Ace Team interview

1. Could you please introduce yourself to our readers and tell us a little about your background and your job at ACE Team?

My name is Andres Bordeu. I am one of the co-founders and game designers at ACE Team, a game development studio located in Chile.

The ACE Team group was formed around 1998, when we were just three brothers (Andres, Carlos & Edmundo Bordeu) making mods. We developed some larger sized conversions for DOOM & Quake 3 before we decided we wanted to make commercial games. We were a very small team committed to longer projects. By then it was only the three of us doing the art & design plus a programmer.

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After working on a prototype game, which was in some way Zeno Clash’s “spiritual predecessor” (we never released this prototype), we managed to capture the interest of some companies/scouting agencies and some of us started working at Wanako Games when they were just starting out. Wanako Games is another Chilean development studio that’s developed several casual games and XBLA games. At Wanako we contributed in many great games, such as Assault Heroes, which was awarded XBLA Game of the Year by IGN. After working 4 years with them, we decided to leave with David Caloguerea (our lead programmer) and start our own studio. Zeno Clash was then born.

2. Zeno Clash defies genre boundaries. For our readers unfamiliar with your game, how would you best describe it?
Zeno Clash is an action/fighting game set in a punk fantasy world. The game blends the first person genre with the fighting game genre and the combat is generally up close and brutal. Players will be immersed in a surreal world, beautiful and disturbing at the same time. There they will play as Ghat; the son of a impressive hermaphrodite creature called Father-Mother, whose children form the most powerful clan in the city of Halstedom. Ghat must escape from his family and start an incredible journey through the dangerous lands of Zenozoik.

3. Complex melee combat systems are rarely seen in games (Dark Messiah of Might and Magic is one of the few examples which come to mind), why do you think this is the case? One of the main reasons are certainly technical difficulties – were there any particular issues you faced?

From a design point of view the combat mechanics were definitely our biggest challenge. There are no formulas for fun, so we pretty much worked with an iterative process. Our first builds had a lot of things going right, but also a lot of things going terribly wrong.

The first combat mechanics were very restrictive, because we were convinced that we had to take control from the player and let the combat system handle certain events for some combat actions. We were trying to avoid some excessive key configuration nightmares from some shooters. I’ve spent virtually 5 minutes configuring keys in some first-person shooters. When you have to press ‘prone-> reload-> aim down the sight-> zoom in-> hold your breath-> press trigger’ just to fire a sniper rifle it can be a little too much, don’t you think? Still, taking too much control from the player is never good, so our final control configuration is a good balance between easy to use and having a good learning curve.

4. The AI is a crucial element of the whole experience – is designing an AI for melee combat more difficult than, for example, a shooter? Will enemies use different tactics depending on the situation and their own abilities?

The AI provided by the Orange Box engine was heavily modified so the NPC’s could interpret the player’s actions. Obviously melee involved making a substantial amount of changes, but the weapon combat was also modified a lot.

Our game’s shooting portions are different from traditional shooters, where the action is very fast. In Zeno Clash you have to be much more aware of your surroundings, since your weapon can easily be knocked out of your grasp. Enemies take their time to aim and shoot, but unarmed enemies will do everything they can to disarm a player that has a loaded weapon, so they can rely on their melee combat.

Enemies make the same kind of assessment of a situation that a player would do. An AI may be presented with several situations that will generate different reactions. An AI might think something like this: “What if the player is carrying a loaded weapon and I’m not? I’ll have to search for cover”. “What if I’m trying to shoot the player but a friend is in the way? I may want to ask him to move out of the way”. Examples like those are decisions the AI is constantly making, which produces varied gameplay, since two fights never play out the same. 

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5. While we're there, have you considered multiplayer? Some Roman-style gladiator action sounds incredibly appealing.

Making true multiplayer was too much of a task for such a small team. We preferred to concentrate on the single-player and make it as impressive as possible, instead of delivering a mediocre multiplayer.

However we did make a game mode that emphasizes on competing with your friends; the challenge game mode. We took into consideration the feedback we were getting from the community and we really considered it was important to offer a game component that focused solely on the fun of the combat system and also had a competitive component.

During the game the player will unlock several ‘Tower Challenges’ as he progresses through the campaign. Each tower challenge is divided in a set of floors with different enemy and weapon configurations. Each tower segment has a final boss level that must be completed to be ranked. The ranking system will rank players in a leaderboard in speed and performance categories, so after completing a tower a player can compare his results against the results of his friends that will also show up in the leaderboard.

6. The art design is definitely unique – what were your inspirations? How important do you feel art design is in general?

The art design was one of the key components we focused on. For Zeno Clash we were looking for something not seen in the first-person genre. We started looking for sources of inspiration that were not from the video game industry. Many of today’s titles seem to look at competitive titles or related media (blockbuster movies) when looking for sources of inspiration.

We were very interested in the work of illustrator John Blanche. We got acquainted with his work through some adventure books that featured his illustrations (The Crown of the Kings adventure books from Steve Jackson). We also looked at traditional art as a source of inspiration. The paintings of XV century painter Hieronymus Bosch had fantastic creatures and designs that we could refer to. Another great source of inspiration was The Dark Crystal film from Jim Henson & Frank Oz. The world and the characters featured in that film are absolutely marvelous. Not even the rocks and the plants are real. They were designed to convey the idea that the characters were in a world nothing like our own. But that world also has mountains, woods, deserts and the animals that live there. We wanted to do the same; build a world where everything was immersed in a particular art style.

The direction of the final art style was developed by Edmundo Bordeu, our art director. Edmundo had of ton of his own style to add to the mixture. The end result is something we’re very proud of. We’re definitely happy with the surreal art style and we’ll definitely continue to look at sources of inspiration that are not traditionally seen in videogames.

7. The setting is also very interesting, can you tell us a bit more about the story? How long is the game going to be, and do you feel it would be worthwhile replaying it?

We have been keeping the story mostly secret because it is an important part of the game and we don’t want any spoilers. But something we can say for sure is that this is not the typical quest to save the world from monsters. The genre escapes a bit from traditional fantasy since there is no obvious good vs evil and you won’t find magical mountains, hero swords, or evil demons that have to be summoned in Zeno Clash.

The story begins when Ghat is banished from the main city in Zenozoik, but more importantly he is banished from his family. Ghat is one of Father-Mother’s dozens of children; some of Ghat’s brothers and sisters are pig-men, elephant-men, and humanoids of all kind.

Ghat was not the most loyal son and after confronting Father-Mother he has to escape as his family hunts him. But he doesn’t escape alone, even though the reason for Ghat’s rebelliousness is not clear, Ghat’s girlfriend Deadra decides to escape with him away from the city and his family. Away from “the known world” they will meet strange characters in the woods, further away into the desert and in places no one had ever seen.

The single player campaign should take 4-5 hours to run through. It features achievements and different difficulty levels, so I’m sure that players who enjoy the game will want to run through it more than once. It’s not very likely someone will get all the achievements in one run through.

8. For a first game, Zeno Clash is quite ambitious. Depending on its success, what are your plans for the future? Another completely new project or will you expand on the ideas of Zeno Clash?

In regards to our next project, maybe it is a little early to say. If Zeno Clash is as succesfull as we expect it to be we’re definitely interested in doing a sequel. The scope of that sequel may vary depending on how possitive is the response from consumers. We’d like to make it a bigger game where people can explore more of our bizarre world. We have a few other ideas stashed in our heads, but nothing that we’ll be sharing soon.

9. There are very few Chilean developers, why do you think this is the case? Do you have any advice for Serbian teams?

There are only two “bigger” game companies in Chile: Wanako Games and ACE Team. All the rest of the game companies make cell phone games and they’re really really small. I think the industry here is very small because it’s just starting out. We’re pioneers now, but surely in the future there will be more companies making bigger titles.
I think the most valuable lesson we learned from Zeno Clash was to be able to identify and ellaborate our game’s key features or selling points. Back when we were developing mods we oftenly made the mistake of building before thinking of the edge that would make our project stand out.

I’ve seen many titles developed by relatively small companies that don’t seem to have any outstanding feature that will set it apart from its competition. Some game genres are falling in to standards because the larger companies are avoiding risk. This is an opportunity for indie devs because they can put their efforts into ideas that the big brothers are not willing to explore. I think that a lot of innovative titles are coming from the indie game group.

In the competitive world of game development, new companies have to dare to break molds to excel among giants. Where there are new ideas there is a market and where there is talent there is industry.

10. For the end, is there anything else you'd like to add?

Just a big thanks for letting me participate in this interview and I hope the Serbian players really enjoy our first title!

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