Robot Loves Kitty

Love your programmer, hook players in 5 minutes, live in the trees: the secrets of Legend of Dungeon

Love your programmer, hook players in 5 minutes, live in the trees: the secrets of Legend of Dungeon

“Robot Loves Kitty” isn't just a name for the indie team behind the roguelike beat-em-up (and PAX East darling) Legend of Dungeon, it's also a design philosophy, and a statement: Calvin Goble (Robot) loves Alix Stolzer (Kitty). The husband-and-wife team recently sat down with the Report to talk about past failures, future plans, and what it's like when your programmer is also your spouse.

A dungeon that builds itself

Legend of Dungeon wasn't much of a game during its early days, Goble told the Report. It was just a screenshot of someone else's pixel art with bump-mapping applied to make it look fancy. The doctored image was posted to the Screenshot Saturday section of Reddit, where it quickly rose in popularity.

The game has only gotten more attention since then: Goble and Stolzer created a Kickstarter to fund development, which would take the pixel-art-with-high-def-lighting concept to a full game. It exceeded its goal by more than 500%. There were long lines to play the game at PAX East, and at the time of writing it's sitting at position 11 on Steam Greenlight.

How does this happen? Like every overnight success, the first step was learning from their failures. One of the most powerful lessons was what the two called the “Five-Minute Theory.”

“We showed our first game, Neverdaunt: 8-Bit at GDC for the IGF nomination, and watching people come up and try to play this building MMO that was just really… it had a huge learning curve with tons of tons of stuff in it,” Goble explained. “Watching people come up and be like, 'Oh, okay, that's neat,' and then just wander away after we'd put so much work into this thing, it kind of made us realize that in order to break that moment of where people go, 'Oh, maybe I do want this!' It requires being able to grab their attention pretty quickly.”

Stolzer said this was the origin of the “Five-Minute Theory.” “We think that people give a game about five minutes to give them a reason to play, at the most,” she said. Stolzer said she believed the contrast of pixel art with high-quality lighting grabs people's attention while they learn to play, making the visuals not just a unique feature, but a strong hook for players as well.

Interest from the big leagues

It's working so far, as the game is popular enough that Goble and Stolzer were approached on the PAX East show floor by representatives from major publishers like Sony and Nintendo.

“We kind of look at them like they're car salesmen so far,” Stolzer said. “The general thing that the indie community has been saying is that we have a fairly solid product, and we should definitely not just take offers at face value. We need to see what it is they can offer us and make our decisions from there. Be like… haggle-y, or something.”

Goble said the two are currently “researching” whether or not they'll partner with a major publisher, but right now, nothing is decided. Stolzer said publisher interest was a confirmation of what they'd been hearing – that people really like Legend of Dungeon – but there's some question of what a publisher could offer that they can't do themselves.

For now, they're happy where they're at. Success, to them, isn't signing with a name brand, it's just being able to get by while doing what they love. They don't need a lot of money or a fancy house - during Legend of Dungeon's development, the two lived and worked in a self-made treehouse in the mountains of Vermont. The couple is most happy simply making video games with each other. 

A relationship, with games

Robot Loves Kitty has managed a seemingly impossible task: in an industry in which the infamous “EA Spouse” letter and a LucasArts eulogy which called to attention the fact that marriages failed and funerals were missed in favor of game development both exist, Goble and Stolzer are making games with each other, for each other.

“It has caused a shift,” Stolzer said, “but if anything, it brought us closer.”

Goble agreed. “The company part is probably easier, because we've been a couple, and learning how to interact with each other and successfully be a couple, that lends itself to being able to do other things together too,” he told me.

In response, I asked what he defined as a “successful” couple. What followed was what could only be described as the most couple-riffic exchange I have ever heard.

“Ah, that's tricky,” Goble said. “We don't—”

“We don't have fights—” Stolzer chimed in.

“—that last more than a few—” Goble added.

“—minutes,” Stolzer finished. “And they're usually when we're hungry.” The two laughed for a good, long while before Stolzer continued.

“When you're an indie game developer, and you're trying to support yourself and make money, it's what you do all day. You live and breathe video games,” Stolzer said. “If we weren't doing it together, it would probably be pulling us apart. If it was just Calvin working all day, every day on it, I could see that being a stress factor.

“Instead, we're this team where I'll be doing some animation and he'll come up with an idea and he'll pop over to me and say, 'I just had this neat idea,' and we'll have a little discussion about it, we'll both get excited, and it's a positive interaction almost all of the time.”

“We hang out together by working,” Goble said. “It's kind of cool!”

Even when the two aren't actively working, their brains don't turn off from video games. Stolzer recalled how, one date night, she realized mid-dinner conversation that everything they had been talking about was related to the game they were working on or gaming in general. She laughed, and said she doesn't know what “normal couples” talk about anymore.

I laughed along, as I knew exactly where Goble and Stolzer were coming from. I confided in the two that my own relationship was in a similar position, and that many of my dinner dates are filled with conversations about new champions for League of Legends or map packs for Call of Duty.

“That kind of experience is very much what [our next project is] going to be focusing on,” Soltzer said. I could hear Goble suck air through his teeth.

Secret projects and Legend of Dungeon's future

“You're cutting close to the secret there!” Goble warned as he inhaled and exhaled for dramatic effect. The two said they couldn't talk about their next game any further just yet, and in fact had probably already said too much – but they could talk about Legend of Dungeon 2.

Yes, Goble and Stolzer already have plans for a sequel, though they said not to expect it any time soon. “We've kind of had a Legend of Dungeon 2 planned since we started the Kickstarter, with all of the stretch goals that weren't reached,” Stolzer said. “We would really love to see all of them fleshed out and made into an actual, full, video game.”

We were just having a lot of fun making it and not realizing we kind of lost grasp of what we were doingRobot Loves Kitty has been in a similar situation before, with their sophomore release, Tiny Plumbers – another procedurally-generated game where players controlled Mario-like characters as they ran through a 2D platformer world. It also features a level editor and online networking. “With Tiny Plumbers, we just kind of like… went nuts, making it,” Goble said.

Unfortunately, those extra features meant extra development time, which in turn gave Goble and Stolzer time to think of more features. “We were just having a lot of fun making it and not realizing we kind of lost grasp of what we were doing,” Stolzer told the Report.

Goble and Stolzer plan to remember the past and put the lessons learned to good use in the future, just as they did when creating their “Five-Minute Theory.” Legend of Dungeon 2 will feature online networking, for example, but the couples wants to wait and make sure they're not taking away from the original's vision first. The game is still slated for release on the OUYA after all, though Goble said they're a bit behind in the work on it due to delays in receiving a dev kit.

Still, he's excited: the game takes inspiration from some of his favorite arcade beat-em-ups, like X-Men and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, with randomized dungeons created in homage to Rogue – one of Stolzer's childhood favorites. When I asked what it was that stood out about those games to the couple, Stolzer said Rogue was the only game she could actually remember playing on a dusty old Apple II her family had received for free due to a mouse nest clogging up the interior.

When it was Goble's turn to explain what he liked about his games of choice, he was straightforward. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and X-Men,” he told me. “They were cool.”

Can't argue with that, nor can I argue with the fun I've been having playing an advance build of Legend of Dungeon. The game is coming to PC, Mac, Linux, Android and OUYA this spring, and you can vote for it on Steam Greenlight as well.