- SanctuaryRPG is an ASCII-RPG released Q1 2015 on Steam, selling over 500,000 copies
- Rogue Potato – The Making of SanctuaryRPG gives a behind-the-scenes look at the game’s inception and the creators’ struggles
- The book is available on Amazon for $5 and can be finished in an afternoon at ~61 pages
- Readers will learn about the game’s interesting backstory, the fan-developer symbiosis, and development philosophy that led to this indie hit
We hope to bring you more high adventure in low resolution for many years to come. Until then, grab a sack of potatoes, put on your wizard hat, and jump headfirst into the first strange portal you see.
Indie game-dev is a niche hobby/profession. Books that act as a memoir for successful indies are thus even more rare. When I’m not reading and reviewing books on game-learning resources, I enjoy reading these little memoirs. One such book I read last year, Spelunky, was an insightful read on the state of the industry and a behind-the-scenes for a hugely successful indie, Derek Yu. Recently, I read Rogue Potato – The Making of SanctuaryRPG.
SanctuaryRPG was released in 2015, selling over 500,000 copies. It’s a throwback to ASCII art with some JRPG elements thrown in. The book explores the philosophy that games created without cutting-edge tech are still relevant.
It takes the player back to a time where multiplayer meant that friends had to crowd alongside one another on living room couches, a time where the most advanced way to interact with a game was by pointing an orange plastic gun at your TV screen. The game takes the player back to the world of ASCII. Black and white. Graphics made with numbers and letters. A time when the 486 processor was considered cutting edge.
Of Cows and Graph Paper
One interesting aspect of the book was the path that led creator Daniel Doan to develop SanctuaryRPG. It all started with trying to play high-tech games (at the time) without the available hardware. This led to projects such as making a board game based on Counter Strike and even an ASCII “de-make” of Diablo.
I had very limited programming skills at the time and virtually no art skills, so I turned to a command line interface. ASCII art just came naturally.
Ownership and Control
There is another equally interesting section within the book. Doan outlines how the primary source of growth after its co-developer resigned was through fan-assistance within various subreddits. Overwhelmed by scope, Doan let out a “call-to-arms” on various subreddits. Dorian Karahalios responded on a small writing sub, volunteering to to take on the role of lead writer. Beyond this, Doan spent a lot of time on SanctuaryRPG’s own subreddit working with fans on fixing and improving the game. This fan-developer symbiotic relationship parallels that of Derek Yu’s experience in the development of Spelunky. Another significant parallel, both games had a free version that helped fans contribute without needing to fork over any money.
Most games that depend on volunteers and revenue share risk falling apart well before they ship a game…using the feedback to constantly make improvements, he gave the members of his team a sense of ownership over the final product.
Another section of the book ties this section together by outlining why he went for a truly free initial version as a knee-jerk reaction to the mobile-gaming market.
The companies I spoke with were essentially asking me to be complicit in the brainwashing and eventual zombification of their customer base.
The most important thing any game has to do is to emotionally engage the player. It’s one thing to make a simple risk-reward loop that delivers a small burst of satisfaction every once in a while, it’s another thing for a game to actively capture the imaginations of the people who play it.
The Struggling Artist
The co-authors faced issues such as depression, lacking moral support, and the will-crushing experience of conformity; however, these issues are prevalent for most indies across the globe. Doan and co-author Yixin both were frustrated with China’s anti-intellectual culture.
“…all I got was doubt and skepticism. “How are you going to survive?” asked my mother. “Creativity doesn’t mean anything” … “You’re not talented enough that you can make a career out of using your imagination, not like the people on TV.”
These frustrations led the authors on a tied mission to make games as their “last resort” for creative will.
At this point the book goes into more focus on the development process: struggling to find an original title, working with fans, production decisions, mistakes, and using humour as the main hook.
Players could be raised by sunflowers, or slap themselves with a salmon, or seek employment as a potato catcher.
Some of the final words written ponder on Doan’s choice to abandon game development for a career in social media with Black Shell Media.
Besides, I’m not angry at Daniel just because he abandoned commercial game development, I’m angry at him for squandering the momentum he built up with SanctuaryRPG and the goodwill of our fanbase. Instead of capitalizing on our initial success, he decided to abandon everything and waste the next two years spending all his time on social media, aimlessly shilling for one game or the next.
Doan eventually replied with complaints of anxiety and depression due to the isolated lifestyle of an indie game developer.
Rogue Potato is a cheap buy at ~$5 and will probably last you an afternoon (or maybe two). The book manages to blend the co-authors’ experiences into a pretty interesting backstory, lesson on fan loyalty, and informative development breakdown. If you’re a fan of SanctuaryRPG, or just an indie developer looking for some inspiration, then you just might consider picking this up.
SanctuaryRPG: Black Edition (Steam)