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Fight The Future: AI War II Is Now On Kickstarter

Arcen have launched a Kickstarter for a sequel to their excellent 2009 strategy game AI War: Fleet Command [official site]. The Kickstarter page comes complete with a 159 page design document, so if you really want to dig into the detail you can get a very good idea of what’s likely to be changed or improved in this sequel, and Arcen are shooting for just shy of $300,000. With one day of the campaign down, they’re more than ten percent of the way toward that target.

If you watched that video, you’ll have heard that this very website named AI War one of the best strategy games ever made. It’s true! I wrote that article. The reasons I love AI War so much are described quite well in the pitch video – it’s a game that sets one rule for human players and another for AI, and by doing so is not only uniquely challenging, but fascinating to pick apart.

The big changes are around usability, legibility and factions.

“Our biggest, most exciting new feature in AI War 2 is selectable player factions, based on the aliens from AI War Classic’s 1st and 3rd expansions. Both newcomers have unique units and skills that set them apart from humanity and one another, and unique relationships with the other factions in the galaxy including the AI.

“AI War 2 is an opportunity to rectify the first game’s biggest flaw: usability. More than half a decade of work went into Classic and it shows. There are so many mechanics to the game that even veteran players spend game time parsing through tooltips. Sub-screens are densely packed and poorly marked. Presentation-wise AI War Classic is utilitarian at best, cluttered at worst.

“Cleaning the mechanics up for AI War 2 was a joint project between us and our community, who helped by identifying too-similar mechanics for merger, and time sinks ripe for elimination.”

I’ve wanted a sequel for years and would probably be even hungrier for one if the original hadn’t been so well maintained and expanded. The launch of the Kickstarter made me a little sad though, not because of the game itself but because I spoke to Arcen founder Chris Park a couple of weeks ago, and had a splendid time doing so. I’d hoped to share that conversation with the wider world but my computer spat a mangled audio file in my face when I tried to listen back.

We talked about In Case of Emergency Release Raptor, the release and removal from Steam of which was the catalyst for the conversation, and we talked about the design philosophy that runs through Arcen’s games.

When it came to AI War II, which I knew was likely to appear on Kickstarter sooner rather than later, I asked Park about his hesitancy to work on one particular type of game for the rest of his career. Make AI War and then go straight into development of a sequel, he reasoned, and you risk becoming “the AI War guy”. He’s an experimental designer, interested in the gaps between genres and that’s obvious in some of the studio’s other releases: is Bionic Dues a robot roguelike or a puzzle game or what, and what the heck is Shattered Haven?

Skyward Collapse is the archetypal Arcen game, to my mind. I approached it with expectations that it didn’t meet – I expected something at least a little like Populous, and that’s not the reality at all – and left frustrated. When I revisited a few months later, I fell in love with it. The majority of Park’s designs require some lateral thinking from players accustomed to games that fit more or less neatly into defined genres.

AI War is similar. It’s a very strange concept – playing a real-time strategy game against AI that doesn’t even pretend to follow the same rules as you must – but the design always made perfect sense to me. Perhaps that’s because, as someone who has spent so many years playing strategy games, I understood that AI opponents always played by their own rules, or at the very least had a few extra cards up their sleeves. A game that interrogated that reality by making it explicit and pushing it to an extreme seemed both sensible and exciting.

And that, I think, is what Arcen do at their best; they explore questions about the assumptions we make about genres and try to find answers. Those answers aren’t always as interesting or entertaining as I hope they’ll be, but AI War was (and is) fantastic. I’m going to scroll through the design document later on today to see what exactly we can expect.

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Adam Smith

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