Groundswell: Cellar Door on Rogue Legacy’s creation, Greenlight success, and Castlevania

Rogue Legacy came somewhat out of nowhere. After a trailer made by developer Cellar Door shot to the front page of Reddit’s gaming subsection, it seemingly made it through Valve’s Greenlight process to get on the Steam marketplace overnight. We talked to Teddy Lee, one of the minds behind the 2D roguelike about how that came to be.

Can you speak to some of Rogue Legacy’s influences?
The original inspirations for the game were Demon’s Souls and Castlevania. The way we make games is to look at what we don’t like or what we want to try and change, and build from there.

There are two major things we don’t like about roguelike games. One, too much RNG [random number generation]. Like with FTL, there’s these moments where you’re deciding whether or not to save a person. If you say “yes,” they might blow up your ship and kill two people. It’s a 50/50 choice. Second, you generally have to play 30 minutes to an hour before your character really became different. We wanted to reduce RNG and frontload the changes. We wanted each game to be two to five minutes.

We also wanted to make it less punishing. There’s a big appeal to starting from scratch [every round] and relying purely on skill, but we didn’t like how negatively aggressive that is. We wanted some form of permanency. That’s where the lineage system came from.

Can you talk about some of the specific inspirations you took from Demon’s Souls?
The original files for our game are actually called DS2D, so Demon’s Souls 2D. The biggest inspiration was the way they handled XP loss. If you died, your character lost all of his XP at his body, so you had to run and pick it up. Originally, with us, you lost 50% of your XP when you died. But as we went further and further into procedural generation, we understood that wasn’t something we could do. Instead, we changed it so when you died, all the money that you had came with you, and what you did in that run was permanently lost. That was our way of finagling with that system.

How about Castlevania?
For Castlevania, the most obvious thing would be the combat system. We were going more for the older-school Castlevania. In the older Castlevanias, they had a lot fewer assets, a lot fewer enemy types. They relied more on enemy placement to change the way you played the game. In the newer Castlevanias, there’s hundreds of enemy types. So, when you find them, you’re just seeing what they do, and in most cases they don’t do much.

So, with our game, we knew we’d have a smaller pool [of enemy types], and we wanted to make it so the enemy placement in regards to the level affected the way you had to engage them. That played a big role in even creating the editor. We needed to specifically control enemy placements in our scenarios. One example would be the turrets. When they appear on multiple levels, it changes where they’re going to shoot. Now, you have to go over or under them. If they spawn slightly gapped, since they have a universal shot range, they create this spacing where you have to jump over two at a time. Or, they might appear on multiple layered steps, so you have to time your jumps.

We don’t control that specifically, but we try to create prototypical units that would play with levels.

Is the entire game randomly generated? It seems I haven’t seen the same room twice.
There’s two ways to create games at random. The first is purely random, where the game creates rooms on its own. The second is what we did, where the game is pulling from a pool of rooms and randomly placing them. We created all of the rooms, and each of them has its own custom subset of rules, and each room can change itself in certain ways. We pull from a pool of, I think, 351 rooms.

I’m not sure if this is a common way of doing things. It’s probably a terrible way to do things, but for every game we make, we create the engine and editor from scratch every time. That lets us create tools specifically for the game we’re making. That lets us churn out the content at a really, really quick rate.

Rogue Legacy is a true indie success in that it spread rapidly through word of mouth, specifically on Reddit. What’s that experience been like?
I guess the best word for it would be “surreal.” When we made the game, we were hoping it would do pretty well. We hoped it would find its niche. When we first made that Reddit post [featuring the first Rogue Legacy trailer], and it hit the front page of [subreddit] /r/gaming, it was insanity. It was a super exciting time. And then we went on to make the Steam Greenlight page, and that did really well.

At the same time, it was very difficult. We were expecting four months, minimum, to be Greenlit. And that’s if we were super lucky. And when it got Greenlit really quickly, we had this huge amount of pressure to start finishing the game. For the last three months or so, we were waking up at 11:00 AM and going to sleep at 5:00 AM. Seven days a week. It was a hard time, but very rewarding.

How was the process of going through Greenlight? How involved was Valve?
Greenlight was not what we were expecting. We were hoping that we’d post on Greenlight, and the system Valve had created would generate traffic for us. We were totally wrong. You know, make a nice page, make a nice trailer and we’d eventually be Greenlit. What happened was, after we made it, it took off. We were very lucky in that regard. We had a ton of people viewing it. But in the next day, the next two days, if we didn’t say anything or post any news, the hits would drop 90% or more. If it had stayed there, we wouldn’t have gotten Greenlit in a year.

So, we had to advertise more. For a month and a half, production stopped on the game. That took up so much time. We were creating all this stuff, contacting publishers, creating demos. This huge amount of work was just to try and gain traction on Greenlight. It turned into its own mini marketing campaign without any publishers on board.

It was unfair of us to go in thinking that Valve would do all the heavy work. But I don’t feel like Greenlight is in the perfect spot right now. It is there to help the indies, but right now we can’t be sure if all the work we did to get Greenlit really benefits us in sales. We’re not sure if it will help down the road. We’re doing pretty well, but I know some indies where it doesn’t translate to a success story.

Now that you’ve generated a bunch of interest on PC, have the console publishers expressed interest in you guys?
We have been in contact with a couple people interested in bringing Rogue Legacy to other platforms. I don’t think we’re allowed to talk about it yet, but yes.