Volker Elzner Interview

volker Elzner Interview

Dungeons of Chaos was an overlooked gem on the iPad in 2014, a game that mixed an 80s ‘Gold Box’ style of Computer RPG with the sleek new touch-screens of the modern day. Luckily for fans of quality RPG adventures everywhere, Volker Elzner, the man behind the game knuckled down and recreated the whole game using Unity, allowing for a new version released in 2016 to be available on Smartphones for both iOS and Android. My Boxed Universe manages to snag a few moments of the man’s time shortly after the relaunch to ask him some questions.

MBU
Firstly, thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to speak with us today. For those not aware of Dungeons of Chaos, could you introduce it to our readers?

VOLKER
Dungeons of Chaos seeks to capture the main elements of the RPGs of my own youth: tile-based pixel art graphics that leave just enough to the players imagination, non-linear story elements that allow for a lot of free exploration, and endless varieties of items and enchantments. Your party of 6 is created by choosing from 9 starter classes which you can train in skills, teach new spells, and advance to higher class types.

MBU
What is your background like as a game developer?

VOLKER
I am an accountant with a very busy day job. For many years I find an hour here and there, mostly from 7am to 8am and then at lunch break, and at night, to keep chipping away at my game. I have grown up with computer games and have a fair bit of IT knowledge, but nothing professional. My brother is a programmer, my father was one of the first IT people in the 70s and my mum was a primary school teacher with focus on math and music. So I really picked things up as I grew up. I mostly just challenged myself to try how far I can take my skills and how much I can find out myself on the net.

MBU
What games (new or old) inspire you personally and were any of them influences on this project?

VOLKER
I was very young when my brother got Ultima3. I had to do various chores to earn the right to play it on his computer for an hour every other day. It was great. I had no manual, my English wasn’t good enough and in fact I may have never actually finished it. But I loved how I could wander around and all those 16 colour graphics to me were real Balrogs, thieves and chests. Then there was Bard’s Tale and that game was great in terms of growing a party of characters to ever greater power. And very atmospheric music and great setting.

But what knocked me off my feet was Ultima 4. So vast the land, so detailed the character stories, and so mindblowing to have an RPG without an evil boss as the target. Instead you had to prove yourself worthy as a leader of the people. It was that which made me realise how deep people can be immersed in an RPG.

I also very much enjoyed Might&Magic3 and Diablo, all were groundbreaking and added new elements to what I considered the ideal RPG.

MBU
What was the original launch like for Dungeons of Chaos and did it meet expectations?

VOLKER
I set myself the goal to make the game that I am missing. I don’t like games that are not ‘humble’ and ask for continuous purchases. I don’t consider the latest 3D graphics to be a selling point for me either. I want atmosphere, depth, immersion, and the game to let me play it the way I want to. My first launch in 2014 was not full in content, it only had one chapter initially, and I regret not releasing it with chapter 2 in it. Also he UI was not very user friendly. Too many redundant clicks. But people that loved the RPGs of old really liked it. So I was a very happy men as the reviews came in. But it was not for the masses. I was ok with that. I never built it for the money and never wanted the mainstream players to all pick it up and rip me to shreds in the reviews.

DoC 3

The world in DoC is huge and partially randomized.

MBU
How has this second launch been received and how does it differ?

VOLKER
I refined the first version over time, more content and a few UI improvements. But I knew I had two big tasks ahead of me if I wanted to make it better: rewrite everything so I could leave the odd code structures behind that I organically batches together over time, and to use an engine that allows me to release in Android as well, and with a flexible UI that scales to phone sized devices. I think no one dared to hope I would take that on. But I did, and so for about 8 months starting in October 2015 I went to work 2 hours early and sat down and coded, plus more at night. My wife was clearly not happy but she respected it. As a hobby that brings me joy and possibly breaks even one day.

And I was mentally stronger this time: to code everything from scratch in particular around User Interface, and to expose myself to rigorous beta testing. It is draining to hear criticism even from fans. And hard sometimes to motivate myself to say ‘yes it is good as it is but you can do better. Start again’.

So I put everything I have into this new version, and the reception is great. Almost 90% of ratings are full 5 stars. People like it the Ultima games, people say it is the one RPG they cannot out down, that it is the game for phones that was so long overdue, and that they really appreciate the lack of FTP nonsense and that I require no phone permissions or Internet. The fans love it. And that makes me very happy. Big websites still take a broad view and hesitate to recommend it to a wider audience. Which is fine with me.

MBU
Rebuilding a game of this scale and depth was a mammoth task and the quality of the final product is amazing. How long did it take to complete?

VOLKER
Of course I reused things like the item generation and random dungeon generation routines. But at the same time I knew what I wanted to improve so I think hardly anything remained untouched. It took me probably 600 hours during those 6 months to rebuilt it, and that is not counting the time I spent saltier getting to know he Unity engine.

MBU
Did anything not make the final cut when transitioning to Unity?

VOLKER
Yes of course. I left out a ‘shipwreck’ side quest I used in the old release to keep fans entertained while waiting for chapter 2, and I had a long list of things I wanted to add to expands the original game. However because that turned out to slow me down and I rather wanted a high quality game with existing 50 hours of gameplay, I left these out. Like traps, item improvements, terrain damage and cursed items.

The one thing I do regret leaving out and will soon add back in is obstacles in combat. Trees etc. That provide a problem for ranged attacks, burn on fire contact and show snow when hit worth a frost ball. Was in the old game and code is just deactivated until I can give it a good cleanup.

DoC 2

A party of six characters can be taken on your adventures.

MBU
Did you add anything new to the game as you went along?

VOLKER
Too much to list. Much more intricate auto combat tactics, target selection, respawning of random locations (gnome lairs), fight projectile animation, many many options to change the game behaviour and feel, lots and lots of crash safeguards (thousands of sessions in, and apart from memory shutdowns on older devices, only a handful of crashes so far!), samurai class, more teleportation powers …

MBU
What prompted the rebuild?

VOLKER
The feeling that there were more people out there that wanted a game like this, for phones and for Android.

MBU
What was the hardest barrier to overcome when working?

VOLKER
Several are equally hard: competing family time, the realisation that one can only intensely focus on a creative task for 45min in a row, the resentment to improve things when you think ‘I haven’t even shown anyone the old version yet, they may like it the way it is’ which is just an inner cry for appreciation of what one has achieved already.

MBU
In your eyes, what makes a good RPG?

VOLKER
If you like exploring, it lets you explore. If you ike grinding and farming, it lets you do that. If you seek for loopholes to cheat, it lets you do it. It has a bit of a sandbox feel. You make choices that feel like you are winning. A lot. There is nothing wrong with winning. It feels good.

MBU
Your website has a section marked ‘Coolest item’ where people can share their experiences playing the semi-randomised game and what they’ve discovered. What’s your coolest item?

VOLKER
Lethal hellforged Masamune of the SOULSUCKER

A superior type of katana sword for a samurai, extra critical hit %, super boost from ‘hellforged’ condition and then the soul sucker boost. With every kill in a battle, you can some health, some mana, and speed. Only for the battle, but you basically charge up as you plough through minions and then face the boss, with full health and mana and boosted speed. Feels like the good old combo buttons in TEKKEN.

MBU
Are additional updates planned for the new build?

VOLKER
I have to admit I am mentally quite exhausted and very happy the app runs largely bug free. There is a bucket list with 29 items for people to tick off and give them over 50 hours of play. I will take it slow for a few weeks and then think about expansion content. I will start building in August but hard to say how big I will make it.

MBU
Have there been any problems since launch that have needed squashing?

VOLKER
Yes, having a thousand people play the game revealed things a handful of play testers did not pick up. Most embarrassing was that fight with gold and items as loot never actually gave the gold. No one picked that up until a week after release. I can fix those things very quickly which the fans really appreciated. I ran 10 updates through the stores in the 3 weeks since launch.

DoC 1

Finding new loot to equip is a key feature.

MBU
Do you have plans to expand the games setting across additional titles in a series?

VOLKER
Yes. But I have more ideas than I have time.
1. Content expansion to actually take the fight to the plane of chaos.
2. Pure perma death roguekike variant. 100 levels with all randomised elements like vaults, shopkeepers etc. maybe an overland map though.
3. ‘RPG city’. The son of Lord Aldrich wants to become a ruler however he is physically crippled. But LA tells him he can still be a leader. So he sends him to the far borders in the east to rebuilt a destroyed city. Build infrastructure, send out adventure parties, trade, explore. Think SimCity meets Fallout Shelter meets Dungeons of Chaos.

MBU
What words of encouragement do you have for budding indie game developers?

VOLKER
Your biggest threat may be your self doubt and your budget. For the first: remember that everything can be broken down into incremental steps. Use different tools at different stages, and drop them once they are no longer good. At the start, use a minimap tool. Very motivating to branch out what you could do. Then later build a consistent structure and ‘cut’ things out.

For the budget: I hate to say it but don’t rely on app’s for a living. Get a day job. Make apps your hobby. Because you don’t want to risk your family finances. But also because budget concerns and time concerns will have very bad influences in the app itself. Very. Nowadays tools are free or cheap; Unity is free, tutorials are free, start with free graphics and music from opengameart.org to kick you off. Take your time to polish it.

MBU
Again, a massive thanks for taking the time to answer our questions. For readers who want to experience the game for themselves it can be found HERE for iOS and HERE on Google Play. Volker’s website can be accessed HERE and contains a wealth of interesting information on the game.

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