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Zeno Clash Dev On Abyss Odyssey's Procedural Insanity

Super Smash Bros + Street Fighter = Roguelike?

You certainly can't knock Zeno Clash and Rock of Ages developer ACE Team for a lack of ambition. Their previous titles' massive scope and rampant, otherworldly weirdness demonstrated that in spades. So how do you follow that? Why, by jutting off in an entirely different direction, of course. Abyss Odyssey is a procedurally generated, Street Fighter and Super Smash Bros-inspired roguelike-like (but not quite) um... thing. ACE Team's first set of words about it didn't quite do it justice, which is why we've given them a couple thousand more to work with. Go below to get a better sense of how Abyss Odyssey will work, which utterly mad art style inspired this one (the grand ACE Team tradition), why they're not doing Steam Early Access, and whether or not they think procedural generation will hurt their knack for insane world-building. 

RPS: Is Abyss Odyssey in any way referencing Oddworld: Abe's Odyssey? I know this is probably a dumb question, but I thought of it the second I saw your title.

Carlos Bordeu, founder/designer: Not at all. There are other titles like Atlus's Etrian Odyssey that also share the word Odyssey, but our game is completely unrelated. We hope no one decides to trademark "Odyssey" now.

RPS: Real questions now: ACE is known for its hyper-imaginative art design, and I could see procedural generation getting in the way of that - especially in terms of world coherence and the general "feel" of a place. How are you avoiding that issue?

Bordeu: That was one of the main concerns of Atlus when we proposed the title and it was one of the first challenges we had with the game when prototyping it. We had to make a game that didn't evidently look procedural while still being modularly generated for the level design. Art development has always been a strength of this studio so we needed to make sure we could create a system that was robust enough to allow us to develop something that looked great and not super 'tiled'. At this point we're very happy with the art of the game, and most people who have played our builds are immediately impressed by the graphics and art, so I don't think it is a concern for the title anymore.

RPS: On the flipside, do you think procedural generation provides interesting/new opportunities for you from an art standpoint? Ones that other developers might not think of?

Bordeu: I think the challenge of making a platformer that is procedural and make it look as organic as we have was a very interesting challenge itself. Procedurally generated platformers usually use 2D art, or a very 'retro' theme where you can get away with just repeating some elements (like blocks or 'tiles'), and that is fine – but we wanted to do something where this wasn't evident.

The main problem you need to solve here is consistency, because the more "realistic" or complex your art design is, the less you can get away with just repeating the same elements over and over again. You basically have to create something where elements are modular and can connect with other elements – but it has to be in a more logical way. It can't look in the end like a bunch of highly detailed lego pieces sticking together, because if the repeating patterns are evident it will end up looking terrible.

RPS: You guys always have very interesting starting points for your games. Rock of Ages was inspired by a lot of classic art, etc. Where did Abyss Odyssey come from? What's the story of its inception? Its first moments as an idea, etc?

Bordeu: I think we're going to eventually go into a lengthy blog post about the origins for Abyss Odyssey in upcoming content releases. For a shorter response I can say that we went through a lot of experiments to get to the final look, and our first test dates back to when we were working on Rock of Ages. We attempted some new art styles that didn't work out at first. What finally ended up making us take a particular direction was referencing the Art Nouveau style. We started by taking references from Harry Clarke – an Irish stained-glass artist and book illustrator who made several illustrations for the stories of Edgar Allan Poe.

At first the game was being designed to be more creepy, but we felt that many other references of Art Nouveau were not so sinister and that it might not be the best for the whole design to be like this, so during the whole development process the concept has matured to what it finally is.

RPS: ACE Team is known for venturing into some pretty strange territory. Is Abyss Odyssey going to have any of that overt weirdness? How off-kilter are you aiming for it to be?

Bordeu: This game doesn't get into the level of weirdness that Zeno Clash does, but mostly because Zeno Clash is on the extreme end of weirdness, so anything past that point would be unintelligible [laughs]. Abyss Odyssey does have some surreal and bizarre references - it is definitely an unconventional title - and yes, there are a some "what the hell!?" moments that are likely to catch people off guard. But again - we had said we weren't doing something as weird as Zeno Clash for the next project, which I don't think is a bad thing.

An interesting note, though, is that there is a bunch of monsters and characters inspired by Chilean folklore. The "Camahueto" is a myth about a bull with one horn that "erupts from the earth with such force that it leaves a tremendous hole and drags down everything in its path in a rapid race to reach the sea."

RPS: How much environmental variety are you hoping for? How many different sorts of levels and configurations?

Bordeu: The variety is not only about the levels themselves. A really big part of the variety comes from the enemies and elements within the Abyss itself. In terms of how many enemies we have, and how complex they are, I think this game beats Zeno Clash. Having been one of the two animators to work on all the hundreds of moves for the creatures I can say without a doubt that this has been our most intensive work to date with regards to combat design.

The game will feature different themes, where the Abyss changes in style and you get to meet all new monsters, as well as bosses and mini-bosses. But the structure isn't so linear and some stuff that you get to see will be different over time or for different players.

RPS: Procedurally generated levels often have trouble matching the precision and memorability of handcrafted worlds. Are you worried that Abyss Odyssey might not stand up to, say, Zeno Clash on that front?

Bordeu: Not all games have the same objective and the type of discovery you get in a game like Zeno Clash is very different to a game like Abyss Odyssey. For starters, Zeno Clash is a first person adventure, with a pretty set-in-stone structure. Once you've seen it, you're done. Abyss Odyssey isn't trying to provide a similar experience to Zeno Clash. I'm pretty certain that one of the things that will make people excited about the game is seeing friends who have found stuff they have not seen, captured an enemy soul that they thought was impossible to obtain... things like that.

Zeno Clash was a more story-focused adventure with melee combat, but I think most people played it to see the art design rather than master the combat mechanics. Abyss has a very strong emphasis on other aspects, and combat is a key element of the game. The game is easy to play, but the depth of the combat mechanics goes way beyond traditional 2D action titles and more into the realm of fighting games.

That on itself is a huge part of this title, and I'm pretty sure people who might have ignored our previous games because they didn't care for their art design will be interested in this because of the core gameplay mechanics. Which isn't to say that we feel that aesthetics in this game are unimportant. We think Abyss Odyssey looks great when compared to other platforming or roguelike games.

RPS: In what sense(s) will the game be roguelike-like?

Bordeu: The abyss is a recurring event/environment and we will explain this much more in detail in our second video, but for now I can say that this isn't a game with a traditional structure. The game is designed with replayability in mind, but we’re not even sure if we should call it roguelike since the death mechanics and some progression details differ quite a bit from traditional roguelike games. We will share more interesting details of other unique elements that are related to this concept soon. This will be featured in our next video release.

RPS: Are you worried that people are tiring of every game having roguelike mechanics? It's become quite the trend.

Bordeu: Abyss Odyssey is very unlike other roguelike games. Again, we’re not even sure if we should call it roguelike. By itself the elaborate combat mechanics and combat design means we have a fighting game mixed with an action platformer and I'm pretty sure some people are going to care more about this aspect of the game than anything else.

We have a training room that you can access where you can choose the 'fighters' (monsters) you unlock, and it is pretty much like a traditional fighting game's training room. I've sometimes found myself spending a lot of time practicing combos and juggles within the training room with all the different creatures instead of just going into the main adventure mode. In co-op, just taking a pause and facing off your partner is a blast!

RPS: What's the story of the game's world? Will we uncover it more as play and - presumably, due to roguelike elements – fail?

Bordeu: The story does progress and get unveiled more as you replay the game. The game is actually set in Chile and the basic premise is about a mysterious abyss that opens in the surface of the city of Santiago and you play the part of one of three heroes - each with their own backstory - that have to deal with the creatures coming from inside. The heroes aren't just a plain character classes like warrior, mage, etc. They have their own identities and where the abyss comes from and who is at the bottom is something you get to learn when playing the game.

Abyss Odyssey isn't a super complicated story that no one will understand like maybe Zeno Clash (hahaha), but it has more depth than many platformers where you basically just have to rescue someone or defeat an evil being.

RPS: How difficult are you aiming for Abyss Odyssey to be?

Bordeu: We're still in a heavy phase of balancing, since we need to hit a good balance between challenge and progression. We need this to feel like something you can get into and play easily, but that you are compelled to master.

Currently we have a sort of global AI variable which we can raise or decrease to make the AI more aggressive, and when pushing it way up I've seen just a couple of basic enemies destroy a capable player. That's how powerful our combat engine allows our regular NPCs to be. This is something unique to the game because you can’t really imagine two basic skeleton enemies beating the player in a Castlevania-like game. In Abyss Odyssey they can.

But if we don't balance this properly the enemies will beat you pretty bad. So we still have to hit that sweet spot where we feel that a player who is mastering the fighting game has a sufficient challenge as he moves forward, and that the player who is going into the game for the first time doesn't feel frustrated.

RPS: How much of your knowledge from Zeno Clash's combat is going into the combo-based system of Abyss Odyssey?

Bordeu: None. This plays a bit like Street Fighter meets Super Smash Bros. Just learning the combat mechanics in Zeno Clash was hard. Here it is easy. But being good at playing Abyss Odyssey is done by mastering the gameplay. We studied fighting games like these ones extensively so we could produce our own fighting mechanics. We had to start from scratch to design the new combat engine.

RPS: You can turn into various enemies you encounter. How does that system work? Can I level up creature forms and stuff?

Bordeu: The player starts off with a base skill level and he can capture enemies that are of his skill level, or lower. As you progress and raise your own level, you will be able to get better monsters. The real leveling up for the monsters is getting better ones, as you can swap between them while you are progressing, so it wouldn't make all that much sense to level up a monster if maybe soon I'll capture a better one. Basically, you’re shifting into new characters, so you’re keeping your level/stats.

RPS: You mentioned co-op multiplayer. Will there be any other kinds? Competitive? Something else that's more unique?

Bordeu: Yes, we have local and online coop. The game begs for a competitive fighting mode, and it is something we're considering to do in the horizon, but it is a feature outside of the time and scope for the initial launch. ACE Team has a very good history of updating our titles with new game modes and content and this will be no different.

RPS: The game will be on Steam, but are you going to do Early Access or anything like that? Roguelikes especially have found tremendous success on Early Access in the past.

Bordeu: No, this isn't an early access game, but something it will definitely share with early access titles is the level of support we’ll include based off the community feedback that will translate into relevant new content and updates like the one suggested in my previous answer.

RPS: Are you looking into mod support or anything like that on the PC side?

Bordeu: It is still too early to decide on mod support or things like that. But we haven't discarded it.

RPS: When are you hoping to release it?

Bordeu: Abyss Odyssey will be available in summer 2014 as a downloadable arcade title for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. We're actually late into starting the promotional efforts for the game - we should have done this a while ago - so the game is deeper into development than other titles we've made before by the time they were announced.

RPS: Is this ACE's main project right now? Are you working on anything else alongside it?

Bordeu: We're always working on more than one thing, but this is the main project of the moment. I think some people have been misguided by our previous games into thinking that we are (or have become) a large studio. In the reveal trailer, the first pan of the office space that appears in the trailer includes pretty much most of our company. We have a second smaller room with just a couple of other people, and that's it. That is the team that made Zeno Clash 2. We can't do much more with such a small team.

I don't want it to feel as a complaint, but the truth is we got almost no credit from the press for making a game of the scale of Zeno Clash 2 – something that was easily of the scale of some smaller AAA titles and selling for a third of the price. All this considering our indie nature of course. What simply happened was that people said "Oh, they are a big studio now... they have money" ...but that was far from the reality.

I think with Abyss we can focus on making a more polished and smaller game and have more time to iterate on it rather than making something so huge like our previous title. And if that reason isn't good enough; not getting murdered by our wives for taking so much work home might be another thing to take into consideration.

RPS: Hurrah for not getting murdered! Thank you for your time.

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