Over three million gamers can't be wrong! We talk to Motion Twin's Steve Filby about the phenomenon that is Dead Cells.
I think it’s fair to say that Dead Cells was a quantum leap forward for Motion Twin’s previous games. Can you tell us about the genesis of the game?
Yeah, Dead Cells is a far cry from the web and mobile free to play (F2P) games that we used to make. It's quite a long story, so to save my fingers I'll sum it up as quickly as possible.
The game started out as the spiritual successor to our game Hordes/Die2Nite. The original was an almost entirely text-based online F2P game where 40 people interacted in real-time to organize the defense of a town against a nightly (at midnight real-time) attack of zombies. The idea was to survive as long as possible as a team, but eventually to be the last man standing and win. So basically Dead Cells started out as a souped-up action version of Hordes, where you and a bunch of other players would defend a level against wave after wave of attacking zombies, cooperate, but compete to win...
However, as we iterated over the game we realized it wasn't really fun and the only parts that were fun were the single-player action-platformer bits... So we hacked it back to the platformer core and started again. From there each iteration forced us to move more and more towards an action platformer that was inspired by games that we all played, so you end up with Dark Souls influences, Binding of Issac and Rogue Legacy, Diablo 3, Momodora: RUML, basically the mash-up of genres that you have today. We ended up making the game that we all wanted to play at the time.
When I visit the Motion Twin website the first message I see is “No Boss” – how does that work?
You like long stories, huh?... Basically, Motion Twin started as a group of friends making games, there was no mystical American founder or rugged entrepreneur type bringing everyone together... They just wanted to continue to work as they always had, with equals interacting and winning their colleagues over with the strength of their arguments. So they found a way to formalize that, which is a workers’ cooperative model that exists here in France (and in most parts of the world to be honest). From there they all decided on the rules, formalized them in a constitution, and away they went with a shiny new legal structure that ensured that there would never be a boss and that everyone would always have an equal say and equal pay. We haven't changed the rules much since then, even if most of the original people have moved on to new adventures with their lives.
When I started playing Dead Cells there was just the Motion Twin logo on startup, now there’s Evil Empire too – who are these guys?
Evil Empire is a new, completely separate (and not a workers’ cooperative) studio that was started by some ex-Motion Twin people and a few others. We didn't want to work on Dead Cells anymore, but those guys did, so we agreed that they would break off, start a new team and continue to take care of Dead Cells for us while we work on our next game. They work in the same office as us (well not right now with COVID and all that) and we've still got the ultimate veto right on anything they do, but mostly we just let them put their crazy ideas in the game and only intervene if they get out there.
On a personal note, Dead Cells, is one of my all-time favorite video games. Even now, over two years since launch, I still play it on an almost daily basis. What do you put the game’s appeal down to?
The ridiculous amount of time we spent making the movement and combat feels good and the core loop of dying, but progressing a little bit each time. It's perverse, but it works! ^^
For a newbie, can you sum up the lore behind the game – who is the Prisoner, and what’s his deal?
Spoiler alert: Don't read this if you don't want the story to be ruined.
To be fair the story is more lore that is pieced together as you progress in the game, because we're not good at stories and because we focused on the gameplay rather than the story, so often we deformed the story to fit a mechanic we liked. Anyway... Long story short:
You play a green blob who has no idea who he is and why he's stuck eternally repeating the same exploration through an ever-changing castle every time he dies. Eventually, you realize that you are the King who was transformed somehow into a homunculus. You learn that there is a disease that infected everyone on the island, that some mysterious Time Keeper lady started a time loop to try and help the alchemist find a cure, but you kill him because you're not a very good king. Voila.
Rogue-like or rogue-lite – what’s the difference?
Rogue-like means procedurally generated dungeon crawling (usually in ASCI or simple tile-based graphics) with turn-based combat and irrevocable permanent (lose everything) death. Rogue-lites are a watered-down version of that gameplay, usually mixed with another genre to create a new die and retry type of game in a previously existing genre. For example, we made a Metroidvania Rogue-lite, or the "rogueVania" tadaaaa!
The bosses are very varied, can you share some background lore on them? In particular, Conjunctivitis – I hate that SOB!
Yeah, the bosses were made by different people with different ideas. So they are quite varied. Conjunctivitis was made by the same guy who made the Concierge and I think he wanted to try something different and move away from a more pattern-based "standard mob" style to bring in some more bullet hell aspects. His name is Matthieu Pistol and he's incredibly good at video games and something of a sadist...
Hats off to the monster design the enemies are iconic. How do you come up with the ideas and make it all balance so well?
Everyone contributes to monster ideas and Thomas the original artist is a madman. From there it's balancing with the community that really helps us make the game so polished.
New biomes added through DLC and updates certainly offer additional challenges but ultimately, they are just another route through to The Hand of the King and on to the Observatory. Are there plans to extend the endgame?
No comment because if we told you we'd have to kill you.
Up against the likes of Destiny 2, COD Black Ops4, and Far Cry 5 at the 2018 Game Awards, Dead Cells won the “Best Action Game”! How was that?
Nuts. I was in Japan at the time eating ramen in some little mountain town watching the guys get the award live on Twitch. Spat a mouthful of soup all over the table and generally made an ass of myself. We were all pretty stunned as we had no idea that it was even possible. Mega stoked.
Ross in our office has beaten the game and now has five boss cells, check out the video! Can you beat that?
No. Ross has superhuman reflexes. He can be our new streaming partner if he wants. ><
I'm sure you'd all like to join me in saying a big "thank you" to all of the Motion Twin team who have bought us this outstanding game. You guys rock!