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How Vampire Survivors Went From Hobby Project To Game Of The Year

Developer Luca Galante discusses how the one-time hobby project Vampire Survivors took over his life.


By any measure, Poncle's Vampire Survivors is one of the biggest surprise Steam hits of the past few years, perhaps even longer. The content-rich roguelite quickly garnered an impressive amount of buzz last year after it debuted on Steam in late 2021, eventually becoming one of the service's best-selling games. But when Poncle's Luca Galante first started working on the project in his spare time, he was just hoping to get 100 people to play the game on, a goal it originally failed to reach.

"I just wanted to get a few players to help with feedback and suggestions as I kept adding content to the core game, and have a laugh together at the silly references," Galante tells GameSpot. "I was hoping for maybe around 100 people to play it and comment on itch, but that didn’t happen."

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Now Playing: Vampire Survivors - v1.3.0 Chaos Update - Feb.9th [SPOILERS]

However, while Vampire Survivors might have struggled to find an audience on, Galante didn't lose faith. A few months after its release, he decided to upload the game onto Steam, where it was met with a lot more excitement. Galante says some of this success comes from the three distinct sources that inspired the game. Its top-down bullet-hell gameplay, for example, was first kindled by a mobile game called Magic Survival, while its impressive visual effects came from the little-known platformer Lapis X Labyrinth. As for the Castlevania-esque set dressing, Galante says he simply had a royalty-free asset pack with that theme lying around, and it seemed fitting.

As interest began to grow around Vampire Survivors, Galante decided to take its development a bit more seriously. He wrote up an Early Access plan, hoping to offset the more than €1000 in expenses he had wracked up putting the game together. That original half-sketched roadmap for the game seems quite modest now: five stages, 30 weapons, and a dozen characters, to be built out in his spare time without any specific timeline in mind.

Vampire Survivors gets pretty hectic at times.
Vampire Survivors gets pretty hectic at times.

However, once the game started to receive rave reviews on Steam, Galante decided to revamp the plan, doubling its content and adding new game mechanics to keep fans coming back for more. He credits Poncle's community managers for maintaining the high level of interest in the game while he and the other developers worked on filling out the game and porting it to new platforms.

This deluge of fan interest significantly shaped the path of Vampire Survivors, with players giving Galante a large number of ideas to work with. However, the overall arc of the game's life has primarily been defined by his own preferences as a player. Its surprisingly deep mechanical backbone and deluge of secrets were crafted out of necessity in order to keep up with the ravenous demand for new content. Galante says that he felt a need to outdo himself with every update, since so many people were buying the game due to its viral success.

"With every new update I tried to not only add content, but also more features to the core framework in order to offer something new every time," he says. "Sometimes, it was just me being selfish and wanting to make something just because I felt the need to be creative or to do something silly. Turning a tree into a playable character? Why not? Is it fun? Ship it."

While this seat-of-the-pants approach to game design paid dividends, it did result in a few compromises that Galante wishes they had a bit more time for. For example, Vampire Survivors' existing final boss fight still isn't quite what he originally envisioned, but there was so much happening on the developmental side that Galante just simply didn't have enough time to put it together. That said, now that it's in the game, he doesn't plan to revisit it. "It would be better to spend time on things more players would enjoy," he says.

Now, months after the game's official release, Galante admits that he's somewhat confused by its continued success. In 2022, Vampire Survivors continually ranked among the best-selling and most-played Steam games according to SteamDB, and it also topped Valve's official list of most-played Steam Deck games month after month. The release of the Steam Deck likely boosted sales of the game even further, as it was considered a perfect match for portable gaming by prospective players.

Galante ascribes the game's lasting value to differing preferences among the game's massive playerbase--though the majority simply want to achieve a few successful runs, Vampire Survivors offers a wide variety of playstyles and goals to chase, including perfect builds, challenge runs, and completing its item repository.

Updates have added many new maps and features to Vampire Survivors.
Updates have added many new maps and features to Vampire Survivors.

According to Galante, the future of Vampire Survivors looks a lot like its recent past. The game's first DLC, Curse of the Moonspell, came out at the very end of 2022 to a positive reception from fans, and Galante says that the studio currently plans to release several more. However, Poncle has stated repeatedly that any upcoming DLC will only include new characters, weapons, and stages, while any new key mechanics will be free to all owners. With this DLC plan in place, Galante says that a hypothetical Vampire Survivors 2 is unlikely, but not entirely impossible.

"With the way Vampire Survivors is designed, we can deliver both new content and new game mechanics on the existing game, so why make a sequel?" he says. "I think that if we make a sequel or a spiritual successor, then we should offer something radically new."

Over the past few months, Poncle has been transparent about its struggles with the mobile version of Vampire Survivors, and how the studio was forced to make it in-house in order to avoid adding microtransactions to its core gameplay. Galante is coy about confirming or denying any plans to bring the game to new platforms--it's currently not available on PS4 or PS5, despite obvious demand. That said, Galante indicated that he does want to launch on at least one PlayStation console, though not the one you might think. "We want to launch on Vita," he says. "Don't tell the marketing team I said that."

Overall, Vampire Survivors is perhaps the biggest sleeper hit of 2022, and its playerbase only continues to grow. While its pace of new content will decrease as Poncle tries to find a more sustainable workload, the game has made its mark on the indie scene in more ways than one, and it'll be interesting to see if its next DLC makes as much of a splash as the first one.

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