25 Mar 15
Robbie Fraser

GDC 2015 – Retrospective

Ahoy there friends and fans of Desktop Dungeons! The four of us have just gotten back from the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Dorianne has been before and Danny and Marc have been making the annual pilgrimage for several years now, but this was my first year (of many I hope). It was a special experience for me and although I am jet-lagged and weary; I must write! Sometimes writing is the only way I can collect all my thoughts, so here goes; this is my thought collection:

The last time I travelled outside of Africa I was young, too young perhaps to make the most of the experience. So this trip was obviously exciting for regular travel reasons. I flew in fancy aeroplanes, I cycled over the Golden Gate bridge, I snowboarded in Tahoe (we don’t get that in South Africa), I ate foods and absorbed cultures that I’m not used to and I did a great number of other interesting travelly* things.

However, those are experiences and feelings that you can get from any trip really. GDC meant so much more to me.


I decided at quite a young age that I wanted to make video games. I’d found it, and it was fun, and I would make my career out of it. But I never really knew what being a game developer actually meant. I never knew what kind of lifestyle or career path would actually await me. I just knew that I liked making video games, and that I could get good at it if I stuck with it.

I could never have predicted that possibly the most special thing about making video games, is the other people who are doing it.

I’ve never really been a people person. I’ve always been shy and introverted. Socialising and seeing people can often take a lot of my energy. But games people are different, for whatever reason, other developers give me energy. And what a difference that makes.

I was in my early teens when I started getting involved in the South African game development scene. It was scary and everyone was older than me, but I always felt welcome. Everyone was friendly and everyone helped me as much as they could. That was great.

I wasn’t just lucky to meet the right people, everyone is great. Years later MGSA (the local gamedev association) meetups started happening, I felt awkward and introverted again. I didn’t know that many people and often found myself feeling out of place amongst the success stories and brilliant minds. I didn’t believe in myself enough, and although those evenings were motivating, they were also energy sapping.

After I started working in the industry, things began to change. I began feel like I was a real game developer. I began to feel that I was actually good at this thing that I had devoted so much of my life to. I lost some of my inhibitions and the MGSA meetups became a thing that I looked forward to with great eagerness. I got to hang out with all my friends and recharge my motivational batteries. These days, chatting with other devs energises me like nothing else, and reaffirms my love for my work.

So what does this have to do with GDC? Well GDC was like all the uplifting parts from those previous paragraphs but on steroids. I’ve been getting more and more involved in the global indie community over the last two years, and it’s been an incredible experience. I consider the indie community (and the local scene in particular) as my second family. Such is the way we help each other and care about each other.

Over the course of GDC I met and hung out with so many amazing people. I met the developers of many of my favourite games and made new friends everywhere I went. Each day I was just blown away with how great everyone was and how much we had in common. It was glorious to spend a week or so meeting new people and liking everyone I met.

It was surreal. I’ve found my tribe and that makes me unbelievably happy.

So now that the soppy story is off my chest, I’d like to highlight a few of my favourite moments from the trip, in no particular order:

GDC running club
Adam and Rebekah Saltsman (who are awesome!) organise a run to the pier every morning of the conference at 8AM. It was a monumental effort to haul myself out of bed at 7:30 (after getting into it just a few hours earlier), but it was totally worth it. Cool people, a nice way to experience the city, and I always felt amazing afterwards.

A group photo at the pier, on Wednesday?

Indie breakfast
We stayed in the indie hostel, which means at breakfast time, you can sit down and any random table and just ask people what games they made. By far one of the easiest ways to meet cool people that I’ve ever experienced. Also, cream cheese and jam bagels!

Indies and bagels! Sitting at tables!

The quieter parties
These nights were absolutely incredible. I went round from person to person introducing myself and then being blown away as people revealed they were the ones behind so many of my favourite games! My mind was blown so frequently that I began to just expected something amazing every time I sidled up to someone new. And most of them have played or heard of Desktop Dungeons too!

I met so many rad devs.

Wild Rumpus party
This party has a reputation for being amazing and it didn’t let me down. I’m not usually one for loud clubs and partying, but instead of being filled with smoke and dude bros, the place was just packed with people that I liked. I barely got to spend any time talking to all those great people because I spent pretty much the whole night dancing at the front of the crowd. I was having such a good time that I didn’t care, and was genuinely surprised when it was suddenly 2AM and we were kicked out of the venue.

Everything is going to be okay

GameLoading premier
This movie felt a lot like “My friends and what we do – the movie”. It hit home. Even more so because I watched with a whole bunch of people starring in the film itself! My good friends Colin and Sarah Northway sat just behind, and Zoe Quinn sat a couple of seats to my right. What a bizarre and fascinating way to experience a documentary!

This is the only picture I have of the showing. Still, I like Unity.

IGF awards
The sheer scale of this event blew me away. 10000 developers packed in a massive hall, the lights, the sounds, the drama… it’s huge! These are the Oscars of indie game development and it was awe inspiring to witness. It was also special because Desktop Dungeons won an IGF in 2011. I kept thinking “Wow! Four years ago it was you guys sitting down there at the nominees’ tables. And it was Desktop Dungeons that was the name inside the envelope! And it was you who went up to stammer out a surprised acceptance speech in front of all these people!”. Amazing. I’ll never look at that glass trophy in the QCF office quite the same way again. I’ve never cared for accolades and awards much, and I’ve never really even sought or thought much about recognition. But now I really want to win an IGF, just for that experience. (And also to further legitimise my gloating over the Vlambeer guys who have never won one.)

What an event!

Travelling with my friends
This is a no brainer, but seriously, what a great group. Ya’ll are awesome and thanks for everything. I <3 you guys.


So this is not really GDC related, but it was just too much fun. If you ever get the chance, go get on a snowboard and learn to ride it down a snowy mountain. It’s a blast. I learned quickly and spend the rest of my time taking the biggest and quickest lifts all the way to the top of the mountain and then riding all the way back down again in one massive long run. Superb fun.


Systems design roundtables
I guess I should mention something about the actual GDC sessions: I had an all access pass and they were great. I only discovered these roundtables quite late, but the ones I went to were insanely useful. I think about game design a lot, and having a room full of big name AAA designers discussing interesting themes and sharing great tips and ideas was brilliant. Next year these will be the first things I check out.

Danny and Marc spoke at GDC!

Biking the bridge
The day after the conference ended Danny and I rented bikes, met up with a bunch of other cool devs and rode along the coast, over the Golden Gate and down into Sausalito. After lunch we rode to the forest to see the great California redwoods and then rode back in time to catch the ferry back across the bay and past Alcatraz. From there we took a tram to Chinatown for the chinese new year parade and celebrations. Needless to say it was an amazing day. Rad people, rad places, rad itinerary.

This is a famous bridge. I rode over it on a bike.

Indie common room
I made a point out of being as sociable as possible. I didn’t want to miss any opportunities and forced myself to go hang out in the common room late at night when it would have been much easier to just go to sleep. I’m not sure how I managed to have so much energy during the trip (considering the serious sleep deprivation most days), I think my body was just running on pure adrenalin for the entire conference? Anyway, the common room at the indie hostel was always filled with cool people playing games, making games and just hanging out. I met some of my favourite new friends there and never once regretted turning down the convenient option of sleeping.

The creative energy was palpable.

Walking around the expo floor was a strange experience for me. I felt strangely disconnected from the AAA scene. With their massive stands and their shirts that say “DEV TEAM” on the back. It felt like a different industry. It felt very commercial, with none of the family feelings that I got from the indie crowd. So when I found the Alt.ctrl.GDC booth I immediately thought “This is where it’s at! These are the people who are really innovating, they get it.”. The display consists of a bunch games with unique custom controllers. Some games require you to high-five another player, others require you to plant your face in the butt of a plushie dog. Line wobbler in particular, is absolutely brilliant. I liked these games, they were interesting when most of the show floor was not.

Custom controllers always make for interesting experiences.

And finally, a word about imposter syndrome:

This is a thing that plagues indie game development. Very few people succeed, and when they do they often become the most visible and outspoken people in the community. But the vast majority of us learn the hard way that being an indie dev is not a smart career choice. Most people languish in self-doubt, obscurity and financial insecurity. And so when you go to something like GDC and you meet your heroes, idols and community pillars, it’s easy to feel unworthy. It’s easy to weigh up your achievements against those who you look up to and admire.

I say hogwash.

As an introverted video game programmer, one thing I’m good at is rationalising my emotions. Imposter syndrome isn’t a useful feeling, so force yourself to forget about it. Force yourself to be more outgoing and to meet people. You’ll realise that everyone else is just somebody who likes making games and likes people who makes games. You make games, you are one of those people. It doesn’t matter what you’ve made or how successful it is, you’re part of the family already, just embrace that. I have and I feel great about it.

Anyway, GDC is great, everyone is great. Everyone should go to GDC if they get the chance.

Note how happy I am.

*May not be an actual word.

27 Nov 14

Interacting with enemies on mobile devices

With Desktop Dungeons making the move to mobile, we’ve had to spend a considerable amount of time optimizing it to run on lower spec hardware (yes, some of our initial code is … inefficient …), but we’ve also had to take a long, hard look at how players would interact with the game without the ability to mouse over something.

We can’t have you simply click on an enemy to attack it, since in DD knowing how much damage you’re going to do (and take!) is essential. Unfortunately the way our current ‘selected’ enemy panel works just doesn’t take mobile into account.

So we’ve decided to redesign it.


Early on in the redesign, we realised we needed a two step process: Select Action, and then Do Action. This let’s you see what the outcome of doing the action would be, including damage taken, mana spent, etc. You know … like DD does right now when you mouse over an enemy. So all our designs had some sort of ‘Action’ button.


We toyed around with various ideas of smooth scrolling lists, and action buttons. We put things where the enemies currently display their effects, and we mentally played the game in different situations, to think about how it would handle.



In the end we settled on a ‘drawer’ that could be pulled out from the side of the screen, giving you all the in-combat options you might want. It doesn’t obscure the enemy status effects all the time, it can pull out as far as is necessary to show you all your options, and we even built in some ‘quick use’ slots that you can access without pulling the drawer out.


Once we actually get time to throw some art at it, I think it’ll look as good as it feels to play with.

20 Nov 14

Working UI Harder, Better, Faster.

We’re hard at work on the monumental task of getting Desktop Dungeons to mobile platforms. A large part of this is re-approaching whole chunks of the user interface (UI) and reshuffling the information to deliver it more cleanly, particularly without mouseover information. Specifically things like the altar panel, that window that pops up to select and compare boons when you’re worshipping a god.


Aaaand that is one of the problems; it’s a pop up. It’s the only large, dungeon-obscuring, pop up of interaction within the dungeon experience. When we originally built it, this didn’t seem like too much of a problem. This panel has a lot of information and you’re comparing several items to each other; there are effects, prices, and interactions to consider. We built it large and added that sweet portrait art to flavour it accordingly. I’m not even sure if we knew it would be the only time we used this large pop up to deliver information when we built it. Either way, over time it has grown into a pet-hate, so while we’re under the hood, we have to take the chance to make it better; deliver this information smarter.

Making UI smarter is not easy; reorganising information in an information-heavy game like this, particularly with the tight size constraints that we have in place, can be pretty intensive. It  takes more iterations to achieve smarter design; balancing flavour against essential information, determining which aspects are really critical and which aspects might be summarized visually. Should the altar be made of stone? Can we fit the boon names in less space without making it feel like just a list? Can we integrate it into the book effectively?

Rough Altar Images

So we explore this visually as well as conceptually until we settle on a design that works. Then we proceed to make it pretty with artness (the icons for the individual boons are still in process, excuse the placeholders.)


Which also goes through a couple of iterations of refinement.


Until eventually we’re happy enough to build it in game.

New Altar Panel

I imagine there must be people for whom this process comes more intuitively, designers  who have less of a process of elimination in their process. UI is one of those areas of design that becomes more intangible and invisible as it gets better. We’re not there yet, but we’re significantly closer than we were.


23 Oct 14

Steam curation: One month in

It’s been a month since Steam’s game discovery systems got a major overhaul, this is the impact that it’s had on Desktop Dungeons. Please note that this is only a single source of data.

Our daily revenue doubled


Desktop Dungeons sales graph

Desktop Dungeons sales graph

What you’re looking at there is an otherwise reasonably flat and stable long tail from a game that’s nearly a year old. Desktop Dungeons was earning an average of $200 a day before, since the 23rd it’s been earning double that. And no, we haven’t run any promotions or had incredible new press that might explain the hike – traffic on our site hasn’t seen a similar rise, so this is all Steam.

Those sales are the result of increased visibility. Desktop Dungeons is being shown to more people on Steam than it was before. It’s also being shown to people that are more likely to be interested in the game. When Desktop Dungeons launched, 1,015,643 people saw it featured on the front page, 4,196 of them clicked on the image and ended up on the game’s individual page, we can calculate a click-through percentage from that at 0.41% – that’s actually not bad, a web advertising campaign with a rate like that would be good.

This last month Desktop Dungeons’ capsule graphics have been seen by 1,730,564 people resulting in 120,455 visits to the game’s page. That’s an astonishing 6.96% of viewers clicking through to read more about the game! It’s 17 times better than our launch interest, which is when games typically command the most attention. I don’t think I can really state how huge that difference is, and we didn’t have to do anything to get it.

Taking your turn at the firehose

The Steam front page is still the major source of traffic. It supplied just over 700 000 impressions since the 23rd (41% of our total impressions).  52 000 of those people visited the game’s page (43% of our total views) which puts the click-through rate around 7.4%. Part of the changes to Steam mean that more games are getting front page time, but they’re getting that time in front of less people who are more likely to be interested in the games they’re seeing. It seems to be working.

There’s honestly no way that Desktop Dungeons would be on the front page for anyone right now without these changes. It’s also much more selectively targeted than it used to be, I think the game’s tags combined with our good review scores (93% positive reviews out of 530+) mean that Steam’s algorithms have a good handle on the game. While that in itself doesn’t mean the game’s matching its launch sales, it’s doing a lot better than it did last month.


Desktop Dungeons impressions - views of the game's capsule graphic

Desktop Dungeons impressions – views of the game’s capsule graphic

More like this queue please

Interestingly enough, our next largest source of visits are other game pages, although this took some figuring out: 30% of our total visits come from just 3.1% of our total views at a whopping 65.6% click-through rate. That turned out to be a little too good: The incredible views (33,000 of them) come from the Discovery Queue, which doesn’t seem to track impressions in the data. The only source of impressions comes from the More Like This entry, so it could be that there’s either a set of impressions missing (probably because the queue doesn’t display a capsule graphic), or the queue’s impressions are rolled into More Like This. Either way, it’s not like those views are going to evaporate if the data gets better.

The Discovery Queue also seems to be at the root of another thing we noticed after Steam went blue: More people have Desktop Dungeons on their wishlists now. The Discovery Queue makes it super easy to click through to a new game and wishlist it so that you can keep discovering new stuff.


Desktop Dungeons game page views

Desktop Dungeons game page views

Recommendation beats curation

Curator recommendations supply 84,000 views and 2,600 visits. Their 3.17% click-through rate is better than our launch rate, but the front page and game recommendations are simply better. Desktop Dungeons is in a few respected curated lists, the largest being Rock-Paper-Shotgun and the comments are universally positive, so the game is definitely curated. We might see an increase in traffic from lists in the future, but I suspect that recommendation algorithms filtering lists might be the thing that makes that happen. “Recommended for you from this list” should at least be a viewing option there.

Curators probably affect your sales more directly when featured on your game’s page with good blurbs, or when players recognize a curator that they feel carries weight for them. Disabling all the curated lists on a game’s page would be an interesting experiment to run.


A particularly confusing Desktop Dungeons screenshot, because you expect me not to?

A particularly confusing Desktop Dungeons screenshot, because you expect me not to?

So what about new games?

I’m not sure how newly released games are going to benefit from recommendation systems while their reviews and tags are being populated by users. Desktop Dungeons had the benefit of being pretty well “understood” by Steam when the discoverability update happened. We definitely got an initial boost in visibility from being on a set of early curated lists. People have pointed out that the changes mean that external press is even more important for your game’s success, I would argue that it’s always been incredibly important (and that if you were just relying on launch featuring to get people to pay attention to a game on Steam you’re being incredibly naïve) but it seems to be how you get your game curated and how people might care enough to review your game. Growing your recommendations is going to need user investment, that makes community really important – especially communities of players you’ve already established on Steam.

I would hazard a guess that Desktop Dungeons might be reaping the benefits of having a really good return rate and racking up some great playtime statistics. Obviously users that keep coming back to your game are great for you, but their repeated returns to your game on Steam might prompt them to review the game or otherwise get involved in your game’s greater community. I don’t say this to advocate only building randomly generated games, but more as a way to explain where the community of players came from that have helped the game make good use of the discoverability update.


Desktop Dungeons’ ludicrous playtime categories

Where to from here?

New traffic heading to your game page is useless if your page isn’t turning those (presumably) new players into buyers. The discoverability data gives devs a great way to play around with what they put on those pages, from screenshots and videos to feature copy and maybe even price points. I’m curious to see where this ends up going over the next six months. Best case scenario would be that the recommendation systems allow quality games to keep growing their audiences, that way everybody wins. I’m certainly happy as a developer: Desktop Dungeons is doing better than it was last month and we didn’t have to devote any time to marketing to make that happen, so we’re able to focus our time on updating the game and porting it to tablets.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some ideas on how to make our Steam page sell the game a little better.

30 May 14

So you want to make a linux build with Unity

So maybe you’re like me, you’ve used Linux before, but it just wasn’t for you. That’s fine, everyone has their own tastes. But now you’ve got a game made in Unity, and some portion of your community is asking you to “Please port to Linux! It’s easy! Unity will do it for you!”

Well … yes and no. Getting Unity to output 32 and 64-bit executables for Linux is easy enough, but there’s a fair amount of work you’re going to have to do to get things running for your Linux users.

Now, to those very knowledgeable Linux humans reading this, please don’t take offense. This is the view of a Windows user trying to make the life of other game devs easier AND help put more games on the OS you love. If any of the info I present is wrong, feel free to correct me, but please make sure you do it in a way that is useful to someone who is not used to working in Linux.

13 May 14

Desktop Dungeons + Linux = <3


That’s right, Desktop Dungeons is now available for Linux! Tell your friends that don’t have the game yet that their excuses are rapidly dwindling… Especially because Desktop Dungeons is part of Midweek Madness on Steam right now for 50% off!

Like goats, Linux comes in many flavors. Also like goats, sometimes Linux can be recalcitrant and kill you in one hit… If you have any problems with the game, let us know and we’ll fix it ASAP. And finally, if anyone’s got a Steam box, we’d love to know how it plays!

08 Apr 14

QCF Design Vidblog, Episode 2

Uhhh, better late than never, perhaps? A few weeks ago we produced another discussion video for the QCF Design YouTube channel, this time discussing the trials and tribulations involved in resolution and interface design over the various iterations of Desktop Dungeons. Then we failed to repost it here.

This episode features a deeper and more substantial discussion than Ep1, as well as a slight increase in quality and overall user comfort. Plus extra minutes. Give it a lesson and let us know what you wanna see improved for Ep3!

07 Mar 14

QCF Design Vidblog, Episode 1

Hey everyone!

Trying something new this week. Instead of doing a text writeup about the topic of the day, members of the QCF Design crew sat down to share their feelings about Free To Play. It was deep, it was meaningful and it was enough to move a stone golem to tears.

We slapped the results into a real-life motion picture, which we now present to you as our tentative scout into the world of video blogging. Enjoy and leave feedback forever.

28 Feb 14

Female Representation in Desktop Dungeons


The broader debate of women in videogames needs no introduction, regardless of one’s stance on the matter. Everyone with an Internet connection and at least some investment in videogame culture has heard stories of the industry’s gender bias (which we’ll go ahead and assert is very readily apparent).

Now, Desktop Dungeons itself isn’t some haven of progressive social ideas and forward thinking. We didn’t start the game with an overarching agenda in that area – but during the course of development, we were heavily informed by the dialogues, rants and documentaries around the topic of female portrayal and how some games screw that up so badly. More…

21 Feb 14

Coders: 5 Things Your Indie Artist Would Like You To Know About Graphics

In this post, we’re dedicating some time to the flipside of last week’s writeup for illustrators wanting to break into game art. For reasons explained last time, this isn’t just gonna be a straight reversal of the previous advice – a few core asymmetries exist between the work that artists and programmers do, and it’s not about the creative vs logical approach or however else the issue gets generalised. It’s about high-constraint versus low-constraint environments, and the reality that artists are often forced to adapt to a coder’s constraints rather than the other way around.

More importantly, unlike larger studios (where formalised roles of designers and project managers become more clear and compartmentalised), indie projects tend to be dominated by a programmer, simply because there’s no other way for that project to exist short of an artist engaging with some cross-discipline learning. Either way, an artist-driven project would have its own set of problems separate from the ones described here and it’s not the sort of environment that we have enough experience to comment on.

So, let’s assume you’re a coder-boss-type person on a project where you’re telling somebody who’s way better than you at visual design to draw things in exactly the way you want them to. Here’s a few ways to make the artists you work with a lot less miserable about that: More…

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