Zeno Clash. It’s a game that few anticipate, yet thanks to its finalist placing in this year's IGF, it could be one that may have the internet singing its praises later this year. Here at ModDB, we are not ones to wait so consider this a sneak peek at a title that has the potential to become one of 2009's best independent releases.
Zeno Clash has an intriguing storyline. In a fantasy world where all creations are its own, Father-Mother only fears one—Ghat. The player controls Ghat in his quest to find Father-Mother and fight his way through the hermaphrodite's loyal minions. Even more impressive are the visuals—at first glance, these whimsical vistas will have you floored. Doubly so when one finds that the game is based on the Source platform, as the trailer is void of any hard angles or urban areas that has been the mainstay of environments traditionally found in Source titles. Attach to that a first-person melee combat system and you have all the elements that point to a bold and original game developed outside the circle of influence in which most current-generation games reside. ModDB contacted Andres Bordeu from ACE Team, developers of Zeno Clash, and asked a few questions about the team's first game.
ModDB: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us Andres and shedding some light on this wonderful project of yours. The world within Zeno Clash is certainly unique if nothing else. What were your motivations and inspirations for creating something outside of the realm of what most gamers are used to today?
Andres Bordeu: Here at ACE Team we’re all passionate gamers and we enjoy playing all types of games; from the triple AAA titles to the creative indie games. We enjoy playing Call of Duty or Halo as much as any other gamer, but we definitely feel that in the more conservative world of first-person shooters there is a big emptiness. Apparently very few studios are willing to go for unconventional ideas. Maybe this is because larger companies are reluctant to take risky choices and prefer a safer approach. This seems to be the standard in many of today's first-person games, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for those who are thinking outside of the box.
From a certain point of view going for the unconventional has been the safe thing to do for us. We’re a small dev studio working on our debut project. We knew it was impossible to compete with big companies that tend to put a lot of their muscle in technology graphics-wise. We had to present something that none of the other studios were doing. So we decided that our work had to capture the interest of the consumers for its artistic quality before its technical aspect, much like 2K did with Bioshock.
At ACE Team we’re very interested in other mediums that are not necessarily related with video games. Many studios seem to get inspiration from alike products, like other games or related films. Why not look further away and look into sixteen century painters like Hieronymus Bosch? There was a huge amount of inspiration to get from his fabulous and unsettling paintings. We also looked a lot at John Blanche’s illustrations. We love the surreal qualities of his fantasy work, where he presents characters and environments that aren’t the typical ones you tend to see in other fantasy worlds that are generally similar and seem to be inspired by JRR Tolkien’s books. Finally, The Dark Crystal movie, a very strange but beautiful film made with puppets, also comes to mind when thinking about the inspirations behind Zeno Clash.
ModDB: How large is the ACE Team and what previous experience do they have?
Bordeu: ACE Team is a relatively small independent studio. The core team is composed by 7 people and we’re working closely with some more people in the audio & music areas. We’ve also done a little outsourcing for some specific tasks.
ACE Team’s members have a good amount of experience in game development. Several of us were working previously at Wanako Games, another Chilean company that’s developed casual and arcade games for PC & XBLA. I personally worked as one of the leads in Assault Heroes (2006 XBLA GOTY according to IGN).
Before Wanako, my brothers and I were still making games as mod developers. We had the opportunity of working with several engines before looking into Source. We made a prototype demo using Touchdown Entertainment’s Jupiter System (that would be Zeno Clash’s ‘spiritual’ predecessor, which was never released). We also developed mods using Quake 3 Arena & DOOM2:
ModDB: Was the Source engine your first choice? What benefits ultimately influenced you to choose Source?
Bordeu: After we developed the demo using the Jupiter System we were thinking which was our next pick for our next project. Our two candidates were Source and idTech 4 (DOOM 3’s engine). Half-Life & DOOM3 had been released recently, but we had more experience using id tools, since we’d worked closely with Quake 2 & Quake 3 engines (and previously DOOM).
We finally decided to go with Source, not necessarily for technical reasons. We realized that the community that was behind Half Life was much bigger. And Source games were being distributed through Steam. Steam was an ideal distribution option for us. We are a new studio developing a new IP, and quite a strange one. As an independent studio it meant everything to us to have the distribution secured while building the game. I’ve seen a lot of great looking games that are searching for a Publisher while they’re developing it. It must be scary, I think, to be working on something that you’re not 100% sure will reach the consumers.
We’re very happy with our choice to go with Source. Valve’s been very supportive. The engine is very versatile and it has enabled us to give life to our strange world. It has some fantastic features like a very robust facial animation system, which is very important when your opponent is close to the camera.
ModDB: Getting back to the game—Zeno Clash is described as a mainly first-person melee game. Both the PC and the Source engine haven't exactly been a haven for fighting games. How do you feel you've achieved success with the fighting mechanic and what roadblocks were there in developing it?
Bordeu: Our approach behind designing the fighting mechanics has been iteration. We knew that we were developing an unusual feature for a first-person game and we didn’t want to do it the same way that other developers have done it. We started thinking about the key elements that would define our combat system. The truth is that we had a bunch of ideas that sounded well in our brainstorming sessions, but only some of them translated well to actual gameplay.
With our first iteration the game made some choices for the player to reduce complexity. The locking mechanic was very restrictive, so instead of playing to your own rhythm, you ended up playing to the enemies’ rhythm. We eventually realized that it wasn’t fun and that giving more control to the player was the right choice. The same has happened in other areas and we’ve perfected the system by getting people who are unfamiliar with the game to play it so we can hear their feedback and watch where they are having trouble making use of a feature.
Another thing that has meant a great deal of work in both design and programming is the AI. Our biggest challenges with the AI have not been from a technical point of view; they have been from a design point of view. Relatively small changes can have a huge impact on a complex system and sometimes they’re hard to see. Our first enemies only attacked you one at a time. Getting two or more enemies to attack you simultaneously was easy to implement, but it had a huge load of consequences. It was frustrating if enemies attacked you from behind and the locking mechanics required some modifications. The balancing immediately got outdated because the levels were harder to play, so you can imagine all the changes that a little thing like this caused in the game.
I think that many well designed games are product of iterative design. There are no proven formulas for fun, so you have to be on the lookout for it.
That's all for Part 1. Part 2 delves deeper into Zeno Clash's gameplay mechanics and its world.