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Enter the Gungeon dev Dave Crooks speaks with Vooks

by Chris ButtonNovember 6, 2018

The following is a feature based on an interview with Dodge Roll’s Dave Crooks conducted by Chris Button and Paul Roberts at PAX Australia 2018.

We here at Vooks love Enter the Gungeon. Packed with addictive twin-stick roguelike action and adorable humanoid bullets, Gungeon has firmly entrenched itself as one of the most popular indie hits in recent years.

At PAX Australia 2018, we had the absolute pleasure of interviewing Dave Crooks from Dodge Roll, the talented dev team behind Gungeon, the game where you attempt to find the gun capable of killing the past.

Commencing with a look at the astounding success of Gunegon on the Nintendo Switch, which sold over 75,000 copies in its first two weeks on the eShop back in December 2017, Crooks mentioned the Switch version’s current week-to-week sales are close to matching the Steam version. Considering Gungeon broke the one million sales mark across all platforms in mid-2017, well before the Switch release – and has now cracked at least 1.1 million sales on Steam alone – it’s fair to say the Switch version is performing strongly. In fact, earlier this year, Enter the Gungeon featured on Nintendo’s top-ten list of indies sold.

“To be frank, the Switch version brought the house down,” Crooks said. “We hoped it was going to do well, and we thought it would do pretty well, we knew our window was pretty good – we were just laughing, I mean we were very happy, very happy with that many sales.”

“To be frank, the Switch version brought the house down,”

A significant portion of Gungeon‘s sales success can be attributed to a strong performance in the Asian market, where the game’s strong localisation was well-received.

“We worked with some really talented teams and we’ve been told our cultural references are carried over to localised cultural references really well,” Crooks said. “Also, I think that [because] we have this rule for Dodge Roll for Gungeon: everything has to have a face, everything has to animate – just the aesthetic that Gungeon has winds up pretty well with the Japanese, Korean and Chinese cuter look you see everywhere there.”

“Korea, in particular, has a huge roguelike fanbase there that was part of it too – we were pretty shocked by it.”

Adding to the strong cultural matches, the work Dodge Roll in conjunction with publishers Devolver Digital put into making Gungeon easily accessible across regions is seen as another reason for its international success. Crooks emphasised the work they did in “really making an effort” in translating for different storefronts and making Gungeon easily accessible in ways that people normally interact with games in their region, such as “actually releasing it on PlayStation in Korea” instead of relying on people to log into the American storefronts in the way we in the West might log into the Japanese store to buy certain games. Much of this legwork is down to the personalised way Devolver supports their developers.

“I don’t say this because they’re bribing me – but they are a little bit – I think they’re the best people in the world,” Crooks said. “If you’re making an indie game and you want a publisher, then the first thing you should do is try and go to Devolver.”

“Devolver has a personal investment in these developers on an individual level: moral support, emotional support, financial support, market support, and business support. I like to say with Devolver you always have a seat at the table; we’re like a big family, I can’t really imagine not working with them. They’re the best, they do everything that’s great.”

Aside from Enter the Gungeon, Devolver’s support of the Nintendo Switch has been phenomenal. Including the likes of The MessengerMinit, and Reigns – just to name a few – Devolver’s titles are a consistent stream of quality indie experiences on the Switch. Because of this ongoing commitment to supporting independent developers, Crooks believes Devolver will have been pitched about 50 times at PAX Australia alone. However, very few of these would get a look in, due to Devolver’s commitment to remaining small and personal.

“Because of that notoriety of being such good people to work with, the indie developers go there first, and they [Devolver] have first pick of the litter and it’s pretty rare that a major indie game didn’t get floated by Devolver first,” Crooks said. “Sometimes they’ll turn down a game they like because they don’t have the time and don’t want to stretch themselves too thin.”

“But that’s part of why they’re so good, because they make sure they don’t take on too much so that they can keep giving that personal touch to everything.”

Additionally, Devolver’s whacky sense of humour endears itself to the developers as well as the fans. For example, the Friday of PAX Australia was respectfully observed by Devolver as the release day of cowboy simulator Red Dead Redemption 2. And their E3 conferences are a hoot. Much of Devolver’s shenanigans are the brainchild of co-founder Nigel Lowrie, who lives in Austin, Texas, where Crooks also resides. The duo regularly spitball goofy tech demo ideas, one of which almost saw the light of day at E3 2018.

“One idea that hit the cutting room for this one [E3 2018] was to announce Enter the Gungeongrounds and have a 100-man Gungeon Battle Royale,” Crooks laughed. “We sat down and thought what would it take to make a demo that basically looked pretty good, and then I started thinking, wait a minute, how would it look as a real game?”

“There was a design document for this thing and I actually think it could be pretty fun. We had line-of-sight-based occlusion and we were going down the rabbit hole.”

While we’re still reeling from not getting to see an Enter the Gungeon Battle Royale, Crooks appreciates Devolver’s satirical take on E3, which pays respect to the game industry, while also lampooning many of the awkwardness associated with large-scale industry events.

“It’s [Devolver’s E3 conferences] done in such a nice way, because it’s not twisting the knife, it’s not like shitting on anyone,” Crooks said. “It’s just like, we all know these are the dumb things that happen, and so it’s making fun of it while still kinda participating in it.”

As for Devolver’s significant presence on the Switch, including Dodge Roll’s Gungeon, Crooks believes the suitability of the portable Nintendo console for gaming is because of a natural evolution of how we consume media. Living with one of Dodge Roll’s artists, and their respective girlfriends, Crooks sees the household playing the Switch on the couch all the time.

“It’s got a really comfortable form factor, just being able to kinda multi-task, consume media twice as fast, because we’re using the TV or whatever,” Crooks said. “I can totally see when I get home next week somebody is going to be on the Switch on the couch playing something while all the TVs are taken up by Red Dead (laughs).”

Crooks also feels the fact people carry around larger phones and tablets with backpacks is conducive to peoples’ willingness to carry around portables larger than the 3DS, such as the Switch.

“I think if the Switch had come out earlier, it would be like a Game Gear-like thing – the Game Gear had its own issues – we’re going back a long way here,” Crooks said. “People weren’t really used to carrying around bags of that size and now, you go outside and everyone has a bag, so I think the world came together, ‘yeah we carry these devices now’ and so we’re very used to it.”

Developing the Nintendo Switch port of Enter the Gungeon was a mainly straightforward process for the Dodge Roll team, largely thanks to their optimisation work for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions. However, the main challenge was getting through Nintendo’s strict certification process, specifically the fact that Gungeon‘s patch sizes were too big.

“It was a fundamental issue in the way that we allocated all of everything and we basically just had to rewrite the way the game was stored, and that was a complete overhaul of the saves, all of it, everything!” Crooks said. “It took several months, but at the end of the day, we did it, and when Gungeon first came out it was 1.3 GB and now it’s 187 MB – we cut it down to a fifth and we didn’t lose anything by being way, way smarter about it.”

Aside from a couple of minor performance hiccups during some bosses, such as the Gorgun (known internally as “Meduzi”), Dodge Roll was thrilled with the Switch port of Gungeon.

Speaking of bosses, a major source of inspiration for Gungeon was drawn from an unlikely source. Where some of its inspirations are clear, including The Binding of IsaacNuclear Throne, and even the dodge roll mechanic popularised in the Dark Souls series, it was Metal Gear Solid on the original PlayStation that generated the feel of Gungeon‘s big encounters. After growing up playing Super Mario Bros. on the NES, which introduced Crooks to the world of video games, which he describes as “the best thing ever”, it was the tactical espionage action of Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid that left a lasting impression. Taken in by its minimalist North American box art featuring nothing but bold red, reflective text, and knowing nothing else other than thinking it sounded cool, Crooks bought it after saving his allowance, called a friend who had been waiting years for the game and they pulled an all-nighter completing Metal Gear Solid in one sitting.

“It was such a formative experience; my jaw was on the floor at the end of it,” Crooks said. “I still think Metal Gear Solid is the most influential triple-A game of all time, I think it just set the standard how we approach telling stories in games.”

“I also feel like games are only as good as their boss battles and Metal Gear Solid has been absolutely top tier there. There are so many memories for me and for our artist; he had a very similar experience with the game. I’ve played the series all the way through and it’s always been a very near and dear to my heart in spite of it going insane occasionally (laughs).”

Crooks’ eyes light up while talking about Metal Gear Solid in a way that you feel like you’re being transported directly into that all-night session many years ago. Not only was Kojima’s classic a formative experience for Crooks, but it also sounds like it was a transformative experience for the Dodge Roll designer. It’s no wonder Enter the Gungeon, a game that wears gaming pop culture on its sleeve, generates such a huge sense of scale during its boss fights.

Gungeon is so referential – it turns out you can reference Metal Gear Solid up and down!”

Gungeon is so referential – it turns out you can reference Metal Gear Solid up and down!” Crooks excitedly proclaims. “There’s so many good boss ideas, there are so many item ideas, – there’s really just a wealth, I think it really speaks to how visionary that game was… despite its insanity.”

As proof of their love of the of Solid Snake’s adventures, the Resourceful Rat boss encounter added in Gungeon‘s recent major free content update, Advanced Gungeons & Draguns, is a direct homage to the finale of Metal Gear Solid.

Advanced Gungeons & Draguns epitomises Dodge Roll’s approach to DLC, all of which have been free downloads for owners of the base game, except for the overpowered Microtransaction Gun, which pokes fun at some developers’ approaches to paid content. The reasoning behind giving away so much content is to encourage players to revisit the game and appear on friends’ gaming feeds, which then leads to more awareness and therefore sales.

“Every time you put a gate in front of someone picking it back up again, you’re just reducing the potential viral spreading and the game was doing well enough,” Crooks said. “It [free DLC] was an experiment; we know that fans tend to have a pretty good view of us – I think we’re fairly well-liked, thank God – we didn’t want to tarnish that, that was part of it.”

“Honestly, after the Supply Drop update, we felt that it was really necessary to round out the game and it just felt weird charging for it.”

Shifting Gungeon from a hardcore, challenging game, to one of a more accessible challenge through content updates was a delicate balance for Dodge Roll, especially considering the extreme level of detail they implemented, as explored in a 2016 Rock Paper Shotgun interview. However, this shift was led by player feedback, which gave Dodge Roll plenty to work with when designing the major Advanced Gungeons & Draguns update.

“We spent a year-and-a-half to two years listening to everyone [saying] ‘man I love that game but it’s too hard, I can never get past the first level’,” Crooks said. “You hear that enough and it’s ‘eh, maybe the game is a little too hard’.”

“Everyone’s biggest complaint was the generosity thing, so with AG&D we didn’t make any of the enemies any less deadly, we just made the player more powerful more often.”

“Everyone’s biggest complaint was the generosity thing, so with AG&D we didn’t make any of the enemies any less deadly, we just made the player more powerful more often.”

Players also have the option to toggle the changes from Advanced Gungeons & Draguns on and off, meaning the option to play vanilla Gungeon remains. Although Crooks thinks “you’d have to be an idiot” to not play the new version, believing it to make the game much better. Which, all things considered, is a mighty feat when he gleams varying perspectives from Reddit forums that sometimes question if the game is too easy now – which is often shot down with a resounding “no” from the majority of the player base. Crooks is content that the team nailed the balance of challenge and accessibility; allowing more players to play and enjoy the game, while those who may have already completed the game don’t feel short-changed by the differences.

“Everyone talks about like random number generator, RNG, ‘RNG Jesus’ or whatever, the truth is with a game like Gungeon there was mostly raw RNG – we had some behind the scenes trying to massage it a little bit on initial release,” Crooks said. “But it wasn’t enough and we learnt throughout the feedback that it was no, people hate getting brown chests, but if they never get them then it’s stale, right?”

“For me, it’s making sure a player doesn’t feel like they’re getting screwed all the time and we were really really good at the game by the end of development; it was just really hard to see it, so it was also hard to take that feedback. Hear it long enough and I think we can make more people happy and I think it will be a better game.”

Advanced Gungeons & Draguns continued Dodge Roll’s free DLC policy, but it was a hot discussion point as to whether it should have been paid content.

“When AG&D came out we actually discussed, going back and forth for a while, whether or not we were going to charge for it,” Crooks said. “We just came down to Supply Drop bumped the sales really well and the game is still selling well considering it’s this old, so I don’t think we need to charge for it.”

“The mentality that went into AG&D trying to make the game better by making it more accessible, in the way we did it, just seemed to go at odds of charging for it. I’d much rather have the headline be ‘Gungeon changes the game so everyone can play it’ and not ‘pay extra now to try to play it again’, it just didn’t seem to work, it didn’t map out. So yeah it worked out for us though and everyone is happy.”

As for what’s next for Crooks and the Dodge Roll team, they are keen to move on from Gungeon soon, following some more bug-fixing, citing burnout after working on the game for five years. They are looking at potentially one more mini-update, which could potentially increase Gungeon‘s performance on Switch, in addition to something “new character-related”.

“We’re really grateful for everyone, but we’re not sure, we’re still deciding, taking some time off to decide what we want to do next, prototyping what we think will be the next major game, but we just don’t know,” Crooks said. “We know there’s more rewarding stuff to do in Gungeon but we really creatively want to do something else.”

“I don’t want to upset Gungeon fans but I feel you guys got a lot for free – I think in our hearts we want to make the next game instead of doing another expansion.”

“I don’t want to upset Gungeon fans but I feel you guys got a lot for free – I think in our hearts we want to make the next game instead of doing another expansion.”

One thing’s for certain: Crooks says one potential new project Dodge Roll is prototyping is “looking really cool” and that whatever comes next will be “hard”, adding they have “learned a lot on how to maintain challenge… without just being ultra punishing”.

Concluding with a Smash Bros. question, we asked Crooks two things. Firstly, what character would he love to see introduced to the series.

“Definitely the bullet with the sword, he’s already basically Link already, give me a Link skin, Nintendo, if you’re listening, take the bullet-man, put him in – Shovel Knight’s there, come on (laughs)!”

Finally, we asked what Nintendo-themed gun he would add to Gungeon if licensing wasn’t an issue. Crooks laughed, considering many gun designs are already very heavily inspired by various games and peripherals.

“I guess I would probably do something with Boo, I love Boo, it’s a wonderful design and a wonderful sound effect – which I will not imitate right now but I’m doing it in my head.” Crooks pondered.

“But it’s hard to say; there are several guns that are similar [to being Nintendo-themed], so thank you Nintendo for not suing us. We’re very grateful for that and we love you very much (laughs).”

Thanks to Dave Crooks for his time.

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About The Author
Chris Button
Love all things Nintendo and video games, especially Donkey Kong Country. Writes for Vooks, Hyper, PC PowerPlay and more!

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