[PS4Blog.net Interview] Level Up Labs On Defender’s Quest: Valley of the Forgotten DX

by EdEN, Owner

We’re working on a review for Defender’s Quest: Valley of the Forgotten DX, so I got in touch with the game’s developer to talk about the version that is releasing this week on PlayStation 4.

PS4Blog: Hello! Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Could you please introduce yourself to our readers and tell them a bit about your work?

My name’s Lars Doucet — I used to make educational Flash games back in the day before I started working on the Defender’s Quest series, which is now my main job. I got my start putting those games on Kongregate, and one of them, Super Energy Apocalypse (an RTS about sustainable energy use — and zombies!), was popular enough to attract the attention of one of the guys who worked there, Anthony Pecorella. He got a small MacArthur foundation grant to make an educational game about cell biology and hired me to do the programming, which resulted in a little cell biology RTS called CellCraft.

We started a company together (Level Up Labs) with the goal of making CellCraft 2, but when we couldn’t get funding for that, we both went back to our day jobs and started working on Defender’s Quest on the side. We launched a super primitive version of it in 2012, and it was successful enough for me to make games full time. I’ve been working on the Defender’s Quest series ever since.

PS4B: Defender’s Quest: Valley of the Forgotten DX is out tomorrow on PlayStation 4. How would you describe the game to someone who’s never heard about this game?

It’s a strategy RPG with a different battle system — it’s tower defense, but your party members are the “towers”. Instead of a bunch of generic units, you have six classes of characters, and each one is an individual who gains experience, levels up, and can be fully customized in terms of equipment and skills. On the harder levels, skill and equipment load-out really matters. There’s also a fast-paced character-driven story that we got an actual English Major to write for us rather than make you suffer through tripe written by the programming team! Imagine “The Walking Dead” but in a medieval plague colony, and replace Rick with a librarian who shoots lightning out of her fingertips.

Does anyone remember Final Fantasy Crystal Defenders? Defender’s Quest was designed to improve on the formula. The overall RPG metagame is closer to Final Fantasy Tactics than, say, a mainline Final Fantasy game. You build up a small army and go through a series of predetermined missions rather than random encounters. However, you can go back and replay old missions at any time if you need to grind a little, or if you want to go for a better victory rating and get some better rewards.

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Each battle also has extra challenge levels both above and below the baseline, so you can keep coming back for harder challenges if you want to sink your teeth into dozens of hours of strategic combat, or breeze through in an afternoon if you’re just a “here for the story” kind of person. I wrote an article about our RPG design philosophy a long time ago, but please excuse the godawful prototype art in the article’s screenshots — we’ve been through several major art revisions since then!

On the Tower Defense side, we set out to design a TD system with none of the dozens of frustrations we’d built up with the genre. Each battle tells you exactly what enemies you’re going to fight and what the map looks like before you enter, all the enemy waves have tooltips with stats, the stats all have explanations, each of your units can be programmed with custom targeting logic (but at the same time that’s an optional feature and it’s simply a matter of pushing a button or two to change it). There’s fine-grained control of time — you can slow down to 1/4 speed to pull off precision moves, zoom ahead at 16x when you’ve got things in the bag, and of course, you can pause at any time and issue commands from there. We’re rather opinionated on Tower Defense design and wrote an article on that, too.

We like to think these two systems work really well together. When someone says “Tower Defense with RPG elements!” they usually mean bog-standard tower defense with some upgrades here and there. Or if they say “RPG with Tower Defense elements!” then it’s some kind of third-person action RPG where you run around setting traps. This is actually a full RPG and a full tower defense game.

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PS4B: How long did it take to develop the game for its original release? How long did it take to port the game to PS4?

Defender’s Quest has had such a weird development history. I feel like I’ve “launched” this game five or six times now.

If you go back to the very first email Anthony ever sent me about the idea, you could say development technically began in mid-2010. The very first version was released in January 2012, so technically that’s a year and a half, though there probably wasn’t more than a year’s worth of full-time work. When we first released it, it wasn’t even on Steam, it was just being sold on our own website with FastSpring, an online payment processor — Humble store, Itch.io, etc., didn’t exist back then. We made some decent sales, but then we put it on Newgrounds and Kongregate (the original version of the game was written in Flash back then, it uses C++ now) and it really took off. Towards the end of 2012 (I think it was November), after months of repeated applications, we were accepted onto Steam.

The game has had tons of updates since it was first released:

* Jan 2012 — Initial flash version — bad art, lots of bugs, 800×600 resolution only
* Mid 2012 — “Gold edition” upgrade — new sprites, new cutscene backgrounds, New Game+ mode, slightly fewer bugs
* Late 2012 — Steam version released
* 2013-2015 — Added lots of localizations, added mod support + Steam Workshop
* 2016 — “DX edition” upgrade — brand new Haxe/C++ engine, brand new HD art & resolution support, extra journal & story content
* Late 2016 — Added Steam Controller support (as well as general gamepad controls)
* 2017 — Added Chinese localization and DX edition mod support + Steam Workshop

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All throughout that there’s been bugfixes and nursing other related projects along, such as the console. I put out the first feelers for that in 2013, but the hard push has been these past two years.

The “DX edition” upgrade has been at the center of several initiatives. Before the DX upgrade, we were still stuck on an old Flash/Adobe AIR version of the game, with a hardcoded 800×600 resolution. Honestly Flash gets a bad rap, even today there are some very successful games on Steam that use it that you’d never think twice were made in Flash. For us, however, there was no easy path to consoles with it, and our particular game code (all UI locations hardcoded to exact pixel coordinates) was not flexible, so DX was necessary.

The DX update took some time, but it was designed to kill three birds with one stone:

* Serve as DQ2’s engine
* Get DQ1 onto consoles
* Give us a new product to release (DQ1 DX) on Steam to bridge the gap

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PS4B: And since there a DX in the game’s name for its console release, there are some differences between this version and its original release, right?

On PC you can still play the original version of the game since it is bundled with every purchase (the DX edition simply took over the existing store slot) as the “legacy edition.” Specifically:

1) Legacy is Flash, DX is Haxe/C++
2) Legacy is 800×600 only, DX supports multiple resolutions up to full HD
3) DX has HD sprites and new cutscene art, as well as an option to toggle on Legacy’s old art styles for each. (On consoles we had to drop the option for legacy cutscene art due to space requirements*, but you can still toggle on the old pixel art.)
4) DX has additional story content
5) DX has full controller (and on Steam, Steam controller) support
6) DX has more powerful mod support (on PC)

*PEGI charges more for ratings if you’re above a certain MB size.

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PS4B: Are you considering working on additional content for the game to be made available at a later date either as free or paid DLC?

Apart from bugfixes, no, we’re done with DQ updates! The current version reflects over six years of free updates, and for completionists a ton of hours of gameplay – north of 100+ hours of content. Between New Game+, optional challenges, and “Hero Mode” there’s plenty of meat on this bone. And if you don’t have that kind of time, it’s got a casual path, too.

We’re full steam on DQ2 after this! We are rolling all our experience and the DQDX engine improvements into it. We have our writer James Cavin’s knack for humorous and deep storytelling, our designer Anthony’s TD & RPG chops, and the work of two awesome musicians — Kevin Penkin (Made In Abyss) and Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy) himself!

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PS4B: And that’s all the time we have for today. Is there something else you’d like to add?

Not much. I blog over at www.fortressofdoors.com if anyone wants more of my stupid opinions. Thanks for your time!

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