Loop Hero, the game about watching a character walk in a loop and fight a slate of increasingly difficult monsters, has been one of 2021's unexpected success stories. The first version of what would eventually become Loop Hero was an experiment born out of a game jam, an entry into the 2019 Ludum Dare jam, but it had one big problem: it didn't work.
"Our Ludum Dare entry was not playable," laughed Loop Hero composer Aleksandr "blinch" Goreslavets in a recent interview with Waypoint, not long after it was announced the game had sold more than 500,000 copies, proving the quirky game had become a genuine hit.
But the team uploaded what it finished, where all that happened was the "loop" part of Loop Hero. The character could walk forward and...that was it. No monster fighting.
"This time we have run out of time, and the game does not really work," reads the tagline for the project's Ludum Dare entry. "So we failed this time."
But the demo lit a spark at Four Quarters, the four-person Russian studio behind Loop Hero. Prior to Loop Hero, Four Quarters had largely focused on a series of game jam experiments. They gained some notoriety in 2015 for the deliciously weird Please, Don't Touch Anything, a game where the player is stuck in a room and given a single task: don't touch anything, especially the charming red button centered in the room.
The Ludum Dare version of the game was broken, but Four Quarters decided to keep going, release a public demo, and see if people thought it was interesting. That demo hit in December 2019.
"I'm in love with these mechanics and visuals," wrote one player at the time. "Stellar game! I'll be following this project for sure."
It was that kind of feedback that encouraged them to take Loop Hero another step forward, and as it continued to polish that demo, it became time to think about getting a publisher. Fortunately for Four Quarters, Loop Hero artist Dmitry "Deceiver" Karimov had recently contributed art to the stylish action game Katana ZERO published by Devolver Digital.
This clip is from the game jam version of Loop Hero in 2019.
In recent years, Devolver has become one of the most prolific and successful indie publishers. Minit, Fall Guys, Carrion, Observation, Gris, The Messenger—the list is long.
Getting in touch with Devolver, then, wasn't the hard part. The hard part was putting together a pitch document that would convince Devolver it was a game worth investing in. The problem: no one at Four Quarters had been involved in making a pitch document before.
Some game studios will publish their pitch documents online, but it's rare, so Four Quarters just turned to the people at Katana ZERO, who themselves had pitched Devolver, for help.
"What do we need to send them?" said Goreslavets.
The document, which Waypoint was given access to, is short. Here's how the team conveyed the game to Devolver:
LooPatHerO is a rogue-lite about walking in circles. The main character automatically walks along a looped road, and fights monsters who become stronger and more devious with each lap. The player doesn’t directly control the main character, but instead builds structures and equips the character so they have a fighting chance to survive the next lap.
In each run, the player will receive a randomized deck of cards (structures), and a pool of equipment which is defined by the player and hero class. This makes every run unique and forces players to adjust strategies to make the best of their situation.
Each run takes about 15-30 minutes to complete, and several people have spent over 10 hours playing just this demo alone.
The rest of the document—which only goes on for a few pages—details various game features, most of which players are familiar with because they ended up in the final game and Four Quarters had a clear vision of what Loop Hero was going to become at this point. Some features, which I've been asked not to disclose, didn't make into the game that shipped a few weeks ago, but that's the nature of game development: the games are in flux.
But again, the bones were already there in the document. It's just a bunch of words and images explaining the game you can play on Steam now. What Four Quarters outlined was its plans for the next year or so of development, including the addition of classes (rogue and necromancer, same as what ended up in the final game), base camp customization, an actual story, and more. It also included Four Quarters' request from a publisher partnership, including "help with marketing, localization to different languages" and more QA resources.
Goreslavets said the deal came together almost immediately.
"They read it [the pitch document]," said Goreslavets, "play the demo, [and] jump in with us in...I don't know, maybe around one day? It was really fast."
One of the big changes between the demo and the final game was the addition of a story. Our own Gita Jackson praised Loop Hero's writing in her review as nuanced and understated, acting as a reward for players going through the game's repetitive cycle over and over again. It's kinda shocking, then, to learn adding a story was on a complete whim.
"I don't know. [laughs]" said Goreslavets. "We just decided 'let's make story.' It was not a hard decision or big discussion about it. Just, 'OK, let's make some good story.' Maybe not really focus on it, but let's try to make something interesting."
They accomplished that, with much of the story written by Karimov, the game's artist.
Four Quarters liked the game. Devolver liked the game. Would anyone else?
Loop Hero was secretly announced as Devolver's jokey "2021 game of the year," beating out a bunch of already announced games coming from the publisher as a way of debuting what would be, for most, their first look at the game. It's, uh, a hard game to pitch without playing.
"When we released the trailer at the Devolver Game Awards, people were not too excited about it," said Goreslavets. "Loop Hero is really hard to describe—even in a trailer, it's hard to explain what this game is about."
Loop Hero earned some buzz when Devolver sent demos to the games media over the holidays, but after the team released a polished demo as part of Steam's Game Festival in February, it became clear Loop Hero was likely destined for something more than niche. Like the game jam version of the game, people were spending a lot more time with the demo than there was content to play around with, which suggested people were ready for more.
Which brings us to now.
"We're not actually feeling something special because we're not focused on it and we [did] not strive for it ever," said Goreslavets. "When we started to develop Loop Hero, we [were] only thinking about 'let's make some little good game.'"
The mentality now, according to Goreslavets, is to "keep working." The team has already announced a series of much-needed tweaks to the game, including the ability to save in the middle of a run. Despite the explosion in sales, there are no plans to expand the studio, because Goreslavets attributes their small size to the game's success. Remember, Loop Hero was a game without a story before they decided, seemingly at random, to add a story.
"This huge success doesn't affect us in this way because we already wanted to add new things," said Goreslavets. "We have too many plans, and during development, we had really good ideas about what we can make, but we didn't have enough time and we were always like, 'OK, let's do it after release, let's do it after the release.'"
Now, they get that chance.