“Those Are My Demographics: Kids Learning How To Read, and Game Designers”

An interview with Peter Whalen, creator of Dream Quest

Dream Quest is one of my favorite games of the year, iOS or otherwise. A janky-looking, superficially unimpressive deckbuilder/roguelike in which the player explores a dungeon and faces off against a menagerie of monster decks, the game’s immense depth and variety has made it my go-to on the subway for months now, and slowly the word has been spreading throughout the boardgaming and videogaming communities. A one-man project, Dream Quest was designed and programmed by Peter Whalen, who graciously consented to an hour-long interview with me over Skype last weekend.

A simultaneous death is a moral victory, but in game terms, not so much.

Early Influences

This is, as far as I can tell, the first game you’ve released?

This is the first game I’ve actually released to the public. I think if you were to scour the web, I have other games you could find…I made games when I was a kid, and somewhere on a file-sharing site is probably a zip file of some game I made 10 years ago.

You just recently finished a graduate degree in combinatorics?

Yup. In math. At Georgia Tech.

What were your favorite games growing up, and what did you tend to like?

Magic was the big one. I was…7 or 8 when I started? It was when Revised was out…I remember when Ice Age came out [1995] and was a big deal.

So you were able to, like, maybe get some Arabian Nights and Antiquities, but they were hard to come by.

Yeah, my favorite card…my best friend gave me a Rukh Egg, with the dark mana symbol, and that was the coolest thing ever. That was my birthday present…I think I was 9.

Did you play games before that…anything beyond Candyland-type stuff?

I played a bunch of games with my dad when I was a kid. He would do these dungeons with an invisible ink pen…he would draw the dungeon, and when I moved into a square, I’d rub it with the other pen to make it appear. Then he would DM and tell me what happened…we didn’t call it “DM”ing at the time, because I was 5.

Had he played D&D, or had he just heard about the concept…

He played Wizardry in college, I guess. We played that together too, when I was a kid.

The original Wizardry (1981). Image from mobygames.com

Yeah, I played that as a kid too. It definitely teaches you how to map things.

God, even now I know how to get through that first level from memory.

So you’re playing Magic at a very young age…it blew my mind when I was 18 because I had a vague sense of wanting to design games, and it was sort of the first game where you got to be a game designer.

Yeah, I have binders of made-up cards that I’d design in MS Paint and print out on the school printer.

Oh wow. So your work with MS Paint in Dream Quest is coming from a place of deep familiarity. Which I…I really like the graphics in Dream Quest, which I know is maybe…well, it will be a majority opinion. Once the revolution comes.

Thanks! At this point, though, I get that about 10% of the time.

Attack cards follow a # of swords and symbols pattern more reminiscient of traditional suited decks than Magic cards.

What I like is that the stick-figures and icons are not only clear, but circumvent a problem with illustrations in card games, which is that…well, nouns are easy to express. You can have a picture of an individual ogre on a card represent all ogredom, and it works fine. But verbs are much harder. There are a lot of blue Magic cards that are just some random wizard holding their head and looking constipated.

Yes…the problem with Dream Quest cards is that they’re mostly verbs.

But by having it be so minimalist, you kind of get around that problem. Have you thought about that in terms of if you revamped the graphics, would you keep it as abstract, or would you want to put more specific narrative things in there?

I’d want to keep it more abstract. I’ve talked to several artists but it never worked out…they’ll do like two or three pictures for me and then realize that, like, they have a life and other commitments.

Anyway, did you continue playing Magic, or is there a point you dropped out?

I stopped in high school, I moved away and none of my new friends played, so that was that for a while. Then I graduated college, and I lived near one of my old friends who just had picked it up. So we started playing a bunch and, you know, it goes downhill from there.

What was your reaction when you went back to it…was it a Rip Van Winkle moment?

Actually I came back in on the Time Spiral block, which has all of these throwbacks…which is probably part of why I got back into it. I thought, oh this is so cool, I remember all these things, this is a riff on this old card, etc. So I just started playing with that friend, and we recruited other friends who used to play back in the day, and for a while I had about 6 friends I played with pretty regularly.

What’s your personality in terms of decks?

I play everything…I tend towards green decks…green/blue, green/white. I’m totally happy with any deck. I get bored quickly, so I try to play a lot of different ones.

So you encountered Magic very early, but in terms the deckbuilding element, did you encounter Dominion early on?

Not really…I’ve only played Dominion a handful of times. I have friends who got really into it, but I never did. I found it was more like a puzzle than like a game…you look at the 10 cards that are out and you solve it in some sense. I mean, it’s too complicated to actually solve, but that’s not that much fun for me…I like having more interaction. I like Ascension quite a bit…I’ve never played it with a real person, but I’ve played it on my phone quite a bit.

Which roguelikes were influential on the design?

I never played that many straight roguelikes…I like the idea of them, in that it it’s a nice half-hour contained experience, but I never found one with a combat system I liked. I liked FTL a lot, though that’s pretty recent. I’ve played a lot of Binding of Isaac.

The opening story of Dream Quest, which changes to give you hints about the perils to come.

The Evolution of Dream Quest

So, was there a genesis moment for Dream Quest, or was it more a slow accretion of ideas?

I think like everything it’s a little bit of both…there aren’t that many iOS games that are in that half-hour slot. There’s a lot of excellent ones that, if you’re sitting on an airplane for four hours, you can really grind through a Final Fantasy or some other huge RPG. And there’s a bunch of good 2-minute, really quick, do something fun ones. But there’s not a lot of things for, like, a bus ride, or waiting for students to come to your office hour or whatever. I’ve got Ascension, and I do crosswords, but that’s it for me in that time frame.

So I wanted something in that slot, and as I said, I like the idea of roguelikes but never found a combat system I really liked. And I like card games…I’ve played lots and lots of card games of various types. And so those thoughts all came together while I’d been working on this much more sophisticated, deep-strategy digital card game for about a year at that point. Which meant that when I had the basic idea for Dream Quest, I already had the basic engine for it. So it only took me about a week to write up a script for the dungeon and scope it out as something I could test. And so we tried it, and it turned out it to be a lot of fun…just conceptually, the idea worked. Lots and lots of things were broken about it, and the game looked nothing like it does now, but the idea at least had merit.

What was the game you were working on?

It’s in the vein of Magic, but with a board. The fundamental thing is that you’re moving your pieces around and attacking, so it’s kind of like Magic meets Chess.

In terms of playtesting, how did the strategies change from feedback from friends and forum people?

A lot. The game evolved a ton…even though I had a head start with the engine from the other game, I probably worked on it for about 6 months before it was feature-complete, and then another 6 to 8 months of basically just testing and tweaking things and balancing stuff. There’s two halves to the game, from my perspective — there’s the programming part, and the game design part. And the programming part’s not a lot fun, in some sense, but it has to get done. So that was basically done at the end of the first year…obviously there’s a lot of programming after that, but nothing hardcore.

And the rest of it was…there was so much testing and changing things over time. There were sort of three evolutions of strategy. The first one was that you built up a deck and you would just one-shot every monster with some crazy combo and you didn’t care what you were fighting against. So some of those cards had to become a little weaker. But more what happened is all the monsters became more powerful in various ways…up until that point, the monsters were much more homogenous. You stopped being able to buy an extra card in the shops, which was way too powerful…that became strictly a leveling-up bonus.

Oh, level-ups…there were no level-ups at the beginning. I thought just evolving your deck over time with gold would be enough, but it turns out that having those discrete events was actually really important. People liked it a lot, and that gave the fact that your health goes down over time, and then you restore it by leveling up…that wasn’t a mechanic that existed in the beginning.

Leveling up gives the player a satisfying “ding”, along with an opportunity for more strategic choices.

Which is a pretty common rogue-like mechanic that’s especially interesting in your game, since a monster’s XP value always equals its level. So you can strategize and try to plan out how you’ll trapeze your way from ding to ding…

Yeah, Diablo was the game I was thinking of when I came up with that. But that was an important thing that shaped how things played out from there. And then the second important phase was when cards that made your opponent discard were very prevalent. All of the Frost spells made your opponent discard, for example — so you could do that and get Avoids, which counter the next card played. So it just became about counting up to five — get five of those, and you could beat anything because you’d just prevent the monster from doing anything. And that was about a month before release, so I had to revise a bunch of things so that couldn’t happen any more, since that’s not a very fun mechanic.

How early on did the Dream Quest system start sprouting enough variety to make the character classes and monsters all really different from each other?

From the very beginning, getting the character classes to play differently from each other was the most important thing. There were lots of iterations on that. The four base classes were mage, thief, warrior, and paladin at the beginning. It took a long time to figure out how to distinguish them…the priest didn’t come together for months. It took a long time to figure out how to have a class that’s fundamentally about healing in a solo game.

The prayer cards are a cool mechanic…did those come about through struggling with the Priest class?

Yeah, those came out of trying to answer the question, “If you just play defense, why is that a good thing?” And the answer is that you have these huge time bombs.

And you have to decide when they’re going to go off, which is tricky.

There are some people who love the Priest, and some people who hate it. That’s okay. I found that, much more than I expected, people really gravitate towards particular classes. There are people who tell me, oh the thief is the most fun class ever, I love it, and the priest and warrior are so boring…and then other people are just the opposite. That’s one of the things I’m happiest with…people tend to gravitate towards classes, but they’re not all drawn to the same ones.

The Prayer of Life is set to heal my paladin, but I’ll have to wait 1 more turn for its benefits.

So the actions and spells were there from the beginning, and the prayer cards came later…

Much later. Equipment was there from the start in various forms. That took a while to get right. Not ever being able to start with it made it too weak and uninteresting, and then I had the bright idea of letting the player start with all their equipment, which led down another bad path. I’m pretty happy where it is now, where you can start with some if you get slots for it.

The program does “cheat” in that it’s more likely to give you the cards that you need…was that there from the get-go, or did you gradually realize that pure randomness didn’t feel good?

The classes getting their own cards was there from the beginning..having it so that if you bought fire spells, you were more likely to have fire spells show up later on, that came very late in the design. The whole four elements thing wasn’t there at the beginning — wizards just had spells.

So the resistances and weaknesses weren’t there yet.

There were some…there were Fireball and Meteor, which did fire damage, and monsters could have resistances to that, but there wasn’t a third-level fire spell. There was Chain Lightning, but no other air spells, and so on. So having that elemental spell progression came in maybe three months before release, when I said, “okay, all of the base classes need at least three totally independent strategies, and they can kind of mix and match.” So, when I revamped the wizard, I saw that the elements fit well into that.

So, in terms of multiple strategies…with the Thief, you have chaining actions, and you have the high-cost Strike cards…what’s the third strategy?

Dodging. There’s a defensive Thief deck that’s quite good, with Kicks and Avoids and other nonsense. The Warrior has the Scimitar/Sword deck, which works well with Slash. They also have the big-attack approach with Colossus Smash, which goes well with Wrath of God. And then they have a very defensive one that goes well with the cards that double your damage. And there’s all sorts of other hybrids…I really like all the crazy interactions you can get just through random combinations. You can do crazy things if you can get a Meteor as a Thief, with all the double-your-damage cards.

Progression and Unlocks

Dream Quest contains dozens of unlockable achievements, ranging from humble buffs to two new sets of character classes.

On the surface, Dream Quest is a roguelike, but then you realize that it’s got an elaborate progression element as well. I ignored the achievements at the beginning because, you know, achievements, whatever, but then I realized that oh, I need to focus on what to unlock in order to see more stuff. Where did that system come in?

That was pretty early. I like getting things out of my achievements in other games. I think it’s really cool when you unlock things…the best part about buying a card game is when you start looking through the decks and are thinking about all the cool cards…that’s my favorite moment. There’s plenty of other great moments, like when you play it and realize some interaction you’ve never seen before. But the best thing is when it’s all new, and you get to see how all the pieces go together. I feel like with unlocks in games it’s somewhat like that. You have something to work for, and it’s gives a sense of progression. And I think that’s really important, especially in a game where you die a lot.

Your death is not in vain.

Exactly. I tend to get bored with games that are sort of “arcade” — in that they’re self-contained. I have a hard time continuing to play them for a long time. Even in Binding of Isaac, you have unlocks.

At the beginning of each floor, players get to select a talent, ranging from simple buffs to ones that wildly alter the game.

When did the talents come in?

At the very beginning. The big thing with the unlocks was that I didn’t want them to make you more powerful, except at the very beginning…I liked having the little ramp-up at the beginning, where you were weaker and it got easier over the first five runs. But I wanted the rest of the unlocks to not be straight power upgrades, and the talents were very important for that.

In that they’re increasing variety, but not necessarily more powerful.

Generally when I play, I only take the base talents out of habit, because in development I would generally keep resetting the game and testing it out from scratch.

Crumble is an interesting talent, because like playing the Monk [whose damage ignores elemental effects], it gives the player the ability to opt out of a major mechanic of the game. That must have been a tricky design decision.

A tricky design decision or…we threw a lot of things at the wall to see if they would stick. It’s hard to come up with a whole lot of talents! Especially Floor 1 talents…it’s hard to come up with things that are equal to gaining three health. The talents got jumbled around a lot as time went on. For a while, Fluid [a talent that draws an extra card if you play at least one Action card] was a base Floor 1 talent. It was…getting half-a-card or so is just too phenomenal for a floor 1 talent.

Especially since the hand size starts at 2, which is really small for a deckbuilder. You really feel the progression as you hit another level and you can draw a third card. Was that there from the beginning?

No, we tried a bunch of things. At some point the hand size was much higher, but you were limited by the number of cards you could play a turn. So you got 5 cards, and you’d end up discarding a lot of them. Because at that point, every card cost an action. At the beginning, when I was trying to make the classes different I split off the Attack cards from that to give the warrior something. And then making the spells not cost an action became a thing.

And that makes the unlocks feel especially valuable. My favorite unlock was the Professor class, which feels like a real New Game Plus moment…that’s when the bottom drops out and the game totally inverts itself. And that seems like a great moment to build into the system, because it’s a total surprise, but makes you look at all what you’ve learned from a whole new angle.

Yeah, the Professor is a lot of fun.

Speaking of which, your game actually has inspired both me and [fellow NYU Professor] Eric Zimmerman…he’s making a deckbuilding sort of party game where each game takes 5 or 10 minutes so you can have a full “campaign” in an hour or two, and I got seized by the puzzle of “how would I make a physical solitaire that had the enemies be represented by decks without it being incredibly tedious to assemble them?” Since, of course, your monster decks could only really work in a digital format. Is that something that you considered when you were making the game…that this could only work digitally?

Yes. That’s something that’s important to me…if you’re going to make a digital game, there should be a reason for it.

The game’s four-page Bestiary gives tips for dealing with the vast variety of monsters.

Monsters and Music

What monsters are you happiest with, and are there any that you liked the idea of but could never quite execute?

Well, there were a lot of bad ideas that didn’t make it, but they all blur together. The Phoenix…I kind of wish I could change. I wish I found a better mechanic for the Phoenix. I think it’s okay, but it’s not intuitive the first time.

The rebirth?

Yeah. I tried a bunch of different ways to do the rebirth, and I’m not entirely happy with the one I ended up with. I think the Hydra’s cool. I’m really happy with the Hydra…it sounds like one of those things that’ll never ever work, but it actually works pretty well. The idea that you either have to kill it in one turn, or whittle it down with fire and poison.

Yeah the metaphor works with it starting with a large hand and then discarding as you damage it, and it’s got a nice dramatic arc to it.

Yeah, that one I was surprisingly happy with. More generally, invisible monsters that surprise you in the dungeon…that came midway through, and worked out awesome. I wanted a deterrence to exploring a lot…at the beginning, you could choose whether or not to use the health packs, and the obvious dominant strategy was to explore the whole map and then make all your choices. And that led to analysis paralysis, where you have to plan everything, and there’s no mystery. So I wanted to create more mystery, so being forced to pick up a health pack if you enter its square helped with that, and the invisible monsters helped with that….some kind of carrot-and-stick-type thing.

The invisible monsters make the game a lot more tense.

And the first time you get hit by one, there’s a great “oh my god what is happening” moment.

Invisible monsters make the Sixth Sense talent, allowing you to see all monsters from the start, even more useful.

One clever mechanic is being able to spend your achievement points to resurrect your character…and it’s not cheap, it’s more than you’ll get in one game unless you make it to the last full level, and it doubles each time you bring back the same character. So you maintain a sense of stakes without having it be pure permadeath.

I tried to set it to where good players will generally get about a 1:1 ratio. That was really late, actually…like a week or two before release. I’d been trying to find this mechanic to let you play a little more recklessly, because it’s not that much fun if you have to think really hard all the time. But…I couldn’t come up with anything. And then this continuing with achievement points just worked out miraculously. That was one of the most fortunate things that happened, because I think it’s an important mechanic and we just didn’t have it.

Where did you get the musical scores? They’re kind of great.

I spent a week scouring the internet for royalty-free music. It just took a lot of time. I had to buy a couple of the tracks, but they were like 10 bucks or something.

Whalen informs his Twitter followers about Dream Quest updates, and that’s about that.

Reception and Feedback

The interesting thing with Dream Quest is like…you’ve got 60 followers on Twitter, but a lot of them are good game designers. It’s very much a cult game that spreads from person to person.

Most of the people who like Dream Quest are either between 8 and 11, or game designers.

Those are the people you want. That’s the best market.

Those are my demographics. Kids who are just learning to read, and game designers.

That’s interesting, because my only real issue with the game is that it starts slow…the first few combats are basically choiceless, so you just sort of tap tap tap your way through them. But that does provide a great on-ramp for younger kids…it starts out like Candyland, and then slowly eases them into this rich strategy space. Do you get emails from that age group?

Yeah, although more from their parents. I got an email at some point from a mom whose kid had never been interested in reading, but couldn’t stop reading the bestiary entries, all the time, out loud. And it was driving her crazy, but it was awesome.

The tone of the game is also…I dunno, cheeky? It’s narratively silly, the dialogue is very funny and intentionally grandiloquent. And there’s actually things built in you don’t notice at first, like you can figure out what the levels and the final boss will be like if you read the text closely. What was the process of that, and how did you decide on that theme instead of, say, space or horror?

It could have been anything, but I just like fantasy stuff more than other stuff. The tone…I don’t really have a different tone, so that just came naturally. It’s hard to write something that’s very serious, at least for me. I’m just not good enough to write something very serious as an epic fantasy…it’s also pretty hard to have a roguelike with a serious story.

Right, because a lot of the entertainment comes from the chaotic nature of different weird unexpected collisions of things and so on.

Yeah, and you’re just gonna die a lot. If you have to see the same story over and over again, it would drive me crazy.

It is good advice in general.

Speaking of silliness…is there any significance to the loading screen telling you “Don’t forget to eat the squirrels?”

Honestly it was just test code. I have all kind of crazy text strings I put into places, just to make sure words show up. It was just there to show it was a loading screen, but when I tried to turn it into hints, my testers revolted. They preferred the placeholder!

I know you’re fixing the exploit where you can quit out of the game and avoid being killed by a monster.

It was the opposite before…it used to be that if you loaded the game, it deleted the save. So if you force-quit out for whatever reason, you’d lose the game Which wasn’t a problem when I was testing it on my PC, but the problem on phones is that you can get a phone call or a text, and it’ll swap you out of the game, and if the memory usage is high it might kill it, and that sucks. So that’s why it went the other direction…and now I made a change that hopefully means in those cases it won’t be bad, and in the other cases you’ll lose the game. But we’ll see.

One funny thing is…I gave the game to a friend who loves it and has been playing it obsessively, and now he’s trying to get the most difficult achievement, Master Thief. And he actually texted me that he wishes he could just do an in-app purchase and buy it.

I’ve heard that from people, but it’ll never ever happen. No. As soon as you have in-app purchases, nobody trusts you. I feel like there’s this contract between the developer and the player: you’ve paid me three bucks, and at that point you have this game, and it’s going to be as good a game as I can make it. And we might have different ideas of what a good game is, but this is a game that I’m proud of, and I’ve sold to you. As soon as I have in-app purchases, it’s impossible for you to trust that it’s hard because I think that’s best, rather than it’s hard because I want you to give me money.

And by in-app purchases, you don’t mean an expansion like in Ascension or something…you mean pay-to-win.

Right, I have no problem with expansions. If I make an expansion for Dream Quest, I don’t know if I’ll charge for it, but that’s not an issue in the same way.

Are there other repeated emails from people who on some level don’t seem to get what you’re going for?

Yeeeeah…I’ve gotten a few emails from people about crazy stuff. It’s mostly people who think the game is too hard, but could never ever bring themselves to say that. There have been people who want to construct their deck outside, bring certain cards into every dungeon. There have been people who wanted me to get rid of the dungeon part, and you just selected the monster you wanted to fight from a list.

Well, that’s who Crumble is there for.

Yeah, but for only one floor. I don’t know, I think the dungeon part is fun. It depends on the class…the Priest doesn’t care as much how he sequences, but the Warrior…sequencing monsters is the most important thing. The combat decisions for the Warrior are less interesting, but going through the dungeon is moreso.

A graven image of Richard Garfield, Ph. D., who occasionally assumes corporeal form if he senses a game designer is in need.

Richard Garfield and Update 1.08

So, how did Richard Garfield contact you?

Sent me an email one morning. It was pretty much the coolest thing ever. So I have my phone as my alarm clock, and I’d get up in the morning and check my phone, I’ve got these emails, and I’ve got one from Richard Garfield. And I’m like, what. This must be some sort of spam.

That’s some hypertargeted spam.

So I click on it, and it says “Hi, this is Richard Garfield, the creator of Magic.

[laughs]

Yeah, he’s been awesome. I actually moved to Seattle recently, and so we actually met up a couple of weeks ago. Went up to his house, played some boardgames and it was great.

So what kind of feedback has he been giving you for the new update?

The biggest input he had was with the idea for seeded dungeons, like in Freecell. Now, every one of your runs gets logged in a history. So if it’s your own run you can just tap on it, and either try it again or share it with someone else.

The imminent update’s seeding screen.

Have you played Spelunky, or thought about doing a daily challenge?

I’ve played it very briefly with a friend who’s very good at Spelunky, and also suggested a daily challenge. There was the question of whether to do the daily challenge or the seeded play or some combination of them. I ended up going with the seeded play for a stupid reason, which is that a daily challenge requires me to run a server, which is annoying. That was pretty much it.

So it’s not that they’re in some way contraindicated in terms of design…

No, not at all. In fact, now that I have the tech to do a daily challenge…the seeding before was more a set of rules, so it didn’t work in such a way that you could just have a random seed and it would generate a dungeon…the random seed would do different things depending on what decisions you made, so I had to revamp all that, and that took a lot of work on the programming back-end.

How have sales been doing, in terms of the size of the cult?

It’s pretty steady…I’ll get a big bump when an article comes up, like when Richard promoted, or the Pocket Tactics one from yesterday. Some days are good, some are slow. I don’t know.

And you haven’t done sales or advertising…it’s been just three bucks and that’s that.

Most of my sales come from word-of-mouth…I haven’t done any advertising.

It is this secret handshake that people keep passing around. Because there is this hump to get over, since the art is not…conventionally attractive.

Sure. You just have to get past the fact that the screenshots look terrible.

Future Projects

Do you have a second game you’re working on right now?

I do, but…it’s one of those things that’s very close to being done, but the last part is kind of miserable, so I haven’t really finished it. It’s that game I’ve been working on forever — the Magic-meets-chess one.

Oh, so Dream Quest didn’t basically absorb that.

No, not at all. They’re totally different; they just use a similar engine.

Any plans for Dream Quest in the future?

Well, in terms of the graphic design, I’m still looking for someone who would be interested in working on that. Generally I’m pretty happy with the content…if I come up with some cool ideas for new classes and new cards, I’d be okay with releasing some kind of expansion. I have ideas for a Dream Quest II that would change some things that I don’t like, but it’s just ideas at this point. There’s a long way between having ideas and doing all the programming.