Monday, March 10, 2014

Interview with Patrick Casey, Developer of Voyage to Farland

I sat down (at my laptop) to speak with Patrick Casey, sole developer with Peculiar Games and developer of Voyage to Farland (a cute-but-hardcore, addicting roguelike that I reviewed).

I often see you refer to Mystery Dungeon or Shiren when you talk about Voyage to Farland. Were there any other inspirations for Voyage to Farland?

I probably mention Shiren TOO much when talking about Voyage to Farland! I guess I'm hoping to snag a few Shiren fans or at least get them interested in my game. Shiren was indeed the main inspiration. I'd seen Rogue, Nethack and so on, but nothing that brought those older ASCII games into the present with a modern graphical treatment. And Chunsoft does such a fantastic job with the design - they didn't just take a couple of ideas from Rogue and make a so-so game to generate a few bucks. Shiren's design is TIGHT - especially the revamped 2006 DS release (2008 for the English version).

I'd been playing Earthbound before I picked up Shiren, and I think a few elements (or at least atmosphere) worked their way into Voyage to Farland as well, more subconsciously than by design. Since I started working on Voyage when I lived in Japan, there's a Japanese cultural influence also with a few of the monsters: Oba (from Obatarian - the way Japanese people describe "battalions" of pushy middle-aged women), Oni (the Japanese word for demon), and the Maskboy monster which is influenced by the bouncing heads and the masked "No-Face" character in Miyazaki's film, "Spirited Away".

HE MENTIONED EARTHBOUND!!!! YES!!! Auto-awesomeness in my book.

Some of the weapons also reference actual blades manufactured in Seki, Japan (in Gifu Prefecture). But it's a very obscure & convoluted shout-out!

It's really cool that you let your influences show through like that, even the subconscious ones. I think EVERY game could use some Earthbound - way to bring up my favorite game, by the way! I really loved the graphics of the game, they're not only a good balance to the difficulty of the game, they make it even more addicting somehow. Did you ever play around with more serious, less cartoony graphics, or did you just know that they wouldn't work as well?

In the very earliest builds of the game, the graphics were less cartoony and I was trying to take the game in a more serious direction thematically, but my self-drawn graphics were very bland. Around that time, I found a blog post by Daniel Cook (the artist & designer behind Steambirds, Triple Town and the upcoming Road Not Taken) in which he offered up some free prototyping graphics basically for people in the exact same boat as me - coders with an interesting game but without decent artwork. It was his "Planet Cute" graphics set here.

"Planet Cute" demo graphics

Gameplay screen from Voyage to Farland

I decided to base my Hero character off of his "Horn Girl" sprite. That meant the atmosphere of the game might have to take a decidedly sharp turn into the realm of cute. I didn't really mind this, because I knew I could pull off a sort of "theater of the absurd" feel (loosely speaking) with a game that was hopefully rich in contrasts - for example the Oba & Viperbeetle monsters were also inspired by his graphics set and were cute or cartoonish, but they still kicked your ass hard. Ha ha!

But even Dan Cook's Planet Cute set was just a start, since he was offering single frame sprites and I needed animated sprites drawn to face in all 8 directions that a roguelike game's monster could be facing. Many games just skip this and use an ASCII character or a tile, but I wanted Voyage to Farland to have a bit more animation than that and try to get close to the artwork or at least animation offered by the Mystery Dungeon games.

I've actually improved quite a bit in the artistic department, believe it or not. For example, the Toy Robot sprite looks better than the older Tinbot sprites I made. Even so, I'm still nowhere close to being a talented artist, or even an artist at all, perhaps. But since the game is funded out-of-pocket it's a tough balancing act.

What other games would you consider to be absolute musts for roguelike fans?

I'd like to see people go back to the beginning and play Rogue a bit. There's a lot to be said for a tight, minimalist design compared to some of the more baroque elements added to modern roguelike games.

This is also a tricky question because roguelike fans seem to be split into at least two groups: those who prefer free ASCII/tiled western roguelike games, and those who prefer more graphical games with a smaller control set. For the former group, the standard list would likely include the usual suspects: Nethack, ADOM, DCSS, Brogue, ToME.

This would be ADOM (Ancient Domains of Mystery)! It's spiffied up of course for the promo art, but that sums it up very nicely!

Personally, my only absolute must to represent the genre is - you guessed it - Shiren the Wanderer, since it gets so much right and leaves out a lot of the fluff. But Wazhack is a nice modern take on the genre that people should check out, too.

Voyage to Farland has a lot more complexity with strategies than most roguelikes I end up playing. My favorite tips and things I learned from playing it involved letting the leveled-up Ratapults fling power up beads at me or having my items turned into edible delights so I don't starve to death. How did you come up with such craziness?

Although I've enjoyed my share of grindy RPGs in the past, I've gotten to where I dislike grinding in a roguelike game. So I constantly shaped Voyage to Farland to be a game that would punish players who try to grind or play it like a beat-em-up game. Instead of that, I wanted every item to be potentially life-saving, but to have a duality - in some situations beneficial, in others a detriment. I was also toying with this idea of "item orthogonality", so that objects could be used in multiple ways, all with more or less logical effects when possible. 

So the levelup bead started as something to give an NPC buddy a level boost so they can hit harder, but it was logical to have it also raise the level of enemies, which you'll probably only do by accident in the bonus dungeon where beads & scrolls start out unidentified. And then a class of monsters that throw things became appealing - thus the Catapult, Ratapult & Brutapult family - with the design that they'll throw anything they find at you. Often they deal damage but in the case of Wormwood, they can accidentally heal you and with the levelup bead, it'll raise your character's level.

I honestly never would have thought of a design like this before playing Shiren the Wanderer. It has some similar mechanics that I borrowed, like waving magic wands to cast a spell, but also being able to throw the wand to hit a creature and cast the spell. I took the idea and ran with it, trying to make most mechanics bi-directional in the sense of letting the Hero use weapons, herbs and beads (for spells) on monsters, but having the Hero also susceptible to those same effects. And I embraced the craziness as I thought things up - like, "Here I have this Maskboy monster. Why does he wear a mask? Because he's hideous underneath, of course! What kind of special attack could I give him? How about lifting his mask and sickening whoever gazes upon him?" It fit pretty well since the game design already had a handful of altered states for creatures: Tethered, Somnambulistic & Sickened, etc.

The Bumble monster's item changing attack (where it changes one of your inventory items into a cookie) is basically stolen/borrowed from Shiren and its Rice Changer monster. It's another example of a mechanic that can be annoying but occasionally save your life.

Which of the bad guys in the game is your favorite? I think I can safely say the Nosferatu and his leveled-up variations are the most terrible!

I like the Nosferatus as well. They can set up a lot a mayhem in a crowded room, especially since they don't mind messing with anybody in the way of them and their prey (you). I also have a soft spot in my heart for the Maskboys - sort of an "Island of Misfit Monsters" thing, I suppose.

Were there any features that you didn't get to put into VtF but really wanted to?

One feature that would be nice is some sort of shop or barter system. Shops in Shiren were a lot of fun because you could steal from them when you were in need, but there were stiff penalties for getting caught. I would never condone such behavior in real life, but in video game land, if it's for a good cause...

Is there a Voyage to Farland 2 coming? Or, perhaps, Voyage to Fartherland?

This is one of my weak points - I keep shaping, molding, porting Voyage to Farland when I might be better served starting in on a sequel. But I suppose that's only if there's demand out there. I found a reference to Voyage to Farland 2 in an obscure forum out on the internet - not sure if that was a typo or they picked it up from a joke I made somewhere along the line.

I can give you an exclusive though, Charlie - some day there will be a Voyage to Starland, with some characters carrying over and an alien abduction in there somewhere. I'm not BSing you! I think a really "trippy" outer space themed roguelike would look and play pretty nicely. Lasers, "shields" (force field-based as opposed to swords & sorcery style) - there's a lot of potential for more controlled craziness!

WOW! Thanks for the exclusive info (my first exclusive!), and not just that, but it's awesome to hear a sequel of sorts! You mentioned it earlier, so it's my turn - Earthbound, while originally very Earth-centric with its ordinary people as enemies, ordinary items as weapons, calling dad to save and so on, becomes very much a trippy experience involving aliens as well. With your sense of humor, art and creative use of all of the game play elements, I'm looking very forward to Voyage to Starland (Way to keep away from Voyage to Furtherland).

You've done quite a few fun apps in the past - WackyDays (I LOVE crazy, daily holidays!) and Theramaze (Theremin meets phone tilting!) particularly. What in the world are you up to now?

Unfortunately I haven't been doing much of that fun sort of work lately. Instead, I've been trying to promote the PC version of Voyage to Farland, from Desura to the Not on Steam Sale that you and I both took part in, to making trailers and emailing journalists & Let's Players. I much prefer being "in the lab" tinkering with a new app or game idea to trying to get the attention of press & YouTubers - both because it's more fun and because I have much more control over the results.

About the last real coding I did was when I added the rescue system to Voyage to let a friend come rescue you after you're vanquished. Then it was back to "promotion".

I love that you keep adding features to Voyage to Farland, porting it and generally making it more awesome. One of my biggest flaws personally as a game developer was that, when that nagging "I've been working on this game FOREVER and have so many other ideas I want to work on" thought hit, I'd go with it - I'd either give up on the current game and work on another or quickly finish what I'm working on, leaving it unpolished and never looking back. With VtF, though, you can clearly see your love of the game in there, and that you keep fiddling with it and perfecting it is really obvious and awesome. Do you have any other things you're wanting to do before you consider it "done"?

I could make a long list of things I'd like to add or tweaks I'd like to make, but it could be dangerous to put it out there since gamers may expect me to get it done NOW! I often feel they drastically underestimate the time involved in game development. And Voyage to Farland is a complete game now, it's just that there's always room for refinement, isn't there?

But after that hemming and hawing, it's still a great question, Charlie!  If I ever try to get the game on Steam, there might be some interesting possibilities for tying the rescue system in with their API so that it would be easy for players to become "Voyage friends" and pass rescue request and completed rescue codes back and forth. That would really build the community and give a more optimistic vibe to the game. It's a fairly tough roguelike and the repeated failure might cause some players who've yet to get their inner Zen going feel depressed, so the good karma of rescuing a friend could help with that!

It's tricky for us indie devs, isn't it!? I have to admit that for a couple of other games I made, I considered them done when I'd gotten rid of most of the embarrassing bugs (and was sick of working on them). Voyage has been harder - each new platform demanded a lengthy dev cycle and player reaction has been promising enough to keep me working on it. I suppose it's "done" in the sense that it's fully playable, complete and has a lot of content. Hopefully it's fun, too.

If you were to find a winning lotto ticket and have enough money to do whatever you wanted in the future, what game would you want to make?

That's a great question. I've really enjoyed working on Voyage to Farland, so I'm pretty sure I'd work on another graphical roguelike game, perhaps with even more emergent gameplay if possible - something like Dwarf Fortress meets Mystery Dungeon, maybe.

That said, I also enjoy minimalist games. The Gameboy Advance "Bit Generations" games released in 2006 really impressed me. Perhaps I'd try to make something inspired by those games. Actually, Microchip Monsters was a game I made with visuals loosely inspired by the Bit Generations games, but I'd like to make something with the simple but innovative gameplay they had. I didn't buy the whole series, but at least I got Digidrive, Orbital & Coloris. I SHOULD have gotten Dotstream as well...

Man! It would be nice to win the lottery wouldn't it. But in reality, I never buy lotto tickets (I notice you put it "find a winning lotto ticket" :) But the whole "not playing the lottery" thing is a big part of why I haven't put Voyage to Farland on Steam Greenlight!

Exactly - I'm not a lotto player either, so the only way I'd win is from happening across a ticket. You're exactly right, by the way, Greenlight is very much like a really expensive lottery, except that you have to work your butt off even after you pay to try to get it voted in!

Is there anything else you'd like to say?

I guess I'd mostly like to say thanks for reaching out to me for a chat about the game! I'd also like to thank the players that have tried the game and emailed me about their successes & failures, including YouTuber iJimTM for his awesome Let's Play videos.

In case it wasn't obvious enough from my review, you should absolutely grab Voyage to Farland. And if you're interested in finding out what he's up to (and you should be!), follow him on Twitter!

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