Thursday, November 21, 2013

Holiday Guide For Arcen Titles

The holidays are coming up fast, and so 'tis the season to start thinking about gifts for friends and family.  Arcen's catalog of games has really swelled this year, and you may have missed some of our titles.  Or you may be new to Arcen, and may have overlooked our excellent older titles.  Here's a quick guide to finding out more about what we've got to offer:

Bionic Dues (On our site / On Steam)
A fast-paced, tactical rogue-lite that critics and players are calling Arcen's best title since our original hit AI War: Fleet Command.

“What's wonderful about Bionic Dues is that it manages to combine meta-strategy and micro-strategy... It's like a fast-paced, mini-XCOM.”
Andrew Groen, The Penny Arcade Report

“Top game moment: Realising a momentary oversight has condemned you to almost certain doom, but then, with only a perfect set of well-thought long-contemplated moves, you pull everything out the bag, blow the rig, and get the hell out of dodge to receive a hard-earned mission successful.”
8.5/10 – Richard Nolan, Strategy Informer

“Bionic Dues delivers tough decisions, sweeping tactics and enormous mech battles; packing massive replayability and unpredictability into its budget price point. A 'Rogue-lite' to remember and to savour through numerous scorched-earth defeats and hard-won victories.”
8/10, Editor's Choice – Jonathan Lester, Dealspwn

AI War: Fleet Command (On our site / On Steam)
A truly unique blend of grand strategy with traditional RTS mechanics, pitting you against one of the most notable AIs in strategy gaming in a tense, fun, David vs Goliath scenario.  Five massive expansions and counting over the last four years!

AI War breaks most of the genre's rules. Which is precisely why it's incredible... This out-of-the-blue one-man passion project is one of this year's finest strategy games.
- Alec Meer, PC Gamer UK, November 2009

I think I've stumbled across this year's Really New Thing. There's a lot of 2009 to go, but I'll be surprised if anyone else twists the RTS formula this dramatically and this effectively. And I'm hoping it'll be the Next Big Thing, because it's big, different, entirely unprecedented and an exciting way to play an RTS.
- Rush, Boom, Turtle: And Now for Something Completely Different, by Tom Chick (Crispy Gamer)

Having played this title at two distinct points in its life cycle what really stands out is the incredible dedication of Arcen Games in keeping one top of how the game evolves and expands. Even though a great many features have been added and tweaked and refined, it was possible for me to drop back into AI War after more than a year away and not find it to be a confusing mish-mash of feature overload. The post-release support is, quite honestly, the best I've seen for any game.
- Peter Parrish, IncGamers, Reviewing Light of the Spire

Skyward Collapse (On our site / On Steam)
A completely unique subverting of the "god game" genre, this game turns the normal expectation of being able to control everything on its head.  Instead you manage unruly subjects indirectly in this turn-based hilarity-generator.  Also spawned a great expansion pack, Nihon no Mura!

- "It brings real innovation to a genre that’s seen little significant deviation from 1989’s Populous."
9/10 - Rob Savillo , GamesBeat

"I can never play Skyward Collapse again. I work from home. Frankly, having it – and the accompanying temptation – within arm's reach would be detrimental to my productivity."
Richard Mitchell, Joystiq

A Valley Without Wind
(On our site / On Steam)
A sprawling, infinite, procedurally generated 2D sidescroller.  Loosely a "Metroidvania" title mixed with some citybuilding (think Actraiser) and SHMUP elements.  Thanks to our loyal fans, we also include A Valley Without Wind 2 for free when you purchase it!

Every thought of "I'll just give it five more minutes" turned into, "Wait, where did that last hour go?"
- Kate Cox, Kotaku

The thing that struck me first about A Valley Without Wind is that it is absolutely vast. This is a game that you can sink hours and hours into, and still feel as though you’ve only started.
- Amy Nelson, Brutal Gamer

But really, at the heart of what A Valley Without Wind is about, at least for me, is exploration and it does it phenomenally.
Geoff Gibson, DIYGamer

A Valley Without Wind 2
(On our site / On Steam)
A complete reinvention of the Valley franchise, set in a different part of the same world.  Gameplay alternates between two complementary modes: brief, tightly-designed platforming segments with character customization and Contra-like combat; and quick strategic turns on the world map where you order your troops to fight, scavenge, build, recruit, farm, and use special powers.

Its unconventional and addictive blend of classic platforming action and basic strategy segments makes every accomplishment more meaningful and every failure more devastating, and the very real possibility that you will fail to vanquish Demonaica raises the stakes enough to make everything more interesting still."

"It’s a minor miracle that Arcen Games could revise Valley Without Wind 1 so completely without simply upgrading it, that they have instead made a completely separate game that plays so differently and creates a unique type of experience based on getting your ass kicked."

Tidalis (On our site / On Steam)
A surprisingly deep block-based puzzle game that for once isn't just another "match 3" title.  Having more in common (vaguely speaking) with Panel de Pon and Tetris Attack, Tidalis includes a wealth of gameplay modes that can keep you engaged for dozens of hours.

"Tidalis is a match-3 game that doesn't feel tired or repetitive: I actually want to play it, which says something considering how many puzzle games I've reviewed. I don't think it's a stretch to say that Tidalis is one of the best puzzle game I've ever played. Simply put, if you like puzzle games (and even if you usually don't), you need to get Tidalis. Right now. Go!"
James Allen, Out of Eight PC Game Reviews (8/8 score)

"I can say with some authority that Tidalis stands apart... The bottom line is that Tidalis is a flexible, smart, refreshingly unique puzzle design, and it's situated neatly into a large generous package. It's far better than any mere puzzle game should be."
Tom Chick, GameShark (GameShark Editor's Choice Award, "A" Score)

"Overall, this is the most robust and interesting casual game I have seen in some time. There is so much to do and so many ways to play I don't even know that casual actually suits it. Yes the gameplay is casual but this is a highly developed, well-rounded, offering from Arcen Games that puts many games of higher price to shame. It's got numerous ways to play and very successfully takes an old genre, turns it on its head, and shows you just what can be done when you think outside of the box."
Christophor Rick, Gamers Daily News (GDN Gold Award, 9/10 Score)

Shattered Haven (On our site / On Steam)
Our biggest undiscovered gem, this top-down 2D action-adventure title is a mixture of atmospheric horror storytelling an environmental puzzles.  Features branching paths to multiple endings, a massive overworld split up into distinct thematic regions, and nearly a hundred hand-crafted levels with multiple difficulty levels and often multiple solutions.

"A different title from their previous games and may be Arcen's strongest showing yet."

Your Role As An Independent Agent In The Last Federation

What is The Last Federation?  Check out our first sneak preview about it, or our preview discussing simulations in the game.  Also our recent podcast with Space Game Junkie with lots of other details, and the guide to aliens in the game.  Oh, and the forums for the game are filled with lots of other detailed tidbits, too.
The Last Federation is a really unique game in that it is a strategy/tactics game set inside a simulation game.  You play as the leader of a private mercenary fleet, and your self-appointed goal is solar unity via the creation of a peaceful federation of planets.

Your Role As An Independent Agent
The thing that is most unusual there is that, well, you aren't playing as one of the major factions in the game.  You interact with them, and you help to shape their destinies, but at the end of the day you are just one person in charge of a small scalpel-like mercenary fleet.

Hmm... analogies.  It's like the difference between the fellowship of the ring (the group within the novel, not the novel itself) and Rohan or Gondor or any of the other actual factions.  In other words, the members of the fellowship aren't out there single-handedly beating Sauron or whatever, but you see their influence and their importance everywhere throughout the tale of the war of the ring.  It's hard to find a truly significant event that they aren't involved in, and ultimately it is them (via Frodo) that win the war.

Actually, I had never thought of this before, but the fellowship actually has similar motivations to you in TLF: they see a problem that desperately needs solving, they realize that governments are fragmented and mistrustful and unlikely to band together, and they set out to solve the problem in an extra-governmental fashion with a small force.  Honestly the LOTR comparison had never occurred to me until about five minutes ago, but it's a surprisingly good one; prior to this I was having trouble thinking of any analogues at all.

This Is Strategy, Not An RPG
The above sounds like it could make for a great RPG game, though, right?  I mean, there have been other games that do things that you could kind of shoehorn into that description a bit, vaguely.  A lot of people ask us "Is it like Drox Operative?  Or how about Space Rangers?"  The answer is an emphatic no on both counts, although those are both great games that you should check out, too.

I should also preface the below by saying that I love RPG games and hope to make one someday.  But this is definitely not that day, and I think that it's best to be clear about what this game actually is! So here's a bit of a Q&A list of differences between our game and some of the RPG-style games we're getting a few comparisons to.

Difference 1: Contracts and Events vs Quests
We don't really have "quests" in the same sense that Drox does.  We do have tons of contracts, which in many ways are like quests, but most of them are always available (or contextually available for a very long time, anyway).  So if you don't decide to bomb some planet, or you do decide to gift them an outpost or smuggle stuff for them or whatever, you can do that more or less whenever.  There's not a timer ticking away on those contracts, but choosing one over another is where the strategy comes in.

There are other things that are more time-limited of course, and these we call Events.  They are often things that you may not care to do anything about at all.  Burlusts suffering from a disease?  You may be super happy about this!  It may be the answer to your prayers.  Or you might just be indifferent.  Or you might want to help them as quickly as you are able.  It depends on your future plans for dealing with them, and if you are trying to manipulate them into doing something specific that will be helped or hindered by the disease, etc.

Same sort of deal if the Andors are celebrating their Freedom Day holiday -- crime is going down on their planet, and you may be happy about this or you might intentionally be trying to push crime up for some reason with them (there are various reasons you might do that).  So the event does matter, but it again is not something you have to deal with right away.  Just because their holiday lasts for 10 months or so (not all that long in game-time, that's a bit over 3 minutes), that doesn't mean you actually have to deal with it in that timeframe.

In fact, quite often with something like that in particular, it's something you might want to hang back and see the results of, then later decide how to deal with the aftermath.  Maybe pushing them into a cesspit of crime isn't the way after all, or maybe you redouble your efforts, or whatever else.

Difference 2: Complexity, But Designed With A Global HUD In Mind
Beyond the above, the alien races themselves are taking actions, and may be initiating war, retraining soldiers into doctors to fight off a disease, researching technology, breeding like crazy, researching new ship technology, fighting an internal war, or doing whatever else.  These are things that happen in realtime, sure, and you can't deal with everything at once.  But you also don't really have to.  The key stats that matter for your actual victory condition don't go up or down without your direct actions.  (That said, if you do nothing or do the wrong thing, conditions can deteriorate to the point that you die or get in a bad way, even though your technical progress towards victory did not go backwards at all).

Overall there are three main groups of things to pay attention to: racial actions, locational events, and the status of specific planets.  It doesn't take long to digest this information, and each can be concisely displayed on its own screen to show you all the actions on one screen, all the events on another, and all the planetary statuses on another.  And I do also plan on working in as many overlays as possible to make the use of subscreens less of a requirement as well.

Of course if you WANT to delve into more details, we have those, too.  A lot of that UI design is still very much in progress, but the underlying gameplay is something we're specifically designing with the idea of having a comprehensible UI for it.  If the underlying game isn't compatible with a GUI that easily summarizes, then you just plain are going to have a complex UI, period.

Put another way, I think the comparison to Drox is apt in that there is more going on than you can deal with at any one time.  That's also true of SimCity, usually.  Honestly when I think of game comparisons, I like to think of this as being like playing a strategy game inside a SimCity that evolves and grows around you without you having access to the normal mayor controls.

Important Aside: Game Progression
The above sounds like it could get overwhelming pretty fast, right?  This is another thing that we've been paying really close attention to in this game.  We really want to have the players have an easier time getting into TLF than they do with our game AI War: Fleet Command, but at the same time we want to ultimately have the same sort of longevity and insane depth of AI War for players who are experienced.

With all that in mind, we are taking a lot of steps to make sure the game is always understandable to players, and that there isn't a sense of rush.

When you first start the game, there's only one planet/race doing anything at all.  A second planet becomes spacefaring pretty soon after.  On normal-or-lower difficulty level, there are no events at all right at first, but there then becomes one event at a time one two planets are online.  And then every 2 planets after that until you have 4 events max at one time in the late game.  Plus obviously 8 races each with two actions, rather than just a couple of races with two actions.

But by then you are more in control of the situation, and you ought to have a federation progressing such that you really only have to pay close attention to the actions of the non-federation races.  Of course if you want to make things crazier earlier you can smuggle spacefaring tech to planets early (and this is a valid tactic for advanced play in particular), or you can use the Advanced Start to set up more complex starting scenarios in general if you're to that level of play.

With TLF more than any other game prior to it, one of the things we have been really paying attention to design-wise is not only how complex/fun the game is, but also how to gradually ease the player into that, and how to make it fun right from the start even when the complexity isn't huge yet.

Difference 3: Contract Rewards And Personal Progression
One key difference between an RPG and a strategy game is where your focus is.  In an RPG, you're trying to basically use quests and exploration and whatever other tools in order to beef up your character(s).  In a strategy game, there is certainly beefing of your overall forces and a sense of progression, but at the same time the focus is squarely on your manipulation of the overall situation.

For example, in Chess if you have an opportunity to freely take a bishop with your pawn, you would almost never just keep advancing your pawn to get a queen.  I mean, okay, there are exceptions to every generalized statement about a game like Chess.  But overall you are playing to gain an upper hand over the opponent through whatever the most effective means are; you're not in a race to try to get a bunch of queens.

Regarding The Last Federation, specifically:

In terms of rewards from the contracts, it's a variety of things.  The most direct and common things are Money, Bargaining Power (which you can later use for Political Deals), and Influence with a specific race (lost or gained -- and raising this is the main way you get races into the federation).  So sure, there are direct rewards.

But the important thing is that all the contracts change things.  If you destroy or damage a race's ship at a planet, that ship is then destroyed or damaged.  If you blow up the soletta array at a planet, that thing is just plain gone.  If you start bombing a planet, not only do they start hating you more, but their populace is partly killed in each bombing run, and infrastructure may be damaged.  And you never know how their enemies might react to that (exploiting the opportunity to take them over, for instance).  Etc.

So it's less about rewards per se, and more about how you can manipulate the situation to your benefit.  You can also steal technology and capture space outposts and so forth, and those do also work as direct benefits for you.  But mainly in terms of increasing your ability to either help or hinder races.

Important Aside: Quick Start Vs Advanced Start
One of the things that expert AI War players love the most is how insanely configurable the starting conditions for various galaxies are.  However, that makes the "start new campaign" screen utterly terrifying for a lot of new players.

For The Last Federation, the game is designed in such a way that it doesn't really require any starting configuration other than "what difficulty do you want?" and "what race's planet do you wish to crash-land onto?" to get you off and running.  This is all it presently asks you on the quick-start screen, and you could play dozens of different solar systems with incredible variety with just using the quick start.  In fact, there's not really any reason for you to ever use the advanced-start screen unless you want to.

That said, for some folks (myself included in that group), it can be super fun to really custom-tailor situations that are particularly strange, or difficult, or specialized in some other way.  This is where the "advanced start" screen comes in, and it actually lets you enable some new game options that add to the complexity if you are so inclined.

For instance, one that we have right now is making fleet repairs cost you money rather than letting those be free.  Through testing we discovered that having a cost to fleet repairs didn't really add anything except unneeded complexity -- or at least, that it added very little in a strategic sense compared to the complexity it added.

But!  Some folks love to have that sort of added complexity.  So we made an option for it in the advanced start screen, and people can play with it if that floats their boat.  This general design approach lets us have some niche features that are too complex for general play, without scarring new players!

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Guide To Aliens In The Last Federation

What is The Last Federation?  Check out our first sneak preview about it, or our preview discussing simulations in the game.  Also our recent podcast with Space Game Junkie with lots of other details.  Oh, and the forums for the game are filled with lots of other detailed tidbits, too.
The Last Federation is filled with 8 (well, really 9, but one of them only has one remaining survivor: you) alien races.  How each one acts in each game depends greatly on their circumstances and what sorts of alliances and events form.

Background On The Races
Even the nicest of races can become warlike if their planet is filled with crime or they are bent on revenge for a war of aggression from another race.  Even the most horried, aggressive of races can be your best ally if you get them into your federation early.  And for that matter, the most-aggressive races can wind up being meek and passive on a solar-system scale if they are continually consumed by internal strife or are otherwise finding themselves technologically outmatched and outnumbered.

So the thing to remember while reading this guide is that each game will play out very differently, even though the baseline personalities are always the same.  Sometimes the "ewoks" will be the undisputed terror of the galaxy, ruling half of it with a Fear Empire you can barely overcome.  The "klingons" hide in fear of the terrible little furry guys.  Etc.

Honestly this is one of my personal favorite things about the game: the races themselves do not have randomized attributes, but since their situation is so heavily randomized, their reactions to their situation is understandable and internally consistent, so that you get very different situations every time.

Sometimes maybe just everybody gets along and there is no war, but there's a bunch of politics, commerce, and pirates to deal with.  Sometimes everyone hates each other so much by the end that it's a challenge to just build a federation with those planets that haven't been blown to smithereens.

 An unfinished sketch of the view for when you are dealing with the Acutians.

So!  Down to business.  Let's hear about these races, then.

The Acutians
These guys are rather jerks.  Very much industrialized belligerent polluters, kind of a sociopathic robotic race.  In a lot of ways I guess they are kind of like Robo's "friends" in the 2600 AD time period in Chrono Trigger.  That general vibe, anyway.

The Andors
These guys are more of a utopian robot society.  In a lot of respects they are kind of like C3P0 without the cowardice and with some common sense.

The Boarines
Basically... quadruped snow pig-people that really need their own personal space.  I'm not really sure what to compare them to in other sci-fi.  In a D&D sense they are kind of a True Neutral species, so long as there isn't overcrowding on their planet.  Then it's a bit more Chaotic Neutral.

The Burlusts
These guys are basically Klingons... with feathers and chicken feet on their bottom half.  They're a bit sensitive about it, and their society is a lot less stable than even the Klingons.  These guys are seriously some of the biggest, buffest jerks in the solar system.  Along with the Acutians and the Thoraxians, they are some of the more likely antagonists.

The Evucks
A very scientific kangaroo-like race with these kind of furry jowl tentacles on their face.  They prefer to keep to themselves for the most part, as a group.  If they happen to be on a gas giant and it looks like they are facing takeover, watch out -- they're likely to try to ignite that sucker, glassing a goodly portion of the solar system (including you personally as well, if you're caught in the blast radius). 

They're also not above unleashing horrible diseases (Teethworms, Black Bubbles, or others) on enemy planets they particular hate.  Left to their own devices they aren't really mean or aggressive at all, but when someone else pushes them they push back hard.

The Peltian
Basically: fat Ewoks.  Also communist agrarians, as compared to the capitalist industrial Acutians.  These little guys are absolutely pathetic at ground combat, and will absolutely get rolled by anyone who manages to get troops on their planets.  Since they can't launch useful troops of their own, they instead load themselves into suicidal launch personnel transport pods that explode when they crash into enemy planets.  Why exactly they have to put personnel in these things is a question best not asked.

Their name was never intended to be a pun, but these guys are also aces at orbital bombardment.  Sure they stink on the ground, but in spaceships it's a bit of a different matter.  When it comes to bombs anyway.

The Thoraxians
A hivemind insect-like race that is kind of a cross between the buggers in Ender's Game and the aliens in Alien.  If anyone gets into ground combat with these guys, it's basically all over.  I won't go into the overused joke about "it's the only way to be sure," but, yes, Ripley's strategy remains a sound one.  Good old ship-to-ship phasers or missiles or whatever are not a bad idea either.

The Skylaxians
The most scientifically advanced of all the races, these are close in some ways to the supposed Area 51 aliens in appearance.  They have a strong sense of honor, and won't bomb opponents or partake in other questionable activities.  And if someone else does, that will really affect their attitude toward the other race.

These folks really aren't out for conquest or any other wars most of the time.  But they are so technologically advanced that if they're on a planet that is particularly suitable for them, they are likely to outstrip everyone else in terms of fleet size and quality pretty fast.  So if they DO get into a war, that can be a Really Bad Thing. 

You can always smuggle their technology for yourself and for their enemies, or work to suppress them from getting such high technology in the first place (which may naturally happen even without your involvement), or you can work to become their bestest buds early on in.  Being bestest buds is not always the best thing if that means that suddenly the Thoraxians and the Burlusts are doing something like forming a Solar Axis Pact in response, though.

Bonus: The Chelonians
This is you -- you're the last of the Chelonians, due to events that transpire in the opening story sequence of the game.  The short of it is that your race was the first in the solar system to come up with spacefaring technology, but as a group you were selfish and basically prevented any of the other races from joining you in the stars... for a few centuries.

But not everyone within the Chelonian race agreed with this policy, including yourself.  There was a bunch of civil war, and some other mysterious things, and in the end everyone was dead except you, and your home planet was gone to boot.  Oops.  Meanwhile, you've crash-landed your ship onto an alien world (you get to pick which one) with the technology they need to finally reach the stars.

Except, uh, they're kind of pissed at you for all that historical oppression.  Actually, everybody has some degree of dislike for you at first, and that's one hurdle you'll have to overcome.

Who To Ally With?
That all depends!  It's really going to vary based on the specific game situation you're running into, which varies heavily time to time.

You might find that, in practice in one solar system, the burlusts are actually the most technologically advanced and the skylaxians are a poor backwater, due to poor starting conditions for the skylaxians and then the burlusts successfully suppressing the development of everyone else.  Maybe you helped the burlusts in that suppression, and their main warlord(s) really love you for it.

Another time, the evucks are spreading diseases left and right, and somebody needs to go take those dudes out... but they're on a gas giant.  Great.  So either you sacrifice half the solar system (that part which is not already dying from maggot pox, naturally) or you manage to rally the other races and help them all launch a war of aggression that wipes out the evucks before they can achieve ignition.

Sometimes the acutians wind up taking over half the solar system simply through sheer manufacturing power.  If "somebody" doesn't do anything to help stop them.

Your Role In All This
Unlike other strategy games, you don't represent a faction here.  You're not in control of a planet, or a government, or even a fleet of planetary scale.  You're a nameless mercenary, working (sort of) behind the scenes with a scalpel-like small force and whatever bargaining power you can muster through helping or hindering races through the contracts you take.

A lot of things are going on without your say-so, and if you just sit and do nothing then you'll find yourself outmatched and some crazy situation will evolve without your control.  We actually love just sitting there in a form of debug mode and running the simulation to see what insane late-game situations evolve completely without the player's input.  It's pretty varied to say the least.

That said, your ability to affect things from behind the scenes is quite substantial.  Inciting war, or helping to develop vaccines, or assassinating political leaders, or capturing outposts, or smuggling key technologies or goods for the disadvantaged... oh, you have plenty of power indeed in this solar system.

You are not the face of any government, and it takes a lot of governments a while to catch onto the role you actually play (after which some of them buddy up to you even more, while others start sending assassins your way, and others start seeing political anti-federation demonstrators and insurgents on the rise, etc).  You're behind the scenes of all of this, as best you can be anyhow, but you have just as much power to wield as any of the planetary governments.  Just in a different way from them, and frankly in a different way from most other strategy games.

Well, this turned out to be a much longer post than I intended!  Enjoy. :)

Space Game Junkie: Interview With The Last Federation Details!

Podcast #38 over at Space Game Junkie has a lot of great information in there about The Last Federation, our next title.  There's only so much information that I've said publicly about the game prior to this podcast, so if you're following this game there's a ton of good stuff in there for you.  We do discuss AI War and other things related to Arcen for the first 20ish minutes of the podcast (or maybe slightly more), but then we get down and detailed about TLF.

What is The Last Federation?  Check out our first sneak preview about it, or our preview discussing simulations in the game.