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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.
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.