Dead On: A Dead State Interview

By Jim Rossignol on March 19th, 2013 at 9:30 pm.


Since we first glimpsed Dead State back in 2010, it has gone through a successful Kickstarter and is now well on the way down the road to completion. We talked to project lead Brian Mitsoda about the important of writing, the value of Kickstarter, and pinball.

RPS: Hey, Brian! It’s been a while since we talked. How are things going with Dead State?

Mitsoda: Well as always it’s a lot of people working on a lot of different things! As far as the project goes we’re breaking it into three categories: one is the dialogue and writing, which is something I have been doing a lot of work on in the past few months. That’s coming along really well now. Then there’s the combat portion, which is what we’re showing off now. It’s obviously not 100% done, but the basics are there and it’s pretty much everything we promised. It’s got the exploration of Fallout, it’s got the turn-based combat of XCOM, and it’s feeling pretty nice right now. There’s a long way to go, of course, with stuff like getting the AI up to spec, getting every single thing in to every single area of the game, but there’s progress there: we have pieces of our sets built, everything is very modular, so we can just drop down sets of sidewalks or shops. We’ve going to do a bunch of tweaks to combat based on the feedback we’ve had from the team. So that’s progressing well.

Then finally, the third thing, it’s a case of working on the shelter, which is the element which pulls it all together. You’ve got the management there, you’ve got a lot of the scripting in there, day by day triggering conversations, all the allies stuff, launching stuff to the area map. We will be facing that as the next challenge: bringing the combat and dialogue sections together.

RPS: You can almost imagine Dead State as a pure survival game, outside of a dialogue-driven RPG context, so what’s the importance of writing to the game? What sort of challenge does it present to make the writing actually matter?

Mitsoda: Well, it’s challenging. It’s the most challenging game I have worked on in terms of writing. You can’t tell who is going to be dead, or what they’re going to have. You can’t tell which allies they’re going to have, and so on. You have to have dialogue that supports that. We need a character there to present stuff and help you along, and to have dialogue which supports that no matter the situation. There’s the bigger picture of the story, which is “okay, here’s your daily survival stuff” and you tie that in with your morale system, and then you have to judge how characters moods react to that – the food and luxury items they’ve had, for example.

We could have set the game up to have very limited dialogue and still had it be challenging and compelling, but one of the things I wanted to do was to give people real character, to give them believable human personalities, so that they have their flaws, have their moments where you are like “oh okay, that guy isn’t such a bad person,” or maybe “no, they really are an asshole!”

It’s one of those things where there’s a big balancing act, where you have those big enemy factions you are going to go up against on the one hand, and then you have much smaller things which will take up your time, like this character and that character who are squabbling, and you want to diffuse that without pissing either side off. It’s about being a leader, about being a person who is thrown together with people you don’t know but you need to depend on. That’s key for the dialogue I have been writing, so there’s a lot of reactivity, a lot of personal interaction with the characters, and that’s the stuff that is critical. Far more than setting up big enemy factions or epic drama, it’s about struggling to get by with your own crew. That’s why it’s important to the game.

RPS: I noticed in a mail from you a while back your sig referenced Bloodlines, which you worked on as a writer. Is there stuff there that you saw worked and now appears in Dead State?

Mitsoda: As far as Bloodlines go, well… Balancing dramatic conversations with moments of levity. In Bloodlines what we want to get away from was the vamp thing being all gothy and conflicted, and we had some of that, but you also had to have moments of life and comedy. If Dead State were constant depressing conversations about the apocalypse, or constant bickering, it would be a chore! You’d be like “I hate these people!” Having lots of different characters that fill lots of different roles deals with that. One person will have a secret, there’s something intriguing about them and you don’t know what that is, another will be reliable but in some way tied to another character, where they have loyalties to that character too. You bring in a lot of stuff.

Some characters do provide a sense of relief, people do have a sense of humour in the face of life or death horror, and that provides balance. It’s important to get the player to like our characters. It’s one of those things that I think is really important. One of the things in games or shows that are apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic, is that everyone will constantly be dealing with these horrible problems, and I guess I can call out Walking Dead at this point, but whenever I watch this I am like “oh, man, these people are awful. I can’t relate to them at all.”

RPS: Yeah, I think that’s one of the great lessons of writing, isn’t it? Having a sense of humour about something doesn’t mean you aren’t taking something seriously. And vice versa: it’s possible to be very serious about humour. I think the best writers understand that. Without that fiction doesn’t feel human.

Mitsoda: Yeah, it’s like so often enemies are the interesting characters. Partly that because they do terrible things and are free to do so, but because they generally have a broad range from dealing with things on a personal level to dealing with things on an I AM TAKING OVER THE WORLD sort of level. I think another pitfall is that you can take a good joke too far, and sacrifice a character for a good joke, and that doesn’t stay true to the character. You have to be careful.


RPS: So let’s talk a bit more about combat, which is what you’re now showing off. What’s going in there?

Mitsoda: We’re showing off one of the first areas in the game. I hesitate to call it a tutorial, but that’s sort of what it is. It’s one of the places you go to in your first day in the game. It’s the town of Leno, which is very close to Splendid. We have that bit of the town and we’re showing off the player character going through the town, and demonstrating how combat works. The game allows you to explore in real-time, and then if you get into combat it becomes turn-based. We have line of sight, so you don’t see your enemies unless you or enemies have direct line of sight. We think that plays up the horror aspect of the game – because you’re out there exploring and suddenly something jumps out at you.

We’re showing off melee and ranged combat, and also noise: your weapons and actions make noise, so if you make a tonne of noise with a gun you will attract zombies or looters to your position. If you make enough noise you actually spawn zombies to the map. Of course there’s the inventory in there, the combat GUI, the combat and zombie AI. It’s not 100%, of course, but the looters and zombies will find you, no one is getting stuck on walls or anything like that!

Then there’s also some lock picking and bashing down doors and so on in there. You can see our various combat animations, and of course the map itself. Some of that stuff is temp, of course, but I have outlined a bit of what will change in the future. Overall this is a really large update as to where we are on the project. We generally don’t do probably as much publicity as a lot of other companies, but that’s partly because it falls to me, and I am stuck with ten tasks at once, so we wanted to do a major update and get everyone excited about the game again.

RPS: This has been a long haul for you, hasn’t it? Didn’t you start around 2010?

Mitsoda: We started the very basics in 2010, but we did not start picking up momentum until we were getting ready for the Kickstarter. After that we were, of course, able to get people in working on the game full time, so the major progress has been since the Kickstarter ended (in summer of 2012). Now we’re getting daily builds and there’s just a lot of progress. Everyone’s contributing new stuff all the time. All of these various pieces are now going in, and it’s awesome to see. Even though we technically started in 2010, we didn’t hit full production until we were able to fund it. It’s an RPG too, and even with a team of ten people this is a massive beast to make. It’s still a very large game to create, because there is so much to go in, but we’ve been making a lot of progress.

RPS: What did that Kickstarter money mean?

Mitsoda: Well before the Kickstarter people were just volunteering time on it. After it we were able to give everyone some money. We’re not making huge amounts, but we were able to bring on people like artists and fund them. We were able to buy equipment and licences, so it made a world of difference. It’s a tight budget compared to some other RPG projects out there, we don’t have millions of dollars, so it’s a balancing act, but we knew exactly what we were getting in to. We knew what was needed, when we need to bring people in, and so on. That’s all going according to plan, which is great.

The team is me, my lead artist Oscar, my lead programmer Nick, our animator Ivan. Then there’s the additional programmer, Eugene, and several other artists for environmental, GUI, prop, and 2D stuff. We have a new producer, and we’re probably going to bring in a couple of other people at some point. And of course my wife Annie has been contributing to the project. She’s a big reason the design was in the state it was when we started it. Most of the people in this project has been working on this since they were working on it in their free time. They’ve stayed on the game, and that’s great.


RPS: Have you been following events on Kickstarter?

Mitsoda: We do keep an eye on it, of course. We’ve actually backed a couple of pinball projects. I love classic pinball table stuff.

RPS: Interesting! Would you be designing pinball games in another life?

Mitsoda: Haha, no, no! I actually know nothing at all about making a pinball table, but I do like playing classic pinball, a lot. I love the score challenging aspect of that stuff, and it’s extremely relaxing for me. Like golf. Except I hate golf.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

Dead State should arrive in December 2013.

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41 Comments »

  1. Ba5 says:

    I thought this game was Dead. Good to hear it isn’t.

    • Jugglenaut says:

      I also wondered what State the game was in?

      I don’t think we’re doing this right.

      • phuzz says:

        I can’t believe Jim didn’t lead with this as his first question, although the dev’s have probably been asked it by every smart arse journo they’ve ever been interviewed by.

        • Aedrill says:

          I read “I can’t believe” and automatically skipped this comment assuming it’s spam. Look what these bots are doing with us!

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    • bstard says:

      Noo way! I’d preorder that laptop, if only my always-online was working.

      • colossalstrikepackage says:

        Me too. Vern is such a great guy. Always posting on the first thread he sees!

  2. Curundir says:

    It seems well stuffed with stuff.

  3. GunFox says:

    “It’s got the exploration of Fallout, it’s got the turn-based combat of XCOM,”

    Looking at that video, it appears to also have the combat of Fallout, not XCOM.

    Which, while I enjoyed the original XCOM’s a great deal, isn’t necessarily points against Dead State. I look forward to Dead State a great deal.

    • Bhazor says:

      Sadly it seems to suffer the same problem many turn based RPGs suffer. All you do each round is hit enemy with whatever you have equipped. Zombies just look like a piss poor enemy to fight turn based. At least in real time they can build into swarms and overwhelm you.

      Haven’t seen anything in the way of skills, or flanking or even Fallout style targeting. Honestly I’m disappointed in the gameplay footage but maybe their writing will pull it up.

      • HothMonster says:

        From the email that went to backers with the video:
        “-Zombies have a grapple attack that is not featured here. The only attack they have in the video is their basic claw attack. They are a lot more dangerous when they have their full set of bites/takedowns, which are being fine-tuned right now.
        -Weapons have multiple attacks. We’re still working on alt animations and effects, so we didn’t show them off.”

        Not in the email but mentioned elsewhere was player traits and skills/perks.

        Hopefully once all that is in place combat will be a lot more interesting. Cause you are right as shown with just move and attack as options things are not the interesting.

        The other thing the excites and worries me is that NPC companions are not under your control. So you potentially have people freaking out and running away or doing other stupid shit that ruins everything. Now if it’s just my friends getting themselves killed and being stupid that will be horrible, but if the trait system is well done and it feels believable and somewhat predictable (as in I can usually safely assume what someone will do based on their character) it will be a lot of fun.

    • Eddy9000 says:

      But Fallout’s combat *was* turn based, the fellow is clearly confused.

      • The Random One says:

        Yes, but other than that and being about shooting ugly-looking bastards in mostly monochromatic environments there’s very little in common between the two.

    • briangw says:

      Line of sight is the best example of XCom I see in the video.

    • DB_Christina says:

      Hi JkJoker,

      To address your last concern, status ailments and different attack options are in the works for combat. You can find a lot more detail about the plans for the final state of combat on our Dev Answer Compilation thread. Combat & weapon balance is still a work-in-progress since we’re still in the early stages of our game and some features have not yet been implemented, but rest assured there will be plenty of variety and challenge once we reach Beta!

      We’d love to hear more about your thoughts and answer any questions you have in our forums, so please stop by :)

    • geldonyetich says:

      I was going to make the same observation: that gameplay video looked a lot like Fallout 1 or 2, gone full 3D. That’s not a bad thing. Not a bad thing at all.

      Only instead of a post-nuclear apocalyptic RPG, it sounds like it’s going to be a post-zombie apocalyptic tactical combat game centered on survival of zombies in contemporary times. Sure, zombies a little overdone, but why not?

      The X-Com similarity is probably from between missions. The map looked like a prefab combat map, X-Com style. There was talk going on during the video of bringing things back to the safehouse. So that’s probably the X-Com part of the game: instead of scrambling interceptors to launch UFOs and such, you’re managing the logistics of your safehouse.

  4. Fanbuoy says:

    I’m really looking forward to this and it seems to be heading in the right direction! In case anyone from Double Bear is reading this: Will it be possible to avoid fights after combat mode kicks in? If I stumble upon a zombie horde I want to run for it, not fight until the end. By all means, let them chase you (tension is king), but allow for flight.

    • Strangerator says:

      I know there is a “map exit” area, so at the very least you can probably outrun the zombies and leave the area entirely. Hopefully if you get far enough away zombies would disengage and go back to wandering randomly, having lost interest.

    • DB_Christina says:

      Yes, you can flee from combat. If a party member isn’t with you at the exit, you have the option to leave them behind.

      If anyone has additional questions about the combat demo video, please feel free to join us at our Official Combat Thread on our forums! We welcome new community members!

  5. Captain Joyless says:

    It looks ok, but I think I’ll stick with Cataclysm: DDA even when Dead State comes out ( http://www.cataclysmdda.com/ ). Was there even really that much exploration in Fallout (or Skyrim)? Random linear dungeons with mobs. Occasional miniquest. Random loot from containers. Uh, ok…

    It seems to me that promises of good writing are one thing, but maybe if video games would abandon the pretense of writing in favor of player narratives (Cataclysm: DDA, Dwarf Fortress, etc) then you get much more interesting results.

    The future of literature probably isn’t “easy fight easy fight easy fight boss fight narrative event easy fight easy fight easy fight boss fight narrative event.” I mean, maybe it is, but I doubt it.

    • InternetBatman says:

      Your definition of exploration seems to mean completely randomized content, which is reductionist. Plenty of games offer the thrill of exploration to new players while using hand-crafted content.

      Also, player narrative vs, written narrative is just a matter of preference, not something that is better or worse. That’s like saying real time is better than turn-based.

      • BTAxis says:

        Everyone knows turn-based is better.

      • Captain Joyless says:

        Hmm, how are you using “reductionist”? I don’t think I follow you here.

        • InternetBatman says:

          It sounds like you’ve taken the complex idea of exploration, which I would define(poorly) as “unrestricted consumption to new content chosen by the player, accessed by player chosen location change” and reducing it to the simple “accessing content which is unpredictably created for the player.” I.E. it sounds like only randomly generated games can allow exploration, because exploration is solely unpredictable content. I could be misreading you completely though.

          • Captain Joyless says:

            I didn’t mean to imply it was about randomness. It’s more that Skyrim/Oblivion/Fallout 3 worlds are just not that big. Recall these size comparisons, and that Skyrim’s total area is approx. the same as Oblivion’s:

            http://static.giantbomb.com/uploads/original/3/30984/1366064-ubwcz.jpg

            Obviously, Cataclysm: DDA’s is random, yes. Perhaps that means it lacks something that intentionally-designed Skyrim would have. But if that’s so I haven’t seen it yet. If anything, I think well-tuned randomness lends itself to replayability. You can never re-explore Skyrim.

            I think your definition is particularly weird, by the way, because I don’t see how the player can “choose” what he explores. The entire point of exploration is that you don’t know what’s there. You find out. You COULD have a sufficiently large, pre-generated world that would allow for years of exploration. It’s just that probably nobody would make that. The randomness really has nothing to do with it; it’s just an economical way to generate lands to explore.

    • cog says:

      Maybe you’re trolling me, but I think Brian is referring to the exploration and narrative of the original Fallout (Black Isle, 1997) rather then the first person Bethsoft Fallout games.

  6. JFS says:

    “[...] but the basics are there and it’s pretty much everything we promised.”

    Dunno, I’m a Kickstarter backer, and I have all the goodwill towards them, but this sentence sounds a lot like he’s fed up with people not being okay with what they showed them. Of course, it could be either side’s fault, but what he says doesn’t sound very professional. It evokes a bad vibe of “this is what we got, be happy you get anything at all and deal with it”.

    Hope he didn’t mean it that way, or I’m misunderstanding (courtesy of not being a native English speaker).

    • suibhne says:

      I think his intention was quite different, actually. My read was that Brian was explaining why they’re showing the combat now, even tho a lot of stuff still hasn’t been implemented; he’s just making the point that “the combat features we promised are implemented at this stage, so we figured it’s ready to give you a peek despite being unfinished”.

    • Mephz says:

      he probably did not mean it like that although it can be read like that. Atleast Brian hasn’t sounded like a jerk to me on the dead state forums from what I have read.

    • JFS says:

      Well, maybe I’m just misreading it. The rest of the interview doesn’t sound angry, so I guess this one sentence isn’t, either.

  7. TheTuninator says:

    I’d like for combat to be a bit more lethal, but I am honestly not worried about that as a potential factor which could ruin my enjoyment of this game.

    Much like the original Fallout, Dead State will likely feature a pretty “meh” combat system that (hopefully) plays a secondary role to a great story, great world design, great atmosphere, and great exploration, and that’s what I ask for out of this game. As long as the combat doesn’t make me want to tear my hair out, I’ll be satisfied; it’s the writing and atmosphere that are going to make or break this game.

    Vampire was a phenomenally well-written game, and every comment of Brian’s I read in an interview makes me confident that he’s got a fine grasp on what will make this kind of story compelling, so I am hopeful.

  8. Kamos says:

    I’ve heard of this game for the first time only a few days ago, and I still have no idea what it is about, aside from it having fallout-like combat and that there are words in it. Well, I’m interested.

  9. Hardkore01 says:

    Looks interesting.

  10. wodin says:

    I agree with those moaning about the combat..just as bad as the Zombie attacks was shooting a human with a shotgun at close range and he still stands there and shoots back. Also with no aim mechanic the whole shoot a zombie in the head to kill it is redundant..so meh at the moment. Needs alot more work in this area to get me excited and I also want to see abit more realisim in the combat aswell. Blow a zombies legs off it crawls towards you..blow it’s arms off it can’t claw attack and is only dangerous if you fall over..head shots is what you need to insta kill a zombie..humans should go down if blasted by a shotgun aswell for starters.

    Finally a little text box describing the shot..adds immersion and could also explain why the enemiy didn’t drop..i.e shotgun blast grazes arm or some such..

    • Sunjumper says:

      A few points that were mentioned at the DoubleBear forums were that:
      In this demo the stats of all parties were tweaked for the demo run and will be changed for the actual game, balancing the stats is still in progress. So the way combat will play out in the finished game will be different.

      The game uses a more traditional system of hitpoints. Once they are depleted the target drops, before that they keep going. The down side to this is of course that you will be shooting people in the face without them being all that impressed. The upside to it is that you will not enter a map and get instantly killed in an ambush laid by another party. How this feels in the end again depends a lot on how the game is balanced. X-Com for example did not have no aiming system.
      There is by the way at least one ranged weapon perk that let’s you ‘aim for the head’.

      Following that last point at least when fighting the infected the program assumes that the attacker will be aiming for the head anyway. Someone with a aiming perk is just better at consistently hitting the target.
      I guess part of the problems here is that the graphics are detailed enough to cause some cognitive dissonance because what might look like a straight forward point blank shot actually represents a panicked survivor taking a fear fueled shot at a zombi who is jerkily moving towards him.

      Not being allowed to aim for specific targets is also there to prevent Fallout syndrome, where you could pump all your points into precision and after a life live a merry mass murdering life of shooting enemies in the eyes.
      If you were so minded you could go to all the old turn based classics and find plausible faults in them too that would in a lesser game lead to tedious combat.

      In the end it all depends on how well combat builds up tension, how big the risks are (isn’t this a game with perma death?) and how well balanced the flow of combat is. There is nothing stopping players from being overwhelmed by a swarm of zombies (which in turn based would be even worse as you could pretty much see the gaps closing, while your AP counter is ticking down) or pulling off some impressive stunts with the possibilities at hand.

  11. Continuity says:

    You know guys, combat isn’t the most important thing in an RPG and certainly not this type of RPG; I know this video is just a combat demo but even so, if you got excited about this game for combat then you were simply looking in the wrong place for kicks. Dead state is about survival, narrative, and management; combat is just one of the incidental things that happens on the way, its not the main attraction. This is true of 95% of all traditional CRPGs which is the genre dead state is growing from.

    • LintMan says:

      I agree. While I’d like an interesting combat system, I’m hoping for a balance where combat avoidance is equally interesting and rewarding, and that the game doesn’t devolve into “enter area, scour area for zombies, eliminate them, move on”.

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