At risk of getting all “we told you so,” we’ve long been fans of Zeno Clash here a TVGB. Developed by ACE Team, an independent studio founded by three brothers from Chile, Zeno Clash challenged our expectations not just of indie titles, but of the medium itself. We’re not the only ones to think so either, with Zeno Clash picking up numerous critical plaudits upon release earlier this year.
As ACE Team get to work on crafting a Zeno Clash sequel — as well as bringing the original to consoles — we took the opportunity to quiz co-founder Andres Bordeu on the development of the game, its reception, and the future of the twisted little world he helped create.
That VideoGame Blog (TVGB): You made some brave design decisions for Zeno Clash that paid off spectacularly. Independent, first-person, melee-combat specializing, visually and narratively unique adventure games (with hermeaphrodites) are neither easy to make, nor commonplace. During development, did you ever question whether people would connect with what you were trying to achieve?
Andres Bordeu (AB): Yes, certainly. As you mention, from one point of view the aesthetics are not something gamers had seen before, and from a design point of view the close combat mechanics were a new approach since we didn’t work with any existing models.
We’ve always thought Zeno Clash would be a love or hate game. I don’t think any developer can produce a game that will make every single consumer happy, but we’re more than satisfied since it seems that more people enjoyed the new things that we had to offer instead of disliking them. There were some bumpy issues with the gameplay mechanics after we released, but we addressed them quickly, so I think the community has appreciated the amount of attention we’ve put into any ‘iffy’ stuff.
TVGB: Do you feel that your status as independent developers allows you to take risks that perhaps larger studios couldn’t? Can you foresee a time where big dev teams and publishers are making interesting, unique games like Zeno Clash?
AB: We’re definitely going to continue producing original content, so I guess that staying independent will allow us to continue to take risks, but we won’t take those risks just because we want to prove that we can do things that other companies are not doing. We want to take risks because we feel those risks reflect our interests and concerns. With Zeno Clash we wanted to share our vision and we want to continue to do so with future games.
TVGB: What specific influences did you draw upon for the game’s visual and narrative design? Did you look at other games, or do you prefer to look outside the industry?
AB: 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 or the blockbuster movies.
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.
TVGB: Many commentators are saying that the ambition and production skills in games like Zeno Clash and The Path are ushering in a new age for independent developers. How does it feel to be at the forefront of the revolution? Did you play The Path?
AB: Yes, we played The Path here at ACE Team. I think it was a bold approach to game design and a very unique game. I’m not sure which will be the effect of games like Zeno Clash and The Path in the independent gaming community. I think there’s a large amount of other indie devs that are also doing remarkable things. Maybe some of them don’t have the resources to develop their ideas as much as we could, but still, there are a lot of great indie games that are also innovating.
Perhaps our biggest contribution to the indie scene is that we’re showing that larger indie projects do have a place in the market and that there is an important group of consumers that is interested in fresh new ideas. If the indie scene can succeed producing creative new concepts more and more people will be willing to take risks and bring in new ideas.
TVGB: How is the dynamic between the three brothers? Is it difficult to draw the line between professionalism and familiarity? Any erm… brotherly clashes behind the scenes?
AB: Not really. We’ve been working together since we were making mods and we learned everything about games together. Of course we can disagree on different things from time to time, but we’re all motivated towards the same goals, so any brotherly clashes tend to be resolved fairly quickly. :)
Even though Carlos, Edmundo and me each have a ‘title’ in the company, we still pretty much do a little of everything in the design and art areas. It’s good to have strong points of view from more than a single person. If an idea is backed up by all of us we know we’re moving in the right direction.
TVGB: Are you satisfied with the kind of critical and fan response Zeno Clash got? Do you think people understood Zeno Clash?
AB: The critical response to Zeno Clash is definitely something that has brought us a lot of joy. Nobody imagined we would receive important nominations or recognitions when we started developing the game. After all, we were just a tiny team from the other side of the world developing a strange new IP.
It’s really satisfying to have been selected finalist in the Excellence in Visual Arts category by the IGF. We also never thought IGN would reward Zeno Clash with ‘PC Game of the Month’ (April 2009), when it was running against Demigod and The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena, both released during the same period. And we’re still waiting on Indiecade and PAX10 with our fingers crossed.
Still, I don’t think everyone got it completely. As I mentioned before it’s very hard you will make all your consumers happy. We didn’t get only positive reviews, with no negative critics. Some people liked it more than others. But getting great reviews from important sites like Eurogamer (and That VideoGame Blog!!), and having an active forum with friendly happy fans is more than enough for us.
TVGB: You’ve released free DLC. How popular has this proven, what has the feedback been like?
AB: We got a great response from the addition of The Pit challenge levels. The existing players were immediately competing to get the best scores and unlock the new achievements. A lot of people that hadn’t played the game also decided to give it a go. We sold an important amount of copies during the weekend we released the free DLC with a promotion.
I think that games that are kept alive through the addition of new content have a much more interesting life span than games that are never supported by their devs. If we would have released the game and never supported it perhaps it would have faded away and I wouldn’t be answering this interview months after the release. But Zeno Clash is still news because it has recent new content. We want the community to be a part of this as well. That’s why the next step will be to get out the tools so users can develop their own levels and modifications and expand on the existing content.
TVGB: Any more DLC planned?
AB: After we release the tools we will get out more stuff, but I’m not sure what it will be or when it will come out.
TVGB: Were you kind of testing the waters with the free DLC to see how well it would be received? Will the next DLC possibly come with a little price tag?
AB: Until now we have not thought of selling additional content. We think that the additional users we can persuade to purchase the game by releasing free DLC will generate more value for us than what we’d get from charging for the same DLC. It also makes more sense on the long term. The more consumers that get involved with our game the bigger our ‘customer base’ is for our next game. People who are on the fence about purchasing will not be persuaded by DLC that has to be paid for. But if the DLC is free then the whole product carries more value for new consumers. We want as much people possible to play Zeno Clash, so there’s an even bigger pool of fans demanding for the sequel.
TVGB: How did Steam work for you as a release platform, happy with the sales?
AB: Steam is a great release platform for indie projects. It has a huge installed base and it has been key to the current success of our title. Sales have been good, but we’re still trying to get Zeno Clash to more places so more people get a chance to check it out.
We’re mostly working to have a better presence in retail distribution channels with additional publishing partners. After all, there are still many gamers that do not purchase digitally, and we want those who prefer retail to have a chance to check out our game. We still have to give the game a longer time in the market before we can draw conclusions.
TVGB: There was talk of a possible Xbox Live Arcade / PSN versions of Zeno Clash. Any developments in that regard?
AB: We’re still evaluating the possibility of an XBLA port. It’s something we’re very interested in doing and we’re putting all our efforts in making it happen. A PSN version of the game is unlikely, mainly because the Source Engine isn’t ported to the PlayStation 3. Our team is just too small to port the tools, the engine and the game to PS3. Still, we’re very interested in Sony’s platforms and our goal is to have Zeno Clash 2 available for both the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3.
TVGB: You announced Zeno Clash 2 pretty quickly after the first game became available. Did you have the idea of a two-game narrative arc from the start, or is a sequel the inevitable result of the success of the original?
AB: A little bit of both. When we started developing Zeno Clash we knew we were not capable of developing a huge game with a very long single-player campaign. We didn’t want to develop such a unique world and not take the time to develop the story in a way that we were satisfied with. Thus, we created a world that feels much larger than what you can actually experience in the game, yet included a campaign where you still feel you’ve accomplished the goal of resolving the main conflict that is presented. Zeno Clash 2 should be more about exploring and discovering the fantastic world of Zenozoik.
TVGB: Does that mean we could see Zeno Clash turned into a trilogy?
AB: I can’t say at this point. If there was a third game I don’t think it would be considered a trilogy. The sequel will be developed from a different perspective than the first title. Zeno Clash is a short indie game, whereas with Zeno Clash 2 we want to build a larger title; a game that’s big enough to go retail on the consoles. Anyways, at ACE Team there’s definitely no one thinking of Zeno Clash 3 at this point.
TVGB: You mentioned that it will be difficult to bring Zeno Clash to PSN, as porting the engine and game to PS3 is quite labor-intensive. How does this affect your ambitions of a PS3 retail release for Zeno Clash 2?
AB: We have still not decided on our tech for Zeno Clash 2, so I couldn’t give you a good answer at this point. We’re currently in the preproduction phase and we’re looking into the art direction.
TVGB: Are you ramping up the studio, hiring new talent for the sequel?
AB: Yes, we’re hiring some new people for some areas, but not just for Zeno Clash 2. We want to develop more than one project in parallel. There are more ideas we want to explore in the studio, not only Zeno Clash.
TVGB: What’s behind the sequel’s shift away from linearity towards a more open world?
AB: That’s what everybody wants, and that’s what we would have liked to do in Zeno Clash if we would have had the resources. Still, we’ll continue to stick to all the things that made the first game good. We don’t want to change all the formulas. From a gameplay point of view we’d prefer to evolve instead of starting from scratch. There are a lot of great ideas that didn’t make it to the first game, and there’s a lot we’ve learned after making this game.
We really think that an open ended world is fit for the world of Zenozoik. Many games offer you the possibility to roam around freely, which is a great feature. But when you travel through those worlds many have very familiar and recognizable environments. In Zeno Clash the woods don’t look like a regular forest with green trees and bushes. In Zeno Clash the cities are just plain insane. I think it will be extremely entertaining to explore a world where you a never quite sure what you will encounter next.
TVGB: Last but not least, our resident PC expert Emmanuel would like to know – what’s up with the Rubix Cube at the end of the first game?
AB: Hahaha! It’s a symbol. We chose the Rubix because it was a common symbol anyone can indentify from our world. But I don’t want to spoil its meaning since more will be revealed in the next game. There was a lot of discussion about the cube in our official forums, so I invite Emmanuel to check out our threads and maybe some of Edmundo’s answers will enlighten him. (Edmundo wrote the story).
Thanks very much for taking the time to speak with us, Andres. Good luck with the sequel!
Thanks for the great interview! I hope everyone enjoys the read.