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ACE Team's debut game Zeno Clash came out in April 2009 on Steam and has since gone on to critical acclaim for its surreal art and enjoyable melee combat. It was a complete surprise for me, I bought it quite randomly on Steam with no real expectation and found it to be a beautiful and imaginative game which was genuinely original. I liked it so much I named it my PC game of the year for 2009. To find out more about ACE Team, developing Zeno Clash, the Ultimate Edition due for XBLA, Zeno Clash 2 and other plans for the future of ACE team I caught up with Carlos Bordeu, one of the founding brothers of the company and also a game designer and artist on Zeno Clash.
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What inspired you to start up a game development company and what is the background of the core team?
Some of us had experience working as mod developers and others in casual games, but our interest was to be able to create our own games that had a unique identity. We really wanted to have practically unlimited creative freedom and for that we needed our own company.
The name ACE Team is formed by the initials of the Brothers Bordeu, Andres, Carlos and Edmundo. How was it working closely with your brothers? Was there any sibling rivalry or arguments?
The Studio has 4 founders. Three of us are the three brothers, and the fourth is David Caloguerea. I think working with brothers is a great advantage (if you have good relations with them). We agree more easily on subjects and have a clearer idea of what we want to achieve as a team. That doesn’t mean you don’t have arguments or disagreements, but being brothers has helped us in terms of having a focused core group with similar goals, ideas and aspirations.
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We got inspiration from a number of sources not traditionally used in games or movies. Our main sources are the 1980’s punk fantasy art of John Blanche, the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and the movie ‘The Dark Crystal’.
The gameplay definitely reminded me of Double Dragon which I played to death in my youth. What other games influenced the design?
Double Dragon is a direct inspiration for the melee combat, but we also took from the 3D Zelda games for a lock-on / targeting system.
The design is also very unusual for a first-person game, it can be difficult to do a decent melee system in first-person. Did you worry that it wouldn’t work and did it take a lot of play testing to achieve the right feel?
The fighting mechanics took a lot of iterative design and implementation. But I think one of the successes of the combat system is that we didn’t base our design on other melee first person games, but instead we looked at solid retro 2D fighters. We even looked at Mortal Kombat to understand what made punching and hitting enemies satisfying in those types of games.
As a developer you can often look at something you’ve made and only see the flaws. Are you proud of Zeno Clash, can you step back and look at it now with genuine satisfaction?
I still only see the flaws... hahaha. But I think we can be very proud of two achievements: A lot of people said Zeno Clash had the most memorable art in a videogame and others said it had the best implementation of melee combat in a first person game. Those are two very solid triumphs of the development team (of art, implementation and design) and we are really proud, especially considering that Zeno Clash was created by a core team of 7 people.
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Valve and Developing on Source
When we made The Ship, which also used the Source Engine, Valve was hugely supportive and digital distribution through Steam was our main route to market. How did you find working with Valve, Source and Steam?
Starting off your company working with such a big name in this industry is almost surreal. When Valve became interested in Zeno Clash it was something really important for us and they have been great. It is clear to me that they understand the value of supporting smaller game developers and they have a history of doing so with games that have ended up being tremendous successes like Counter Strike and Portal.
The Source level editor, Hammer, is superb for geometric environments but the world of Zeno Clash seems almost devoid of right angles. Did you have trouble with the mapping?
That was a big issue for us. Since Source is optimized for brush based geometry (boxed shape primitives), we needed to re-think how we would do environments in the game. We eventually had to upgrade the static mesh class (regular 3d models that can be placed in environments) so that we could use pre-baked lightmaps with them. This allowed us to do completely organic and perfectly lit environments. The way we build environments is completely different from how Valve builds their environments for Half-Life or Left 4 Dead.
What was your main obstacle during development?
I think that the most difficult thing was that 99% of the game was programmed by David, and I think that is something that is usually not spoken about the game, but that should. All the game code, AI, changes to the renderer, etc, etc were done by him and I’m actually surprised that he survived. Now that we are making Zeno Clash: Ultimate Edition for XBLA, we have a second programmer, but for the original PC game David had a lot on his hands. He should definitely get some sort of award or recognition for the amount of work he did in the game.
You used an iterative design process to create Zeno Clash which is the best approach in my opinion but it can lead to a lot of dead ends and wasted work. Why did you take this approach and is this something you’ll repeat with the sequel or will you plan things in greater detail next time round?
I wouldn’t change iterative design for anything else. The best ideas and features appeared during the development of the game and not in a rigorous preproduction phase. Sure, you do end up doing some work on things that don’t end up in the game, but the advantages are much greater than the disadvantages (in my opinion).
If you could go back in time to day one of production and tell yourself one thing what would it be?
I would tell myself that a solid second in-house programmer is needed. Delegating work to external programmers just doesn’t work.
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Zeno Clash: Ultimate Edition on XBLA and Zeno Clash 2
I read that Zeno Clash is heading for a release on Xbox Live Arcade and it will contain new modes and features. What can you tell us about this?
The main new feature will be coop for the tower challenges. We will also have new attacks, weapons and enemies, but there is not much more I can say for now.
Will the new modes and features make it into an update of the PC version or is this Xbox exclusive?
I cannot confirm or deny that any of the new content will arrive to the PC version.
The sequel to Zeno Clash has already been announced and I know I’m not alone in eagerly anticipating it. How long do you estimate it will take to finish?
I think it is a bit too soon to ask how long it will take. As a small indie team there’s so much you can do simultaneously, and today the XBLA version of Zeno Clash is very important as it is our opportunity to publish a console game which is very important for any starting studio. Zeno Clash 2 is a big project and it will take a while, but I’m sure we will be able to share new info about new things we are doing at ACE next year.
Can you tell us anything about Zeno Clash 2? Do you have a story arc in mind?
Yes we do, but I cannot comment more than what has been said: The story involves many of the characters of the first, and Golem takes a stronger role in the sequel.
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I also read that you are working on a new line of casual games with a quick turnaround and short development time. Can you tell us anything about that?
That’s true, and we will definitely show something sooner than we share anything about Zeno Clash 2. We’re growing as a studio and we feel that to be able to remain independent we have to focus on more than a single title every year or two (which can be very risky). Anyways... don’t think of this like standard casual games for moms and grandpas. We’re not doing something like Bejewelled. The game will be different, artistic, somewhat crazy and fun. It’s a unique thing, but we’ll share more about it later.
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Indie Development and Mainstream Success
Zeno Clash has created a storm in the indie scene and critically it is a big success but that doesn’t always translate into sales. Are you keen to make a mainstream blockbuster game and are you willing to compromise your creativity in order to do that? Or do you feel the two are not necessarily opposed?
I think the main feeling within ACE Team is that we want our games to sell and reach as many people as possible, and that we would like to develop games that can become closer to “mainstream blockbusters” (I think that making a game that really does become a blockbuster is something that even many AAA studios aspire to and never accomplish), but if we have to do a world war 2 game to get there, then no thanks. What we are not willing to compromise is creativity. Zeno Clash is never going to be as popular as Call of Duty, Halo or the other top shooters, but I think there are a lot of chances to grow. Bioshock is based on System Shock 2, a game that was never mainstream.
Can you offer any advice for aspiring indie game developers?
It may be an alternate path to starting off as an indie game developer, but making a good mod can be a good way to start. This can be especially true if you have a small team where you have more designers or artists than programmers. You also get to work with very sophisticated tools and you will certainly build experience that will be great if instead you decide to seek work in the industry.
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Gaming at ACE Team
What games are popular with ACE Team? Do you play games in the office and if so what has been the game of choice recently?
During 90% of the development of Zeno Clash our game of choice was Smash Bros Brawl. I’d say the remaining 10% was Left4Dead and other shooters. Now we’ve sort of stopped playing at the office. Haven’t thrown a Falcon Punch in a while ;)