Dead Cells And Beyond – An Interview With Steve Filby

Dead Cells is probably one of the first games that springs to mind when you think of successful indie titles in recent year. The notoriously difficult 2018 release from Motion Twin scooped Best Action Game at The Game Awards 2018, and it’s only going up from there.

At the Yorkshire Games Festival 2019 GameByte had the chance to sit down with Steve Filby, Motion Twin’s Media Marketing manager to talk all things game development.

Dead Cells is almost always compared to games including Castlevania and Dark Souls, but as the game continues to grow in popularity, you’d think it would get pretty tiring to have your game compared to others…right?

“In some ways yes, and in other ways no,” says Filby when I ask him this question. “From the ‘yes’ obviously it’s very much not Dark Souls. We put that in the marketing terms to communicate the fact it was difficult. Like, it’s a really hard game because we punish the heck out of you if you [mess] up, and it’s about learning patterns and that kind of thing.

“At the beginning, it was something convenient for us to communicate with. As the game has progressed, it’s changed so much that yeah, it’s not really justified anymore. We’ve had arguments about changing that.

“[With] Castlevania, I feel like that’s something that we’ve used to enhance it, because Castlevania for me, there’s not really a lot of negative baggage attached to that term. People love Castlevania, I love Castlevania and so when I think ‘Oh, a new type of Castlevania game, I’m pretty happy about that.’

“Then I get in and I get my hands on Dead Cells. It’s not Castlevania but it’s not disappointing. I think for most people, they like that. There’s a small percentage of people who’re going to say ‘Well it’s not actually Castlevania.’ You know, it’s a rogue-lite game, but there’s not too many of them so I guess that’s a good thing [laughs].”

Dead Cells was incredibly popular even before its win at The Game Awards last year, but having an award like that under your belt is something you can take to the bank. Over the last few years there’s been more and more of a spotlight on indie games, with titles like Celeste taking home the award for Best Indie Game 2018. So how do events like this change the indie market?

“Quite a lot of indie games were announced during the awards, so I think it’s also the positioning of some of these games,” Filby commented. “Dead Cells now has almost sold two million copies and so it’s quite a decent license as an IP.

“I think we’re seeing a rise of a group of indies who are sort of sitting at the top, like the professional indie developers. Super Giant, for example, these guys have been putting out games, and for this crowd I think we’ve now got access to things like The Game Awards that we wouldn’t generally have been included in before.

“It might be a double-edged sword for the smaller people who aren’t going to be available for something like that. We’ve noticed for example that [some indie awards] aren’t accepting our type of games much anymore. They’re more focusing on the [smaller] indies.

“It’s more of a rebalancing of where we fit into the industry, games on our kind of scale, and where the true indies, as in the guys who’ve just finished high school and are working in their mum’s basement or something [fit in].

“I think there’s definitely some shuffling going on right now, but I think it can only bring more peoples’ attention to the pixel art games or games that have a ‘typically indie’ visual style, and maybe overcome some stigma. When [we won] at The Game Awards it was like ‘Alright, we’re right next to God Of War and Spider-Man, so yeah. We’re doing alright.'”

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It’s not just an exciting time for indies because of the titles themselves, but also because of the new ways to access them. The Nintendo Switch has created a whole new platform for indie games that are perfect for a handheld device and its impact in the indie community can be seen everywhere. So why are these games so popular on the Nintendo console?

“The AAA guys I think had to take their time to port their game[s] correctly to take advantage of the hardware, whereas with our games we don’t really have to do much to get them to run. Dead Cells, in the porting process – from the moment we got the dev kits we started working on it – to our first launch exhibition, took us probably like 3 or 4 months. It was super easy.

“That low barrier to entry is incredible for indies, I mean we’ve seen the influx on there, and obviously it’s a new platform so it’s that paradise for the first people who get in there. For us, it just smashed it.

“When you compare the amount of time that we’ve been on the Switch, on a day-by-day basis we’re selling more on the Switch than we are on PC, [when] comparing the launches. PC is still the biggest market, but the Switch is catching up.

“For us it’s been a new way to reach more people…I just recently ran through Hollow Knight on the Switch after I’d already played it on PC. This time I finished it because there’s something so intimate and cozy about it. You can go to the toilet with it, you can curl up in your bed and play. You can be anywhere you want and there’s no need to sit down and have a play session. That creates a link that’s a lot stronger and a lot more like the way we remember playing the GameBoy or the Super Nintendo when we were little kids.”

If there’s one problem with the Nintendo Switch it’s the difficult-to-navigate eShop. The eShop is now completely oversaturated with indie games, and if you don’t know what you’re looking for, it can be hard to find some new gems that deserve to be discovered. It’s a problem that’s not just confined to the Switch, and with more and more game developers successfully getting their games released, what’s going to happen next?

“The biggest problem we have at the moment is discoverability, that’s a big issue with Steam algorithms and everything. Indies have been getting hammered recently from some of the changes they’ve made,” says Filby. “But we’re now seeing other points of sale like the Epic Store. There’s a whole bunch of other stuff happening behind the scenes that’s in the works, it means that really we’re in a situation now where we’re going to have some kind of fragmentation of content between all these stores and that’s only going to be good news for indies because it’s going to give us more opportunities to play against each other and get better deals.”

Game developers are evolving with the times, with people starting to create their games at a younger age than ever before. Although exciting, it’s pretty intimidating to think of all the games we’re going to get bombarded with in the coming years. Is this a concern for developers right now?

“At the end of the day, as soon as you have a bunch of people all wanting to do the same thing you’re going to create a hierarchy of people who are better and worse,” Filby tells me. “At the moment we have a situation where anybody can get a Unity license, get an Unreal license, start development for free, learn over the internet how to make a game, and release that game.

“The barriers for entry are actually quite low, so from that side of things it’s not so much of a problem. The problem is in getting to the next step, of going from ‘okay I know how to make a game’ to ‘okay now I need to learn how to make a game as a professional.’ That means thinking about the marketing of the game, thinking about whether or not even thinking about making the game was a good idea in the first place, whether anyone’s going to want to play your paint-drying game or whatever it is you’ve made. That is a different challenge.

“I think that’s something that we see a lot of indies struggle with because there’s a change in the way you approach developing video games. It’s no longer just about the art, it’s also about the business. So then there’s tension created between [the two]. There’s more competition, it’s tougher, but the barriers to entry remain low.”

Copyright: Motion Twin

Dead Cells relied a lot on its community during its early days, seeking feedback from its players to find out how to make the game a smoother and better experience for everyone. When the game came out of Steam Early Access, it already had a big following of people who really felt they’d contributed to the experience. Is this something more developers should seek to do?

“I think community [input] is again a double-edged sword. I think it depends on what you’re building. if you’re building a heavily narrative-driven linear game then maybe that’s something that you don’t need or want. In fact, maybe you’re obliged to keep all that secret so you don’t spoil it and there’s actually some surprise factor when you get there.

“Having said that, for us building a rogue-lite game [was] notoriously difficult to balance and to come out with something that’s fun and not completely [overpowered]…We can sit and stare as Excel sheets all day and still not figure it out. Whereas if we just give it to the players and watch what they do and what they complain about and then fix it, it’s a win-win for us.

“They get to try out a new game, feel like they’re contributing to it and they actually are. We get to get free feedback and then build something that is not exactly what we thought it was going to be. It’s a discovery process for us.”

So what’s next for Dead Cells and Motion Twin?

“[Dead Cells] is still expensive in comparison to other indie games, but the idea and the promise since the beginning is that we released half the game, and then we finished the game and now we’re in the process of adding more.

“In a couple of months there’s going to be a big DLC coming out, there’s going to be more and continuous free content coming to keep people interested, keep people coming back, so that way players get to continue to experience a game they love and we get to continue keeping the base sales of the game ticking along as these players talk to their friends about it.

“There are huge benefits from it, but it depends on the type of game you’re planning on making. I don’t know what the limit it going to be. I think there’s still a place for solo narrative-driven adventure games and I hope people keep making and keep buying them. We’ll see how we go.”

A big thanks to Steve Filby for speaking to us. Check out everything he’s up to over on Twitter right here.

GameByte was the official media partner of Yorkshire Games Festival.