Friday, August 18, 2017

Interview with David Amador of Upfall Studios on Quest of Dungeons

Quest of Dungeons is a roguelike unlike one most gamers have encountered to this point, namely it is looking to closely emulate the actual original Rogue and not just borrow a few concepts from the formula. I got the opportunity to interview the game’s lone developer, David Amador, about the game, the genre as a whole, and his perspective as an independent developer who has worked on a wide variety of platforms.

So you're coming into a room of people who are getting ready to check out Quest of Dungeons for the first time and perhaps we'll say they're not all hardcore gamers. What's your quick pitch for the game to try to help set their expectations and suck them in?

DA: That's a good question and kind of the main point of Quest of Dungeons existing, I wanted to create a roguelike that was easy enough for people to play even with no previous roguelike contact, but still had most of the traditional mechanics, so the game is easy to pick and learn most of the mechanisms but still has depth and strategy. Even being turn-based was on purpose but I wanted to give it a more "modern" approach so that's why it's so fast to play, a lot of people don't realize right away it's not real-time. Most of the time I define it as a "fast paced turn based roguelike that is easy to pick but can still be quite a challenge". Someone once said this to me as I explained the game "So a roguelike with training wheels that get removed?"

I've gotten pretty deep into the fourth floor of but met my demise at the hands of a boss that did some pretty crazy damage and caught me being conservative with my healing. How many floors are in the game proper and what would you say is your impression of the overall average run time people have in the game?

DA: There are 3 mansions, first two have 7 floors, the other one 6. There is also a custom game mode where you can choose the size of the dungeons between 5 and 10. It varies from person but usually between 1h30 to 2h by run is probably the average.

What would you say is your favorite class to play as in the game and why?

DA: The Shaman, probably because it was the one class I didn't had to guide much by the usual class standards. The Warriors needs to be strong and have more health, Wizards less powerful but using Magic, it would be weird any other way. But with the Shaman I just merge some characteristics from several classes and tweaked it to what I thought would be cool.

When you originally set out to make the game what was the goal you'd set for yourself in terms of what you were looking to accomplish? Did you envision that you'd have it ported to so many platforms?

DA: The original goal was to make a tablet/smartphone roguelike that could be played while commuting to work, because I wanted one, it needed to be fast, pause at anytime and continue later. For the first couple months that was all it was, eventually during beta tests I noticed players liked the tablet version a lot, because of the bigger screen, and I saw potential for a PC version, with mouse replacing the "touch". When the opportunity for making it to a console showed up I knew I had to remake a lot of stuff, so I spent a full year remaking most things to be controller friendly instead of "touch". Had I thought the game would make it's way to consoles I would probably planned some things better, I had to come up with solutions along the way as new platforms showed up. On the other hand had I planned for so much stuff the game initial version would have probably take a lot more time to make, this way I made versions as each one was profitable or not.

Before we get into the next group of questions what would you consider to be the essential core of something being a roguelike with any legitimacy to the claim? Do you bother to distinguish between "roguelikes" and "roguelites" or do you consider it to be splitting hairs?

DA: I never bother much correcting anyone, but I think it's important to have both so developers can clearly state what their game is about, so that players know what to expect, if trying to be a more traditional roguelike or just influenced by some things. For me, and this is just my personal opinion, not the definition, I like roguelikes to have permadeath, procedural content, turn-based preferentially and or/some sort of rpg elements or dungeon crawling, that is what I think about when thinking about roguelikes.

Having produced a pretty true-to-the-source roguelike what are your thoughts on the surge in popularity of this type of game, especially in the indie space?

DA: Personally I think is great, and for me the most interesting thing is what is happening with games that are trying not to constrict by all roguelike rules and apply them to other genres and mechanics. That leads to some really good games that may have never existed if roguelike wasn't as popular as it is.

Do you think the roguelike "brand" is being watered down by its being crossed with so many other genres or do you think the use of core elements that define roguelikes in a variety of genres and styles is exposing the value this set of concepts brings to the table?

DA: Having variety is good, there is nothing wrong with wanting to break from the roguelike formula and do something different, inspired by it, but I think we should try to keep the roguelike concept intact as much as possible, that's why it's important to distinguish between "roguelikes" and "roguelites".

What got you started as a game developer and what skills towards that end did you bring to the table when you first started out?

DA: I always wanted to be a game developer so when I was in high school I took the opportunity to join a game studio before even graduating in order to pay some bills. That was my first contact, my skills shifted a bit, I started wanting to be an artist, doing 3D modeling, even took a couple courses, but eventually I realized I was maybe better at programming than arts so I shifted my focus to that.

What would you say is the greatest benefit of being a "lone wolf" developer and, for you, the biggest downside?

DA: Some things are surely more agile in the decision process making, also costs are lower than keeping an entire team, which I couldn't afford. The big downsize is wearing multiple hats, from coding to marketing to social and business side, all of that consumes time and I'm not very good at some.

Having ported Quest of Dungeons to so many platforms did you do a good job of writing your initial code to make moving it around as easy as possible or was that not necessarily a part of the original plan and you've gone to some trouble to get it working everywhere?

DA: I have a clear distinction between the engine code and the actual game code, as far as the engine code goes, I made it flexible enough to support adding the other platforms, and never got into much trouble. I would say the Nintendo 3DS version was the most problematic one but mostly due to the hardware specs. The other ones were relatively smooth.

As for the game code, well that was a bit more "nightmarish", as I mentioned before I initially thought the game as touch only, that meant all UI had to be remade, but I still needed to support game controller and touch because of existing platforms. I realized that what made the mouse/touch work wasn't exactly ideal for controller and vice versa. I spent nearly a year rewriting a lot of stuff and adding a bunch more content to the console release, and now it's much better but it's still something I feel like I planned poorly. But after that it's not relatively simpler to make a port. I got the Switch version running in less than 2 weeks (not optimized or 100%), I just spent the rest of the time optimizing, tweaking and adding more content.

Having released the game previously on other Nintendo platforms would you say you've seen anything different in Nintendo's approach with the Switch overall with you as an indie developer? What are your thoughts on the tools and mechanisms for developing on the Switch in general in comparison to the DS and Wii U platforms?

DA: Yes, I think having worked with Nintendo helped as I could skip the introductions step and I already knew the process. I'm very impressed with the tools they are making available for devs, from early stages they are already better then Wii U and 3DS, I can't get into details but let me tell you there is a big difference, and I'm not just saying this to sound good.

For your next project are you again planning to go multi-platform? Any general word on a genre direction? Something in the same vein or breaking the mold and trying something wildly different?

DA: I try to always have multi-platform in consideration, but that on how the game is received as each port costs money, so yes I want to, if it happens or not it will depend on the quality of the game and how well it does. I have a couple ideas of things that I want do in the RPG top-down genre but I need a break from that after 4 years, so for the next project I've been exploring new genres to see what it might turn out.

I’d like to thank David for taking the time to answer my questions and provide a window into his thoughts on the topic of roguelikes in particular, since I’m a huge fan. Quest of Dungeons is currently available for the Nintendo Switch in the Japanese eShop and a date for the other regions should be forthcoming.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Nindie Preview: Lost Castle

In many ways on the surface Lost Castle looks like a relatively simple game, and when playing through it on a given run, it can feel like one too. The classic beat-em-up elements are all there for the most part: Your basic and strong attacks, a special attack on cooldown, and hordes of normal enemies to beat through followed by tougher bosses at the end of each level. What Lost Castle most critically adds to this formula, among other things, is choice and progression over time through the addition of roguelike elements.

Every time you begin a run in Lost Castle you have merely the weapon you've been assigned by the RNG gods. Sometimes it will be a weapon you favor, sometimes it will just be junk. Where you go from there, and what you do with it, will be subject to your skills, your luck, and what you've invested your hard-earned souls on between runs to enhance your situation. Whether you're giving yourself a boost in your overall picture, giving yourself more initial choices of weapons you'll have to start the game, or looking to minimize the negative effects of the bad potions you'll likely pick up there are a number of things you can influence.

A big part of what feels so good in the game and makes it work well is the variety of weapons available and the play styles these enable. Ranged weapons can be effective but take more time, up-close weapons are effective but can make you vulnerable when you miss, and hybrid weapons will sometimes show up that will allow you to shift between these two modes which can be very nice. While they may all look somewhat alike you'll want to pick up every weapon you encounter and check what its strong and special attacks are in particular before passing on them. As you get deeper into the game it is the special attacks that will often determine what you choose to keep as some of them can do substantial damage or be effective at keeping you alive.

The other aspect of the game that can keep things interesting are the items, potions, and passives you'll be able to pick up from chests or killing bosses. There are simple items like food, a wide variety of objects that can enhance you in a variety of ways, and then a number of concoctions you'll be able to drink... but most of the time you won't know what they'll do until you drink them. They could give you healing, poison you, give you temporary powers, or enhance one of your stats for the rest of the game. The problem is, not knowing which it will be, complicates when best to give them a try. You could easily kill yourself deciding to drink one in the heat of battle, and having it cut your health down before you even take a hit. If you're over-cautious and decide to use one out of battle you may find it would have powered you up significantly and that you've wasted it. This element of chance can make for some difficult and risky decisions as you make your way through the 5 worlds but adds to the fun!

The big highlight of the game is certainly its very colorful, and often difficult, bosses. With each receiving their own intro of sorts the bosses have a real sense of personality to them and that makes having to kill them, or at least trying to, all the more fun. It is usually in these battles where you need to have made good choices or gotten lucky with your weapons and their special attacks as those often make all the difference in whether you're successful in these sometimes drawn out fights. In any case Lost Castle is full of both old-school arcade charm and modern challenge so it will be a great addition to the Switch line-up.

This preview is based off of the PC version of the title but should be representative of both the overall look, feel, and gameplay that will be transitioned onto the Switch. There is currently not a known release date for this title.

Nindie Preview: Time Recoil

Reminiscent in feel and flow to a mix of the brawler Mr. Shifty and the classic original Max Payne (though in this case in a top-down view) in many ways, Time Recoil is the third twin-stick shooter that developer 10 Tons will be bringing to the Nintendo Switch. Though it shares some assets with its other two shooters 10 Tons has done a fabulous job of differentiating its gameplay completely. Whereas Neon Chrome sports large levels and is a roguelike, and JYDGE is an objective and enhancement-focused action/puzzle game in some respects, Time Recoil is all about precision shooting, thinking quickly, and time.

As the survivor of an experiment gone wrong you have been given unique abilities. Your objective will be to stop the madman Mr. Time who is set on changing history and destroying society as we know it… or something like that. In order to stop him you’ll need to jump through the past to different key points to collect intel, kill specific targets, and capture key people. Over the course of your mission you’ll need to move quickly, taking out any resistance you meet and generally trying to string together as many kills as quickly as you can. Getting a kill will begin to slow time in general for a few moments but as you progress you’ll also unlock special skills that you can use either offensively or sometimes to complete complex objectives in mere seconds by practically stopping time.

Depending on which skill level you play on between Normal, Hardcore, and Murderous you’ll have varying degrees of challenge as the guards you face will become more responsive and your ammo will begin to drop less. This will force you to not only be accurate but to essentially begin to plan out your levels, alternating between shooting to make kills and often then dashing through walls and making kills through force. Precision is vital to your survival as you not only will want to conserve your ammunition but you’ll also want to keep you timer from kills active so your chances of evading bullets and gaining access to more powerful enhancements remains in place. Once time goes back to normal you’ll often find yourself vulnerable and exposed.

In addition to the story mode you’ll have an opportunity to fine tune your skills and show what you’ve learned in the Mission Archives. Here you’ll have an opportunity to speedrun your way through the levels, trying to get the best time possible and often looking to clear the whole level in about 3 seconds of “real time”. Here it becomes almost a sort of ballet with you needing to determine your best plan of attack and then work to execute it perfectly since every minor moment will count.

This preview is based off of the PC version of the game but it should be identical in overall feel and flow when ported to the Switch. There is no current official timeline for its release.

Nindie Preview: Thimbleweed Park

If you happen to be a fan of old-school point-and-click adventures on the PC, you’re in luck as they seem to be in re-emergence. While the genre was always quite popular it was many of the LucasArts classics like Maniac Mansion and the Monkey Island series that made them special with their blend of unusual characters, witty dialogue, and amusing puzzles. Thimbleweed Park is a throwback to those games, and was created by some of the leads from those same projects.

If you’re unfamiliar with the style you’ll navigate the environment, and then interact with objects and people within it by choosing among multiple verbs provided on-screen like Open, Use, Look At, and others. What you’ll quickly find is that in some way almost everything has a part to play, even if it is just for some quick laughs, so no stone should be left unturned. In particular playing out all of your dialogue options when talking to people tends to make for the best fun as you never know what the topic will shift to or what silly things people may say.

You’ll work through the game in third-person perspective, controlling a variety of people but mostly focused on Agents Ray and Reyes, who’ve come to this small town trying to solve a murder. What they find is a sleepy town full of oddballs, many of whom have secrets, but so do these agents who’ve come to the scene. In all honesty the narrative itself takes a back seat to the humor and the enjoyment mostly comes from exploring your many dialogue options and solving sometimes unorthodox puzzles.

The game has been received with relatively universal accolades and it should be well-suited to mobile play on the touchscreen-enabled Switch. With the ability to simply put the Switch to sleep at the press of a button and then resume with ease it should make for an excellent game to play on the move, stopping and starting back up without missing a beat.

This preview is based on the PC version of the game, though the version on the Switch should be identical in both features and appearance. No final date has been announced but it should be coming to the platform soon.

Nindie Preview: Quest of Dungeons

Though the Switch has many roguelikes, the game type that seems to be quite en vogue at the moment, before the arrival of Quest of Dungeons it had none that were close to the authentic root that name refers to. Rogue is actually a very old game, whose graphics were originally only ASCII characters, where you’d move through a randomized dungeon seeking out adventure, loot, and monsters. While modern roguelikes will borrow pieces of this formula, usually permadeath, aspects of risk/reward, and perhaps random layouts, Quest of Dungeons is an attempt to provide an authentic experience but with an improved look and feel.

At the beginning of each quest you’ll have a choice of four character classes: A warrior, an assassin, a wizard, or a shaman. Each plays very differently so you’ll want to carefully consider your choice. Do you prefer to get up-close and personal, fire on enemies from afar, leverage ranged spells and keep an eye on your mana, or keep your options open by going down the middle? In addition you’ll be able to choose your level of difficulty to help you either breeze through the experience or to get slapped around a bit.

On each floor you’ll generally find a variety of rooms, monsters, and quests, always with a vendor and perhaps a few bosses thrown in as well. Combat is very basic, you’ll either run up to your enemy and fight them in a turn-based fashion (visually just generally bumping into them, not with elaborate JRPG-esque flourish) or you’ll target them and attack from afar. As you gain experience and loot you’ll find improved gear, collect tomes that will give you new skills or spells to make use of, and for some classes have opportunities to learn to wield other weapons which can provide better attacks.

For people looking for a light experience, something to play on the go or to passively play as you watch television, Quest of Dungeons could be a good choice. In general it isn’t very demanding or taxing to play but that also isn’t to imply that it’s easy. If you’re not paying careful attention to your health, especially when fighting bosses, you’ll quickly find yourself dead. In addition at times scarcity of healing can be an issue so you may need to choose to evade your attackers or at least develop tactics to help ensure they can’t attack you en masse. It’s refreshing to see an example that very closely resembles the roots of this now very popular game type. Even if what is at the core of modern roguelikes is actually quite simple the reason for its popularity is that the formula works.

This preview is based on the PC version of the game though the appearance and gameplay on the Switch should be identical. It is currently available on the Japanese eShop and is awaiting a final date of release in other regions.

Nindie Preview: Snow Moto Racing Freedom

Racing in snow-covered landscapes is coming to the Switch in the form of Snow Moto Racing Freedom! As a sequel to an already-successful title there is apparently quite a demand for this genre, so fans should be thrilled with this mix of open-course checkpoint racing in Sprint League, closed-course carnage in Snocross mode, and then the more advanced challenges of Freedom League.

 For the most part the mechanics of racing are pretty simple. You’ll be able to accelerate, brake, there’s a way to get some boost at the press of a button, and you’ll have a number of options for stunting if you feel so inclined or are looking to get some added oomph in your boosts. Turning becomes the most crucial thing to master, especially when your turns are sharp, as the feel for this is a bit different than you’d be used to playing different types of racing games. It all makes sense but it is an adjustment.

In the time I played I enjoyed the open landscapes of Sprint League the most, as they were the most interesting to try to navigate and find shortcuts in to get a leg up on the AI and their mostly set path. In addition the elevation changes in several places on these course afforded easy stunt opportunities so they helped get me out of my shell a bit. The mini map is helpful for ensuring you keep track of things, most crucially which direction you’ll want to go through the checkpoint in, but you’ll need to plan your own path overall. Snocross mode, with its set tracks and hairpin turns, I found to be much more challenging as you’ll really need to be on top of your control game to succeed and there’s little margin for error.

 Aside from the variety in tracks Freedom will also throw different times of day and conditions like fog into the mix to keep things from getting too stale. Racing in these less ideal conditions can be tricky since you’ll have a tendency to get yourself into trouble more easily if you stray from the intended path. Visually you’re able to switch your camera from being close behind, further behind, and the pretty-intense first-person view. I tended to go with the further behind camera since I like to have the full picture of where other racers and obstacles are in relation to me, and it helped me improve my technique, but first-person did have its allure.

More than anything Freedom represents an option on the menu that normally isn’t present and for that it gets some respect. Variety is the spice of life and for snowmobile enthusiasts an option for racing something familiar and dear should be fun. As someone unfamiliar I’m unable to comment on the authenticity of the handling and feel of this racing experience but I can at least appreciate its novelty.

This preview is based off of the PC version of the game but should be representative of the final gameplay. There currently isn't a known release date for this title.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Interview with Jonas Byrresen of Bedtime Digital Games on Figment

Figment, a surreal and imaginative adventure through a very hand-drawn world, is on its way and it should represent a very different kind of game experience than has been seen on the Switch to this point. I was able to get some of the time of the game's Creative Director, Jonas Byrresen, to discuss the game, the indie marketplace, and the appreciation of games as culture.

To start things off: You're at a conference and someone comes up and is asking you to describe Figment to them. What would you give as an answer to that?

JB: The short on the floor version would go something like this: Figment is a isometric adventure game where the player must journey through the different areas of the mind, on a quest to help it overcome fear and trauma. It is a game that mixes exploration and puzzles, with a unique art style and music.

If I have more time, I would also add that that it is story driven game with many layers. A story about overcoming fear and how experiences shape our mind. The story have a broad appeal, but also have a detailed layer for the players who like to look for it.

Looking over your past games you've come up through the mobile-leaning path, paired with the PC space with Steam and Humble, gotten into consoles through Sony, and now seem to be working to stay in the PC/console space. This seems to be very common for indie developers, and conceptually it makes sense. What are your thoughts on the journey you've had along the way and to now also be targeting the Nintendo Switch?

JB: That does seem to be a normal road for many indie developers to have taken over the years. We actually launched our first game on both Steam and mobile very closely, but focused mostly on mobile. This was due to the nature and design of the game, that we felt would work very well on the platform, and with mobile gamers. I think this is why many indies have started on that platform. The mechanics and designs that fit on it, are often an easy and good place to start for a small indie team.

Though I would say that things are changing. Mobile is far from an easy market to make a success on for many reasons, so more and more indies just jump straight to PC, where audience is willing to pay and many look for new creative games.

For us it was a natural journey, mostly determined by the nature of the games we worked on, moving on the the platforms that we felt worked best. As the team expanded and we gained more experience, we wanted to do more advanced games. With deeper settings and narratives, while keeping our creativeness from the first game. This, for us, means focusing on PC and consoles, such as the Switch, and the potentially looking a mobile later on. I think it is best to always think of the game first, before the platform deciding platform, and chose the one that fits the game best.

Along those same lines you've now seen at least 4 major marketplaces between the 2 mobile, Steam, and Sony. What do you see as the benefits and challenges of each of those and what are you hoping to get out of the Switch eShop marketplace by comparison? Do you think the odds of being seen, with the current library being smaller and there being less releases currently per week than elsewhere will help offset the much smaller current installed base?

JB: Console and PC have the the best attention around release, mostly due to the many of the games sites and YouTubers focusing on these platforms. Players and press on these platforms are constantly looking for next big thing, and they therefore often rewards both creativity and solid quality. Though it must be said that PC market is good deal more crowded than console, so marketing is a must to break through.

The mobile marketplace is not a good place to start for an indie company. It is dominated too much by the big guys in our experience. That being said, if one can get a break through, it does have a very long longevity compared to other platforms, with a constant flow of new player discovering your games over a long time. We also find it interesting a platform to port games to. Games that have had success on PC and console can often get attention on tablets.

Regarding the Switch, we of course see a good deal of potential in being on a platform with less games, but we also feel of our new game, Figment, will fit the platform and its audience well. For us it is a platform with sense of something new and adventures, with quality-minded users. Just what we want to aim for.

Looking at and, maybe moreso, listening to the music from the game I'm struck by how unafraid it all is to be what it is. A little strange, a little silly, and just utterly distinct. First, this is a major part of what I love about the indie game movement, so thank you. But second I can't make a blanket statement of truth but in general my impression is that it is the European development studios who are leading the charge with these very distinctive and daring games where the art styles, music, and even gameplay are concerned. Am I crazy?

JB: Not at all. It it something we have discussed before in both the office and with other devs at events. European games have a tendency to look at more varied themes when developing games and find inspiration in varied sources. Not saying other devs can’t do that around the world, but I think the tendency is there for sure. From our understanding, the primary reason for this is that you can get cultural funding for games many places in Europe. Games are seen as both something commercial and something artistic, and games can get some funding with a good artistic and cultural angle. Figment is a game that have gotten cultural funding from both a Danish culture fund and the Nordic Game culture support. This system can allow for more experimentation when it comes to developing games.

In relations to this subject, I often have an easy time spotting other Scandinavian games, as they often have a special vibe to them, unique to our part of the world. Often a good deal of dark gallows humour, maybe some caricatures and deeper meaning ones you gets past the surface. I think the point is that a devs culture often will shine through, and that can sometimes create a unique game experience if embraced properly. Would be interesting to see what kind of games could emerge if more parts of the world did cultural funding for games.

Aside from perhaps obvious inspirations like Escher or Dali on the visual front are there other influences? What about for music?

JB: Another major influence have been the Miyazaki movies. They often mix the common with the the supernatural to create something new, and this have inspired us a lot in creating our game world. Besides that, we have looked a good deal at different ideas for how the subconsciousness is structures to get more ideas for our game world.

Regarding the music, there have been several sources, some famous, such as Tom Waits, but mostly more outlier genres. Not something you normally hear on a standard radio station. This means music that is great at conveying some of the negative feeling that our enemies represent, but also types of music that could capture the unique and surreal moods in the game world. Luckily for us, our sound guy Niels, aka. Stöj Snak, is a massive talent when it comes to mixing up genres, does a lot of music himself and have a great network of local musicians for us to use. Having him at the centre of our audio design have been a great boon.

One piece of the modern game development process, at least it seems where indies are concerned, is to open up aspects of the design process through blog posts or social media. What are your thoughts on that, do you think this is just a piece of the indie puzzle and people are excited to share their work, or do you think studios feel obligated to do it and it is more of a necessary evil? Somewhere in-between?

JB: For us, sharing your progress and doing blogs posts, is something that is of use, both as a marketing tool, but it can also be good for the developers on a personal level.

First off, It is important to keep showing your game to the players out there, so they don’t forget you and is looking forward to your game. There are so many games out there, so it is a must to build a following and keep putting your name out there.

As a bonus, it can also help motivate the developers on the team. We often work to long periods on our games, so it can be helpful, almost therapeutic, to show and tell about your work. It can put into perspective how much progress you have had and how much you have learned. At the same time, nothing is more motivating than experiencing other people reacting positively to something you have worked on for a long time.

I will add though, that inexperienced devs should be aware of not spending more time on blog posts than actually making their game, as it does take time, and also to remember that most people don’t understand the timeframe of game development. Be smart and learn from what others have done.

As you all finish out your work on Figment, and hopefully are met with great success, do you have anyone looking at where you'll be heading next?

JB: Yes we do. We have already started working on future projects. Our company is very focused on the idea of utilizing our developers, so we can keep making more games and not sitting still. This means both new games and maybe also looking at where we can take Figment in the future, but I can’t say in more details at this point.

I wanted to thank Jonas for taking the time to answer my questions with some great details and Emilie for helping to coordinate the interview. Figment is planned for release on all major platforms, including the Switch, in the coming months!