Interview: Guild of Dungeoneering Creator Colm Larkin

By Mark Robinson 01 Apr 2017 6

After reviewing the Guild of Dungeoneering expansion Ice Cream Headaches, Mark say down with creator Colm Larkin to talk about the game, its origin, and the industry in Ireland in general.

Pocket Tactics: Congratulations on the new expansion and its release on iOS and Android! Did you have any idea that Guild of Dungeoneering would gain as much traction as it has?

Colm Larkin: Some. When I started development, no. I was trying and spending a lot of time on marketing and building an audience, but it has done better than I could have hoped for. As we got close to launch, we started doing a lot more public hype activities – we teamed up with a publisher and went to all the PAX events, Eurogamer etc, and that’s when I started to see people get really excited about it – both public and streamers.

One thing I think worked for the game was the name and the logo. When I was standing at PAX South, there was always a swarm of people playing, but I could stand back and watch people walking by, looking at the name and logo. They could presume it was a silly dungeon crawler without seeing any of the gameplay.

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Pocket Tactics: I think one of the striking things about the game is the visual style, which feels unique to the dungeon crawler / rogue-like genre. Was this an intentional design choice or due to artistic limits?

Colm Larkin: I teamed up with an artist, Fred Mangan, really early on, but my backup plan was, “What if we did this homemade looking style and I actually drew on graph paper and scanned in pictures?” I never did that, but I told him that and the idea, so he came up with the style that is in the game almost immediately. It came from me thinking I would do it myself, but it is so much better when a real artist delivers on that.

I always push to have games that have style over graphical quality, and it worked so well with the fake board game aesthetic. It also let us cheat – we have no animations in the game, but you don’t notice it. Which was great, because it made it possible to actually make the game. If we had to animate everything, we would have never finished it. Being efficient with development time makes me very happy!

Pocket Tactics: I imagine it must be interesting for an artist to be told scale back the level of their talents, though the game has intricate details throughout, with levels and characters that give the game its own identity. Did you ask Fred to come up with his own ideas or did you give him specific directions?

Colm Larkin: That is the difference between getting contract work and getting in a partner. Fred was creative director, so he was helping write it plus creating the art. He came up with monster designs based on our themes. When we came up with ‘Ice Cream Headaches,’ we came up with the story and the design first, and then potential ideas for monsters; Fred created the vast majority of them.

For example, in the base game there is a blindworm, which is a typical fantasy type creature, but in our game, the blindworm has a tiny little seeing-eye dog, which I love. The little details Fred puts in really sell our sense of humour.

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Pocket Tactics: What is your background in games design and where did the idea for GoD come from?

Colm Larkin: I was a software engineer for a tech company and I always wanted to make games, so I basically started making gamejam projects. I set up a monthly meetup group in Dublin, which is now in its fourth year. We meet up every month – the idea is you make something small and bring it along, so that first year I did that every month, and that got me making games again and finishing things. Towards the end of that year, I took one of those rough prototypes and decided to turn into a complete game, and that was what became Guild of Dungeoneering.

During its development, I would go to all the meet-ups to show the latest build. Sometimes you would get people who had never played it before, and that was really valuable, and sometimes you would have people who had played it lots and gave you feedback all along the way of its build.

Pocket Tactics: When you were making the game, were you thinking about extra content or expansions that might be included in the future?

Colm Larkin: I play a lot of board games, and one model around expansions I like is the game Descent – it’s a game where you have dice and miniatures, and it’s essentially Hero Quest. They like making money so they have loads of expansion, but I like the way that they do them because they have various styles, like big box expansions, and smaller expansions with six cards and one miniature that expand your game with just one hero.

Because our game is so like that, I had been thinking we could do the same with small packs of adventures and with alternative heroes. We didn’t do that in the end and decided to go with the bigger expansions, but it’s where the idea of an ‘adventure pack’ name came from, because of the aim for more variety instead of just simply more content.

Pocket Tactics: On top of the expansion, the way that you have priced them on mobile is interesting – what was your reasoning behind the payment method you went with?

Colm Larking: It was a business strategy. It’s very hard to sell games on mobile, as there are a lot of games that are free, and that’s what you are competing with. The game is 15 + 5 + 5 on PC, and in a fair world we would sell it for that (or near enough) on mobile, but that wouldn’t work. So we went with the established wisdom of selling the game for 5 euro on mobile, and to try and stand out, all expansions would be included. What I like about that is that it rewards early uptake, but bumps up the price for players who have not yet purchased the game prior to that.

Trying to find the balancing act of a free-to-play game is very difficult, and all that time you are trying to find that balancing act, you’re not focusing on making the game better. For example, we made GoD very hard at points because there is no failure for losing, you can keep retrying. Now if we were a F2P game and we let you spend money to retry we would get hammered, and rightly so for difficulty. At least by making it an upfront payment, you can trust us on the game design. Now I’m not saying we are absolutely right, but at least there is no angle there that we make more money by tweaking the difficulty. It’s not easy to make a F2P game work, but hats off to those that have done it. I have a hard enough time making this game be fun and the right challenge, so I’m not sure I’m ready to try an F2P game!

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Pocket Tactics: One of the things I find interesting about the mechanics is that you’ve taken movement away from the player and instead have them create the world for the character to move around.

Colm Larkin: Very early on in the prototype all you could do was put down the tiles; there was no hero, so it was just about creating the rooms. When I decided to make it into a proper game I was thinking, “What if the hero is AI controlled?” and I kind of liked the idea, and when I was sharing it, other people thought so as well. However, it caused so much difficulty in trying to make the game fun: as soon as you take away that choice, what do you replace it with? I don’t think we solved that in the released game, for example: you take full control in combat, but in the initial prototype combat was automated too, and it wasn’t fun. So a lot of work went into trying to make that element fun after deciding that is what we wanted to do.

Pocket Tactics: Are you planning on more adventure packs?

Colm Larkin: We’re not sure right now. It depends on the demand and whether it makes sense to build more. Expansions are funny. When we release them, for the first few days we don’t sell loads to our existing customers, but over the following six months we see them slowly selling to our existing customers. So it’s not like game launch where there is a big spike on day one, or at least we don’t have the fan base yet where releasing an expansion sees you on Steam’s top sellers list. It’s kind of a slow burn, which makes it a little harder to justify. We are now looking into what our next game should be.

We’re looking at a few things like a console release of GoD, but our game was built in flash, which is great for PC, Mac, iOS and Android, but to go further than that would require us to completely rewrite the game. That happening could lead to more content and expansions if the demand is there. We have been working on a thing called ‘Trophy Trial,’ which is an endless challenge mode for the game, with a leaderboard-based challenge to see how long you can last with a particular hero in a series of dungeons that keep getting harder. We’re probably going to try it out on Steam first and see if people like it.

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Pocket Tactics: What difficulties were involved in porting GoD to mobile?

Colm Larkin: We did it ourselves, but we hired in a contractor to help full time with it. Design wise the game is very touch friendly, which was on purpose, as I always intended for the game to be on mobile – iPads specifically, because I had an iPad back when I started development. We didn’t want to release first on iOS because it’s not a great way to get taken seriously.

Pocket Tactics: Of course, the app store is difficult to get any kind of traction for.

Colm Larkin: And I think it worked for us, because we proved ourselves on PC first, but apart from that, it was important to show gamers, press and Apple themselves that this is a game that was not just made for the app store. As for the process itself: there is no right clicking, the interface is very simple and it’s turn-based. We decided to do port to phones as well as tablets, which meant re-imagining the interface in quite a few places – that was a good bit of work, and we didn’t do that for all places in the game we should have. On a good amount of phones, you will find the font is very small in many places, but we redesigned the most important screens, like the battle screen and the loot screen.

The final bit of work was performance. We completely re-engineered how it ran to make it work well on phones, and particularly older phones and tablets. The way we built it was all in one code base, which meant that it had a nice side effect of upping the frame rate from 30 FPS to 60 FPS on PC.

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Pocket Tactics: What do you see for the future of the games industry in Ireland? Do you think there is enough money in the industry for developers to make it a viable option?

Colm Larkin: Besides running my game studio, I am a part of IMIRT (Irish Game Makers Association), which founded a couple of years ago. To me, the games industry in Ireland is unrecognizable from ten years ago, when I was first getting interested in games. I was looking around and it seemed as if there was no community, but it has really blossomed, and there are so many people making interesting games – many who are earning a living making games. For students who graduate now, there are companies where you can go find a job, whereas before your only option was to leave Ireland if you wanted to work in games.

Now what we don’t have is the framework for government support for people starting out making games, as compared to the UK, Italy and the rest of Europe, so I would like to see that change. There is some support, but it’s EU based. Pretty much all the games being made in Ireland right now are bootstrapped, or developers going to international festivals to get funding from investors and publishers. There is no real support within Ireland. But that’s OK, because what we see right now is the community helping itself and getting games made somehow.

Many thanks to Colm for taking the time to talk to us. You can read our review of Guild of Dungeoneering here. Any extra comments or questions? Let us know!

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