On January 21, the 35th Anniversary Patch of Vampire Survivors, which celebrated 35 days since launch while referencing Castlevania’s own 35th anniversary happening later this year, introduced new weapon evolutions, bug fixes, and a few minor tweaks. In addition, the update highlighted the “Nduja Fritta Tanto” item, or NFT, which can randomly drop from candles and braziers to add a temporary buff.
The description reads “terrible pun, great item,” and states that the team is “against NFT practices if that wasn’t clear.” But for some, including many of the commenters in a Reddit thread titled “Indie game Vampire Survivors also jumping on NFTs” with over 1,000 upvotes, the fright was real.
Luca Galante, creator of the reverse bullet hell that became a Steam hit in January, says the backlash was intense. “People didn’t get it at first and I started to get a lot of negative reviews which, you know, fair enough, I understand why that happened,” he tells Fanbyte. “But even after specifying in the update that no, this is a joke, I’m not making NFTs, some people still wouldn’t get it. But you know, for a few negative reviews, it was worth it.”
Vampire Survivors, a mostly idle game where you move a character while attacks happen automatically, launched in Early Access back on December 17. Despite the negative reviews after the NFT joke, 98 percent of over 66,000 reviews are positive at the time of writing. The indie darling, which costs a mere three U.S. dollars, saw immense popularity after falling into the hands of YouTube personalities like Northernlion and overtaking the lives of thousands of people (including Fanbyte staff) with its simple, yet engaging nature.
Galante, who started working on the game as a solo developer but now collaborates with others part-time, wasn’t expecting this reception. Like everyone who has obsessively played the game since it came to the spotlight, working on it took over the developer’s life by storm. When I interviewed him back in February, he had quit his day time job to focus on Vampire Survivors the day before.
“It was really embarrassing because I had just started the new job, so I left after a week, [which was] unprofessional, but right now the game needs lots of attention,” Galante says. “I’m sure I would have regretted it to focus on my day job and not on the success of the game.” Ever since, his routine has involved taking care of admin tasks during the day while also working with contractors on bug fixing and feature development during the evenings.
The sudden rise in popularity has granted Galante not only the possibility of focusing on development full time, but also the reassurance of continuing to do so throughout 2022. His plan is for Vampire Survivors to exit Early Access at some point in the late year and to port it to a new engine. In the meantime, we can expect to see at least two “big features that will affect the game in a major way,” with the first being called Arcanas. An update on March 24 revealed that it will be released in April and bring more weapons, characters, items, and stages. As for the future, he hopes to work on console ports and, on a bigger scale, open his own studio.
But how did it all start? Galante began working in game development back in 2014, focusing primarily on casino and slots games during his first few years living in London. This then led him to work on mobile games for Windows Phone, web projects for HTML5 publishers, and projects on Unity. (I did ask him and yes, his experience working with slot machines is a big part of why the chests in Vampire Survivors are so satisfactory to open.)
Inspired by the mobile game Magic Survival, he one day started working on a zen-like experience that didn’t require much input from the player. “It’s come a long way,” Galante says.
At first, there was no health bar, and your character was basically immortal. The developer started adding just enough elements from that point, following a philosophy akin to Pac-Man to hone in on a few primary pillars: Escaping from enemies, grabbing pellets, and then slowly fighting back against them. He tells me he was mindful of not adding too much nor unnecessarily increasing the scope, instead focusing on refining those pillars. As for the theme, Galante had previously purchased an asset pack that is heavily inspired by Castlevania (commissioned for the game Serenade of Chaos), so he finally put it to good use.
But it was hard to resist the temptation of not adding upon that simple foundation. At one point during development, there were plans for a Vampire Survivors story mode. It was supposed to be a short introductory episode featuring an overpowered character. You would go through waves of enemies and learn how the game works until an unwinnable vampire took you down.
The goal was to immediately showcase the main mechanics in place, as it can take a few minutes into a run to understand the experience. But as Galante explains, “thanks to the overwhelming publicity from streamers and so on,” there’s no real need for that hook anymore; folks already know what they’re getting into.
That being said, that hook led to the idea of having short chronological story episodes with “some very bland, silly storyline” behind them. The smaller maps would take around five to 10 minutes each to complete, featuring much more restrictive leveling mechanics such as a level cap and having to rely on specific items you had to find throughout the map. But the developer quickly realized having more constrained gameplay was “probably the wrong way to look at it.” Now, the changes he and his team are working on focus on expanding and improving the foundation, not scaling backwards.
“Since the game launched, I haven’t nerfed any single object,” Galante says. “Not voluntarily, at least. There were a couple bugs that had to be fixed, which nerfed a couple weapons, but the nerf was never the goal. In fact, all the new content we want to make aims to add more. That’s when people complain that something is too strong or needs to be turned down. I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, I appreciate the critique, but it’s too soon to see what is overpowered or not.’ But you know, if something is too strong and you get tired of it, at the end of the day, it’s the player’s choice to go for an overpowered build or not.”
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The story mode was ultimately put on the backburner indefinitely, as the developer wants to prioritize having an Endless mode of sorts instead. It was recently brought up in the late March development roadmap overview as “the main candidate” for what will be implemented following Arcanas. During our interview, he mentioned this idea was still “up in the air.”
For now, the update schedule has changed from weekly to bi-weekly, all while the team keeps working on the new version that will run on a much more stable engine. Once this is done, Galante wants to re-release the Android version of Vampire Survivors, which existed years ago but ran poorly due to engine limitations.
It sounds like a busy to-do list, but the community is here to stay and wait patiently for the next patch. There are over 32,000 members in the Discord server alone, with many of them not only by providing feedback or talking about their runs, but also fostering both modding and competitive scenes with a leaderboard in the server. Galante says he never expected any competitive nature, including user-made challenges, to emerge from Vampire Survivors, but he’s happy to help by sharing details on how items work. The same goes for modding, as he’s always loved to mod games and encourages it with his own. Despite the mainstream success, he wants to keep interacting with the community as much as possible.
“Right now, I’m really focused on work, so I try not to think too much about what this actually means in the end,” Galante says. “I just feel really, really lucky. I’ve seen people playing in different ways, so I think I’ll just keep going in this direction. Adding more, making it bigger, and losing even more FPS apparently.”