The Story of Crypt Run

September 3, 2013 — by Mariia Lototska



The Story of Crypt Run

September 3, 2013 — by Mariia Lototska

Lost Decade Games got its name from the perceived notion that its two founders had spent 10 years in the wrong career. Geoff Blair and Matt Hackett share similar backgrounds; their previous experience includes senior engineering roles at Yahoo! and gameplay aggregator Raptr. The word “decade” also tends to make gamers, like themselves, think fondly of classic gaming experiences. But its future was put at risk when its realtime multiplayer game was cancelled. Crypt Run is their attempt to salvage the wreckage and turn it into the best single player experience they can make. Matt describes their experience.

Lost Decade Games
Matt Hackett (left) and Geoff Blair (right).

A Doomed Contract

It was July 2012 when a local startup reached out to us to work on a realtime multiplayer game in the browser. At that time, we’d only been independent for about six months and were still relatively inexperienced game developers. This project also came with many difficulties. Realtime, socket-based connections in the browser were still quite new and somewhat unstable at the time. Our partner had implemented the lockstep protocol, which was invented to handle the unique problems that RTS games face. But they wanted to push the envelope to improve their tech stack, so they requested an arcade-style action game.

The provided API only supported keyboard input, and had a lobbying system that required 2-10 players in a game session. So we had several unique challenges to face, and a tight deadline of only three months in which to do it. Given all of these constraints, we aimed to design the simplest game we could…at least at first.

Our initial design involved players controlling dwarves in a 2D obstacle course. Players explore a town, which is full of traps and bars. When players went into bars, they’d get drinks and become intoxicated. At the end of the time period, the drunkest player won! But this design had some issues, one of which was that we’re not big drinkers ourselves and couldn’t really relate to our own game. We felt like it was a fine idea in general, but just not for us. This, combined with us being undisciplined designers, obviously led to a bizarre robot crafting game inspired by Magic: The Gathering.

Robot Gathering
Doodles for our bizarre robot crafting game.

I blame myself for this. I pushed on this design because I felt it had merit, but I knew it was much too ambitious for a three month project. These days, I try to remember this mistake to help myself focus.

About halfway through development, we realized we’d never get this crazy game done on time. So we threw out all the designs we had and reduced the core engine down to just a shell of a realtime multiplayer game. Cutting so much definitely had an impact on us. We lost some confidence, and it took us a few days to get back into the development groove.

We decided to pivot back to medieval fantasy, because that’s what we know and love. Our inspiration at this point was to build a “realtime roguelike” that would play like standard roguelike dungeon crawlers, except realtime instead of turn-based, and multiplayer instead of single player. Early prototypes were very promising, and things were finally going smoothly.

As we built the game, we realized that dying was boring because you just had to sit there and watch other people play. Inspired by the Bomberman franchise, we came up with the idea that when you die, your spirit goes on, and you can still affect the game (albeit now in minor ways).

An early beta of this new game we called Crypt Run was ready for launch in January 2013, when we received some bad news…

Realtime Multiplayer
Early realtime multiplayer screenshot from December 2012.


Our partner informed us that they were pivoting away from providing a realtime multiplayer service. They were a very young startup, with brand new money, and they were trying to find their footing. They had no issues with the game we delivered. We still got paid, and we got to keep the rights to our game. Our relationship with them is fine, and there are no hurt feelings.

However, all the planning and preparation we’d done for the last few months was now moot. All of the ideas, marketing plans, and concepts we had bouncing around pretty much had to be thrown out. Almost everything depended on the multiplayer aspect, and that wasn’t something we were prepared to attempt ourselves.

Getting Back to Our Roots

The lion’s share of the Crypt Run source code was hacked to work with our previous partner’s SDK, and Geoff wasn’t happy with its architecture anyway. We decided to toss the vast majority of the game code and start from scratch. This increased our interest in retaining something from this cancelled project.

However, we decided to build on the artwork that we had. I had spent months creating art assets for monsters, swords, treasure, and more, and we felt like that was a valuable thing that we should utilize. Since our old game design depended heavily on the missing multiplayer element, we decided to get back to our roots by designing a spiritual successor to our first game Onslaught! Arena.

Screenshot from Onslaught! Arena in 2010
Screenshot from Onslaught! Arena in 2010

This was good. We’d been wanting to build a sequel to Onslaught! for many years; we had even put together a quick prototype for a sequel, but never found the time to fully explore it.

My art style had also changed drastically since then. Over the years, I moved away from pixel art, as it felt like the general gaming audience was growing fatigued with it. Instead, I moved towards smoother shapes like in Lunch Bug (2012) and Lava Blade (2013).

We felt that in order to be a substantially more compelling game, all Onslaught! Arena really needed was an exploration mechanic. If players could navigate the arena via doors that scrolled to other rooms, we’d have that easily. So we borrowed heavily from some of our classic favorites like Smash TV and the original Legend of Zelda.

Designing a game based on the Zelda dungeon framework can be a slippery slope. Additions like the map and compass become obvious, but we tried to design organically as much as possible. By adding bouncing axes, freezing ice swords, and unique monster behaviors, we hoped to make Crypt Run feel less like Zelda and more like an evolution of a genre. Yet this didn’t feel like enough. We wanted a feature that would really set Crypt Run apart, something that was unique and unexplored, at least in this genre. And then it came to us!

Death is Just the Beginning

It occurred to us to dig through our old, deprecated realtime multiplayer design documents to look for clues on which direction to go. We found the feature that lets players remain in the game when they die, and thought that it might be a fun mechanic to explore.

Our aim is to make this feature feel less like a “corpse run” that gamers might remember from World of Warcraft, and more like a whole new world, like from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Unfortunately, this part of the game is largely unfinished. Almost immediately after getting it into the game, we pivoted to work fulltime on a Kickstarter campaign and our first ever live demo!

Kickstarter and California Extreme

The Crypt Run live demo at California Extreme 2013.

California Extreme is an annual pinball and arcade celebration in the California bay area. It’s basically a huge room packed with arcade cabinets and pinball machines, all set on free play. It’s magical.

Although we weren’t quite ready to demo Crypt Run, we felt that doing a live demo at a popular conference was a great way to launch a crowdfunding campaign. We were right! On our first day, $1,760 worth of pledges came in and by the end of the weekend Crypt Run was 58 percent funded. Over this tiring but super fun weekend, we watched hundreds of gamers play Crypt Run, added 50 new mailing list signups, met a ton of great people, and made some promising connections. We even met a business developer from Sony!

If you’d like to work with us, we’re particularly interested in bringing Crypt Run to consoles. Eventually, we plan to launch on mobile as well, so if you’re in a position to help indies with marketing or publishing, please do get in touch. Game on!

Crypt Run‘s Kickstarter was successfully funnded and is set to launch on Windows, Mac, and Linux this Halloween. Stay in touch with Lost Decade Games through Twitter and Facebook, as well as Lostcast, their game development podcast.


Mariia Lototska