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Critical Paradox: Critical Explain Dungeonland

Gauntlet, or Golden Axe, or Cadillacs and Dinosaurs

With Dungeonland having recently appeared in the gold-filled crypts of the internet, to a mixed critical reception, we thought we should catch up with developers Critical Studio, and see how they'd been getting on. This is their first game, so what had they learned? My questions were answered jointly by Mark Venturelli and Gabriel Texeira.

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RPS: Hello! Can you tell us a bit about Critical Studio – who are you and why are you making games?

Critical: Hi there! We are a bunch of guys and girls from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and I guess we are making games because we are very, VERY stubborn. I mean, from a mile away it looks like your standard dev story: geeks who grew up playing games and dreamed about making them at some point of their lives. The main difference is that, here in Brazil, game development is not something people do- it’s a continental-sized country, but you could probably count the number of people that make a living out of game development here before reaching four figures.

So we were all involved in other stuff like freelance illustration, movie production or animation (the “real jobs”), and we gathered at my house during weekends to make games. Needless to say, they all sucked – but we were learning! At some point we got enough experience and joy out of making games that we decided to try our luck and make something “serious” together.

There was no third-party funding or government support involved at this stage – a lot of us grabbed any cash we had stored. Gabriel (our 3D artist) sold his car; stuff like that. We hadn’t even completed a half-decent game of any size before, but we just somehow believed that we could make something cool together and we went all-in.

RPS: How did Dungeonland come about? What was the idea behind the game?

Critical: Dungeonland is a funny thing, because it was just so organic. I mean, we didn’t have anything like a long-term goal or a roadmap. The game started out as a one-month prototype to learn Unity and to see what we could actually do in a month working full-time.

In this first prototype we wanted a game that we could all play together on the same screen. We wanted something that reminded us of old games we loved like Gauntlet, or Golden Axe, or Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, something that gave us that experience of being shoulder-to-shoulder with your friends, shouting at each other and trying to get through some pretty challenging gameplay.

The game just evolved organically from that. The one-month prototype became a 5-month vertical slice, then we signed with Paradox and started working on DM Mode, and it all kept snowballing from there. The cartoony visuals, the gore, the humour, the Disney references – everything followed a very simple guideline of “let’s have fun with this”, so in a way Dungeonland was like this big cauldron were we poured everything we liked and mixed it all together. The cool part was that this “challenging couch-co-op” thing stayed intact throughout the whole production.

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RPS: How did you end up working with Paradox? Were they integral to the game's development from the outset?

Critical: After we had completed our vertical slice of the game, we had the kick-ass support of a local government program called Softex, which helps software export startups. These guys took us to GDC – something our meager savings could not have achieved otherwise – and we had a ton of meetings there, trying to get some publisher interested in our project.

We did have some publishers interested, and we were even negotiating contract terms and all that, but we just weren’t confident enough to make a decision. I mean, we really wanted to be indie, but we had to face reality – we not only lacked the resources to complete the project, but we were also completely isolated from the worldwide industry and it would be super hard for us to get our game noticed and learn all the production, marketing and PR parts on top of learning how to make a game.

Around that time we saw that a game called “Magicka” came out, published by Paradox Interactive. We were familiar with Paradox, but we didn’t even bother to talk to them before that – we believed they would only publish strategy games. But we saw Magicka and said “hey, that’s our kind of our game right there!” so we sent our build of Dungeonland to Paradox.

It was kind of crazy for us, because we talked only through email, and we were already pretty advanced in negotiating with other publishers. Plus, our money had pretty much run out, so every month it was a struggle to see who could pay the rent or the light bills. Still, negotiations with Paradox went SUPER fast, and we quickly became convinced that they were the best bet for us and for our game.

RPS: What were the biggest challenges in putting a game like this together?

Critical: Holy cow. I really can’t pick! I mean, it’s just super challenging to make a game as big as Dungeonland no matter how experienced you are. But we are talking about a team that barely had any real contact with game development before, so everything was new to us. And I mean everything, from setting up the company (Brazilian bureaucracy doesn’t exactly take kindly to weird game development startups), to team management, scheduling, tool development, and figuring out networking code…

It was like we were planning and building an airplane mid-flight, and it sure felt like that many times. We had to completely scrap the game twice. So what we are selling today might as well be called “Dungeonland 3”, because the vast majority of code, music, models, textures and animations that were in the previous versions were mercilessly thrown into the trash bin.

It was brutal, but necessary – we made some pretty fundamental mistakes with the previous iterations, and we also learned so much. In a way, Dungeonland was our crash-course on how to make Dungeonland! If we had the chance we would remake it all over again, but right now we are at a point where we are proud of the game and of what we accomplished together.

RPS: What aspect of Dungeonland do you think works best? And why do you think gamers should pay attention to it, when there is so much else out there demanding their attention?

There are mainly two things that make us super proud of Dungeonland and that we believe are more than worth the price of admission.

The first thing has been with us since day one: it’s just an amazing local co-op experience! This was our first goal, and we built everything in the game to support it. None of our decisions were random: from the structure of the game and the limited way you can customize each individual character, to the way the challenge is presented and the tension spikes, everything in Dungeonland is there to support it. We wanted it to be the ultimate geek party game, and we believe we succeeded.

Every time we had some playtesters come by our studio to play the game, some of them would be put off by the lack of story, or would compare it to games like Torchlight or Diablo, they would frown at the difficulty curve (or lack thereof), they would complain about having “only” 3 skills to use, etc. But when we got them in groups of 3 friends together with the game in the same room, the magic happened. It happened every time. Seeing it over and over again made us super confident about the game. It made us confident that we were building something worth building.

The second thing was kind of an experiment. It’s called Dungeon Maestro Mode, and it’s sort of like the PvP aspect of Dungeonland, even though we don’t really like to call it that. In DM Mode, you still have the 3 heroes working together against near-impossible odds, but you also have a fourth player who gets to be the Evil Lord himself and kind of plays reverse tower-defence with the heroes, placing monsters and traps, casting spells, possessing minions, pressing the Evil Laugh Button and pretty much being a big jerk.

It still caters to the “geek party game” kind of vibe, so we focused more on silly fun than in making it competitive. The optimal way of playing as the DM is to try and offer your players a good time – much like a tabletop DM would – instead of doing every dirty trick possible and wiping them out in the first room. If you want to discuss builds and min-max your gameplay this is not the game for you.

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RPS: How do you feel about the mixed reactions you've had to the game? Are the criticisms valid?

Critical: Of course they are valid. I mean, this is our first game ever – it’s not like we are smarter than everyone out there. Also, when we were building Dungeonland, we were fully aware of how quirky and weird a lot of our decisions were. We stand by them, absolutely, but we were always prepared for mixed reactions. We knew that some people would love it, and some people would hate it, and we were ok with that. But there are two things that frequently pop up, and we talk a lot about those internally.

The first one is perception of value. Perhaps we failed to properly communicate how focused the game design was: it’s an experience tailored for a group of 3 to 4 friends playing together (preferably locally). Anything other than that is going to be sub-standard, right? But we got a lot of negatives from the press about not being a good single-player experience, even though it was never our intention.

There’s also a lot of people comparing the game to Diablo and Torchlight. We were prepared for that. I mean, if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it should drop purple enchanted shoulder pads like a duck, right?

This is frankly getting a little out of hand lately—every game doing everything and getting compared feature-by-feature to similar games. This is quite dangerous because it not only suppresses innovation, it also forces developers to spread out resources too much trying to please everybody. I mean, look at Far Cry 3. It’s a good game, but it has just too much stuff. There’s an open-world single player campaign, there’s a co-op campaign, there’s competitive multiplayer, there’s crafting, there’s collecting, there’s… oh god. You can almost feel the maniacal pace of production: “Does everyone love us already? Ok, release the crafting mechanics! Activate the Killstreaks! LOVE US GODDAMNIT”!

I guess that if your game looks super indie or experimental you can get away with being focused. But if you try to build a small product for mainstream audiences like we did, you are going to be thrown in with the big boys. We stand by our decisions, though, and if anything we just need to learn how to communicate better and make sure we don’t disappoint our players.

The second thing is that game reviews, Metacritic and all that, as a measure of the perceived quality of the game, are broken. At best they can be an evaluation of how the game looks on day one – I guess that’s fair. But these are not the consoles any more. We could flip out our crazy switches and completely change Dungeonland overnight, right? This is the power of digital distribution, it’s the power of Steam right here. Since release we already patched the game four times, so a few reviews are already old. We got some reviewers complaining about the game feeling “grindy”, which was surprising for us as it was never our intention – so our next patch should address that. But the reviews will still be there. The product will have moved forward, but if it goes on sale on Steam and someone reads the reviews, he will be time-travelling to the past, right?

It’s like when MMOs were all the rage, and people were discussing how to review them. The thing is that most multiplayer games right now have similar characteristics to MMOs, right?

The main takeaway from that is “how much should we focus on getting it right on release day”? I mean, there are a lot of risky things that we would not have tried if we were trying to please reviewers. We still don’t think it’s worth it. We are going to keep improving the game, and the reviews are just another form of feedback to take into account for future changes.

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RPS: Do you feel you could have done with more time?

Critical: Of course we do! But the thing is, we do have more time. Release is just the first step, right? We are already improving on the game, and doing new things and responding to feedback.

In hindsight, the game could have used an Open Beta or something like that, because there were technical issues that only showed up when tens of thousands of players connected. Design stuff is a matter of taste, but everyone who buys the game should be able to play it with minimum trouble day one. Lesson learned, we won’t make this mistake next time.

RPS: Are there plans to keep working on Dungeonland, or are you on to the next game now? (If you are still working on it, can you say what you plan to change or improve?)

Critical: We will keep supporting Dungeonland, of course! How much time we’ll dedicate to it will depend on how much support it gets. If the game is selling well and is healthy, we would love to keep doing it for a long time. We had a solid launch, so things are looking good.

In the short term we are releasing Infinite Dungeon, which is already teased in-game. Coming up is more content – DM spells, new Dungeons, new cosmetic options and all that.

We are also listening to feedback. We read everything people say on the forums, on Steam, on Twitter, on Facebook, reviews… if we think we can make the game better for people without sacrificing our original vision for it, you bet we’ll do it!

RPS: Thanks for your time.

Dungeonland is out now.

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