Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Explaining “A Valley Without Wind.” What The Heck Is It?

(Guest Blog Post by Chris Park)

Just what is this game “A Valley Without Wind” from indie studio Arcen Games all about?  Read on to find out.

Procedural World Filled With Choice And Customization
At first glance it looks like your average 2D Metroidvania title, just with magic instead of guns.  The difference is choice: except for a brief linear intro mission, this is all a procedural open world.

Rather than linear levels, the emphasis here is on tactical combat and strategic planning.  The overlord is strong, you’re weak, and you need to figure out how to fix that and go kick his or her butt.  In a lot of respects the mentality is that of a strategy game (makes sense given our past games, eh?), but rather than it being an army of characters you control, it’s just one character at a time.

The amount of customization is pretty crazy.  There are “only” something like 40 spells you can directly craft at the moment, but there are also passive enchant buffs that you can apply to yourself.  Enchants change anything from how you move; to how your spells behave; to how you light your way, or if you can breathe underwater, etc.  Enchants are procedurally generated like loot in Borderlands or Diablo, and there are a few hundred thousand unique combinations possible at this point.  Various items can be scavenged out in the world, too, such as magic scrolls to turn yourself into a bat, heatsuits that make lava easier to deal with, and so on.  Figuring out how to best customize your character to match your skills as a gamer is one of the cooler aspects of the game.

The Community Vs The Self, Permadeath, And Thinking Outside The Box
When you choose your first character, the game warns you not to get too attached.  It’s not a question of IF your character is going to die, but WHEN.  Upon death, the character is gone forever — and most of the time, a vengeful ghost arises from their corpse and makes the area you died in even harder.  So, uh, tactical retreats aren’t just for the faint of heart in this game.

It’s not like permadeath in a roguelike, though, where the mechanics are overtly punitive — we’re not out to punish the player.  When you die you get to choose a new character immediately, and you keep all your inventory, enchants, and general progress in the game.  There are some minor character-specific things that are lost, but it’s nothing remotely heart-breaking.

We’ve also tried to emphasize choice with “community focus versus focus on self.”  There’s a lot more that we want to do in that area in the future, but what is there is pretty nifty already.  You can rescue NPCs and construct buildings for them, and in return those NPCs can help you out via long-range magic scrolls, for instance.

I really love games where players get an opportunity to show their cleverness, rather than just jumping through a set of hoops the developer set out.  In your average Metroidvania title, each challenge has one solution (see red door in Metroid = shoot with missiles), and that can be really fun in its own right.  But in AVWW each challenge tends to have four or five solutions (at least), each with their own pros and cons.  If you play as a bat you don’t have to worry about jumping, but you also deal less damage, get blown about by the wind more, and can’t go into lava or ice age areas.  And so on.

I like to tell the story of this one player who, during the beta, made essentially a melee fighter using the spell Death Touch and some jump-related and defense-related enchants; he managed to kill an overlord with this build, and I was blown away that this was even possible.  It took a lot of sideways thinking to make the build in the first place, and then a lot of skill to bring down an overlord using that build.  That’s what I mean by encouraging players to show their own cleverness (as well as skill).

Adaptive Gameplay, And True Freedom Without Being Directionless
In a linear game, the difficulty curve can be set by level designers.  In an open world, that’s not possible because we don’t know where you’re going to go.  So what we did was make it adaptive to how you play: monsters have a general baseline difficulty to start with, and then they upgrade as you demonstrate your proficiency.  Killed 100 regular bats?  Okay, we get it, you’re good at killing bats.  Time for… bats on fire!

You can literally go almost anywhere you see in the open world — including right into the overlord’s keep at any time.  Come on, it’s no secret where the oppressive dictator lives.  The problem is that the monsters surrounding his keep will probably kill you before you even reach his front stoop.  But if you’re so good that you could avoid getting hit at all by enemy shots, you could just go right into his keep and take him out with your starting pea shooters.  Realistically it’s a lot more fun to actually play the game and buff your character appropriately before going for the take-down, but even then you get to choose when and how that take-down is going to happen.

Each world is literally endless.  When you beat one overlord, and thus save one continent, a new continent that is bigger and more complicated opens up.  Some things carry across continents, others don’t.  It’s kind of like a “New Game+” option that a lot of RPGs have, except better because you can still go back to your old continent any time, and there’s a lot more direct continuity.  Each continent should take most players 8-14 hours to complete, but that really varies enormously depending on how much side exploration they do.

One immediate worry with a game of such scope, with such long-form goals, is players feeling directionless.  That was certainly something we struggled with early in the public beta, and with AI War as well.  Thanks to the help of our core fanbase, we’ve managed to put together a system that guides without being directive.  The “planning menu” in the game gives you suggestions on what to do at all times based on your current status, but you’re free to ignore those suggestions and do whatever you see fit.  It also includes the equivalent of an entire wiki right in the game itself, so that you don’t have to go looking at external sources to find out where arcane ingredient #7 is, etc.

Where We Hope To See This Go Next
This has been our most successful beta so far by a factor of at least 4:1, and we had really positive showings at both Minecon and PAX East.  Players willing, my hope is to be able to focus on building more of this game for the next 3+ years to take it from what is already massive (30-40 hours to even see all the content at the moment) to something gargantuan like AI War.  As with AI War, the hope is to do tons of free content on an ongoing basis, and then a few optional paid expansions with larger content-drops along the way.

Speaking of AI War, that game has been out since May 2009 and we’re still doing almost weekly free updates to it; and we have at least two more expansions planned regardless of how well AVWW does.  We know that some folks’ faith in post-release content has been shaken in light of various recent events with other developers, but we have a three-year track record of being there on an ongoing basis.  We don’t intend to stop that anytime soon.

6 thoughts on Explaining “A Valley Without Wind.” What The Heck Is It?

  1. AI war was amazing, eventually managing to de-throne Killing Floor as my groups most-played game ever.

  2. AI War is one of my favourites. I’m not great at it, but I’m all way eager to have a game when I can spare a couple of hours or so.

    AVWW was an instant purchase when the beta became available. I played it excessively initially, but my interest in it fell by the wayside. That said; things might have changed, so I’m off to download it again.

  3. I didn’t know about the customization. I’ll go check it out now that I read that. :)

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