Chris Pavia, the founder of Cube Roots, released a game called “Dungeon Hearts” back in April for Steam and iOS. “Dungeon Hearts” combines gameplay mechanics from puzzle, role-playing, and music rhythm games. After six months of being on the market, Pavia reached out to us about his experiences creating Dungeon Hearts and working with their publisher, Devolver Digital.
If you have a Twitter account, you can follow Chris Pavia and Digital Devolver to get the latest updates on their games. We would like to thank Chris Pavia for reaching out to Dromble to do this interview.
Dungeon Hearts is the first game from your studio, Cube Roots. How big of a developer is Cube Roots, and what can you tell me about your background in game development?
I’m the only full time member of Cube Roots, and I contract out whatever I don’t do myself such as the music. For example, I created all of the art in the game, but I hired an animator to animate the heroes and enemies (a very time consuming process for me) so I could spend more time working on the gameplay. Since I handle the bulk of the art, design, and coding on my games, I don’t really have need for a full-time staff.
That said, I would love to take on a programming partner since that’s the weakest of my skills. I’m kind of picky though, so it’s been tough to find someone with whom I work well (that will put up with me is perhaps more appropriate), is willing to put in the same amount of time that I do, and is experienced with Unity.
As for my background, I’ve worked in the mainstream game industry for about 7 years, which is how I built up the skill set that allowed me to go indie. Most of the places I’ve worked at were very small, so I got used to doing a little bit of everything. The downside however is that I’ve worked on many games that no one has ever heard of or played. I think the trade off between skills learned and games created was more than worth it in the end.
Devolver Digital is the publisher of Dungeon Hearts. Can you describe your relationship with them? Did they approach you about publishing the game or did you approach them?
Devolver had a contest of sorts called the Pitch Fork Parker project at GDC a couple years ago where you could pitch them a game while riding a beat-up bus around San Francisco, and Dungeon Hearts was one of the games chosen. Working with them has been great, they are one of the very few publishers around who embrace the quirkiness of indie games and let the creators have free reign. They would make suggestions for tweaks here and there, but would always stress that it was my call in the end. But to be honest their suggestions were useful since they were more about difficulty or making sure something made sense to the player, as opposed to changing the direction of the whole game.
Due to the game’s non-traditional mechanics, you’ve said that people tend to either love it or hate it. I personally found the game to be addicting once I started figuring everything out. In your opinion, why do you believe the gameplay mechanics are so divisive? What makes the mechanics very non-traditional in comparison to other puzzle or rhythm games?
I think people hear that the game is a match-3 style RPG and immediately jump to the conclusion that it’s a more casual-focused game. People jump in expecting a slower-paced experience, and don’t expect time pressure to be such a big factor in the game. I purposefully wanted to stray away from typical match-3 mechanics, but it could be said that I strayed too far for some people. On the other hand, other people embrace how different the gameplay is and enjoy the time-pressure aspect. The experience has taught me a lot about how much of a game should be familiar and how much should be new. I’ve been toying with the idea of trying out a turn-based variant to see how the gameplay holds up without the time constraint. The input-precision needed for the game makes it nearly impossible to put on a smaller device like a phone, but a turn based version could do the trick if the gameplay still holds up.
The gameplay tries to strike a balance between puzzle and role-playing elements. Is it difficult to create a game that appeals to fans of two different genres?
These days I think it’s pretty common to combine different genres, especially in the indie scene. As a designer it’s a fun process to iterate on the gameplay and see what comes out the other end. The main regret I have is not doing more with the RPG side. I would have loved to have an over world and more explicit story, but I also wanted to keep the scope low enough for me to actually finish the game. It’s very common for small teams to not understand the overall scope of what they are working on, then eventually they get tired of it and move on to something else. To combat that I had to be very ruthless about cutting out anything that didn’t directly relate to the gameplay since that was my focus. There is a story in there, hidden among the bestiary entries, but it’s probably too well hidden.
Dungeon Hearts is known for having an extensive soundtrack. Players can keep replaying the game to unlock new soundtracks. Could you explain the process of creating the music behind the game? Who was involved with the soundtracks, and how much of the game’s budget went into the music?
I love game music (it makes up about 75% of what i listen to on a daily basis), so right from the start I knew I wanted to try something different with the soundtrack. It wasn’t hard tracking down artists, as there are a LOT of musicians looking for work. I kind of feel bad that I have to constantly turn down great artists who contact me looking for work. The guys I ended up working with are: PostPre for the Glitch-Hop version, Sam English for the main Orchestral version, Chris Nairn for the Rock / J-Pop version, Bill Kiley for the Chiptune version, and Viking Guitar for the Heavy Metal version. Working with all the musicians was surprisingly painless, since we all share a similar taste in games so we had plenty of common reference to pull from. The only thing I would say was difficult was trying to comment or critique a track’s structure since it was my first time doing so and I don’t have a deep grasp of the language of music. But everyone was very easy to work with so there weren’t any major problems.
Since I was doing most of the art, design, and coding on the game, I was able to use what little budget I had on the music, although they all deserve at least double what I paid them. I tried to make up for it by putting their names everywhere I could so they could get the recognition they deserve. If you go into the credits screen you can see names, pictures, and contact info for all the musicians (as well as everyone else who worked on the game), and I referenced them directly in the options menu where you switch soundtracks.
If you could pick your three favorite game soundtracks of all time, which would you choose and why?
If I go by which soundtracks I listen to most often when I’m working, it’d be Final Fantasy V, Double Dragon Neon, and Shatter. With FF V, there is a great sense of progression through this grand adventure that links it all together, and I can get lost in that ebb and flow since it often mimics my development style. I normally tend to be attracted to really up-tempo music though, and the Double Dragon and Shatter soundtracks match that pace perfectly. I can’t listen to them when my wife is in the room because I can’t stop myself from getting into the grove and start dancing in my chair and singing along (yes I’m very self-conscious). I do most of my development at night after everyone is asleep, and the music keeps me awake and full of energy.
Some sites have said that Dungeon Hearts is like Theatrhythm except with a focus on puzzles instead of rhythm. Did any specific rhythm, puzzle, or role-playing games help influence the ideas behind Dungeon Hearts?
The game Four Heroes of Light for the DS sparked my initial ideas for the game. Its item management system is a simple puzzle of sorts (each hero can only bring 1 item with them, which makes the selection very important), and it made me want to see how much puzzle I could work into the actual battle system of an RPG. I enjoy designing battle systems, and I’ve said in the past I wish I could just build battle systems all day and have someone else design the rest of the game that goes around them. A quirky SRPG called Yggdra Union was a big inspiration for the combo system in the game, and in general I’m a fan of how many of Sting’s games are very non-traditional (Knights in the Knightmare may be the most out there in terms of gameplay). The Mario & Luigi RPG games were the basis for the mini-game style of special abilities the heroes acquire. The overall structure of the game mimics the boss-rush mode that can be found in many shmups.
I don’t plan ahead very much when I start working on a new project, I like to get some basic aspects working, see how it feels in my hands, then add and change based on that. Dungeon Hearts was a very different game when I started making it. There was a whole dungeon-exploring element that I ended up removing because it was like working on two games at once, although I ended up using that system as the basis for the next Dungeon Hearts game I’m working on now.
It’s been (roughly) over five months since the game has been released. Looking back at it, are you proud of what you created? Would you have done anything differently if you could go back in time? Would you do anything differently if you created a Dungeon Hearts 2?
As a team of (mostly) 1 person, I’m very proud to have finished a game and gotten it onto Steam. The game definitely has issues, but I’ve learned a great deal from them so there’s always something to be gained. I ended up cutting out a lot of content, including most of the narrative, so that I could finish the game in a reasonable timeframe. I knew that as development time increased, so would the likelihood of never finishing the game Having worked in the mainstream game industry for many years, I’ve grown a thick skin when it comes to cutting features or content which is something I think more indies need to get in the habit of doing if they want to finish their projects.
There are many things I’d have liked to do differently. Make the enemy health state more obvious, combine the heroes’ health bars into a single bar, add more narrative elements, and more sense of progression across play throughs. The core gameplay could also be more streamlined so that it’s easier to understand what’s going on for new players. For example, the system that’s used to calculate exactly what your modifier is from a combo is too opaque, I should have greatly simplified that part. When I finish the Dungeon Hearts Roguelike I’m working on now, I would like to go back and do a Dungeon Hearts Remix project (kind of like a Dungeon Hearts 1.5) where I fix a lot of what was wrong with the original, and maybe get that on more platforms like the Vita or Wii U.
Do you prefer the controls from the PC version or the iPad version? Have you seen a large difference in sales between the two versions?
Sales on Steam have vastly outpaced iPad sales, but that’s pretty much what I expected. A lot more people have Steam-compatible devices than have iPads. From Steam we can easily get in various bundles, as we did with the Indie Royale Bundle. It’s also much easier to get and send out keys, update the game quickly to address issues, do public betas, and communicate directly with the audience. While I think the touch controls are better, Steam is just a more accessible and friendly system to work with.
Dungeon Hearts was created with Unity and the iPad version has touchscreen controls. PS Vita and Wii U both support Unity and touch screen controls. Could you see Dungeon Hearts being a good fit on any consoles or gaming portables in the future?
I’ve learned a lot since releasing Dungeon Hearts about what players like and don’t like about the game, which is why I’d rather wait for Dungeon Hearts Remix (or whatever the name ends up being) than release the game as-is on other platforms. If I’m able to acquire a programming partner at some point, this will probably be one of the first things we work on.