By Marshall Garvey and Isaac Smith
As you may recall from Marshall, Isaac and Jake’s coverage of this year’s Sacramento Indie Arcade Expo, one of the most notable entries from a local dev was the roguelike Venture Forth, the early alpha of which Isaac had the privilege of seeing at the 2014 convention as well. We recently had the pleasure of meeting two of the game’s developers, Jeremiah Ingham and Colin Sullivan, who are currently working under the banner of Arclight Worlds. Over a few cups of coffee at Tupelo’s, we discussed the development of Venture Forth, its new Kickstarter campaign, indie gaming in Sacramento, inspiration for game creation, the challenges of making a unique roguelike title, and much else! The transcript of the interview reads below, with links and videos for Arclight Worlds right after:
Marshall: Welcome to another Last Token Gaming interview! I’m lead editor Marshall Garvey, here with staff member Isaac Smith, and we’re joined by Colin Sullivan and Jeremiah Ingham of Arclight Worlds, developers of the upcoming game, Venture Forth. Thank you guys for joining us!
Jeremiah: Thank you! Glad to be here.
Marshall: Alright, so, first question: What games in general influenced how you approached making an adventure title like this?
Jeremiah: Well, I took a lot of inspiration from the Castlevania series, that sort of thing…the whole Metroidvania genre, really. Those games really focus on exploration of the world, and they follow a lot of the same principles, like gaining new abilities and finding new items, and allowing you to reach more parts of the world. And so I’ve always been a really big fan of that type of thing.
Isaac: It’s interesting you talked about Castlevania and Metroid, because both of those games have really specifically crafted levels to make sure you go through the game in a specific way. How do you reconcile that with making a procedural game?
Jeremiah: So the procedural part of the game kind of follows a two-step thing, where it combines carefully crafted levels with procedural generation. And so, there’ll be a whole bunch of smaller areas that are handcrafted, and then that’s going to be like a “library” of areas. And then when you create your game, it’s going to take a subset of those, put them into the world, and procedurally connect them.
Isaac: So you won’t have all the areas each time you play the game?
Jeremiah: Exactly, and so each time you play, you might find an area you found before, but it’ll be in a different place. And you’ll also find areas you’ve never played before.
Isaac: Are there secret areas as well?
Jeremiah. Obviously! It’s not obvious what path is going to get you to the end of the game, but along that path there’s going to be a lot of other areas that you never even are required to go to in order to complete the game. And so, there’s a lot of “optional” areas and secret areas.
Isaac: That’s very much like Metroid as well.
Jeremiah: Yes, exactly.
Marshall: Gotta have secret rooms!
Jeremiah: And so that’s definitely a big part of it.
Marshall: The pivotal real life influence on the game was your trip to the Jenolan Caves in Australia. What was that experience like, and when did it strike you you wanted to make a game after that? Are there any specific nods to the Jenolan Caves in the game we can look for?
Jeremiah: Well, the style of the game follows that procedural generation, and so it’s not themed specifically like a cave. It’s more fantasy, and kind of taken in a direction that goes beyond the real world. But….when I was touring those caves, what really was the core of the feeling was, on these tours, you don’t explore the entire cave because it’s gigantic. And so they bring you to parts of the cave that were like these gigantic open chambers, and you could walk up to the edge here, and it would go down into this deep cavern. And we don’t get to go there! I don’t know what’s there, but I want to. And so it’s that type of feeling I’m trying to capture.
Marshall: You released an early alpha of the game in August of 2014, when it was called Labyrinth: Venture Forth. What were some of the challenges of making a good alpha, and how has the game changed since then? Also, why the title change? I do think simply Venture Forth works better. Much more inviting.
Jeremiah: Well, in terms of the title change, Labyrinth: Venture Forth was a little long, and we considered a few names like abbreviating it to LVF. But it felt like that wasn’t quite as catchy. And so we went with just Venture Forth, because I feel like that really embodies the heart of what this game is about. It’s about this mysterious world, and you are here to explore it, and you get to go and venture wherever you want.
Marshall: It’s a title that’s not even about the plot or the character, it’s the action. It’s what you do. That’s an original title!
Jeremiah: Yeah, it’s exactly what the game focuses on. So I felt like it was a good move. When I first started developing the game, I was originally planning on it to be a little bit more labyrinth-like. So, more of a maze rather than a cave to explore. But I felt like it fit better, to make it more cave-like and that sort of thing. And so, Venture Forth ended up fitting better.
Isaac: It also sounds a lot less generic.
Jeremiah: Yeah, I really like the word “labyrinth,” but a lot of things use it.
Marshall: Obviously, a lot of people would probably immediately think of David Bowie singing “Magic Dance.”
Jeremiah: Yes! Back when it was called Labyrinth, that was like the number one question that I would get was, “Does it have David Bowie?”
Marshall: We definitely thought your game was a standout entry at the Sacramento Indie Arcade Expo in April, at the Colonial Cafe. That event definitely showed what a budding indie gaming scene there is here in Sacramento. What are your thoughts on the River City’s indie gaming reputation? Of course, Colin here is a member of the IGDA board. So what are your thoughts on that?
Isaac: So you have to say nice things.
Jeremiah: I’ve been a part of the IGDA Sacramento chapter for a little while now, and I really like the group of people we have here, we’re all really close. So it’s almost a feeling I get in general with indie game developers, is we all kind of have this feeling like, “We’re in this together.” We’re all here to help each other. We all understand that it’s very difficult, and so it’s just like, we’re all on the same team. And I really like that part of it.
Colin: I think I’d be the first to admit that we have a small gaming community here in Sacramento. I think it has been growing, especially as we get more sort of “refugees” from the Bay Area that are being driven out by the high cost of living over there. So I think a lot of people come out here, but still want to be part of the gaming or tech community. But I think also that that small community is a strength, because as Jeremy said, all the indies here feel like they’re strongly a part of the community. And there are really strong bonds, as opposed to some places like San Francisco where there’s so many indie developers that you can’t know them all.
Isaac: So, why did you decide to make a roguelike? There’s tons of them already out on Steam…and what kind of makes Venture Forth different from all the other ones?
Jeremiah: So, the game really started out as more of a roguelike…basically, when I started, I was like, “I want to create a 3D, first-person roguelike.” And I kind of went down that standard path of having levels where you clear a level and then move onto the next level, and that sort of thing. And obviously, that’s quite different than the way it is now. And so, since the start of creating this game, it’s definitely evolved quite a bit…I’ve tended to move away from the traditional roguelike. There’s still a lot of roguelike elements in it, but I would call it more of a rogue-”light”. Since it’s exploration-focused, I feel like the philosophy of permadeath…like, if you go into the world, and you explore a certain amount, and then you just die and the world’s gone, you don’t get to explore anymore of that world. So I felt like that was kind of conflicting with this exploration focus.
Isaac. Ok! So, what are some of the qualities in it that make it similar to roguelikes and different from them? You mentioned there is no permadeath, it is procedurally generated. You also mentioned there are some RPG elements in it as well.
Jeremiah: Yes! It shares a lot of those roguelike elements where you have equipment, you have stats, you fight creatures, and you can die. In terms of changing away from the permadeath, I’ve invented a mechanic where you can save your game, and then every time you die, it’ll reload that save. But these saves that you have are a resource you have to manage, so you can’t just save all the time. So you have to think about, “Do I want to use this save here?” Or, “Do I want to go into this area?”
Isaac: Have you ever played Final Fantasy VII?
Jeremiah: I haven’t finished it.
Isaac: In the last dungeon you get save crystals, so there’s no save points in the entire last dungeon. And you have to choose at some point during the dungeon to spawn with the same crystal…I hated that! I realize it’s a good gaming strategy, but it’s one of the most vexing things because you’re like, “I’m about to die, but I can’t save because I only have one left.” But I like it, that’s unique.
Jeremiah: Yeah, I felt like it was a compromise between the roguelike philosophy where it’s just permadeath. And so, I definitely felt like that was too harsh.
Colin: I think it nicely balances the exploration goals, while still keeping a sense of danger as you explore new areas.
Jeremiah: Like I said, I got a lot of inspiration from exploring those caves, and a big part of the feeling is the uncertainty and danger. So if you’re exploring this cave and you have no worries about dying…you lose a lot of that experience.
Isaac: Did you ever play Journey?
Jeremiah: I haven’t played Journey!
Isaac: It’s very similar. It’s a game about exploration, but they use a lot of danger either real or imagined to sort of propel you through the game to give it forward motion.
Isaac: What challenges did you face making a 3D roguelike that some 2D roguelikes don’t have? Obviously the development process is very different. What were some specific challenges that you faced implementing that kind of mindset, that kind of structure into a 3D setting? Pretty much all roguelikes I know are 2D. So how did that go?
Jeremiah: So your traditional roguelike, like you said, is 2D, top-down, and usually turn-based. So there’s a couple key things that are different about Venture Forth: It’s 3D, and it’s real-time. And so there have been a lot of challenges in terms of making it real-time and getting all of that to work properly, as well as really using that third dimension to enhance the game. So when it comes to the world and how it’s procedurally generated, I really wanted to enhance that feeling of the vertical dimension as well. A lot of these areas are vertical just as they are spread out. For example, one of the things that comes with that is the map. A two-dimensional map does not work for this game at all, because the world is far too complex in terms of that third dimension.
Isaac: Yeah, I saw the mini-map, that was one of the big things I noticed at this year’s IGDA, that’s pretty impressive in and of itself.
Jeremiah: Yeah, the game went through a phase where it didn’t have that map, and even in a very small world you’d get lost almost instantly.
Isaac: That’s more Labyrinth, less Venture Forth.
Marshall: Your studio, Arclight Worlds, was founded in February 2013. How did that come about, and for other aspiring indie devs, what would you say is crucial to successfully establishing an indie studio?
Jeremiah, Well, I’m far from an expert here! But really, what this whole thing started from was in college, I learned how to program. And once I learned to program, creating games was just an instant magical step for me. Once I graduated, I decided that I wanted to try being an indie developer…so I jumped in fully and created Arclight Worlds. When it comes to advice for other developers…I’ll say that it’s a very difficult thing to do, and it requires a lot of dedication. As an indie developer, I don’t have a boss telling me what to do, so I have to stay self-motivated and keep making progress every day. It takes a lot of internal passion and motivation.
Colin: Speaking more from the business side of things, I would just say that probably the two best things to do are either start young, when you can take more risks and have a lower cost of living, and you don’t have to worry about that stuff as much. Or, especially as you get older, it’s probably even more of a part-time thing, or it’s going to be something where you really make conscious decisions like, “I’m going to save up some money, quit my job and just go for it.” And like starting any new business, it’s something where you have to balance the risk and the reward.
Isaac: So now, and this is for both of you, what are some skills that you acquired over the course of this developing the game? What are you better at now than when you started?
Jeremiah: Definitely, I’ve gotten a lot better at programming…when it comes to programming, one of the over-arcing skills that you have is being able to organize everything. This is definitely by far the largest project I’ve ever created, and so one of the key parts of making a project of this size work is organization. So…when you have a problem, identify specifically where it is, and how to narrow it down and find it.
Isaac: Now, how did you learn to organize it? Did you look up sites, or is it just your own system you developed by yourself? Where does one learn to do that stuff?
Jeremiah: For me, a lot of it just comes from practice. In addition to that, I’ve talked with a lot of other developers, and sometimes we’ll be talking about something I’m working on, and they’ve done something similar and tell me how they’ve done it….I feel like, for me at least, talking with other developers and getting their points of view on things can really help you broaden your horizons in programming. But really in general, that’s one of the things I like most about programming is that each problem is just a goal, and there are literally an infinite number of ways you can achieve your goal.
Isaac: Sometimes I feel like that’s the problem with programming. It’s like, “Which one is best?” [To Colin] So now, what about you? Obviously you aren’t doing a lot of programming, so what skills do you think you’ve learned in helping Jeremy successful with his game and other games?
Colin: We’ve certainly learned a lot going through the first process, so my expertise is more on the business and legal side of things. My partner Rob’s expertise is more on the production and QA side of things. So we didn’t have a lot of marketing experience, we actually have a third team member who also helps out, Christine, she had some marketing experience. She sort of helped us get up to speed with that. We’ve certainly gotten better at that over time. I think the major difference between this project and our first project is that at that time, we were completely stumbling around, just trying to figure out what we were doing. And with Venture Forth now, it feels like we sort of have an idea of what to do now, and we’re sort of establishing what our process should be and how to make it more standardized between games.
Marshall: Last question: Do you guys have any other projects you’re currently working on? Any ideas as to what might be next?
Jeremiah: I’m always full of ideas, but with Venture Forth, I’m really trying to focus on finishing this project and having it come to full completion before I start investing too much time in other projects. Have you ever played Terraria?
Marshall: Oh, he [Isaac] was just grilling me about that! As we were driving here, he was like, “Have you ever played it?” I’m like, “No I haven’t!” But go ahead.
Jeremiah: Well, I loved that game so much, and I really want to create like my own version of that game. Because I feel like there are so many possibilities that you can take it. So I’ve considered doing something like that, but at the same time I feel like a lot of games have explored that. And so I would have to think about it more and see what new ways I could take it. I find that really intriguing.
Isaac: Have you ever played Starbound?
Jeremiah: I haven’t, but I need to.
Isaac: You do! It’s sort of the spiritual successor to Terraria. It also focuses a lot more on exploration than Terraria does, which is really interesting and one of the things I really like about it. It has a much more relaxed feel for how you get to know your world. It sounds like it would be right up your alley and maybe give you some more ideas.
Jeremiah: Yeah, before doing Venture Forth, I did a much smaller project that kind of started creating a game similar to Terraria. But it was far from being released. And that was before Starbound came out. So I feel like Starbound is probably the game that I want to make.
Isaac: So I know we’re done with all your questions, but: With regards to procedural generation, how did you go about learning that? Because I know it’s all the rage these days, how’d you go about learning it and how did you implement it into a 3D setting?
Jeremiah: One of the reasons I like programming so much is that it’s pure logic. And so I really enjoy approaching logic problems and figuring out how I can reach my goal. I haven’t done a whole lot of studying on my own to learn how to procedurally generate stuff, I just take the skills I learned in programming and apply them to reaching this goal. Which I find really intriguing. But definitely, procedurally generating things in a 3D space is very challenging, especially when you’re talking about a cohesive world where everything exists simultaneously. You have to procedurally generate everything at once rather than having individual levels one at a time.
Isaac: That’s pretty impressive. I was looking up the procedural generation stuff for Minecraft, and it involves some pretty complex math. Do you end up doing a lot more math than you expected as a programmer?
Jeremiah: I feel like the philosophy that Minecraft uses to procedurally generate their worlds is a little bit different in that…I feel like they use a little more of putting down the fundamentals and the building the world. I’m using a more precise way of doing things, where I’m combining these landmark areas that have been handcrafted. So it’s more about figuring out where I want to place those in this world, rather than growing it out.
Marshall: Thank you guys very much! We’ve been joined by Jeremiah Ingham and Colin Sullivan of Arclight Worlds. Again, they’re behind the forthcoming indie title Venture Forth. We’ll be certain to keep our readers posted on when it’s coming out. Thank you guys very much for joining us, and we’ll see you at the next Last Token Gaming interview!