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A Conversation with Patrick Casey of Peculiar Games

A May 2013 interview with roguelike developer Peculiar Games (creator of Voyage to Farland) about life, inspiration, homage, design, marketing and art direction.

Lou Rinaldi, Blogger

September 16, 2013

26 Min Read

Indie game dev Patrick Casey

Patrick Casey

Indie game dev Patrick Casey

Name: Patrick Casey

Company: Peculiar Games

Flagship: Voyage to Farland (Android)

Patrick Casey is a former electrical engineer who quit the corporate world a decade ago and set off to teach English in Japan (where he accidentally became a Mystery Dungeon fanatic). He’s now back in the States, trying his hand at making video games and other quirky apps for Android, PCs, HTML5 and hopefully other platforms in the near future.

Mystery Dungeon is a series of roguelike video games, most of which were developed by a Japanese company called Chunsoft. The series was born when Dragon Quest co–creator Koichi Nakamura became inspired by a fellow developer’s experience with Rogue. Just as Dragon Quest took elements from the western computer RPGs Wizardry and Ultima and reconstructed them into a more approachable and easier to understand console game, with Mystery Dungeon Nakamura attempted to unpack the density of Rogue and transpose it into a more palatable form for the masses.

Patrick’s claim to roguelike fame is known as Voyage to Farland, which is inspired by the second game in the Mystery Dungeon series (and the first to feature all original characters as opposed to familiar faces from other, more well-known games): Shiren the Wanderer. Noting that “there's no point in remaking a classic,” Patrick is fine with people calling Voyage a Shiren-clone. But he’s also quick to point out his experimentation with introducing new elements into the formula, such as vial mechanics, trap mechanics and monster abilities. “You'll have to play the game to find out,” says Patrick.

I caught up with Patrick recently and talked about Voyage, his other games and interests, and some of the challenges he faces as an indie developer.

Q: What do you do when you're not making or playing games?

With the indie game developer market being what it is, I still spend time looking for a "real job". Besides that and prototyping new ideas, I go camping occasionally, and fly-fishing -- nature is really restorative and often an inspiration for game ideas. And I daydream while drinking the occasional craft beer (or cheap beer when money's tight), thinking up new amazing ideas for video games, most of which I realize the next day are pretty bad ideas.

Perhaps then it's no coincidence that Shiren is arguably the first roguelike to predominantly feature outdoor environments. What's your preferred style of beer to inspire all that creative thought? And what video game ideas of yours have passed the "morning after" test, but haven't yet become reality?

The graphics and music in Shiren took the game from being very good to classic in my mind. For people who love pixel art, the game is brilliant.

I’m a huge fan of Belgian beer, especially dark and strong Trappist Ales. A crisp Czech Pilsner, malty British Ale or hoppy Sierra Nevada also helps with the coding from time to time. And with my name, a nice pint of Guinness always hits the spot.

To be honest, there are few ideas that have passed the "morning after" test -- at least ideas that aren't just ripoffs of yet another Bit Generations game (I did some work on a game inspired by the GBA Bit Generations game Orbital this past winter). I suppose my first Android game, RGBbot, is one of those ideas that passed the test. It was meant to be a match three game, but a "match" was a combination of red, green, and blue "zombie" robots to make them disappear in an flash of white. That game was pretty rough and lacking in polish, but had its fun aspects and a fun little back story.

Q: How did you first get into roguelikes, and what was your first exposure to the Mystery Dungeon series?

Although I had a buddy way "back in the day" (early 1990s) who was obsessed with a PC port of the original Rogue, my first real exposure to roguelikes and first Mystery Dungeon game was actually Shiren the Wanderer, which it turns out is a pretty good one to start with.

I was teaching English in Japan at the time, and bought a DS to make the hour long train commutes to work every day more bearable. I had played through the GBA re-releases of Mother 1+2 (Earthbound), and then Mother 3 and was looking for a new game. I’d seen the big posters designed by Akira Yasuda for Shiren at an electronics store in Shinjuku when the game was released in Japan, but didn’t know what to make of it -- I figured it was some anime stuff that Japanese gamers were into and that I wouldn't like. Little did I know...

Anyway, I looked the game up on the internet, saw it was actually a hardcore (brutal even) "roguelike" game and knew I had to give it a try. Within a day I was hooked. (Shiren is deceptive at first -- it sometimes takes a few floors to "get it") I ended up playing the game almost exclusively for over a year, including getting the Borg Mamel leveled up to 99.

I recall reading some Usenet postings (17 years ago!) in rec.games.video.nintendo by a fellow named Alan Kwan. They were essentially dramatizations of his experiences playing through the "Shrine of Buffu" (renamed "Kitchen God Shrine" in the North American release for the Nintendo DS). These postings were also formative for roguelike pundit and Shiren superfan John Harris, who mentioned them in one of his Shiren-focused "@Play" columns for the now-defunct GameSetWatch.com (RIP). It would be another decade before I actually got to play the game for myself, thanks to a fan-made English translation patch for the Super Famicom ROM. Did you imagine at the time that your fluency in both languages was affording you such an incredible opportunity that would be unattainable to the majority of Western gamers for so many years?

I saw John’s @Play articles mentioning Alan’s playthroughs and read a bit of them. I never thought too much about my Japanese skills in that respect, especially since I’m not completely fluent. I saw Shiren as an amazing game and was happy I could give the excuse of "studying" the language while I played. I did make heavy use of the gameFAQs walkthrough for the SNES version. I even printed out a little booklet version that I carried with me on the train and it was a huge help since reading Japanese is notoriously difficult due to all the Kanji.

But I guess in retrospect it did afford me an amazing opportunity, although it made me a "Mystery Dungeon True Believer" and I now sometimes feel like a street preacher trying to convert passersby.

Q: What's unique about "Voyage to Farland" that sets it apart in a market increasingly flooded with roguelikes?

It’s a crossover between western graphical and ASCII roguelikes (and a bit off to the side given its inspiration). Voyage uses a lot of sprite-based animation, sound effects and music. And admittedly, Voyage borrows heavily from Shiren concepts, making it sometimes drastically different from western roguelike games in its approach, even though Shiren itself is a distillation of Rogue and Nethack onto the console platform with a Japanese sensibility. One reviewer on Amazon wrote (paraphrasing) that Voyage has a simple enough control system to be approachable while at the same time being complex enough to be interesting.

I've taken great pains to have the items and their interaction with monsters be fairly consistent. An example is the Levelup Bead: wave it at an NPC in your party to increase its level (and fighting power), but in the hardcore dungeon before it has been identified, waving it at a monster will "level up" the monster, quickly turning an easy fight into something much more serious. After you've identified the bead, you can leave it on the floor for a certain type of monster to toss at you, giving you an instant level boost.

I've also tried to have enough diversity in monster abilities to set up "moments of mayhem" for lack of a better term, where seemingly simple situations can turn deadly and apparently doomed situations still have a path to escape with clever strategy and item usage.

Voyage has another layer of complexity in the vial item. Vials are inspired by Shiren's monster meats, although they end up being a bit different with the presence of the "Catapult" monsters. You can capture any monster in a vial, drink the vial to become the monster and use its special abilities, like moving through walls as a Ghost, moving double speed as a Witch, or standing back and throwing electrical pulses as a SparkDroid. I’m not sure if other indie roguelikes are doing that sort of thing, although they may be. Working on my own games has unfortunately left me with less time to try other games.

I appreciate your concept of "moments of mayhem." The aforementioned John Harris once wrote, "The beginning of roguelike wisdom is in recognizing critical moments. A critical moment is a turn in which, if you don't do something important, you may die before you get your next turn." I believe a lot of the latter-day fanaticism around roguelikes stems from this gameplay element. In a world where almost every game on the market coddles the player and spoon-feeds them from start to finish, many gamers find the critical moments of roguelikes to be a refreshing change of pace. We can even see these elements emerging in [slightly] more mainstream games like Demon's Souls and Dark Souls. Can you ever see yourself working for a commercial video game developer, and if so, what conditions would have to be met?

I couldn't agree with you more. John’s concept of the critical moment in the context of roguelike games is insightful to say the least. A casual reader may say it’s just an obvious observation, but a more careful look of his breakdown of the phrase reveals there's more to it. "Moments of mayhem" is related and also hints at the complexity that can come out of a system of seemingly simple AI rules in a turn-based game like this. Both as a player and as a programmer I’m often amazed at some of the funny and at times horrific things that happen in a monster room.

I also enjoyed John’s observation that "The first thing you should know about Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer ... is that it is a game." In other words, you can actually lose.

I haven’t given too much thought to working for a "real" commercial developer. I guess it would be a trade-off of salary vs. creative freedom. I’m not even sure many places would have me, although I do sometimes fantasize about getting an email from Chunsoft asking me if I’d like to move back to Japan and work on one of their games.

Q: It took about 13 years for "Fushigi no Dungeon 2: Fūrai no Shiren" (1995) to receive a commercial translation and North American release as "Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer" (2008). How did you decide to tackle the daunting task of creating the first Mystery Dungeon style game of western origin for mobile?

I didn't really think it through to be honest. If I had, it may have been a bit too daunting and kept me from finishing the game. The game started out as just a hobby while I was in Japan to see how far I could take the concept and if I could actually finish and release it. I was also wondering what I’d do when I finished Shiren (which is quite long, but would still end eventually). I worried whether I’d have hardcore roguelike withdrawal or something crazy like that. So tinkering with Voyage kept me busy in the winter months when there wasn't much else to do.

If Voyage is the first Mystery Dungeon style game of western origin, that’s kind of cool. But I’m not the only one developing in this sub-genre these days -- Devlin is working on The Wizard’s Lair, so he’s a fellow wanderer of the Mystery Dungeon path.

Voyage certainly predates The Wizard’s Lair, so I think you can safely lay claim to the throne. It's simultaneously encouraging and depressing to think about new games such as "Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Gates to Infinity" receiving a North American release. Encouraging because at least the series continues to receive support on these shores, but discouraging in that publishers seem to feel it's only a viable product if it's skinned in a way that appeals to the mass market. If you look at Fire Emblem, it's evident that Awakening didn't need to be similarly sugar-coated to be considered a viable product for North American consumption. Do you think the poor sales performance of Shiren in the US has doomed the Mystery Dungeon series to Perpetual Pokémon-ification in this market? 

Because of the "street preacher" feeling I mentioned, it always cheers me up when I find that there are indeed small pockets of hardcore Mystery Dungeon fans out there -- both people diving into the game and posting about successes and also starting development of MD inspired games like Devlin has with The Wizard’s Lair.

I wish I knew how the Shiren sales are affecting future games. People sure seem to look forward to the Pokemon versions and there’s nothing wrong with that really. They’re charming games after all. On the topic of Shiren sales, I did a bit of research a while back for a tweet and found these numbers: 329K sales of Shiren DS in Japan (pop. ~127million), 170K sales in the Americas (pop. ~528million). So sales were roughly 8x higher per capita in Japan than in all of the Americas.

I have a feeling Chunsoft know the score and will still make more hardcore games. They had the guts to make a game like Shiren in the first place, which not many studios would do. I just hope they haven’t given up releasing them in the west. There are actually a couple of Android versions of Shiren that Chunsoft released, but unfortunately they’re region locked to Japan, last I checked.

Q: You've gone out of your way to ensure that Voyage is readily available through multiple distribution mechanisms, including the Chrome Web Store. You've even produced a version for Linux. Is portability a significant factor in the choice of the Google/Android ecosystem as your primary development platform? Any plans for iOS? 

The main reason for moving from NDS homebrew to Android first was the low cost of entry. The one time developer fee and ability to develop on the PC I already had was attractive. I was making a bet that Android would grow -- this was back when it wasn't taken too seriously, but the first Droid had just come out -- and getting in before the market got saturated was appealing.

Along the way, there were requests for a PC version of the game, and Slick2D finally made that possible (with Linux support an added bonus). Porting the game to the Chrome Native Client SDK got PC/Linux/Mac support in one package.

I’d like to make an iOS version, but the cost is holding me back currently -- I gather I’d need a Mac and couldn’t use the old, cranky notebook PC I have now. But it's still a definite possibility.

Perhaps some generous Mystery Dungeon fan reading this will be compelled to donate a Mac to the cause. Is there any chance we'll be able to play Voyage on the forthcoming Ouya console? 

A donated Mac would be awesome but an iOS build would still be pretty expensive I think. A few hundred dollars for device hardware and then the yearly app store fee. We'll see after I've had a short break. I also got a request to make a PlayStation Mobile version recently, but that looked somewhat expensive, too. Just breaking even on the Android version took longer than I expected.

Ouya would be really cool since I feel this "action console roguelike" genre is well suited to a hardware controller. I made a lame attempt to win one of the Ouya dev consoles during their Twitter giveaway, but my tweets went un-retweeted and other teams who'd had success on Kickstarter pitches won most of the consoles. I've already done some basic work in the Ouya emulator but I’m very cautious about further hardware investments these days.

Q: It must have been very challenging starting from scratch with art direction and assets. Can you share with us your process? 

The process was as muddled as you might expect from a lapsed programmer trying to make art for a game. The earliest sprites and background tiles were pretty rough frankly. Then I found Daniel Cook’s free prototyping graphics sets, so early sprites and backgrounds borrowed heavily from there. Voyage’s "Hero" and Oba monsters are still derived from one of his sets, although I had to take the single frame sprite and change it into animated sprite sheets (walking, swinging weapons, etc.) in all directions.

I've actually gotten better with practice at making art assets over the 6 years I've been working on the game. An example is the Toy Robot NPC I added recently which looks much better than some of the older sprite sheets I made. I’m also happy with the way the owl sprite's flying animation turned out. Nevertheless, sprite based animation is very labor intensive.

More generally about the "feel" of the game, I liked that Shiren deviated from dungeon-only floors in artwork and I wanted to try that for Voyage. In fact I may have gone too far since there are 10 or 12 forest and stream-themed "floors" in the starter dungeon before you get to a floor that could genuinely be called a dungeon. The hardcore dungeon that’s unlocked later has more dungeony and less forest-oriented artwork, however.

I’d like to hire a real artist some day, and a couple of people have even volunteered work that’s finally been included in the game with the Chrome version. Shroomarts in particular has been really generous with time and ideas.

Voyage to Farland promotional art by Shroomarts

Voyage to Farland promotional art by Shroomarts

Voyage to Farland promotional art by Shroomarts

I can only imagine the contributions you might receive if the game were to get the kind of exposure that comes with an iOS release. Voyage is clearly a labor of love, and that dedication really shines through. Are there any particular graphical elements you'd prioritize for a real artist, when that day comes? 

You're probably right and I'm starting to feel guilty dithering on an iOS build :) I guess it would make sense to prioritize background tilesets first, since they’d have the biggest impact for the least amount of work.

That being said, I wonder if artists would still be willing to work on new graphics when they find out how much work is involved in the monster animations. Unlike a roguelike with static tiles for monsters, this game requires about 60 frames of animation for each monster or NPC. Even an experienced pixel-artist will likely need a week for the spritesheet for just one monster. Multiply that by 30 or more monsters and then add all the background tiles... It's a pain in the neck, but I love these simple 4 or 6 frame pixel art animations.

Q: What type of feedback have you gotten on Voyage? Do you have a development prioritization process based on user suggestions and requests? 

I've gotten feedback that’s all over the place, from it being a game for 5 year olds to being way too hard. However, a few Nethack gurus have gotten in touch and seem to like the game. It’s always tricky with this type of game to know which feedback to pay more heed. I mean, Shiren got a lukewarm response here in the west and yet it’s one of the greatest video games ever made, in my opinion.

For ongoing development and expansion of the game, I’m going partly by my own sense of what made Shiren good, balanced with requests from players. I recently made a change to the boss fight at the end of the starter dungeon based on feedback from a knowledgeable roguelike fan -- something I thought was in the spirit of "losing is fun", but in retrospect was probably just plain unfair.

It's always a challenge to strike a workable balance between your creative vision and the on-ground realities for the consumer. But it sounds like you've been able to effectively filter the signal from the noise. That said, are there any "lines in the sand" where you simply won't compromise your existing game design? 

I can't think of any lines in the sand, unless it's something like removing permadeath and letting the player restore from arbitrary save points.

For many requests, I usually have a go at implementing them. Especially if the player asks in a non-ragey way. As a case in point, I finally added some alternate control schemes in the latest Android version because I could see how many players would want it and I really respected the roguelike bona fides of the players requesting it.

Q: What are the biggest hurdles you face as a small indie game studio? 

Getting noticed. Paying the bills with what are admittedly niche games. The markets become saturated quickly and the fact that I’m pretty bad at marketing doesn't help.

Hopefully this interview gets you some much-deserved visibility with folks who may not have heard of your games before now. Regarding marketing, have you considered a promotional "blitz" approach such as Amazon's free app of the day? Do you think it would ultimately be helpful or detrimental? 

I've read stories of a few developers who weren't happy with the Free App of the Day promotion at Amazon, but it would be a fantastic opportunity for someone like me. Since I generally make games that don't require any server overhead and getting noticed is the hardest part of this gig, there's little risk of it being detrimental and high potential for a sizable reward in mind share.

And it's funny you ask, because I was contacted last week by Amazon Japan about doing the Free App of the Day promotion for Microchip Monsters. It would probably be a great opportunity for Peculiar Games and Microchip Monsters in particular. It might also work for Voyage to Farland, but the target audience seems quite different so we'll have to see.

Q: Tell us a bit about your latest Android game, Microchip Monsters

It’s funny that I started working on Microchip Monsters thinking I’d make a casual game to help fund development on Voyage. But it ended up being more "casually hardcore"[1] than just casual. As a result, sales have been weak on Google play, Amazon and the NOOK app store, although the free version on Google play has been somewhat popular.

I’m still trying to develop my sense for what has mass appeal and what's just too weird for most people -- I should have known a game about the ghost of a murdered nanobot in your smartphone getting revenge on the virus that killed it would be a bit... uh... out of the mainstream.

One nerdy point that might be interesting is that the minimalist design of the microchips in the game is actually inspired by VLSI chip CAD software that engineers use. There was always something lonely yet compelling in an abstract way about the way chips look in that software.

On behalf of all fans of the weird, I applaud you for not caving in. I also love hearing about your sources of inspiration. I'm reminded of Miyamoto's recollection of exploring the caves around Kyoto as an inspiration for Zelda. Sometimes the most deeply personal experiences make for a truly compelling game, and I think a lot of the stigma around that approach has fallen away in recent years (at least with indie games). Do any other personal experiences come to mind as yet-untapped inspirations for future games?

I like surreal or funny bits in games, which is probably why I enjoyed Earthbound so much. People shouldn't underestimate the appeal of whimsy, I think. So yes, there really are black holes and wormholes in your smartphone -- I thought everybody knew that!

During design I actually develop back stories for most of my games that I never reveal. That includes both Voyage to Farland and Microchip Monsters. Games should have a bit of mystery, and for indie games, players shouldn't be afraid to strike up a conversation with the developer and learn a couple of secrets along the way. So I'm waiting for that quiet moment on some obscure forum out there to explain a bit deeper when the time comes.

About life inspiring games, a fly-fishing game would be fun if it was done right -- complete with accurate casting physics (fly casting is really hard) and RPG-ish fly-tying collection mini-games. And maybe throw in a fly-fishing ghost story I wrote a few years back as another RPG mini-game.

Also a roguelike game where you play as a roguelike developer and fight "monsters" out in the perilous app market and blogosphere would be kind of cool -- or perhaps too niche. We'll see if that last one sounds so good tomorrow morning...

Q: In a utopian future, tell us about what you'll be doing a few years from now.

I’ll be living in a small house somewhere in the mountains near a trout stream, tinkering with indie games for a small but livable income. And maybe I'll be home-brewing beer again. :)

Thank you, Patrick!

[1] "Casually hardcore" is a bit of wordplay, for starters -- again, whimsy. In this case it means that like the game Peggle, it offers something for both casual and hardcore players. Microchip Monsters is fun for casual players who just want to tap and blow stuff up and progress to the next level. The controls are also designed for casual play -- on smaller phones you can play one-handed and it passes the "could I play this on a jam-packed train" test. But hardcore players will notice there are bonuses for optimal mine placement -- more points for destroying multiple viruses during one probe launch. The hardcore player will also appreciate the "cleared" achievement symbols, for while unlocking the next stage is only somewhat challenging, clearing ALL the viruses in a stage can be extremely difficult.

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