The long, hard, journey behind the design of Dead Cells’ player builds

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This is The Mechanic, where Alex Wiltshire invites developers to discuss the difficult journeys they underwent to make the best bits of their games. This time, Dead Cells [official site].

When Dead Cells was first released in Steam Early Access in May this year, Sébastien Bénard was shocked to see how people played the game he’d spent the previous three years designing. “It was quickly a disappointment,” he tells me. They were not playing in the way he’d intended at all. They weren’t using the weapons in the game elegantly, shooting with the bow before finishing with a blade, or blocking with the shield and following up with the dagger. They were only using bows, killing everything, even bosses, from a safe range. They never put themselves in danger and they never made different decisions. They were playing Dead Cells efficiently, and completely wrong.

Dead Cells has passed through many forms to get to what it is today. Now a wonderfully fast and fluid Castlevania-inflected action dungeon-crawler, it was once a tower defence game. But few of its essential systems have seen as many changes as its character builds, which allow your character to play differently each time you take a run through the game. Their design has taken its developer, Motion Twin, on a long journey, and when Bénard watched those players at release, he realised it still had a long way to go.

“It was a big disappointment because it wasn’t something I was thinking,” Bénard says. “But I wasn’t thinking as a player but more like a designer. It’s difficult to get rid of the idea of the way we want it to be played, and the efficient way is usually the opposite,” he says.

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That journey still isn’t over. Tweaking it and watching it being played over the past five months has led the team to work on its most drastic change yet. But the best way to understand what Dead Cells is today is to understand its roots, and a decision they made around a year and a half ago, when Dead Cells morphed into the roguelike Castlevania form it takes today. That was the point a fundamental rule was set that still underpins every element of the game: every weapon and item should change the way you play.

Motion Twin had already given up on two different systems for governing player builds. The first they considered was the classic: a skill tree. Players would have to invest in the first tiers of skills before they could access the later ones. But they rejected it because of the skill tree’s limiting contradiction: you need to know the whole tree before you can make meaningful choices about which skill you choose first.

They next thought about an inventory. RPGs have them, so why not? You can choose the weapons you want for a situation, so it’s flexible and choice-filled. But they found it completely broke the rhythm of the game, because players spent lots of time in it to swap weapons around. So they ditched the inventory in favour of having the player equip just two weapons. Very quickly they realised the value in the choices posed by having to leave a weapon behind when you find a new one, and the idea stuck. Dead Cells’ builds became defined through two equipped weapons and two equipped active skills, which comprised items such as grenades, and each was mapped to a button so it was instantly available.

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To seal the concept, the weapons themselves would be strongly differentiated from each other. Bénard eschewing minor stat bonuses in favour of big ideas: the twin daggers inflict a critical hit on the third consecutive strike; the ice bow freezes enemies it hits; the spiteful sword lands criticals if you’ve been hit recently. Designing them was a matter of identifying and filling roles in the game so they were good in certain situations and bad in others. The spiteful sword, for instance, was originally intended as new players’ starting weapon, because it’d give them an opportunity to benefit from being hit (like Bloodborne, you get a short window after being hit in which damage you deal recoups your own health). And then they created combinations of two weapons that complemented each other. If a weapon or item could deal bleeding, a good partner would be one that gained a bonus from hitting bleeding targets.

The strength of this system has helped reinforce Dead Cells’ nature as short-session roguelike in which runs take 30-45-minutes. During that time a player has to learn how to play and master a build which is likely to be quite different to their last. “That was the idea, making sure you have new experiences each time, or at least as new as possible, but not too many things to learn in each session,” says Bénard, though he admits that even just four weapons can be a little too many for a lot of players.

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The sticky issue, however, was that Dead Cells’ weapons were extremely fun to play with. It’s very easy to fall in love with, say, the twin blades and throwing knife during a run and not to want to try anything else. This problem caused a big debate at Motion Twin around a year ago. Should players be encouraged to experiment with alternative builds so they’d explore the full roster? Some members of the studio felt that they should go as far as forcing them to change their weapons frequently. Or, should they double down on the bonds players formed with their weapons and the playstyle they’d developed? In that case, should they be able upgrade a weapon so they could use it throughout a run?

“We decided between these two extremes and went for something in between,” says Bénard. Dead Cells lightly raises the stats on weapons through the game so they’re more powerful by the end, making them viable throughout. You’re also not forced to use certain weapons. For a while during development, one slot only equipped shields and bows, and the other only melee. But that was dumped so you can go bow-crazy if you want. Instead of forcing you, Bénard hopes curiosity for how they play will pull you to try new things instead.

The discussion at Motion Twin that led to this decision could get heated. Bénard had to convince several members of the studio that forcing players to change their weapons was a bad idea. “I did a prototype that forced players to change their weapons and played it for an hour, and I was like, ‘OK, no, it’s not good. It doesn’t feel right.’” When his pro-change colleagues tried it, they had to agree. “Usually my most important job is not to decide, it’s more to rationalise or transform ideas and feelings into actual rules in the game,” he says.

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And so Dead Cells was released, and Bénard watched his bows lay waste to swathes of careful design. “It was a problem because of course, when you make a game you want it to be a challenge, and when a player goes for long-range weapons the challenge should still be there. It shouldn’t be just pressing a button and it kills the enemy.”

The problem was in one of the philosophies they’d set early on, which was not to limit players with stocks of ammunition for things like grenades and bows. But here it was making bows overpowered. The solution was to give them a stock of ammunition which would stick in the enemy until they died, whereupon they’d be returned. The aim was that they’d only do so much to bosses but still shred weak enemies. But the fix went a little too far, requiring yet another redesign which went live around a month ago which returned arrows from surviving enemies after a few seconds to make them a little more effective against bosses. Finally, the issue was fixed. “Players were pretty happy with it and it forced them to adopt new strategies,” Bénard tells me. “They could still use dual bow builds, but they had to think about it. It’s not just the easy way to play. You have to go for a specific build to ensure you’re never out of ammo. We wanted the player to think and not to have an easy way to play.”

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But there’s a more important problem in Dead Cells, one that’s about to cause the biggest shakeup in its build design yet. Any experienced player will tell you that when they find a Scroll of Power, which allows them to level up either their health (increasing HP), skills (reducing item cooldowns) or strength (increasing damage), they almost always go for damage.

“That’s actually the most important problem in the game for me so far, to be honest,” says Bénard. “For me as a designer, it’s not a good thing because it’s really a single way to play the game. When you pick up a scroll you don’t think about it. It’s not a good thing because for me we built something in the game that’s useless.”

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He realised that the real problem was in the scrolls forcing the player to choose, and two days before we talked, he outlined his plan to fix it to the team. The new system ditches health, strength and skill upgrades, and brings in a new system in which each weapon and item is assigned to one of three categories: brutality (focusing on slow and powerful melee weapons), finesse (fast weapons like rapiers) and survival (shields and crowd-control). When you find a scroll, you’ll choose for it to power up one of these categories, raising the effectiveness of any equipment of its type that you have.

“We know that most players at first will try to go for full finesse and nothing else, but the thing is, it’s difficult to get four finesse weapon drops because it depends on what drops,” Bénard explains. The best builds will be a combination of two categories, such as brutality and finesse: a stunning blow from The Nutcracker and a stab to the heart from a rapier.

It’s almost inevitable that more tweaks are to come, but the journey Dead Cells has taken to get to here is a fascinating example of what it takes to build a system that focuses your player’s mind on the important choices. What weapons do you want? And for there never to be only one answer.

Dead Cells is available in early access now via Steam and Humble.

42 Comments

  1. level12boss says:

    Great piece. So nice to see a designer be honest about gameplay cliches well past their prime (skill trees! tank vs glass canon! grow your DPS!) and work hard at trying something new instead. Particularly when that something new introduces qualitatively different ways to play the game. I’m now looking forward to trying this one out!

  2. miguelyoung says:

    This kind of “wild” approach to the balancing process always pleases me. Don´t let the fear of breaking your game´s balance stop you. You live in an age of endless patches, and true glory raises from chaos (like Path of Exile), not totally controlled environments (like D3, to beat the very dead horse)

  3. phanatic62 says:

    Wow, that’s a pretty significant change. They’re right that you only choose STR on the optional scrolls, so good on them for trying to inject some interesting decisions.

    I’ve dumped a ton of time into Dead Cells and still haven’t beaten The Watcher, but I always have fun with it. I’m interested to see how these changes and the new biome that’s been teased will work out.

    • DodgyG33za says:

      I must be an outlier then. I prefer to follow the RNG and build on the specific upgrades I get. The early game gets pretty easy if you get powerful skills, or high health. But then I also haven’t beaten The Watcher either, so maybe that is what I am doing wrong.

    • Pofruin says:

      Don’t always pick STR with scrolls. It’s tactics used by people who have good enough skills to mitigate lower survivability.

      I picked HP every time I found scroll and I HAVE beaten Watcher…

    • Hidoshi says:

      It seems I’m one of the only guys that went for Skill up instead. I’ve tried damage, which like the article said is quite difficult, but if you have grenades or a sentry with skill at 9, you’ll wreck bosses from a distance :D
      It also makes it easier to focus, since you dodge when things are on cooldown and throw them when they’re not on cooldown.

    • Jay Load says:

      I’m an outlier, too. I might always pick STR first but I never pick one exclusively. I always try to spread them depending on how well my run is going. I guess I figured early on that there wouldn’t be one tactic or upgraded “super-weapon” that would carry me through the game, I’d have to learn the wider systems and weapons and adapt on the fly.

      Not so sure I like the coming changes to this system but am happy to trust the Devs on this: the game is still amazing.

  4. spec10 says:

    break your game as much as you want. It’s yours afterall. But give the people who play it the option to roll back whenever they feel like they need to. That’s all I ask of developers who like to experiment.

    • DodgyG33za says:

      Yeah. It can be tough when a game in development changes in a way you don’t like. The change a while back to limit cash rollover to 15k was kind of annoying.

      And as a big fan on Empyrion- Galactic Survival I am not sure I am happy with the way alpha 7 changes the game.

      Maybe the answer is to hold off until the game is released. After all Dead Cells and Empyrion are both in EA.

  5. Someoldguy says:

    It’s interesting listening to how designers think about these things, but when I’ve experienced large scale overhauls as a player I’ve absolutely hated them. Minor tweaks are not an issue, of course. A couple of days of grumbling and you’re over it.

    I’ve got a lifetime sub to LotRO which I basically can’t use any more because every time I’ve been enthused enough to get back into it, I find that they’ve redesigned the way the character builds work AGAIN and it’s screwed around with all the combos and way you play. That’s fine if you’re only level 5 but when you’re near capped there’s just so many skills to juggle that the last thing you want is for some smartarse to decide that some synergies no longer work or certain skills can’t be slotted together, so all your HUD layout is borked for the third or fourth time.

  6. April March says:

    I saved this article to read later, but having read the opening paragraph, I must say this: I feel 90% of game design is making sure that the most fun way to play and the most efficient way to play aren’t mutually exclusive. Players tend to optimize their strategies into boredom.

    • BooleanBob says:

      I think it’s a problem that crops up a lot with side-scrolling platformers that have ranged weapons. If a player has the ability to kill an enemy (or more abstractly, remove an obstacle) without endangering themselves, what was the point of that obstacle being there?

      It was a design problem developers had to solve during the 8 and 16 bit generations, only to rear its head with the indie retro revival. And of course you can’t use good level design as a solution if you’re caught up in the procedural generation craze, compounding the issue further.

  7. Baines says:

    The scroll “fix” honestly sounds kind of annoying.

    Yes, it will eliminate the existence of a universal clearly “best choice”. But it still isn’t going to be much of a choice for any individual player.

    Worse, it introduces a new “screwed by the RNG” factor to the game, where you might simply not get the drops that align with your choices. While the dev seems to see this as a positive, as it discourages players from committing entirely to a single choice, it seems a rather poor way to handle the situation. It just turns the whole thing into a gamble…

    • DinoDinoDude says:

      As the devs say, you aren’t going to want to double down entirely on a single stat because of that reason. You’ll probably want to specialize in two areas, or use a rounded build. The chances of you only finding gear of that one stat you did not put points into would be astronomically low.

    • ludde says:

      Yeah exactly, get lucky with your full finesse build and it’d be incredibly powerful, only it’d rarely work. Otherwise choose two stats and hope to not get unlucky, or just go evenly for all three stats and it’s a non-choice.

      Either way it’s mostly gamble.

    • Orageon says:

      Well, there is the roguelike aspect of it isn’t it..

      Would someone say these things about Binding of Isaac ? Sometimes you get dealt rubbish cards, but the fun is to see how far you can make it with this, or turn the situation around. I am not sure though if Dead Cells has enough ways to allow RNG weirdness to become more viable afterwards, but it seems so, based on player choice and risk taking. For me this all seems fine as part of the Rogue-like mindset.

    • zeep says:

      Agreed with Baines. Dev or not, he is turning one of the few strategic options you have into yet another random aspect. Making upgrading harder, with less chance to actually get weapons you want.

      Great move..

      • zeep says:

        I sound a bit negative there but i’m not. I love this game. The upgrade change is not a dealbreaker. It just feels like a bad move.

        • testament says:

          I think it’s a horrible move and I really like the fighting system the way it is. At some point you have look at what the community wants because if you don’t, you’re gonna eventually screw up your cash cow.

  8. DinoDinoDude says:

    Very glad to see a revamp of the system; I knew changes were coming to it, but I did not expect such a big redesign. I personally like it; I just hope there’s enough of an increase of variety in the slow weapons department to justify the division in that manner.

  9. Mandragora says:

    Reading this just reminded me why I stopped playing the game. Gamers aren’t playing it “right”? Ugh.

    • UncleLou says:

      Well, it’s early access, and they actually use EA like it is intended.

      You might as well stop playing games altogether if it worries you that they change during development and get balanced, or does it not matter If it happens behind closed doors?

    • UncleLou says:

      Edit doesn’t work, sorry.

      Wanted to add: bows were completely over-powered, and risk-free, so of course they had to do something about them. I am not sure what you expect developers should do in such a situation?

    • ludde says:

      Right meaning not utilizing many of its options. Why wouldn’t you want the developer to be concerned with making the most of the gameplay?

    • LexW1 says:

      So why did you stop, specifically? It’s an incredible game.

      He’s correct, too, about “not playing it right”, but they never removed the choice. You can still play in a slow and careful way if you want (and I sometimes do), but it’s a lot less fun/exciting than flooring it.

    • Orageon says:

      Of course that’s the designer’s way to say that users will bypass a good chunk of the mechanics that the designers intended them to fiddle with. There is nothing wrong with this assumption from the developper even if worded badly. I’m sure you understood…

    • Premium User Badge

      Ninja Dodo says:

      You clearly don’t understand how game design works. Designers are always sculpting an experience around different ways of playing, favouring some and discouraging others. That’s game design. If you’re getting offended that game designers are influencing how you play you should just not play games at all because that’s literally what games are: a directed framework that you can play, with rules and constraints. If most players are optimizing towards boring strategies because those are more efficient the game is badly designed. link to youtube.com

      The fact that this team is thinking about that stuff and actively trying to design around it is a good thing.

  10. Alien426 says:

    Wow, the behind was long, hard and journey?! ;)

  11. haldolium says:

    Huh. I usually went for Skills powerup in scrolls, since AoE effects killed monster masses much faster as direct combat. With the right equipment it worked equally well on The Watcher.

    Haven’t played it for a few months. Wonder how the new update will end up in terms of gameplay speed.

    In any case, Dead Cells was/is a suprisingly well designed game that plays lovely. Fluid and fast with much control over the actual gameplay. Much like shooters from the past that weren’t poisoned by XP systems and constant interruptions.

  12. listoriented says:

    This was an interesting article! I too am skeptical about how the major scroll changes will work out. It sounds like it will make the game more finnicky in a bad way. I definitely haven’t always been picking strength when I get a scroll of power, but then again the one time I’ve beaten the watcher came when I lucked a high-strength build, so anecdotally I guess there’s something to what “experienced players” claim.

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    DantronLesotho says:

    It’s good to know that the design of Dead Cells is no accident. I can’t wait for it to be fully finished. I really want to get back into it.

  14. Halk says:

    This game looks beautiful, but it’s another effing roguelike, so no purchase from me.

    Do I need to understand why everything is roguelike nowadays? Why would I want to play the same section over and over again until I “mastered it” perfectly? I simply don’t care about that and don’t have the time. Once I have made it through a challenging section of a game, I feel that I have had the experience that the game has had to offer there and don’t need to see the same thing over and over again.

    Don’t people have jobs? Or other, more important free-time activities besides gaming? Life just has so many other experiences to offer that all compete for my limited time.

    (It’s fine of course if this is an optional thing; “Hardcore” difficulty mode, or whatever you want to call it.)

    • DinoDinoDude says:

      To give the extensive library of loot meaning, letting the player use different setups, and providing very high replayability for an otherwise short game…

      If you just want to go through the challenges the game has to offer and be done with it, roguelites aren’t going to be your cup of tea. If you’re willing to hold on for a while and enjoy the variety and the small pushes you make, then I’d recommend a roguelite.

      And as a side note, there are multiple paths to take; so you don’t need to do the same things every time.

    • April March says:

      Why would I want to play the same section over and over again until I “mastered it” perfectly?

      I… don’t understand. This is how non-roguelike games play… especially if you’re an awful player like me. You play through a level. You die. You play through the exact same level again. You die again. Eventually, if you’re not good enough to play the game, you ‘master’ the level by either save-scumming or memorizing where every threat is and playing like an oracle.

      Meanwhile, on a roguelike, I play a level, and then I play a different level, regardless of whether I make it through or I die. If I succeed at not dying enough times, I get to see different levels. If I want to play just a little, I know I’ll get to play through a unique map, rather than just the part of level 3 that comes before the part I can’t beat. This makes them perfect for short plays when you’re busy with your job or other non-gaming leisurely activities.

      It’s OK not to like roguelikes, of course. But it boggles my mind that the things you see as problems in them are the very problems in other problems I seem them as having solved.

      • Halk says:

        Exactly, the ability to quicksave/savescum is what I ideally want (frequent, well placed checkpoints can come close, but too many games mess up the checkpoint placement). It still means that I have to master every single challenge, but only exactly once. I can always concentrate on the one next challenge I have not mastered yet, that is, the next, new experience on offer. The result is the maximum enjoyment out of a game but with minimal time investment.

        It’s weird, in the past it was quite normal to be able to save anywhere in a game (at least on PC). Removing this feature is a step backwards.

        • Halk says:

          I guess more generally speaking I like games that know what they’re good at and then provide that one thing with as few detours and distractions as possible. Games that get to and stick to the point.

          For example Dishonored was at its core a Thief-clone, and once you made it to this core it was great. To bad that the core amounted to about 20% of the actual playtime. And the rest was unfocused, directionless fluff. The original Thief on the other hand dropped you into a level, and the thieving began immediately. The level ends, there is a short cutscene, it drops you into the next map, the thieving continues, etc.

          I guess this is why I have completely stopped playing AAA titles. Fortunately, in the indie realm you can find such focused games (the Legend of Grimrock games, Shovel Knight, Teslagrad, Braid, …).

  15. abstrarie says:

    Once this is out of EA I will jump on it. I don’t pay for unfinished games!

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