Interviewer’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
The Underground King is an upcoming racing roguelike that is launching on Steam Early Access on July 16th. In it, you play as the manager of a racing team as you seek “glory and fortune” on an island that is obsessed with racing. Races play out in a side-scrolling manner and you can also explore the island through RPG-style events.
I recently had a chance to sit down with its developers, Alexandru Nae and Alexandru Nechita, for a second time (the first interview can be found here) to discuss the game, the indie game development experience, and more.
Me: How has the game progressed since we last talked?
Nae: We kind of evolve as we work on it, so, we figured out that the base game that we built back in 2017, I think, couldn’t support all of the upgrades that we want to add. So, we kind of had to thrash it down, build it up again, thrash it down, build it up again, but I think that I speak for the both of us when I say that we are really glad with what it ended up to be today.
We worked a lot on balancing it and kind of represent this, we have the four short words for it—Drive, Defeat, Loot, Repeat—which is the main, core gameplay. It doesn’t say everything about the game, but it kind of encapsulates the idea of mixing a roguelike with a racing game, which was [laughs] pretty daring on our side.
Nechita: We kind of went too ambitious initially and we wanted to have all of the game mechanics in the world. With several experiments and playtests, there’s a once every three months meetup with indie game developers and games here in Berlin. We showed the game around, we got some feedback. We tightened the belt and decided to polish a little bit of content instead of releasing a lot of unfinished stuff.
Nae: Yeah, we were very ambitious with the content.
Nechita: We still plan to release most of the things we decided that the game would be, but we keep keeping the game in an unfinished state, like it’s been three years already, and we decided to release it in Early Access on Steam, which will happen on July 16th.
With all of the rebuilding it and cutting down on the mechanics, is the plan to release it on Early Access so that you can see how people are feeling about the base mechanics before you start working on the rest of the content?
Nae: Yes and no. We definitely want to see people’s reaction to it and, honestly, if it’s bad, there’s not much to do about it because, as I said, we reworked the base core of the game. If you’re building the house, we have the ground level and it’s pretty much nailed down. Opening it up for the audience, first of all, we do it for our own sanity because we don’t know what’s good and what’s not anymore.
We want this engagement with the community so they can say “I would feel strongly about adding this part here to the game” or removing this part or I don’t know. Any small improvements, not necessarily like the 2D racing part of it, moving from left to right, why not doing it only a roguelike-style screen instead.
What are you planning on adding, exactly? I noticed that you’re going to add more game modes. You’ve got a certain amount of power-ups that are available in the middle of races. You said that you had cut down because you had added a lot of stuff that was unfinished. Where are you planning to go forward in a more focused fashion?
Nechita: So the game, under the hood, is planned to be a classic RPG adventure, such as Dungeons and Dragons. The characters are meant to be flavored classical archetypes, such as Wizard, Fighter, Paladin, Rogue, and so forth. The first three we have are Fighter, Rogue, and Paladin, and there are nine more, also themed after playing cards, so 12 in total. Plus The Underground King, which is the final boss of the game. We soon realized that we don’t have enough hands and enough hours in the day to work on everything, so we narrowed it down to just three, the ones I mentioned.
Boss battles, which are usually scripted, turned out to be very hard to implement on time.
Because I’m the only developer, we had to prioritize what’s necessary. So we have the main game loop done, we have three of the 12 planned classes, and, for the moment, no boss battles, but you can still find their drops during normal play.
Nae: A thing that is pretty important, and pretty big to the game, and we had it like this, thought up from the beginning, is that each race, type of race, type of track has a different mechanic to it. It kind of changes the game completely. So we kind of said “okay, let’s stop working on other tracks for now and refine this first one that we had built up from the beginning, the Countryside.” This, for example, is heavily based on obstacles. There are a lot of things that can destroy your entire team.
We’re focusing in the game to pay close attention to each of your individual drivers and have this more human approach to a race than other games because when you, for example, play Need for Speed or whatever AAA games out there, you’re in the race, but you’re more in a vehicle versus vehicle type of scenario. You’re not the driver inside a car versus other drivers. So we kind of put this heavy underline on the driver aspect of a race. That’s why we also find it easier to combine it with the roguelike and RPG aspects, because your driver, besides doing a race, can also go and explore the island and have different adventures for now.
So you want it to be more like in [open-world] games, where you have a bunch of people get in a car and that car means something, but still, if you get shot through a window, then the person is still going to get hit, rather than the car.
Nechita: We had to sum all of the HP because a strategy that happened was to shoot the drivers in the enemy car without damaging the car, which was a little exploitable. So we just added the HP of the car and the HP of the drivers and the skills belong to the drivers now.
Nae: So the entire team acts like one entity, but, if the vehicle with the drivers inside gets damaged to the point that it gets wiped out, then everything has a trauma point, which becomes, story-wise, like “it breaks a leg.”
Nechita: Items, vehicles, and drivers can get damaged in several different ways. We call them “traumas.” So, if your HP is traumatized, or has the trauma tag, it’s only half as effective. If you have a Legendary item, for example, that has trauma on it, it will do exactly the opposite of what the non-traumatized version would be.
So it’s like your version of death saving throws in D&D, to use the comparison from earlier.
Nechita: Except that these are permanent. These effects are permanent. It’s more comparable to Darkest Dungeon, where a character can go insane and it’s cheaper to dispose of him and get a new one than to try to hold on to them.
You are the manager of the team. The drivers and game mechanics are made for them all to be disposable.
Nae: I wanted to add that it’s not yet implemented in this version because we had a lot of bugs with it and it’s the first thing that we will update.
So, actually, right now, if you lose the race and you get wiped out, it’s just a free pass.
So it’ll be added within the first month of Early Access.
I noticed that, on the Steam page, that you said that you’ve “fought tooth and nail to both earn a living AND create the game that [you] envisioned.” Do you mind expanding on that a bit?
Nechita: Initially, when we opened the page on Greenlight, we also started the Kickstarter to sustain ourselves and maybe pay some people that can bring hard skills like sound editing to lighten the load of work for ourselves and so that we can survive. Unfortunately, the Kickstarter fell short—only 30% of the goal. We had to take breaks—three or maybe six months—here and there in order to get a day job to work. It’s kind of impossible to have a day job and work on our passion project at the same time because one of them drains the other and we had to choose between, you know, being able to live and work on the game.
Unfortunately, now, we’re in the loop of having to either get day jobs or having The Underground King as a source of income.
So that’s why you’re launching on Early Access now, then.
Nae: Yeah, part of the reason. The other part, as I said, [is that] we both want to know if it’s worth it, if we’re doing something that the people can resonate with.
Nechita: It’s easy to course correct right now, when we have just, in theory, a fourth of the game up than to do it when we’re halfway and put another year or two in development and maybe another racing game pops out before us and takes all of the attention.
Nae: To me, to keep on this subject, with the “tooth and nail” part, I recently got a message from a kid, like, three days ago, four days ago. She knew that I was working on games because of the last place I worked in. She said she wants to become an indie game developer. She’s around 18 or 19 or something. She’s pretty young. She said, and I quote, “I want to quit medicine school. What advice can you give me to become a successful indie game developer?”
[laughs] My first reaction was to laugh and to say “please, don’t do that.” Then I realized that she was actually around my age when I really [took] a close interest in making games. I think, today, in the industry, we kind of expect everything to happen like in a AAA studio, where there are a lot of people. Like, in the Batman series, they have a whole part of the team working on the cape.
So, here, when we’re two guys, or three or four or whatever, you kind of have to do everything all the time, like make sounds, work on the marketing, keep engaged with the people, so on and so forth. Besides that, you need to have a job because none of us are royalty, so we still have to work for the money and, also, we have this tiny, tiny detail called “social life” that we kind of, I personally didn’t take care of in the beginning. As Alex said, after the Kickstarter failed, I kind of lost the relationship I was in, lost the job, had to return back to my parents’ because I had no apartment to stay in, and so on and so forth. So, more than having to work for something, it’s like being addicted to the something. For example, I can say, hand on my heart sort of thing, that I am addicted to making games and I think that helps a lot. But, if you’re not, and you just want to make a quick buck, it’s not the way to go. [laughs]
Yeah, so it was hard. It was really, really hard. Juggling with work, juggling with learning things. For example, when you start making sounds, someone told me “you need to take the sound in the equalize master and make it a little bit farther” and I was like “what the fuck are you talking about?” Then I started to learn about it and Alex started to work about, I don’t know, particle effects and so on and so forth. It’s this crazy amount of work for a small indie and I have a huge amount of respect for people that are making a game by themself.
Nechita: Yeah, I have to prioritize fixing bugs over making new features. Whenever I have less red in our backlog, I start to make a feature, which breaks two others, and then I fix those and it’s a neverending one step forward, two steps back.
Nae: But it’s fun. It’s fun.
Hopefully, you feel that it’s worth it, like you said.
Nae: It is, eventually, because, as I said, it’s the only thing that I see myself doing when I’m old and gray.
Nechita: Yeah, I don’t see myself going back to non-game development programming. I don’t want to make another website.
Do you think that the notoriety of being the last game on Steam Greenlight has been a lasting net positive for the game or do you think that it wore off pretty quickly?
Nechita: I think it lasted half a day.
Nae: Yeah, come on. It was positive because Jim Sterling covered us. It was the best thing I could have wished for at that point. It got a little bit of coverage. When we went to EGX last year, we showcased our ugly, unfinished child and people knew us and that was so strange to hear. So I think that was, first of all, a huge boost for both me and Alex, or at least for me, I don’t know. It was the best I could wish for in 2017.
Nechita: Yeah, we keep on putting our names in various contests spots in conferences and, every now and then, we get into a free spot. EGX Berlin was the biggest last year and now, hopefully, the online presence of being on Steam and being live will be enough to get us started.
How did EGX go for you?
Nechita: It was pretty good. We had a booth next to other big games like Cloudpunk, which just came out recently. We had a lot of people, I think over 150 or so butts in the seat. It was three days, about 12 hours a day, maybe. We were dressed in a blue and a red jumpsuit.
Nae: Yeah, my father gave me his work jumpsuits and I designed it in the theme of the game. It was pretty, I don’t know [laughs], beginner-level work, but fun enough. [laughs] I had an old keyboard and that was my tutorial for the game. I removed all of the keys except the ones for triggering abilities and moving left. People got a laugh out of it and I appreciated that they enjoyed the fact that we’re two people acting like we’re two people. We’re not overselling it like “oh, look, we’re a serious company doing serious things.” No, man, we’re a couple of guys having fun, doing what we love. Yeah, it was fun. I liked it.
That’s also definitely a talking point. “Remember us? We were the ones in the jumpsuits with the crazy racing game!”
Nae: Yeah, yeah.
You said it was like 12-hour days. Do you think that doing the Kickstarter was harder or that going to these events and working 12 hours a day to get people to sit down and play your game was harder?
Nae: The event was a bitch.
Nechita: The event was just three days. The Kickstarter was a month before and a month during, because, during the Kickstarter, we had to answer emails, respond to DMs, pitch the Kickstarter everywhere and, if we had the hindsight not to launch during E3 of that year, perhaps we would have had more attention towards our project. We didn’t reach a critical mass in the month of attention, unfortunately.
I’ve heard that you basically have to put everything on hold during Kickstarters. Are you saying that that’s basically what you had to do?
Nechita: Yeah, and the month before.
Nae: Yeah, yeah. It’s a lot of “work,” entertaining people, and we definitely need a person to handle the media because it takes so much of your time. Making banners, having it cropped to each and any dimension on the internet and just Alex working on the website. It was pretty…not fun, but yeah, it takes a lot out of you and, if you’re in the stage where you’re developing the game—and, most likely, you are—you want to spend all possible time fixing bugs, testing it, adding new features, [mic cuts out].
Nechita: If we had a publisher to take care of this part and have the reach to find supporters, it would happen much, much easier, but yeah, publisher is another topic and a heavy topic.
I was actually about to ask if you had ever considered pitching to publishers or tried to.
Nechita: We did pitch and we did have publishers reach out to us, but they leveraged our need for a publisher against us and made extremely unreasonable requests, like wanting the IP under the publisher name, basically making us contractors on our own project. Asking for like 30% off the top as their share after Steam. All kinds of things from various publishers. Some of them just stopped inquiring, I guess, finding a better lead.
Nae: I mean, having a publisher, it will always be business. There’s no mix of passion and publishing, I don’t think. We’ve been seen as what we are, a group of people that doesn’t know half of what they’re doing, and I think it was fair to be treated that way, because doing that the publishing route is the way it is, but it wasn’t something that we would ever agree on.
Nechita: We can always say no to an offer. Some of them couldn’t believe it, like “how dare you. You should be grateful for receiving an offer from <insert publisher name here>.” But, frankly, to be honest, most of them were basically just loans with a lot of threads, with a lot of chains, basically, which we could always do with a bank, but what we want is the reach. We want our potential fans to reach us and find out we exist.
I have heard a lot of increasingly bad stories about indie publishers. Over the past few years, anyways.
Nae: There’s an increasing amount of indies, I guess, but I think they’ve always been this way. I don’t know.
Nechita: I think that, you know, the major indie publishers, like, I don’t know, Devolver, build their company up not being scummy and they’re very rare and few in between.
Back to the topic of the game, what happened to the stripped down local multiplayer version of the game that you planned for AirConsole? Is that still going to be a thing in the latest version of the game?
Nechita: We saw the AirConsole version as a test of the multiplayer appeal of our concept, and it was overwhelmingly positive, but, ultimately, we felt that the AirConsole HTML-based format couldn’t support the complexity of a physics-based game. Because it’s extremely difficult for only one developer that has to do everything programming-related to do full real-time multiplayer in a physics way—physics is very complicated to sync between multiple computers, latencies, and so forth—what I think we will do eventually, and we do plan to do this, is have offline multiplayer. You will make a team with a car and up to four drivers, depending on the car’s seating count, put it on the leaderboard, and, whenever a player wants to compete, they will fight against NPCs, which are basically the cars other players have made. Depending on the wins and progress, they are either going to push you or themselves up the ranks.
Nae: So it’s like Football Manager, where you have the team ready and you send it to do its job. Maybe you can replay the whole scenario, but you don’t actually do the moves yourself.
So it’s kind of like ghost racing.
Nae: Yeah, yeah.
Will that be the actual team that you made in the main campaign or will it be a separate team that you build out?
Nechita: Because the game is procedurally generated and has roguelike elements, we feel that your personal luck shouldn’t dictate how far in the ladder [you get] because that would be just chaos based.
So no. We are going to have a campaign version and an online version and they will be separate. If you’ve played the latest PvP game module from Darkest Dungeon, it’s going to be similar to that.
Once you finish the game in 2021, are you planning to support it with post-release updates? I’ve noticed that an increasing number of indie devs are doing, for example, seasonal events for offline games.
Nae: I don’t think we want to go the, like, “it’s Christmas. Hey everybody! All cars have…”
Nechita: Jingle bells.
Nae: Jingle bells, yeah. “Oh, look, we have a Santa costume.” Well, we already have the Santa costume.
But we want to have honest updates and we kind of want to keep working on The Underground King. It has a lot of potential for…
Nae: Yeah, for consoles, but I won’t say consoles twice. We can make it a lot, lot bigger.
Nechita: For example, in Borderlands 3, where they add, once every three months, a new planet with a new biome and local lore and whatnot.
Actually, it’s more like The Binding of Isaac, where you bring a new fear of the universe with new stuff.
Nae: Exactly, exactly. And Darkest Dungeon because [mic cuts out].
Nechita: First, we’re going to release on PC on Steam. Then we’re going to do Mac and Linux on Steam. Then slowly move to Epic Games and, eventually, hopefully, we’re also going to go on consoles because [it’d be] potentially pretty fun on a Switch.
Nae: Yeah, yeah. Switch is really on the list. I would buy a Switch just for the game. [laughs]
Was it always intended to be a roguelike? I don’t remember the term being used last time we talked.
Nechita: Initially, it had more of an arcade-like feel, where it didn’t have this procedurally generated part, but we wanted players to have a unique experience each time they go into a play session and we wanted people to argue on forums about which is the best combination. I really enjoy games like Diablo or Path of Exile where you make a build, it’s yours, it’s your identity, and you share it with other people, then some of them improve it and some of them make a two-page post about why it sucks. That kind of stuff brings out the passion in people and the passion in our game and that’s something we want.
Nae: I think we’ve always had it on the table to mix and match. When we made the first ever build that was up—it was a little after six months of work—we had so many ideas and I’m so glad that we didn’t implement most of them.
I noticed that there is a finite number of bosses. Is it supposed to be a finite game or is it supposed to be theoretically endless, allowing you to keep grinding and grinding and grinding?
Nechita: So, if you lose, if you reach 0 coins or 0 fame, the two currencies in the game, you basically restart your run with something we call World Laws. They’re modifiers that affect the entire gameplay in a specific manner. For example, we have one called Eclipse, where each of the seven days is only dark, which increases the difficulty, but also gives more rewards because, at night time, things are more interesting and…
Nechita: If you win, you also restart the game and get permanent versions of these. You get one that changes every week to keep things constantly moving, but then you also get a permanent one that you keep accumulating and, at one point, after, let’s say, 10 runs, you’re going to have a massively unbalanced, but very fun version of the game.
Nae: A better example is like stacking items in The Binding of Isaac, but you stack these weird effects that can, and will eventually, make you lose the game.
But, in this first version, we will gradually keep adding stuff and first see how people will react to boss battles and [mic cuts out], we will find a definite version of what exactly will happen when you die, what exactly will happen when you win, thus concluding if it is a finite format. I personally never wanted to make it finite, like finite in the example of you’re playing a long ass tutorial, but then you can move to a multiplayer part where you can interact with others, but this is just being discussed and we definitely need a lot of hands on our game to make the multiplayer possible, so it’s open for discussion right now.
So there’s also the potential for a lot more modifiers that get stacked on over time [the World Laws].
Nae: Yeah, definitely.
Nechita: We are also very keen on taking our fans’ suggestions for these kinds of things. For example, we have a race type planned called Tug of War, where your car and the enemy cars have a chain between them and you have to pull the other car into a pit at the center. That’s just one type of race that we have, on top of the Countryside, for example.
Another is you fall from a plane and the first of the four cars that hits the ground wins.
We would love for players to [experience] fun, physics-based gameplay like that, as well as the World Laws to keep things interesting and diverse.
So you’re saying that, if people want a certain mode enough and it sounds like it might work, there’s a possibility that you might do that?
Nae: I think we’re taking the Notch approach, with Minecraft, where we’re open to suggestions and this looks like a game, but it’s a sandbox for us to keep adding stuff to it. We have the targets, but we can go there in a day or in a year.
Do you feel that the side-scrolling racing format is underutilized? Is it something that you actively sought out because it was underutilized or was it just something that sort of happened?
Nae: I think, honestly, we had no idea what we were making. True story: Right before EGX, when we had to present the game, if I’m not mistaken, that was the day when it clicked in my mind that we have a racing roguelike. And it’s true. We have a racing roguelike. I’m glad that there are no racing roguelikes out there yet, but, at the same time, it’s kind of depressing because we don’t know if we’re doing it well or not. We have absolutely nothing to use as an anchor point for what we’re doing. So it’s a blessing and a curse for me, I think.
Nechita: Yeah, finding the proper tags for our Steam page was a real pain and the games that are recommended based on our tags are not similar enough for our taste, unfortunately.
Nae: We had one Steam curator that said “nope, this is not a roguelike” and I was like “nope, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” [laughs]
To be honest, I find it’s really hard to show the roguelike aspect of it and it is there. It, I think, is the core mechanic of the game, but it’s like you’re trying to visually show a D&D gameplay experience. It doesn’t have the “visual sex appeal.” It’s hard to show through some screenshots or a little bit of a trailer. So we just hope people will get the game and will see it—hopefully, will see it. If not, we will change the description to “just a racing game.” [laughs]
“A racing game where you might die and have to start over.”
Nechita: “A battle royale with cars.”
This might be an odd question, but I’ve noticed a lot of other companies moving in this direction. Do you think that, if The Underground King is successful, you would ever create a tabletop RPG based on the game? As you said, it’s already set up as a D&D-like experience.
Nechita: Our precious secret leaked! Might as well reveal our master plan. We’re big fans of adventure board games, like Munchkin, and having the game in a physical format is always in the back of our minds.
You know what it’s about. It’s a dungeon crawler. You knock on the door. You fight the monster. You get the [loot]. It’s similar to the format we’re basing our game on, only, instead of this, you have that—it’s very adaptable. And Nick’s [Nae] art is extremely delicious and I really would love to have it in my hands.
Nae: What was a blessing for when we started working on the game is that we didn’t have a gaming reference to it. It was that voodoo people, video people prodigy. That’s part of this feeling that I wanted to share with Alex and then Alex added up one and we kind of built the game without being aware of the media, without being aware of what people are doing or what the generals are moving towards. In four years, the generals have shifted a lot. What was hot four years ago?
Nechita: I don’t know what was hot four days ago. I’ve lost all sense of time.
Nae: Well, The Last of Us is hot right now. I think.
Yeah, but what I’m trying to say is that it’s luck, kind of, that we’re here and actually doing what we want to do without breaking pieces from other games and just trying to throw it on a wall and see what sticks. We’re just building up a narrative in our heads. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, I hope Steam works.