Interview – ARC: When a student project goes an extra mile
The market is oversaturated with titles, big and small, and because of that it is sometimes nice to step back from everything for a moment and explore projects that may be unheard of and tiny in scope, but as ambitious as their larger counterparts – giving us a glimpse of what, under the right circumstances, could be. One of such projects is ARC. It is a first person shooter running on Unreal Engine 4 and built by a core team of four former Vancouver Film School (VFS) students, who under four months managed to create a title with potential. Notice the fours? Anyhow, what sets ARC apart from other similar projects is the execution and how everything comes together. Despite its short length, the project feels very professional and offers and interesting setting – a deserted living spaceship. I came across the game by chance, going online through some comments, and found it intriguing enough to try it myself. But that didn’t suffice, because I ended up wanting to know more about it and how it was created. That’s where Dale Schollen comes in, who acted as Project Manager, and will elaborate on behalf of the team.
ARC is an action horror FPS set in an overgrown abandoned spaceship. Playing the game, I got a mixed vibe of a plethora of other titles from System Shock and BioShock, to Turok and Alien and even Prey. It seemed in a way almost like an homage. Were some of these an inspiration for you? Where did the idea come from?
The idea for ARC was certainly not something that came quickly or easily. The team spent tens of hours in design meetings before we even had a high concept, while other teams were already prototyping. We all agreed on one thing though, we wanted to tell a story. Most student projects focus on a novel gameplay mechanic to prove their design chops, however we just wanted to create an engaging world that would leave players wanting more. The challenge that lies therein is creating an interesting plotline the player could experience in less than 30 minutes. Games like System Shock or Bioshock were great reference points for how we could make a game like this work. They throw the player into a terrifying unknown world, slowly learning about the setting through environmental art or the lone voice guiding you. We also wanted the reveal of the black hole to feel similar to the first time you see Rapture, a feeling of both wonder and mystery. This technique of dropping the player into the world, letting them draw their own conclusion about what happened, and then pulling them out, seemed to work really well for a short development cycle.
The game combines elements of exploration, action and horror. Despite its short length, it manages to blend them together quite well, resulting in a solid experience and pace. Would you attribute that to good writing and was balancing hard?
The balance of solid writing and gameplay was a challenge in many regards. The most important thing to us was to have context to for all your actions. We wanted gameplay to fit the situation, not the situation to be dependant on the core gameplay. This meant writing interesting scenarios to keep the player engaged instead of using our core gun mechanic throughout to drive the encounters. At the beginning of the game, the player wants to explore and learn so we give them a large area with multiple paths to do this. As they learn about the predator, they want to run and hide so we funnel them into constricted dark hallways. When they get the accelerated rivet construct we give them the opportunity to face their fear in combat. Finally, at our climactic ending we try to flip the gameplay on it’s head so to speak, with running and platforming driving the player forward as they attempt to escape.
The project was made using Unreal Engine 4, which is still relatively new and not as widespread as its predecessor. What did Unreal 4 had to offer that you chose it over other engines on the market? Or was that decision more random?
Choosing Unreal 4 was a very risky decision at the time. The engine was very fresh and had only a couple updates at that point. However, the engine has a lot of tools that would be instrumental in making the kind of game we wanted. Blueprint and Matinee allowed us to script a lot of scenes with relative ease and a first person controller is built directly into the engine. Unreal 4 was not without it’s quirks like any engine, but it allowed us to create this type of game efficiently and with a cutting edge material and lighting systems to boot.
My probably favorite thing about ARC is the sound and design, which combined create a tense atmosphere. The voice of the AI is outright creepy and the look of the environment as it progresses from start to finish, along with the music, just underlines that. How important was the audio aspect for you and how long did ARC take to create?
The games audio is very much half the experience, and without it all the players fear and immersion would be lost. Also the gameplay would be wreck, given that listening for the predator’s location is integral to the combat design. Luckily, we had great collaborators making original sounds for the world. Sounds like the predator’s distinct growling are layers of different animal noises on top of eachother. Trevor Lawless, who voiced Noah the artificial Intelligence, worked really hard on getting the creepy voice inflections just right. We wanted you to be constantly guessing if he was sinister or trying to help you after thousands of years of breaking down. It took us 4 months to create the game. It was our first project for the majority of the team. Starting with writing the design documents and ending with the final art, audio, and gameplay you see in the video.
The game quickly pulls the player into its world, but it also relatively quickly pulls him out. The ending is open and it feels like you have just scratched the surface with more left to tell. Did you manage to include everything you wanted or were you limited by something and content had to be cut?
In our original design document, we had planned to have much more of the game happen after the black hole reveal. With the player backtracking through the ship as it rotates to open new level design opportunities. For a couple reasons this was cut, both technical and pacing wise. After that point, the game became much more about the horror and exploration of waking up on a lifeless ship.
ARC was released over a year ago. Is the game still being somehow supported or has support for it been discontinued?
Support has entirely been discontinued, unfortunately. However you can still download the game at the VFS Arcade.
Was ARC envisioned from the start solely as a student project or did you ever have plans to return to it at some point in the future, perhaps with a larger team and budget, and turn it into a widely available retail product?
Before starting production, co-writer Richard and I created a full story treatment for the game that would span a typical AAA title length. However, the story we wanted to tell in ARC was very deliberate and condensed to fit our scope. ARC ends with a cliffhanger, and given the situation the player is in, it would be hard to pick up where we left. In the original story the black hole sequence would be the third act and waking up the first act. One day, if and when I become buddies with a publisher I would love to re-imagine ARC with the combined experience that comes with age. Until then, I’ll be buying lottery tickets.
What are you and the team behind ARC currently working on and what are your plans for the foreseeable future?
A portion of the team is now working at Interdimensional Games on pre-production for Consortium: The Tower Prophecy . We are trying to create a much more open first person experience than what was possible with ARC. Players will be able to sneak, shoot, or even talk their way through the entire game. You can check out the first portion of Consortium on Steam right now. We are very excited to reveal what we have been working on with a trailer that will be dropping in the coming weeks. After that, watch out for our crowdfunding campaign!
Thank you for the interview and good luck!
You’re welcome and thank you for your interest!