Interview: Motion Twin talks about developing Dead Cells
Motion Twin is a small, French game development company located in Bordeaux, France. From there, the 10-man team has created a multitude of mobile games. But what happens when they shift over into making a game for PC/console?
That result is Dead Cells, a roguelike, Castlevania-inspired, action-platformer. The game combines all of the fun of platformers, without the hassle of trick edges, with the fun of quick and visceral combat in a non-hardware intensive package. While the game is still in Early Access on Steam, Motion Twin plans to release the game on PC, Xbox, Playstation, and Switch.
The devs over at Motion Twin took the time to talk with us in an email interview about their first major step into the PC/console world and what it has taken to come this far. For a more in-depth look at Dead Cells, check out our preview of it here.
GameCrate: Let’s get the obvious question out of the way first. Can you tell us when you plan to release Dead Cells officially?
Motion Twin: We're aiming for Q3/Q4 2018. That’s a vague answer, I’ll give you that. But with the inherent uncertainty of video game development, we would rather announce a definite release date only when we’re sure we won’t miss it.
GC: Steam Early access games have gotten a lot of criticism for over-promising and under-delivering, among other things—What has your experience on Early Access been like so far?
MT: On our side, the feedback from the community has been invaluable and quite positive. The Early Access had a substantial, constructive, impact on the game, there’s no debate there. From the players perspective… Do we under-deliver? I guess you’d have to ask them directly, but based on the press and players’ reviews, we seem to be doing a reasonable job of delivering what we say we will. No matter what happens, we always do our best to deliver and explain why we couldn’t if something stops us.
GC: Anything you’d change about Steam’s Early Access process?
MT: Not the process itself, but the communication tools we have for interacting with the community on Steam could use some love. We would rather keep the discussion in the Steam environment, but if we do it again, we may consider taking the time to build a decent forum with upvote/downvote mechanics for bugs and suggestions to allow us to reduce the “noise” and identify the priorities faster.
GC: How dependent have you been on the early access users to give you feedback about balance and gameplay issues? Or even suggestions that have made the game better?
MT: We don’t feel dependent on them, in the sense that we’ve always known what we wanted to build. However, when you receive heaps and heaps of feedback and become aware of all the balancing and design issues that the community finds and shares… then you realize that you’re indebted to them for the many improvements we’ve made based on that feedback. It’s more a question of creating a mutually beneficial partnership, we realize our vision, they point out where it’s falling flat, everyone wins.
GC: What are the inspirations for Dead Cells? I’ve seen that the Lead Designer Sébastian Bénard said that Left 4 Dead and Faster Than Light were inspirations for the level design, but what about gameplay/combat, art design, and creature design?
MT: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is the primary inspiration for the game, I mean you just have to look at it to see that, but there are of course a stack of others. On the gameplay side, I know this has become a cliché by now, but we were really swayed by the Dark Souls series, especially some of the earlier versions of the game, when there was more focus on observation and taking your time. We gradually shifted toward a fast-paced game but kept the i-frames on the roll, the rally mechanic and the punishing enemy difficulty, as well, it feels great.
On the art side, Mark of Wolves for its slick animations with surprisingly few frames, while the use of 3D in a 2D game was a process we found in Blazblue and Guilty Gear Xrd. No Man’s Sky was also an inspiration regarding the vibrant color palettes.
GC: About the level design—How hard was it to find that balance between procedurally generated and fixed assets?
MT: It’s definitely an intricate process. Since going full procedural didn’t work out, we then tried various formulas before finally settling on the current mix of about 50/50. Basically you want to build something that feels familiar with each run, yet is obviously different. You can’t design the familiarity with full random, so you have to temper it with a good dose of hand designed rooms and levels.
GC: Things like the upgrade scrolls have gone through a couple changes so far. How have you approached balancing the game with things like that, or even the newly added foundry?
MT: Lots and lots of spreadsheets! And, well, at the risk of sounding like a broken record… community feedback. Basically we design something, implement and release it through the alpha branch to the hardcore players to see what they think. This usually allows us to see very quickly if we’ve got any glaring oversights in there, then we balance based on the stats from players and their feedback on the forums.
GC: This is Motion Twins first venture into the PC/console world. What are some major differences you’ve had to deal with in developing for PC/console instead of mobile?
MT: Rediscovering a sense of purpose and happiness we had lost a long time ago? I joke, I joke… But the type of F2P games we were making when the internet was really democratizing gaming have transformed into something else. Now you need an analytics and acquisition team that’s bigger than your creative team to get past in that world. So the big challenge was letting go of our old habits and learning to make games based on those subjective qualities, making “good” games.
GC: What about the challenges of developing for PC, Xbox, Playstation, and Nintendo at the same time?
MT: It’s a manpower issue before anything else. We didn’t have the bandwidth to handle it without slowing the development of the game, so we hired and now we’re good to go.
GC: Nintendo has been notorious in the past for being hard to work with if you’re a 3rd party developer. What’s your experience been like?
MT: Can’t complain! Interestingly, with Sony progressively backing out of the indie scene, we were expecting to witness Microsoft coming back as the major console partner for indies, XBLA style. They have been trying, but instead Nintendo have really taken the open position through a very indie friendly policy and hardware which is just as easy to work with.
GC: Now, Nintendo users have often been described as more casual than those who would play games like Dark Souls. Do you think the style of gameplay that Dead Cells delivers might deter some of the Nintendo player base?
MT: Probably. Challenging games can feel frustrating, and that may deter some players, no matter the platform. But on the other hand, the handheld nature of Nintendo’s new system seems tailored to the “short run” nature of the roguelite, so we hope it will balance out if there is anything to compensate for.
GC: The randomness of weapons plays a big factor in the game. What would you say to people who would prefer to simply reset until they get a weapon combination they like at the beginning?
MT: From our perspective, that seems like a big loss of time. The weapons you find at the beginning will quickly become obsolete. We think making do with what you get and trying new things are part of the charm of Dead Cells, so we try to incite players to experiment through the random weapons perks. But if they prefer to reroll until they get the “right” combination and that’s how they get their kicks, then that’s fine with us too.
GC: Speaking of weapons—how many total weapons are there in the game? How many skills?
MT: Around 60 weapons (including shields) and 30 skills.
GC: Does the dev team have any favorite combinations they use?
MT: Frantic sword/Ice bow is quite popular currently, but apart from that we all have different tastes. Some swear only by shields while other are turret lovers… of course they’re all wrong: everyone knows that nothing beats a trap and a good bow.
GC: If the team could offer advice to new players what would it be?
MT: Roll, roll, roll, and then roll some more.
GC: What do you guys think of similar games like Hollow Knight?
MT: Similar games? They can expect a letter from our lawyer as soon as they release… Just kidding. We don’t have a lawyer.
Hollow Knight is a great game which took another approach to its combat system, offering huge amounts of content, and fully handcrafted level design. And that’s without even mentioning its beautiful art style. In the end it’s definitely a different experience.
I think, apart from a strict copycat of Dead Cells, there will always be some differences between two games… And having more alternatives to choose from can only be a good thing.
GC: Once Dead Cells is released do you plan to continue to add content to the game?
MT: We already committed to offer a first free DLC to every owner of Dead Cells in the months following its release. It’s pretty much as far as we’re able think.
GC: What comes after Dead Cells?
MT: See our last answer! More games, bigger games, better games… But mostly just games.
You can check out Dead Cells on Steam Early Access for $19.99. To learn more about the game, visit the website at https://dead-cells.com/. To see Motion Twin’s other games visit http://motion-twin.com/en/.