What happened to Desktop Dungeons?
For those of you who have been reading Lazygamer for a while now, you’ll know about Desktop Dungeons, an awesome local game from developers QCF Design. With the game coming out of beta soon, we interviewed them about indie development cycles and expectations. Danny ‘Dislekcia’ Day was kind enough to take the time for some really comprehensive answers.
First of all, there’s the issue of Alphas, Betas and release dates. This has caused a bit of a stir in the lazygamer and indie game communities – it became a rather normative debate about how long a game “should” take to make, mostly due to people’s impatience for the release of Desktop Dungeons. We asked about the process used in developing Desktop Dungeons and how the game moved through the different phases.
It wasn’t called the alpha version originally. It was just the game prototype called Desktop Dungeons that we were making better after Rodain initially put it up on the local game development community forums. We were simply investing our money in figuring out the shape of the game based on feedback and the ideas we had to expand it. It was a surprise when so many people started playing it, when it started getting mirrored in China and Russia, even though it was free anyway. We knew we were going to have to rebuild the final game to address some of the issues the prototype had, so we pushed the original Game Maker code as far as we could, entered that into the IGF and switched over to a new codebase in Unity.
That Unity version would eventually become the ever-evolving beta that we upload the latest in-development version of every Friday. Once we’ve got no more bugs to fix, no more temporary interfaces to replace, we’ll flick the switch that enables in-game music and it’ll be the full game, ready for packaging into the version that will go up on Steam.
However, this hasn’t been an issue of feature creep. Day explains that the game has actually been in feature lockdown since November 2012. The rest of the time has been focused on using player feedback to improve the game; feedback was used throughout not just to keep that feeling of riding the knife edge of disaster in every play through, but also to improve the UI and polish. Unfortunately, the nature of such a beast is that changing one thing can impact another.
Roguelikes are simply hard to make when changing one thing somewhere can have a huge knock-on impact on nearly everything else in the game. Adding a usable, engaging UI on top of that sort of complexity is just as difficult – there’s a reason roguelikes usually have terrible usability: The developers are just too knackered by the time they get to that phase of development.
Before and after winning the IGF award, QCF was committed to developing the best possible game. However, this has taken quite a length of time. Some games are difficult to develop, and we now understand the issues inherent with a rogue-like game. That said, the issue of release timing has been one of contention, and worth clarifying.
Obviously we would have liked to release the game much sooner – I don’t think anyone wants to be spending money every month instead of earning it. When we first started working on the beta we thought balancing the game would be a quick process, something we could conceivably get through in a few months. We turned out to be pretty wrong about that. But the game has improved so much with all the community feedback, we’ve learned a lot of tricks to maximise that as well.
Ever since we’ve had a concrete release plan, we’ve been sticking to it though. Things are moving scarily fast right now, I don’t think people realise just how many moving parts there are to building a game, let alone putting together a game launch. It feels very much like Carl Sagan’s famous “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” You have to do everything from code, to planning out art, to building tools, to finding people to partner with, to establishing relationships with funders, to managing your website, to handling your press presence, to communicating with players, to handling your finances, to building secure server systems, to managing team members on the other side of the planet… It just never ends. The days I get to only write code? Those are good days.
There have been some criticisms of QCF’s communication with those who pre-ordered, particularly by local and rather vocal South Africans – people felt like they weren’t contacted enough directly, and that it was difficult to find information regarding Desktop Dungeons. However, Day disagreed with this sentiment, and was particularly confused by it as international media and players were satisfied with the amount and modes of communication. Furthermore, there were some barriers to the solutions proposed by consumers and the media:
As far as criticisms go, I think there are a few different sets of assumptions that get made about game PR and especially indie game PR. The biggest one is that, if a single person hasn’t heard something via their preferred source of news, that a specific developer isn’t making an effort. That’s not really the case – many developers are trying to tell you things all the time, it just that messages often don’t get through to the audience you’re trying to reach, no matter how much time you spend on PR. For instance, I know for a fact that many people reading this interview won’t know that Desktop Dungeons is coming out on Steam, that we will be porting the game to both iOS and Android, or that our soundtrack is by the dream team of Danny Baranowsky and Grant Kirkhope. I feel like I’ve said those lines a million times, but there are always people who haven’t heard them.
But what about a newsletter of some sort, so that people wouldn’t have to find the information themselves?
We didn’t think about email newsletters when we were first launching the pre-orders that kept our company alive, so we couldn’t use pre-order email addresses to send newsletters (that’s illegal). We’ll make sure we have newsletter signup options for future games.
Beyond that, we’ll simply keep trying to make our communication efforts more effective at reaching more people. Part of that means culling channels that aren’t really working for us. We do still have to ensure that we have time left over to actually develop things, after all.
Of course, those people who pre-ordered helped ensure that Desktop Dungeons could be made. In some ways, people came to see this like crowd funding – giving money in advance of a game being completed as an investment on seeing a final version. However, pre-ordering and crowd funding are very different things. Crowd funding is generally more about testing the waters to see if people will be interested in an idea, while pre-ordering builds a community around an existing game that needs completion.
I think gamers often get pre-orders and crowd funding confused for each other. Assuming that a crowd funding campaign is anything other than an investment in something possibly existing, a show of support, is dangerous. Getting involved in pre-ordering a game whose in-development version you’re not keen to play right now is also dangerous, although probably less so because at least you know that something actually exists.
Pre-orders saved Desktop Dungeons and I’ve advised several other friends to go for pre-orders as well. Introversion raised the bar on pre-orders though, turning them into what people keep expecting of kickstarters with all the extra tiers, etc.
The game will be releasing on Steam for PC and Mac soon, followed by a Linux release and eventual port to iOS and Android. In case you’re wondering why it wasn’t released on mobile platforms in its Alpha/prototype form:
Long story short, the situation we were in didn’t really allow for phone development: We would have to rewrite the game from scratch anyway, so why not make it better? There was also the issue of the game being so heavily tied to the mouse – nobody thinks about it, but if your game uses mouseover interactions for lots of critical information, you can’t take that to a phone or tablet and expect it to work. […] The game we’ve got now is something we’re much more comfortable taking to phones and tablets, it’s been designed with that in mind from the ground up.
I can only imagine what it will be like for QCF to finally release their finished product into the world – like any art, it has been a labour of love that will be hard to let go. So what are QCF’s expectations for the game upon release?
In all seriousness, I don’t know. I’ve never released a game on Steam before. I expect I’ll stare at graphs and twitch a lot. There’s a chance of smiling manically. Maybe I’ll get some sleep. That would be nice.
Going forward, QCF would like to continue developing high quality games, albeit with faster development cycles. I’m definitely looking forward to the release of Desktop Dungeons, as well as future games to come from QCF. You can check out my Let’s Play of the Desktop Dungeons beta below:
To round off, some fantastic advice for local indies who are looking to get started in the industry:
Join MakeGamesSA.com, then do exactly that: Make Games. Anything else is wasting your time or farming for excuses.