Developer Transparency

I’ve done a pretty hefty interview with Arcen Games, of AI War fame, about A Valley Without Wind, their next game. So far it’s part one of two, with the whole interview being just shy of seven thousand words. It’s a big one, and that’s after I’ve edited it down into a leaner, more riveting version of its first self. Along with the interview, Arcen have kindly supplied a few screenshots of their (very early) pre alpha build, which they’ve only just completed some of the first art assets on. Like, two or three days ago.

They’re a bit rough around the edges, (which, coincidentally, was one of the first issues that they’ve fixed, removing this weird white outline around each bit of foliage), and, admittedly, the whole style is pretty bold and a little busy. And the general tone of the comments, an odd hundred of them, has been ‘game sounds great, but the graphics look awful’. A good portion of these comments have gone on to detail the problems they have with the graphics, which is eminently more useful to a developer than just ‘that sucks’, but you’d forgive Arcen for being a little saddened.

Admirably, they haven’t been. Keith Lamothe, one of the development team, has been talking with the commenters on RPS and trying to figure out whether this kind of transparency is useful to them as consumers, and what they can do about the graphics that doesn’t require a huge dedicated art team. It’s indicative of Arcen Games’ attitude towards development as a whole, as they’ve been releasing near daily updates for AI War since its release in 2009, along with three considerable expansion packs, which mostly contained features their community have asked for.

But that question about developer transparency is an interesting one. Obviously it’s a double-edged sword; if you release assets early on in development, when nothing is final, and the graphics themselves can look a little placeholder, you might put people off buying your game, thinking it looks pretty shoddy. Peter Molyneux is someone who knows this all too well, although that’s a slightly different kind of transparency; a view directly into his idea nexus, where everything is swirling around and crazy and half formed. The point stands, though, that this sort of thing can seriously screw a company over, especially a larger one, as not only can you put people off with stuff that’s not final, but you might not be able to directly implement solutions to any criticisms, although, in the case of something like The Witcher 2, sometimes you can. (Although it’s worth pointing out that CD Projekt are independent, giving them sole control of their game.)

The benefits are pretty vast, especially for someone like Arcen Games. In the second half of the interview (up tomorrow), I talked with Chris Pine about how they’re planning on using their alpha testing period, which will hopefully launch in March, to familiarise the game tools with their incredibly active community. The hope is to not only have a constant feedback loop with the community, where they can shape the game as much as the developers, but also to weaponise that community where they’re helping to build the game in a direct way as well as an indirect one. Because A Valley Without Wind is procedurally generated, there’s going to have to be a sizable effort made to create procedural scripts so that you don’t see the same building over and over again, just because it doesn’t have a large enough database to iterate anything vastly different.

So, Arcen give the community an early build of the game, and let them go Spore all over it. Cut out the bad stuff, keep the good, and suddenly they’re doing the work of a couple hundred programmers, rather than the one or two on the team. And not only that, but you get players investing in it far more, because they suddenly realise they get to have stuff other people can see out there, populating people’s games. It’s development as collaboration, which is a beautiful thing.

It’s something that works for indie teams far more than it does the huge developers. Not only does a smaller team mean a more cohesive development process, but being independent means that the only people they’re accountable for are themselves and the people who buy their games. They don’t have a publisher breathing down their neck, so they’re able to make drastic changes if they believe that that’s what their community wants, without any approval or red tape required. And, most importantly, they get to get those changes out to their customers near instantly, letting them see the changes happen in real time.

I’ve got every faith in the project, and while this first public exposure might have stung a little bit, it’s tough love, and the game will be stronger for it, I’m sure.

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About Phill Cameron

I've graduated, had a look at the world, and spat. Now I'm devoting my time to moving from 3/4 of a games journalist to 9/10ths. I figure I can get away with 9/10ths.
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One Response to Developer Transparency

  1. Dinger says:

    To be honest, their art style uses lots of sharp detail, and the after scaling and compression, the screenshots and video look so off-putting that the first thing that jumped into my mind was “this really looks like crap.” The second thing was “how could they take themselves seriously in an interview?”
    When I saw Lamothe’s reaction I wondered “doesn’t he realize this really looks like crap?” And so I looked up the website with the original screenshots and HD video, and saw that they weren’t so bad as they looked on RPS.

    Now I just think they have some artistic issues to work out. I wonder if I would have thought the same if the RPS article had representative screenshots instead.

    So, my take on this:

    A. What Arcen are coming to realize (along with everyone else) is that being an independent software house on a small budget means participating in an “indie ecosystem”, and that’s what your article (and the reaction to it) does really well at capturing.
    B. Those little screenshot boxes that are used to decorate articles are extremely important for shaping impressions and guiding the discussion. Whoever resized and jpg’d the images for the piece did a huge disservice to the game. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Arcen that supplied them like that.
    C. Combining A and B: video and image hosting services are an important part of the “indie ecosystem”, and games that are friendly to such services have an advantage. Minecraft blows through the Valley interview like the wind: I feel its everywhere and see it nowhere: one of the many elements to Minecraft’s success has been the facility with which it lends itself to YouTube. YouTube videos are easy to make, and the game looks good in 360p. AVWW’s pre-alpha preview looks awful in 360p.
    D. At the end of the day, someone’s paying the rent, and someone’s just an asshole on the internet. “Transparency” works when you control the narrative. I could bring in the “humble caveman lawyer” approach that works for Notch, but an even better example is when Isaiah Mustafa and Old Spice owned the internet for three days in the fall: a huge team of professionals holed up in Portland and worked 16-hour days to convince the internet-watching public that they were in a press conference with a hyperbolic man wearing nothing but a towel. That’s transparency. Monocle smile!

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