[Continuing interviews with the 2009 Independent Games Festival finalists, Eric Caoili talks to Ace Team' Andres Bordeu about Zeno Clash -- a first-person action game set in a "punk fantasy" world and emphasizing hand-to-hand combat -- nominated for the Visual Art Award.]

Looking to separate its title from the dozens of other PC first-person game hitting the market this year, Chilean developer Ace Team set Zeno Clash, its first commercial title, in a punk fantasy world that's both beautiful and disturbing, populated with grotesque creatures that seem taken from The Island of Doctor Moreau.

Zeno Clash also stands out for its focus on up-close, hand-to-hand combat, allowing characters to punch, deflect, knockback, and grab their opponents, learning new moves and combos as they encounter new enemies with different fighting styles.

In the Source engine-powered game, players take on the role of Ghat, a member of his city's most powerful clan and the son of an aberrant, hermaphrodite creature named Father-Mother. Ghat seeks to escape his family and explore the world of Zenozoik as part of a quest that the studio hints could be driven by feelings of rebellion or revenge.

We spoke with Ace Team game designer and artist Andres Bordeu about Zeno Clash, nominated for the Visual Art award at this year's Independent Games Festival (part of Think Services, as is this website):

What kind of background do you and your team have making games?

Andres Bordeu: The Ace Team group was formed around 1998, when we were just three brothers (Andres, Carlos and Edmundo Bordeu) making mods. We developed some large conversions for Doom and Quake 3 before we decided we wanted to make commercial games. We were a very small team committed to big projects; there were only the three of us doing the art and design, plus a programmer, Juan Pablo Lastra.

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 and 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 to many great games, such as Assault Heroes, which was awarded XBLA Game of the Year by IGN.

After working with them for four years, we decided to leave with David Caloguerea, our lead programmer, and start our own studio. Zeno Clash was then born.

What sort of development tools did you use?

AB: For Zeno Clash, we’ve had the privilege of working with a great toolset from Valve’s Source SDK.

One of the features we considered very important when making a first-person game that emphasizes close combat is facial expressions. The Source SDK has a very powerful facial animation tool called Faceposer, which has enabled us to give life to our characters and creatures. The tool has allowed us to do lip sync for our voice overs using phoneme extractions, and we’ve also been able to create predefined expressions that are triggered during the game.

The Hammer level building tool is also very powerful and versatile, giving a lot of control with the level designer. Many tasks that could have been coded were resolved in Hammer through an intuitive Input-Output system, saving us a lot of time.

The SDK has several other tools that are very welcome for a smaller team that wants to focus directly on building the game and not the toolset that sustains it -- a complete particle editor, a model viewer, and exporters are just a few more examples of what we didn’t have to build ourselves.

How did you come upon this idea of developing a first-person action/fighting game with an emphasis on hand-to-hand combat?

AB: Basically, we were looking for a way to add a new ingredient to the repeated formulas many FPS games have used. As a small company, we knew we were incapable of competing with the AAA titles on their own ground. We thought that the best way to stand out was through innovation, so we wanted to use something that felt new to the genre.

It’s true that melee has already been attempted by a few games, such as Breakdown and The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, but it wasn’t standardized and we were confident that we could give it our own approach.

Can you talk a bit about your Zeno Clash prototype, and how it evolved into what it is now?

AB: The prototype was developed using Touchdown Entertainment’s tech (formerly Lithtech). This prototype was called Zenozoik. The Zenozoik demo we developed was a mixture of several games. It featured characters with dialogue trees, branching options to problems, shooting with weapons, and of course melee combat.

The melee combat was much more basic than the melee in Zeno Clash. The majority of all the other features were also underdeveloped. The game was unsuccessful in becoming more than a prototype because we tried to do too much. Instead of focusing on a few strong features, we decided to add too many ingredients in the mixture.

After we finished the Zenozoik demo, we looked back at our work and thought about what we would have done different if we had to start all over again. We made a list of the features we had included in the game, and scored them by level of interest. The entire team agreed that melee combat with a first-person perspective was the single feature we should have focused on.

We eventually realized that the decision to go with hand-to-hand was ideal for us from many other perspectives. We wanted to bring something new into the FPS genre, and a strong melee combat component had been attempted by very few other companies.

We could also focus on melee because it didn’t require us to build tremendous levels that involved a lot of exploration; we were too small team to tackle something like that.

Can you tell us a little about Zeno Clash's "punk fantasy world" and its characters/creatures?

AB: The decision to create a punk fantasy world was because of personal interest of the team, but also for the same reasons I've already mentioned. We wanted to stand out through innovation, and what better way to capture the interest of players than presenting an art style not seen in today’s games?

Many of today’s titles seem to look at competitive titles or related media such as blockbuster movies when looking for sources of inspiration. You can tell that Star Wars, Aliens and war-themed movies are a common source of inspiration for many shooters.

The punk fantasy theme was a great way to stand apart from other titles because it doesn’t make a reference to traditional media. It was also considerably more reasonable for a small company like ours to focus on the artistic qualities of the graphics, instead of the technical qualities.

The world and the characters have been designed to express the freedom with which we’ve been able to design this game. The surreal art style is great to work with, because we’re not bound to scale, form ,or color.

The punk fantasy has also had a great impact in other aspects of the game, not only the graphics. Sticking to our desire to innovate, we also decided to avoid clichés often seen in the fantasy genre.

Again, many fantasy games tend to refer to specific media when looking for sources of inspiration. The Lord of the Rings is a common source of inspiration in games. Our world, in contrast, is not about elves, orcs, or wizards. There is no obvious separation between good and evil.

In a punk world, there is no state, no law, and no authorities. We wanted to make a story of something more personal, and not so overwhelming like saving the world. A great story can be about a simple thing like a conflict within a family.

How did you develop Zeno Clash's visual style, and were there any particular sources of inspiration?

AB: For Zeno Clash, we were looking for something not seen in the first-person genre. As I mentioned previously, we started looking for sources of inspiration that were not from the video game industry or blockbuster movies.

We were very interested in the work of illustrator John Blanche. We were 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 15th 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, our art director. He 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 video games.

Can you share how you came up with the Father-Mother creature's odd look?

AB: The Father-Mother character was developed in a later version of the story. We went through several scripts before reaching the final one.

Actually, Father-Mother was born as a reaction to some of our early play testing sessions. In these sessions, we had people playing in a dark bar setting with some unfriendly looking characters hidden in some dark corners. One of these characters was a shadowy figure, similar to Father-Mother.

He was sitting at a table, and next to him, on top of the table, Edmundo had placed a small baby. All the testers who saw the scene said something like, "Oh no! That thing is going to eat the baby!"

Edmundo was surprised by the reaction, because there was nothing that indicated that the creature wanted to harm the baby. Edmundo thought; "Why can’t that be its baby, and it is taking care of it?"

After that, Edmundo developed Father-Mother to defy the monster concept. The character was created to demonstrate that even a huge ugly creature can have an attachment to its family, and it doesn’t have to be inherently bad.

What do you think you're able to accomplish with this setup that you don't think you could with a more traditional 2D/3D fighting game, or a first-person shooter?

AB: The level of immersion has always been one the biggest strengths of a first-person game, because you feel like you’re playing through the eyes of the character. On the other hand, combat is one of the most engaging actions a player can experience in a game, because it’s close and personal.

The combination of the engagement of hand-to-hand combat from a fighter and the immersion of a first-person game was the great mix we were looking for. So, with Zeno Clash we have the best of both worlds.

With the first-person hand-to-hand combat, the camera moves and jerks around a bit -- were there any steps you consciously took to ensure that players didn't become too disoriented? Or were you looking to convey disorientation?

AB: We were well aware of this many years back when we started thinking of having a strong hand-to-hand component. Some external people were thinking it was a bad idea because the camera would move too much for the player to be able to focus during combat. At that time, shooters mostly felt like their avatars were moving pivots with a gun attached to it.

We quickly prototyped scenes to test disorientation issues using a 3d package. We developed several videos from a first-person perspective where we animated sequences that involved severe movement of the player’s point of view. It’s true that during moments, the player could become disoriented, but at the same time, the videos were extremely fun to watch.

These lessons were taken into consideration during the development process, but we eventually realized that this was no longer such a big issue because it became a standard in today’s games. Many shooters have included realistic camera movement during certain actions.

Take Mirror’s Edge as an example; the player’s view is coherent with the player’s running, jumping, and climbing, and this doesn’t necessarily mean that the player will become disoriented.

We also thought that at some key moments, a certain level of disorientation is acceptable. If you’re getting run over by a huge elephant man, you wouldn’t expect not to be disoriented while you’re flying through the air.

The way the player's health is presented, along with their current targeted enemy's, is very much like a more traditional fighting game or even a brawler; why did you choose this particular health design over something more like what you see in a traditional FPS?

AB: Zeno Clash is a hybrid game. We see it like a mix between a brawler and a FPS. We wanted to include many elements from the fighting genre to convey this perception. That’s why we decided to include versus screens prior to battles and HUD health bars like you’d see in classic Final Fight, where even the enemy’s health is visible.

We also didn’t want players to think Zeno Clash was a game like The Elder Scrolls, where the focus of the game is in exploring huge open environments. Our first game is all about the fighting, and the GUI had to reflect this.

Were there any other first-person or fighting titles that you looked at for ideas or things to avoid?

I suppose that to some extent, we did think about other games. We had already worked on a lot of mods and played every FPS there was to play.

I remember I was also lucky enough to attend an Arkane Studios session at GDC, in which the team behind Dark Messiah of Might and Magic talked about their design. They had sp,e very interesting feedback to provide. Our melee combat system is very different from theirs, but they surely had to deal with many of the same problems we encountered during the development of our project.

We also looked at some old school 2D fighting games when we were looking how to get the attacks impact feeling right. It was important that the attacks felt punishing, with a good sense of weight and good sound cues. I remember checking out some cool animations from The King of Fighters when we were looking into that.

What aspect of developing and designing Zeno Clash did you find most challenging?

AB: 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.

From a technical point of view, the lighting was very challenging, too. We were able to get great results with our new lightmap technique, but it also involved a ton of hand tweaking. With the existing lighting techniques and the inclusion of other lighting tools, such as our self projected shadows, good lighting was very hard to produce.

If you could start the project over again, what would you do differently?

AB: Hmm, that’s a hard question. Maybe we could have invested some more time in planning the levels to support the combat system. We had to work around some levels because they felt too confined. Re-editing them took a lot of valuable time.

On a side note I remember something similar was said during Arkane Studios's presentation at GDC some years ago. When they built Dark Messiah, they finished the levels before developing all the features of the combat system. So they said pretty much the same thing I’m saying now; if we could have designed the levels with all the features ready, we could have designed the levels to maximize those features.

What lessons were you able to pick up from your previous mod work that you were able to apply to Zeno Clash's development?

AB: I think the most important lesson was learning to identify the strength of our game before starting to develop it. When you’re building a mod, it’s not very different from making a game. You have to be able to focus on your key features and identify your weaknesses. We made a lot of mistakes when we built our prototype, and learning from those mistakes was an essential part of getting things right with Zeno Clash.

Aside from that, building mods is the best way to train yourself in professional video game development. You have a bunch of tools at your disposal that the big AAA companies are also using. You face many of the same technical challenges.

You also have to do a lot of things that aren’t directly related with the game: you have to promote your mod, you have to manage a team, etc. We’ve always recommended getting involved with mod making for people who want to get into the industry. At least from a designer’s point of view, it’s a great way to start.

What do you think of the state of independent game development, and are there any other independent games out that you currently admire?

AB: I think that independent game development will continue to grow and will expand, the same way casual games expanded some years ago. The advantage of indie games is that they can take much more risks because there is no corporate pressure when developing their ideas. The current trend in today’s industry is that larger budget games with traditional funding from publishers are taking safer bets.

Many of the innovative titles are coming from the indie game group. It’s no coincidence that the Independent Games Festival is getting more submissions every year. And there are a lot of quality projects among those submissions.

I think that my personal favorite is Braid from Jonathan Blow. It’s a great example of how thinking outside of the box can produce an outstanding product. I admire people who take chances and succeed. The guys making Machinarium also have a fan with me. I love the art style of their project.

Is there anything unique that you feel that Ace Team, as an independent studio operating in Chile, has in its development process or identity that isn't present in most other developers in other countries?

AB: I think that making a game from Chile obviously gives our project an identity that is not in other games. Latin America is very new to the game industry, so there are very few games developed from this region. And if you think in proprietary IPs it’s even less.

We weren’t looking to make something "Chilean" with Zeno Clash, but it has some small references to our country and culture. We probably perceive it less because we are from Chile, but I guess Zeno Clash feels like a very ‘foreign game’ to the rest of the world. And that’s a great thing to have because it sets us apart.

I think that having an identity is one of the most important things a studio can want when working in a creative environment, and we’re happy because we know we have that. I think nobody will be able to say in many years to come that Zeno Clash was just another cookie cutter game. I hope we can keep that identity with all the future projects we make.