Company History As Recollected In 2021 - Part 2
Table of Contents
When I set out to write this history, I had no idea that it would be so lengthy. Knowing myself, I should have figured, but still. I’m doing my best to keep things brief, but at the same time we’re talking about 12 years, way more than 12 games, and I’m not even sure how many products.
In part one, we talked about just two of those years, two of those games, and three products. Let’s pick up where we left off.
The year is 2011. Tidalis flopped last year, and there was a big stink about finances in the autumn, but holiday season 2010 was a major earner. I’m not rich, but I’m also clearly not about to be broke, either. Looks like I’m starting to be a not-completely-trivial player in the indie gaming market.
AI War is currently on version 3.x, and people just love that thing. November of 2010 saw a ton of new reviews for the game, and the game is riding high. It’s still running on my custom engine that I coded for it, though, and that thing — though very fast — is creaky and hard to install and only works on windows.
Tidalis was our first game to port that engine — in a small capacity — over to the Unity 3D engine. Keith helped out a fair bit with that, but there was a lot of trial and error and testing for both of us. What quickly became apparent was that Unity’s standard way of doing things was terrible for performance in the sort of games we wanted to make. Side-along to that discovery was the fact that their actual raw graphics pipeline was pretty slick, though. Tidalis ran great, and people were clamoring for mac support from AI War.
The porting job was hard, and slow, and exposed a lot of things that that Unity 3D really did poorly at the time. Their version of Mono back then was abysmal compared to brand-name .NET, and that was a problem that wouldn’t really be rectified until 2017.
Keith and I had to trim the unit counts a bit, and rework a lot of the simulation to get anything close to the performance we had seen in my engine, but overall the improvements were positive. Even so, there were purists who swore they would never leave the old engine and version 3.x of the game. For them, anything after that wasn’t “real AI War” anymore, because we had changed so much.
We had started the porting job in 2010, along with work on our second major expansion for the game, Light of the Spire. Part of the refactoring that we were doing also went to supporting multiple factions beyond just humans and the AI, and also making the game translation-capable. A German and a Russian translation were released in 2011 along with physical releases in both of those regions, thanks to publishing partner deals introduced by our lawyer, Patrick Sweeney.
Light of the Spire was another big hit, commercially and critically, and we released the first collected edition of the game: AI War Alien Edition. That sold like hotcakes.
I still had a lot of anxiety about all of our eggs being in one basket, but at least at this point we’d demonstrated that we could work with publishers, that we could support multiple platforms, and that we could even support multiple languages. Plus, being on the Unity Engine opened up many possibilities for the future: I thought we might do something with iOS in particular, but in the end that wasn’t the direction we went.
Leaving Behind AI War
After Light of the Spire came out, I essentially retired from much of anything to do with the original AI War. This surprises a lot of people, but we intentionally didn’t make too big a deal about it at the time.
The expansions after this point were something I financed and acted as producer on in a kind of distant way (there were three more), but they were all helmed by Keith LaMothe. I had (and still have) a ton of trust in him, and I did not exercise a lot of oversight on his work. If he had questions, we would talk. If players were unhappy about something, I would get involved if he wanted me to. But for the most part, I was now free to focus on other things. This whole arrangement worked out really well for everyone, from what I can tell.
Experimenting With 2D Forced Perspective
I wasn’t feeling so anxious anymore, but I was feeling the frustration of being “that strategy game developer.” Platformers were my number one favorite genre when I was younger, and back when I was a romhacker in the 90s, my Super Mario Bros 3 Challenge griefer/kazio thing had been my most popular item by far.
That said, there were a LOT of indie platformers, even back then, and I didnt’ want to be lost among those. I figured that I would try to come up with a new form of forced-perspective 2D game. If you’re not aware, games like Final Fantasy 6 and Chrono Trigger (my two favorite games of all time) use a “top down” perspective that actually shows you the front AND top of most buildings, and just the front/side of most characters. It’s a faked perspective that works well with SNES-era 16bit pixelart. It’s not one that works all that well in a more modern style, as it turns out. A lot of other companies discovered this more recently on iOS, and arguably Squaresoft is still wrestling with understanding this in their recent “HD” remakes of their classic games.
The aesthetic I was able to get was pretty decent, though, if kind of… strange and rough. Everything was modeled in 3D, because I’m not a pixel artist or a 2D artist, and because I wasn’t to try handling the art myself if I could. This was going to be a big project, because I had procedural generation on the brain and wanted to have an epic scope like AI War, Terraria, or Minecraft.
You can see how that evolved over time in a series of videos that I put out around the time, and people were getting pretty hyped for this game. Mostly not the same people who liked AI War, but that was fine with me — I didn’t want to keep coming back to the same exact audience over and over again.
I wrote a variety of procedural-generation algorithms, I made a level editor for indoor sections that were hand-designed, I worked really hard on a system to fake shadows in a fairly-convincing way (for some reason this really consumed a ton of my time; I will confess I am prey to certain technical rabbit holes, which you’ll see in future years ago, and this was an early one).
Oh, I forgot! Originally, this title was going to be a tower defense game, kind of like PixelJunk Monsters. Hence this image, with art and logo by Phil Chabot:
But I moved away from that quite fast, and so only that one image really remained to even remind anyone that this was once going to be tower defense.
Like I said, anticipation was high. This game was the earliest inkling that I had that such a thing could be negative: that people could be looking forward to something so much that they think they know what it is before it fully exists. Disappointment inevitably follows that sort of anticipation.
Rock Paper Shotgun did a two–part interview with me, this game was mentioned on the cover of PC Powerplay (with a three-page spread inside), and a bit in Boy’s Life, and so on. This was only my fourth or fifth appearance in a magazine, and the first time being mentioned even as a small item on the front. And this was only the major coverage; tons of smaller sites also got in on the action.
All of it was going pretty well, but… well, for a variety of reasons I decided to switch it to being a side-view game (a platformer) in June of that year. That change… led to a whole lot of ridicule. It was seriously discussed if I knew what the heck I was doing at all, and people did a very good job of aiming right at my anxieties. I was, of course, wondering the same thing.
Honestly, at this point ten years on, I wish I had stuck with it being top-down. There were graphical things that bugged me and that I thought were just too-rough to work (a lot of it had to do with shadows, or my inability to show certain things near the sky/cliffs). In retrospect, a game like Don’t Starve does exactly what I was doing, and never shows the sky. It didn’t exist yet, but it uses the same sort of funky perspective that I was and gets away with it.
It’s worth taking a moment aside and really noting what was fueling my anxiety the most, because this bit me again later with the ill-fated In Case of Emergency, Release Raptor: there were certain technical seams that I could see, and that was driving me crazy. The shadows weren’t quite right, or I couldn’t show the sky the way I wanted at cliffs, or whatever. It doesn’t really matter what the specific issue was (there is always something), what matters is the standard I was holding myself to. I had a one-year-old son at this point, and I didn’t have time to really game much anymore. The little gaming that I did was pretty much just playing Minecraft or 7 Days To Die with Marisa.
The key context I was missing? Even AAA games have seams. All over the place. As players, we learn to just look past them. As a developer, since I wasn’t playing games all that much anymore, especially not AAA ones, I had stopped seeing those seams in other developers’ work and so was holding myself to a stupidly high standard over things that ultimately didn’t matter. It wasted months of time, when I really think about it, and it kept me from working on more important things. (I mean, the months weren’t a complete waste — exploring the edges of things like that is an amazing learning opportunity. But there’s a time and a place, and a certain perspective I was missing at the time).
Losing That One-Hit Wonder Status
So there was a furor over the flip to side-view, and that was probably correct to happen. But nonetheless, the game continued onward in development, and released to quite a lot of positive acclaim in May of 2012. The graphics were forever being criticized, and yes there was plenty to criticize, but at the same time EVERY game gets criticized for graphics.
A Valley Without Wind was an immediate hit, and even though the Metacritic score was not nearly as high as AI War’s had been, this game was selling faster and to a wider audience. Within a couple of months, it had sold enough to equal AI War’s earnings up to that point. That was delightful!
That meant I was no longer a one-hit wonder, that I could in fact do this sort of thing on purpose and have it work (AI War was far too accidental a creation for me to be comfortable in my own skin with just that out there), and that all of Arcen’s financial eggs were no longer in one basket.
Multiplayer for this game had also turned into a major headache, because it needed to be much more complex and integrate some action-game semantics into it. I remember feeling really stuck, and describing what I wanted to have happen to Keith, and then him mostly making it work on his own. I know I was involved, but he really did the heavy lifting on that, because I was feeling overwhelmed.
But hey! The game was selling well, people were saying great things about it for the most part, and I should have pretty much left things there and moved on to a new project, with some lingering ongoing support for this game as I did so. That would have been the smart move, and I’d like to think it was what I would do now, but the best teacher in life is failure. So I went and made what was probably the stupidest mistake of my career, even though it worked out mostly-fine in the end.
Time To Do Something Really Stupid
I really had not caught on to the seasonal nature of video game sales… or something. It was August again, and I was worrying about finances again. Granted, I had a fulltime staff of five people, including myself, at this point. And none of those people were artists, except kinda-sorta me, so we had a lot of contractors cycling in and out, too.
My point is that expenses were up, and I wanted to keep everyone employed and things going well, and seasonal dips in revenue were freaking me out. I was also reading too much of the press and player commentary about my work. Some degree of reading criticism of your work is good and healthy, and you don’t want to be in an echo chamber with just your biggest fans patting you on the back all the time… but at the same time if you give too much credence to people who don’t like a thing you made, and will fundamentally never like that thing no matter what you do to “improve” it, then you’re going to make some questionable decisions.
I promised to do a free art upgrade for the game, replacing all of my art with art by better artists. In August of 2012, I explained how things were going with that: I had selected a studio, was going to fund this myself rather than running a kickstarter like I had considered for a bit, and so on. My anxiety was back in a major way. (If I had just waited a few months, sales would have picked up again in the fourth quarter and things would have been fine. And I should have just ignored the haters, because “haters gonna hate.”)
The art upgrade was a bad idea to begin with, for a couple of reasons, but I went and made it much worse over the following months. But first of all, let’s take a quick look at just why this was such a bad idea to begin with:
- Anyone who didn’t love the existing art wasn’t likely to suddenly buy the game if there was an art redo.
- There was more art than I had really appreciated, and having a studio replace it all was realistically going to be $50k or more out of pocket, and that was conservative. In the end I went with a studio that said they could do it for $17k but wound up costing $36k, and I wound up doing a lot of the monster animations and some other details myself.
- What is the upside to this? It’s time to make a new game. Games don’t live forever, unless it’s Minecraft (or, at the time, AI War). But the art was super prominent on all of the store pages and marketing materials, and so it wasn’t like anyone was duped into buying the game without knowing how it looked. If anything, it looked better in motion than in video or screenshots.
In other words, there was no good, truly rational reason to do this art upgrade. There were some very unlikely possible windfalls that it could generate, but mostly this was me feeling guilty (about a lot of things, but partly how Steam kind of was kingmaking Arcen products at the time when other indies did not have that benefit), and me feeling anxious and inadequate. I should have just let it go: a lot of people were buying it, those people were playing it and enjoying it, and the number of people playing it rather extensively was high. Those are the metrics that matter.
Well, on September 28th, 2012, I announced the really stupid thing: that instead of getting an art upgrade, this would be a full sequel, for free to all existing customers, and vice-versa. Facepalm. This almost took a profitable project and made it unprofitable, but thankfully it didn’t quite get that bad.
What Else Was Going On Around This Period?
Keith developed Ancient Shadows, the fourth DLC for AI War, and released that on October 18th, 2012. I supported on art and such, and funded it, and gave some consulting thoughts, but was otherwise completely hands-off. I was fully focused on A Valley Without Wind 2. Ancient Shadows was a big hit, and introduced Champions, which was one of the most-popular features that AI War ever had. Actually I think I helped out a bit more with those than in other DLCs, come to think of it, but I really remember that period of time very poorly.
Because art was the limiting factor with Valley 2, and because I was tired of just working on giant monolithic projects, I dedicated to pick back up work on Alden Ridge — that Lode Runner inspired game that I had been working on in 2008 and set aside to work on AI War. I called upon one of the best level designers I know, another friend from my modding days back in the 90s, Zack Cataldo, and got him to help out with doing more levels for the game.
A Moment Of Perspective
This all sounds pretty chaotic, doesn’t it? It certainly did feel that way at the time, too. But here’s an interesting statistic: after its first year in business, and lasting all the way until 2015, Arcen never earned less than the high $200k range per year, and with the release of Valley 1 it was from then on $300k or more.
From 2009 through 2014, Arcen never failed to have at least 15% total earnings increase per year compared to the year prior, and in some years it was even more than that. I did a whole lot of worrying, but overall things were really solid.
Then again, I was trying to build essentially a family-friendly business. Everyone that worked for me was being paid above market rate for the industry, we had great health benefits, I didn’t require overtime from anyone (though I was known for constantly doing overtime myself), and there were enough people so that if I took a week off for vacation I wouldn’t have a bunch of angry customers when I got back.
Back then, tiny companies (like an Etsy store, or an indie game developer) were not really a thing people were used to. People thought of corporations as giant monolithic things. If you order something on Etsy right now, and the person has a notice saying that they are out of the office for a week, so things will be delayed, you’re going to be annoyed at the timing but not outraged at them personally. (How DARE this tiny independent person take a vacation!?). Back then, it was like… companies don’t close, you know? Unless it’s a holiday or something, somebody has to be there to answer questions and provide support and so on.
Thankfully the mindset has changed in the modern market, but back then it was really easy to let anxiety take the wheel because I felt like I had to have the uptime and availability of a major company with dozens or hundreds of employees. Having more staff to help ease that load meant less work for me and more ability for me to take time off… but also fueled a need for more and more income in order to pay everyone, and so I still wound up not taking much time off. It’s a vicious cycle that I would recommend avoiding if you can.
Up Next: 2013 and 2014, Peak Arcen
The year 2013 was one of very high highs and very low lows, but it was a very productive year no matter how you look at it. We released more products that year than any other, and had some good successes as well as (debatably) our biggest flops in that year. In 2014, we had our fastest-selling game. I explore these in part three.