You may not have heard of Cellar Door Games before, but it's a team that embodies the heart and soul of independently-developed games: creativity, chaos and some great ideas. With the developer's next game Rogue Legacy set for release soon, I decided to talk to founder Teddy Lee about the new game, the company's development philosophy and the struggles of indie developers in the modern market.
Cellar Door Games is a tiny little company comprised of just Teddy and his brother Kenny. For the last couple of years, the duo has been making a variety of games for a number of different platforms, including Flash, iOS and even XBLA. The team's most notorious title is a "survival horror" text adventure called Don't Shit Your Pants, which you can play over on Kongregate, but Teddy is also particularly pleased with "reverse tower defense" game Villainous, which you can try for yourself here.
"We don't follow any hard philosophy," explains Lee, "but I suppose we do follow the unspoken rule to 'always do something different.' So we like to play with pre-existing genres, and then give it twists to drive it forward. When we make games, we're also very mechanically driven as opposed to story-driven (like To the Moon) or art-driven (like Limbo)."
The developer's upcoming title, Rogue Legacy, is a fine example of this philosophy. While incorporating many of the well-established features of the roguelike genre, it puts a welcome new spin on many of them to create an experience that Lee hopes will be distinctive to anyone who plays it.
"Rogue Legacy is a rogue-lite Castlevania-inspired game where the castle is different every time," Lee says. "When you die, your children take over, and each child has their own genetic traits and preferences. So one kid could be a near-sighted mage, and another could be a gigantic shinobi who farts a lot. As each child enters the castle and dies, they will return whatever gold they've accumulated for the family manor. Upgrading the manor makes each child that much stronger, but you can't hoard your money because this dude named Charon is a dick and takes the remaining amount before you can enter the castle again."
Rogue Legacy is designed around a tight, fast-paced gameplay loop. You enter the castle, you explore, you die -- usually rather quickly -- then you return and upgrade your character by investing your gold into your manor, which is actually a well-disguised skill tree. By unlocking new wings and building the manor, you gradually gain access to new gameplay elements and also upgrade existing character classes with new capabilities. By the time you reach the end of the game -- which looks like it'll take quite some time -- your characters will be considerably more powerful, and the game will have considerably more complexity than when it began.
I asked Lee where the geneological aspect came from, as a number of franchises such as Fire Emblem, Record of Agarest War and Phantasy Star have experimented with this concept over the years. Was he particularly influenced by any of these games?
"The geneological aspect of our game was actually something we came up with at the start of development," says Lee. "Originally the trait system was designed to resolve a game design issue: how do you make a roguelike game different right from the get-go? We wanted to cut all the downtime from this game, and we wanted it to be hard. We had the death-skill tree-Charon system, and we knew that we were aiming for an average life to be around 1-4 minutes. So it came down to 'how can we upfront everything as much as possible?'"
Lee notes that the traits system underwent a number of revisions before taking on the form we see today. Originally, it simply applied general modifiers to the character, such as increases or reductions to statistics such as mana or strength. What he found, though, was that there was a lot of redundancy: stats were being modified from too many sources, such as equipment, the skill tree, traits and your class. Clearly, a different approach was needed.
"We initially considered scrapping traits entirely," admits Lee. "But then we came up with the 'near-sighted' trait, which sort of set a standard for how they'd be implemented."
The traits currently available in the near-final version of the game run the gamut from those which have a direct impact on gameplay -- gigantism and dwarfism increase and decrease the size of your character significantly, for example -- to those which are just played for laughs. A character with Tourettes, for example, pops up speech bubbles with censored obscenities whenever they get hit, while a hypochondriac character constantly exaggerates by making the damage popups whenever they get hit considerably higher than they actually are. Others affect the game's visual style; a nearsighted character sees the edges of the screen blurred, while a stereoblind hero is presented as a Paper Mario-style flat character.
"The traits play into the character's class," explains Lee. "Each character has their own preference. So your son, Sir Taco, might have grown up as a mage, which makes him really vulnerable, while your other child, Lady Shanoa, may have decided to become a shinobi. In this case, if Sir Taco had gigantism, it might be detrimental to him since mages rely on long-range attacks. Lady Shanoa the shinobi, meanwhile, may find gigantism really beneficial since ninjas deal massive melee damage and are really quick. So she can easily hit enemies, and the speed helps her dodge projectiles which her height would have obstructed."
The traits are randomized with each new generation, but there are checks and balances in place to make sure they don't clash, and that some are rarer than others. There's no way of manipulating your bloodline's genetics, however; you can't simply strip away the possibility of subsequent generations having to deal with traits that have a negative impact on gameplay by constantly avoiding them.
"While that would be more realistic," says Lee, "we don't want to subvert gameplay in place of it." Cellar Door's mechanics-focused development ethos at work, clearly.
Rogue Legacy finished a successful Steam Greenlight campaign at the end of May, meaning that the finished game will be available on Steam and thus be able to take advantage of the numerous benefits that platform offers, including achievements, viral promotion through the friends list and, of course, simply being exposed to one of the biggest audiences in PC gaming.
Greenlight has been under some scrutiny recently, however, with some indie developers having difficulties with Valve, particularly when they want to abandon a Greenlight campaign in favor of going with a publisher. Did Cellar Door Games encounter any of these problems?
"Greenlight was... tough," says Lee. "We were sort of hoping that with Greenlight, all we would have to do is release a trailer, post some snapshots, and then sort of wait while Greenlight did its thing. We were super-naïve, as that was totally not the case. We more or less spent a whole month after getting our game onto Greenlight, pushing out more and more marketing stuff -- just anything to get people's attention in order to get Greenlight votes."
Lee notes that the YouTube community was particularly helpful in getting the game noticed, and pays particular tribute to the user NorthernLion, whose "Let's Look at Rogue Legacy" video played a very helpful part in the team's campaign.
"It was definitely a very difficult period, as we had to put an exorbitant amount of time into advertisement as opposed to finishing the game off," recalls Lee. "And there were a lot of ups and downs. It was exciting when the game hit new audiences -- like Germany, for instance -- and then it turned depressing when that interest tailed off shortly afterward. People lose interest in a product very quickly if it's not constantly being marketed. Even now, a month after being Greenlit, with the release date announced we made a sort of joke teaser trailer to keep active with the community."
Would it have been easier to go with a publisher and skip Greenlight, then? Lee isn't so sure.
"We definitely like being independent," he says. "One thing we do which probably doesn't sit well with publishers is that we have no design documents or marketing schedule or anything. Really, we don't have any planning at all. That works for Steam since it's so flexible, but probably not for something like consoles which have a much more rigid set of rules. We're also very loose in our development. We have absolutely zero design documents for Rogue Legacy -- and virtually all our prior games, for that matter. We just wing it, and most publishers really want things pre-planned and executed on a 1-4 year plan."
Given the era of PR-controlled, spoon-fed information the current games industry is enjoying -- and I use the term loosely -- it's refreshing to hear such candor from an independent developer. While Cellar Door Games' chaotic way of working undoubtedly causes them some challenges, it also allows them a degree of flexibility in the way they work -- something which developers attached to established publishers can't always take advantage of.
"Even our release date, we just came up with on the fly," jokes Lee. "We were like, 'we need to release this, soon. Uh-oh, July is coming up.' And we really wanted people to be able to play it over the holidays in North America -- Canada Day and Independence Day, for example -- so we said 'okay, the game's done. From here on out it's just ironing out bugs, so June 27 it is.' Literally, when we came up with the release date we told the community about 3 hours later."
Rogue Legacy is initially launching for Windows PCs only, but Lee says that Mac and Linux versions of the game will follow along shortly afterwards, along with localized versions. Following that, it's a case of additional bug fixes and tweaks based on community feedback, then on to new projects.
"We like taking challenges," says Lee, speaking of the future. "Being independent gives us the creative freedom to tackle new projects as opposed to taking the safe road."
Watch out for Rogue Legacy on Steam on June 27. You can try out a demo and pre-order the game for $10 at the official site.