Approaching the Legend of Dungeon booth at PAX East this year, the atmosphere was pure gamer happiness. I looked on as two developers excitedly buzzed about the showcase; shouting helpful tips to the 4-person gathering of fans demoing the game, explaining the finer nuances of poking pixel ogres with tiny sword sprites and genuinely enjoying themselves in their element.
Speaking with Robot Loves Kitty developers Alix Stolzer and Calvin Goble was a real joy; I got to learn what goes into making such a crazy-cool pixel sprite dungeon crawler in a matter of months, receive critical acclaim for it, and how it can be done from your very own tree house in Vermont!
So how long have you guys been in development on this for?
Alix: We started in October
Alix: That’s what everyone’s been saying, they’re like “only October?”
Well I know it’s just the two of you, right?
Alix: He’s the only one who knows how to code, so it’s all him. He’s like a genius.
So he’s the coder and you handle the art?
Alix: He does the code and I handle the PR and the talking to people side of things because he doesn’t want to be bothered with that and we both do the art. Pretty much everything else; the design, the quality control type stuff we both handle, I did a lot of the animations because I really enjoy doing them and they’re a lot of fun.
What were some of your influences when you were looking at making this?
Alix: Literally the only influences we had were these pixel sprites we found that actually started the entire game which this artist on Reddit posted.
Calvin: They were so incredible; I contacted the artist right away and said “we have to have these!”
Alix: [We said] this has to be a game, we were in the middle of another project and said we’ll spend a month making this cool little RPG-style thing and people just loved it.
Calvin: She played rogue games as a kid and I dumped a billion quarters into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and arcade games and the like. So it’s just kind of our two favorite styles of games smashed together to make this and it just came out fantastic.
Well its gorgeous, I love the art and the whole concept behind it. So you actually went full-stop on your other project and dove into development on this?
Alix: We started posting screenshots and people got so excited over it. So we were figured, “I guess this is good” and that’s when we ran our Kickstarter. We ran it back in December and asked for $5,000 because our laptop was held together by bolts and we wanted the professional version of Unity so we could have better shadows and more robust, cool stuff like that.
I was going to ask about the lighting, because the way you achieved that look with the pixel sprites is amazing.
Calvin: I don’t think anybody else is doing this right now, well I can’t say that for sure. I want to share the technique with people; I put up a blog post on how to do the lighting like this. So were using a basic AAA title kind of method for high detail lighting, so these sprites are actually flat-shaded in the engine and the lighting and shading hits them from different sides to get that look.
So can you go through some of the rogue-like elements that are present in the game? I noticed with the last group that was playing two of them died and I saw two little ghosts following the survivors around, what’s the deal with that?
Alix: So when you play single player and you die that’s it. You’re dead and you lose everything, that’s perma-death; it happens. But in multiplayer it would really suck to be sitting there playing with your friends and you die and you’re just stuck drinking or whatever while they play. So instead we decided you’d be a little ghost and when the other players kill monsters the monster will leave behind a little orb you can pick up. If you pick up enough of those you come back with 1 health, so we don’t baby you or anything, you’re still just barely alive.
So it gives you a little bit of a reprieve to come back if your team is badass enough to stay alive?
Calvin: Also they’ll need to hold on to your weapons and equipment; all your gold drops, all your stuff drops.
It looks like the game is very item based; watching the game I saw that some people weren’t even carrying swords, instead they’re carrying candles and I thought I saw somebody carrying…was that a cup of coffee?
Calvin: That was beer; the beer gives you extra damage and experience, just like real life.
But it’s something that you have to be actively holding?
Calvin: Anything you hold in your hand you can activate and use. So even when you get a hat, you hold it in your hand then you have to put it on your head. I wanted to make a system that was easy to add new things, so right now there are like 50 some odd items in the game and I want to add a crazy amount. That’s why right now we are only in nearly-beta, only feature complete. Because I want to make sure that every time you go down into the dungeon you’re going to have those moments of, “whoa, I’ve never seen that before” which is really important to us.
Alix: The music is also completely randomized and generated. That’s something were pretty sure nobody else has done, but again, were in our dev-cave so were not sure. We had a friend compose all these tracks for us, and every single element like strings 1, strings 2 etc. from every time you start playing the game it attaches these little music pieces to everything in the dungeon randomly. So every time you play through it’s always a little different, you never hear the same song twice.
Calvin: The composer is just flipping out, he’s playing it and tells us, “I wrote this music and I’ve never heard that song before!”
So it sounds like this is going to be one of those games where the replay value will just be astronomical?
Calvin: We play it all the time and I haven’t beaten the game yet.
Alix: Neither of us has beaten the game yet. Two weeks ago I was asleep and he wakes me up because he got to level 23 and he’s running through the house and yelling about how he died like it was this amazing event!
Are there going to be boss battle planned?
Alix: There are bosses but I like to call them “Free-Range Bosses”; they roam the dungeon and aren’t always blocking off areas where you might be forced to fight them.
Calvin: Sometimes you’ll run into two of them in the same room, and that can be really bad.
I saw you screaming at those guys playing before to run away when they opened up that room with the two big guys in it.
Calvin: Oh, those were just Cyclops’ they’re not too bad. The first boss you run into is the Lich King and he just summons tons of skeletons and that can get pretty bad. But he drops his magic books so you can pick up and summon your own skeleton army to fight for you, so there’s some really cool items you can get.
Is there going to be a leveling system? Are you keeping to simple stats or are you doing more complex attributes?
Calvin: You get stronger by getting more max health you can get up to. There’s also strength and armor, experience and gold. Gold is essentially your point system, just like classic rogue where you objective is to amass treasure, that’s your goal.
Are you guys doing this full time or is it more of a weekend warrior project?
Alix: We’re definitely doing this full time. We’ve been doing it full time for about 2 ½ years, we sold our house and moved into a tree house in the woods so we could afford to make games.
Alix: Yeah it’s in Vermont, you can find it there. So we didn’t have running water, we’d have to run down to get water from the spring. It was fun but harsh at the same time, and I’m glad we don’t have to do that anymore. So since about the same time we started this game we were visiting family for the winter, and then we rented an apartment with all the extra money we got from the Kickstarter which lets us have full time electricity, hot drinking water and so on.
Calvin: This was our last-ditch attempt to stay in the indie industry.
Alix: Yeah, we would have had to get real jobs if the Kickstarter hadn’t been successful.
You guys are husband and wife right? What has it been like working as a duo team?
Calvin: It feels like I’m not in a team, I feel like we’re one person who’s making a game. I mean it has to be like that, the design is just a fluid process.
Alix: Since we started making video games seven years ago it’s all we talk about. I don’t know what you talk about on normal dates anymore; we go out to eat and we start talking about our games!
You said you’ve been doing this for seven years, were either of you ever in the AAA industry?
Calvin: Nope, I had an IT job where I fixed computers. I’ve wanted to do video games for a while, I did some 3D art; just hobby stuff you know?
Alix: What I’ve been telling people is technically I’m a massage therapist and he’s a college drop-out.
(They both laugh)
Calvin: So I finally said I really want to make video games, can I have a year where you work and I can just screw around on my computer and we’ll see what happens, and that turned into four years.
Alix: Five years!
Calvin: Okay, five years.
Alix: Five years of me working and him playing around!
Calvin: So it really turned out okay in the end, we’re getting a lot of attention now and were here at PAX east. Things are really going well.
From what I saw of the game it looks to be an absolute delight. Old-school rogue draped in beautifully rich and colorful pixel art with unlimited possibilities for hilarious demise is a winning formula if you ask me. While my tight schedule didn’t allow for a chance to play it myself I kept one eye on those that did throughout the interview. I’d wager if perma-death-a-plenty weren’t a primary feature of the game, Calvin would have had one hell of a time tearing people away so that others could take a turn!