This is an interview from Steven Savage a contributor from one of Indie Haven’s partner websites at Crossroads Alpha.  Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at http://www.stevensavage.com/.

Dungeomans. No, it’s not a misspelling, it’s the name of a humorous – but very challenging RPG developed by Jim Shepard and his team. Dungeonmans is kind of a “Roguelike plus” where as a member of the Dungeonmans Academy (the term is gender-neutral) you go forth and adventure, bring back artifacts, help build the academy . . . and die horribly. Then you play the next graduate, with the legacy of your former Dungeonmans, working your way to possibly defeat a great evil . . . or build the academy to the level where the person who comes after you die can take over.

I bought Dungeonmans early access on Steam and was hooked. It’s a comedy adventure game that’s really an adventure, really a game, and really comedy. Fortunately Jim took his time from being a Developermans to give me an interview about his Indie endeavor.Inline image 1

1) Jim, first of all, where did the idea of Dungeonmans come about?

Short answer is that I love roguelikes and wanted to throw my hat in the ring. I’ve been making video games for a long while now, and like every other developer I had a project in the back of my head I wanted to see come to life. Dungeonmans is an amalgam of ideas: I wanted a game with a heroic feel, I wanted improvement between lives even in the face of permadeath, I wanted to have positioning and tactics play a bigger role in battles, and I wanted it all to feel like it was being delivered to you with a wink and a smile from the snarky Dungeon Master sitting across the table from you.

2) It appears Dungeonmans has had a long history – it first started in 2009. You’ve stuck with it a long time, what as the initial plan and how did it change.

First code for Dungeonmans was written in 2007, actually. I wanted to learn some C# on the side– work at the time was lots of C++ and UnrealScript. XNA was a newish thing and I thought it would be a good place to get my feet wet. When the basics of movement and rendering started to come together, I figured I’d try out some world generation. I think building big maps to adventure in is fantastic, and I was totally inspired by Dwarf Fortress and the impossible levels of detail that game uses to crank out realistic environments.

In 2008 I started to really crank on the roguelike aspect of it, and try for a genuine game. It was always a side project, but during my time at Gearbox I made enough friends who were interested in helping out to put together a couple of weekends of game jams, where the lot of us would fill up the living room at my house and just make cool stuff for Dungeonmans. Some of that early art was so awesome it remains in the game today.

3) You used Kickstarter to get your project to the next level. How did that work for you and any advice for people in using Kickstarter.

Kickstarter was exceptionally stressful but I’m glad I did it. Lots of people have written pages and pages full of KS advice, I’ll keep mine very short: 1) Pre-game your Kickstarter with trusted friends who believe in you and are willing to back your game day 1 en masse. If you can’t find trusted friends who will do that, your game probably isn’t ready for Kickstarter. 2) Do not ask for X thousand dollars on Kickstarter but budget for X+Y. If your goal is $20,000, you need to be prepared to make the game you promised with $20,000. 3) Once you start your KS, your name is your newest most valuable asset. If you lie, use smoke and mirrors, or act any degree of shady, people will catch on to it and you’ll never get their trust back. Be honest and eat crow when you have to.

4) You got Dungeonmans on Steam as Early Access. How did you achieve that – and again any advice for our fellow game designers.

Dungeonmans needed to pass through Steam Greenlight to get on Early Access. I didn’t do a great job with the Greenlight launch, and I learned quite a bit from it. The mistakes made there helped me do better for the KS. Primarily, the game just didn’t look good enough. It wasn’t pretty enough in screenshots, it didn’t have the touch of artistry that a quality product needs. Even though the game was visually simple at the time, the parts weren’t cohesive and the colors either clashed or disappointed. I missed out on lots of Yes votes that would have made the campaign much shorter. In the end it took over a full year to succeed.

I would tell anyone to approach Greenlight the same way they approach KS, and launch both campaigns at the same time. Of course, Greenlight might not be around for too much longer either, but the idea of having a presentable game that you’re willing to stand behind during development is super important when you come out the gate.

5) So with Dungeonmans Early Access out there, how has the reaction been?

It has been wonderful! Dungeonmans has been very well received by the players. Player reviews have been very kind, the feedback on the Steam discussion forums has been great, and overall I’ve been rewarded with a great deal of positivity from the players. Players have been engaged with me, and I get tons of great feedback with each build that goes out.

6) What’s it like to work on a game “in development?”

I think one of the most common threads between AAA work and Indie is that you still have a customer to satisfy with your work. But “customer” doesn’t always mean the player. For me, as a gameplay programmer, I tried to keep the player in mind at all times, but at a large studio your customer might be a designer who is working with you to make a new feature, other programmers you’re building tools with, or perhaps even something more specific or arcane when working at the really big houses. With an Early Access game, your primary customer is the player. In both cases– before or after ship, big product or small– someone is counting on you to deliver, to do your best work and to be honest. So in that respect things feel very similar.

7) When do you expect to finish (and if you’re not sure, just pass on).

Dungeonmans will be finished and on sale for really-reals in December.

8) What was different than you expected when you began your own adventure in doing this?

The biggest surprise to me is how much I’m enjoying developing on stream. Twice I week I’ll point a webcam at me, put on a Hawaiian shirt and show everyone some bad code live on the interwebs for three hours. It started as sort of an emergency measure during the Kickstarter, I needed people to see the game being played and so I had to pick up that banner myself. I was pretty hesitant at first, but I got over that quickly enough. I enjoy it so much! It’s much easier to focus: when you’re on camera, you can’t tab over to twitter or find something to waste time on, you have to deliver live. It’s also helpful to talk about bugs while you’re working to fix them, though there are some problems that require lots of sitting and thinking, those are boring to do live. Finally, it’s an awesome opportunity to talk with the Dungeonfans and show people what goes on behind the curtain. There’s this idea among devs that no one would want to watch somebody code, but the truth is that non-developers are fascinated by the process, especially when building the more exciting features like new monsters or character powers. Every developer should try it!

9) How do you coordinate with your other team members.

Mostly through email and skype. For about a year and a half of the game’s development, I lived in the same city as Andrew Aversa (zircon), the composer. He’s been a boon companion during all of this, his work is incredible and he is a great friend too. Now I’m in Seattle, and it just so happens that Jeramy Cooke is out here too! He’s the lead artmans on the project, and while most of his work on the project is done it is still great to have him close by. He too is a great friend, I’m very fortunate in this regard.

10) People have especially called out your soundtrack. Specifically, how did you arrange to get the soundtrack done as it is really quite good.

Here’s the secret of Dungeonmans: the entire project is just a vessel by which to deliver the best game soundtrack of the last 20 years. Andrew is world class, though he won’t admit it. I’d put him in the ring against any other composer or audio developer I’ve worked with, and I know some real champs. His work on the game has been a tremendous inspiration, it forces me to create something that is worthy of the music he’s been making.

When we first discussed Dungeonmans, we had very similar ideas of what the game should sound like. Things clicked so quickly, and fortunately for me he was very fond of the game. Ideas just sort of spilled forth from both of us, and his execution has been flawless. At first, I gave him lots of guidance as we were trying to nail down the feel for the game but after the first four or so tracks, he simply soared and created gem after gem. I cannot overstate how fortunate I am to be working with him.

11) Whats next for you once you’re done?

More games! Project #2 is already underway, though it receives maybe 5% of my time given that my big focus is on finishing Dungeonmans. Can’t rest though, too much downtime between projects is costly and dangerous.

12) Any advice to share with other professional geeks and hopeful developers?

Do what you say you’re going to do, own up to your mistakes, and give credit where it is due. Be honest with everyone you work with. If your coworkers, customers, and all the folks you have to deal with know that you can be trusted to do your best work, it will be much easier for you to get things done.

Thanks Jim. I look forward to the next update . . . and a chance to loose more time.

– Steven Savage, Writerman

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at http://www.stevensavage.com/.