It’s been a slow few months for me, but it’s time I change that. Today, I bring you a first for Grimdark Magazine: game developer interviews! Today, I bring an interview with game developer Jake Donkersgoed, creator of indie RPG The Doors of Trithius, an RPG roguelike set in a randomly generated fantasy world. You fight monsters, avoid traps, collect loot, manage your wounds and more as you traverse the mysterious world of Enalia.
Jake was awesome enough to shoot me over a code of the game (which I’ll be reviewing in the coming weeks), but for now, let’s dive in with Jake and chat about The Doors of Trithius, being a games developer, and dealing with the market response to your work.
[MB] First of all, tell me about yourself! What do you do?
[JD] I’m Jake Donkersgoed (aka Sineso), creator of the open-world RPG The Doors of Trithius.
The project started in 2020. There’s this moment I remember from early that year. I’m at my computer looking through an old folder filled with half-finished games built up from over the years – basically a graveyard of unfinished projects – and the truth hit me hard. If I was ever going to complete a game it was now or never. The Doors of Trithius is the result of that decision. Soon after, I quit my job as a software developer and began working on the game full time.
[MB] What does being a game designer actually mean?
[JD] For me, it means writing documents. Lots of documents. If your ideas are not on paper or in the game they don’t exist. Having “an idea” is not worth much until you can express what it is, how it works, and how it all fits together. Show your work.
On the other hand, there’s the artistic element. The seed of a vision. That numinous deep thing that wants to be expressed. Without that, the rest is impossible. The trick is to solve problems logically and carefully without letting go of that initial seed of desire and wonder.
In more practical terms, most times my process starts with the question “what experience am I trying to create?”. Once I have that answer, I design game mechanics to support that experience. Without this experiential element there is a risk design becomes a game of math abstractions, losing sight of the human element.
[MB] Can you tell our readers about The Doors of Trithius?
[JD] The Doors of Trithius is an open world RPG with a strong emphasis on procedural generation. One way I like to explain it is that I always loved the Elder Scrolls games, but felt those games were limited by their graphical fidelity. What if an open-world RPG could have hundreds of monster types, abilities, and quests? How far can we ramp up the content, variety, and that feeling of wonder – how far can it go when using pixel art and not be limited by 3D graphics?
The second way I would describe this project is an attempt to create a certain type of experience. I want to surprise players with weird, strange, and seemingly random things happening. Emergent or complex behavior that is not obvious on the surface level, but through exploration reveals an underlying order and unity. Enalia is a world thriving with monsters and magical happenings that lets the player decide where to go, and what systems to interact with, based on their own curiosity and level of skill.
[MB] As anyone who creates anything, we must all deal with criticism from consumers. How do you go about it particularly in the prolific and viral standard of gaming today?
[JD] Acceptance. Emotions are always correct. If a player has a bad experience, that is a brute fact, and cannot be argued with. This acceptance is necessary to empathize with players. There is no need to control or fight or try to change a player’s mind. Bad experiences are ok.
Empathy is one thing. Taking advice however is another. The real danger is in paying too close attention to players proposed design solutions. Their experiences are invaluable, which is why I love watching twitch streams and players play live, but player suggestions are almost never quite right, or at least not complete. After all, that’s your job as a designer, to draw from your vision to produce the type of experience you are aiming for.
The cliché “if you love it you’ll let it free” has been helpful to me as well in this regard. The ego can become too attached. Make something beautiful, but never cling. The Gods love courage.
[MB] What advice would you give new developers taking the plunge into game design?
[JD] Pretend you have a deadline, an audience, players. Make it real. I remember before the game was even on steam I was writing patch notes and releasing updates every 2 weeks. These versions I sent to my roommate and friends.
Sometimes a version would go by with no one to play it but myself. It didn’t matter. On the evening of the new release, I would be scrambling to have it ready in time. I wrote those patch notes as if I had players. It was my prayer, and I took it seriously “here you go universe, here is my effort, here is my dream – take it”.
If you’re reading this I’m sure you’ve heard this type of advice before, but it’s the truth. Any endeavor requires a leap of faith. The momentum comes after. Act first.
This, of course, is if you want to take the path I did starting as a solo Indie developer. There are other paths in game design of which I know less.
[MB] If you still have time to play video games, what are some of your favorite ones to play?
[JD] Deep diving into a complex game is my favorite. Recently I’ve been enjoying Stellaris, such a beautiful game with so many design solutions packed in.
Typically I try to avoid games similar to my own. I don’t want to accidentally start thinking and designing in terms of a similar game. The further you travel for inspiration; the stranger and more novel of solutions you will encounter. That means playing other games, yes, but also nature, books, movies, swimming. Ask a question in the right way and everything seems to speak to it.
[MB] What inspires you to do what you do?
[JD] There’s something self-referential in the experience of creating. We want to inspire others, so they can create and inspire others, who become inspired and then inspire even more, on and on. But I’m thankful to be part of this strangeloop. I’m thankful just to be on the carousel, potentially inspiring whoever will be next.
In short, that someone playing my game could – through that experience – see something new about themselves or in the world is massively inspiring. If it’s true the world is magic, we have to find a way to say it.
[MB] What is the hardest part of your job?
[JD] Task initiation. Sitting down and getting started. Once a train is moving it’s easy to keep going. But that first hump, it can be so difficult. Sometimes I have to set a timer and tell myself “you will work on this item without a single pause for X minutes”. I imagine I’m a sprinter. The timer starts like a gunshot and there is no going back. Right foot, left foot, right foot, keep going.
The other hard challenge is when a tension emerges between two good design ideas. Letting go of something you really wanted to make room for another feature is hard. There was a long period of about a month where I was stuck because I couldn’t figure out how to implement quests in the way that I wanted if the world remained 100% procedurally generated, with no guarantee of what dungeons or locations would be spawned into the map. There was no way forward without letting something go. This for me is the hardest art.
[MB] What was your favorite thing about game development?
[JD] The feeling of growth. We never know where we are until we move. Every time a new feature is added, a bug is fixed, whatever it is, there is a feeling of moving towards something. This expansion builds momentum to continue moving forward.
[MB] What lessons have you learned from your first game?
[JD] Routine over motivation. Write documents. Set time limits and don’t get stuck fiddling. Understand the difference between “real work” and “fake work” where you know in your heart you are not making real progress. Commit to doing some amount of real work every day. Ignore the competition. Don’t work on two tasks at once – planning long-term is one task, implementation is another. These are some ideas that have helped me immensely, or perhaps I should say, have survived their utility having worked 2 years as an indie developer.
[MB] What are your future project(s)?
[JD] I intend to keep working on The Doors of Trithius long-term. The goal is for a world so massive players discover new features on every playthrough.
[MB] If you couldn’t be a game developer, what ideal job would you like to do?
[JD] Music, philosophy, chess, reading. The feeling I have is that when I follow an interest, the world expands like a fractal. Whatever is needed will appear.
[MB] Finally, what is your ideal video game if money and time was no object?
[JD] If you’ve read the book Ender’s Game, something like the video game he plays while at the training school. This would mean using AI to generate stories that would infinitely unravel in any direction the player wants to take it. It would be like the web-based game “AI dungeon”, but taken to the absolute extreme.
Honestly, that might be the game we’re playing right now.
Check out The Doors of Trithius on Steam.