Ground Divers! developer interview – Arc System Works’ new roguelike strategy game

Publication date of the original Japanese article: 2022-06-16 10:00 (JST)
Translated by. Braden Noyes

Arc System Works released Ground Divers!, a roguelike excavation strategy game, for the Nintendo Switch on June 30. The first thing that stands out when you see this game is its adorable character design, but if the genre is any indication, gamers are likely in for some hardcore gameplay. We had a chance to speak with the development team to learn more about exactly what players could expect.

*This is a summary of the original article posted on Japanese AUTOMATON.

Toru Maeda, director of development.
He has experience working as a programmer on a number of fighting games, including titles in the BlazBlue series.
Ryosuke Kodani, producer.
He worked as director for titles such as Dragonball Z: Extreme Butoden, One Piece: Great Pirate Colosseum, and Shephy.

What sort of game is Ground Divers?

According to director of development Toru Maeda, Ground Divers! sees players guiding a protagonist named Tsuruhashi deep underground on a mission to collect a substance known as rare matter. Players will need to construct relay stations known as pits along the way, which provide useful functions such as leveling up and recovering health as Tsuruhashi descends into the deepest depths below the planet’s surface.

The game also incorporates a unique element known as cheer energy. By lending Tsuruhashi words of encouragement, players can activate temporary bonuses. Charging up the cheer gauge will also enable Tsuruhashi to unleash powerful special attacks.

As is typical of roguelike games, Ground Divers! features randomly generated stages and enemies. Not only that, but Tsuruhashi’s level is also reset before each stage. Collected resources can be taken back to home base and used to craft new parts for Tsuruhashi, granting him random new skills. While certain crafted parts are more likely to grant particular skills more frequently than others, the values generated for those skills will be random.

Digging made fun

When we asked about how the project came about, Maeda told us, “I was working as a programmer on another title when the company began an in-house search for possible new projects. The timing was such that I happened to have a bit of extra time, so I decided to submit a basic proposal of my own.”

Maeda also mentioned he’s always enjoyed games that involve digging mechanics such as Dig Dug. “I thought a game with an excavation mechanic where you have to support a cute character as they dig underground would be fun,” he explained. Thinking this idea had potential, he decided to expand upon it.

The proposal was originally titled “Ganbare Tsuruhashi-kun” (which translates to something like “Good Luck, Tsuruhashi”). Eventually, this was decided to be a very Japanese-style name, so it was changed to Ground Divers! However, Maeda was quite attached to the original name, and so it was kept as the subtitle for the Japanese version.

Team size and development timeline

In the early stages of development, Maeda explains the team consisted only of himself and one other member, with Kodani and other members joining the project only after the two-man team spent time solidifying the details of the proposal. However, the team remained rather small, never growing to more than about 10 members.

According to Kodani, the project planning stage of development took roughly a year to complete. Once development began in earnest, however, it only took around 10 months to finish the game.

We also learned that every few years, Arc System Works will begin accepting in-house project proposals. However, the number of these types of projects that actually end up being developed and released are quite low, making this a rather special case.

Kodani added that Arc System Works always endeavors to maintain a certain level of quality for the titles they release. For this reason, many of the proposed projects are judged to be unviable during the early planning phase and are subsequently canceled, with very few projects making it through the entire development process.

Maeda explained that Daisuke Ishiwatari, company director of Arc System Works, thought the unique genre and game concept for Ground Divers! seemed promising. Maeda also reflected on how he and his team refused to lose heart as they demonstrated continued determination in order to achieve the level of quality being demanded, as well as overcome the many other hurdles that got in their way, before managing to bring the project to completion.

Releasing a game outside the fighting genre

Arc System Works is most commonly known for their fighting games. Kodani did express an interest in developing games in other genres, but said they are very conscious about what their dedicated fans expect from them. With that in mind, he believes it would still be difficult to suddenly switch gears and begin development of these other titles on the same scale as their fighting games. “While there are many fans who will remember all the non-fighting titles we released in the past, particularly during the Nintendo 3DS era, the truth is that the majority of our fans are either unaware of or don’t associate us with them.”

If Arc System Works were to release another fighting game, players would have a certain level of confidence in the quality they could expect from a title with their name on it. However, since Ground Divers! is part of an entirely different genre, that same sense of confidence granted from the success of previous titles isn’t there. For that reason, the company wanted to make sure this game didn’t look like simply a side project, but would instead demonstrate to players how serious they were about branching out into other genres.

Difficult digging decisions and cutesy characters

According to Maeda, at one point during the development process, the game had become considerably hard to play. “One example of this is when the item screen is open. As of now, time freezes while this menu is open, but during the early stages of development, time would continue moving forward while the player was checking their item inventory. At one point, Ishiwatari compared the game’s difficulty to that of Guilty Gear 2: Overture. Making the change to stop time made for a gameplay experience with a little less urgency than before.”

Maeda also had the following to say when asked about the strengths and charms of the game:

“If players proceed through the game normally, they are likely to hit a point where they begin struggling with what they should do next. What preparations can I take? What strategies can I implement in order to overcome these obstacles? I think one of this game’s strong points is that it forces players to ask themselves questions like these. Perhaps they choose to gather resources and focus on leveling up in order to overcome the challenges of a stage, but this may begin to prove difficult around stage five. If you find yourself hitting such a wall, try using the resources you gather to create new attachments, then equipping the ones best suited for helping you tackle a given stage’s challenges.

“Incidentally, this same decision-making element for overcoming obstacles throughout the game is also one of its hardest. At the same time, however, the character designs are all incredibly adorable. I would hope for players to initially be drawn in by the game’s story and cute characters, then eventually get hooked after tasting that feeling of satisfaction that comes from overcoming the more difficult elements.”

When asked about which aspects of the game he was particularly proud of, Maeda told us it was how nice the controls feel. “Seeing as how the game is based around digging, the fundamental action of excavating a block had to be an enjoyable one. As a result, we gave special attention to this.”

We also asked him about the reason for going with such a distinctive, cutesy design for the game’s characters. In response, he explained, “My original title for the game was Good Luck, Tsuruhashi. With such a cute title, I knew from the very beginning that I wanted the characters to feel the same way. I also knew I wanted the story to be set somewhere other than Earth, but I didn’t want it to feel like we just took a group of Earthlings and placed them on another planet. That led to adding elements to the character designs to make it obvious they were aliens.”

Maeda also added that the main scientist is Tsuruhashi’s inventor, so he wanted to make sure she came across as a sort of parental figure by incorporating motherly traits into her character design.

Difficulties during development

One of the most difficult parts of development was apparently getting the game to run smoothly on the Nintendo Switch. The game was developed using Unreal Engine 4, which combined with the Nintendo Switch’s hardware, resulted in framerate drops and issues with choppy gameplay due to processor load. We were told the trial and error process involved in correcting these issues was a rather difficult one.

“Unreal Engine 4 is equipped with a multitude of functions to deal with a variety of situations. In that sense, it felt sort of like we were figuring out which functions Tsuruhashi would need to operate properly,” Maeda explained. In the end, the team also ended up tweaking the game engine itself to work just the way they wanted it to.

Many of Arc System Works’ titles make use of Unreal Engine 4, meaning there were already plenty of programmers and engineers at the company who were familiar with it. This experience and know-how was taken into account when making the decision to go with this particular game engine.

More than simply cute

When asked what kind of gamers he hoped would enjoy this game, Maeda had the following to say:

“The characters in this game are all designed to be adorable; that goes for the enemies’ unique character traits as well. The game itself is quite difficult, however, so I’m hoping its cute charm will encourage players to give it a try, then be hooked later by its challenging content.

“As for the more hardcore gamers out there, I’d like to assure them that this game is packed with plenty of strategy. Not only is Tsuruhashi’s level reset at the beginning of every stage, but the resources needed to level him up are the same ones you’ll need for giving him instructions. You will have to make multiple runs to collect the resources necessary to craft equipment, and you must carefully consider what to bring for each run. This makes for some solid gameplay. I think this game has more than enough depth to offer players who enjoy that type of thing.”

Ground Divers! is available on the Nintendo Switch for $14.99 USD. For more information, visit the official website.