2D bullet hell Vampire Survivors is definitely one of the most interesting success stories of the year, as what used to be a simple mobile game became popular overnight. The very simple roguelike style has captured players looking for something casual, but still fun. You can choose one of several characters and move them around the screen during the automatic attack. While enemies are eliminated from higher player levels, along with changing weapons and gaining power-ups, the ultimate goal is to keep the growing mob of enemies in check. Upon death, you unlock new weapons and characters by spending coins earned in battle.
While the game is currently on Steam with “overwhelming popularity” based on nearly 70,000 reviews, the success is certainly not what solo developer Luca Galante was expecting when he first started working on it.
The programmer was born near Rome and, having grown up with classic online experiences like Ultima Online, has always wanted to design video games. He states that he was fascinated by a particular feature of the Ultima series: the constancy of things in the world. Even after getting away, the player can always go back and collect it. Origin Software is how Galant first discovered his passion for designing RPG content, but he also mentioned how he spent many years creating characters, weapons, and armor as a master in dungeons during D&D sessions.
“I remember one of the recruits going so far as to laugh at me during an interview.”
Designing the Vampire Hunters Championship game was his idea to pass the time during the pandemic, along with getting something to play during the weekend. Gallant says he wasn’t really planning on working on something that could be successful with other players, it was just an attempt to hone his design skills. He wanted the game to feel fun for himself, but nothing that would be a waste of time – something to be played for a quick session while working out on an exercise bike at home. “I thought of designing the attack as automatic, so that the player could focus on doing something else,” he explains. But, right from the start, Galant was also adamant about adding new items and characters to Vampire Survivors, so he could keep a potential small community coming back to play it.
In order to find the perfect flavor for the game, Galant analyzed some of his favorite games to see what made them entertaining. He mentioned both Dynasty Warriors and Bayonetta to me, especially for the way they convey feedback to the player. But that was not all, as anyone who has played the role of Vampire Survivors even once can definitely testify to the addiction of the game. In designing this particular type of “Getting Started Again” episode, Galant’s experience with the gambling industry played a role. “Playing a slot machine is about pressing a button and waiting to see if you win something. So the slots have to work out this very delicate balance between reward and difficulty, or else you risk either turning away the player or making it too easy,” he explains. About a balance similar to Vampire Survivors.”
As for the balance between automatic actions and player input, Galant mentions one title that he felt was a huge inspiration. He says, “I’ve read many reviews about the game. But still no one seems to mention one title in particular that was, to me, a clear inspiration for the game: Pac-man.”
Much like the classic Namco arcade title, at the beginning of the Survivors Series, the player has to stay away from the enemies and survive while fending off them. Then, after gathering strength, it’s time to get everything out and get rid of as many enemies as possible. When the power-up effect ends, the player returns to the move and mostly stays away from the bad guys. Gallant mentions how he intended to design a game that could also be used as a palate cleanser, “I’ve seen Twitch Streamers play it while chatting with their viewers, and that was really my original vision for Vampire Survivors!”.
While Vampire Survivors looks a lot like a game made by hardcore Castlevania fans, which Galante is all about, the Igarashi-inspired art style ended up in the end game mainly by chance. Galant used a set of simple 8-bit assets he bought years ago, and he adds, “I’ve actually used them many times before on various prototypes that never saw the light of day.” They ended up being the obvious choice he would have used when he started designing the game, but now they feel strictly part of the overall design of Vampire Survivors. So much so that while Galant had thought several times in the past few months for a new look, he hadn’t yet summoned up the courage to upgrade it. “I would like the game not to use the free tile set from RPG Maker and, in general, look more graphically compact and cohesive, but still without any kind of huge upgrades” he states.
The Italian names of many of the vampire survivor characters probably don’t mean much to foreign players, but it’s just hoax language. As Gallant himself states, they were intended as little more than placeholders, juvenile jokes that he was planning to remove when the game is close to public release. For example, the character’s name “Mortaccio” is a slight modification of “mortacci,” a colorful expression often used in Rome to express surprise and insult, as it can be translated as a direct insult to one’s ancestors. When the match started, it was too late for him to go back and change names to make it more serious, so Gallant decided to roll with them. “I think the family of vampire hunters are distant relatives of Belmont from a small province in Italy…” he laughs.
While the game debuted on Android in May 2021, this version was so slow that very few people played it. Galant himself abandoned it very quickly, and moved the development to the PC. The programmer also remembers putting some simple-looking screenshots on the Google Play Store, because he never thought the game would be popular anyway, saying “I wasn’t looking for a game that could earn me money, honestly, I was more interested in player feedback”. Galante switched the game to Itch a few months after it failed on Android, and then on Steam. But the game was still hardly noticed – until January 2022, when Splattercat started playing it. Since then, the game’s popularity has grown exponentially.
This nearly overnight success of the Vampire Survivors completely changed Galante’s plans and life. In December 2021, he finally found a job in the gaming industry, and after the game’s popularity, he ended up leaving almost immediately. Since then, he’s been working full time on Survivors to add new features and fix balance issues. The game, at the moment, is registering a very large number of players; Galant cites nearly 200,000 daily users. The developer also mentions that at the time of the interview, the game is about 65% complete, but there are still two new mechanics that will greatly affect how players approach the game, the first of which will be released in a few weeks. Naturally, he still wanted to develop the Nintendo Switch version, along with making it compatible with Steam Deck.
What about Gallant’s plans for a post-survivor future? “Well, since this game has fundamentally changed my life, I think the first thing I want to do is start my own studio and start hiring developers to work on potential new titles.” His plans were slowly piecing together, though at the moment he’s busy working to get to a full version of Vampire Survivors so he can leave Early Access. He also states that he has received many interesting proposals, but says “Since I am not a businessman at all, I must be very careful about what I do!” However, Gallant is still very apprehensive about what happened today and not a day goes by that he is not grateful to all the players and fans. His game might be an overnight success, sure, but Galante’s main goal is to never let his players down, providing them with a vampire survivor experience that’s entertaining, solid, and also silly.