This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Michael Brough's deck-building roguelike Imbroglio asks players to navigate through an ever-changing labyrinth filled to the brim with monsters and treasure in equal measure. On the surface it might sound like your average dungeon crawler, but in reality it's anything but.
That's because Brough has managed to distil all the elements of an epic RPG and slot them into a two-dimensional 4x4 grid-based play space. It makes for a gameplay experience that's uniquely pure: one that only serves up the essentials to ensure every single player action holds a profound sense of purpose.
It's an intriguing approach that earned the indie developer an Independent Games Festival nomination for Excellence in Design. So, with the 19th annual awards ceremony right around the corner, Gamasutra decided to catch up with Brough to find out more about his distinctive take on design.
What's your background in making games?
I've been making games full-time for six years, and on the side for, I don't know, like sixteen years before that. My best-known game is 868-HACK, which was an IGF finalist three years ago. Other IGF finalists I made are VESPER.5, Corrypt, and (with Andi McClure) BECOME A GREAT ARTIST IN JUST 10 SECONDS. I've also made a bunch of multiplayer games: Glitch Tank, O, Kompendium. And just like a whole bunch of stuff.
How did you come up with the concept?
It started with trying to make an RPG inventory grid more interesting by having the positioning of items more constrained and consequential, then I ended up merging the inventory grid with the map grid.
If you want FAR TOO MUCH DETAIL I've written a series of blog posts about the design process, starting here.
What development tools were used to build your game?
I wrote it in Monkey-X to try it out after Raph Koster wrote a recommendation for it on his blog; it was fine but I'll probably go back to C for more bit-hacking. I used a Wacom tablet to draw stuff and made the sound effects on a guitar.
How much time have you spent working on the game?
It's been a long and round-about one. I had the initial idea back in 2011 and worked it out a bit on paper but decided to make something else then instead.
In 2013 I developed the idea a bit more and spent a couple of months prototyping a version of it, but it wasn't quite coming together yet. I came back to it again in 2014 and re-thought it, started a fresh version which, after two years of development, I released. Then in the seven months since then it's still been my main project -- with fixes, ports, expansion. So call it three years spread across six years.
From Corrypt to 868-HACK to Imbroglio, you’ve worked with smaller and smaller grids. Can you talk a little bit about how these self-imposed constraints can be freeing for you as a designer?
Some of these designs have involved layering up increasing amounts of information on each tile (Corrypt's magic, 868-HACK's resources on tiles, then Imbroglio's weapons), and then it's simply natural to reduce the number of tiles so as not to have way too much information to deal with at once.
But I've also found that I prefer how things end up playing out on these smaller grids; put the same number of elements into a smaller space and they'll bump into each other and interact more often.
You released an expansion to the game a few months ago. Can you tell me what it adds to the game, and what the experience of designing and refining it was like?
As I kept having more ideas and trying them out I ended up with hundreds of different cards to test, and at some point I had to cut it down to a more manageable number -- I settled on 32 = 4x4+4x4 weapons and 8=4+4 heroes for the original release and gave them some more rigorous testing with just that set. For the expansion, I first went back to the larger pool and picked out another set to test, but of course as I worked on them they changed a lot.
It adds two new heroes, which means two new scoreboards / two new challenges to play around, and sixteen new weapons, which means many more possible board combinations. It also has a new mode "Izu", modeled on the popular "daily challenge" several games have been doing, which gives a different set of eight weapons to play with every four days.
Mostly it's stuff that's a bit more complex and might have been too much for people at the start because the core game is already quite complex, and it gives variations so you can keep playing a similar game.
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?
I haven't been keeping up with many new games lately. I really liked Hyper Light Drifter's feel, so much cyan on magenta. Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor is great, I haven't spent a lot of time with it but it's strong. And Ladykiller's really interesting for thinking about the ways in which consent can be coerced by systemic constraints.
What do you think are the biggest hurdles (and opportunities) for indie devs today?