Q: Why should anyone buy your game?

Dave Crooks: You’d think I’d be better prepared for this question – I’m so bad at selling the game! Things I’m most proud of are like… it’s a roguelike that takes every detail very seriously. It’s a short form game that hopefully will be as rewarding and rich as longer RPGs of some kind. I think our bosses are standouts in the genre. Also, I think the game is fun from the beginning, and the more time you give it, the more rewarding it is. There’s lots to learn and discover, and it’s very challenging. But I believe once you fully grok the mechanics it is very fair. That is the most rewarding thing, ‘cos I want people to overcome. To give a short answer to your question: it’s a challenging game that respects your time, with the exception of the save feature which is coming [laughs]. Hopefully if you have had trouble getting into roguelikes, you might find some added richness and depth here.

Q: What’s something people don’t understand about game creation?

A Gun That Kills Self-Doubt
Dave Crooks.

Dave Crooks: Oh man. Right now I feel like it’s a whole lot. Oh god, I don’t wanna come off as a jerk saying this, but one of the things I think that some people who have not made games don’t realise is how much agonising and weighing the options goes into something. I’m really happy to take feedback and suggestions for game features and mechanics, that’s certainly a very fun part of the job. But oftentimes when I read something I just like… Some dude will be, ‘Well why don’t you just…’ – it always has the word ‘just’ in the sentence – ‘Why don’t you just do this?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I can actually answer that question completely! Because if this happens it’s a domino effect with that, with that…’

It’s my job to sit here and think through everything and make sure it all works. I’ll never claim to be perfect or anything, but oftentimes you’ll play the game for a couple of hours or whatever and be like, ‘Oh this is rubbing me the wrong way, I wish it was just like this’. But if it was that way, it would have these other problems which we already thought of. People don’t realise how much thought actually goes into each decision and mechanic you make, or how many hours are spent beating on it. I’m not saying it’s perfect every time by any means, but we’ve probably thought of it, you know? We might even agree with you! Unfortunately some things introduce other problems that are a little too hard to solve in time. So it’s not even that people give us bad ideas, it’s just that design is so complicated. It’s a house of cards you know? [Laughs]

Q: A lot of developers tell me they hear things like ‘just put online multiplayer in your game’ all the time.

Dave Crooks: Oh yeah, we’ve got that like, a hundred thousand times. I’ve just completely defaulted to the honest answer: ‘No, ‘cos we don’t know how to do it.’ Then they’ll link me to Realm of the Mad God or something and be like, ‘This game did it!’ Yeah they did it, I bet it took ‘em a long fuckin’ time! [Laughs]

Q: What’s the worst thing about being a game designer?

games have actually gotten more awesome to me in recent years, and I think that Dark Souls helped a lot
Dave Crooks, Designer

Dave Crooks: You’re asking about a game designer not developer so I’ll lean in that direction. Basically, the job is filled with doubt. You don’t know if you’re doing a good job, and as the game designer, for better or worse it’s your job to… not necessarily to come up with all the ideas, but to corral them and stamp the approval on where we’re going to go as a team. It’s pretty heavy, you know? Often your temper can be short, especially in times of stress. You do have a vision for the game, but you do want everyone who plays it to like it, even though that’s an impossible ask. You can’t help but want that. And when it comes down to every little mechanic, it’s like, ‘Ahhh god, am I making the right decision? I don’t know!’ It’s just trying to do your best, and you don’t know. With some other professions I think you can feel a little more immediately gratified that you did a good job, or you know whether you did. But as a game designer, I find myself awake at night like, ‘Oh my god we should do this! We should do that! Was that a good idea?’

Q: What keeps you going in those more trying times?

Dave Crooks: I just don’t think I’d be able to do anything else, I think I’d lose my mind. As much as this job sometimes makes me lose my mind, I had the itch to do it my entire life. And when I started working in a larger studio I still wanted to go off and do my own thing. It’s just how my brain works. I don’t think about other stuff. When I relax, I play a game and analyse it – it’s just what I do. I guess it’s just brain food on some level. It’s also really interesting, and the world’s most complicated puzzle game ever, with a lot at stake.

You get to meet a lot of people when you’re promoting a game which is really fun, and you get to work with a lot of talented people, hopefully. It’s an interesting life, certainly. The economics of being an indie developer – at least the way we did it – were rough. The risk we took seems like it’s paying off now, but even if it hadn’t and we made no money on the game, at least I would be able to say ‘that’s the thing I wanted to do and I went and did it’, you know? I’ve at least got that. It’s also creatively fulfilling, much more so than when I worked at EA. EA actually pays really well, they take super good care of you, and I worked with a ton of super talented people, but by the very nature of having 100 man teams, every single person doesn’t have that big of an impact, so there’s less ownership of it. Some teams you work on you have a lot of ownership and that’s really great, but that was not the case for me and at least several people I know that worked there. Now I have so much ownership I’m afraid! [Laughs]

Q: Roguelikes have seen something of a resurgence recently. Did that influence your decision to make one?

Dave Crooks: We were going to make a platformer first, but thought this would be easier… ha ha ha. Being totally frank though – no, roguelikes were not a genre that I really liked at all. When the idea for Gungeon came up, it started with a name, and we didn’t really know what it was. At the time I wasn’t playing a whole lot of Binding of Isaac, but I was watching a lot and reading a lot about it, because I thought the design was fascinating. And that got me playing every roguelike I could think of: Sword of the Stars: The Pit, Chocobo’s Dungeon, Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, Shiren the Wanderer. I jumped back and played Rogue… I hate it [laughs] Not because I think it’s bad, but because it’s not for me. There were so many roguelikes that have interesting bits of design in them, but none that I really liked the moment-to-moment action of.

A Gun That Kills Self-Doubt
A Gun That Kills Self-Doubt
A Gun That Kills Self-Doubt

My favourite game in the world is Dark Souls. One of the things I love about it is that when you meet somebody it’s just like, ‘Who is this weird person standing out here in the middle of nowhere? Why are they here?’ So I had this idea of being able to recreate that in a roguelike setting. And we thought that would be an interesting way to do a bit of light storytelling with characters. So in short: I don’t remember the exact moment when we decided to do a roguelike, but there must have been one!

Q: Who are your gaming idols?

Dave Crooks: This should probably come as no surprise, but [Binding of Isaac co-designer] Edmund McMillen is probably the one that I would go to. I can think of two moments in my development as a gamer and as a person that made me go, ‘Oh okay, this is something I have to pay attention to’, and the two people associated with those moments are Hideo Kojima and Ed McMillen. When Metal Gear Solid came out, I bought the game without knowing what it was, played it in one sitting, and during the credits was like, ‘Wow, games are more than toys – I need to be a part of this’.

Later I was working as a video editor for family movies, and a friend I was working with asked if I had seen Super Meat Boy. The next day I was working by myself, so I downloaded it on the work computer and started playing it on the keyboard. Then I just locked the shop, walked across the street, bought a controller, and played it the rest of the day. It was like, ‘This was made by two people?!? Whaaaaaat?!?’ I have a signed copy of Meat Boy framed above my computer, and Isaac heavily influenced Gungeon. I’ve never met Ed – I’d love to though. I’ve met [Meat Boy co-creator] Tommy Refenes once, at PAX. I just walked up and was like, ‘Hey, you’re why I make games, let me shake your hand!’ He was like, ‘That’s cool’, and I was like, ‘Okay I’m leaving now!’ [Laughs]

Q: Which games are you playing at the moment?

Dave Crooks: I am playing Dark Souls III – the Japanese version – and a few months ago we tricked Valve into sending us a Vive dev kit, even though we aren’t making anything remotely related to VR. So last night we dicked around with it.

Q: What are your thoughts so far?

Dave Crooks: I think it’s fuckin’ awesome. I’m a believer in VR for sure. We were just talking before this interview about how it’s such a shame that this technology needs a few more years – not just because of the tech, but because of the games. The games that are available, you can just imagine how cool they’re going to be in a couple of years. The best game I played was Vanishing Realms from an ex-Valve employee. He made it himself, one guy. It’s a dungeon crawler, but it felt the most complete game that I’ve played in VR other than Elite.

you do want everyone who plays it to like it, even though that’s an impossible ask
A Gun That Kills Self-Doubt

Q: What’s the dumbest trend in video games, or something that needs to be retired for a few years?

Dave Crooks: Oh my god. I shouldn’t be allowed to answer this question! One thing I will say is that games have actually gotten more awesome to me in recent years, and I think that Dark Souls helped a lot with that. The contrarian design of Dark Souls made a lot of AAA designers go ‘hmmm, we can do something else’, particularly with the way it handled multiplayer. Even Watch Dogs had invasions, and I think that’s really cool. It’s neat to me that people don’t want linear games anymore. Innovation is being pushed and lauded, and a lot of games that don’t appeal to me as a core gamer are being pushed and lauded, and I think that’s really cool.

This would be such an easier question if you’d asked me before VR, because I would have said ‘motion controls’. But now motion controls are cool! So I don’t know. Sorry, I don’t have a good answer for you.

Q: Last year, Steam altered its front page and the way it handles sales, and a few indies said the changes harmed their numbers. Do you have strong feelings on Steam’s changes from a dev perspective?

Dave Crooks: Steam has always been such a weird thing, because when we started working on the game, if we had just got the game on to Steam we would have done well. It was the walled garden era. Then they did Greenlight, and then they opened up Greenlight. It seemed like they went from letting in 10 games a month to letting in 100 or more. Then they did the discoverability update, which apparently was very good for developers. I have not experienced a Steam sale as a developer, so I can’t tell you if it’s better now. What I do know is most indie developers I talk to are still very positive towards Steam sales. We’ve been told in the past that we’re going to make half our money in the first week, and half our money the first time our game goes on sale, but they changed how sales work, so I don’t know. Let’s schedule an interview for Christmas and I’ll let you know!

A Gun That Kills Self-Doubt

Q: How did Dodge Roll come together? Tell us your origin story.

Dave Crooks: The way we came together was: me and Joe (artist) have been friends since high school. When I was like, ‘Okay here’s a great idea: let’s go make a video game for two years and spend our life savings on it’, he was always gonna be part of it. Brent (programmer/tech artist) I met when working at EA Mythic, which was the job that I had before we did this. While I was working at EA, I already had the bug, I wanted to go make an indie game, but I didn’t have the skillset or the money or anything. So I spread through my friends and said, ‘I need to find a good programmer that is willing to do something stupid with me for a long time’. And it actually worked! I went with this guy Dave to a Magic the Gathering tournament – and I don’t even play Magic. I just sat around for five hours watching other people play, while trying to whisper sweet nothings into the ear of this guy. Later we still didn’t have the money, so we got Dave a job at Mythic, and when Mythic shut down we were pretty much ready to go out the door. Now we work from my apartment, in the living room.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

Dave Crooks: Just that this is our first time launching game of anywhere near this scale, it’s vastly more complicated than anything we worked on before. We’re a small team and we are doing our best to support people and fix bugs. On PlayStation, things have to go through certification, so I just want to assure anyone reading this that we are on top of supporting the game and getting any bugs fixed as fast as we can, and also that there will be free content updates to come. I really hope people are enjoying the game and hopefully there will be more in the future for you.

The one thing that is coming through even in reviews that don’t super love the game, even those guys say it’s so clear how much love was poured into this. Obviously I want good reviews, but when I hear that it’s like, at least people are noticing the care.