Texas-based indie studio Level Up Labs released tower defense/RPG hybrid Defender’s Quest on Steam in 2012, to a fair amount of critical acclaim. Since then, the small development company has been steadily working to refine the game, re-releasing it to consoles earlier this year as Defender’s Quest: Valley of the Forgotten DX. Level Up Labs’ co-founder and lead coder Lars Doucet was kind enough to answer some questions regarding the inspiration for and development of Defender’s Quest, the status of Defender’s Quest II, keeping an indie studio afloat, what happens when a side project takes off, and what the future holds for Level Up Labs (spoiler: they are bringing Defender’s Quest to Switch!).
What is your position at Level Up Labs (I kind of get the impression that you are a one man show, but I'm not 100% certain!)
Officially, I call myself "Co-Founder." I founded the company with Anthony Pecorella, (the other "Co-Founder"), though I'm the only one who works here 8-9 hours a day, 5 days a week. Anthony's full time job is at Kongregate, but he moonlights for us as production/design assistant now and then, and he's also our biggest investor, he owns about half the company and I own the other half.
It's not fully a one man show, however -- you can see the credits for a full breakdown, but the core team has traditionally been four people -- Me, the fulltime coder, Anthony, who designed DQ1 and handled most of the balance and level design, James Cavin, who wrote the story, and Kevin Penkin, who wrote the music (he's since gone on to do super cool stuff like the Anime Made In Abyss, but we knew him before he was famous!). Then we have a whole bunch of short-term contractors that we've used on and off as needed -- like our QA specialist who shepherded us through the console releases, Syrenne McNulty.
How long have you been coding games?
Long time. Probably the earliest one that "counts" is in high school or thereabouts, circa 1998/1999 -- so nearly 20 years now!
Did you go to school for game design, or are you self-taught?
Sort of. I got my undergrad in Architecture, and my Master's in "Visualization Sciences" which is just a fancy word for "Computer Graphics and Stuff." That program really specialized in churning out Technical Directors to go work at Pixar and Dreamworks and whatnot, and that's what I thought I wanted to do originally, but I found I kind of hated CG animation. So I spent my four years of grad school subverting my degree to slip in game design instead, but there really wasn't anyone to teach me anything at the program, so I had to do a lot of directed studies and experiment with the local game development club, etc.
What were some of your early efforts?
I got my start in educational games, with titles like Super Energy Apocalypse and CellCraft. (You can find them both on Kongregate.com still). SEA was about sustainable energy use and zombies (build power plants to power weapons, but the emissions and solid waste makes the zombies stronger, and you can choose your mix of fuel sources, etc) and CellCraft was a simple & goofy little RTS about cell biology aimed at like sixth grades so they know how to label the parts of a cell. CellCraft is actually where I first met Anthony (it was his project, he hired me to do the coding).
How long were you working on Defender's Quest before the original Steam release?
The very first inkling of it started in 2010 with an email from Anthony. I was a contractor then, working on someone else's Facebook game, and slowly started spending my off hours prototyping DQ. I quit contracting sometime in 2011 and focused on DQ full time, and we launched it off-Steam in January 2012, just using our own website with a shopping cart backend, and an embedded flash demo on our own site, Kongregate, and Newgrounds. We did pretty well (my early blog has some postmortems from this period).
Defender's Quest first released on Steam in 2012 to critical success. Can you tell us a bit about the reception that Defender's Quest received?
We did very well, certainly compared to the launch an indie game can expect today. We didn't have anything like "Indie Game the Movie" success, but certainly enough to sustain one developer full time (more or less). As for critical success, the game achieved an "Overwhelmingly Positive" rating on Steam and to this day is in the top 250 -- 188 last I checked. I'm not going to pretend it's objectively the best Tower Defense Game Of All Time or anything like that... but I can say, that subjectively, it is many people's favorite tower defense game, fans and critics alike have said that from time to time. It's a nice feeling to know that you've created something that hits the high notes for somebody.
After six years, you are bringing a definitive version of Defender's Quest to consoles. What led to the decision to resurrect the franchise?
The franchise never went dormant so much as it's been slow burning. Believe it or not, DQI has been steadily earning us enough to keep our tiny company afloat (barely) -- but only so long as we keep supporting it with updates. The good ol' days of 2012 are long gone, however, and there's more competition on Steam than ever before, so we really needed to get some alternative income sources so we were no longer living or dying based on what happens with Steam.
The "DX" edition update actually came out [on Steam] in 2016, so that version of the game, which is what we just released on consoles, is just barely 2 years old. Previously, Defender's Quest was a Flash game, locked to 800x600 resolution, and had various other limitations. The DX edition added HD graphics support, adjustable resolution, controller support, many new languages, and lots of other little quality of life features. It's also possible to port to consoles, unlike the previous engine.
What is the status of Defender's Quest II?
Hah, I definitely deserve this one. It is still happening, though slower than I and everyone else would like. So one thing is that DQDX is the DQII engine, but with DQI's content. Basically, read this article: http://www.fortressofdoors.com/how-the-sausage-gets-made-aka-where-the-is-dqii/
What were some of the inspirations behind Defender's Quest?
Anthony and I are both long time flash developers. Two of the most consistently popular genres on flash portals were RPG's and Tower Defense, but they hadn't really been put together in a very interesting way before. Also, very specifically, Final Fantasy Crystal Defenders -- an early mobile game which was Tower Defense with FF Tactics set dressing. Which sounds awesome! But in fact it's pretty lame -- it's very thin strategically, and you don't even have any persistent RPG characters, just anonymous tower defense drones that you can't level up between battles and customize. We decided to make what we thought that game should have been.
It is clear from playing the game that you are a big RPG fan. What are some of your favorites?
The classics for sure - Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Chrono Trigger. But beyond those, I was always a big CRPG fan -- Fallout 1&2, Planescape Torment. I also like the old Shadowrun games (both the SNES and Genesis versions, different as they were). Shining Force is another favorite. Beyond that -- Breath of Fire, Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario -- that kind of stuff.
Did you write the story for Defender's Quest yourself? Do you have other writing credits that fans could seek out?
Nope! James Cavin wrote the story. He's an actual English major and knows what he's doing. Early on I tried to stick my finger in the pudding but I've found I'm happier, and the quality of the story and game is better, if I leave him to his own devices.
How did you decide on the final archetypes for the tower/characters? Were there any archetypes that you considered that didn't make the cut?
Anthony gave us a list of mechanics and tower archetypes and James designed the characters around that. Anthony had a deep knowledge of Tower Defense tropes and what he wanted to see, and so even though we only have six classes, they were designed so that if you take advantage of specialties you have far more actual possible roles than just six. We did have two other classes that got cut -- "Protector" and "Paladin" -- the Protector was more of an explicit defense-oriented tank in Heavy armor and a big shield, who would literally take hits for other characters, and the Paladin was this class focused on auras and buffs. Eventually these roles and ideas just got subsumed into the Dragon, Knight, and Healer classes and we cut the extra classes. The dragon was originally supposed to be a dragon rider -- with an archer mounted on top. But that got simplified into just a dragon.
How difficult was it to balance the levels? Did you have criteria for normal, advanced and extreme difficulty?
Yeah, Anthony mostly just worked his spreadsheet-fu on that. He has a good head for formulas and the expected XP / Gold you're supposed to have at any given point, and how strong the enemies should be. Then we had a lot of playtesting to (mostly) iron out the weak spots. Being able to drop down to casual, or go back and play harder battles to get more rewards, helps accommodate things and help people find their own difficulty fit, because you'll never get the main path exactly right for everyone. The main criteria for the difficulty levels themselves, however, was: Casual -- cheese through it easily, Normal -- assuming you've beaten every previous level on normal/perfect, this will be just about right for you, though we spike difficulty sometimes to encourage you to go back and try advanced/Extreme. Advanced -- should be just a little beyond your abilities first time you see it. Extreme -- no chance you can beat this the first time until you've done another few levels and come back.
Is there a preferred way you would like players to play the game? Are you opposed to players that grind battles to defeat extreme difficulty before advancing the story?
If we were opposed to that, we wouldn't have let you crank up the XP multiplier to 300%! Players should play the game they want. We even expose the data format as plain XML and make it easy to export/import so you can hack it if you feel that you must. (Incidentally this actually made customer support waaaay easier in the rare cases we had save-damaging bugs -- I'd ask for the player's save file and manually fix it!) If you are just here for the story, you have a bunch of ways to cheese through in a few hours. If you are here for every last challenge, you can do that. If that's not hard enough, you can try hero mode. If that's not hard enough, you can turn Failure penalties up to 100%, or whatever. If you want to skip all cut scenes and dialog, you can do that.
The weapons and armor come at a steady rate throughout the game. Are there any that are favorites? Are there any that you would consider game-breaking?
Evni's my favorite, especially when you upgrade "her" in New Game+ mode so that "she" gets the devour ability -- which makes the sword literally eat enemies below a certain health threshold. Makes Slak into a super good goal tender when he's got his whirlwind ability. I will admit we made a mistake by not putting more of the special ability items into the regular (non-New-Game+) playthrough. This is because of the iterative releases of the game after initial publication -- we added New Game+ on top of the original mode and didn't want to touch the base game for fear of ruining the balance.
What were the inspirations for those awesome trailer videos? How long did they take you to put together?
James wrote those, and his little brother Vladimir did the voices. They took a long time to put together, mostly because we didn't know what we were doing and had to learn as we went along. Those two have good instincts, I like their style.
I was poking around on your site, and I found the blog post about Tourette Quest (a short procedurally generated game that Lars developed to help demonstrate what living with Tourette’s Syndrome is like). As someone with Tourette's myself, I immediately became interested. I spend a lot of time at my day job managing my symptoms, so this obviously resonated a lot with me. I often find that video games are great distraction from tics when I'm having a flare-up. Have you also used games to deal with symptoms? Are there any types of games that work best for you?
I'm lucky in that I get to work from home, and thus control my own environment to a great degree. That's my single greatest coping mechanism -- just avoiding my known stressors altogether. I do find video games help me "zone" and get out of the space where I tend to have tics, books are good too, but honestly these days I barely have time to play games anymore!
Did you pursue Tourette Quest further? Is there a definitive edition available anywhere online?
Which blog post did you read? Did you read the super old version where the game was a little Zelda-like thing? Or was it this more recent one?
I did a 7DRL jam version of TQ that is quite different from the old one, and I think I like it a lot better. I've never done a "full" properly realized version, that I would be comfortable charging money for or anything, but the current TQ prototype is playable online -- the article should have a link.
Looks like we tied for sixth place in 7DRL 2018!
Did you find that working on Tourette Quest exacerbated your symptoms? I won't lie, playing the version in the blog post got me going pretty good.
Yeah that's a thing I've always worried about :) In that sense, TQ is not as much "for" people with TS as it is a way to kind of explain it to people who don't have it. It's a stressful game! Though I've been thinking of adding some interesting new mechanics that model the idea of "getting into the zone" so that if you get in a good flow state, you can stay there (but if you get knocked out, things go bad).
Could you discuss the press response that Tourette Quest received?
I made a prototype of it waaaay back in the day, [here are] the links:
Press response to that version was ridiculously disproportional to how much effort I put into it, and also the quality of the game sucked, I'm frankly kind of embarrassed of that version. Having just made Defender’s Quest and pounding the pavement to get press coverage, it was kind of funny how I made this one little throwaway title that sucked, but because it had such a weird hook I got lots of big name press talking about it easily. Doing it again in 2018, and making actually a good version of it, got a lot less attention. Just sign of the times I think -- there's so many more games out these days, and press has been slashed everywhere.
Still, TQ was positively received here and there in 2018 -- it did well in 7DRL and some small channels played it on YouTube. I didn't have ambitions for much else.
What are the future plans for Level Up Labs?
DQII for now. I want to release that game so bad.
Are there any plans to bring Defender's Quest to Switch?
Yes! I've got someone working on it right now. My focus is DQII, but I've contracted a trusted friend (the one who taught me a lot of what I currently know about programming) to port it to the Switch.
Are there any other projects you are working on (game-related or otherwise) that you would like our readers to know about?
I blog at Gamasutra and at FortressOfDoors.com, but that's about it. I don't really have time for too many side projects. Oh -- I guess I do a bit of open source work. I contribute to the tools I use -- the programming language (Haxe), the multimedia library (OpenFL), and the game framework (HaxeFlixel). For instance, I'm doing my best to make the console back-ends I've been using for DQ available to other developers using the same tools. And I try to release what I can -- DQ's user interface library is fully open source, as is the localization framework:
Many thanks to Lars and Level Up Labs for taking the time to answer our questions. Defender’s Quest: Valley of the Forgotten DX is available on Steam, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita and Xbox One, and is coming soon to Nintendo Switch.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
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 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 Stadia, PS5, PS4, PSVR, Quest 2, Switch, Luna, GeForce Now, and a super sweet gaming PC built by Joh 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.View Profile