[Roguelike expert John Harris talks with designer Rodain "Nandrew" Joubert about the buzzed-about Desktop Dungeons, its inspirations, and a little bit about goats and orcs.]
Desktop Dungeons is a quick-play freeware PC dungeon exploration game that has been enjoying tremendous popularity over the last few months. Each game involves a single screen of a dungeon, and is typically less than thirty minutes to complete. Yet it provides an abundance of races and classes to play as, and special dungeon types to explore, that endlessly remix its small number of basic elements into completely new challenges each time.
As comments in blog posts about it tend to point out, Desktop Dungeons is not technically a roguelike game. It doesn't have tactical combat, has no identification features, and it's simulation of time is fairly simplistic. And yet, it has some fairly strong ties to roguelikes that definitely brings it into the purview of a roguelike column.
It is a game, ultimately, about gaining levels and making good use of limited resources, it's quite difficult and yet also has a strong sense of balance, where a decision made half the game ago can suddenly be what pushes you over the edge at the end. Also, live or die, each game is usually less than thirty minutes, so bad decisions don't drag you down. If it turns out you can't win, you just retire and try again. Really good players can tackle one of the challenge dungeons, or even participate in ranked games the scores of which get uploaded to an online scoreboard.
The game seems to be pretty popular on the gaming blogs right now. In this interview with South African creator Rodain Joubert, alias "Nandrew," we discuss the game's creation, its great, sudden popularity, its inspiration in Dungeon Crawl, and a little bit about goats and orcs.
[Note: I forgot I had Derek Yu's custom tileset for the game installed when I took a couple of the screenshots. I'm leaving them in, however, because his set is great. Not that the originals are a slouch mind you....]
JH: First off, if you'd like to introduce yourself to our readers?
RJ: I'm Rodain "Nandrew" Joubert, a South African freelance journalist and indie game developer. I'm also a fedora wearer and proud of it.
JH: How long have you been developing games?
RJ: I've been developing games for at least ten years. Though a great chunk of that period would better be labelled as "screwing around and making stuff move on a screen." My game development career started gathering more steam when I joined up with South Africa's Game.Dev community and started enjoying the support and camaraderie of a local community :) I've been with that group for about four years now. They're awesome and stuff.
JH: Ah! A local community can help provide a lot of support, technically, morally, and with resources. Which, like, sounds like the most obvious thing in the world when I say it.
RJ: Definitely! I write frequent articles aimed at game development newbies, and one of the points I advocate is getting involved with a good community. (JH's note: Links at the end of the interview.)
Dungeon Crawl and Desktop Dungeons
JH: Let's talk a bit about Desktop Dungeons, then. How did you come up with the idea for the game?
RJ: In a sentence, I'd describe the idea as stemming from my love of Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup married with an inability to commit myself to long sessions of roguelike gaming. I'm a big fan of the idea that you can get a lot of gaming value out of much shorter sessions and "casual" experiences.
JH: It is true that most of the major roguelikes tend to be fairly long games.
RJ: I was also suitably inspired by Edmund McMillen's article on game development do's and don'ts at the time, and decided that I'd really just create the sort of game I'd love to play, using a lot of the lessons outlined in the DCSS philosophy.
Of course, it turned out to be barely anything like the game I claim inspiration from, but I reckon it's the thought that counts. :P
JH: The philosophy, correct me if I'm wrong as this is just an educated guess, would be to reduce or eliminate unnecessary variables, keep things as simple as possible without reducing complexity, and to eliminate grinding behavior?
It's both not like Crawl (in that it's not even a roguelike technically) and it is like Crawl (in that there are tradeoffs to a lot of player decisions). And Crawl is just generally inspiring too, its elements come together very well.
RJ: Yep. DCSS took EVERYTHING and made it a meaningful decision, and I wanted that to carry through to Desktop Dungeons. I ended up taking that idea to the extent that the very act of dungeon exploration became its own resource, and every monster encounter, movement, spell cast and item pickup could tip the balance subtly, yet significantly. All of the game's elements did their best to interact with one another in as many ways as possible.
I reckon it's far from perfect in this sense, but I like to think that I gave it a jolly good shot. Crawl is astounding, not least because it wasn't afraid to knock convention. I mean, it takes real guts to develop a game to rival a dinosaur like Nethack while explicitly disagreeing with parts of its design
JH: I think you did an excellent job at that.
Probably Desktop Dungeons does it a little better, in fact, than Crawl, because it's a lot more, um, "elemental" is the word I think I'll use. Because there are fewer variables and it's a "simpler" game, the parts that are there take on greater import.
RJ: Elemental is a cool word. :P I was also inspired by researching and writing about game design minimalism, and the idea of distilling a genre as great and expansive as a Roguelike to its core -- and almost puzzle-like -- elements, was simultaneously daunting and ... well, juicy!
JH: There are a few other games that Desktop Dungeons reminds me of, that take those limited elements and give them profound, and sometimes unexpected, uses. MULE is like that, and Rampart, and, not coincidentally, Rogue. It seems to have worked out very well, although I have to admit being a little intrigued with the idea of where you could go with it from here.
RJ: The original rogue probably did it best in a lot of ways. It didn't need any fluff to justify its own existence.
Platforms and Implementation
RJ: With regards to where it goes from here:
I'm currently working for a South African indie studio, QCF Design, and the crew there have some pretty big plans lined up for a good and proper version of Desktop Dungeons with a nicer name, nicer graphics and more polished design in general. You know, the sort of stuff that people may actually be willing to pay for. We haven't decided on a final platform just yet, though we have some ideas. At the same time, I'll be looking to improve the freeware version that's currently being developed in Game Maker.
JH: I think if you took the game just as it is and put it on the iPhone you might find yourself with a hit. And it seems to me like the game is really made for the iPhone interface.
RJ: iPhone is one possibility! We're already keen to see how 100 Rogues does on release.
JH: (Nice plug for 100 Rogues. I'm sure Keith Burgun won't mind at all, heh.)
JH: Ah! I spot a segue opportunity! (ahem)
Would you like to tell us about how Desktop Dungeons is implemented? The language you use to develop? Or whatever the heck Game Maker is? Did you find it to be limiting?
RJ: Ahhh. well, a lot of people will probably know about Game Maker already. It's quite popular nowadays, and is the driving force behind some really great contemporary indie projects including Derek Yu's Spelunky (which, lo and behold, is also a tribute to roguelikes!). Basically, it's a rapid game creation framework which utilises a drag-n-drop system backed up by code scripting and the like. It's actually remarkably flexible for an "easy game creation" tool, especially since it follows good programming practice at its heart.
JH: It does seem to be used for more and more things lately.
RJ: It's an object-oriented, event-driven environment that anybody experienced with code should be able to recognize.
RJ: I've been using Game Maker almost exclusively for several years now: it allows me to focus on the design of a game instead of its technical implementation, which is a bit of a godsend after hacking through years of Pascal, Java and C++. In my opinion, a lot of developers focus on art and programming without recognizing good design as a skill of its own.
Design Process, Commercial Viability and Promotion
JH: Here's some more questions for you: How did you design it? All at once, or did it sort of accrue like a snowball over time? And do you have a final goal in sight, or at least in mind?
RJ: I have a personal rule that I like to follow, and encourage everybody I know to follow: if you sit down with a game design and fail to make something fun, engaging and relatively "complete" within a week, it's not an idea worth pursuing.
My original version of Desktop Dungeons was made in about six days, and it was a far cry from what it is even now (still at a tentative version 0.051), but it was something that could stand up on its own legs and provide people with some fun. I didn't have any plans beyond, say, another version or two before I moved on to another project, but people kinda got excited about it rather quickly. So I guess I just shrugged my shoulders and kept going :P
JH: So you have a pretty good idea where to go from here?
RJ: Definitely. I want to do more work on the freeware to incorporate all of the exciting ideas that began forming after the game started garnering some popularity. It sort of doubles as further service to the people who are enjoying it right now, and an excellent testing ground for concepts that could make its commercially worthy successor. As of the beginning of April, we'll also be starting work full-time on the main DD project.
JH: Although for various reasons I like open source and freeware games (after all, most roguelikes fall into that category), I think there is an opportunity to make a go of this one commercially. Good luck with it!
RJ: Thanks a bunch! I hope that people continue to enjoy the game. :)
JH: When you say "full time," then, you're still working on the freeware version "part time" so to speak, right?
RJ: Yeah, actually, when I mention "full time" on DD, I mean that we'll not be bogged down with the mobile advergame projects that QCF has been adopting to build up capital with. They're not the most inspiring jobs, but they put food on the proverbial table and allow us to start self-funding projects like DD for reasonable durations
JH: It sounds like a good strategy for getting it off the ground.
RJ: It's solid, but we're still kinda poor in the bigger scheme of things :P Such is the lot of an indie, I'd reckon.
JH: Hey, the indie field is home to, by far, the most interesting game development AND game projects right now. Of course I may be a little biased, as most roguelikes would be considered to be "indie" by some measure.
RJ: Definitely interesting. But when I mention "poor", I'm talking about it in a very literal, financial sense. ;) QCF Design are small fish, even in the indie pond.
JH: If you have a company name, then you're already at least half up the ladder. Many indie developers are just one or two people. 2D Boy is two guys. Well, such is my opinion, heh.
RJ: A fair point. And that's not to say that QCF won't do its gosh-darn best and whatnot! I just think it's important to keep things in perspective.
JH: Let's talk for a moment about the fan community around the game, and the word-of-mouth publicity. When did Desktop Dungeons get it's big "break" publicity-wise? Was it a mention on a specific blog? Or did it just sort of grow, spreading from person to person. I was a little surprised when two completely unrelated people mentioned the game to me within a couple of days of each other!
RJ: For quite a few of my recent projects (and other projects found within the Game.Dev community), I'd have to give credit to the IndieGames blog for that initial kick of popularity. That site is run by a pretty swell crew, and I tip my hat to those folks. Too many people treat gaming journalists with a certain degree of derision while forgetting just how important a role they play in the industry. It's what helps silly little people like me get their games out to a broader populace. It's what allows cool stuff like interviews to take place.
I can also give credit to some indie community folks I know, and in particular the tireless efforts of one DukeOFPrunes. He knows who he is, and he totally kicks ass. DukeOFPrunes is one of the Game.Dev community members. He's an all-round cool guy :P
JH: (The Management appreciates the compliment, regarding "cool stuff")
RJ: Funnily, though, I think that I was the weakest link in my own marketing chain. The word-of-mouth on this game really took a life of its own, and despite the fact that I've written about game marketing myself from time to time, I absolutely failed to take any action of my own on this thing. The fact that I've enjoyed this much attention is nothing short of amazing. I think it's the sort of story that would make the folks at Wolfire slap me.
JH: It is gratifying to see. A lot of indie developers sort of languish in obscurity, but every so often one goes nova.
RJ: But yeah, I really don't deserve this much attention for the game. I've broken every rule in the marketing book :P
Difficulty And Humor
JH: That's most of the general things. Would you like to take a few minutes now to discuss some elements of the design? Or would you consider that as being something of a spoiler?
RJ: There was a matter about the difficulty. (JH's note: The original question was an aside halfway back in the interview and was edited out.)
JH: Ah, by all means go ahead.
RJ: The game is hard by necessity, yes, though I feel the difficulty helps make the experience more REWARDING rather than less challenging.
It boils down to the matter of meaningful decisions. One way of making a decision meaningful is to attach permanence, as most roguelikes would do. You make a choice, and you can't undo it, so make it a wise one.
JH: Right. This is related to permadeath.
RJ: However, a decision's impact is also affected by the impact of its consequences, and in a difficult game this can mean the difference between a narrow escape and said horrible perma-death. If roguelikes (and by loose extension, DD) were any easier, this impact would be lost, because there would be comparatively little consequence for your decisions. An easy game slaps you on the wrist and gives you a gold medal instead of a platinum one, so to speak. Not really something that can scare, motivate or involve a player. When there's more at stake, it's more emotionally engaging
JH: It does seem that there are a lot of games out there that nearly fall over themselves to tell the player what a great job he's doing.
RJ: I doubt that anybody really likes steamrolling a game. Oh ho no. they like to win by that proverbial "one click"...
JH: A button marked "Win the game."
RJ: ...and in the long term, that builds up a false sense of achievement.
It's great once in a while, and I have no problem with playing easy games. But I also know how satisfying overcoming a genuine challenge can be. In DD, the difference between a new player and a veteran becomes obvious. Although there's a reasonable element of luck involved, some parts of the game are highly deterministic and the average win rate of a vet is significantly higher than that of a beginner. It's all about the advanced tricks and tactics that emerge from creative application of the rules.
I'd like to stress that there's nothing wrong with easy games. They're pretty fun too. It's just that there's a time and a place for those, and not every game has to roll over and let you scratch its belly
JH: One such trick is how, when you gain a level, your health and magic get refilled. That makes monsters themselves into a resource.
RJ: Exactly, it's a sneaky tactic whose value isn't immediately understood, but becomes an indispensable part of play once figured out.
JH: Everything in Desktop Dungeons is a resource in *some* way. Even, for one of the classes, those bloodstains left on the ground. I was rather surprised to see that.
RJ: Yep, that's DD's interpretation of Dungeon Crawl's idea that an enemy's dead body can be put to good use! There's actually a few nods to DCSS in DD which a savvy player may just pick up. Heck, I wanna find a way to throw Sigmund into the mix at some point. Sigmund would totally rock.
JH: Sigmund would be awesome. For the uninitiated, Sigmund is a deadly early unique opponent in Dungeon Crawl. He's sort of the game's mascot.
RJ: I also make a few cheeky indie references here and there related to other games.
JH: Some (boring) players may disagree with me, but I think joke monsters are generally awesome. I still get a kick out of Desktop Dungeons' Goo Balls. It had me looking around for a cameo by the Sign Painter.
RJ: The goo balls and the meat men are, in some ways, some of my favourite monsters, simply due to their presence being completely tongue-in-cheek. Funnily enough, a lot of people lose the goo reference. Because while the description suggests World of Goo, it's actually drawn like the Gish tarball. Dunno why I did that.
JH: The name of the Goo Ball boss makes the connection obvious though, as does the boss intro message. One of my favorite things about roguelikes (and Desktop Dungeons too, which I'm including here as a kind of honorary roguelike) is how they don't take themselves too seriously.
RJ: I truly appreciate that sentiment. :P Desktop Dungeons started out not taking itself seriously, and I want it to stay that way even if it starts making money and all that other boring stuff. Heck, our mascot is a damn goat! Goats are the antithesis of serious business.
JH: Goats are awesome. Goats are beyond awesome.
RJ: They also make for great fan art.
JH: Goat Bosses, however, are serious business. Ouch.
RJ: Very nasty for warriors to run into.
JH: Roguelike games could stand to have more goats in them.
RJ: If I recall correctly, actually, the goat was loosely inspired by Crawl's presence of those Yaks of bloody doom and death. Half of my characters wound up getting killed by yaks. It was rather embarrassing.
JH: The descriptions of yaks in that game are great. "The common dungeon yak."
RJ: Like that time my character starved to death while levitating over some food.
JH: The next adventure finds a skeleton floating in the air, upside down, its bony arm outstretched towards a food ration on the ground.
RJ: Those descriptions are great, but nothing beats the messages from your personal Orc army when worshipping Beogh.
JH: Never gonna give you up! Never gonna let you down!
RJ: That was the best part!
JH: It's like shepherding a horde of preschoolers through the dungeon!
RJ: Especially since some of them take the time to smile and wave at you when you're fighting off legions of monsters. Kinda like, "Hey! Hi! How goes it, buddy? :D"
JH: Eventually one of them graduates to First Grade and gains the ability to summon demons.
RJ: You know, that was the great thing about the orc army. You'd form attachments. Especially if you've carried one guy all the way from lowly orc to Warlord. Epic stuff.
JH: Yeah, it is a little saddening when one of your named guys kicks the bucket. Especially if it's a warlord. Then it's doubly sad.
Links Relating To The Developer
RJ: Oh, by the way, you wanted some links? I've got a small army of 'em.