How One Man Smashed Together Doom and Rougelikes

Joe Mirabello is the idea of an indie developer that is becoming more prevalent in the gaming world. He's just one guy who decided a game should exist and after years of experience in larger companies he's decided to try it out on his own. Joe's upcoming game, Tower of Guns, is a first-person shooter that hearkens back to the time of Doom or Quake. The catch? Well Tower of Guns is also has rougelike elements such as permadeath, random enemy placement, and gear as well. Taking the two different genres and mashing them together is a tough challenge, I interviewed Joe to see just how this unholy union is being crafted.

Tower of Guns is certainly a twist on the typical FPS and rougelike formula; can you give us your elevator pitch for the game?

Sure! Tower of Guns is a first person shooter with a lot of roguelike elements. It's not unlike FTL or Binding of Isaac mixed with Quake or Doom2. It's a fast, twitch based shooter that brings back a lot of neglected FPS tactics like circle-strafing and rocket-jumping, while also mixing in tons of random elements such a enemy placement, powerups, bosses, and level composition. Also, it's made almost entirely by one guy.

 Rouge likes got a surge in popularity recently with releases like Dungeons of Dredmor and FTL while Tower of Guns certainly has rouge like qualities what do you say to the rouge like purists who may question ToG nature?

I tell them that they're right to be critical. ToG isn't a traditional roguelike at all. A true roguelike is more than just permadeath and random elements. However, if I tell them that Tower of Guns is an FPS roguelike, they still know exactly what to expect from the game, so as a method of communicating a concept, the term is effective. However, lately I've switched to referring to ToG as a roguelike-like, a term borrowed (with permission!) from the FTL marketing brainiacs. Essentially, it's like roguelikes, but isn't directly a roguelike.  Whatever genre ToG is or isn't, I just want to make it fun.

The first thing that came to mine while playing ToG at PAX East was Doom, what other games inspired ToG and where did the decision to make a game like Doom into a rouge like come in?

There's definitely a lot Doom homages. Other than straight gameplay, I try to put little references to Doom in there: the menu sounds... the feeling of 'completing a stage'... even my brother's music evokes that era...I really have been trying to give gamers the feeling that ToG is an old friend they haven't seen in years.

There's also a lot of FTL and Binding of Isaac influences in there, as I'm using very similar elements to give the game as much re-playability as possible. I think Binding of Isaac in particular does a lot, mechanically-speaking, very well—and it really uses the 'delight of discovery' as a primary hook extremely well. That's been a (mostly) ignored quality in the triple-A space recently, and it complements early-era style FPS games well.

The idea of combining the two really came about when I was thinking of a game that I could make on my own, with as little help as possible from others. Not that I'm antisocial, because I'm not, but I'd just come off a project where 300 incredibly talented people working together had all failed to bring their game to market, and I wanted to scale back and just rely on myself for a year or so. All the decisions I've made in ToG (be them aesthetic, mechanical, technical, thematic, etc)  have been made to maximize what I can do on my own. Will this be a game for everyone? No. Will it be a 'large' game? No. But I still hope that anyone who purchases it will feel like they got their money's worth.

Let's talk about PAX East for a minute; was this your first time showing off ToG at an expo like that? How was it showing off ToG and what did the people playing it think?

While I'm no stranger to conventions (my first was showing off Titan Quest back at E3 years ago), I've never shown something where I'm the sole person to blame if anything goes wrong. That can be a paralyzing feeling and I shifted often from feeling like I was on top of things to feeling like I was totally in over my head.

I was only on the Expo floor at Pax East for one day, as part of the Indie Megabooth's new MINIBOOTH (a  rotation of three different games every day of the show). The game ran flawlessly: no crashes, minimal bugs, and lots of excited people. I probably talked to about two hundred people, and the demo machine almost always had a line of one or two people waiting to play. The demo stats showed about eighty full play-throughs...which is a lot for a single station, on a single day of eight hours, with minimal marketing.

I was showing the game to gauge whether or not gamers would even be interested and the response was incredible... It's one thing for your friends and family to tell you you're on the right track, but for a stranger, or multiple strangers as was the case, to hunt you down a week after the show and tell you how excited they are about the project and how refreshing it was to play...for anyone to go to those lengths in today's short attention-span-world...that's really inspiring. So yeah, it showed pretty well!

Tower of Guns features a lot of, well, guns. Any plans on adding other gear or items to increase the RPG features?

There is a ton of other gear in game now, actually...certainly more than there are guns..those elements are just harder to spot in a five minute burst of game play at a convention like Pax East.

The guns are akin to character 'classes' that you unlock by fulfilling certain criteria (similar to unlocking ships in FTL), and during any playthrough those weapons can 'level up' by collecting experience. However there's a variety of both latent and active pickups that you can find during any single run through of the game. I do a lot with speed upgrades, jump upgrades, extra jumps (like triple, quadruple, even centuple jumps, health upgrades, and the like. Additionally your weapon itself can take a modifier upgrade. Imagine you have a rocket launcher and you happen to find the shotgun ("spread gun") modifier...well, things get pretty crazy pretty quick.

Additionally you can pick up active-use, rechargeable items that do all sorts of bizarre things. Right now I've got items that deploy slow-time cubes of jelly, items that can rocket-boost you to faraway corners of the map, items that grant you a spinning tutu-of-death so you can just plow through enemies...things like that. I've got about a dozen-fairly complete items right now, with plans for about fifty or so total (we'll see if I can hit that). A player would only likely see three or four during any single play through.

Your studio, Terrible Posture Games, is really a one man show with some help on the sides. In your bio you talked about working for a bigger studio previously, what is that jump like?

I worked for eight years before striking out on my own: for 38 Studios working on a large-scale MMO and before that for Iron Lore Entertainment. Moving solo has been incredibly scary and super intimidating, but it's something I'd always wanted to do.

Shifting into a role of "doing everything" has been the biggest change for me. When working for a larger studio you get a relatively small piece of the project to refine: "make all the weapons," for example,  or "architect the system for building modular dungeons", or "model this bad guy boss". Those are very digestible problems, each with an isolated list of prerequisite skills and very clear success/fail criteria. You can polish those to a quality that's worthy of the term "Triple-A." And, most importantly, there's a confidence that comes for free when you've got dozens or hundreds of team mates. It's not always warranted, but that sort embedded confidence can in itself be self-fulfilling.

Working solo you don't get that. And you need to trim corners and focus on the pure experience, so you're always battling your sense of integrity. But if you dwell too long on something you'll never finish. And when you do move on you aren't always sure what the next piece that needs to be built is. There are many routes to completion and puzzling out the optimal route is a game in itself.

I'm not complaining, mind you. Every week that ToG is in development I'm getting a little better at this sort of juggling. But it's just a different kind of challenge to the ones you face when you work for a big studio.

Can you give us a taste of the "indie life" that seems to be catching on a lot lately? What is it like working for yourself, paying the bills without a real income, not answering to anyone etc.

Well, for me 'not answering to anyone' might as well be the same thing as 'never getting anything done'. External accountability really helps push me forward. So that said, my wife has been essentially acting as my producer. She pushes me to stay focused, questions what I prioritize my time with, and in general is my sanity checker. I'm telling you, you can't bullshit this woman. She's probably the smartest person in the universe but also one of the most encouraging.

Additionally, the second thing I do is give myself immutable deadlines. It's easy to drift along forever with an ambiguous deadline of  "get something playable within a few months." However, a firm deadline like "Pax East!" is not going to shift around for you because of whatever excuses life throws your way.  That sort of immutable deadline made me accountable to a crowd of people I had never met, which is surprisingly good motivational fuel.

Tower of Guns is currently on Greenlight, what is the process been to get people in the know about ToG and what happens after you get Greenlit?

Greenlight gives you a bit of an exposure boost when you first get on it, but after that first week or two you drop off the 'recently added' list and getting attention is really up to you. Pax East helped a lot towards driving attention to the Greenlight, but "getting greenlit" is still a long way off. From here I've got to finish up the game strong, potentially get pre-order and/or demo versions up, and, most importantly, get enough people who are passionate about the game that Steam decides it's worth adding to their service.

Even then, Steam isn't the only platform out there. I've been spending a decent amount of time researching alternatives. They're certainly smaller, but when you're a one-developer shop, you don't need as large of a response to keep yourself from going hungry.

Where can people go to find out more about ToG and when can we expect tobe frantically running through the game and dying over and over again?

The best place for info is at www.towerofguns.com, however the Steam Greenlight page is still worth a look (and a vote!): http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=132007077

As for release dates, my official release date is "before the new Thief game comes out". While ToG is nothing like a Thief game, I love that franchise so much that I'd really like to be able to play the new one without having that guilty feeling that I should be working instead.