A Valley Without Wind Proceeds…Procedurally

By Adam Smith on June 22nd, 2012 at 8:00 pm.

Before A Valley Without Wind was released I excitedly emailed Jim to demand we discuss the game verdict-style after he’d told everyone wot he thought. I was bewitched by the idea of exploring the worlds it built and was even determined to be that guy, the one who actually liked the graphics. Once I read Jim’s words and played for a while myself I realised that we were of similar mind so a verdict would involve us nodding sagely at one another over a decanter of port, occasionally ‘harrumphing’. I couldn’t even make myself like the way it looked, even as an exercise in contrarian lunacy. Version 1.1 promises significant changes though and Arcen might just be on to something.

Reading the details of the update it all looks rather significant. I almost expected to load up the game and find myself playing gentleman’s rules foosball against a clean-shaven Fidel Castro in a small Danish bar on the island of Mallorca. That’s how different something should be when the release notes logging changes weigh in at around 48,500 words. It’s a silly number of words, let’s be clear about that, and it does cover the changes from early beta versions right up to the present day. Here’s what happened when I perused it earlier…

Note – that picture is not an illustration of what happened. That would be weird. In actuality, I started thinking about AI War and how much post-release support improved it is what happened. And then I read Chris Park’s design blog about the 1.1 update for A Valley Without Wind. It’s like a post-mortem at times, equal parts ‘players got it wrong!’ and ‘we also got it wrong!’ That’s not to say it’s all about regret because Park’s argument is that it’s the delivery or the detail that was in error, not the content or the concept. So when people, like me and Jim both, say that there is too much grinding, Park says this:

One of the things that our beta players were urging us to put in our marketing materials was “it’s like an RPG without the grind.” Which we were, of course, very proud of — but thankfully that didn’t make it into our bullet points.

Because, naturally, one of the biggest complaints about 1.0 that some people had was the amount of grind. Go figure.

The lessons here aren’t just lessons about game design – that’s the lesser part of it – the bigger learning experience relates to feedback and how the experiences of beta players might have little relevance when people come into a game cold, without training but with a different set of preconceptions. What do you do when the experiences of one group don’t tally with the experiences of the other? Ch-ch-ch-changes.

There were many, many changes that we made to the game to combat the grind that came to our attention post-1.0.

Perhaps the largest was the removal of Civilization Progress (CP), which was previously the measure of escalation of the conflict on the continent. The problem was, the best rewards were tied to CP increases, and so this was encouraging all sorts of un-fun behaviors in even experienced players, adding to the grind.

By removing CP, we removed the anxiety that went along with playing missions on the world map. Now it’s a discrete and player-controlled event that escalates things on the continent: the killing of a lieutenant. We also went out of our way to make the lieutenant towers more varied and interesting (and briefer), and now they are something that happen periodically rather than all at the end of the continent. It’s kind of surprising we didn’t think of that one sooner, but oh well.

Oh yeah, another thing to do when people playing your game say their experience isn’t as you expected it to be is to admit there are some issue you should have thought of sooner. Park is clearly proud of A Valley Without Wind, what it is now and what it might in the years to come, but he’s willing to admit that there are things that need to change. What prevents his blog post from being a post-mortem is the fact that he and the rest of the team seem to be willing to go back in and make those changes. That’s admirable, sticking to your guns and the coherency (or lack thereof) that is part of your creation, but showing a willingness to compromise, learn and react.

There are more obvious mistakes too, ones that seriously hampered the exploration that was the main draw for me going into the game.

With the terrain and object seeding and room seeding in this game, that’s something we had gotten very good at. Although, there was one bug that was causing the room layouts to be frustratingly homogeneous (relatively speaking) at 1.0. We had hundreds and hundreds of room layouts created by our staff and by players, but only dozens were actually being seen at 1.0 because of that bug. Facepalm.

There’s more of everything now and there’s also a lot of stuff that was already in the game that should be more useful, or, in the case of enemies, should crop up more often. There are small changes, such as allowing the player to name characters, and there are more significant alterations such as the addition of ‘infestations’ that add unpredictable elements to each region. What I’m hoping for is a greater sense of discovery.

You can read all about it here and even if you have no intention of returning to the game, it’s a fascinating insight into the design and existence of a complex and difficult game.

As for me, I’ve had another look today but I don’t have time to see how much difference all of this makes to me. Maybe soon. Oh, and here’s a 1.1 trailer.

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69 Comments »

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  1. Dominic White says:

    The one change that most baffled me in development was that there was a whole Actraiser-esque town-building/management side to the game that was working and playable right up until the final stretch of development. And then they cut it entirely. Half the game – the better part, IMHO – and it got cut.

    All that I’m left with is something that plays vaguely like Terraria, but nowhere near as intuitively, and has graphics that give me a migraine (no joke – I literally have to lie down for a while to recover) after a couple hours play.

    • RegisteredUser says:

      I’m glad I don’t suffer from that visual effect(nor ever had that 3D gaming issue, motion sickness and stuff).
      Sorry to hear that you do.

      Its incredibly interesting that it used to be more sophisticated in the world building/town aspect.

      I actually quite liked actraiser and thought the actual adventuring part was done very shitty/stilty compared to the – albeit super simplistic – building.

      My issue with AVWW was/is that you severely lack this tangibly feel of WHY.
      WHY do you want that next upgrade, WHY was it a really awesome thing to just get that building blueprint, to just free that prisoner.

      Because the way I experienced the game, it at first was just about discovering what things and missions existed, and trying to collect as much material as possible, then maybe get 2-3 spells to level 2, but then I realized..wtf was the point of all this?

      The town didn’t visibly grow or improve, there was nothing really unlocked by having the freed prisoner or building that I knew, understood or felt, and overall I didn’t have any sense of an opposition that I was fighting against.
      Maybe this infection stuff is an attempt to create this threat and opposition now, but just by the name it already feels like something that is maybe more of a chore than a proper enemy to battle.

      Dunno, it still feels like this kind of concept of something that could be something, but isn’t yet.

      Like one of those C64 games I never really understood but thought had some cool whacky ideas(Franky goes to hollywood or what it was, where you launched cherub arrows and played other really weird minigames, no idea wtf that was about or what I was supposed to do, but kinda intriguing for a few).

      • Dominic White says:

        In the original version of the game, the town management aspects were the reason why you recruited new people, gathered resources, built stuff, etc. You assigned people to various houses and jobs according to their character traits, and they produced resources, cleared trees, and built up morale over time if they were well fed, making them more effective.

        http://i.imgur.com/NvoRO.png – A screenshot of the town-building screen.

        It was really the glue that held it all together for me. When they removed it, it really did lose all cohesion.

    • TailSwallower says:

      @Dominic – Do you get ill from playing FPS games with a low FOV? This is the first I’ve heard of a side-scrolling game leading to nausea though, but it’s not uncommon with FPSes.

      If you do, and AVWW triggers something similar then I’ll probably have to skip it. Was really interested in checking the game out, but was put off by lacklustre reviews. I know Arcen are great with post-release support, so I was hoping for this sort of thing.

      Still, no point in buying it if it’ll make me sick.

      • Dominic White says:

        Never suffered from motion sickness playing games at all until AVWW, which is impressive! It wasn’t just a freak incident, either. I tried going back to play it a few times, and got the same result.

        I’ve been playing first-person games since Catacomb Abyss (pre-Wolf3D) and am a bit of a rollercoaster junkie too, so I think it goes beyond mere motion sickness.

  2. Zeno says:

    It’s just too ugly. I don’t understand how any rational human being could look at the game and think that it’s at all aesthetically acceptable. It has no real style, the animations are jerky and awkward, and half the enemies are just random Photoshop effects. It looks like really bad placeholder art, but it’s in the final game.

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      BlackestTea says:

      I might just be ‘that guy’ – the one who enjoyed the graphics. No misconceptions: They are not aethetically pleasing or coherent or beautiful or well-done or any of that. However, precisely because of all those shortcomings they had a very surrealist vibe to them – something I can definitely enjoy. Pity was really the endless grind and the fact that I found myself in the same-looking areas battling same-looking enemies. I might go back to it after this… colour me at least curious!

    • misterT0AST says:

      The backgrounds are actually very good looking, and the sprites are decent, the problem is the damn ANIMATIONS. Every humanoid or human looks like a bowling pin when standing still.

      And I like fighting rhinos, falcons, bats and those robot things, but those “espers” and “elementals” (your comment was spot-on) are just bad photoshop effects. And there’s a whole lot of them. I HATE fighting bubbles of particles, I HATE shooting at a meaningles blobs of ice, I HATE that my projectiles look just like most enemies. Give me monsters, squids, aliens, zombies, skeletons, ANYTHING that makes sense. Not a ball of fire shooting balls of fire. Come on!

      Why can’t they just PROPERLY DRAW some goddamn enemies, and make at least a standing animation for their humans, as it is it looks like they have a broomstick up their rear.

      And the chiptune music has NOTHING to do with the non-retro style of the graphics.

      • dE says:

        In a way, the backgrounds look like they had an unfortunate bump with Photoshop Filters as well. I’m an amateur when it comes to photoshop and these things look like something I could make. That’s a pretty arrogant thing to say, but it’s just how the graphics feel like to me. Like someone picked photo textures and ran some filters on them. Accented edges, blur and relief sketch by the looks of it.
        Here’s the odd thing though: I bought the game. Never played it. But I bought it. Simply because I think they’re on the right track and all they lack is a bit of experience with the art direction of things. What they do gameplay wise intrigues me. So I want them to keep on making games so they can get there some day.

        • misterT0AST says:

          compared to those ugly ass sprites that draw all attention, for me the backgrounds are the Sistine Chapel.

        • KDR_11k says:

          It’s all coder art, that’s the problem. After Tidalis bombed they didn’t have enough money to get a proper artist and even the current AVWW was built using the rest of their savings. On the other hand at least the low effort graphics allowed for a much faster pace of development.

      • sinister agent says:

        Got to agree with you on the espers in particular. All I can remember about playing this is being constantly plagued by the same two identical bloody generic whirly things no matter where/when I went. They’d be smart to remove them completely to be honest.

      • Eclipse says:

        very good looking? if you say so, I find difficult to find a game uglier than this one

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          BubuIIC says:

          Oh, that would be Achron, which is really a shame …

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          zapatapon says:

          I nominate: X-Com: Apocalypse, the game with the ugliest graphics I can remember of.

          • Dominic White says:

            Apocalypse at least had a consistent art style. It was ridiculous pulp 1960s futurism through and through. I’d imagine that if they’d made it these days, it would have actually looked pretty cool, as they could have cel-shaded and applied a half-tone filter to the lighting.

          • sinister agent says:

            You are mad. Apocalypse had lovely graphics. People only moan about them because they were such a stylistic departure from the first two games.

    • Acorino says:

      Yeah, there’s no way in hell I’m going to play this while it’s so ugly looking. The music is just as bad, could also do with some replacement. I like the idea behind the game, it does sound promising to me, full of potential, but the whole presentation side seems to fight against even the smallest glimmer of atmosphere. Visually the game simply fails to build a convincing world.
      I’m not sure if they will be able to patch up the art, I would hope so, but I doubt it.

      • Aankhen says:

        The music is just as bad, could also do with some replacement.

        I’m not a fan of the art, but the music? I love the music. Especially the track that plays at the menu screen. I used to sometimes leave the game on in the background just to listen to it.

        • Acorino says:

          Good question. Is weird, I remember the music being terribad, but in the trailer and in some gameplay video I just watched it was pretty alright. Maybe I mixed up something. I guess my brain is fried! So, I take back this groundless accusation.
          Still, graphics suck. :P

    • Aklyon says:

      Do we always need people to complain about the art within 10 comments of any AVWW post? I’ve seen games with far worse graphics (actual graphics mind you, I’m not counting ascii & roguelikes in this case) that have gotten far less complaints.

      • The Random One says:

        There’s ‘not using the hardware to its whole capacity bad, and there’s ‘durp durp art direction? is that the path you take to go to the paint store?’ bad.

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      Malibu Stacey says:

      For what it’s worth, the original sprites in Arcen’s first game AI War were originally of quite low standard compared to what they have now. As someone already said, it’s developer art not graphic artist art. Going on past experience with Arcen’s amazing levels of support for their games I would expect Chris will address concerns when they are able to financially.

      I haven’t picked it up yet (Dota 2 eats all my gaming time because I’m an addict & have a problem) but I will on the strength of how superb AI War was even discounting the years of free updates & content packed expansions.

    • Zaboomafoozarg says:

      Obviously you ladies didn’t play any of the lower-budget games in the 80’s or 90’s.

    • RegisteredUser says:

      I know, they really screwed this new Diablo up.

      But what about AVWW?

      (Oh come on, someone had to go there..it clearly was a setup, whether or not it fits the bill)

  3. Enzo says:

    It still looks incredibly bad, like a wallpaper from the 90’s made by a teenager with access to Poser and Photoshop.

    • wodin says:

      Wallpaper from the nineties? Erm…not sure what that looks like but the last garish wallpaper was in the seventies and funny enough now compared to the nineties. Infact wallpaper was a house no no in the nineties on the whole it was paint. Here endith your wallpaper lesson.

      Anyway this is going to take more than one patch to turn into a game that on paper held so much promise. AT the minute until they make some MAJOR changes it’s just a platform game.

      That city building thing mentioned in a comment above sounds promising though.

    • RichardFairbrass says:

      Yeah those oddly doubled up mountains in the last screenshot are laughably bad. Trying to give them a DOF effect by just running a blur filter over the top means they look as though they are casting a shadow against a flat surface directly behind them. Either that or they are emitting some weird grey miasma. I think they really need to go back and study some fundamentals of graphics to avoid such basic errors.

      • Kronic says:

        For what it’s worth, those are pyramids, not mountains.
        I personally find the art quite horrid when static, bur quite nice during frantic and intense movement.

        EDIT: Whoops, never mind, Looked at the second to last screenshot, which is the thing I normally see people commenting on. Apologies for being the idiot ball holder today. :)

  4. misterT0AST says:

    Has anyone else ever bought a game purely on the assumption that “it looks promising, after some months of patching it will probably be worth it” ?
    I currently put A Valley Without Wind on hold until it gets better.
    I’m doing the same for 3079. That game would be so fun, if the multiplayer actually worked properly.

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      AmateurScience says:

      Only for hipster cred amongst hipsters, dude.

      • misterT0AST says:

        I’m basically forced to be a hipster. The most recent AAA game my computer can play is Warcraft III.
        God bless indies and their lack of resources, without them I’d only get new games for my xbox.

    • LintMan says:

      I just did this exact thing for Sword of the Stars 2. Nine months after its disastrous release, it’s still awaiting the “all-clear” signal that it’s actually “done”, and I expect it will need months of polishing and perhaps an expansion or two beyond that to really shine, but I think they will eventually get there.

      So I picked it up in a recent Steam sale even though I likely won’t touch it until late this year at the earliest.

    • KDR_11k says:

      3079 development shifted to low gear after it was declared stable, the dev is moving on apparently. It could really use more work. AVWW development is still at the same pace that it was before 1.0.

    • Shadowcat says:

      That would be every single person who ever contributed to a game development project on Kickstarter.

  5. Shakes999 says:

    I bought this game without checking reviews and it is at least moderatly fun (Although the music is a abomination). The biggest problem is theres not really a point. There is so much in this game to sink your teeth in to but it just feels pointless. People with short attention spans (like me) should stay away.

    • RegisteredUser says:

      Agree.

      Although I love TBS and management and the like, so I don’t think its my short attention span.
      Its more the incentive/intrigue bit.

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    piratmonkey says:

    I come back to this periodically but it never really stuck. However, this patch looks like it might be what drags me in.

  7. Gasmask Hero says:

    I paid for this on the basis that it was an ongoing journey. I had absolutely no conceptions that what I was buying into was a finished, box ticked and signed off done and dusted project.

    Said it before and i’ll say it again now. This is just the start of a long ride. it’ll be interesting to see where it takes me.

  8. LintMan says:

    1.1 is a dramatic improvement over 1.0. In addition to the stuff mentioned above, the character build/upgrade system is much improved, as is the mission variety.

    While the 1.1 patch was only recently released, many of its improvements have been available in the beta patches for weeks or months, even. I’ve found Arcen’s beta releases to be generally quite stable – it’s well worth keeping up the the latest beta patches ratherr than waiting for the major releases.

    And as always, Arcen remains one of the most customer-interactive game developers you’ll find. Many many of the long list of changes are a direct result of suggestions, discussions and debate over on Arcen’s forum.

  9. DickSocrates says:

    Good luck to them, but I’m fairly certain I won’t ever play it. Aside from the graphics which are awful and the music which is awful, the idea of an infinite procedurally generated Metroid-style game just doesn’t sound good to me. Metroid was *designed*, not generated. This game doesn’t have design, it has rooms you move about in.

    • noodlecake says:

      It’s funny you should say that because it is the main thing that bugged me about the game. Not very fun platforming in a game that is predominantly a platform game. It is possible to pull off metroid style games in procedurally generated levels well though. Spelunky and Terraria are amazing!

      • RegisteredUser says:

        Terraria annoyed the living crap out of me after < 1 hour, AVWW I spent two afternoons with.

        I am one of those people who doesn't understand how folks can go bananas over Terraria.
        The game just has NOTHING appealing to suck me in as it is right now.

    • Jupiah says:

      It doesn’t help that you can place floating platforms anywhere you’d like, completely negating the entire point of “platforming”. In Metroid you don’t get the screw attack until near the end of the game for a reason.

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        HermitUK says:

        I’m guessing the ability to place platforms was a fairly cheap fix to prevent the problem of unnavigable rooms. Wall too high? Pit too wide? Drop in a platform.

  10. MadMatty says:

    Im a big fan of one of Arcens previous games, “AI War” which ive played for like 140-150 hours (works on cheap laptops too)
    Having said that, one thing they didnt do right, there either, is proper art Design… most seems to be done in hindsight, with them ditching the 2D 16-bit style ships and buildings midway through expansions, and then continuing with pre rendered 3D buildings and units. Both look fine actually, but the clutter of styles really makes for a mess, like it does here.
    They´ve shouldve picked up a cheap/free Indie artist, who´d work for experience.
    Tried the demo of Valley, it wasn´t super bad, but it didnt really fetch me either. I think the graphics might be immersion breaking, it lacks atmosphere.
    I´ve enjoyed many a Metroidvania game in the past.

    • MadMatty says:

      I like Chris Parker a lot, hes always very hardworking, and does an incredible amount of post-release work on patches, that most developers wouldnt have bothered with. Hes also been nice enough to sell one of the AI War expansions as profits go to charity.

      In my humble opinion, maybe he should try to work smarter, rather than harder- take a few paces back and see whats gone wrong.

      I think Chris´ talent is mainly programming and structuring stuff, and odd bits n ends. Maybe he should pick up one or two, enthusiastic & talented, but less experienced people, like a proper graphic artist, and an additional games designer, to work on concepts. Sometimes these two people are the same person.

      Would be a shame to see the company die out because of a few startup problems.

      • KDR_11k says:

        They simply had no money for extra staff. Maybe if Valley makes a ton they could get a dedicated artist again but for now it’s all coder art.

        • DK says:

          They should have done what they did with AI War – go for sprites they can get for free. AI War started out using Tyrian sprites almost exclusively.

          • KDR_11k says:

            I’m not sure there’s a similar repository for sidescroller sprites as there is for space ships due to Tyrian. Most repositories seem to focus on 3D stuff which is what they already harvested.

  11. MythArcana says:

    Arcen rocks and they work very tightly with the community. And I must say…another AI War expansion is on the horizon! That’s what I’m talkin’ about!

  12. Erkin says:

    Don’t judge the design on screenshots, the game (and music) is beautiful when you play to it.
    The anachronism ambiance is captivating.

    But the most important is that the gameplay and exploration (scouting !) are very fun.

    • RegisteredUser says:

      Speaking of anachronisms: They have seriously got to adjust the anachronism hitman missions.

      I don’t know if its me, some kind of weird inside joke or a missing manual or what, but how the fuck is anyone supposed to know which of those wormy, esper, robot, whatevery thingamabobs are correct, and which not?
      You get zero help from the UI / HUD, so I am assuming the devs thought it SO OBVIOUS which ones fit in and which not, and I can’t for the life of me uncover what weird ass logic is supposed to be at work.

      Mostly either failed the mission or lucked into completion just by most of the normal monsters being already known from the level..which feels wrong and random.

  13. Berzee says:

    >_>

    <_<

    It seeeeeeeeeeeeeeeems awfully windy for a valley without it. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    • Mollusc Infestation says:

      I failed to find Bioshock either shocking or biological.

      • MadTinkerer says:

        Not to mention that each individual quanta of Quantum Conundrum is fairly straightforward. (It’s the combination that makes it a conundrum, therefore it should be, like, Macro Conundrum or something.)

  14. Kregoth says:

    http://www.arcengames.com/forums/index.php/topic,10975.0.html

    I think this is probably worth adding to RPS as well, looks like Chris wants to address the art style you readers all currently bitching about lol :)

    • Zenicetus says:

      That post (link above) shows an astounding degree of ignorance about how graphic styles work in games. Which isn’t surprising, considering how this game looks.

      So he wants to revamp the entire game’s art style from scratch, selecting from artists who submit their portfolios , and then he’s going to select more than one artist for the project, and fund the new art reworking with a Kickstarter for this same game?

      Yeah, good luck with that.

      For the next project, this developer needs to take a look at Endless Space, and see what an indie outfit can accomplish when it has an actual artist on staff from the start, and the art style isn’t some third-rate consideration behind all the supposedly brilliant programming.

      • KDR_11k says:

        They had an artist in the past but had to let him go because Tidalis bombed sales-wise (it’s a great game that’s worth trying still). There was simply no money to support an artist without firing either the other programmer or the musician.

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        HermitUK says:

        That said, Zeni, I think programmer art can work if you set out a few constraints on the style from the outset. It’s like they tried to bruteforce their way past the lack of artist by going for that high res, high colour, almost 3D rendered look. Which doesn’t look too bad when you’re just working on one object, but when you put all your shiny assets together there’s no consistency. Even something simple as sticking to a smaller palette would have produced something much more visually consistent.

        Kickstarter’s an interesting idea to get an artist on board, but it seems to me that the people who most want this already own the game; it’s a bit like asking them to pay twice. It’s a shame the whole Kickstarter thing hadn’t quite taken off when AVWW started production; they could have drawn in backers at the outset and got said artist on at the start. Which also might have saved the older top-down look. Their top down art was worse than what they have now, but I really liked the idea of a procedurally generated Zelda-esque game.

      • Archonsod says:

        I fail to see a problem with it. The fact the game world isn’t supposed to be unified, what with the backstory involving a general break down of time, having different artists would work well.
        Although admittedly, I’m not that much of a graphics whore. As long as you can see what’s going on it’s pretty much all I ask for.

        • NathanH says:

          I think this last sentence is the problem with the game right now actually. I don’t care too much for graphics either but in this particular game it is quite hard to focus on the important things on the screen and playing for more than about half an hour makes my head hurt.

  15. The Random One says:

    It’s easier for a patch to turn Call of Duty into a game with meaningful level design than for one to help AVWW become anything other than a bad platformer that uses procedural generation as a crutch isntead of a tool.

  16. increpare says:

    Bought the game on a whim reading this update without reading the actual review. It’s bad, I regret buying it without trying it first.