‘Zines, Screens, and All In-Betweens

Zineth by Arcane Kids

Published: October 12. 2012

Mac
Windows

A peek behind the curtain of the Arcane Kids’ fast, furious Zineth

In a world of homogenous games and visual styles, the bizarre, slightly askew Zineth stands alone. The work of Arcane Kids, Zineth is a Windows and Mac freeware title set in a striking, slightly surreal open world. The premise follows suit: the world was actually absorbed by a mobile game, and players must save the minds of its inhabitants by collecting and distributing a ‘zine to show them what the real world has to offer. Zineth was the work of seven developers, all of whom went to school together at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and who are now working together remotely.

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As they so often do, the game came together thanks to fortuitous timing and a lot of hard work. Developer Russell Honor had spent a few weeks working on a remake of a Half Life 2 mod created by his fellow Arcane Kid, Ben Esposito. It was called Perfect Stride, and was a momentum-based first person platformer. “I had some unrequited feelings—it was already a pretty enjoyable experience at that point, albeit a little unintuitive,” recalls Honor. So when they had to make a game for the yearly games festival at RPI, they settled on something “in the same vein that would fit better into our fast-paced American lifestyles.”

“I initially pitched the concept of a sort of amped up Pony Express,” recalls developer Thomas Astle. “You’d ride your horse through a warped desert landscape—running along canyon walls, sliding around the dunes, and fending off gangs of outlaws by performing trick-riding maneuvers to shield yourself with the horse and gun them down.” The horse eventually turned into a robot, mainly because the team figured it would be easier to animate; combat was scrapped, and slowly all the details began to fall away until what they were left with the simple, minimized idea of movement.

Anyone who has played Jet Set Radio will note that it served as a creative point of reference. Inspiration also came from “things we found funny,” according to Honor. “When it came to the actual presentation of the game, we took a lot from things we view as having an emphasis on surprise, while having a perceivable lack of concern for justifying decisions, and a bunch of random internet ‘zines.” The game’s skating component is essentially the group’s interpretation of free running and skiing: “I was more concerned with the feelings of freedom and momentum than emulating the more technical act of performing the maneuvers,” says Honor. “Also, kids at our school would run with their hands in their pockets at breakneck paces, so we would like to dedicate this game as a biographical look into their lust for speed.”

> I personally got to stop worrying about making things work, and instead about making them fun pretty quickly.

The movie Thrashin’ and the game Monkey Puncher are also cited as major inspirations, along with a slightly more personal experience. “A lot of the phone was inspired by a month in 2011 when I didn’t have a phone,” says Jacob Knipfing, while Thomas Lanciani’s work on the camera was inspired by Super Mario Sunshine. Honor had plenty of ideas left over from his foray into the Perfect Stride remake, and the team ended up pulling plenty of inspiration from that as well.

Zineth was originally only conceived as a two-month project, so there was always a lot of pressure to work hard. “Whenever there was nothing immediately important to do, there was a lot of freedom to work on anything that might contribute to the game,” says Knipfing. “For me, a lot of that effort went into risky phone applications. Some of them didn’t work out, and some of them turned into Twitter clients.” The constant work got pretty stressful, but Thomas Astle notes the genuine upside to crunching with people you like. “Sleep deprivation and stress are the unsung heroes of creativity, and I had the opportunity to become much more familiar with the animated series of the mid to late 80s.”

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Getting the idea up and running was a fairly quick, if intensive process. “After Jacob, Tom and I spent our entire spring break on campus locked away in a basement level lab, we had almost all the core stuff running,” reacalls Honor. “I personally got to stop worrying about making things work, and instead about making them fun pretty quickly.” The team had working versions of the major parts of the game within a few weeks, and spent our extra time improving them or, in Honor’s words, “adding unnecessary features.” Astle recalls that lots of smaller stuff about the game kept changing, and that no one thing he worked on took too much time to get functioning, but that there was a constant flux of features and content being added, removed and changed.

Honor was originally attracted to Unity because of, in his words, “How it seemed to be the 3D engine least geared towards first-person shooters.” (That was, he says, until the default project got changed to one in Unity 3. “Bring back Lerpz!”) The quick iteration time was also a boon. “It’s been a good fit, since it allows us to develop very easily and rapidly,” says Knipfing. “I don’t think we would have gotten close to where we are now if we had chosen to use a different development environment.”

Honor notes that the Unity extension Terrain Toolkit was very useful for setting up the initial forms for the desert in which the game is set. “Also, the way Unity will fix up models when importing them was tremendously useful, as I was just figuring out how to model when I started working on the environments,” he says. The team turned to the Unity Asset Store early on, where the Strumpy Shader Editor came in useful for quickly creating and testing shaders. “We also used Super Splines for setting up the rails, and the developer of that was super awesome in getting us support when we had an issue, even giving us a free upgrade to the pro version of the tool,” says Honor.

At the moment, four of the Arcane Kids are working on two different Unity games, one of which is for the just recently-Kickstarted LA Game Space. That, and…keeping track of the weather. “We’ve been logging the weather conditions in each player’s zip code, and are sitting on a huge database of weather,” says Knipfing. “I’m not sure if anyone would want the information, but the Unity Asset Store seems like a great environment to find potential buyers.”

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Late Night Tales

“It would be a common occurrence during a late night to have the monotonous task of adjusting ramps, or trying to get skating upside down working again,” recalls one of the Arcane Kids founders, Russell Honor. “[I’d be] interrupted by Jacob saying, ‘You are going to be so mad.’ He’d then show me he had gone so far as to replace the map application in the phone with Google Maps. So, it was often both stressful and hilarious.” As for the Arcane Kids name? “Arcane Kids has been a collective for a while now, with a few core members,” he says. “The knowledge of where the name came from is arcane to even people like me who are in the very center. It’s kinda like a game dev cult in that sense.”

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