Enter the Gungeon Interview With Dodge Roll’s Dave Crooks: The Past, Present and Future

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Enter the Gungeon
is out, and yes, it’s great. The recently released game marries roguelikes and bullet hell mechanics with a charming pixel art aesthetic that’s captured dozens of hours of my time. The game sold more than 200,000 copies in its first three days of release and is by all accounts a bonafide success, allowing the developers to create more content for the game and develop future titles. Dodge Roll Games revealed that the game turned a profit just 8 hours after going live.

So I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to interview one of its creators, Dave Crooks, founder and producer at Dodge Roll. We talked about the game at length, how the studio founded and what their plans are for its future. We also talked about the so-called “indiepocalypse,” and how it doesn’t actually exist.

Please introduce yourself to our fine readers and tell us a bit about what you do at Dodge Roll Games.

I’m Dave Crooks and I’m the designer/producer person at Dodge Roll. That means that the major design decisions and mechanics–if not come from me–are corralled and finalized by me. I also handle most of the stuff outside of the game development, like talking dealing with outsourcing or promoting the game at shows like PAX.

Every project requires team work to be accomplished, and by the first impressions of the game, you appear to have found a lot of talent in your studio. Would you mind telling us about the members of your team?

David Rubel is our gameplay programmer. He’s responsible for the controls, all of the enemy and boss behaviors, and their bullet patterns. David wrote Gungeon’s physics system and is the reason the collision is pixel perfect. David worked briefly at Google, and Lockheed Martin before I convinced him to come make games at Mythic, and then again at Dodge Roll.

Our other programmer, Brent Sodman, is our resident technical artist, and is responsible for our lighting and and some of the other fancy graphical tricks in the game. He’s also responsible for the procedural generation in Gungeon, both the dungeon generator and decorating rooms. Before Brent worked at Mythic he worked on effects for Hollywood films.

Joe Harty is our artist and in addition to hand drawing all 200,000+ sprites in the game, is responsible for much of the game’s charm and character. He designed the Bulletkin that kicked off the entire art direction of the game. Before Gungeon, Joe was a freelance illustrator. And actually Joe and myself have been friends since high-school.

Erica Hampson, who is also ex-Mythic, did all of the sound effects in the game. Adam “doseone” Drucker did all of our music. He is also known in the indie game world for the Samurai Gunn & Gang Beasts soundtracks.

311690_screenshots_aaa.mp4-joined.mp4_snapshot_00.06.42_[2016.04.14_21.18.57]You’ve mentioned that most of Dodge Roll Games comes from Mythic. Would you mind going over some of the games your team has created and how their experience played into the development of Enter the Gungeon?

At Mythic we had some experience with Unity which helped in the creation of Gungeon, otherwise the types of games we created there are pretty fundamentally different.

Enter the Gungeon is a new take on the dungeon crawler genre, but it feels reminiscent of popular titles like Binding of Isaac. What other titles did your studio draw inspiration from?

Isaac was a huge inspiration, but so was Spelunky, Metal Gear Solid, Dark Souls and Wasteland Kings (NT).

Every great game needs to have two things: An intriguing story and good game mechanics. You’ve mentioned that Enter the Gungeon’s story is based on Dan Simmons’ Hyperion. As the game is clearly more than just a dungeon crawler, how does the “Gun that can kill the past” play into the characters’ backgrounds? What kind of details can we expect to learn about the four playable characters?

Enter the Gungeon is first and foremost and action shooter- I would not describe the game as especially story driven. That said, the inspiration we took from Hyperion was this idea that people would go to a place and risk everything to “fix” their life, or something terrible that had happened. This sounds a bit heavier than it actually is in Gungeon–but as we explored this idea, it became clear that there was an obvious way that this simple story could help to reinforce the gameplay, and particularly the replayability, of a rogue-like.

When a player shoots the “Gun that can kill the past” at themselves, they are taken to a scenario that took place somewhere in their lives and gives them a chance to change something (in a blaze of glory). In gameplay terms, this means that each character has their own final boss. Hopefully it will make replaying, and beating, the game multiple times with each character especially rewarding.

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Your team has finished the main body of work for Enter the Gungeon, but I understand that you are committed to improving the game constantly to make the experience better. What type of add-ons can we expect to see?

Immediately following the release of Gungeon we will be fully committed to improving the quality of life of our players. This means bug fixes and making sure that the game runs well on as many platforms as possible. Beyond that, we want to get in all of the stuff that we had to cut late in development- this includes some amount from pretty much every aspect of the game: new guns, items, enemies, bosses, areas and characters.

Throughout my time with Enter the Gungeon I find myself constantly using the dodge function. How vital do you believe this mechanic is to the player’s survival? And are there other mechanics we can expect to see added to the game?

I do not think it is possible to beat the game without dodge rolling (though please internet, prove me wrong!). Many of the bullet patterns were designed specifically to make the player roll. So I would say pretty vital. There are other means of getting rid of enemy bullets, but the dodge roll is the Gungeoneer’s bread and butter.

Many dungeon crawlers tend to be single-player adventures. What made Dodge Roll Games create a co-op “bullet-hell” dungeon experience? Do you have any plans to add online co-op?

Gungeon, among the team, is primarily thought of as a single player game. We added co-op because honestly we love co-op games. At first we were a bit afraid of the complexity that having co-op would add to the game, and after months of bug fixing that fear has proved prudent. Co-op, without question, is the single feature that introduced the most bugs into Enter the Gungeon. That said, we are very happy that we muscled through, because playing in co-op turned out to be extremely fun. There are no plans to add online co-op at this time.

With the time your team has spent developing this game, what would you say was the greatest appeal that Enter the Gungeon has for drawing in new gamers?

Probably our bulletman character.

What would you say was the greatest challenge for you and your team with developing Enter the Gungeon?

Honestly developing for a console along-side PC turned out to be much harder that we expected. Getting through PS4 cert was a huge time sink. Releasing on PlayStation is nothing short of a dream come true for the team but making sure the game performed well on the console seriously ate into our development time.

311690_screenshots_aaa.mp4-joined.mp4_snapshot_03.15.51_[2016.04.14_21.25.16]The “Indiepocalypse” has become something of a hot topic. (For our readers, the “Indiepocalypse” refers to the extinction, or at least diminishing popularity of indie games) What’s your take on the successes and failures of games within the scene? Are some developers just not making games most gamers want to play?  

I actually don’t think that indie games are diminishing in appeal–but I do think that a few different things are happening at once which appears to have some of the same symptoms. There was a time when just getting your game onto Steam was basically guaranteed success. That is just not the case anymore. Every week there are a dozen new indie games available on Steam- and there is roughly the same number of customers with roughly the same amount of disposable income. Simply: competition is increasing. You will absolutely still see indie hits, and I would guess that you’ll see about as many as you did just a few years ago. The difference is that you are also going to see a larger number of games doing not quite well enough to sustain full time livable wages for their teams.

In short I don’t think the “indiepocalypse” exists. More indie developers just means that there are more prominent examples to show that making games is indeed a very risky business.

What do you think of the Let’s Play scene? How big of an impact do you think streamers and LPs on YouTube have towards the success (or failure) of new, especially indie games?

Personally I think that the Let’s Play scene is the single most important avenue for getting a game discovered. Gungeon has done very well since release and I think that without Twitch and LP teams, it would have sold a fraction of the amount it has. I can’t thank our promoters enough for playing our game on their channels- make no mistake we are very grateful. Honestly considering the data we have pulled from the launch of Gungeon, I would say that LP and Twitch basically obviate the need for traditional coverage and reviews. It very much depends on the game you are making but in general, if you are making a game, and are not courting the YT, Twitch, and LP scene… you are doing it wrong.

Do you have any words of wisdom for any people out there that wish to become game developers in the future?

If you want to make games, and don’t know where to start- you should be following Handmade Hero. Casey Muratori is one of the smartest people on the planet and he is creating a game line by line and explaining it as he goes. If you follow his series to the end you will have *better* than a computer science degree. There has never been a more complete knowledge dump on how to go from 0 to game programmer.

Other than that, drink scotch.

Thank you for giving us time to interview you and learning more about your studio’s project. What closing thoughts would you wish to leave our readers with?

You will get better.