Video games development is all about iteration and for one good idea there will be hundreds of scrapped prototypes and failed projects. Dead Cells is no exception to the rule: before becoming the critically-acclaimed roguelike-meets-metroidvania title we know, it started life as a multiplayer tower defense game.
“It started something like three or four years ago,” lead developer and game designer Sébastien Bénard starts explaining. “At this time, Motion Twin was still making mostly web games and a few mobile titles but we wanted to make some kind of spiritual sequel to an older game that we made called Hordes [also known as Die2Nite]. It started as a free-to-play kind of game, a tower defense, something different. It reached the prototype phase so we did have an alpha version that we showed to people and it didn’t go well, because it really wasn’t fun, like really not,” he laughs.
“At this point we decided it was maybe a good idea to cancel it but we made a single-player prototype to show at events like Gamescom. A friend of mine told us: ‘Maybe you should keep the single-player prototype because it’s actually more fun than the multiplayer thing’. And at first it was really just a joke but at one point we were like: ‘Wait, maybe he’s right, maybe it would actually be a good idea to cut everything’. And so that’s what we did! We removed a lot of elements from this old side-scrolling tower defense, including multiplayer, mobile and free-to-play elements and it led to this Castlevania kind of game that we made.”
Motion Twin has 17 years of experience in developing browser and mobile games, but Dead Cells is its first game of this scale, aimed at PC and console players.
“It’s totally different because when you make a free-to-play game you really think about the lifetime of the game. When you make a PC game it’s more about, of course the quality, but just making good gameplay rather than a lengthy game or the tools to make people pay. But because we had also this kind of experience, it made things a little bit easier when we made the roguelike part. Because we wanted to have a game that hooks you, we did use this experience to make the gameplay of Dead Cells. It was a really different thing but it wasn’t that difficult, it was more like relieving for us because we actually brought everything that didn’t work so it was a good process.”
But despite the experience of the team, marrying two genres as complex as roguelike and metroidvania is still not an easy task, with the former requiring procedurally generated levels and the latter a known environment in which you can evolve bit by bit.
“The biggest challenge was really related to level design,” Bénard says. “You know when you make a metroidvania, you have to spend a decent amount of time making sure that the level design is built on this idea that you will progress. You will see things that you can’t use at the beginning but you will progress and you will come back. Especially this idea of backtracking, coming back to places that you already know.
“But because we wanted to have a procedural world, we knew it would be pointless to actually have a place that you remember as impossible to cross. So that was really the most difficult part for us: to make sure that you actually have a world which is different every time you explore it but still have a good view on what you could do, what you can’t do and, when you get a new ability, where you should go to use it.”
One of the ways Motion Twin solved that was by adding Runes, permanent upgrades that let you access a type of path initially blocked. That hole in the ground you saw in your previous run? You can now use it to grow a vine and access a new location. And there are of course weapons and items you unlock with each run, in typical roguelike fashion. Actually Dead Cells was often compared to The Binding of Isaac. Edmund McMillen’s hit was indeed a source of inspiration but not exactly for the reasons we thought.
“The Binding of Isaac was a good reference but for its flaws as well,” Bénard says. “It’s really a roguelike where you have tons of different items. But the thing is, because of that, when you start a new game in The Binding of Isaac you have a very low chance to have a good run because you have so many different items and most of them are not that powerful. That’s something we wanted to avoid as much as possible, to make sure that when you play, most runs should be viable.”
As a result, Motion Twin decided to include “not necessarily fewer, but more impactful items” so every run can be played differently, but with the same odds of making it to the end. However, ‘making it to the end’ is obviously not that easy in Dead Cells, with death literally being at every corner. Which leads us to the next inspiration for the game – yes, you’ve probably guessed it by now.
“As a joke, we wanted to put a jar in the meeting room so every time someone said ‘Dark Souls’ you should put £2 in it,” Bénard laughs. “Dark Souls was kind of an obvious reference for us, mostly because of its difficulty – and its fair difficulty. It not just about making a difficult game it’s about making a fair difficult game so Dark Souls was a good example. But also Risk of Rain which was a very good platformer roguelike because it’s a very simple one but it has lots of very clever ideas. And Diablo III also because of how they polished everything and all the changes from Diablo II to Diablo III, and how well they did that.”
THE COMMUNITY WHISPERER
Motion Twin chose Steam Early Access for Dead Cells back in May 2017, before a full release on both PC and consoles in August this year. But the studio was keen to avoid the oh-so-common trope of Early Access: leaving the game there for years in a semi-developed state.
“We announced to players that we wanted to go into Early Access for only one year and we actually took six extra months because of the console port but we really wanted to make sure that, because we announced one year, it would be one year,” Bénard says. “So we had to push a few things out of the game. We wanted to have an alternative ending so that’s something we decided to keep for the free DLC that will probably be released at the beginning of next year. But still we wanted to make sure that the release version would feel complete, as much as possible.”
Dead Cells evolved quite a lot during its time in Early Access, with the ability to forge stats on weapons having been abandoned for instance. Players feedback was hugely important in the making of the game.
“At the beginning of the Early Access we thought it would be just adding content and balancing a few things but we didn’t plan to change everything. But actually after the first month in Early Access, we had so much interesting feedback from the community. They actually really understood what the game was all about. So we decided to change tons of important things, especially how you build your character in the game, how you evolve and the structure of the world.”
Something that also evolved drastically over the course of development, before Early Access, is the design of the main character, only known as the Prisoner and that has a mass of cells for a head.
“Some of it was an accidental kind of process because we didn’t have a very clear plan for the character. So that’s something that we decided in a very iterative process. At the beginning, the character used to have a head but that’s something that we changed,” Bénard explains, adding that the team felt that the design didn’t stand out enough. “It led to tons of interesting things. Because the character has no head, he can’t talk and because he can’t talk he has a lot of very interesting animations and things to do. It still feels like he has a strong character, even if he can’t speak. So that’s something that wasn’t clearly decided at the beginning but it progressively appeared in the game.”
MAKE ANOTHER ONE
To create Dead Cells, Motion Twin used the language Haxe and Heaps as a framework.
“Haxe is a custom language that we created years ago,” Bénard explains, which allowed the team to be in known territory and made everyone’s life easier to some respects.
“At first, this language was made to create cross-platform games. Because we are still making web games and mobile, we wanted to have a language that was able to make something for Flash or Apple or Android or any other platform we wanted. And when we decided to make Dead Cells as a metroidvania single-player game, we decided to stick to this engine because we knew at its core it was made to work on any platform. So it was Steam at first but also for consoles, so we could make a port quite easily. For example, for the Xbox version or the Switch, it took us maybe one month or two to make the basic port, so it was quite fast.”
There were still a few challenges, with the hybrid nature of the Switch bringing the main one he explains.
“From a technical aspect it was not that complicated because every console nowadays has pretty classic architecture. The most important challenge, especially for the Switch, was the [small] screen size or that maybe the screen is 3m away from you. So for the UI we did have tons of things to adjust to make sure that it was always legible and you can see all the details and everything at any distance. That was the most complicated part for us.”
Soon after launch, Motion Twin revealed Dead Cells was selling four times faster on Switch than it was on PS4. So it sounds like the team nailed the few port challenges they had. With DLC and updates announced, including a greater focus on the speedrunning community, Dead Cells has golden days ahead. But Motion Twin doesn’t want to rely on this success too much.
“We want to work on Dead Cells a little bit more because we still have ideas we didn’t have time to put in but, probably at the beginning of next year, we’ll start working on our next project. But we have plans for extra content so we may, from time to time, push an extra free DLC, a balance patch or things like that. So I can’t say for sure how long it will last but we want to make sure…,” he pauses, before adding they’ll keep working on it “until the game is complete.
“Because we are an old company, we did have lots of different titles before and we know for sure that sticking to one game, one success, is not a good idea. So when you make a good game, the best thing to do is just to make another one,” Bénard smiles.