There are lots of reasons a game update might be delayed. Maybe more time to polish features, or last-minute bugs. Plus, COVID-19 has made everything more complicated. Less frequent is a developer admitting the American healthcare system is the obstacle, because maybe it's embarrassing and less likely to be understood by fans. But that's precisely what's happened to Luck be a Landlord designer Dan DiIorio, whose roguelike deckbuilder about earning "rent money to defeat capitalism" has taken off in recent weeks.
"I honestly wish I could be pushing more updates to really give folks who bought the game something new to enjoy," he told VICE Games recently. "Unfortunately, the latest content patch had to be delayed due to me being unable to get my ADHD medication."
DiIorio announced the delay a few weeks ago, revealing that it's "nearly impossible for me to write a single line of code or plan out new content for the game" without access to a stimulant medication he's been prescribed for ADHD. His pharmacy cited an unexplained "issue" with DiIorio’s insurance provider as the reason they couldn't provide the medicine.
This issue cropped up over the weekend, and the pharmacy claimed nothing could be done until the following week. Worse, at the time it was Presidents' Day weekend, and the following Monday was a holiday. DiIorio had no option but to wait, forced to apologize to a new community eager to see the game updated, due to circumstances out of his control.
Fortunately, outside of a few jerks wondering why missing a few days of medication meant weeks of delays, the community was almost universally supportive.
"This is a great game and you should be really proud of everything that you're doing," wrote one player. "I myself, and countless others, have also struggled with access to mental healthcare under the U.S. Healthcare system. You're not alone. This community appreciates everything you are doing, and we understand that taking care of yourself matters."
Announcing deadlines helps is part of DiIorio’s process for getting his brain moving in the right direction, but it's all for naught if his support structures, like access to medicine, disappear. And it's not the first time a medical-related issue has interrupted development.
"I've definitely dropped development on games due to not being able to work on them from a lack of access to my meds," he said. "I've got plenty of prototypes that never saw the light of day for this reason. Coming back to a project after not working on it for weeks—sometimes months—is close to impossible for my brain. That's one of the main reasons why I delayed the latest patch for two weeks when I was only without my meds for one week. I can't just 'start up' work on a project again without some serious planning and breaking down of tasks."
DiIorio finally did get access to his medication a few days later.
Part of DiIorio’s stress is the unexpected success of Luck be a Landlord. When the game was published in early January as part of Steam's Early Access program, DiIorio didn't have much money and, at best, hoped it'd do well enough to pay the bills and support his partner.
"Before the game released, my partner and I were living off of unemployment and going through what we had left in our savings accounts to pay our rent," he said. "Today we're seriously considering if we want to be homeowners, because that's actually a valid possibility to us. It's weird for me to type this, but it's entirely possible that if the rate of sales keeps up, my family and I won't have to worry about money for a very long time, possibly ever again."
Inspired by the popular deckbuilding roguelike Slay the Spire and ancient Windows 98 freeware games, DiIorio wanted to make a slot machine game not explicitly tied to "insidious mechanics that try to get the maximum amount of real-world money out of the player." It was about the fun of watching the lots whiz by and watching numbers wildly swing up and down.
"I've definitely dropped development on games due to not being able to work on them from a lack of access to my meds. Coming back to a project after not working on it for weeks—sometimes months—is close to impossible for my brain.”
The thematic framing of an angry, greedy landlord constantly demanding more and more money came from real-life circumstances that DiIorio found himself in during the past year.
"I actually moved into my first apartment with my partner last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, so having to pay rent has always been on my mind," he said. "I'm also, for lack of a better term, a recently radicalized leftist. The thoughts of why we even have to pay rent in the first place were in the forefront of my mind while I was developing the game. Originally the game just ended once the player got a certain amount of money. I was looking for a way to add a fail-state to the game, and adding a terrible landlord that took away money from the player at an increasing rate felt in-sync with where I'm at politically right now."
But publishing a game on Steam is a crapshoot. There's no longer real barriers to publishing on Steam, which means dozens, if not hundreds, of new games appear on the service every day. Standing out, let alone become a hit, is unlikely. It helps to have a clever premise to grab people's attention, but these days, even that's not enough. It can all feel like, well, luck.
Around launch, I'd asked DiIorio a few questions about Luck be a Landlord and considered writing a story about it, but eventually found myself buried under work and daytime parenting. I figured Luck be a Landlord would do well garnering likes on Twitter but ultimately, like so many games that arrive on Steam and fail to find an audience, fizzle away.
As my four-year-old daughter frequently informs me, I couldn't have been more wrong.
Earlier this week, I noticed a few YouTube creators had started regularly playing the game, including DangerouslyFunny, who has more than 1.3 million subscribers. What happened?
DiIorio said Luck be a Landlord achieved its modest goal of enough money to pay the bills within a week, and then found that his game became one of the chosen few, a game that highly visible creators decided to make the focus of not just one video, but many videos. It's common for roguelikes to become a "series" when they're a hit with a creator on YouTube or Twitch because their endless replayability and randomness create good streaming moments.
"While I attribute some of the game's zeitgeist to luck and (hopefully) a quality product," he said, "I think a lot of it is due to the roguelike/roguelite replayability of the game. This GDC talk by Jason Rohrer touches on how the endless potential of content from a procedurally-generated game synergizes so well with what many YouTubers do.”
The ironic part about Luck be a Landlord is that a game about fighting the oppressions of capitalism, designed by someone who was previously buckling underneath it, suddenly finds themselves in a position where the game will be enough of a succes to let them escape many of its pains.
It's a point that's not lost on DiIorio.
"If anything, I feel guilty," he said. "Why am I able to 'survive' under capitalism when countless others are literally dying because of the cancer that capitalism is? I would be a monster if I was to 'not worry' about capitalism after I 'got my money.' That mentality is what allows capitalism to flourish in the first place."
The money is nice, but it also won't mean anything if he can't do something as simple as picking up his medication from the pharmacy. For now, that remains a constant worry, too.