How Legend of Dungeon creators turned a relationship into a passion.
Alix Stolzer and Calvin Goble loved gaming long before they loved each other.
She sat for hours on the floor of her parents' house, playing the 1980s dungeon crawler Rogue. He grew up in arcades, jamming quarters into the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stand-up and dying over and over again.
They combined these experiences under the development umbrella known as Robot Loves Kitty, creating titles such as Tiny Plumbers, N-Back Time Pilot and, most recently, Legend of Dungeon.
Arcade. Pixels. Permadeath. Roguelike. Randomly generated. Their work often combines these elements in an effort to fix a tiny bump the couple continued to stumble over: They couldn't find the kind of games they loved to play together.
This one small problem would help shape their lives.
Stolzer and Goble were nervous. They were at PAX East 2013, and it was the first time they were showing Legend of Dungeon to the community.
This was before there had been much buzz around the eye-catching title, which combines soft, pixelated visuals with the hard fist of failure — your failure. The co-op, roguelike dungeon crawler is built on a pyramid of permadeath, randomized areas and mean monsters. Avatars come in either gender and any race, but they die as quickly as they're made.
The decision to go to PAX was half whim, half business, Stolzer says. Tickets were sold out, but the two could still attend as exhibitors. What was the worst that could happen — besides the shame of being the only people playing their own game?
They experienced the opposite of shame. Crowds flocked to Robot Loves Kitty's booth. It was a wall of humanity, all watching and waiting for a turn to play.
"Watching other people play our game was the most amazing feeling," Stolzer says. "We high-fived each other so many times."
PAX ended up being yet another win in a pile of successes. Legend of Dungeon was successfully Kickstarted in December 2012. Robot Loves Kitty asked for $5,000; it received $32,999.
a screaming robot
By their account, the story of how Stolzer and Goble met is not exciting. There was no dramatic twist of fate or barrier to keep them apart. Their connection was established, as many are, through casual happenstance and repeated run-ins.
The beginning of their relationship has a very specific point, at the local coffee shop where Stolzer worked. Goble and his brother had been there dozens of times before. He sat down, grabbed a nearby kids' activity kit of construction paper and crayons, and drew a colorful, screaming robot.
Stolzer was intrigued. Goble was venting the day's frustrations. And it was love — or at least interest — at first sight.
Stolzer was 16. She was born in Virginia, but lived in New York for most of her life. Until age 11, she was homeschooled. The she made the switch to public school, but was back to homeschooling by age 13. The kids were awful, and after being treated like an adult most of her life, she couldn't stand how often teachers had to repeat themselves. By age 15, she was taking college courses on anatomy and psychology.
"When I was like 16, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life," Stolzer says. "I realized that I didn't want to be good at any one thing. I wanted to be good at lots of little things. I love learning; I love doing different kinds of stuff."
Stolzer can make clothing, design and create stained glass, is comfortable with basic woodworking and knows how to build houses. She's self-taught on guitar and currently teaching herself how to speak Japanese. She thrives on creativity and craves ways to do things a little differently than other people, even if it's as silly as ordering different food at restaurants than her friends do.
Goble was 22. He was born in Texas to a military dad who moved a lot and a mom who taught special needs kids. He was raised Christian and attended school to become a missionary. But he was never a good student. In high school, he was more interested in sketching in his notebook than paying attention to teachers. He admits he was very good at achieving the minimum to graduate — straight Cs. By college, his habits came back to bite him. He dropped out and picked up an IT job.
Goble thought Stolzer was too friendly to be interested in him. Stolzer thought Goble was mysterious. She hedged on telling him her age for a long time, fearing the difference, but eventually struck a deal with him.
"I traded him for my age, and he has yet to come through with his side of the bargain," Stolzer says. "He promised me a painting or some piece of art in exchange for telling him how old I was."
They recently celebrated their 12th anniversary, though neither of them can remember exactly when they were married.
In 2006, Stolzer and Goble moved to New York City. They lived in a rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan's Little Italy, where they paid $500 a month and had plenty of distractions. Goble quit his job to work on games full-time, and Stolzer adopted the role of sole provider.
"At the hobby level, one person trying to do all of the work [on a game] just doesn't cut it," Stolzer says. "There's just no way. It would take 17 million years to get any project — any project that he could be excited about — done."
Stolzer found a job working as a chocolatier under a singing chef. Besides the day-to-day creation of sweet treats, she attended lavish parties as a guardian of chocolate fountains — which more people try to stick their heads into than you'd think, she says. Game making was a protracted ambition.
"I was interested, but I knew my job was to get the money so that we could eat," Stolzer says. "I only had a little bit of creative input and feedback at that point."
Goble hated not providing income, but he was working on his first full-time project: a massively multiplayer sandbox game called Neverdaunt:8Bit. The plan was to buckle down, finish it within a year and move on. It actually took about five.
"I quit a pretty decent IT job to screw around on my computer and not make any money for five years," Goble says. "[The last day of work], it was like a party inside of my brain. I don't want to work for somebody else. I don't think I could ever do it again. I would if I had to, but it's not my choice. I like to have all of my time devoted to being creative. When I work for somebody else, it exhausts me."
Goble never stopped making games. His childhood was filled with Lego building and silly offshoots of hide-and-seek. Play is a fundamental aspect of our existence, he says, and video games are a natural expression of that.
"At some point, people stop playing," Goble says. "They stop making games. I don't understand that. It's not so much when did I start making video games, it's why do other people stop?"
For now, Neverdaunt:8Bit exists only in the past tense; Goble took it offline in 2012, after the game could no longer support itself.
"It was a failure in some ways, [and in] a lot of ways it was a huge success," Goble says. "There's this fantasy idea of what a massively multiplayer game could be ... of really being somebody in some other universe, and changing that universe. Accomplishing things in it, as if it were a real place.
"That didn't exist. Not really. You get into a lot of these massively multiplayer games and you're leveling up, and you saved this person the same ways thousands of people before you have saved that person. It's not real. Nothing you do matters so much. That's boring to me."
Neverdaunt was Goble's answer to these problems. It combined the Lego-like building blocks of his childhood with his desire to go somewhere and be someone because of his in-game accomplishments. Players could interact with each other in what he considered a meaningful way, and much of the game's story line was user-generated.
Goble released Neverdaunt as an open beta in 2010. It was well received — even scoring a 2011 nomination for an Independent Games Festival award for technical excellence — but not a huge financial hit. By that point, Stolzer had reached her limit with work. She craved involvement with future games but couldn't help unless she had free time.
"I told Calvin, 'I've donated almost six years of work for you to make these video games,'" she recalls. "'It's your turn. You have to do something to give us money.'"
To keep making games, they had to cut costs. If they could minimize spending enough, it was even possible neither would have to take a temporary job.
The answer turned out to be obvious. Stolzer and Goble moved out of their apartment and built a treehouse in the middle of Vermont's woodlands. Their families were very supportive.
Stolzer and Goble have an eccentric friend by the name of Jaimie Mantzel who builds giant robots and lives in the wilderness of Vermont. His home is self-constructed; the third floor is a massive trampoline. As the inspiration for the couple's treehouse idea in the first place, Mantzel invited them to live on his land.
It's a half-hour hike up the mountain to reach Mantzel's property. Stolzer and Goble eventually made a living for themselves here, but they hit a snag. To build their woodland home, they needed to get pounds of plywood, sheetrock and raw materials up the tricky path.
The road Mantzel built, by hand, had been washed over. Goble and Mantzel spent weeks uprooting trees and moving rocks to clear the way, but then Mantzel's truck died. Before they could find a new vehicle, this path closed too. It wasn't so much a bump in the road as it was the road falling away completely.
Living in the woods came with its own set of challenges, but the couple managed to make a home for themselves 15 minutes north of White River Junction. Their treehouse was approximately 350 square feet, with a loft bed that they and their two cats squeezed into. Stolzer and Goble constructed solar panels to power their electronics, and used a cellphone signal to access the internet. They cooked outside with a rocket stove. The shower — little more than heated water pumped through a garden sprayer — was located directly below the house. It was enclosed by a tarp, more to keep the mosquitoes out than for modesty.
And though Goble missed the perks of the digital age, and Stolzer wished she could shower more, they were happy. This was the beginning of the Legend of Dungeon era. It was Stolzer and Goble's first project together. It was also the birth of Robot Loves Kitty, the banner under which they now create games. The name is derived from a Valentine's Day card Goble once made for Stolzer: a robot with a cellophane heart and a cat perched on its head.
Legend of Dungeon is more than their first joint venture, or their first successful Kickstarter, or even their first Greenlit game on Steam. It's actually not about firsts at all, but rather their past. It's a project they've always wanted to make together, because it embodies the childhood they never shared: Rogue and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but also exploring a world of their imagination, climbing on rooftops, throwing water balloons at their mothers.
"We get to experience something that we missed out on in each other's lives," Stolzer says.
But before there can be Legend of Dungeon, there has to be a home. There has to be a place for them to make their game together.
Back to the mountain path: If there is a more literal representation of all of Robot Loves Kitty's problems, it hasn't reared its head yet.
Goble had a choice. He could turn his back on the wilderness, return to the city, quit game development and get a "real" job. Or, he could start loading supplies onto his back and climb a mountain.
It really wasn't much of a choice at all. He picked up the first piece of plywood and began to walk. The treehouse wouldn't be a permanent settlement for them, but for the next two years, Stolzer and Goble would call it home.
at the end of the tunnel
Until Legend of Dungeon raised more than six times its asking amount on Kickstarter, the couple says, they didn't think the game would be a very big deal. They're not quite the type of developers publishers look for, and no one was interested before the Kickstarter.
Legend of Dungeon was already in a playable state, but without the support of Kickstarter, the game would have been a fraction of what it is now. Stolzer and Goble were low on funds and in need of a new computer. Goble's laptop was far past its last legs — the screen had snapped off, and he'd bolted it back on to squeeze what little life from it he could.
"We needed to continue developing, [but] we had no money," Stolzer says. "If we want to keep making video games, we need a computer. That's where the Kickstarter really came from — the desire to keep making video games and not work under any kind of publishing group."
At the same time, Legend of Dungeon was also wading through the community waters on Steam Greenlight. The simultaneous campaigning started to bring attention their way. Robot Loves Kitty was even approached by several publishers, but declined. Then, in April of this year, the game finally got the Greenlight.
"It was a sudden weight off our shoulders," Stolzer says. "It felt like we won an award. We felt like we earned it. It wasn't just handed to us.
"We may not have reached super massive bumps in the road, but up until Legend of Dungeon, we didn't really have much of a road. It was more like a dirt path."
Greenlight offered as much as any indie developer can hope for: more time. Thanks to the publicity boost to presales, the couple could afford to eat. More importantly, they could continue to develop with renewed enthusiasm.
With Legend of Dungeon out in the wild as of September, Stolzer and Goble's future plans have a lot of variation. There's the grounded plan, the one in which they move to New Hampshire and work more with the indie community. Then there's the possibility of reuniting with Mantzel and buying an island to live on. They've talked about getting a houseboat and traveling, while the "super fantasy" is to settle up in a spaceship.
Needless to say, what they think of as sane may not fit perfectly into other people's categories.
"We understand that life is of limited supply and won't let the perceived norms be our limit," Stolzer says.
"We tend to jump on opportunity," Goble adds. "If there's an opportunity that presents itself that is a possibility of having more awesomeness in our life, we'll take it."
These plans, however, all revolve around the couple's continued game making. Next up on their list of possibilities are a remake of Goble's dream game, Neverdaunt:8Bit, or possibly a sequel to Legend of Dungeon. Then there's the couple's highly secretive project, known only as "Kami Punk." Regardless of which comes first, the two will continue to work together.
"Alix and I go back and forth with ideas and art, and surprise each other with cool little additions," Goble says. "I need her as a sounding board for ideas when something doesn't make any sense. I get so involved in the code sometimes that I lose sight of where I was trying to go."
Stolzer describes developing, at this point, as an extension of the couple's life. If it weren't bringing them together, it would be pulling them apart.
"Without each other," she says, "I don't think we'd have any drive to make video games."
Images: Alix Stolzer, Calvin Goble
Editing: Matt Leone, Russ Pitts
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan