Thorium Entertainment's UnderMine is a new roguelike looking to go the distance, one where players take on the role of a peasant tasked with exploring the deep, dark, procedurally generated depths of a mysterious and monster-infested mine. It will require all manner of special items, character upgrades, and more than a little skill to overcome the obstacles that await below.
Developers Derek Johnson and Clint Tasker, the two creators behind UnderMine, hope players are up to the challenge. The two are former AAA game developers gone indie, and they have big hopes for what UnderMine could become. We recently chatted with Derek and Clint prior to UnderMine's Steam Early Access release to learn more about making the jump to indie game development, the genesis of UnderMine, being featured in Microsoft's E3 press briefing, and more.
Q: The two of you met at Relic Entertainment, a studio primarily known for making RTS games. What was that experience like, and what made you want to make the jump to indie game development?
Clint: We met at Relic, but before Thorium there was a gap there. I was laid off at Relic in 2012 and I came to the states and started in mobile development at a startup. I was at a really small startup of about 80 people, and then we got bought up by King, a really big mobile company, and then King got bought by Activision, which is now a very big company. I quickly went from very small to very large. I always wanted to do my own thing, but the corporate red tape got so gruesome that I wanted to make the jump, and Derek was already underway with UnderMine. For me it wasn’t that hard of a decision, for him it was probably a bigger leap. There was nothing pushing him to do it other than himself.
Derek: Yeah Clint and I spent a lot of time during out overlap at Relic talking about game design, talking about what makes a good game and the games we’d want to make. I sadly had to watch him leave Relic and I stayed on for a few years after that but decided “Hey, it’s time to put my money where my mouth is and see if I can strike out on my own and do this.” All the while I was consulting with Clint while he was at King, I was asking him about design feedback and advice. My ulterior motive was to whet his appetite for the kind of game I wanted to make and apparently it worked. A couple years later he said “Hey Derek, it’s time, I want to join you.”
Q: UnderMine is described as being in the vein of The Binding of Isaac and Rogue Legacy, what I would consider classic rougelike games. What about that style of gameplay specifically captured your attention and are there other games you looked to for inspiration while working on UnderMine?
Derek: The original, original inspiration story of how I came to the idea of UnderMine is I took a huge, huge amount of inspiration from Warcraft III. I played that game to death, and I always wanted to tell the story of what the peasant is doing in the gold mine. We don’t really talk about Warcraft III or reference it, but that was the original inception for the world of UnderMine, a peasant in a gold mine, he’s got to come out with gold or he’s going to die trying.
Q: So why are all these poor peasants being sent into this mine. What is the lore behind it? (laughs)
Derek: We hint at the lore in the narrative a bit. There is a greater kingdom in the outside world, the kingdom of Delvemore. It’s not a Warcraft III kingdom but that’s where the inspiration came from. Clint and I played a lot DOTA together, there’s so many interactions in MOBAS and RTS that we really wanted to push the interaction envelope as much as we could between items and builds and really have the emergence come out where even we as developers are almost daily surprised by what goes on in UnderMine, just because there’s so many overlapping systems. We couldn’t possibly foresee all the way things are going to interact. Which is great, I think that’s a great indication that players are really going to be blown away by the number of interactions in the game.
Clint: When I started on UnderMine I wasn’t huge into roguelikes. In fact, the ones I was into the most were what would be called “roguelite” now. We don’t necessarily make the distinction between roguelike and roguelite because the differentiating is getting really muddy and people have different opinions on what those mean, but I was a big fan of...I remember Rogue Legacy came out just as I was moving to the states and I played a ton of that game. As I was coming onto UnderMine, Dead Cells had just come out in Early Access and was doing really well. I do like the roguelike format. As I get older, when I look at a game like Fire Emblem, the new one is out, and it’s an 80 hour game. I love SRPGs and I love Fire Emblem games but now a 80-hour game is very daunting to me. A roguelike kind of naturally breaks itself up into half hour or hour chunks that are much easier to digest, and so I think UnderMine has that going for it. I really wanted to bring the “lite” aspect to it, where you have progression. You can merge the two worlds, where you keep more traditional roguelite fans happy as long as skill players a big part of it, but we also tried to give you those progression markers that will keep more casual fans in the audience hooked. We have similar aspects that Dead Cells has, we have a lot of similarities with Rogue Legacy, and then we have some of our own, trying it to make it a little more RPG, a little more action adventure where you bring in the NPCs and the story. It’s built a little bit like the Souls games where the story doesn’t get told to you but you can pull it out of the world if you choose to, which we are big fans of. If you’re interested you can go find it, if not you can forget it’s even there.
Q: You mentioned the relics and item interactions. It seems at one point in time you had a limit to the number of relics you could have equipped, but you did away with that so you can now have this huge number of items interacting with one another all at the same time. Can you talk about how that decision went? Was it “This is more fun, so why not?” or was it more complex than that?
Clint: It was like what you said but without the “why not” part, because it was incredibly hard. I don’t even remember why there were slots, but we did originally have it where you had five slots on your character and you would equip a new thing to each slot. There were a lot of decisions that lead to us changing it, but one of them was you would do a run and find three relics in a row that all went to the same slot. You would gain no power, you had a little bit of choice in what you equipped, but there were no interesting interactions. I think Derek and I, part of the reason UnderMine is the way it is is because we love mechanical games. We love MOBAs, RTS, games like Magic: The Gathering. The thing those games all have in common is that they have interactions that constantly surprise you. As a designer you make very simple rulesets, but then you have one-off rules that don’t seem that interesting on the surface until you match it with another rule somewhere else. You might have a Magic card that doesn’t seem very powerful, but all of a sudden you’ll find a counterpart somewhere and build a deck out of it and realize how insanely broken it is.
Clint: We went with the idea, and I think there were games coming along — we were already moving in that direction — but there were games that were pointing out how cool it would be. Slay the Spire was a big one. They have artifacts, which are very close to our relics, and as you get more and more artifacts it’s very cool to see all the icons lined up on your screen. It’s cool, once your deck gets going and you see everything bouncing off it, and in UnderMine it’s the same way. As you get more and more relics you get these insane combos that you didn’t even foresee, and sometimes they surprised us, “oh, we’re actually shocked this thing is interacting with this thing, and we’re even more shocked it’s not broken, it works without bugs.” Which means we’re doing it right. But it was a hard decision. Now when you have hundreds of items in the game, there’s so much opportunity for them to break or have bugs introduced. It wasn’t easy development wise to do it but it was the right decision from a design standpoint.
Q: How many relics will the game have when it launches in Early Access?
Derek: Out of Early Access we have 81, something like that. That’s a very obvious vector for us to keep adding content. Every new relic we add really adds potentially a lot of combinations to the game. We have a very good pipeline in place for creating new relics, we can crank them out quite quickly at pretty high quality, and they are super fun too, so our plan is to keep cranking on them. Our plan is to have hundreds of them by the time we are done.
Clint: Our personal goal is to rival the kings of the genre. We want to be like (The Binding of) Isaac and have 400 something relics. The more content you have, the less each run feels similar to the last one, so we want to get as much as possible in there. As Derek says, we can do it relatively quickly.
Q: I saw that one item in the game, the Queen’s Bomb, came from a suggestion from a member of the community on the UnderMine Discord. Are there any other items or features that were inspired by or suggested by members of the community?
Derek: Definitely. I’m trying to think of concrete examples. We do have one member of our Discord who has been incredibly active in testing the game. He’s an avid The Binding of Isaac player, he’s got like 5,000 hours into (The Binding of) Isaac and hundreds of hours in UnderMine too at this point. He makes a lot of really good insightful suggestions to us. One recent example, he helped us get rolling, we have a Curse and Blessing system, where you can pray at an altar and get a Blessing but you also get a Curse out of the deal. Curse removal is a pretty big aspect of the run,so he was the one who originally suggested we always have a stable Curse removal outlet at the altars. So no matter what, every altar will let you remove a Curse but you won’t also get the Blessing, plus it costs you health. That was a really insightful suggestion he made and he’s probably one of the most active members of our community right now.
Clint: There have been other interactions. We released a very early Alpha back in December, and it’s kind of crazy to even look at that build now because the game has come so dramatically far since then, but we had a small group of people play the game then and they offered a lot of really fantastic feedback for us. One of the things we are looking forward to the most, right now our Discord is kind of dormant because there’s not a lot to talk about. The game isn’t released and nobody can play it right now. [This interview was conducted two weeks before UnderMine’s August 20th Steam Early Access release]. It’s one of the things I look forward to the most. I love working with the community and talking with them, explaining the design behind the game or chatting with them about their ideas. There have been lots of suggestions from the community of things that already exist in the game. At a certain point while you’re developing items and such things become obvious, “Ah, we should have one of these.” So people will say “Hey, what if you did this?” and we say ‘Well, wait until the game comes out and you’ll see it’s there.” (laughs). But they do suggest things we don’t think of either and we are happy to add them if it makes sense.
Derek: When you’ve been developing a game for any amount of time, you get so close to it that you sort of lose sight if it’s good or fun or what the problems are, so having this community interaction during Early Access is going to help UnderMine in the long run become a fantastic game.
Q: That leads into my next question. Why did you guys think Steam Early Access would be the best fit for UnderMine, as opposed to waiting a little longer and maybe doing a more traditional release?
Derek: It comes down to our capacity to build the game. We only have so many resources to test the game, we only have so many resources to figure out problems with the game. We knew when we go into Early Access, if we have a solid community that can really help us poke holes in the game and give us feedback about what they’d like to see and what it needs, that just will boost our capacity that much more. Plus, there have been great recent examples of games that have had a great ascension through Early Access and into 1.0 like Dead Cells or Slay the Spire, those guys have really capitalized on this idea of involving the community and we wanted to have that same arc for UnderMine.
Q: Are there major features you have planned that aren’t in the Early Access launch? Or is it fairly complete but you might add more items and things like that?
Clint: We do have concrete plans for what we want to do with 1.0. I think we are starting to realize that because we are so ambitious and we want to put so much into… a lot of people look at our Early Access and go “This game feels finished, why are you bothering with Early Access?” I guess it just comes down to what we want to put in it before we feel it’s done. Right now we have three distinct areas, and we want to have five, we have four major bosses and want to have seven. And we kind of where the story is going to head and what the final confrontation will be. Those are the main things we want to get done, and those are really art heavy so we need to get the art done to put those things in. I guess from a content standpoint it’s going to be complex as well. But as we said before, we want to add a ton of items along the way as well. There are also features we anticipate people will want and features that may surprise us. So things like a traditional roguelike mode where there’s no upgrades or scaling, and that leads into maybe we do daily timed leaderboards or something like that. We just recently put in a feature where you can loop the game infinitely. Once you get to the end of the current content you can pick up an item that will respawn all the bosses and increase their difficulty, so you can play through the game again and see how far you can get. We’ve had some extreme testing with that and it’s pretty fun but I think we can take it further.
Derek: We talk about “peak UnderMine” between Clint and me, where the current version of UnderMine is well on its way to peak UnderMine, but the peak UnderMine that exists in our heads is beyond that even. We are super excited to get there.
Q: UnderMine uses procedural dungeons. How do you ensure that the randomness keeps things entertaining and how do you keep it challenging without feeling unfair?
Derek: That’s a good question. The best procedural systems are a split between handmade content and procedural content. You can’t go 100 percent procedural because the randomizer is just going to make a mess. Clint has done a fantastic job at building the handmade stuff. Each one of our rooms is very specialized, handmade set pieces and then we let the randomizer fill in the details, like spawning water, plants, rocks, and then we fill it with enemies that make sense for that room. We have a lot of good control over what enemies can go in what rooms. Some enemies don’t work well if there’s a lot of holes in the rooms or a lot of rocks so we hand tailor all the data to make a good-feeling procedural room, and then we randomize the layouts with a good mix of secret rooms and hidden rooms. It’s a constant struggle between let the machine do it and let Clint to it, where’s that balance? We try to strike that balance correctly.
Clint: I think our advantage is our experience in game development. We understand how to build these things so they won’t be insane burdens on us. What happens under the hood in UnderMine is actually quite sophisticated compared to what a player will see on the surface. The game scales dynamically in difficulty based on how they are doing in the world. So as they buy upgrades or defeat bosses, the game will increase its difficulty, but gradually to the point where you’ll notice if you’re paying attention, “I’ve never seen this enemy on this floor before but now it’s starting to appear.” We’ve done an immense amount of work to make that happen. The Goldmine is the very first zone, and there are five versions of the goldmine, actually six versions including the tutorial. As you kill bosses in the game, the goldmine ramps up, because we didn’t want...once you get further in the game, because you earning more money and have many more upgrades, the first instance of the mine would be trivial. We didn’t want people to slog through a really boring area, and we didn’t want people to skip through it because it’s still interesting content. So we changed the context and increased the difficulty. Maybe not on par with what’s happening later in the game, but where you have to pay just enough attention, which keeps the game engaging. It’s a really good result.
Clint: We try to make everything feel organic too, like a real world and tie everything together. One character will hint that as you kill bosses, they are holding back things that are deeper. As we create these new zones, we try to shuffle enemies one floor up, so it feels like they are all ascending on you. Our second area is the dungeon and there are dungeon unique enemies, but some of them will spill over into the mines eventually. Some of them won’t, they’ll always live in the dungeon, but we try to put a lot of care in how we think about that kind of stuff.
Q: You guys will be releasing on Xbox Game Pass next year. Game Pass has become a pretty big deal. How did that process work? Did you approach Microsoft, or did they reach out to you to get you on the service?
Derek: We met them at PAX West last year. We were in the indie mini-booth that year. Microsoft came up to us and said they liked the look of UnderMine, we got a business card from them and that started the whole process. We eventually ended up giving them a little pitch, we weren’t pitching specifically for Game Pass, we just wanted to be included with Microsoft and at least get on the Xbox, and eventually that rolled into them offering us a place on Game Pass. They’ve been really good to us, they’ve taken us to some great events, we got to go to E3 with them earlier this year. We had a little clip [of UnderMine] up on the main stage.
Q: I saw you were in the press conference, that’s cool.
Derek: Yeah that was really fun.
Q: Are you going to be on the console Game Pass or the PC Game Pass? Or both?
Derek: Both, actually. We will be on the Windows 10 Store and then Xbox as well.
Q: In terms of permanent player upgrades that carry over between runs, you mentioned some of the philosophy behind that earlier. Are there more exotic upgrades beyond a stronger pickaxe, more health and that sort of thing? Or are there weirder upgrades you get down the line?
Clint: It gets much weirder (laughs). We start you off with the very basic stuff, so you’re like “Oh, I understand how this works.” The stuff that is more specific to UnderMine unlocks soon after that. You start with the bomb guy and the blacksmith, and the bomb guy has a special one that cuts you off from certain areas of the UnderMine, I’m not going to say the words Metroidvania because that’s not what the game is like, but that’s kind of the vibe, you get the key to a particular type of door. You unlock the alchemist and the alchemist apprentice soon after that. They revolve all around the alchemy side of things. You can collect potions in the game which are temporary things that can interact with other potions, orrRelics that you’re holding or with the combat of the game. They have upgrades like the [Legend of] Zelda “empty bottle” upgrade that lets you hold another potion at the same time, or increase the duration of that. It gets weirder when you meet the priestess and she revolves all around our prayer system. Before you find her you can find altars that let you pray, they are a double edged sword which will give you a buff in one direction but also give you a curse that will take you in a negative other direction. Like Derek said before, there are ways to remove those curses, so it’s kind of management system of I want to augment my build in a particular way, like increase my swing speed, but maybe it’s giving me nerfs for my ranged throw damage, so maybe I need to take those off or take something else. The prayer items are start with a random blessing or be able to have more options when you see altars. And then there are wild cards upgrades, like stuff that let you manipulate the store.
Clint: Those are really for the more seasoned The Binding of Isaac players that understand how crazy the item manipulation can get, which leads to some broken, and I mean broken in an awesome kind of way, runs where you’re an insane, god-mode Isaac running around doing all kinds of insane things. We kind of lock that away, it’s not available from the very beginning, but as you get those upgrades you can start to manipulate the item pools of UnderMine and it gets similar where your power curve goes through the roof. Because we think more experienced players will be more interested in that, we keep it off to the side so they can engage with it while other people can focus more on the basic stuff. It definitely opens up and lets people pick and choose. We all have an idea of how to play the game ideally in our terms, but I think other people have opinions on that and it will be really interesting to see what people’s preferences are.
UnderMine is out now on Steam Early Access, and is the first game published by Fandom. Be sure to check out the Official UnderMine Wiki for more information on relics, character upgrades, boss battles, and more.
Cameron is a Wichita, Kansas based writer whose love for gaming spans all genres and platforms. On the rare occasion when he is separated from a keyboard or controller, he enjoys fencing and obsessing over the latest and greatest Godzilla film.