Dungeons of Dredmor Interview

Dungeons of Dredmor is taking the indie gaming world by storm and the triple threat team of Nicholas, Daniel and David from Gaslamp Games took some time away from the game to get down and dirty about the indie scene.  You will get their take on the beginnings of Dungeons Dredmor, life as an indie dev, DRM, piracy, DLC and a great deal more.

1.  Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Dungeons of Dredmor.

N.: I’m Nicholas Vining; I’m responsible for nearly all of the programming on Dredmor, and a good chunk of the game design.

CD: I’m Daniel Jacobsen, and I’ve been in charge of a fair chunk of the early gameplay code, which has been painstakingly made more exciting by Mr. Baumgart.  I am also supposedly responsible for the game being inundated with lutefisk, and I handle the general business stuff (paperwork) on behalf of the studio.

DGB: I’m David Baumgart and I’m Gaslamp’s art team. I’ve also done a lot of game mechanics and content creation for Dredmor.

2.  How did you get started in developing PC games?

N.: I’ve been in the game industry since 2000; my first job out of high school was working for the now-defunct Loki Software, porting games to Linux. Since then I’ve been in and out of the industry for the past eleven years, and have worked on a bunch of “AAA” and “less-than AAA” titles. It’s been a … checkered career.

DGB: My first attempts at game development began while I was in college and carried on through a couple major projects there, though nothing particularly serious resulted. After graduating, I started doing freelance graphics work for games at the end of 2007 and worked on a stream of indie, mobile, browser, and online games ever since.

CD: Nicholas called me up one day, asked me if I knew C++, and we had a cup of coffee.  He had some crazy ideas about starting a game company, and the technology he was talking about interested me enough that I figured even if we never made a cent, it would be a fun way to spend some evenings.  Little did I know how many evenings it would be. 

3.  Where did the idea for Dungeons of Dredmor come from?

N.: When I started the project, I was heavily into Dungeon Crawl at the time. I wanted to come up with something that would be a little more accessible for people; it seemed like there was a good market opportunity for a roguelike that people could play with the mouse instead of the keyboard, and which could be played graphically with animations. The strange stuff came later. We’re still not sure where those ideas came from. Caffeine abuse, probably.

4.  What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Dungeons of Dredmor?

CD: We are all pretty comfortable at this point calling Dredmor a success.  There are still some issues to sort out, and we are by no means finished adding fun stuff to the title, but the fact that it’s a success makes it easy to look back on what we did that worked out, and more difficult to say what didn’t.

I think we’re all very happy with the way that the attention to detail has been received.  It often seems assumed that there are fairly diminishing returns on the depth to the content in a game which gives them character.  We all like playing games with loads of character: this medium isn’t just about gameplay mechanic.  It’s very important, but without a feel, a texture, a game is no more than mastering arbitrary rules.  So we think that spending the time to attempt to capture that has been well worth it.

DGB: The majority of games I’ve contracted for have never seen the light of day and by all rights Dredmor shouldn’t have either — but we’re terrifically stubborn.

We came in to the project thinking we could overhaul Dredmor in a month or two and launch it to make some quick cash to fund another project. That was three years ago. This short-term strategy extended to the long term and probably hurt us both in terms of inflexible design and code which made future changes to the game more work than they had to be. I believe Nicholas can speak at length about “technical debt”.

5.  In its current form, how close is Dungeons of Dredmor to your initial vision?

N.: In some ways, very close. In other ways, not at all. I don’t think anybody imagined the Diggles, or the magic skill trees, or anything else when we started. In fact, the game originally had classes and things, more like Dungeon Crawl, but they were rapidly left on the cutting room floor, as it were.

The actual game mechanics – walk to click, the way that you interact with the game via the mouse – all of that has been pretty much set in stone from Day One. The tile rendering code is some of the oldest code in the game.

DGB: Dredmor had been kicking around Nicholas’ development backburners for a few years before the project was brought into Gaslamp’s focus. The initial vision was definitely his, but it’s been run through quite a few radical re-imaginings. The version of Dredmor introduced to us by Nicholas did not display any visible numbers for items or player statistics, for instance, and it’s clearly a far cry from the crunchy statistics screen now in the game. Still, we’ve tried to keep to the spirit that one should not have to pay much mind to the numbers — well, when playing on the easiest difficulty level at least.

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6.  Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Dungeons of Dredmor. 

DGB: When I first saw the partly-developed game it was in a rough state, artistically speaking. I considered all the assets and divided them into piles of what I would redo and what I would keep and try to adapt my art style to fit. The best parts were the animated sprites drawn by Bryan Rathman and Tim Wexford, so those formed the basis for everything else, which I redraw: items, tilesets, user interface, icons, spell effects.

One of the larger struggles was coming in to the game with what Nicholas considered to be a complete rendering system. I had to fit new graphics over all the old pieces, and not necessarily in ways I was happy with. Dredmor’s original, archaic sprite format was particularly frustrating as it required that I used software that felt like it was from the last millennium rather than my native Photoshop. Happily, my griping finally convinced Nicholas to overhaul Dredmor to support modern pngs. Incidently, this will make life easy for modders when we get around to implementing mod support.

The comic-like icons and paintings of the hero character probably came from my dabbling in drawing comics; back in college I did a monthly comic for the student newspaper, and even throughout highschool I’d draw comics on the sly in pretty much every class.  The music was all done by Matthew Steele with direction more or less from Nicholas, who is himself a musician.

7.  Some developers admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game.  Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Dungeons of Dredmor and if you faced a similar challenge.

N.: We have the reverse problem. Honestly, I can’t even beat the thing any more.

CD: I beat it once, about six months ago, just to make sure that the end-game stuff was working properly.  It took me hours, and it was not nearly as tricky as it is now.  That said, there are more than a few people who have tackled it already.  Our fans are dungeon delving fiends!

DGB: Our late-stage beta testers are the ones that really started outpacing us, but we had a mix of player skill level through from relatively casual players to hardcore number-crunching Roguelike veterans. Having three levels of difficulty has turned out to be a very good move, I think – I balanced the medium level for myself, the easy for casual players, and hard for hardcore players.

8.   Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Dungeons of Dredmor would run on the various PC system configurations?

N.: Surprisingly, things have been pretty good so far. We ran a reasonably large open beta and that shook everything out pretty well; all that has been left are a few crashes which nobody ever managed to find in a month, but which reared their ugly heads after release.  Maintaining save game compatibility across multiple Dredmor versions has turned out to be a hassle, but we’re learning to deal with it.

9.  Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?

DGB: The nearly-zero capital bootstrap startup has been a very rough experience. There’s poverty, working an extra unpaid job, and everyone around you thinking you might be making a huge mistake. Three years later, I can finally, deliciously, say “I was right”. I’m telling this to myself too, I should add.

10.  Tell us about your relationship with Valve.  How did making Dungeons of Dredmor available via Steam come about?  Also talk about process of creating Steam Achievements.

DGB: To speak about achievements – those are easy. These were largely thought up in the course of an evening or two of sitting back and saying “wouldn’t it be cool if we had an achievement for X?”, filling out a list, then seeing what is actually any good the next day when we have our senses about us.  And drawing the little pictures for them is fun. They’re all like a one-panel comic with a little gag or an interesting composition to play with.

11.  Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price for Dungeons of Dredmor?

CD: We tried.  Really, we did.  The truth is that there’s not really anything *quite* like Dredmor out there, and fewer titles still that have sales stats available with which to make informed decisions.  The pricing structure of Dredmor was never a case of attempting to go lower than a particular game.  We spent hours debating the pricing model.  What it really came down to was deciding on the point at which we felt that, basically, halving the price would no longer more than double the number of people who would purchase it.

This decision was also pretty heavily influenced by Steam.  Ten or fifteen years ago when there were fewer gamers and the product had to be produced physically, there was so much overhead that you could not make money on a game for five bucks.  Back then most buyers were old school gamers that were comfortable paying ten times that for games with archaic UIs and fifty page manuals because they were accustomed to it.  That market is dying as expectations increase even among older gamers.  People expect a lot out of a five dollar game now, and they expect a level of sophistication out of a fifty dollar game that is just not tractable for a company that started in a basement with carpet on the walls – not as a first product anyway.  We weren’t looking to compete with them, but rather give people an entertaining diversion at a price that would seem agreeable to most potential buyers, and eventually surprise them enough that they would tell their friends.

DGB: Going with the $5 pricepoint almost certainly would not have worked if we had not landed the Steam deal.

12.  How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?

DGB: It’s wonderful, digital distribution makes markets accessible with a low investment threshold. This is perfect for indie game developers trying to establish themselves. Launching Dungeons of Dredmor could never have happened in a traditional retail/investor driven environment; It’s just too weird a game.

13.  As of this interview, (7-21-11) please tell us why there is no PC demo available for Dungeons of Dredmor.

DGB: It came down to a tradeoff between improving the game itself and making a demo. We encouraged beta testers to freely talk about their experiences in forums, make youtube videos, share live streams of gameplay, and post screenshots so that the general public would better be able to understand what Dredmor is about and if it is worth their time. Speaking of worth, the low price makes it an easier sell too.

I concede that it would be good and proper practice to have made a demo, but our resources are limited so at this point we’d rather have Nicholas fixing crashes and adding features. This doesn’t rule out the possibility of releasing a demo in the future, of course.  It’s possible that many people are using pirated copies of the game as a demo; at least one customer admitted this much to us.

14.  How important is it to get instant feedback about Dungeons of Dredmor from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?

CD: Crucial.  We attribute much (if not all) of the success the game has had to listening to our fans.  Message boards, twitter posts, and blogs give us the tools to open dialogue with our fans with very little effort on their behalf.  When you build games like these, you can’t just build the game that you want to play.  The key is in merging that idea with that of your audience, and without these tools, that would be almost impossible.

15.  How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Dungeons of Dredmor professionally?

DGB: I believe that professional reviewers are gamers at heart and that we’ve made a gamer’s game. I also believe that indie games have earned themselves a sense of legitimacy in the last few years which means that Dredmor will be taken seriously by reviewers and judged for what it is. This is of course important because professional reviewers play an important role in sales.  Further, more personally, I follow a particular few reviewers as critics and it is important to me to be judged as a worthwhile game developer by them.

All that said, we can already call Dungeons of Dredmor a success due to the incredible response from our beta testers and early adopters. We’ve managed to make it despite having relatively little attention from professional gaming press before release.

16.  How do you feel about the Humble Indie Bundle and “Pay What You Want Pricing”? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?

DGB: I believe we’ve had contact with them in some capacity already. They do great work and we’d love to be a part of it.

17.  What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?

DGB: We don’t use customer-punishing DRM because we acknowledge its futility, particularly for a company in our context. The best DRM can do is inconvenience pirates, the worst it can do is ruin a legitimate customer’s experience. Pirates will either pay for our game or they won’t, there’s little use stressing about it. And so long as it’s not our bandwidth they’re taking, we’re not necessarily losing anything — and they’re essentially giving us publicity.  And maybe this works for a startup with no marketing budget.

18.  How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?

DGB: I’m not a fan of paid DLC and I don’t recall that I’ve ever purchased any paid DLC. It feels like one receives a lot less for their dollar than in the expansion pack model from previous decades, though I concede that traditional retail-driven expansion packs are obsolete in the face of nearly ubiquitous digital distribution. So I imagine that paid DLC can be used legitimately but I have not yet come across a situation where I’ve felt the desire to purchase any.

In terms of Dredmor, it might well have been a better business strategy to be pushing paid DLC, but we’ve made a commitment to providing free content updates. Anything we will charge for will have to significantly change gameplay to fit the definition of “expansion” rather than DLC, I think.

19.  What are some of the games or genres you like to play?  Are you a fan of other developers?

DGB: Though the direction of AAA games has left me cold in recent years, I’m a huge fan of ridiculously complex simulation/strategy like Dwarf Fortress, Dominions 3, and games by Paradox Interactive. I go back and play lots of old favourites from the late 90’s and early 00’s. I especially like id Software and Valve’s catalogs.

NV: Dwarf Fortress, old Japanese RPGs, some 4X strategy games… I think we all have fairly similar tastes, which helps. I don’t think we’ll be making a first person shooter set in an American military theatre any time soon.

CD: Huge fan of tactical RPGs like Disgaea and Final Fantasy: Tactics.  I love real-time and turn-based strategy games, and I do a lot of pen & paper RPG playing as well.

20.  What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?

DGB: To someone wanting to get into game development there are a few insanity checks that need to be passed: You need to love making games, not just playing games. You need to realize that games are not just the stories in games. You need to realize that your skills, if adequate, could earn you a lot more money in other fields. You need to have interests outside of games lest your design sensibilities become inbred. You need to be able to make yourself finish projects without outside motivation. I could go on like this and sound pretty negative, but if you love making games enough to overcome all of it, you’ll probably be doing it anyway.

NV: Build a work ethic. Shipping video games is hard, and the only way you *can* ship a video game is by forcing yourself to do it, tuning out all distractions, and getting it done. This is a very, very hard skill that great developers have. (John Carmack is particularly legendary for this.) It’s hard work, but at the end of the day, despite the amount of effort required and the emotional rollercoaster having your work out there can be, it’s very rewarding.

Also, playtest the heck out of things. I’m a big fan of Valve’s iterated software development methodology for game development, and we’ll be looking more towards doing that in the future.

CD: Like just about anything, you need to love the work.  Find a way where you can pay the bills and enjoy putting in your time every day, and any success that comes your way is a bonus.

Once again, we would like to thank the boys from Gaslamp Games who went above and beyond with their answers to give us a fantastic view into one of bright stars within the PC indie gaming arena.  You can pick up  Dungeons of Dredmor via Steam.

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