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Paper Heroes: Colm Larkin and Guild of Dungeoneering

Colm Larkin discusses his upcoming 2-man indie game Guild of Dungeoneering with Erratic Gamer, delving into his design inspirations, development process, and hopes for the future of the game.

Eric Leslie, Blogger

February 12, 2014

16 Min Read

This week, I happened across a post on IndieGames.com (followed by another on RockPaperShotgun) taking a look at the upcoming 2-man indie show Guild of Dungeoneering. The product of Colm Larkin (programming) and Fred Mangan (art), Guild of Dungeoneering (like so many good things) originated at Ludum Dare, as part of their October challenge last year. A little bit RPG, a little bit more strategy, and a whole lot distinctive aesthetic, this one caught my attention fast and held it tight, even though it’s in a very early state. After I reached out and let him know that I’d tried it, Colm agreed to talk a little bit about himself and the game for us, and here we are.

EG: Thanks for joining me! Let’s start at the start. Talk a little bit about Colm Larkin, “Gambrinous Games”, and how Guild of Dungeoneering ended up in the October challenge at Ludum Dare.

Colm: Hi ErraticGamer! Thanks for having me round for a chat. Making games is something I’ve been interested in since I was a child and our family got our first ever computer in the 1980s. It was a ZX Spectrum+ with 128 KB of memory, and basically to do anything with it you had to write BASIC. Even if you had a game on a tape it still booted up into a BASIC command prompt and you had to type in RUN to play. Myself and my siblings would type in the BASIC code printed in magazines for simple games (aren’t game-making tutorials easier to share nowadays!), and essentially that’s what led to me becoming a computer programmer and having a deep love of games.

As for Guild of Dungeoneering, I can even go a little further back than the October Challenge. Really the concept started as a 1GAM game that I built in April 2013 called Dungeon Delver. If you play that you’ll see some of the same ‘laying out a dungeon’ gameplay that’s now in Dungeoneering. 1GAM is a bit like a gamejam on your own terms, each month, and for me participating in it really crystallised being able to finish games. Before taking part I had spent almost 4 years trying to make games in my spare time and only had a couple of abandoned projects to show for it. After 6 months of 1GAM I had finished 4 small games and really felt much more confident about cutting back a game idea to its basics so that it was finishable. When I saw that the LD October Challenge (‘Finish a game — Take it to market — Earn $1’) was coming up I decided to try my hand once more at a bigger game project. So in October I began creating Guild of Dungeoneering.

EG: Ah, the ZX Spectrum. I never had one of those, but my father and I used to program BASIC games out of the back of Boys’ Life on a TI-99/4A that ran off a cassette tape; I’m guessing that’s one of the aforementioned magazines where you got some of your early source code, too. It’s fascinating and inspiring to see how successful gamejams like 1GAM and Ludum Dare are at driving people to get their ideas out in playable form for future refinement.

So on that note, describe Guild of Dungeoneering a bit for us. What were your design inspirations, and what role do you want the game to fill? We’ve seen something of a ‘randomized dungeon crawl’ renaissance in the last couple of years, but Dungeoneering is taking a notably different approach.

Colm: Hah yes! There were whole sections of magazines filled with hundreds of lines like ‘30 GOSUB 180’, and a single typo meant nothing would work. Fun times! Design inspirations to me were playing games like FTL and Spelunky which took the rogue-like idea and ran with it. I wanted to make a game that scratched the same itch that they did, but in a more traditional turn-based fantasy way. I remembered playing a board game called DungeonQuest in the 90s where you placed down a random tile in front of your adventurer when you stepped into a new room - sometimes it was a dead end or a left turn when you dearly needed to go straight.

Don't go left. Don't go left.

Somewhere along the line I started thinking, ‘What if you don’t get to control the hero?’. It seemed like an interesting twist to the usual dungeon-exploration-romp. So I made it that you were in control of the dungeon instead: you draw out the map, you place monsters & loot, and you watch what your hero (aka dungeoneer) chooses to do. Sometimes people say the idea reminds them of the original Dungeon Keeper (lets not talk about the recent IAP filled reboot) - so I should say that in Dungeoneering you are on the side of the hero. You WANT him to win, you just can’t directly control him. Taking away one of the most important choices for a gamer (player movement) has led to some problems I’m still trying to solve - essentially how can I still make the game full of interesting decisions & conflicts?

EG: DungeonQuest! Yes. Some of those inspirations have come back around in the boardgaming realm, too, with stuff like Wrath of Ashardalon and Castle Ravenloft coming out from Wizards of the Coast. No new ideas under the sun, but we keep coming back to some of the good ones, thankfully.

Let’s not talk about the recent IAP-filled Dungeon Keeper indeed, but certainly the original is still a well loved title. The other game that kept popping into my head (and was further prompted by the “guild” aspect even though that isn’t built in yet) was Majesty: The Fantasy Kingdom Sim, from back in 2000. That game had you managing a whole town of heroes at once, while Dungeoneering narrows you down to one at a time. What kind of relationship do you envision the player having with the AI-controlled hero - do you think of Dungeoneering as a puzzle where the player is trying to leave the right trail of breadcrumbs that the hero will follow if laid out correctly? Or do you expect there to be conflict between the player’s desires and the dungeoneer’s? (You want me to go get that treasure, but I am scared of trolls and there’s a troll in there, etc.) I suppose those aren’t mutually exclusive if you lay the information out for the player, but you have a choice as a designer about how much you put on the table, so to speak.

Colm: Majesty certainly captured some of the frustration of not getting to control your heroes (oh god no, don’t go THERE, argh!) that I want to tap into with Dungeoneering. I’m hoping that even in failure or frustration there can be enjoyment. If your dungeoneer’s too stupid to avoid that nasty golem.. well at least he went down with a funny splat sound, and there’s plenty more adventurers in the tavern! I do want to avoid it becoming a full-on puzzle game, that’s just not where I see this going. Desktop Dungeons came out recently and completely nailed the bitesize puzzle-RPG. I’d have a hard time as a designer going too close to what they built. My hope is to make something where you have a tossup each turn between the cards you are given and your dungeoneer’s mood & unpredictability, and you just have to make the best of it. ‘Hm, the troll moved in between the hero and the treasure, but maybe I can lay down an alternative route.. oh no he thinks he can fight it, argh!’

EG: Cool. I didn’t intend this to be the Name Drop interview, so after this I’ll stop, but have you played Card Hunter? Is there a plan to work any kind of deck building mechanic into the larger framework of the game, since the whole thing is randomized based on card draws? Collecting items and monsters that would then have a chance to drop in your next run, etc?

Colm: I sure have. It has a lot of similarities to Dungeoneering, including the ‘just like a board game’ look and feel. I have to say when I first played it I was blown away by what they had created. The aesthetic, the throwbacks to D&D like their adventure module faux-booklets, the game itself. This was right about when I was planning Dungeoneering and I remember thinking “I’ll never be able to make something as amazing as this.” Then I had a look at their team page which is full to the brim with super talented people, including Richard Garfield (creator of Magic The Gathering). That made me feel a lot better! As for deck building, it is very tempting to include as I love card games that let you change your deck (I even made a drafting game for 1GAM). I don’t think I will make it as integral to the game as they did in Card Hunter, but I think a little bit of deck manipulation will be interesting. Say you improve your Guild to have a shrine to the goddess of luck - maybe that adds a ‘lucky escape’ card to your HOPE deck which might get you out of a tight spot; a small bonus rather than a game changer.

You guys have been great. Try the veal!

EG: Stepping away from the design for a moment, how have you found the process of actually making the game to be so far? I know you’ve got a devlog thread up on TIGsource where people have been giving you feedback; are you pleased with where you are at this point?

Colm: One thing I’ve found frustrating is my own slow pace of development. Around the middle of October when I decided to push on and make this a real, sellable game I thought to myself I might be able to get it finished by the end of December. I set a first milestone of the end of November for an alpha version that was rough but fun (say the kind of thing that would be played on Kongregate or Newgrounds). And here I am in February and I still haven’t got the alpha to that state! It really comes down to this being a spare-time project - I have a full time software engineering job. Progress is steady, but slow, and it makes it difficult for me to predict when I’ll have certain things ready..

On the other hand what has worked really well for me is getting people engaged with the game from the very beginning of development. Right at the start of October I wrote up a marketing guide for gamedevs that I then proceeded to follow pretty religiously as I worked on Dungeoneering. The key is to put yourself out there and start sharing what you are making - even when it’s embarrassingly bare-bones. This is where you get to leverage one of the best things about being a tiny ‘indie’ dev - no one has to vet what you can or can’t say! There’s no PR team turning what should be excitement (early, barely working builds & screenshots) into boring corporatespeak press releases. Secondly you can start getting early validation of your concept & idea, and even feedback on your playable version (bugs and all), which is invaluable. The main places I’ve been active are forums like TIGSource (including that devlog thread which I’ve updated every time I add to the alpha), Twitter (especially #screenshotsaturday), Reddit, Google+, and my own gamedev blog.

EG: Yeah, it’s a tough thing to put something early out into the world, but the benefits seem to be substantial when an idea catches on. How has the community response and feedback been for the game so far? Do people seem excited about the concept, even in its early stages? If you’re comfortable talking about it, have you received any design feedback that’s made you change or reconsider directions you were planning to head next with it?

Colm: I’m constantly on the lookout for design ideas and direction. I solicit a lot of feedback online, but I also attend local gamedev meetups here in Dublin almost every month - sometimes talking to people about what THEY are working on gets me thinking about similar problems in Dungeoneering. Game design is a hard thing to force, though. I take ideas & suggestions on board but generally don’t act on them straight away. These things need to rest in the back of my brain for a while, simmering away, before something emerges. Sometimes I get a suggestion so perfect I just jam it straight into the game though - a couple of weeks ago someone in Reddit’s feedback friday thread suggested making ‘your hapless adventurer’ react if you click him, or if you idle for too long, which was a genius idea to give him more character. The next day it was in the alpha!

I’m incredibly happy with the reaction I’ve received from the community. Many people have praised the concept, and many more the hand-drawn aesthetic and boardgamey feel. It’s one of the most encouraging things to me, when a stranger reacts positively to something you have created. I started offering pre-order purchases at the end of October for $5, when the game looked like this and had far less functionality than it does now, and even then a handful of people decided to support the game. To me that is amazing - I thought before I would get a single pre-order I would have to freeze the playable alpha and start sharing videos of progress rather than the playable version. I thought people would need the ‘early access’ incentive (pre-ordering would let them play the latest beta that only buyers had access to). But no, it seems that gamers really like supporting an interesting idea even when they really get little out of it. As one buyer put it (I email everyone to say thanks for pre-ordering) - it’s a ‘financial +1’ of support.

EG: That’s a good way to put it, and I think Kickstarter (which often doesn’t even provide an alpha to play with at the time of “purchase”) works off the same basic emotional feedback - people like to feel personally involved in the creation of things they want to see happen, even if it’s only through patronage. It can help grow a player base, funding, and a community all at the same time, which is a remarkable feat.

Don't feel bad, little guy. She intimidates me too.

EG: So what’s next? Is there a set of features you’re eager to get in for your next milestone? Are you thinking of growing the team, or do you expect it to just stay between you and Fred? Since word of mouth is already positive and starting to grow, any expectations on release - timeline or platforms?

Colm: I don’t plan on getting more people involved in creating the game, apart from perhaps for the music, as I’m confident we can get everything else done by ourselves. I want to focus on getting the alpha to a ‘fun but rough’ state next, then do some more marketing material like a gameplay trailer. From there I feel I could easily get through the Steam Greenlight process at the rate they are currently accepting games, but I have also considered going for crowdfunding to get an actual development budget (Greenlight + crowdfunding send quite a bit of traffic from one to the other if run at the same time). I’m from Ireland so unfortunately Kickstarter is still unavailable to me, and when I look at great games on Indiegogo the amounts they raise are just a fraction of their equivalent on Kickstarter, which puts me off it. I may end up just pushing onwards with my own trickle of pre-orders instead.

As for a release date I think mid-2014 is achievable, but it’s very hard to predict at this stage. A lot will depend on how much I want to include in the game, which itself may be guided by interest levels and expectations. Sorry for the fuzzy non-answer there! My primary launch platforms are as a downloadable game for PC and Mac (and hopefully Linux), with a freely playable web demo (like the current alpha). If the game is vaguely successful, then I want to publish it for iOS & Android tablets too - I feel the game will work very nicely on tablets, from its turn-based nature to the repeatable short gameplay loop (dungeon runs).

EG: Makes sense. Can I press you on what goes into the ‘fun but rough’ alpha? Will we start to see the ‘guild’ parts of the game working their way in, or is that still down the road? Further out, any thoughts about multiplayer, either real-time or asynchronous? Competing guilds, that kind of thing?

Colm: Absolutely. So I’m trying to nail the basic gameplay loop first: the dungeon exploration side of the game. I’m putting off all work on the Guild side til later so I can focus on making this part of the game fun by itself. Then I believe when I add in the more strategic long-term stuff it will be a multiplier on an already fun game. That’s the theory at least! So on my immediate todo list I want to add a win condition to dungeon runs (initially this will be ‘find and defeat the boss monster X’), I want to add an incentive to progression (to prevent simply farming the low level monsters), then I want to improve the dungeoneer’s AI (it’s incredibly basic and often frustrating right now), and finally I want to add new types of card to expand on the gameplay slightly (for example adding events like secret doors to the SEEK deck or pit traps to the DREAD deck). I feel once I get those things in I may be at my fuzzily-defined ‘rough but fun’ marker.

As for multiplayer, nope, I have no plans for any multiplayer at this stage. As a one-man-band I know to keep my scope incredibly tight to be able to finish the game so that’s definitely out. There can always be expansions or sequels, however!

EG: Always good to have a next thing to look forward to. Anything you’d like to put in before we wrap up? The floor’s yours, say whatever you want.

Colm: I guess I’ll close with a few links for anyone who’s interested in following Guild of Dungeoneering’s progress: there’s this regularly updated development log, a Facebook page, and my Twitter account @gambrinous. Oh and of course anyone who wants to try the playable alpha or pre-order the game can do so right here. Thanks for the chat - this was fun!

Thanks very much to Colm Larkin for taking the time to so thoroughly answer my questions. If Guild of Dungeoneering sounds like your thing, follow the above links to learn more and consider showing your support!

(This piece also published at ErraticGamer.com)

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