For his entire life, Luca Galante wanted to work in game development.
This fascination started early, long before he began work on 2021 smash hit Vampire Survivors; the first line of code he wrote was some HTML to cheat in a PlayStation game. But learning more about game development was not easy growing up.
“I had very limited resources,” he says. “At the time there weren’t any books about programming in the library in Italy. I didn’t have internet until the last two years of high school.”
Nevertheless, he persevered and chose this as his career path, scoring a certification from the Italian Academy of Video Games in 2010. That same year he moved to London in the UK to pursue a career in the industry.
Initially, by his own admission, the budding developer’s hunt for work in the industry was held back by his English abilities.
“I found that it was fine for me to speak English, but I just couldn’t understand recruiters on the phone,” he says. “They would ask me things like my date of birth, and I’d reply with my address or something like that. It definitely wasn't easy to get a job in the industry.”
So he ended up working in McDonald's. But the urge to make video games had not disappeared, it became something that dominated his spare time.
“Nothing I did on the side really took off,” he says. “I always tried to make things either too complicated, or I was trying to make things that I didn't really like much. I just thought that the code would be successful, basically. That was mostly mobile games.”
He continues: “It was definitely a bit of just trying to make something that already exists. A lot of those prototypes were just to test ideas. I like JRPGs, for example, but only like the combat aspect of them. So most of my prototypes were about just combat prototypes for the JRPGs.”
In the end, Galante became sick of working at McDonald's and landed a job in the gambling industry. During this time he started to learn how to use additional games engines, hoping to score a role in video games using this tech. Seeing how much developers using engines were paid, however, put him off. So around the start of 2021, he went back to an HTML5 game framework called Phaser.
“Around that time a game called Magic Survivor caught my attention. It’s a single-stick shooter on Android, so I went for that kind of gameplay and then I started to throw in all of the ideas I had from other games. I have had this idea of having a game where you can cast spells which you can improve very simply – so making them bigger, having them shoot more projectiles, go faster and so on.
“By this point, I had several RPG prototypes with a combat system in place. This time, I just took the simplest possible gameplay I could think of, which is the single stick shooter, and tried to apply this system on top of just powering up your spells. It wasn't planned at all, it was all organic.”
At around this point – when he had created something that he really liked – Galante would normally move on to something else (“That's usually the point where I stop because it's scratched an itch,” he laughs). But he didn’t move on thanks to one simple thing.
“I took an asset pack that I’ve used often for various prototypes,” Galante explains. “It’s inspired by Castlevania, and after putting the graphics of this asset pack into the game, I just fell in love with it. I really loved the visuals and felt like continuing. And that's it. It had been my weekend project, the thing I would spend my spare time or the weekend for several months until finally got published.”
Thus Vampire Survivors was born. Galante initially released the game onto Android, though this version was plagued with performance problems due to the engine not really being made for mobile devices. Following that, he launched the title on indie PC games platform Itch.io in March 2021 before eventually releasing Vampire Survivors onto Steam Early Access months later in December.
Part of the draw of Early Access was a desire to manage a community. When he was younger, Galante was part of an Ultima Online community and enjoyed the experience of modding the MMO. This was something he wanted to recreate with Vampire Survivors.
“I started to think about the community when I put the game on Steam,” he says. “Valve actually asks you why you want to put the game on Early Access and so on. That's when I asked myself why I wanted to do this; what do I need to complete it? And that's when I remembered that I do like to interact with the community, especially when talking about a game that can potentially have so many interactions between the different elements.”
The initial Steam launch was pretty unremarkable. Data site SteamCharts reckons that the game only had 12 concurrent players at its peak for the month and an average simultaneous player count of 4.1.
All of that changed within days of the New Year, however, when a YouTuber decided to give Vampire Survivors a go.
“It was something like January 7th or 8th,” Galante remembers. “I was about to go take down the Christmas tree when some of my friends messaged me telling me to go onto YouTube. SplatterCat had made a video about the game. They were very, very kind in their video and just highlighted all the good parts of the game.
“After I checked out the video, I went to look at the sales; I would say that sales were spiking up. And that's when I understood that something was happening. That's when I understood that I got lucky basically, that this could be a turning point.”
‘A turning point’ is a very modest way of saying that the game had become very, very popular almost overnight. Compared to Vampire Survivors' peak concurrent player count of just 12 in December 2021, January 2022 saw a record of 50,847 simultaneous users. That’s an increase of 261,128.31%, in case you were wondering.
“It was picked up by the gaming community very quickly,” Galante says. “At first, I thought it had peaked after a couple of weeks, but I was wrong. It kept growing, both in terms of sales and popularity on Twitch and so on. It was absolutely unexpected, and I wasn’t sure what to do. Do I get scared by what’s happening or do I just roll up my sleeves and try to get something out of it? And so, of course, I went for the second thing; I just kept working on the game.”
The timing could not have been more perfect either. Galante had actually given up on game development by this point and had returned to working at a gambling company. In fact, when he decided to focus on Vampire Survivors, he had been in this job for less than a week.
“My goal for this year was just to stop trying to get a job in game development,” he says. “I had realised that it just was not for me. I just wanted to have a job as a web developer because it pays well, I wanted to have a good salary, to get a good mortgage, a flat and live a life like anyone else. And then instead Vampire Survivor decided that would not be the case.”
Within six days of SplatterCat’s video about Vampire Survivor, Galante had set up a company called Poncle. This was the fulfilment of a life-long dream.
“I’ve always wanted to make games. I spent all of my spare time making games,” he says. “Every time I took holiday from work, guess what I would be doing? I’d be working on my own game projects. Now that I had gotten lucky and had been given this opportunity, I was going to try and do it.”
Eight months on and Poncle has grown from being just Galante. The company now employs six people, though this hasn’t been a huge change from when Galante was working on Vampire Survivors alone. These new members of staff are often focused on other parts of the game, leaving the title’s creator to get on with further developing Vampire Survivors.
That said, Galante brought in another member of staff in June to help with development, but they are handling additional content that wasn’t originally planned. These are additions that are mostly to give thanks to the people playing the game.
“The community just gives so much, they still play the game and gift it to their friends and I just feel like giving back more, you know?” Galante says. “I just keep trying to put in as much content as I possibly can very fast.”
The main task at hand right now, however, is bringing Vampire Survivors to an engine that is more of an industry standard. The version that’s being played by fans around the world right now is still the one built on HTML5 on Phaser.
“It was made in HTML 5 because that was the tech I was most familiar with,” Galante says. “But as a result, the game is a bit limited in where we can put it. For example, the mobile version was absolutely unplayable. So now most of the developers are working on putting a game on an engine that will allow us to run mobile easily, and eventually on other platforms, too.”
This porting process is something of a challenge, not least due to how different Phaser is from most ‘standard’ games engines within the industry.
“If we started to make a game from scratch in another engine, it would be very easy,” Galante says. “But we're trying to recreate Vampire Survivors one-to-one because I want to give people the same experience that they're having right now. It's actually taking way longer than expected.
“The Phaser framework is fantastic. It is very common for people to underestimate what you can do with HTML5. People tend to snub or dismiss it, but it's a lot of really good stuff. Phaser gives you so many very useful tools for making games that you really don't find in other engines. And it’s turning out to be a pain to convert to a more standard engine, basically.
For the time being, Galante is keeping silent on what engine Poncle is rebuilding Vampire Survivors on. This is mainly because, for whatever reason, a lot of consumers have really strong opinions about game engines.
“The problem is that whatever I go for, people will complain about it,” he says. “So I won't say anything until they can see the final product and then I'll be happy to be judged. I'd rather wait until the final product.”
Porting the game to another engine while the original version is still receiving regular updates is adding to the challenges. Galante is also in a hurry to release a 1.0 edition of Vampire Survivors so that he can focus on the future of Poncle as a studio.
“Every time I add more content to the current version, that content has to be ported to the new port as well,” he says. “I need to start thinking a bit more about the company as a whole. We cannot keep updating this thing forever. At some point, I need to start thinking about this a bit more from a business perspective; how do we actually make money now? We need to think about salaries and that kind of stuff. So yes, I need to wrap it up.”
It’s clear that now he’s had his break, Galante is not letting go of his dream again. Though he’s unable to share any of the specifics, both he and Poncle are in this for the long haul.
“I can't tell you the details because there are still a lot of moving parts,” he says. “I was absolutely not expecting everything that's going on behind the scenes right now. But I can say that you can definitely expect Poncle to do what your average game development company would do. This is not something that ends here.”
And while the number of concurrent players Vampire Survivors is attracting has dropped from its 77,061 peak in February of this year, Galante is still blown away by the number of people playing.
“I'm in a position where even if just 10% of the original playerbase plays, that's still a lot of people,” he says. “That’s still a lot more than I was ever expecting. So seeing the numbers go down honestly doesn't affect me. I just think it's a lot of people playing the game and enjoying the game.”
He concludes: “And so I still have the same drive I had five months ago.”
Barclays (including its employees, Directors and agents) accepts no responsibility and shall have no liability in contract, tort or otherwise to any person in connection with this content or the use of or reliance on any information or data set out in this content unless it expressly agrees otherwise in writing. It does not constitute an offer to sell or buy any security, investment, financial product or service and does not constitute investment, professional, legal or tax advice, or a recommendation with respect to any securities or financial instruments.
The information, statements and opinions contained in this content are of a general nature only and do not take into account your individual circumstances including any laws, policies, procedures or practices you, or your employer or businesses may have or be subject to. Although the statements of fact on this page have been obtained from and are based upon sources that Barclays believes to be reliable, Barclays does not guarantee their accuracy or completeness.