Contemplative and articulate, Jess Fender took the time to sit down over the Internet with me and discuss his first game development project Dimensional Wayfarer. Jess, A.K.A. CodeSavage, has a clear idea of what he wants and how to achieve it. He has the rare capacity to consider information in it’s entirety while smartly eschewing the compulsion to rush in to a conversation headstrong.
We utilized our time by discussing a bit of the theory that guides his first project, what his criteria are for a classic rogue-like game, and take a brief peek behind the intentionally drawn curtain to see his work-in-progress. So please, sit back, relax, and have a read with me.
Meet Dimensional Wayfarer
Without giving away any surprises, would you mind giving unfamiliar readers a primer as to what Dimensional Wayfarer is?
Dimensional Wayfarer is a turn-based, traditional rogue-like dungeon crawler that has a widely varying setting. As the name implies, you may find yourself in a randomly selected handful of several different worlds, each with their own unique enemies, items, and environment. Depending on the worlds you visit each play through and the order in which you visit them, your experience (including endgame experience) may change greatly. Not only does this lead to nearly endless possibilities, but I think it adds a lot to the sense of discovery and is a lot more fun visually, too.
Dimensional Wayfarer is a relatively new project, what made you decide to develop?
I started work on Dimensional Wayfarer about 8 months ago. I've been a fan of the rogue-like genre for years, and really just wanted to make a game that I would enjoy more than anything. I realize that it's still a rather niche genre, but that's fine. You can try and make something with the goal of getting as large a user-base as possible, but I think it's much more fulfilling to start make something for yourself and find the people that share in your love for it along the way.
Should we expect classic D&D type character archetypes: race/class?
Well, there will certainly be a number of races available to play that will affect player stats, and in some cases, abilities. There will be at least one playable race taken from each world you can visit in the game, so while some of them will certainly be more traditional, like Orcs, others like Mermaids and Insectiods will be races you don't normally see mixing in the same game.
I'll be taking a less traditional approach to classes. Rather than having strict class designations, player stats and abilities will be entirely decided by race, gear, and "leveling up" type choices. So effectively you can make whatever class you want, if things play out your way.
What kind of context is provided for the game world or is it what-you-see-is-what-you-get?
New worlds visited will have no context provided; you will literally be dropped into a new world, with no idea of what you'll run into. I expect it should be an exciting, frightening, and most likely deadly experience initially.
However, it's not as if you'll constantly be dropped into new worlds every time you play. The race you choose to play with will determine which world you start it (their home world), so you will have a measure of control there. Visiting a new world will unlock the race from that world, so you always have the option to choose that race next time so that you can familiarize yourself with the new world immediately.
There will be a lot of discovery required on the players' part, but that's nothing unusual for games of this genre.
My understanding is that Dimensional Wayfarer will have some sort of religion/faith system. Care to go into more detail?
Certainly! There will be a number of gods in the game that you may encounter shrines or altars to, giving you the opportunity to join their faiths. Doing so will allow you to collect souls or other bits from the creatures you kill, and trade them in at altars for stat bonuses or abilities. Each god will have a unique set of rewards, so your faith will certainly have a large effect on the direction of your character's growth. This is the majority of how you will "level up" your character, rather than through an automatic experience-based system. Aside from that, various gods will have other effects on the game play; some will be told beforehand, others that are more devious will have to be discovered along the way.
Where does the handle CodeSavage originate?
While I've always been a big computer geek, I actually didn't have a solid coding background before starting to get into game development about a year and a half ago. CodeSavage was a reference to how I imagined other devs would see me: someone who uses unrefined, perhaps barbaric code. I do think I've come a long way since then, but I'm quite fond of the name at this point.
You took a brief break from active development and have now returned. Have any new ideas or concepts percolated up to the top?
There was a lot of chaos in my life for a while, including a job change and move on top of wrestling with a lot of difficult coding concepts, so I thought a break would do me good. In reality it was more of a "giving up" period, and I'm not sure how long I intended it to be. During those few months I talked to a lot of other Indie game devs, and even went up to Boston during PAX East to meet several of them. While I have come back with a few new ideas, as corny as it may sound it was more of an inspirational or "refocusing" period; while I struggled with time management and certain concepts before, I'm finding it much easier to throw myself into development and work out difficult coding tasks now.
That Lovable Rogue(like)
You have a very cultivated conception of what it is to be a "genuine" rogue-like. How adaptable do you think that this genre is?
Well this is certainly a loaded question that I frequently see lead to heated Twitter and Skype arguments. The term rogue-like traditionally refers back to a game called Rogue, and references a fairly rigid structure: turn-based game play, procedural world generation, item discovery, non-linear progression, etc. More recently, it tends to solely refer to procedural level generation and permadeath; in that regard, it's incredibly adaptable, as these concepts can apply to almost any game style.
I try not to get too hung up on the term. I understand why people get upset about its appropriation, but there's honestly nothing that can be done to stop it. That's why I describe Dimensional Wayfarer as a traditional rogue-like; I feel it immediately describes what it is to those familiar with the past usage of the term, and will possibly entice those who are only familiar with the new usage. I don't see how I can be upset if someone that enjoyed Spelunky decides to try Dimensional Wayfarer because they both say rogue-like; I want everyone to enjoy my game that possibly can.
Hand-holding is rather common even in games where the whole point is to fail and revel in self-discovery. Will you be eschewing a tutorial system?
That's a great question. I do plan on having a tutorial-like "prologue" area that can be skipped if desired, but it won't be a "press the arrow keys to move" experience like you see in many games. Rather, it'll just be a linear, non-generated area that ensures you're exposed to several key elements of the game before putting you in the procedurally generated area where you may or may not see these elements for several levels.
It's hard not to conflate the terms "world" and "level" as they have largely become synonymous. So you have static worlds that act as themes and dynamically created floors that serve as levels?
Exactly... typically in traditional rogue-likes, each level is a floor of a dungeon or some other construct. You find the stairs to the next floor, which creates a new map, where you search for the next set of stairs, etc, until you reach the end point. So there will be a fixed number of floors, or levels, in Dimensional Wayfarer that you have to traverse to finish the game. The "world" (or dimension, as the title says) is indeed the setting you're in. It determines the environment, enemies, and items generated.
Can a player traverse these spaces at will? I'm imagining someone with a death-ray jumping back into a Western-esque dimension.
Your example is spot on. If you're in a futuristic space setting with a laser rifle and go through a portal to a prehistoric setting, the cards are definitely in your favor. It can certainly go the other way around as well though, which is why the way your character is built and whether you choose to go through a portal is so important.
You mention a fixed number of floors. Procedurally generated assets seem to be a double edged sword, in my experience: either a game has an enormous variety of things that an individual player will never see all of them, or, only a handful of options are attainable and the challenge for said player is getting the "best" or preferred character/object/upgrade. How do you plan on balancing Dimensional Wayfarer?
Well, procedural generation certainly has its pros and cons as you suggest. While it is impossible to account for every given scenario, you don't have to leave it all up to chance, either. For example, despite the game generating the layout of a level and the monsters within, it will have rules to follow. You won't face a massively overpowered creature on the first floor, because there's no way you'll be able to deal with that yet. I'm going to do my best to make the game difficult without making it a frustrating ordeal, but with the number of variables and player choices, it's certainly not a tiny task. I think in this case a large amount of balancing will come after I get a playable version out into peoples' hands and see how people tend to play the game and build their character.
Additionally, I hope to avoid having a clear "best" way to upgrade a character by having several good directions for character growth, and several possible game outcomes. I also expect to be surprised by some of the combinations players themselves will come up with that I didn't expect or account for!
From what I've observed and the conversations I've had, Indie developers usually rely heavily on the community for feedback, support, and collaboration. Has this been your experience?
In a sense. So far I've kept a lot of the game play element discussion within a small group, mostly getting feedback from them, but I've been exploring the forums for a lot of other similar games to see what sort of things people enjoy or find irritating. I've also occasionally participated in Screenshot Saturday, and have gotten overwhelmingly positive comments on the game's look and idea.
With the revitalizing of the project, I'm hoping to get a lot more information out there, hopefully starting right here! Also, right now I am heavily focused on getting a playable alpha of the game out into a small group of testers, and then opening it up from there once I make sure there's no glaring issues that need to be addressed.
For the World to See
From the outside, looking in, one of the biggest challenges is distribution. Steam Greenlight appears to be an excellent tool to facilitate making a game and finding an audience. That being said, do you have an educated guess about how well it addresses problems like exposure, ratings, sales, etc?
Distribution is certainly a challenge, and unless you happen to be stellar at marketing or have one of those products that just catches fire (like Minecraft), you're probably going to need help. Greenlight certainly has its issues, but I personally don't see visibility on Steam as a problem. No, you may not be on the front page, but I've talked to several developers who have distributed a game through various means, and then get on Steam, and they have all spoken of a spike in sales that blows away any sales on another platform.
One of my friends on Twitter (Worthless_Bums) said it in a way I liked: "Complaining about low visibility on Steam is weird because previously you had zero visibility on Steam."
Rogue-likes have become decidedly less niche with games like Dungeons of the Endless, FTL, and Spelunky. How do you feel that Dimensional Wayfarer will stand apart?
I concede that point, and I probably have a bit of an advantage there in not having to explain as much of the game play, as most players have most likely been exposed to something similar. While I do think the variation in worlds and the visual style of the game will be what attracts many new players initially, I'm also hoping to be able to attract a lot of the hardcore rogue-like crowd by making it a more "serious" rogue-like that requires equal amounts of luck and skill. I do expect some people to be put off by the game but I'm alright with that. Games don't have to be for everyone; it's a game that I like and I know people with similar tastes will like it. However many people that ends up to be, I'll be happy with it as long as I'm happy with what I created.
Would it be fair to say that Dimensional Wayfarer is more about the personal satisfaction of creating a game than challenging what the world considers a rogue-like to be?
It's true, I do get a lot of satisfaction from the creation process. I guess it comes down to something like this: We all enjoy sharing the games we love with other people. Now I want to create something that I can honestly say I love, and share it with all those people that were like-minded in my admiration and passion for other rogue-likes. As for the term itself, I'm not concerned about challenging it. If the world gives me a more fitting genre, I'll gladly use it; it doesn't define the game, and won't change what it is at its heart.
Don't forget all of the other Here Are Words interviews.