The Joystiq Indie Pitch: Defender's Quest

Indie developers are the starving artists of the video-game world, often brilliant and innovative, but also misunderstood, underfunded and more prone to writing free-form poetry on their LiveJournals. We at Joystiq believe no one deserves to starve, and many indie developers are entitled to a fridge full of tasty, fulfilling media coverage, right here. This week, Lars Doucet and Level Up Labs make a beautiful RPG/tower-defense baby with Defender's Quest. During the rest of January, Defender's Quest is $1 off for Joystiq readers; just enter the coupon code "JOYSTIQ" right here!

What's your game called and what's it about?

It's called Defender's Quest: Valley of the Forgotten. It's a hybrid tower defense/RPG about a young woman who's dumped unceremoniously into a plague colony who then sets off to escape by gathering survivors to fight off the minions of a crazed necromancer hot on her trail.

How important was a compelling story to you while developing Defender's Quest?

Three of us previously worked on CellCraft, an educational biology game, which had a fun and silly story to help tie it together. While people like the characters, the story and dialogue was written by us programmers. For Defender's Quest, we wanted a proper story, so we deliberately sought out a writer.

We wanted a narrative that matched our mechanics. Why do you have "defenders," and why are they defending this person? Why can't everyone just run away? So our setting was created to explain all that. You can't escape -- you're trapped in a plague colony. People want to help defend you because you're the only ticket out of there. We gave our characters real motivations for what they do in the story and in the mechanics.

Who wrote the story and what style were you aiming for? Quirky, funny, witty, serious?

Our story was written by James Cavin, our "USDA certified English major." The direction we've taken is "classical RPG melodrama" -- i.e. dramatic conflict with a lot of comic relief. We've got jokes, but we've also got real danger, good and evil, evil and even more evil, redemption, temptation, sacrifice, etc. Just because you're laughing, doesn't mean there's not a serious conflict with serious repercussions.

What inspired you to make Defender's Quest?

We're big fans of tower-defense games, but always felt like more could be done. Likewise, we love RPGs, but the battle systems often lack depth. We wanted to try merging the two. Games like Final Fantasy: Crystal Defenders hinted at some possibilities, but didn't really break into legitimate RPG territory -- it was just a generic TD game with light Final Fantasy dressing. We took the tower-defense mechanic and used it as the battle system in a full-fledged RPG meta-game.

What's the coolest aspect of Defender's Quest?

Instead of generic towers, you have party members. Each one levels up, learns skills, and wields equipment individually. Your "towers" have personality, individualism, customization and persistence between battles. Plus, we have a story written by an actual English major that we're pretty proud of.

Defender's Quest looks very intricate -- did you begin designing it with all of these features in mind or did they evolve with production?

While many details have changed, the core game is pretty close to the original design. We did simplify some things -- dropped character classes, streamlined equipment and skill trees, etc., to keep the game manageable. It's pretty crazy to see the vision come to life so clearly 18 months later.

Anything you'd do differently?

Keep more detailed spreadsheets from the very beginning -- we've fixed a lot of balance issues via player feedback from our demo, but it would have saved a lot of time to crunch more numbers up-front. Also, next go-round, we'll have a dedicated artist for sure -- right now our lead developer Lars is juggling art, programming, marketing, etc. Other than that, things turned out pretty well.

Why develop independently, rather than work for an established company?
Working independently gives you creative and professional control, and lets you do things on your own terms.... Of course, we also don't get paid until or unless the project succeeds, but that's how it goes.

One rule we live by is "Don't quit your day job." Anthony works for Kongregate by day, and Lars does consulting for social and educational game developers. So, technically we're working both independently and for The Man right now. To answer the spirit of the question though, working independently gives you creative and professional control, and lets you do things on your own terms. We can engage personally with customers, we can try zany marketing strategies, and other cool stuff. We also don't have to worry about publishers stiffing us on payments, forcing us to crunch, flip-flopping on the design, compromising our vision, and demanding the IP and a majority of the profits. Of course, we also don't get paid until or unless the project succeeds, but that's how it goes.

Do you see yourself as part of a larger indie movement?

Sure. Anthony's day job is in developer's relations at Kongregate, so he's got his thumb on the pulse of Indie flash developers (that's how he and Lars met, incidentally). Lars blogs regularly at Gamasutra, and James has been active in the Game Maker scene in addition to his writing. As far as Defender's Quest itself, we see a lot of other developers doing interesting new things with the RPG formula. Some of our favorites are ZeBoyd Games' Cthulhu Saves the World, Carpe Fulgur's Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale, QCF Design's Desktop Dungeons, Gaslamp Games' Dungeons of Dreadmor, and Spiderweb Software's Avadon, Geneforge, and Avernum series.

Sell Defender's Quest in one sentence:

A tower defense/RPG hybrid with a focus on deep tactics, meaningful customization and a well-told story -- just the good stuff. (That's technically a sentence fragment.) [We'll let it slide. This time. - Eds.]

What's next?

We have a few more features we want to add to the game and then we'll start looking for other platforms we may be able to hit beyond Mac/Windows/Linux PC. We've also got an idea for a follow-up game using the same engine. After that, who knows?

Defender's Quest is available right now for PC, Mac and Linux, and Joystiq readers get $1 for the rest of January -- just enter the coupon code "JOYSTIQ" right here and let the adventure/strategy/tower-people begin!

If you'd like to have your own shot at converting our readers into fans, email jess [at] joystiq [dawt] com, subject line "The Joystiq Indie Pitch." Still haven't had enough? Check out the Pitch archives.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.