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Riftbound Evolves: Behind the world's first PvZ-like Roguelite

Riftbound Evolves: Behind the world's first PvZ-like Roguelite

Written by Eric Hauter on 5/8/2023 for PC  
More On: Riftbound

The developers at Barrel Smash Studios are not the types to leave well enough alone. After releasing Riftbound on Steam in May, 2022, the husband and wife team of James Thomas (Lead Programmer) and Louisa Thomas (Lead Artist) took a look at their feature-complete game and asked "How can we make it better?".

Riftbound is what I call a "PvZ-like", a lane-defense game that immediately calls to mind endless afternoons spent with the original Plants vs. Zombies. Upon release, I reviewed the game, giving it an 8.8/10. In my review, I stated that "Riftbound is a total nailbiter of a game. Barrel Smash Studios takes the Plants Vs. Zombies model and elevates it to something that requires speed, strategy, and precision at its highest levels, ultimately showing what heights this neglected genre can achieve." So how could Barrel Smash Studios improve on an already excellent game? By more than doubling the content and turning it into a roguelite, of course.

Barrel Smash has spent the last year working with a dedicated community of Riftbound fans, creating a completely new experience with the bones of the existing game. The excellent original campaign is still there to play, of course, but when the game updates on May 9th, all players will gain access to the new roguelite campaign Summoner's Path at no additional cost. This team took their game, and created an entire new game out of it, and now they are simply giving it away as a free update. 

If I were reviewing the game again with all of the new content added in, I would be sorely tempted to give Riftbound a 10, as the roguelite campaign absolutely slaps. I cannot express how much I want other people to play and enjoy this game, as it is one of the most intense, deep, and hilariously fast-moving experiences I've had in years. By the time I got to the first boss in the Summoner's Path campaign, I was in a complete flow state, thinking five moves ahead and moving my controller as fast as my old-man fingers could manage. This is a strategic masterpiece, and if you don't own it already, I would strongly encourage you to dip over to Steam and pick it up immediately. 

I was so curious about the new additions to Riftbound that I asked Barrel Smash Studios if they would be willing to elaborate on the work that went into the game's expansion, and they kindly obliged. The following interview was conducted via email with Barrel Smash Studios' James Thomas, and has been edited very slightly for clarity.


Could you please tell us a little of the history behind Barrel Smash Studios? How did you make the decision to start building a video game?

My entry into game development was way back in the Warcraft 3 era, where I would mod Warcraft 3, Supreme Commander and Starcraft 2. While mostly just for fun with friends, I released a significant mod for Starcraft 2 called “Battle for Sky Fortress”, which was well received (to this day, the reviews are still a source of inspiration). From there I started game development in the C4Engine, this was before tools like Unity were available, but nothing really panned out there. Many years later I found myself using Unity for engineering-based software applications. It was around 2017 that I felt the modding itch again, but I decided instead of spending endless hours modding games, I might as well make a standalone game. So I partnered with my wife to form our game dev company, and here we are.

Riftbound was released on Steam in 2022, meaning that much of the game's development took place during the early days of the pandemic. Did this challenge or impact the game's development in any way?

This was quite a brutal period to be honest. Game development is hard enough, especially in a small team where two people are trying to manage everything. You throw a pandemic on top of that, in a country that did full lockdowns for an extended period…well…suddenly, we had home-schooling and childcare to deal with on top (since they were closed for months on end). This obviously made everything more challenging, and in the end, it caused us to push our original release date from 2021 to 2022 (and even that was still crunching all the way through).


As a product manager, I'm curious about the process used by a team your size. Do you use formal development practices, or just wake up in the morning, have some coffee, and start knocking down the queue of issues you have to deal with? With such a small team, did you do all of the QA on the game yourselves? How do you keep yourself focused? 

In a two-person team there are so many hats to wear and so many things to juggle. There are the normal development tasks you would expect (design, programming, art etc), but then there is marketing, management, and everything else. Luckily my partner is more focused on the art & writing side, so I can focus on programming and game design. I’m an organized person which helps (though, sometimes I spend too much time organizing), and thankfully I have no problem with motivation. When there are so many things that need to be done, you just need to prioritize things, and dig in. Often you have a bunch of tasks where there is no priority, it just ALL has to be done, so you just pick what you feel like doing or makes most sense. Other times there are time sensitive things and deadlines, where what you need to do, and the order you need to do it in, is clear. So overall yes… wake-up, have some coffee and get to it!

For the QA side of things we did have an external company lined up, but with our internal delays due to the pandemic, they ended up not being available when we needed. They were kind enough to share information and tips with us, so we came up with our own processes. QA is super time consuming, but our releases have been quite polished, so we are happy with how it is all going. I’m always writing tools and development features that help with QA and automate or speed up the process. This helps to an extent, but at the end of the day you want to open the game and do QA through the same experience the player is going to have.

Riftbound has obviously undergone an evolution of sorts, but the core experience is still a lane-defense game, similar to Plants vs. Zombies. The genre seems woefully underrepresented; one amazingly popular game, and then...nothing. How did you decide on this genre for your game?

I love Plants vs Zombies, especially the first one. I’m not a mobile gamer, so as a PC gamer it felt like we were abandoned by the PvZ franchise. Several times over the years I would be searching for “PvZ like games for PC”, but always ending up disappointed. So, when it came to decide on our own game, we just felt that lane-defense still had more to offer a PC audience. In hindsight, it’s actually a tricky genre to have success in. By the numbers, tower defense isn’t the most popular or successful genre on Steam, and lane-defense, in my opinion, barely fits what most people expect when they see “tower defense” (depending on how you design the game, it can have more in common with RTS or even ARPG games). This is mostly a case of it being cross-genre though, the genre still has more to offer PC gamers, and that’s why we decided to create this expansion.

Though the classic campaign in Riftbound has a gradual learning curve, players quickly learn that quick moves and precision are needed to succeed. How difficult was it to find that balance, challenging the player without alienating them with difficulty in a genre that many consider casual?

I’m from a generation of gamers that had to “figure stuff out”, without much hand holding. We tried to strike a balance by having a good amount of depth, but also introducing the player very slowly, and importantly, offering multiple difficulty levels. If you want a casual experience you can certainly play Riftbound on the easiest difficulty, but if you attempt hard mode you are in for a rude awakening. Enemies spawn faster, and even have slightly different abilities. Advanced tactics like interrupting enemies become key to winning the game, and you need to have a good understanding of spells and enemies. Our campaign is actually hand-balanced and curated; this was a lot of work, but we are pretty happy with how the balance ended up. The extra depth can be a surprise for people that expect a simple casual game, but at the same time it means it can appeal to an audience that wants deeper strategy. Getting this point across is easier said than done.

With the need to quickly deploy units and act decisively, owning your decisions regardless of the consequences, Riftbound feels a lot like an RTS game. Beyond Plants vs. Zombies, what were some of the inspirations for the game?

This was something we intentionally aimed for. I’m a huge fan of Supreme Commander, and with my co-op group, one of our favourite things was just holding off endless waves of enemies. This was part of the experience we wanted to capture, right down to resource management and having a “worker” collect resources instead of clicking something. We felt that combining these traditional RTS mechanics with the easy to approach lane defense format could be a good way to give that experience to non-RTS gamers (or RTS gamers that don’t have as much time to play).

This wasn’t our only deviation from the typical lane-defense formula; action RPG games (for example Titan Quest, Diablo), were also a significant inspiration. You can see this by how spell heavy our game is compared to others in the genre; yes you have units you can summon, but you also have a diverse arsenal of spells. This applies also to the advanced mechanics that let you interrupt enemies mid-swing to stop them doing their special ability or reflect boss attacks back to them - these mechanics aren’t typically seen in this genre and are our way of making the game feel more tactical and action oriented. With the new rogue-lite mode this is even more-so, our elite enemies should be familiar to anyone that has played ARPG games.

Riftbound fully released; it was not an early access game. Yet Barrel Smash spent the last year retooling the game, creating a rogue-lite mode that adds a ton of content and replayability. This new content has been released for free for all players; it isn't a paid DLC or a sequel. Was adding this content into the original release rather than charging for it a difficult decision?

We decided not to release into early access because we knew we would have a polished, bug-free product (and we did), plus there is a lot of stigma around early access. Looking back now, it feels like a bit of a lose-lose in terms of early access for developers and how a lot of players perceive it; if we were doing it all again, we would release into early access for a short period to get more feedback. That’s not to say we had any problems with what we released, the game at release was a complete game with enough content to last a player 12+ hours – the direction of having a campaign just didn’t appeal to a lot of modern gamers (to the point where we had some people refunding the game because they expected a roguelike experience).

Ironically, the very early prototypes of the game had a more unique system (where you did earn spells as you played a battle), but we opted to keep it simple as this was our first game release. This was also just before roguelites started becoming incredibly popular. So, when it came to deciding what to do with the game after our release in 2022, the direction was clear. Whether to do the update as a paid DLC or not wasn’t too difficult; I feel like a game has to have a certain level of popularity to warrant a paid DLC. We weren’t ready to give up on this genre, so we put everything we had into turning it into a roguelite and pulled no punches in the process, with the aim of giving it the best chance of success we can.

How much content has been added to the game with the rogue-lite mode, when one considers things like new powers, abilities, units, etc.?

This update is seriously massive, it’s kind of ridiculous. Pure content alone we have more than doubled the amount of spells and nearly tripled the amount of upgrades (and that’s before you count rare versions of the spells which give them extra mechanics). On top of that you have a whole range of mutators, affixes and encounters. Then there are the new mechanics, with a good number of new status effects and statuses that stack, new elite enemy system, new heroic system, plus a few new completely unique enemies to round out the roster. The game modes themselves are quite significant, with the roguelite mode being hugely replayable and the endless mode featuring 4 different scenarios, each with various mutators.

On top of this we added the customizer, which itself has more than 80 parts you can unlock through a new reward base system tied to the game modes.

What were some of the biggest challenges with adding a roguelite mode? I imagine that you had to rebalance the entire experience, dramatically increasing the difficulty curve. 

Interestingly, we spent so much time balancing the original classic campaign that it was in a really good place to start from. Plus having spent so much time balancing, we had a good feel for how to balance new features, spells, enemies and affixes. Unlike the classic campaign which is curated, the roguelite and endless modes are procedurally generated so we had to write new systems to control what the enemy AI could spawn and when. This was done for the endless mode first, as that allowed us to test how it would feel against increasing difficulty, and then it was adjusted to suit the roguelite mode and tie into the danger level throughout a run.

We had some fantastic feedback from our public playtest with existing players, this helped steer some of the directions we took, and enforced our decision to add shops and in-run currency.

There were certainly challenges though. The roguelite mode features quite a bit of extra UI, and since we have full controller and language support, UI is really complicated (compared to designing when you don’t have to worry about controllers).

Barrel Smash also added a new "endless survival mode", in which players last as long as they can against ever-escalating waves of baddies. What is your personal record in this mode? 

My partner is the main tester and I think she has reached 57 or 58 in the latest iterations. Once you hit level 50 it really ramps up and must face the fearsome Ender enemies. It will be interesting to see how far players can get!

The new character customizer is a lot of fun. How long did it take to develop all of the various permutations of the characters? 

We always wanted to add character customisation, and this played well into the simpler design of the players units. It’s not quite to the Spore level of customization, but there is enough there you can come up with some fun designs to take into battle. It was quite a lot of work as there are more than 80 individual parts, each with multiple areas that you can adjust the color of. We went into it thinking “what would be some interesting categories of objects that players could mix to create strange and interesting designs”, and then through testing we landed on what we have now. You can rotate parts as well and come up with some wacky creations by using the other end of a part.

I've been trying to imagine a PVP mode for Riftbound. The only thing I can think of is having one player slowly unlocking new bad guy units, and then with a point/energy system determining when and where to deploy them against the good guy. Anyhow, have you ever considered developing a PVP mode? If so, what were some of the challenges you encountered when thinking it through?

PvP in Riftbound would require a point based spawning system (similar to how the AI has a point system for procedural spawning), though it would be tricky to balance. Multiplayer adds an enormous amount of development to any game, so there are no current plans for multiplayer in Riftbound. The good thing about this is, we can design any sort of crazy unbalanced spells and not have to worry about balancing it against a player. We do have some future hopes to develop multiplayer games, but we are taking this one step at a time.

With the dramatic expansion of Riftbound, it is clear that you are still thinking a lot about the game. Are there any more features that you would like to add? Any stuff that you considered and abandoned?

With this expansion, the game is feeling very complete and offers really good value to players. There are some possibilities to extend the rogue-lite mode in the future that we have some ideas for, so if it is well received, we can see an opportunity for that. Nothing was abandoned, the original classic campaign is still there in its full glory and benefited from all of the “Quality of Life” upgrades we just added – though we are steering people towards the new roguelite mode because it’s simply going to be a more modern and fun experience for most players.

I'm curious about the music in Riftbound. Who composed the music? It does seem to react to the action on the screen somewhat, increasing the tension as things get dire. Was this difficult to implement?

The music composed by Hew Wagner, a wonderful local musician in Melbourne. It’s been a pleasure working with Hew and we hope to involve him in future projects. The music is very dynamic and reacts to things in the game. We track various things within a battle and this dynamically changes the intensity and “dangerousness” of the music as you play. Dynamic music has a nice impact on a game, it is certainly more difficult to implement but well worth it.

When you are not doing Riftbound-related things, what are some games that you enjoy playing for fun?

Most of my gaming time currently goes into co-op sessions with friends, we play a lot of survival games, FPS and such. We do enjoy RTS games but that’s in a tricky spot at the moment, especially for multiplayer. For single player gaming I enjoy strategy, turn-based and building games. My partner enjoys strategy games, puzzle games and RPGs that feature good character development.

What is the Australian game development community like? Are there any other studios local to you that you share war stories with?

We are based in Melbourne, which is possibly the best place for game development in Australia. There are some fantastic people here that are willing to help, we were lucky to get have mentoring from some industry veterans as well. There are government funding programs through VicScreen here which has helped immensely and is run by incredibly helpful people, we are incredibly grateful to everyone involved.

Obviously, you are still working on the update for Riftbound. But are there any other projects on the horizon you would like to get to one day?

We kind of threw ourselves in the deep end with Riftbound. Supporting 8 languages, having full controller support and having a roster of completely unique non-humanoid custom characters, all adds up and increases the workload significantly.

Now we have a lot of experience to take into the development of our next game, and we have several projects of various sizes that we are prototyping and would like to take into production. Nothing to announce just yet obviously, but you will see more titles from us in the future!

Riftbound is currently available on Steam, retailing for $19.99. The Summoner's Path update, including the roguelike campaign, will be available on May 9th as a free update.

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

Howdy.  My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a dad with a ton of kids.  During my non-existent spare time, I like to play a wide variety of games, including JRPGs, strategy and action games (with the occasional trip into the black hole of MMOs). I am intrigued by the prospect of cloud gaming, and am often found poking around the cloud various platforms looking for fun and interesting stories.  I was an early adopter of PSVR (I had one delivered on release day), and I’ve enjoyed trying out the variety of games that have released since day one. I've since added an Oculus Quest 2 and PS VR2 to my headset collection.  I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by VR multi-player, and I try almost every multi-player game that gets released.

My first system was a Commodore 64, and I’ve owned countless systems since then.  I was a manager at a toy store for the release of PS1, PS2, N64 and Dreamcast, so my nostalgia that era of gaming runs pretty deep.  Currently, I play on Xbox Series X, Series S, PS5, PS VR2, Quest 3, Switch, Luna, GeForce Now, (RIP Stadia) and a super sweet gaming PC built by John Yan.  While I lean towards Sony products, I don’t have any brand loyalty, and am perfectly willing to play game on other systems.

When I’m not playing games or wrangling my gaggle of children, I enjoy watching horror movies and doing all the other geeky activities one might expect. I also co-host the Chronologically Podcast, where we review every film from various filmmakers in order, which you can find wherever you get your podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @eric_hauter, and check out my YouTube channel here

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