“Peggle mixed with a dungeon crawler” sounds like a natural fit for an intriguing game. Yet since Peggle’s peg-smashing debut in 2007, no one has fulfilled the promise of this chocolate-and-peanut butter formula.
This puzzler, a blending of Peggle and roguelites like Slay the Spire, is the debut for Wonderbelly Games, which launched it earlier this year on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, and iOS (part of Apple Arcade). It’s one of my favorite games of the year (so much so I play it on three platforms). It’s charming, with cute characters and fun music, but it also provides that “just one more run” challenge you get from the best roguelites. And it’s a fantastic game to play with your kids, helping them figure out how to stack powers and gear to build strong characters.
Considering how much I enjoyed the game, I wanted to learn the story behind Roundguard’s creation. I talked with Andrea and Bob Roberts, a married couple and two-thirds of Wonderbelly. They’ve both worked in triple-A game development. Andrea worked at Microsoft for nine years, including as a senior game designer, focusing on narrative and UX. The Fable series is among her game-dev credits. Bob worked 12 years at Monolith and was the design director on Middle-Earth: Shadow of War and the lead designer for Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor (among other credits).
Both have impressive careers in triple-A game dev, but they both wanted to do something different, so they went indie. Along with Kurt Loidl, they started Wonderbelly and got to work. Roundguard is a product of their love of games like Peggle, RPGs, Dungeons & Dragons, and whimsy art.
They also found a fantastic way to frame the game — as you make your runs, the presentation is like that of a stage show. At times it feels a bit like a play, and at others it comes across as an episode of The Price Is Right.
This is an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: How did Roundguard come about? This is a very charming game. It’s a lot of fun. I really enjoyed it. How did Wonderbelly decide this was what you were doing?
Andrea Roberts: There are three of us at Wonderbelly. Kurt Loidl is our third partner in crime. We were all sitting around thinking about our next project. Bob and Kurt and I have known each other a long time and have worked on a bunch of mostly smaller hobby projects while we were all working in triple-A on other big things.
Right before we started with Roundguard, Bob and I had our first kid. I was working at Microsoft. Bob was working at Monolith Games as a design director over there. At the time, I was ready to move on from Microsoft and do something new. I’d been there for a decade. We’d just had a kid. I wasn’t looking forward to trying to balance a kid and triple-A game development at the same time between the two of us. So I had left and was being a stay-at-home mom with her, but I also didn’t want to go insane. I wanted to keep up working on something. We got together to say, “OK, let’s pick a fun small project.” Like I said, we worked on a handful of little projects in the past. One of our favorites was physics-based. We knew that there was a lot of fun to be had with physics, with something that’s really intuitive but has a lot of complexity in it. We were just really attracted to that. We’d been brainstorming a bunch of little ideas. After, I don’t know, idea 15 or something, I remember I said the words “Peggle RPG” and we just immediately jumped on it and had written up a one-pager in a few minutes, basically outlining the idea. It clicked really fast. We had a great picture of what it could be. Then we got to working on it. It became a lot bigger than we thought it was going to be.
GamesBeat: What brought you to thinking about Peggle and RPG? That’s a mix that I’m not sure a lot of people would have come to.
Bob Roberts: There was, a while back — there was Bejeweled and the match-3 puzzle game types of stuff, Puzzle Quest, and other people doing RPG plus match-3, that kind of casual-plus-RPG mashup. The RPG mashup gives it a lot of fun, sticky, long-term reward loop stuff. We love RPGs, and we’re into collecting loot and building combos and whatever. But we were always such big fans of Peggle. Popcap made Bejeweled and Peggle, and they had all these great, satisfying casual game core mechanics.
Andrea Roberts: Bob and I, in our design jobs, we’d always used the phrase “Peggle it up.” We need to punch this up, get some more fun feedback. It had always been something in our personal vocabulary, something we loved and had a good connection to. It’s something that felt so good.
Bob Roberts: When I was at Monolith, the UI designer there that I worked with for a long time was — he started a little frustrated but came to embrace it. I would always ask him to “Peggle it up some more” when I wanted him to put more celebration and punch into a UI moment, a level-up moment, or an unlock or something. That crazy over-the-top rainbows shooting out at everyone and “Ode to Joy” and all that stuff. It became a good reference point for going over the top with the feedback.
Andrea Roberts: We were noodling on physics. Combining two things that we had a lot of love for just made a lot of sense.
Bob Roberts: We immediately Googled — “OK, has this been done before? Someone has probably done this by now.” But we didn’t find anything. “OK, we’d better do it quick.”
GamesBeat: As I was prepping for the interview, I noticed that nobody had done this before and I thought that this seems like a natural idea for a game.
Andrea Roberts: That’s the thing. It’s been fun to hear how much — we get the feedback of, “This is the game that I always wanted, but I didn’t realize it until now. Why didn’t somebody do this before?” We felt the same way as soon as we thought about it.
GamesBeat: I always found it interesting that Peggle, which is a fantastic game, never got the clones that other match-3 games had. Do you have any insight into why that might have happened?
Andrea Roberts: My gut reaction is I don’t know. It felt so great. I really don’t know why more people didn’t play with it. The physics is definitely a challenging side to it. Kurt is a great programmer, so that made it easier for us. But getting the — it’s a real-time physics simulator, and getting that all to run well on a range of devices was a big task for us. I can imagine it’s not something easy to throw together real fast for —
Bob Roberts: It might be that phones and those kinds of things are now getting powerful enough that it’s not as bad as it would have been back then, when it first came out. It’s a much lighter-weight, simpler, easier thing to throw together with a cheap processor than in those days of phone power. You can handle it more easily.
GamesBeat: How did you pull off the physics? Are you using any sort of plugin or physics engine for that?
Andrea Roberts: We developed the game in Unity, but we used Bullet Physics as our base for the physics.
Bob Roberts: They have a pretty tried-and-true, tested engine there that Kurt pulled in and integrated into Unity. That’s been our base. We didn’t write a physics engine from scratch. We used something that had been put through the wringer and optimized quite a bit already and combined it with what Unity has for us to work with.
GamesBeat: Was that a challenge, or do they work pretty well?
Bob Roberts: Since Kurt’s not here, it was just so easy. [Laughs]
Andrea Roberts: We’ve had some bugs along the way that we had to wade against. The code had some stuff that needed to get fixed.
Bob Roberts: It’s hard to say how difficult something is when the person responsible for it is just super-talented and can make hard things seem easy. He didn’t ever tell us that it was undoable at any point. He just made it work.
GamesBeat: One of my favorite parts is when your hero bounces off the cushion and into the screen and they have this big smile on their face. How did you come up with that?
Andrea Roberts: Originally, when the hero bounced off the cushion, they just kind of bounced up and out. It looked very similar to when they hit the spikes. That was a really great point of feedback that we got early on. I showed it to some game developers up here in Seattle, and I remember somebody saying, “I can’t really tell the difference between hitting the cushion and hitting the spikes.” There’d been a lot of passes on feedback throughout the game. We added more audio and more screen damage effects and things like that to try and sell that. But I knew that I wanted something more visually obvious in the distinction between the two.
I don’t remember exactly how it came out, but the idea of the hero jumping out of the screen — there’s kind of this theater metaphor going on in the game. Even though the game is completely 2D, I hope everyone sort of has in their mind this little puppet theater box that you’re playing in. The main plane is all the monsters and the spikes along the bottom, and obviously you don’t want the hero to hit the spikes, so they pop out over the spikes and then run their little way down behind the curtain and back up to the top.
Bob Roberts: There’s a little door on the side of the UI, on the bottom left. Can we see them run in the door and head up the stairs? But also just generally, Andrea’s always been good about pushing for weird little charming details … when you’re trying to prioritize all these big complicated tasks, they seem like small things that maybe people won’t notice, but when you get enough of those little details in and people do take notice, it feels more alive. Giving the characters each their personality — the warrior with his goofy cackling that he does every time he gets shot out of a ballista or bounces off the cushion, or the wizard with her endearing — [Andrea’s] always just pushing for trying to get the character’s personality to come through in every animation you get, every bit of feedback that we can put on them. I think a lot of it comes from that.
GamesBeat: Did you both collaborate on the writing? Because it also has a lot of fun and silliness in it.
Andrea Roberts: Thank you. Yeah, we both did a lot of the writing. I came from a narrative design background at one point in my career at Microsoft. One of my favorite projects I worked on there was Fable III. I love funny games, and I’ve learned from some really great humor writers.
Bob Roberts: One of the guys that was a writer on Fable with Andrea — I eventually stole him to work with me on Middle Earth: Shadow of War over at Monolith — Rich Bryant. He helped out as well. He gave us some feedback and is just a generally hilarious guy who we can bounce stuff off of. I think Andrea got a lot of basics working with him on Fable.
Andrea Roberts: Yeah, he was a great sounding board.
GamesBeat: How did you come down a class structure of warrior, rogue, and wizard, and why did that feel right?
Andrea Roberts: We always refer to it as the classic trifecta. Warrior, rogue, wizard, you have these patterns in all different kinds of RPGs. We’re matching up to the same sorts of patterns — it’s a little bit different in our game — but the warrior is the tankier character. You have a lot of health. He has a lot of ways to regain health. We often think of him as the starter character. He’s a good one for you to get in and get a feel for the game. He has lots of skills, but you don’t have to be quite so active with them, so if you’re coming from more of a Peggle background, it’s a good intro to where the game can go.
The rogue, they’re all about control. The rogue has double-jump and ranged attacks. The rogue can really get around the board. He can be very precise and controlled. The rogue was often our real leaderboard player. The rogue typically — it changes up every week and people can put together really great builds for any of the heroes, but the rogue is one of the most consistent leaders at the top of the leaderboard because of those skills that they have.
And then the wizard, she’s the glass cannon who can do massive bursty kinds of attacks, and it’s all about using skills as much as possible. She has the most mana. She has the most ways to regenerate mana. And also she has the least health, so you really need to be using those skills if you want to survive at all, but she also plays with chaos in her skills. Some of them are a bit harder to control, or have some chance effects on how things work out. We think of her as more of the — she can be one of the harder characters to survive with, so she gives a bit more difficulty. She can also be one of the most surprising characters, if you’re looking for a more chaotic, silly run.
GamesBeat: The mage’s lightning bolt and how it sweeps the board: How did you come on to that, instead of just a lightning bolt that would fire off and bounce?
Bob Roberts: I think we were brainstorming — since the wizard was the last character we built, we’d made the warrior and the rogue and shown them off for a while at various meetups and shows and stuff like that. We made the wizard late. As we were brainstorming around her mechanics, I think we were just trying to mine different character ideas. “What haven’t we done yet that plays with the screen space and with predicting trajectories?” Having that need to think about the angles as you’re bouncing around was just a different feeling. It was another principle that Andrea was pretty strong on as we designed the characters, not wanting there to be too much overlap in their skills or their bonus properties or things like that. We toyed around with versions where you could aim it, things like that, but then we didn’t want it to feel too much like the rogue, who has all the more controlled aiming stuff going on. Playing around with — it was actually pretty late that we put the pre-vis lines in. Those used to be a bonus property, where you could see where the angle is, but we found that there was so much going on that seeing those lines wasn’t taking away the skill of timing those angles. It was just helping more people connect with that aspect of it. Just bouncing around and seeing the angles of the board from different perspectives as you’re in motion.
GamesBeat: At what point did you decide to add in the Slay the Spire-like gating of levels, instead of going linear from one level to another?
Andrea Roberts: That was pretty early on. Our first one-pager was more of a linear … [but] we always wanted to have different paths, but we thought of it more like there would be a bunch of set challenges for each hero. You’d move between them. But we really loved roguelikes. I’d really been getting into roguelikes around that time in particular. One of the weird things — I’ve always found procedural generation super-interesting. But it had also become attractive to me at the time after having a kid and finding that I really didn’t have that much time for playing games, as much as I’d used to. Roguelikes became something — it was really nice to have this feeling of one run, where a typical run will only last a half an hour to an hour and a half. I’ll die, whatever, but it’s something like — I can get in and play and know that it was going to be over fairly quickly. I could know I could come back tomorrow and I didn’t have to remember where I was in the game. Something about that was attractive to me at that moment. And so we’d been talking about it a lot. Could we make the game into a roguelike? Could we procedurally generate the levels? There was some concern about if that would be way too much work, if we would end up losing some of the charm and control of handmade levels. And then we went to — I think we’d only been working on the game for about two months, so we’d just had our first vertical slice prototype at that point.
But we went to the Seattle indie meetup — there’s a group that’s really awesome, that supports all the local devs, and they put on a ton of events. One of the events they do regularly is this show and tell where any developer can come in and drop off a laptop and let people play at any stage of development. I think it was probably the first time we showed the game off to anybody. We brought it in and at that same event, the Slay the Spire guys, who are local to us, had brought in Slay the Spire. I think they were about six months at that point from releasing it in Early Access, so we hadn’t seen the game or heard of it before. At that show, each one of us had gone over and played Slay the Spire and come back to talk to each other. “Oh my god, that’s such a good game. It’s going to be so much fun.”
Bob Roberts: And specifically the vast structure. We had, just a little prior to that, played a bunch of FTL, which has a very similar map layout that you progress through as your campaign. It was reinforcing that that kind of campaign map structure is really compelling, and a randomized version of that is compelling to all of us. OK, yeah, that cemented it. Let’s talk about what it would really take to embrace that sort of loop.
GamesBeat: It also gives the players a bit of choice, besides just what gear and what powers they select.
Andrea Roberts: I really like being able to plan out a bit. You don’t know exactly what’s going to be in the run, but you can look across the map and get a sense of, well, “depending on what kind of equipment I have right now, I might be really strong against spiders and poison, so I’ll go that direction, or maybe I’m weak against it so I’ll avoid it. I see a treasure room coming up so I’ll try to angle my way over there.” I like that kind of planning.
Bob Roberts: Yeah, medium-term decisions you can reach out for.
GamesBeat: When it came to the monsters, how did you settle on their design? Some of them are adorable. The skeletons have a really cool look to them. The ogres look like grumpy old men.
Andrea Roberts: I don’t know how obvious it is, but we have a huge love for D&D. We’re big RPG nerds. We realized that we were doing something kind of wacky like this, this mash-up of Peggle mechanics with this — I wanted to keep it fun and light and joyful. For people who have loved Peggle, I wanted it to be something that they would feel comfortable and in love with. It’s the kind of game that I want more of in the world. I also really wanted to speak to the RPG-ness and that fantasy nostalgia that we all share. It sprung out of that. And plus there’s just something inherently ridiculous about the fact that every character needs to be round. They’re inherently a little chibi, a little cute because they have to have that shape. As we talked through different enemy concepts, a lot of it came from those roots of, “What are those classic, cool D&D RPG kinds of monsters you would expect?” And then I would just doodle them round. Also, the pegs are fairly small on the screen, so I wanted them to have enough personality coming through. That meant their heads were all really big, so you could see them as much as possible. You pointed out that the ogres are all grumpy old men. As we were working on all the characters, I liked to think of them in these — “How would I want to write them, and what sort of goofy tropes could I play with?” The game is, overall — it’s pretty silly. Playing with those sorts of tropes is a lot of fun, I think. It’s definitely thinking about — I think of the ogres as grumpy old men, and —
Bob Roberts: The orcs as mean teenagers.
GamesBeat: How difficult was it to come up with the hero abilities? This kind of game is different. The heroes of Peggle had their powers, but it’s very different than what you’re doing here.
Bob Roberts: There’s the hero abilities, which had their own goals in mind for distinguishing the three classes. We were trying to think of ways to play around with RPG mechanics and what worked with classic Peggle stuff. And then there’s also just — under the hood, the enemy abilities are using the same data structures as the hero abilities. There’s a ton of additional things to come up with for the enemies, and on that side of things it was more in that classic roguelike feeling of trying to design stuff that people can experiment with and learn over time and grow into a sense of mastery over the game by amassing knowledge about how everything works. But with the hero abilities, there’s a different — it’s more about fitting their personality and finding those play style tropes too.
Andrea Roberts: We always had those breakdowns of who we wanted the warrior, the rogue, and the wizard — what kind of play style we wanted them to match. That was definitely the filter that we were looking through as we designed the skills.
Bob Roberts: The warrior is smashing his face into stuff and bashing around. That was, “OK, he’s going to have to be able to carve through barriers, versus working his way around them.” He gets the spin attack that lets him break through stuff, and the charge attack also lets him cruise right through the pots. He’s about flinging himself straight into the face of the monsters, whereas the other two are a little more about avoiding actual face to face contact a lot of the time.
GamesBeat: It feels like a game that’s really well-suited for a group of people sitting in front of the TV and sharing the controller.
Andrea Roberts: Absolutely. That’s always been one of the goals. We started on PC development, but I’d always wanted to get on consoles. Bob and I have — we pretty much first met and bonded over playing games together on the couch. I have such strong fond memories of being a kid and playing with my siblings and my cousins. I think that’s an experience that has always been deep at the heart of who I am as a gamer and that I want to support. I always thought of the game as something that feels good to play by yourself, but also with other people. A lot of the design has gone into the UI on the sides and callouts and things like that, to try to help make it clearer for a watcher what’s going on. You can have more of that conversation with somebody.
Bob Roberts: Somebody can walk into the room and pick up what’s happening by looking at the screen a little bit.
Andrea Roberts: And also, being able to play with kids and parents. We really wanted it to be something that was comfortable and welcoming to a broad range of folks. We wanted it to be something that we could play with our daughter on the couch someday.
GamesBeat: How many copies do you need to sell to make this a success?
Andrea Roberts: Well — we’re on a bunch of different platforms. We’re selling the game on Steam, Xbox, Switch, PlayStation 4. But we’re also on Apple Arcade, and so part of being on Apple Arcade is that Apple helped support our development. That was a really huge deal for us. That’s what has enabled Bob and I to work full-time on this project.
Bob Roberts: They gave us some funding and took a lot of the risk out of that question for us. It’s been really awesome. And also, frankly, every time we showed it at PAX or a show like that, we got a ton of people asking if they could play on their phone or iPad. It was a good way to embrace the feedback we’d gotten and try to make it work on all of those platforms. It’s a more comfortable, less stressful question than it would have been had we not hooked up with Apple and made it for Arcade.
GamesBeat: Are you going to make another game after this?
Andrea Roberts: We’re going to continue supporting and working on Roundguard for a while. We have plans for — we want to get daily runs in there. We have new character ideas. We’re definitely going to put out more content for Roundguard, and we’re a small team, so that means we won’t be immediately working on the next thing. But we will be doing something after that. We just don’t have an idea quite yet.
Bob Roberts: The goal is definitely to keep making games together, but Roundguard is still our current foreseeable future.
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