As part of our Guild of Dungeoneering preview, we sat down with developer and Gambrinous Games founder, Colm Larkin, for a nice little chat about his first big game. You can always check the latest status of the game at his exhaustively updated devblog here. Guild of Dungeoneering will be out on PC and Mac July 14th, 2015.
TechRaptor: Would you care to introduce yourself and your company?
Colm Larkin: Hi! I'm Colm Larkin and I'm the founder of Gambrinous. Guild of Dungeoneering is our first game. Before starting it I made a number of gamejam-size games and then decided to expand on one and make it a 'proper game'. I started out alone but quickly teamed up with an artist, and eventually we've grown to five people working on the game. Three of us are in Dublin, one's in London and one's in Sydney so we do all our collaboration online.
TechRaptor: What made you decide you wanted to be a games developer? Did it start off as a hobby and evolve into a full-time job, or was it always part of a plan? Why go indie?
CL: Making games is something I've always tinkered with. We had a ZX Spectrum in the 80s and we started making games in BASIC on it (tweaking code we found in magazines). Then I grew up, did computer science in university and became a programmer but not in games. In 2008 I started making games again, inspired by the blossoming indie movement, but it only really came together for me in 2013 thanks to taking part in 1GAM (onegameamonth.com).
TechRaptor: So, Guild of Dungeoneering. I've read that you drew inspiration from Spelunky, FTL, and a board game called DungeonQuest, but for some reason I can't get Steve Jackson's Munchkin out of my head while playing it. Is that just me?
CL: People often bring up Munchkin as a comparison. I've played Munchkin exactly once and it was about 10 years ago, so it didn't directly inspire, but I do see why people bring it up. There's the silly humour that lampoons pen & paper gaming, there's the fact that you are sort of building the dungeon on the fly, there's the oddball items. But really Dungeoneering is completely different. I'd be surprised to still see it referenced once people have played the finished game.
TechRaptor: Tell me, what inspired the decision to make the games meta-progression centered around the guild rather than the charming little paper heroes?
CL: I liked the idea of casting the player as a cynical guildmaster who uses poorly-paid guildies to do his dirty work, then discards them when they are no longer useful. So I decided that what you as a player really represent is the guild itself, not one particular hero. So instead of levelling up your hero like you would in a regular RPG, you level up your guild instead.
TechRaptor: In many rogue-lites there are features that differentiate the individuals, even when the inter-run progression is the focus. Are there any plans to provide incentive to keep particular guild members alive either through individualization or customization? Perhaps something like quirks from Darkest Dungeon, traits from Rogue Legacy, or maybe unique cards that can be lost permanently on death?
CL: We are actually working on this right now! I don't want it to be as central a part of the game design as it is in Darkest Dungeon and Rogue Legacy, but we are building a light trait system. The idea right now is that your dungeoneers start out blank (according to their class) but over time can accrue traits which are usually slightly negative in-game. Our main reason for this is to provide a story around each dungeoneer, so you become that bit more attached to them (even if they aren't as good, mechanically, as a brand new one). It should make the graveyard even more fun.
TechRaptor: I love that you have a base to expand upon and the little hand-drawn tiles that are unique to each room. However, I felt a little silly placing them willy-nilly with no regard to ergonomics or style. Do you plan on introducing any mechanics in the future that encourage purposeful base building, like adjacency bonuses ala X-Com or upgrade-able rooms that add new, stronger, cards to class decks?
CL: I'd like to make the guild placement something really visually interesting, so that people would intentionally share their particular guild layout just to show it off. However that's not something we'll have time to really nail before launch, so we'll have to revisit it later on instead. X-Comlike bonuses is a neat idea, but might be hard to balance. To the 'ideas' pile with you!
TechRaptor: The first five levels I played I didn't get any cards from the DREAD deck. Was that intentional as part of a sloping learning curve, or did I just get really, really, unlucky?
CL: It was intentional, and only for the first few quests but we've changed it now. Now you always draw monsters but in the first two quests they are capped at level 1 and level 2 max respectively. Just enough to ease you into the game, hopefully. From then on it's open season.
TechRaptor: It looks like you haven't been afraid to make large, sweeping, changes to core mechanics throughout the development cycle. Will there be any large changes between now and July 14th that you're comfortable discussing, even vaguely?
CL: Very true! I guess it's risky in that we could have a slightly less polished game, but we are definitely still tweaking mechanics now the month before launch. I think it's worth it. Getting the feel of the game right is more important than everything working super-duper-smoothly at launch, since we aren't in the enviable position of working on the game forever without releasing it. One area we're tackling that isn't in your preview build is about making the rooms & corridors more interesting, as we've found there's sometimes not enough reason to build a really interesting-looking dungeon. We're testing out some neat stuff there right now.
TechRaptor: The art style is great. It really is. It makes me think of Don't Starve for some reason. Where did you find Fred Mangan, and how did you graduate from something that looked akin to a Dwarf Fortress tile set to the lovely hatch-marks and graph paper? Did he pitch the style to you, or was it something that was developed over time?
CL: I've been friends with Fred for years. He used live in Ireland before moving back to his native Australia. When I convinced him to team up with me on Guild of Dungeoneering I explained that I had been thinking of just doing the art myself in a bad-on-purpose style where I drew everything on actual graph paper and scanned it in. He came back a couple days later with the look that's now in the game. I absolutely love it!
TechRaptor: The art style is also a bit unique in its use of gray scale and just a handful of primary colors to give it this sort of striking look. Have there been any thoughts to utilizing color coded icons on the cards for easy recognition or would that throw off the aesthetic?
CL: It's a bit of a narrow line to walk alright. You want to preserve the aesthetic which means being very sparse with colour throughout the game. But we do want those icons to be more immediately recognisable. We'll see!
TechRaptor: I noticed the game is very digestible in that it doesn't take that long to do a dungeon or two, and it's fairly easy to pick up where you left off. With that in mind, are there any plans to bring Guild of Dungeoneering to mobile platforms?
CL: Absolutely. Our plans are to release for PC & Mac first but our second platform to work towards is definitely mobile. In particular tablets, but hopefully all mobile. And then, if the game has done well, we'll look at consoles (handheld consoles would be particularly suited!). We probably won't be doing an Oculus Rift version though...
TechRaptor: I see that Owen actually went and created physical peripherals of the tiles and cards. Can we expect a Guild of Dungeoneering board game in the future? Did playtesting it give you any insights you may not have gotten otherwise?
CL: We did that to rapidly prototype our new battle system (what's in game now). It worked a treat as it let us change things around quickly and iterate until we had something super fun. Paper prototyping is a great idea for many videogame mechanics, but it's 100% transferable and worth doing when like us you are making a kind of digital board game of sorts. On the actual board game version, lets just say we're very seriously considering it! It would definitely make me really happy, I'm already a huge board game fan.
TechRaptor: You mentioned in another interview that you qualified for a program called New Frontiers. Could you briefly describe that program for those of us who are unfamiliar with it? Would we be looking at the same Guild of Dungeoneering without that program? It looked as though you had to have a fairly demonstrable business plan in order to receive assistance.
CL: It's an Irish government program to help out folks thinking of starting their own business. It's quite competitive to get onto it and provides you with a salary for the founder for six months as well as a whole lot of entrepreneurship training and mentoring. I got onto it the month after I gave up my job to focus on Gambrinous so the timing was great and meant I never had to do any freelancing work. The only downside is that apart from this one program all the other kinds of funding you can get in Ireland are really, really linked to the VC model so they suit people making a platform (eg Steam) rather than content (eg games). I'd like to see more funding that's about allowing games as art to flourish. I think Screen Australia's games funding is a great example of this.
TechRaptor: Many independent studios use Early Access these days as a way to monitor feedback and secure additional funding; I noticed you elected not to. Was it ever an option? What factors led you towards a more traditional development cycle over crowd-funding? Are you considering it as an option in the future? It looks like you just missed the boat on being able to use Kickstarter, since it only opened to Ireland back in September of 2014.
CL: If Kickstarter had been available in Ireland at the start of 2014 I would have certainly given it a go for Guild of Dungeoneering. As it happened by the time it was I was looking into other avenues (in this case a partnership with a publisher) and it no longer made sense. I'll certainly consider it in future. On Early Access, I just see it as a very negative space to develop in. It's very tricky to get the balance right and keep people happy. Also, from a marketing perspective, being in EA really devalues the 'oomph' you can get from your launch. Hopefully we've made the right choice!
TechRaptor: Recently Steam changed their refund policy, allowing people to return games within two weeks of purchase with less than two hours of playtime. Some developers have stated that it creates an unrealistic expectation for length and an uncomfortable climate for games with concise narratives. Others have stated that people who would abuse the system to play a game for free would find one way or another to do it. Do you have any thoughts on or experiences with the system?
CL: I'd very much like to provide a web-playable demo of our game (we might set this up post-launch), so really a demo is pretty similar to providing easy refunds isn't it? I think overall it's a good idea, as genuinely good games will still sell. Would AAA publishers release a game like Assassin's Creed Unity before it's ready into a marketplace where everyone will simply ask for a refund?
TechRaptor: How do you feel about the current state of gaming and the gaming community overall?
CL: Many online environments can be disappointingly toxic, and sadly I think gaming is among the worst of them. However the smaller sub-communities within games are amazing. For example other indie gamedevs: always helpful, always rooting for each other to succeed. Or smaller again to just the gamedevs from Ireland, where we basically all know each other. Super.
TechRaptor: Changing gears, I understand you recently became a father. How's that all working out? Can we expect a baby monster Easter egg? I like the picture of you at the computer with her in a harness, it reminds me of playing DotA 2 with my son.
CL: It's amazing, though also super hard. You have to change your life a bit to accommodate but it always feels like you're coming out ahead. One nice thing for us as a family is that with me having given up the day job before my daughter was born I was already working from home, which meant we got to spend lots of time all together in those special early months of her life. I'm looking forward to introducing her to games of all kinds!
TechRaptor: Are you playing any games right now? If so, which ones?
CL: I've played a lot of Hearthstone since it came out. Such a lovely minimalist design that reveals wonderful layers of complexity as you get into. It's also an absolute masterpiece of responsive, friendly, juicy interface. I have a lot of time for UI and usability issues and they really nailed it. Every gamedev should play it just to look at the little details and learn from them.
TechRaptor: Thank you so much for your time. Is there anything you'd like to add? Shout-outs? Words of wisdom?
CL: Yes! If anyone out there is thinking of getting into making games I would suggest taking part in a game jam. Within a day or a weekend you will have finished something and THAT is how you learn how to make games, not by endlessly working on a thing you never release.
TechRaptor would like to thank Colm Larkin for taking the time out of his schedule to speak with us. We wish Gambrinous Games a successful first-launch with Guild of Dungeoneering and hope to see more from them soon.
Are you excited for Guild of Dungeoneering? Are there any questions you would like us to ask Colm in a possible follow up interview? Drop us a comment below!
EDIT: Incorrect release date. Sorry!