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Postmortem: ACE Team's Zeno Clash

ACE Team's Zeno Clash story holds intriguing lessons for indie startups on the merit of keeping true to one's artistic vision -- and on the unpredictability of the design process.

Carlos Bordeu, Blogger

October 8, 2009

16 Min Read


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.

3. Choosing the right engine, but not because of the rendering tech -- instead, as a step into digital distribution.

When we started working on our conceptual work with Zeno Clash we knew we would have to choose a solid engine. Several team members had experience with id Software engines (mainly the Quake III engine) and we knew we had to move on to something that had normal mapping support and all the latest technical features. The choice came down to whether we moved with the Doom 3 engine or Source. The main reason we chose Source was because of Steam.

When we started, only Valve games had been announced for sale via Steam, but we had a hunch the service would grow (and it obviously did). I personally believe that without digital distribution Zeno Clash would have never been possible. Since the game was too unconventional for publishers to want to take a leap of faith with it, its best chances were by getting it out through digital distribution. Zeno Clash eventually made contact with the retail market around the world, but only after proving itself through Steam.

While Valve's technology is fantastic and helped us greatly in many technical aspects of the game (and also has a strong community behind it), it was basically its strong ties to a solid digital distribution system which made us choose it.

4. An unusual stance on piracy.

Of all the press releases we issued I doubt any reached as many people or sparked as much discussion on the net as our open message to pirates, which was reported all over the web.

As with all PC games, it took a very short time for a pirated version of Zeno Clash to start being distributed via torrents and direct downloads. When we faced this situation, we knew we had little chance of doing anything.

So while I was checking the comments of the first pirated copies of the game (on torrent trackers of a popular website) I decided to step in and leave a post to the people who were downloading the game. The message was well-written, polite, and basically said that our income depended on sales and that the only way we could continue to develop games was if we made enough profit.

When a couple of gaming websites saw these posts, they immediately posted it as news, and the word spread out very quickly. The amount of exposure this produced was not the only big surprise for us; many people wrote to us saying that they had decided to purchase the game only because of the message. Not only that, but people started copying my original message and putting it on other torrent trackers and websites.

While I don't think a significant percentage of people who pirated the game changed their minds, I do believe that the event worked as a big accidental "marketing" strategy and helped create more awareness of the game. It also helped us project a good image of the studio.

5. Making a game from a "third world country".

I suppose few studios can choose where they want to build their projects, but in our case I feel making a game in Chile was far from a disadvantage, despite there not being a real industry here.

Game development costs mainly come from salaries, not the cost of licenses or technology. I believe that the reason that we were able to build such a project with very low resources is thanks to the fact that we live in a country that is not so expensive to live in.

This is obviously true for any kind of business, but as an indie game studio we receive sales / revenues in international currency -- mainly U.S. dollars. The conversion tends to be good for us. Whenever we hear about the budgets that U.S. and European studios spend for game development, even in cases of indie or small games, and compare that to the reality of how we started with Zeno Clash, we understand why there are so many reports that very few titles ever make any profit.

Now that Zeno Clash has been released, the studio is in a different situation. We don't have to make games from my living room anymore. But still, the costs of the studio remain considerably lower than those we'd expect from similar companies in the U.S. or Europe.

What Went Wrong

1. Spitting out tons of art with little time to prototype.

The biggest problem we encountered with the development of the game was creating a lot of content without really knowing if it would work.

We had a very unbalanced team (with a single programmer and many artists) so the speed at which we created content was much faster than the speed at which we could see that content functional in the game.

For this reason we had to do a lot of work, and design it for code that would be implemented later on. I do applaud the results of the team in terms of anticipating things well, since a lot more work could have been wasted if our vision wasn't clear.

However, many animations needed to be redone once the game started working, and many environments needed to change in proportions after they had been properly lit and finalized. This was mainly because many of the attacks that the player could execute did not exist in the game until very deep into the development of the project. The same happened with several attacks for the enemies.

2. Lighting, again and again...

In regards to the lighting process, we had enormous problems with getting the world to light properly, because of how we decided to use the Source Engine. Source is specialized for building geometry with brushes (box shaped primitives) which are very efficient for creating most types of environments, but for Zeno Clash we needed something much more organic.

This meant we needed to work around brushes and use static geometry exported from 3D Studio Max. But our problem was that Source was optimized for proper brush lighting, not static props. We would have to elaborate a system where we created a new type of model that accepted two UV layers where we would bake lighting rendered from 3D Studio Max scenes.

But since the game is lit in Hammer (the world editing tool of Source) we had to match the lighting of the 3D engine with our 3D Studio Max scenes, which was a huge task. If an artist decided to move the main light source in the world this meant all the baked lighting of the static meshes would be incorrect and need to be re-done, which ended up being one of the most time consuming processes of the game.

At certain moments I can remember how people would hesitate to re-light a scene that was poorly lighted only because of the consequences this would have on the lighting of a level. By not generating a more efficient pipeline to approach this problem we took much longer than expected with the lighting of the world.

3. The unpredictability of the iterative design process.

Zeno Clash was built upon a very iterative design process with no main game design document, but a sheaf of very disorganized and messy papers. The main reason behind this was that the project had been born after another failed project and we were not completely certain of the direction of many things in the game until we were very deep in the development of it.

While the iterative nature of this style of design allowed us a great amount of freedom in changing things on the fly so we could make the game better, too many times we suggested ideas that were mainly hunches, and these suggestions caused David (our programmer) to spend invaluable time in wasted code.

4. No competitive feature until near the end... and no multiplayer.

As a small team we knew that we couldn't make a multiplayer feature for Zeno Clash, mainly because of time. So we decided the game would only focus on the single player campaign and nothing else. But as we neared completion of the game we realized many people were requesting ways in which they could fight against adversaries -- some sort of challenge mode.

A few months before release we faced the dilemma of either leaving the game the way it was, or implementing a challenge mode. The team clearly underestimated the complexity of creating a challenge mode and the impact this would have on the game.

We tackled the problem way too late, and this meant the first iterations of the tower levels were poorly balanced in difficulty and almost an insignificant percentage of players were actually capable of beating the final challenges, which in my opinion were way too hard. This meant we had to balance the levels via updates which were released after the game had been out for some time. This obviously affected leaderboards, and was not something we were happy with.

The most successful update the game has received was a new challenge mode, and it is a clear sign that we underestimated the value of this type of content. The game can be beaten in a relatively short time and without the challenges a lot of people would have stopped playing the game very quickly.

5. Proper voice acting.

During our search for international voice talent for the game we encountered the problem of having to find good voice over talent for the lead characters. Our initial experiences were extremely positive (working with Eric, who played the voice of our main character, Ghat).

But we incorrectly assumed that we would be successful with other people we hired and we ended up having to re-record complete characters because we handled the issue poorly. We had little experience in this matter and we even paid for some jobs before they were complete.

If we had waited until soon before the release of the game and experienced these problems, Zeno Clash could have easily been released with very poor voice acting. We were lucky that the delay of the game due to other issues allowed us to have more time to re-record several characters that didn't work out.

However, this also meant we had a very uneven cast of voice talent in the final game. Certainly, if we had more experience and time we could have delivered better voice acting.


The story of the development of Zeno Clash is overwhelming to look at from our perspective. When we at ACE Team started thinking of doing a punk-fantasy first person game, it was 2002 and the project we started designing was very different to what was released in 2009.

It's hard to believe that a game that was based on a failed project would eventually become a successful one. In retrospective I think many good choices we made with Zeno Clash were thanks to learning from mistakes we made with Zenozoik, our canceled Lithtech powered game. But I don't think that the reason we were capable of producing a really complex game as an indie studio is only because we spent a long time on it.

I remember reading a John Carmack interview several years ago, when normal mapping was the latest thing in video game technology and Doom 3 was about to be released.

They asked him about the modding scene, and the possibility of small teams to adopt the new requirements of next-gen tech.

He replied that he believed that game development had reached a point where the complexity of producing art for games was too hard for mod developers who wanted to keep up with the standards required to produce contemporary games.

But I think he would have been surprised to see how small teams have been able to produce very elaborate projects that have turned into full games. Even these days, with Unreal Engine 3, we still see the Make Something Unreal contest which has already served as a platform to launch mod/indie game developers in the industry.

The origins of ACE Team are the origins of a mod development team, and Zeno Clash started out as a very ambitious mod, but ended up being a fully licensed game, and we are proud of having produced one of the most distinct Source engine games that have been released.

I believe that even though video games get more and more complex, there will always be a way for small teams to develop unique projects that can be released commercially. With a little bit of creative thinking (and keeping things realistic), any talented team of aspiring game developers can take a strong first step into this industry.

Game Data

Full-Time Game Developers: 7
Contractors: 2 (Audio and Music)
Game budget: US $200.000 - $250.000
Game development time: Around 2 years
Release date on Steam: April 19, 2009
Platform: PC
Hardware used - Typical workstation: Athlon 2 ghz, 2 GB RAM, 80 GB HDD, 128MB Shader Model 2.0 video card
Software used: Source Engine Tools (Hammer, Face Poser, Studiomdl model compiler, Half Life Model Viewer, Particle Editor), 3D Studio Max, Adobe Photoshop
Technology used: Source Engine - Orange Box build

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About the Author(s)

Carlos Bordeu


Carlos Bordeu is one of the founders of ACE Team and works as co-lead designer and artist among other things. He has been into game development since as early as 1989, making pixel art on a Mac Plus. During the '90s he formed ACE Team with his two brothers, and the group developed several total conversions and mods that launched him into professional game development. Carlos also worked in a leading role at Wanako Games and helped push the company into one of the largest game development studios in Latin America.

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