Few gamers who stray beyond the realm of PlayStation consoles may have heard of Cellar Door Games’ Rogue Legacy – a game that masterfully blends trendy roguelike and Metroid-style gameplay with controller throwing difficulty. You couldn’t find a podcast that wasn’t chatting up Rogue Legacy upon its release in June 2013 and by December it had deservedly graced many different media outlets’ game of the year lists.
Roughly a week before PAX Prime 2013, Sony announced Rogue Legacy would be coming to PS3, PS4, and PS Vita. Indie games have a strong presence at PAX, despite the AAA games vying for your attention, but it wasn’t until the third day of the show that I realized there was an entire floor I missed out on. I went to an appointment and quite literally stumbled into the PAX 10, an area used to showcase the top 10 independent games as selected by industry experts, where I found Rogue Legacy and got to meet the people responsible for one of my two favorite games of 2013.
I once described Rogue Legacy as an itch that I just can’t scratch enough. I kept going back for more because no matter how badly I seemed to be doing, gaining levels and making enough money to buy one upgrade on the next run is progression. That’s where Rogue Legacy excels and differentiates itself from the traditional roguelike game. It doesn’t just kick you back to the beginning with nothing to show for your effort. Money earned goes towards upgrading attributes, buying gear and runes found, or unlocking classes. That’s the reward for failure. Spend it all though, because re-entry to the castle will cost you the leftover gold. It is the true definition of insanity. You do the same thing over and over expecting a different result.
Rogue Legacy was originally intended to be another Castlevania inspired adventure game. The development process hit a snag with budget problems so it was scrapped and CDG started a new game that was an evolution of the original idea. Needless to say, it was well worth a make-over. CDG ended up with an evil Castlevania and Dark Souls rogue-lite lovechild.
Cellar Door Games, founded by brothers Teddy and Kenny Lee, has been cranking out flash and mobile games since Don’t Shit Your Pants – a text-based browser game literally about not shitting your pants – in February 2009. Success is subjective, but when it comes to retail releases, the Lee’s weren’t even sure there would be another game after Rogue Legacy because they funded it completely out of their own savings. To preserve their legacy, they created rooms in their procedurally generated castle that featured paintings detailing their previous games.
“It was a conscious decision to add the painting rooms. This was our first retail game and it could have been our last, so we just wanted to leave a small piece of ourselves in the game as an Easter egg,” says game and story designer, Teddy Lee. He attributes rhythm and speed to the experiences gained from taking anywhere from two days to four months developing games from start to finish. “We found out how we like to make games and we’ve gotten pretty fast at it which is a really nice skill to have.”
It should be stated that Rogue Legacy was a group effort of many talented individuals, like Pixel Artist Glauber Kotaki and musicians Gordon McGladderly and Judson “Tettix” Cowan. The most interesting dynamic was the involvement of Benny, Kenny, Jenny, and Teddy Lee. I met Benny back at PAX and joked with him about their parents’ sense of humor in naming them. Each Lee contributed in his or her own way to Rogue Legacy. Teddy handled game and story design. Kenny was the sole programmer who created a custom engine for the game. Jenny was also on hand at PAX promoting Rogue Legacy tirelessly. Benny helped with story and testing. He also told me he was responsible for cooking and taking the trash. Everyone has their place.
“We’re a family so we argue a lot between ourselves, but the end results for our game are always positive,” Lee says. “I’ve worked at other companies where egos often take precedence over the right decisions, and that always really got to me. Being able to resolve an issue in the right manner feels really good.”
You could say the Rogue Legacy family has grown far beyond the current Cellar Door Games team with the addition of Abstraction Games and Sony. CDG is mostly hands off as Abstraction Games is in charge of the port of Rogue Legacy to PS3, PS4, and PS Vita. It’s forgivable to not know their name off the top of your head. Abstraction mostly handles ports but that doesn’t make them any less of a developer. They’re only responsible for a vastly improved version of Hotline Miami for PS3 and PS Vita. Hotline’s developer Devolver Digital was so impressed with the game, it requested Abstraction port its version back to Windows, Linux, and Mac. It can’t be easy handing over the reins to another developer but Lee has nothing but good things to say about Abstraction. “They’re the nicest guys we’ve ever met and they’re programming wizards too. So far, it has been smooth sailing, but we’re keeping our fingers crossed.”
Sony has been upfront about the importance of independent games on the PlayStation 4. It should come as no surprise they took notice of Rogue Legacy and approached CDG about bringing its game to the PS platforms. Sony’s friendly bedside manner towards indie developers seems to be working out well in its favor as Microsoft repeatedly draws criticism for its totalitarian approach to indie games. “We were lucky,” Lee says. “Working with them has been super easy. They know we’re a small team and they’ve helped make the process very personal.”
Cellar Door Games is taking a well-deserved break after recently releasing the latest patch for Rogue Legacy on PC, Mac, and Linux that included remixed bosses, and new content. The success of Rogue Legacy has exceeded its expectations. “We’ve made enough that we can take it easy for a little while. Shout out to everyone who supported us!” Lee exclaims. “We’re getting eager to do something new. We have some ideas, but so far we’ve just been looking into Unity to see whether or not it’s the next engine we should jump into.” In the meantime, Sony’s indie titles like TowerFall Ascension have Lee excited, but I sensed a little sarcasm when he brought up The Last Guardian. The entire industry is likely holding their breath on that one. It’s fair to assume, even without an official release date announcement, Rogue Legacy will hit PlayStation platforms first.
Teddy and Kenny Lee poured their blood, sweat, tears, and finances into developing video games. It’s a trial and error process that began with Don’t Shit Your Pants. Now the talented group at Cellar Door Games is looking at Rogue Legacy launching across all PlayStation platforms, something they couldn’t have expected in its development. Their creativity, experience, and graciousness should serve them well on their next project, whatever that may be. Hopefully by then, Benny will have been upgraded from trash duty.