Games

What It's Like to Make Hugely Successful Games With Your Friend From 3rd Grade

'Risk of Rain 2' is the culmination of two people who transitioned from being friends into massively popular video game designers.
August 20, 2020, 2:24pm
A screen shot from the video game Risk of Rain 2.
Screen shot courtesy of Hoopoo Games

One of the cooler success stories of the last decade has been Risk of Rain, a roguelike action game where the more time you spend playing, the harder the enemies get. It's a cool hook, and the game went on to sell more than three million copies. The sequel, which takes the concept and seamlessly translates everything into 3D, exited early access last week.

Risk of Rain started as a student project made by two designers in college, before they took the game to Kickstarter and raised money to finish it. The two ended up getting $30,000 from interested fans on the crowdfunding service, but they only asked for $7,000. It was enough, though, and got them attention from other partners, including the game's eventual publisher.

Risk of Rain 2 has spent the last year and change in early access, as the developers worked alongside their community to figure out how (and if) Risk of Rain works in 3D. The final sprint towards leaving early access has happened during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is how I opened a few questions I sent to designers Paul Morse and Duncan Drummond. Did you know they've been friends since the 3rd grade and they're still hanging out with each other?!

Drummond and Morse answered my questions, which included asking how they've been able to work alongside one another without splitting up and going their own ways, together.

What's been the biggest change about making games during COVID-19? I've seen a lot of people say they've been working too much, because there's just less to consume your time. How are you coping?
Paul Morse & Duncan Drummond: Thankfully for us we are a pretty small team so having been working remote since February hasn’t been too difficult for us, but there are certainly things that have changed. The biggest change for us has been iteration on design and not having the time in the office together to work on things collaboratively. Working on the entirety of the 1.0 update over Discord calls can only get you so far.

We have for the most part been really enjoying working from home overall though. Being able to work when you want is something really powerful to having good productivity. We have always only worked 4-days a week, 32 hours a week and we have been sticking to that for the last six months as well.

You've been making games together since college. You went from graduating college to selling millions of copies of a video game. I imagine that changes a person and a relationship. How have the two of you remained friends, and what have some of the ups and downs been like?
We started working on Risk of Rain 1 in our sophomore year in college, but we have been close friends since the 3rd grade. I think that level of friendship and trust helps tremendously when we are developing games and our company as a whole. To be honest, things haven’t really changed that much for us since the early college days. Even though we have had some huge game launches we are still looking at games like a hobby and passion projects. We work on games because it is fun for us, and we want to continue working on games as long as that remains true!

So many games are concerned with balance. Both Risk of Rain games don't seem to give a shit, and put a larger emphasis on players having a good time, difficulty be damned. But isn't the reality that both games really are concerned about balance, and determining how and when the player becomes a god killer is actually a totally different form of balance in and of itself?
Balance is something we actually think a lot about, but not in the way you might expect. We are never trying to make everything safe, or viable, or balanced, but we want to make sure every item, character, monster, and boss in the game has a purpose and a role to fill. Sometimes that role is to break the balance of the game. We love the idea of having “chase items”, or items that the player seeks out while playing that will make or break their run but in order to have these ideas feel powerful or worth chasing there needs to be items that they don’t love getting as much. There has to be a balance to make sure the player knows when they have really turned into a god killer and completely broken the game in a fun way.

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Risk of Rain 2 didn't even have an ending until recently. Why bother with one at all?
We wanted to create an ultimate objective for players to aim for whenever they feel like they’re on their way with a great and unstoppable build. With the final stage and boss, we feel like we created a challenge that will both test the players own ability but also the build of items they happened to have created on the way. It also changed the way players looked at items and how they synergize with an end goal and something to test their skills on.

We launched into Early Access March of last year with a huge influx of players. Those players have been with us every step up the way, providing feedback to each item and update. To us, the final cinematic, stage, and boss provides a sort of closure for all the community who has been with us every step of the way, anxiously waiting to get to this “final moment."

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).