How the Sausage gets made (aka "where the @$%^ is DQII")

Alrighty, been putting this one off for a bit too long. So, some of you have rightly been asking me, "hey Lars, where's DQII?" for quite some time now, leaving my dilligent wife to field the responses on the forum in my absence.

And seriously, I have the most patient, kindest fans in the world. I look at how y'all treat me vs. what I see for other games, and I am really spoiled. I trapped myself in a bit of a "silence spiral" these past 9 months and I need to get back on the horse.

So today I'm gonna peel back the curtain of indie game development and give y'all a full acccounting of what I've been doing this past year, and what my plans are for the immediate future.

First and foremost:

  • Defender's Quest II ain't cancelled. It's still happening.
  • I'm going to stop taking new pre-orders imminently. More on this later.
  • Root cause of all delays is that updating DQI is what keeps us financially afloat
    • This last one is a really weird phenomenon that doesn't apply to most other devs

I know I've been neglecting my snazzy automated progress tracker, which is all on me. At some point I let my emotional compulsions get the better on me and I've just been keeping my head down and hammering away with a giant paper TODO list instead. I'm going to shove that all into the tracker in a bit here.

What I've Been Doing

So, I work at Level Up Labs full-time, and I'm the only full-time employee. Our writer, James, works part time and has been ever so gradually scaling up towards full-time. I don't take a salary, I just get paid in rev share from sales of Defender's Quest. My family of four has been subsisting on this since about 2012. Every weekday, I put in 8 or 9 hours of work on the Defender's Quest series.

Most recently, I've been desperately trying to get the console ports of Defender's Quest I ready for certification. But why would I be doing this when I could (should?) be working on DQII? An extremely reasonable question.

First, let's roll back the clock a bit and talk about how the indie game sausage is made.

Indie sequels are extremely risky. While you're working on a new game, you usually don't have any new revenue coming in and when the money dries up you either have to beg your backers for more, or take on contracting jobs to pay the bills, which means you have less time for your game, etc. When this goes wrong I call it the "suicide by sequel spiral" -- every attempt to keep yourself afloat drags you further away from completing your game.

Our situation is a bit different, and is honestly kinda weird:

The root cause of all our delays is that updating DQI is what keeps us financially afloat

Defender's Quest is in an extremely unique position in that it's an indie game that's not an outsize hit like Binding of Isaac or Bastion or whatever, but does earn enough residual money to keep us afloat (barely). Honestly, had I known it would last this long I would not have even opened preorders from DQII -- our budget would have been tighter, but it would still be doable. The trick is -- it only works if I keep updating it and chasing the stegosaurus tail.

To avoid the "suicide by sequel spiral" trap, I charted a path where every milestone towards DQII would ensure that there would be new money coming in to keep the lights on and the children fed, but also be moving in a way where that same work would also count as progress towards DQII.

Step 1 was the DX update for DQ1 -- a new HD-capable engine to satisfy modern tastes, the potential to port to consoles, get some more promotion on Steam, and new engine features under the hood for DQII. And it worked!

Immediately after, I noticed that Steam was pushing the Steam Controller pretty hard, so I added integration for it (and was even invited to speak at Steam Dev Days 2016) in the hopes of getting some additional featuring support. This was also an opportunity to add gamepad-compatible UI for the game, which would be needed for eventual console ports, something I also wanted for DQII.

Looking nervously at our sales charts, I realized there was a huge opportunity from Chinese players. We localized the game into Chinese, and sure enough, discovered that China is kind of a big deal for Indie Games. Also, the Japanese and Korean localizations we did years ago grew alongside China. Seriously, Asia counts for like half our total sales these days, the bulk of that from China. Asia is keeping us alive in a big way.

Simultaneous to the Chinese localization update, we released mod support for DQDX. This didn't really take off (people were much more excited about the Chinese localization -- well, Chinese people at any rate), but it was still worth doing because the mod tools for DQDX are based on the internal DQII tools we've been working on all this time.

After that, the next stepping stone was to push some console ports out the door.

Okay, that's great, but all our loyal fans are PC gamers, who cares about consoles? Yeah, can't blame you there. Here's our explanation, for what it's worth:

Independence from Steam

For those of you who follow the headlines, you'll know that Steam has been changing, and for indie devs who aren't hits, average revenues have been in decline, and Steam Direct has made a lot of developers nervous that the good times are over. I'm still hopeful for Steam, but many years ago I saw the ways the wind were blowing and knew I couldn't be solely dependent on Steam; the easy days of 2012 would never come again.

So years ago I slowly started working on a path to console ports. Now, when most people do console ports they usually outsource them to dedicated port houses. The problem with this is that you often wind up with a forked codebase, or even worse, a new game engine written from the ground up. This means if you fix a bug in the PC version, it won't propagate to the console versions, and vice versa, they're totally separate projects. Being a control freak, I wanted to keep one unified code base. So I joined hands with a few other developers and started work on a console backend for the framework I'm using, OpenFL/HaxeFlixel.

And it worked! It took a while, but it was easier than I expected, and it mostly chugged along in parallel to my daily tasks of working on Defender's Quest. When I finished the Chinese translation I checked in with my partners to find that our console backend was really maturing, and our games were up and running! Great!

Here's where I underestimated the timeline. You see, I thought the hard part of console development was getting all the rendering and hardware compatibility and connecting the native console API's to our backend. That's hard work for sure, but it turns out that the really hard part, is certification.

For those of you who don't know, you're not allowed to release on consoles until your game conforms to a giant checklist of standards, and each platform has their own list with different requirements. I can't go into details because it's all locked up under NDA, but a lot of it is stuff like, "When the user does X on screen Y, then you must... (insert complicated flowchart)." And then when you submit, the first failure on the checklist cancels the whole submission and kicks it back for you to fix. Simple things that sound like they should take a day wind up taking as long as an entire month because of how fiddly and specific the details are.

Of course, these standards help to ensure that console games don't have too many awful bugs and all behave in a consistent way, but it's one of the reasons console ports take such a long time.

As of today, I've just barely reached the end of the checklists for PS4, PSVita, and XB1. If I could do things over again, I probably wouldn't have committed to three platforms at once, either.

DQII Content?

Lately we've intentionally been avoiding investing in DQII art. It's an easy way to establish proof of life in blog posts, but it's also an easy way to burn through money. We realized this after finding that we found we needed to change a lot of story details around, and realized it invalidated a lot of the old art we had already paid for. To preserve the budget, we decided to save the big art push for last. We have lots of story and design material (and engine & mechanical guts), but nothing you can put your hands on just yet.

I know everybody also wants a release date. But if there's one thing I've learned from all this, is that every date I could possibly give would be wrong.

Preorders: My Big, Fat Mistake

If I could do it all over again, I wouldn't have taken pre-orders, and I don't think I'll take them ever again. I'm going to turn off the pre-order page later today, but rest assured I will definitely still honor all the existing ones as we finish out DQII.

I don't see taking pre-orders as a fatal mistake by any means -- we're solvent, I'm still in good personal health (lifelong disabilities aside), DQI still earns us a steady trickle of money, and I'm still committed to finishing DQII. But by announcing DQII so early, and by taking people's money in advance, I started a clock ticking before I knew how much I would need to pivot my business strategy to keep things afloat.

Preorder money is debt, plain and simple; I don't like having it hanging over my head, and I don't like to keep my audience waiting for something they've paid for. So, if you're unhappy with your pre-order for any reason, contact us at leveluplabs at gmail dot com and we'll sort you out.