Meet ACE Team, makers of the weirdest games on PC

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Carlos Bordeu

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Carlos Bordeu founded ACE Team in Santiago, Chile with his two brothers, Andres and Edmundo.

The Deadly Tower of Monsters is an unusual game for ACE Team, in that it’s unusually normal. This is the developer that made Zeno Clash and its sequel, first-person brawlers set among toothed birdmen and other hideous creatures. ACE also made Abyss Odyssey, a side-scrolling fighting game, and Rock of Ages, a sort of high-concept, competitive, historical take on Super Monkey Ball. By comparison, Deadly Tower’s top-down action seems downright traditional.

It does have a funny premise, though—you’re playing through the director commentary of a B-movie, fighting monsters as he describes the challenges of filming them—and ACE Team never does anything without its own angle. In this case, it’s upward movement in a typically flat genre.

And however familiar the top-down action RPG may be, it’s remarkable that ACE Team has made games in four different genres since Zeno Clash’s release in 2009. ACE Team moves fast, and already has more on the way—coming soon, The Deadly Tower of Monsters (which released last month) is getting a local co-op update, which will be deployed in beta form soon, and they're already nearing the announcement of their next project.

Earlier this week, I spoke to co-founder Carlos Bordeu about all of this, as well as his strange side project, The Endless Cylinder, and what it’s like to run a game studio in Chile.

PC Gamer: ACE Team is probably best known for its character designs, the very surreal creatures in Zeno Clash. The Deadly Tower of Monsters seems like a good way to showcase that, given that it’s all about monsters. Was that part of the inspiration for it?

Carlos Bordeu: Not really. Monsters was our attempt to see what we could do to innovate on a top-down, action sort of RPG. We saw this genre to be pretty popular on the PC, and there were games like Bastion and other games of the same style. And we’re thinking to ourselves about what we could do to make a game that stands out from the design perspective. So, we thought about the vertical component, how most of these games are played on a flat surface where you move around and the camera is pretty much fixed at a very specific height, and you have this very huge map or dungeon, and that’s very standard for this type of game. What would a real third dimension mean in this case? So we thought about adding depth to the game, and the whole concept of a tower came to mind as a natural fit.

And the art style of the game was more—we were pitching something that would be a more traditional RPG world ... We felt that we could also maybe innovate on the side of the artistic choice, and definitely the old sci-fi movies, B-movies from the 1950s, ‘60s, was something that hadn’t been done at all. So that’s a little bit how this project went, where we usually try to innovate in game design in terms of using a style that’s kind of new.

Tower of Monsters does seem more traditional compared to something like Zeno Clash. Did you feel pressure to get into a market on Steam that was more established, easier for people to understand?

That’s definitely a big conversation that has gone through in the studio several times, because we’ve historically made games that are very out there, like either very weird in visual design or gameplay. Most of our games are super unique at least in one of those two aspects, and there definitely has been us asking ourselves, “What if we did something more normal?” So, there was some of that coming into play when we designed The Deadly Tower of Monsters, but a little bit in a sense that I think that doing anything weirder than Zeno Clash would really be going very strong in the other direction. Both Zeno Clash 1 and 2 are extremely unconventional games, Abyss Odyssey is also extremely unconventional in its design mechanics and mix of genres, Rock of Ages is also sort of unique on its own. So, while yes, there was maybe some talk about being a little more normal, I don’t think that was the main thing. We feel we want to do something that inspires us, that’s unique and interesting, and we didn’t want to do something that’s completely normal at all.

I can see the classic science fiction, and pulp science fiction and fantasy in your inspirations, but is there anything I might not be aware of that inspires you when it comes to character designs and story writing?

Well, it very much depends on the game. The Zeno Clash universe is heavily inspired by Hieronymus Bosch and John Blanche, '70s punk fantasy illustrator. But in the case of The Deadly Tower our inspiration is much more obvious, like going to Flash Gordon, The Planet of the Apes, and the old B-movies we watched at kids. They’re not even movies of our time, they’re older than us—we grew up with Star Wars and all this is previous to that.

Last year you quietly unveiled a side-project, The Endless Cylinder, on YouTube, and there’s a lot of curiosity around that. Can you explain what it is, and what inspired it?

This one is more difficult to pinpoint as an inspiration from something more specific. During the development of Zeno Clash 2 I went through a phase of going through a lot of very surreal art, looking at a lot of surreal paintings and artwork in general. And The Endless Cylinder was one of those moments where I visualized something that felt to me as something very interesting to explore. The game is set in this alien, surreal universe where you have this massive cylinder which stretches from horizon to horizon, and you have this huge cylinder rolling and it’s crushing everything in its path. And you’re a newborn creature that just appears in this world, you don’t know anything about what’s going on, and the only thing that you get to immediately see is that you have this massive tube that’s going to run over you. So you have to run away.

I sort of wanted to get that experience, to have people be in the shoes of a small creature that’s born into a completely alien world where you don’t have any idea—a massive environment where you don’t really know what’s going to come up is interesting. It’s something similar to what we always wanted to achieve with Zeno Clash where a big part of the game is going around and finding new environments, new creatures, everything is unexpected. Obviously, this is a much smaller game in scale, which I’ve been working on pretty much with a team of me and a programmer, so we did what we could to come up with this early prototype. So it wouldn’t be something on the scale of Zeno Clash, but yeah, that’s how the project started.

In The Endless Cylinder, this little guy is on his own.

In The Endless Cylinder, this little guy is on his own.

It’s described as a personal project for you, but are there plans to put more people on it at ACE Team and make that your next release, or does it still exist on the sidelines?

So, obviously with the relatively positive response, we’ve been having talks about moving into a side project for the studio. The thing is, I worked on it a lot during a period in which my wife was going through her pregnancy and I had more spare time, but when my son was born the spare time I had at home started to vanish quickly. [Laughs] And with the projects at ACE Team, I really couldn’t work that much on the game. So, at this point it’s something that we definitely want to explore about how to make it something we could do as ACE Team, where we could fit it in as a project. But the thing is, ACE Team is already working on its next project that comes after The Deadly Tower. We’re actually pretty deep in something else, unannounced yet.

Is it Zeno Clash 3?


You have some really hardcore Zeno Clash fans! I’ve seen them asking.

I can’t say—I never answer that question, but I think a lot of people have an idea from my answers, because there’s a forum thread that’s been on the top of the discussion boards which has been for Zeno Clash 3, and it’s still there after three years, or two years—I think it’s three years already. And they keep on asking. And I’ve been going back there and talking a little bit about it with some people.

The big problem for us was ACE Team trying to step a little bit into the triple-A—though not triple-A, but designed as a triple-A game where you have this massive single-player campaign, at least for an indie studio. I think with Zeno Clash we’ve done with the biggest environments, the most amount of characters, the most complicated execution in terms of gameplay. And it’s really, really hard, and as quickly as the industry moves forward, the standards for graphics, the standards for production values, the standards for all those things just keeps on rising and rising and our team’s remained the same size. So for us to do Zeno Clash 3 is extremely difficult unless we think about how to design it in such a way that takes most of the best elements of it but does something a little bit different. We can’t keep exponentially growing that game in sequels that grow in terms of size, and lots of people ask us, “Oh, it would be so awesome to have it be a little bit like Skyrim.” Because from Zeno Clash 1 to Zeno Clash 2 we had such an increase in size of maps and everything, so people start thinking how awesome it would be to be in a Zeno Clash universe the size of Skyrim, but that’s absolutely impossible to do for such a small team—Zeno Clash 3 is always there on the horizon, but it’s not something we can do without having a major commitment from the studio.

The Zeno Clash series is ACE Team's best known, weirdest work.

The Zeno Clash series is ACE Team's best known, weirdest work.

So how big is the studio now?

Currently I think it’s only 12 people.

I’m curious to know what the game development scene or culture is in Chile. We don’t talk to a whole lot of developers out of Chile—do you feel that it’s growing?

The Chilean game development scene has been growing—not that fast. Argentina, Brazil, and other countries have much more studios than Chile. Though I would say that thanks to some very high profile projects, like some stuff that we’ve done, we’ve sort of been able to get more notoriety than other countries, but for the most part Chile is stuck now with mobile game development. I would say that practically all the other studios are doing mobile gaming, except for very specific cases where they do some licensed games.

Are you finding it harder for small developers to get attention on Steam, now that there’s just so much releasing there?

I think we’re all going through the same problems. I would be surprised if any other developer told you that it’s not getting harder, because it pretty much is. There’s so many games coming out on Steam right now that your launch windows are getting shorter, new projects can overshadow your project pretty quickly. For instance, we launched The Deadly Tower of Monsters on exactly the same day as Darkest Dungeon. That was an indie success, so obviously that was promoted front page on Steam, and personally, me, I had no idea about that project prior to sort of investigating what was launching on the same day. So it’s gotten to the point where you have pretty successful projects you haven’t even heard of. So yeah, the landscape is more difficult. It was a lot different when we launched Zeno Clash back then in 2009. It’s obviously good for the entire industry, for indie developers—though I can’t deny [it's difficult].

And being based in Chile, with a smaller development scene, and with so many events up here in the US, like PAX and GDC, and a lot of press being up here, that must also be difficult.

Yeah, that’s a limitation for us. We do travel to GDC, and you sort of do get a sense that the more successful indies help each other in terms of promoting their titles, and there seems to be a more close relationship between journalists and game developers at these event shows, being able to share your stuff. So yeah, it is harder for us. Thankfully, Atlus helps in that area. It would be way, way more difficult for us this far away [without the publisher].

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What’s next for The Deadly Tower of Monsters?

I’m going to give you the scoop on the upcoming update, because it’s pretty good—we’re going to release it soon, and you can access it as a beta on Steam—but this is pretty wild. We added four-player local co-op to the game, and that sounds insane, because it was designed as a single-player only title. The truth is, how we got to do this, is that the programmers started fooling around with the code and added additional players to the game just to play around with the code, and we figured it was pretty fun and cool to play with more people. Obviously this is not something we can do online, because it would require almost reprogramming the entire game because of netcode and everything, but at least in local gameplay, it was something feasible. So we’ve been working on this update, it should be released hopefully in beta form this week. That’s a super cool addition, something very unexpected, and I think a lot of people will find it super fun.

You and your brothers got started by modding, right? It sounds like there’s some of that attitude and culture there at ACE Team, where you’re experimenting and trying things.

Definitely. A lot of stuff that comes up here is just playing around with ideas. We have a very, very agile sort of culture, where we get things done pretty quickly. I don’t know how other, maybe more [famous] indie game developers fare compared to us in terms of their release schedule, but my impression is that we're developing games relatively faster than most other studios which are equivalent in size and doing smaller projects. But you don’t get that many developers that are able to almost publish a completely new title each year—which is close to what we’re achieving. Not that much, because we would have launched Deadly Tower last year, it would’ve been one year after Abyss Odyssey, but we postponed it only because the launch window was bad, it was going to fall into the holiday season. But we’re not that far from being able to announce our project that comes after Deadly Tower. Which means we’re able to work at a pretty fast rate here, developing games, and I think one of the things about that: if you look at all our previous games, they’re very, very different from each other. One is a first-person melee fighter, there’s tower defense, and we have a top-down action RPG, fighting game, sidescroller game. So every time we have to do something completely new, so going back to the beginning point of this question, I think that culture where we can experiment with features, and sort of transform them very quickly into game mechanics or things that become real projects, real concepts, is something that’s very strong in this studio.

What's it like working with your brothers?

We’re very close in terms of what we want to achieve, and we have a similar mentality, so I think a lot of the creativity that comes from the studio is only possible because it’s three people pushing forward for that kind of mentality. Actually two of the three brothers, Andres and I, are twins, so that makes us even closer in terms of life experience and everything. So yeah, it’s pretty great. Also the fact that you're family means that you can scream at your brothers fight a lot without having to be embarrassed because it’s a normal family thing. [Laughs] For the most part it’s awesome.

Do you end up talking about work at family get-togethers?

Oh, normally the wives and relatives don’t like it because when we start talking about normal mapping, no one understands anything. I think for the most part, technical jargon in the games industry is worse than maybe in NASA. [Laughs] It’s not something other people feel comfortable hearing.

The Deadly Tower of Monsters is available on Steam now.

Tyler Wilde
Executive Editor

Tyler grew up in Silicon Valley during the '80s and '90s, playing games like Zork and Arkanoid on early PCs. He was later captivated by Myst, SimCity, Civilization, Command & Conquer, all the shooters they call "boomer shooters" now, and PS1 classic Bushido Blade (that's right: he had Bleem!). Tyler joined PC Gamer in 2011, and today he's focused on the site's news coverage. His hobbies include amateur boxing and adding to his 1,200-plus hours in Rocket League.