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Balatro Dev Has Version of Game on His Phone and Is Considering Ruining Our Lives With Future Mobile Release

LocalThunk is the developer of the hit roguelike deckbuilder, Balatro, and therefore holds the power to single-handedly destroy our productivity with a mobile release of his incredibly fun and addictive game. He’s not promising it’ll ever see the light of day, but he has a version of the game on his phone and is simultaneously working on it and considering a release — with the caveat that nothing is imminent.

Balatro released on PC February 20, 2024 to critical acclaim and has already become one of the breakout hits of 2024, selling over 250,000 copies in its first week. LocalThunk took some time to chat with Minus World about the reception to the game, some of the other games that influenced the development of Balatro, and using something familiar like playing cards as the foundation to create something new.

MW: How are you feeling after a little over a week of Balatro being available to the public?

LocalThunk: Pretty good. I was anticipating basically all of February and the first half of March to be “go go go.” Fixing bugs and balance changes and stuff, but luckily launch went off a lot smoother than I was fearing. Not that I wasn’t confident in the game.

MW: Did you have any suspicion or inkling that it would come out and be this huge hit, and how long did you work on Balatro before release?

LocalThunk: I’ve been working on it for over two years now. And to answer your question, I wasn’t anticipating any of this. I don’t think any of us were. At really no point in this process did I really know what the true size of the audience was going to be. Even when it first went public it garnered a lot more interest than I was ever anticipating. So this was even more overwhelming when it was released.

MW : I bet. Because you’ve said that this game that you made for yourself, not really thinking how the rest of the world might interpret it. How did you play-test the game? It sounds like you had this community of people that helped you as you were going, gave you feedback, and you used that to inform tweaks and things that you needed to make.

LocalThunk: There were basically three different phases of quote unquote “play tests.” The very first one I released the whole game on Steam to have a beta play test feature where people can sign up for a big queue, and then you can allow a number of people from there into the game. So I think I had 300 people beta testing the full version of the game in June or July and I got a ton of great feedback, made a bunch of huge sweeping changes to the different systems in the game, and then queue to play ended up being 30,000 people long in July.

MW: Wasn’t it also in a Steam Next Fest?

LocalThunk: Yeah, it was an official entrant of the February Next Fest earlier this month.

MW: Did you compose the music?

LocalThunk: No, the music is created by a musician I hired from Spain. His name is Luis Clemente.

MW: Is it just one track that loops?

LocalThunk: That part is made by me. I hired him to create one song, and I asked him to give me all the different tracks. So there’s multiple synths and basslines and drums and stuff. And then I took all of those and I remixed them into five different tracks. So they all have the exact same length and structure. And as you go through different states in the game it gradually transitions from one song to the other so it’s very seamless.

MW: I read your PC Gamer interview, and I was wondering if you’ve heard back from Microsoft yet about making it a solitaire replacement. Do we need to get Phil Spencer on the phone to make that happen?

LocalThunk: I Tweeted about it, I said, “Day one of me asking to make windows ship this as the new card game.”

MW: Are there any cards or modifiers in the game that have not been discovered yet?

LocalThunk: No, everything’s been discovered at this point.

MW: I was sure that if I bought the blank voucher enough times it would eventually do something. But then I heard you say it doesn’t actually do anything, or does it?

LocalThunk: I don’t think I said that it does nothing. I think I might have said “does nothing?” with a question mark.

MW: Oh, okay, so if you buy it enough time something might happen?

LocalThunk: Yeah. This game has got a kind of collectathon vibe to it as well, like a Pokedex almost. And so in the collection really it’s like a collection thing where you look in the collection and at that part you can see there is another step up from the blank voucher.

MW: Yeah, 150 Jokers, right? And how many tarot cards?

LocalThunk: Yeah 150, 22 Tarot and then 12 Planet cards and I can’t remember how many Spectrals, 18 Maybe.

MW: Those spectral ones I have such a difficult time with because it seems like there’s always a give and take right? And that’s one of the things that I think works so well is that you’re not actually gambling right? But you are gambling because you’re hoping whatever plays you’re making will yield dividends in the long run and make the numbers go higher?

LocalThunk: It’s a risk reward high cost high benefit type mechanic. So that was the intent behind it. And that was also intentional because I had these Tarot cards and these Planet cards and they’re all defined sets. So I wanted to create a third set where I could just kind of infinitely keep adding to it. So I could add another 10 Spectral cards if I wanted to and it wouldn’t mess up the thematic set because I’ve just created it out of nothing. So there’s nothing it needs to draw from.

MW: And what inspired the use of Tarot cards? Because we’re using a 52 card playing deck and all of those cards can be modified and you can make them gold or glass, holographic, foil, and there’s all these other modifiers. But I’ve been curious specifically whether you just needed another type of card to modify stuff or was there a specific reason that you took Tarot cards and made them a part of it?

LocalThunk: I don’t know how many cards there are, like 250. There’s a lot, so having a preordained set of cards that people are already familiar with is just a really good thing to leverage. It’s familiar.

MW: Yeah, yeah that makes total sense. You’re breaking all of these rules, but people are using something that is familiar to them.

LocalThunk: Yeah. There’s a lot of thematic parts in this game that I think maybe sometimes people confuse with having mechanical implications. The whole idea that it’s like “the poker roguelike.” Thematically it’s poker but it really has nothing to do with poker. There’s things that look like poker in it and verbs and nouns and stuff that are related to poker. Same thing with the Tarots. Thematically it adds depth. It’s not mechanically anything to do with Tarot cards.

MW: I’ve seen some people call it a deconstruction of Poker. Would you say that’s an accurate description?

LocalThunk: l didn’t start with poker. So I wouldn’t say it’s a deconstruction of it.

MW: You mentioned Big Two.

LocalThunk: It was Big Two. It’s a shedding game where you’re trying to get rid of cards in your hand. That’s much more similar to Balatro, and you’re not playing against other players. All of the strategy and thought in poker comes down to playing your opponents and this has none of that. So really poker is a coat of paint on top of a roguelike that I wanted to create. It’s not what I started with, and I branched out from there. It was more like a very convenient theme I could put on this thing to help people understand, and help people how to get past that first initial impression and into the game.

MW: What is it about games where the number goes up that makes them so appealing was something that you had in mind when you were? Was that in your mind when concocting the idea for Balatro

LocalThunk: So the idea came from I was inspired by Luck Be A Landlord partially. I was watching YouTube videos of it at the time, and the part that I really enjoyed about it is that you’re not facing off against fantasy enemies or anything like that. It’s just a single number representing your level, basically like how you’re doing. So I appreciated that part of it. So I was able to design a game around one number. That number is very meaningful. I know other games do that, but I never played any other games like that. So it’s not anything that I was really deeply attached to, it just happened to work out really well with Balatro

MW: And is this the first game that you’ve ever made?

LocalThunk: It’s the first public game that I’ve ever made, but I’ve made quite a few games.

MW: Okay, because I was doing a little bit of digging online, seeing if there was stuff on Itch, or maybe other websites that you put stuff out on. I was really curious about that. Because I made the assumption that you’ve probably been doing this for a while. Are any of those projects that you would think about releasing now that this has come out and been so successful?

LocalThunk: No, I don’t think I’m ever gonna release any of the other projects. Because they’re for me. But I did spend a lot of time working on those projects. One of them I’ve spent probably more time working on than Balatro. I really love that one, but it’s nice knowing I’m never gonna show it to the world because I don’t need to worry about the polish side of it at all.

MW: What’s coming next for you? Have your plans changed at all given the success as far as additional content or tweaks that you want to make?

LocalThunk: This is what I love doing, making games. I don’t think I’ve ever had a hobby or anything else that scratched this itch. So I know no matter what I will still be writing code in a small room. But specifically with Balatro I’m gonna continue supporting it, DLC plans at some point for sure, more content, balance tweaks, just constantly trying to improve it. I’ve seen a lot of comparisons to Slay The Spire, and I don’t think a lot of that is true. I don’t think this is quite the caliber. What I mean by that is I don’t think it’s quite that caliber of game. I know the amount of depth in that game, and the amount of balancing that went into it, and tweaking. The amount of care that those devs put into it is massive. I feel like I want to do the same thing for Balatro. Because 1.0 is the first time anyone is seeing a whole bunch of this content, and obviously it’s not going to be perfect on the first go.

MW: So how soon will we have this on our phones ruining our lives? Is that in the pipeline?

LocalThunk: I can’t say that is for sure happening at any point in time, but I do have a version of it on my phone right now. So it’s something I’m considering. It’s something I’m working on. Nothing is imminent. If there’s something to share you’ll know.

MW: How much work did you put into making skipping the blinds feel worthwhile? Because it seems like I almost always get something good if I’m willing to take the risk, and I think you had mentioned at one point there was a tag that only triggered 25% of the time. So how much tweaking did you have to do that to make it feel right?

LocalThunk: The tag system wasn’t there when I first released the game and there was a skip system, but no one ever took the skips because there just wasn’t any reason why you would.

MW: Because you won’t get to go to the store. You won’t get to potentially improve your build.

LocalThunk: It was a very common complaint, and I went back into the mines for a week working on “how I can address this problem?” And then I thought about all these different potential rewards and I was very tentative about the idea. I was hesitant about that design idea because I didn’t want to push it too far and then suddenly the optimal strategy is to just not play the game. So right now it’s in a balance where I think the median strategy is to not skip. But there are still times when it is the ideal strategy to skip which means that there is some player agency decision making and strategy with the decision.

MW: What are you playing right now? Are there any indies, or any big games that you’re into currently?

LocalThunk: I know how this sounds, but I don’t really play video games very much. Not because I don’t think that they’re fun or anything, but I have a hard time focusing on a lot of games that come out. Like narrative driven things. I’m really into competitive games more than anything, but the only game I really played apart from Balartro over the last few years is Rocket League. I love Rocket League. I love that game.

MW: Man after my own heart.

LocalThunk: I haven’t been playing it actually since release because there’s been a lot going on.

MW: I can’t imagine that you’ve been too busy. So are you gonna go dark for a while after the cycle of promoting the game is over?

LocalThunk: I’m just gonna keep working on the things that I like. Just writing code and drawing weird Joker cards.

MW: The Joker cards are so good. Do you have any favorites?

LocalThunk: I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up Gros Michele and Cavendish, the bananas. Those have a special place in my heart, those two bananas.

MW: Those are good. If you ever decided to put out physical versions of these Jokers, I would buy them in a heartbeat. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me today.

LocalThunk: Thanks so much.

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