easy: since you can deprive one of resources and grant resources to the other, that is just super easy. So we had this idea that "your score is your opponent's score." Aka, you want to win, but you want to win by as small a margin as possible in order to really do well.

That was very interesting and exciting, but it was confusing to explain. "Okay, you have a score and your opponent has a score, but at the end your score is his score if you win." What!? It was overly complex. So the idea became that you don't care which faction wins, but your score is whichever is lower. There are other loss conditions instead: such as if genocide occurs; or failing to meet these "edicts" that have been set to you. The edicts idea came about from talking to players, and it's very clever; we hadn't thought of that on our own.

In the end, the reason players aren't able to control one specific faction is because that's what makes the game difficult and unique. There is no evil AI opposing you. There's just you, and the very difficult goals that have been set to you, and then all the AI of the little guys running around the board killing each other, engaging in trade and commerce, and so forth. Your job as the player is to bring a certain amount of balance to that scenario, while at the same time managing to achieve secondary goals. It's tricky, it's fun, and it's not like anything I've seen before. So when we had that concept, we ran with it.

Why did you choose to feature the Greeks and Norse?

With apologies to Robbaz, King of Sweden

CP: Finding an original scenario theme is very hard in the strategy genre. We wanted something that had not been completely over-trodden, and so were thinking of ideas as crazy as things like Dinosaurs or Western. But none of those felt right, they felt too cartoony. Something on the other end like the Napoleonic Wars or the Civil War was far too dry and serious, though. In the end it was Josh who said "What about the Norse? They have this crazy mythology that is deep and not really explored much in games." So I said sure, let's also do the Greeks or the Romans then -- I had five years of Latin, and knew a lot about that end. We went with Greeks over Romans because the Anglicized names of the gods would be more familiar to people (even though the mythologies are essentially the same from a broad sense).

Greeks and Norse have both been done in other games, please don't misunderstand me. I don't pretend to be blind to that! But what we've done is really gone in-depth with them in a way that I've not seen before. Josh has been incredible at historical research, and we've also made a few things up that seem fitting but are actually fabricated (this is a fantasy version of these civilizations, not a literally-historical version). The main example of where we had to fabricate was in the Norse siege units, because that's not something they really used. Beyond that, the mythologies are so huge and so deep that we were able to do a lot. We used a lot of mythological artifacts, unlike most games, which I think is one thing that really sets these apart. There are about 64 such artifacts (called god tokens or mythological tokens) in the game, along with 16 gods.

Asking the player to balance two factions almost sounds like a way of sharing with us the pain game developers have to go through. How are you balancing both sides to, well, make it a challenge for the player to balance them?

CP: It's pretty similar to what a developer has to go through, but I think that the best comparison is actually what a DM has to go through in a pen-and-paper RPG. In terms of our own jobs with balance on this game, well, it's unusual to say the least! With every game we've ever made, balance has always been very important. The challenge in the past has always been to make things as distinct as possible while also being asymmetrically balanced. That is pretty hard, because if things are the same in power it's hard to make them feel unique past a certain point. We're very good at that at this point, but this game actually has the opposite challenge, which is interesting.

"A great metaphor [for Skyward] is the game of Jenga."

For Skyward, our challenge is actually to intentionally unbalance the game in various ways, but to do so in a fun way. A great metaphor is the game of Jenga: when you are playing, you want to remove supports that don't cause the tower to fall down, but which make it much harder on your opponents their next turns. It actually has been a really fun but startling process: Josh and I are designing some particular god power, and we're like "whoa, that's totally OP!" And then, after a moment: "great!" It's funny, because having all of these powers that would traditionally be overpowered actually makes this game vastly harder. Since the players' role is reversed, so is the balance philosophy.

I do want to stress that you can play this at a low level without needing an advanced degree in mathematics or something. The game is very easy to pick up and just play with. But the depth is there in that there are so incredibly many moving parts, and so much asymmetry to everything that it's hard to find a "best path." My big fear with games is always that players will find an optimal unbeatable strategy, and so our chief goals with balance on this particular game are to both make sure that the balance is fun, and to make sure it's not something that players can find a single ultimate strategy in. The freedom this has given us as designers is actually pretty crazy, and we've been able to create a lot of powers and mechanics that simply wouldn't be possible in most strategy titles.

Is there an underlying message that you’re trying to communicate?

CP: Thematically, no. In the same sense that Chess isn't a message about the perils of war, or Sudoku isn't trying to encourage you to take more math classes or something. What all of these sorts of games have in common is that they are easy for a novice to pick up, but they also have very challenging depths for people who wish to "graduate" to them. My goal with this game (and in fact most of the games I work on) is to provide an experience that is both fun, but which also sharpens the minds of those who play it.

A great big thanks to Chris Park and Erik Johnson of Arcen Games for granting us this interview. Stay tuned for more on Skyward's release!

Check back tomorrow for our interview about Exodus of the Machine with lead programmer and designer Keith LaMothe, and more words from Chris about the team's past experiences, how they matter, and other genres they're looking at.

Two uniquely thematic titles from Arcen Games coming this year

When gaming critics and analysts talk about the indie movement as the last best hope for continued originality and innovation in the games we play, it’s not always that easy to imagine exactly how that originality is supposed to come about. It’s to our benefit, then, that the minds behind AI War: Fleet Command and A Valley Without Wind are stepping up to continue doing what they do best.

Indie developer Arcen Games has announced Exodus of the Machine and Skyward Collapse, two new games in wildly different genres, both in theme and in gameplay.

Read on for more early info about these games!

Exodus of the Machine

Exodus of the Machine is billed as a strategic journey game set in the world of AI War: Fleet Command. On paper, it sounds like an adventure game with strategic resource management elements:

Lead a team trapped on a hostile planet and desperately pursuing a threat which could destroy humanity outright.

Vicious predators, clashing armies, and political intrigue stand in your way. None can stand before your modern weapons, but where do you use your limited ammunition? Do you resort to diplomacy, or native weapons? Will you fall to disease or run out of food stores? Can you get to the end in time?

Exodus combines Arcen's love of all things strategic within a framework reminiscent of our old favorite Oregon Trail.

Skyward Collapse

Skyward Collapse is an isometric god game that quite possibly gets the idea of being a god better than any of the others out there. Instead of making you rampage all over the heathen hordes with your worship-fueled powers, Skyward Collapse requires a subtle and delicate touch:

Set high in the sky atop a floating landmass that you are actively constructing as the game progresses, you oversee two warring factions (Greeks and Norse). Via solo play or co-op, you play as "The Creator," helping both sides of the conflict -- granting each side buildings, resources, and even new citizens.

However, the multitude of villages you create all have minds of their own, and will actively try to stomp the nearest still-standing village of the other faction. Given the resources and appropriate buildings, your villagers will gear up for war without your direct interaction, and will fight it out to the best of their abilities.

Unlike most strategy games, your goal isn't to have either of the sides win. "You" aren't represented by either of the sides, after all. Instead your goal is to balance this conflict as best you can so that neither side gets wiped out. You win by having the most points generated (read: most carnage) without either side committing genocide.

That is very, very interesting indeed.

We’re eager to find out more about Exodus and Skyward, and we have reached out to Arcen Games to gather more first-hand information about both games. We'll post more in-depth coverage soon.

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