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Postmortem: ACE Team's Zeno Clash
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Postmortem: ACE Team's Zeno Clash

October 8, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next


Zeno Clash is a project born thanks to another that failed. Years before we even started working with the Source Engine, ACE Team was granted a demo license of the Lithtech's Jupiter System, the same engine used by Monolith's No One Lives Forever 2, with which we tried to create a game we called Zenozoik. The goal of this project was to create an action / RPG in first person, but the demo we built never took off -- mainly because as a team we tried to produce something too complex for a start-up studio.

Many years after this failed attempt we gathered around our original concept and re-thought the game in a manner that would focus on few but solid elements, those that we would be able to produce as a small team. This was the birth of Zeno Clash.

Our original vision had to nail two key elements: the surreal, novel art style and intense combat in first person perspective. We needed to scrap all the RPG elements and scale down the game to something that would end up being like a fantasy Double Dragon shooter (a very unusual mix).

We knew that we were too few to make a game with large, open, and expansive environments. The start-up team (which was also the main team for almost the entire course of development) was composed of one programmer and a team of around six other people -- some being exclusively artists, others designer/artists, and one just a designer. This meant the bulk of the game was going to be developed by seven people -- an absurdly small team for a first person game. Scaling down the concept of the game was key.

The game was built in the most indie fashion one can imagine. To avoid paying rent for office space, the studio set up camp in the living room of the apartment I was sharing with my twin brother Andres. Edmundo, the art director, is also a brother, and part of the team. The initials of our names form the word "ACE" -- this is where the studio got its name from. With seven computers in a cramped space, ACE Team spent around two years working on what eventually became the studio's debut title.

Click here for a panoramic view of ACE Team’s home office.

What Went Right

1. Creatively scaling the game's concept and visuals to give the sensation of having a large universe.

If there is something we knew we had to fight against in Zeno Clash, it was making a game that was big and long enough with very limited resources. We knew the game would be very art-intensive, and that most models would have to be created with high polygon versions for normal maps and with high resolution textures.

If we would have created a game with fast pacing where the player quickly moves through the environment, we would have failed. We needed to step away from the first person shooter genre and make everyone understand this was a brawler, but in first person.

I believe many smart choices helped us give the sensation that this was a game that had a large universe, but the player was only seeing a fraction of it. By keeping the story focused on character interactions and conflicts instead of a great quest like saving the world, we were able of giving more coherence to the boundaries of the protagonist's capacity to explore. Constantly changing the theme and style of the art throughout the game enabled us to give a sensation of exploration without really having any.

Small details like the vs. screens that pop in between battles helped us convey the idea that the player is not playing a small first person shooter, but rather a first person brawler where the combat is the focus.

2. Being aggressive with the artistic vision and sticking with it.

When we first started pitching the game to publishers, a common response we got was something like, "The game will be applauded by your peers for its originality, but consumers will not relate to it". After getting these sorts of replies we thought: "This is the best/worst response we can possibly get", because it meant we had something unique, but the main concern was that people wouldn't understand it.

This statement eventually became somewhat true, because Zeno Clash didn't turn out to be a blockbuster. But for a small new studio like ours, to make a game that was safer and more digestible would have also meant making a game similar to other games on the market -- where we had little chance of competing with huge budgets and enormous production values.

In other words: it is possible that if we would have presented the same publishers a regular military shooter, they wouldn't have even replied. Zeno Clash lured a lot of people that were tired of playing the same games, and we managed to do this thanks to staying true to our artistic vision.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Marla Saavedra
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Que bueno de haber escrito un 'Post-mortem".

Me permito de escribir en chileno ya que supongo que van a leerlo.

Y quisiera felicitarlo por sus trabajos de equipos a cada unos de vosotros ademas que son Chilenos.

Me agredecio el corazon de ver que en este pais empienza a nacer/crecer un industria del juego video.

Tuvo que crear un cuento steam especialemente para jugar a "Zeno Clash".

Tambien participe haciendo publicidad para que mi cercono compraba el juego tambien.

(No se si fueron objectivo o no, pero la mayoria lo encuentraron bien)

Despues de haber leydo el articulo. Todos lo que puedo desear es que pueden seguir y hacer un proximo juego mas estupendo. Don't give up !!!

Para terminar, como todos chilenos un poco nationalista, pongo este link :

Dwayne Benzie
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I personally thought Zeno Clash was a great game, it's rare when you can see a screenshot of some game's landscape and know EXACTLY what game that is. You are all amazing designers and I look forward to PURCHASING your next offering, no matter what it may be.

Check out my gaming blog!

Chris Remo
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Great postmortem for a great game. Well done, ACE Team.

Samuel Fiunte Matarredona
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Sounds interesting, coulb be worthy to check it out......and I have to confess that I never heard about this game before!!! good luck with your future enfeavours :D

Kevin Maloney
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Very cool you guys. Your unique vision is what got some of my friends to buy the game. A very inspirational Postmortem thanks so much.

Rodney Brett
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Such a great game with an incredibly daring story that took lots of risks. A game like this can only come from a small developer. I loved it!

ivan velho
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Your post motem was very usefull, for me. An independent developer of the third world.

The most difficult thing is faith in ourselves. That we can do, even with no budget at all.

Our costs of production are extremelly low but I find few people that believes that is possible to make a business in games in Brazil.

You proved that is possible, I buyed the game today a I wil analyze it.

At first , I look ta a design that remains "La Cultura Andina". I found several elements os this culture in your artwork.

Even in yous storr, that resembles to pagan stories ( A Father-Mother character, for instance).

The structure is very like a nordic god's legend, but with original elements.

An european comics design is obvious in the colors and in the stile.

A well done work folks, congratulations.

J Benjamin Hollman
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You guys are my heroes!

Best of luck on the sequel.

Stephen Etheridge
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With Zeno Clash, I hadn't felt such wonder since the first time I watched Baron von Munchausen as a child. But I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that the game isn't all-reliant on style but it also benefits from a gentle but meaningful story, which somehow feels so much more personal than anything I've seen rammed into recent blockbusters.

The history of this game is an interesting read and must be inspiring for indie developers. I think on the whole the steps you took to keep the project manageable yet still provide a fulfilling game experience were very astute and worked admirably. I think there is a lot to be said for making shorter games; I found both Zeno Clash and Portal to be more wholesome game experiences than most because I actually managed to complete them uninterrupted. This is something to for indie devs to keep in mind: a shorter title shouldn't naturally equate to an inferior product.

Having played the game and now read the post-mortem, and as a production tester, it seems clear that you could have done with one or two testers on-hand to bounce ideas off and do some heavy testing. During the game I had numerous issues with scripts breaking, AI breaking, menu logic, graphical corruptions and compatibility issues. I can understand a small studio with limited resources not catching compatibility issues (even months after release), but the other issues could have been caught by a quality tester working part-time or on a very short-term contract (the big majority were very reproducible issues). Obviously this would seem to represent an added cost, but I think it is something to consider if you are aiming to produce a lengthier title as your next project.

Finally, as a student of Spanish, the first thing I wanted to do was change the language to Castilian and hear the game how you intended it to be. I'm not sure if you did produce a Spanish-audio version and that perhaps Steam didn't download the necessary files because of the locale/language settings, but I would have loved a Castilian version. The English performances were competant but I'm sure I would have enjoyed the game more in Castilian. Next time, hopefully you will have the time to include a language setting for Anglophone/Hispanic audiences. I look forward to your next endeavour.

Buena suerte a todos los ACE Team!

Marc Sanders
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Bravo. Encore :)