In this article I share the testimony of Eugene Paik, co-Founder of Nuke Nine, to certain topics related to the development (creative influences, game mechanics, etc) and evolution of Vagante, their latest (and only) released game to date. For the ones who never heard of it, Vagante is a pixelart platformer roguelite game that started its development in 2013 and is available on PC and consoles.
The story of the development of Vagante started back in college, we’d all worked together on a number of smaller projects and experimental prototypes. Notably, we frequently participated in game jams, which proved to be a valuable way to not only practice our development skills, but also figure out how we worked as a team. We always talked about working on something bigger at some point, but after graduation and all of us getting jobs that didn’t seem to be happening anytime soon. I’d been working for about a year in an office when I decided that this wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I decided I was young enough to try to chase my dream of doing game development as a career, so I quit my job so that I could focus on development full-time. In late 2013, Kyle and Keo joined me part-time then, but within a couple of months we saw we had something special with our game prototype and we founded Nuke Nine.
We tried getting Vagante funded on Kickstarter by 2014 but sadly we got barely a half of the 50.000 USD funding goal we had set in the campaign. In spite of that we moved forward with the game and never gave up since.
I had moved back in with my parents to save money, and our collective savings allowed us to do full-time development for a while after the failed Kickstarter campaign. Eventually our need for funding pushed us to try out Steam Early Access, a platform that allowed players to buy and support our game before it was fully complete. This turned out to be a huge success, and the continued support of our Early Access playerbase funded us throughout development until the game’s release. I’d say in terms of lessons learned, knowing how to pitch your idea to others is the big one. While it’s easy for a developer to envision what their game will become, it's just as important that you can convey that information to potential players, especially if you’re planning on crowdfunding your project. While we weren’t successful with this in our Kickstarter, we learned a lot from it and were much more successful with our Early Access page.
The evolution of Nuke Nine and the indie game development ecosystem in 2013
The indie gamedev ecosystem has improved a bunch since 2013. Developers nowadays have so many tools to build their game, from powerful and free game engines to great online educational resources. In addition, the prevalence of platforms like Steam Early Access as well as other forms of crowdfunding allow indie developers to get the financial backing necessary for full-time development. It’s hard to say what changes we’d make if we started developing Vagante today. I think we would’ve considered existing game engines more strongly; back in the early 2010’s freely available engines like Unity or Godot weren’t as mature and proven as they are now. We’d probably still go through some form of crowdfunding, although we might consider options besides Steam Early access such as itch.io or rolling our own payment system.
If you look at most indie studios, they would release at least a couple of games in 8 years, but the story of Nuke Nine and Vagante is a bit of a special case in that regard, something to be learned from rather than emulated. Our development had its ups and downs, periods of extreme productivity alternating with times of little-to-no progress. We were honestly lucky that our early-access players stuck with us and supported us throughout development. The biggest challenge we continually struggled with was that of burnout. I’d advise new developers to be vigilant for the symptoms of burnout, and to try to have a clear delineation and balance between work time and off time. The clearest symptom of burnout is when you feel a lack of excitement and motivation for things that you used to find enjoyable working on. It can sneak up on you, and can mean you go from feeling great working 12+ hours a day to suddenly not wanting to even look at your game anymore.
The participation of the community and how it shaped the game
The fact that we opened Early Access to Vagante while it was early in development helped the game tremendously. Having immediate feedback from players on changes allowed us to iterate and fix bugs quickly, helping us figure out what worked and what didn’t with the game. There were times when we introduced experimental changes knowing that we’d be able to address design issues based on player feedback. There were also a ton of great suggestions that were ultimately incorporated into the game, from balance changes to ideas for a new item or ability.
Many players in the community praise the game for its continuous improvements along the years. I think the biggest relatively newer addition to the game in my eyes was the adding of an unlockable Hard Mode, for the die-hard players. We never expected players to ask for an even more difficult experience, but time and time again it kept coming up. We wanted to add it in a way that didn’t artificially increase difficulty, and I think we succeeded with the addition of champion monsters and alternate boss mechanics. In Hard Mode, champion variations of existing monsters spawn with unique AI and movement patterns. In addition, every boss is more difficult with the addition of new attacks and changes in their AI. The community seems to appreciate most of the additions to the game that increase replayability, such as new or reworked backgrounds, and new class abilities.
Two of my personal biggest influences to making Vagante were Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, and of course, Spelunky. DCSS was the first real roguelike I enjoyed, and it's still my favorite. It has deep and meaningful character choices, a breadth of combat mechanics, and the gameplay is a lot more streamlined and balanced than other roguelikes I’ve tried. Just some of the mechanics inspired by DCSS and classic roguelikes in our game include the class system, many of the items (randarts, scrolls, potions, wands, etc.), the inclusion of God Shrines, and the collectible Rune Orbs found in the game’s branch areas.
Spelunky Classic came out when I was just graduating high school (2009), and really opened my eyes to the now common idea of adding roguelike elements to other game genres. It was also an example of the rare indie game at the time that was polished, fun, and free. Throughout college Kyle and I played Spelunky Classic many many hours, even trying our hand at speedrunning the game. Some parts of Vagante inspired by Spelunky include the player platforming mechanics, the angry shopkeepers, and the existence of intermissions between each floor.
Some parts of DCSS and Spelunky were considered in Vagante, but ultimately decided against. For example, we experimented with having a hunger clock like in DCSS, as well as a ghost timer similar to Spelunky, but neither mechanic was a good fit for the pacing in Vagante. We wanted players to be able to take their time and deliberately choose how to tackle their next obstacle, something that’s always possible in turn-based roguelike, but the inclusion of a timer pressured players to rush and experiment less. We also leaned into a more specialized class and background system, to allow players to have completely different playthroughs based on whether they’re an Ascetic Mage or an Illiterate Houndmaster.
Vagante presents a world full of unexplored and mysterious areas, wandering adventurers seeking to chart out new areas and investigate strange dungeons and dark ruins. Vagante’s hero is one such adventurer, joining a caravan to investigate the mystery behind a deep cave filled with monsters and treasure. Players of Vagante wouldn’t be surprised to know that two of the larger influences for Vagante’s setting include Diablo and the Castlevania series, both games that we enjoyed playing growing up. Vagante’s dark mood and lighting was influenced by Diablo, while many of Vagante’s enemies take inspiration from the Castlevania bestiary. One of my favorite boss designs in Vagante is the Chimera, which is our take on Castlevania’s Manticore.
Vagante has always leaned in the direction of desaturated but warm colors with a bit of a gritty style, influenced by titles like Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre, Vagrant Story. Earlier iterations of the visuals lacked contrast and player, enemy, and environment weren't as clearly differentiated. This was at odds with how Vagante's gameplay feels very weighty, movement feels heavy, and interactions in the game feel impactful. Newer art improved on this, making each part of the game visually more distinct. In addition, some of the art changes were the result of an improvement in workflow, such as the creation of a voxel-based animation renderer that allowed for quick creation and iteration of character animations.
First ever mockup:
Old cave art:
New cave art:
The game’s soundtrack is one of the more remarkable aspects of Vagante, our main concern regarding music was that each track needed to be unique to each area, while still matching the darker and mysterious mood of the world of Vagante. In addition, we wanted a more classic JRPG soundtrack like that found in the Final Fantasy series. Our composer Sam English did an excellent job coming up with over 20 tracks that fit Vagante perfectly. We also managed to do some cool things working with him, such as implementing dynamic music that transitioned smoothly depending on boss states in the Tower, as well as adding alternate unlockable themes for every area.
Finding a balance. The evolution of the roguelike mechanics in Vagante
During the last years the roguelite genre has evolved, with many modern games having a stronger system of permanent progression, something that classic roguelikes lack. We wanted Vagante to be a consistent playing experience in between playthroughs like a roguelike, but we also wanted to add some aspects of replayability and modern progression. I think we hit the best of both worlds with our system of unlocking new classes and backgrounds to add variety to the game. Some games have systems in play where the game gets easier over time through permanent upgrades, but we wanted to avoid anything like that for a classic roguelike experience. Players' skills remain the core of our game, rather than inherent progression factors such as power ups or skills you buy.
How the backgrounds and the progression system works in Vagante
For each playthrough of Vagante, the player has a choice of a class as well as a background. Classes dictate the archetype of your character, while backgrounds are further specializations or modifiers to your character. For example, the Mage class could choose to start with the Heirloom background, granting them a magical ring passed down by their family. After each run, you accumulate a certain number of progression points which unlock new backgrounds or classes. In addition, some backgrounds can only be unlocked by completing certain feats in-game.
Even though nothing persists between each run in a roguelike, your experience changes due to your knowledge and skills improving over time. Each death is a chance to learn and get better at the game, which means whenever you triumph over the game you feel like you truly deserve it. We wanted Vagante to encapsulate this feeling, and while there’s some amount of randomness in the world, we did our best to minimize anything that’s truly unfair. I think the players that embrace the mentality of learning from mistakes tend to enjoy Vagante, since they’re rewarded with the knowledge that they’re becoming better players.
Finally, (and maybe as a consequence of the challenging difficulty of the game) when we talk about Vagante players, there’s definitely a dichotomy between the more experienced and the newer ones. More experienced players tend to play the game much quicker, making decisions instinctively, while newer players tend to be much more methodical. Some players might also favor playing a single class, while others play a variety.
If you are interested, you can find more information about Vagante and buy it here.