2D bullet hell game Vampire Survivors is surely one of the most interesting success stories of the year, as what was a simple mobile game became popular almost overnight. Its very minimalistic roguelike style captured players looking for something casual, but still engrossing. You pick one of several characters and move them around the screen as they auto-attack. As enemies are disposed of the player levels up, along with changing weapons and gaining power-ups, with the ultimate goal being to keep the ever growing mob of enemies under control. On death you unlock new weapons and characters by spending coins gained in battle.
While the game currently sits on Steam with an “overwhelmingly popular” based on almost 70k reviews, success is definitely not what solo developer Luca Galante was expecting when he first started working on it.
The programmer was born near Rome and, after growing up with classic online experiences like Ultima Online, had always wanted to design video games. He mentions being fascinated with one particular feature of the Ultima series: objects’ persistence in the world. Even after walking away, the player could always go back and collect them. Origin Software’s game is how Galante first discovered his passion for designing content for an RPG, but he also mentions how he spent many years creating characters, weapons and armors as a dungeon master during D&D sessions.
“I remember one recruiter even went as far as laughing in my face during an interview.”
Designing a game starring vampire hunters was his idea to pass time during the pandemic, along with having something to play during the weekend. Galante says he wasn't really planning on working on something that could be a hit with other players, it was just an attempt to hone his design skills. He wanted the game to feel fun for himself, but nothing that would be too time consuming - something that could be played for a quick session while working out on an exercise bike at home. “I thought of designing the attack as being automatic, so that the player could concentrate on doing something else,” he explains. But, since the start, Galante was also adamant about adding new items and characters to Vampire Survivors, so that he could keep a potential small community coming back to play it.
In order to find an ideal flavor of gameplay, Galante analysed some of his favorite games to see what made them entertaining. He mentions both Dynasty Warriors and Bayonetta to me, especially for the way they communicate feedback to the player. But that wasn't all, as anyone who has played Vampire Survivors even once can surely attest to the game’s addictiveness. In designing that special kind of “just one more go” loop, Galante’s experience with the gambling industry played a part. “Playing with a slot machine is about pressing a button and waiting to see if I’ve won something. Thus, slots have to function on this very delicate balance between reward and difficulty, otherwise you risk either turning away the player or just making it too easy," he explains. "I was looking for a similar balance for Vampire Survivors.”
As for the balance between automatic actions and player input, Galante mentions one title which he felt was a huge inspiration. “I’ve read many reviews of the game," he says. "But still no one seemed to mention one title in particular which was, to me, a clear inspiration for the gameplay: Pac-man.”
Much like the classic Namco arcade title, at the beginning of the run of Survivors, the player has to stay clear of enemies, and survive while holding them off. Then, after collecting a power-up, it's time to go all out and dispose of as many enemies as possible. When the power up's effect ends, the player goes back to moving around and mostly staying clear of baddies. Galante mentions how his intention was to design a game that can also be used as a palate cleanser, “I’ve seen Twitch streamers play it while chatting with their viewers, that was indeed my original vision for Vampire Survivors!”.
While Vampire Survivors feels very much like a game made by a hardcore Castlevania fan, which Galante absolutely is, the Igarashi-inspired art style ended up in the final game basically by accident. Galante used a pack of simple 8-bit assets that he'd bought years before, “I had actually used them several times before in various prototypes that never saw the light of day” he adds. They ended up being the obvious pick he would use when he started designing the game, but now they feel very strictly part of the overall design of Vampire Survivors. So much so that while Galante has thought several times in the last few months about a new look, so far he hasn’t mustered the courage to upgrade it. “I would like the game to not use the free tileset from RPG Maker and, overall, look graphically more compact and coherent, but still without any kind of huge upgrades” he mentions.
The Italian names of the many characters of Vampire survivors will, perhaps, not mean much to foreign players, but they are very much tongue-in-cheek. As Galante himself mentions, they were meant as little more than placeholders, juvenile jokes that he was planning to remove when the game would be close to public release. For example, the character name “Mortaccio” is a minor modification of “mortacci”, a colorful expression often used in Rome both to express surprise and to offend, since it can be translated as a direct insult to one’s ancestors. When the game took off it was much too late for him to go back and change the names to make them a bit more serious, so Galante decided to just roll with them. “I guess the family of vampire hunters are distant relatives of Belmont from a small province in Italy…” he laughs.
While the game made its original debut on Android in May 2021, that version was so sluggish that very few people played it. Galante himself gave up on it pretty quickly, moving the development to PC. The programmer also remembers putting some rather plain looking screenshots on the Google Play Store, since he never believed the game would ever be popular anyway, saying “I wasn’t looking for a game that could make me money, frankly, I was more interested in players’ feedback.” Galante ported the game to Itch a few months after its failure on Android, and, then, to Steam. But still the game was barely noticed - up until January 2022, when streamer Splattercat started playing it. Since then, the game has grown in popularity exponentially.
This almost overnight success of Vampire Survivors changed Galante’s plans and life completely. In December of 2021, he had finally found a job in the gaming industry, that - following the game’s popularity - he ended up leaving almost straight away. Since then, he has been working full time on Survivors to add new features and fix balancing issues. The game, at the moment, registers quite a huge number of players; Galante mentions a number of around 200k daily users. The developer also mentions that, at the time of the interview, the game is around 65% complete , but there are still a couple of new mechanics to come that will greatly affect how players approach the game, the first of which will be released in a few weeks. Naturally, he still wants to develop a Nintendo Switch version, along with making it compatible for the Steam Deck.
What about Galante’s plans for his post-Survivors future? “Well, since this game has basically changed my life, I think the first thing I want to do is create my own studio and start hiring developers to work on potentially new titles.” His plans have been slowly coming together, though for the moment he’s busy working to reach a completed version of Vampire Survivors so it can leave early access. He also mentions having received many interesting propositions, but says “since I am no businessman at all, I have to be very cautious about what I’m doing!” Still, today Galante is still very much in awe of what happened and not a day goes by where he’s not thankful for all the players and fans. His game might be an overnight success, sure, but Galante’s main objective is to not ever let his players down, providing them with an entertaining, solid, and also slightly silly, vampire survivor experience.