Interview with Brian Mitsoda

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Mitsoda–formerly of Troika, Black Isle and Obsidian–and currently one half of Doublebear, the indie studio creating Dead State.

For those not familiar with Dead State, what is it?

Dead State is an RPG about day-to-day human survival and the management of disparate personalities after a crisis forces them to band together or die. We’re set in the early days of a zombie apocalypse, but the focus is on the humans and the stress that sinks in as they realize that civilization may have already collapsed.

Dead State is set in Splendid, Texas. What made you decide to use that as the setting?

Aside from the fact that Central Texas’ weather is consistent, it’s flat, and the area is large with many small towns, it’s the last place I’d want to be in an apocalypse. Land-locked? In Texas?! It’s so vast and empty, except for the major cities, which would probably be horrible places to be when the undead start showing up and people start to panic.

You’ve spoken in interviews about some of the mechanics that will feature in combat: among them, the need to keep quiet to avoid attracting zombies, the need to stay out of zombies’ line of sight if they do show up, the need to deal with infections, and the fact that allies sometimes ignore your orders. On a more nuts-and-bolts level, however, how would you describe the combat system? Does it use action points? Initiative-based turn order? Are there targeted shots or manual weapon reloading?

Action points are for taking actions (weapons, thrown items, medical items, reload) and movement. Initiative is derived from the perception and then agility, with the player always having the advantage in a tie. There aren’t specific targeted shots, but there are special attacks and weapon modes that can be used to gain tactical advantage. Overall, we want to emphasize functionality over raw power/level advantage in combat. You can have a lot of points in a skill, but if you’re using a weapon purely to spam the basic attack, you’re probably not going to gain the upper hand. It takes delicate balance of squad weapons and armor to come out ahead.

You’ve stated that the zombie genre is not really about killing zombies; it’s about human survival. But it’s also about more than that, isn’t it? Zombies are generally used as a metaphor in the movies that spawned them. What do zombies represent in Dead State?

Zombies are treated like a natural disaster like a hurricane or tsunami. It hits, governments promise they’re doing something, media makes it a spectacle, people react (poorly, usually) – but most natural disasters are localized and can be cleaned up eventually. But what happens when it hits everywhere? When people are worried about their own backyards, nobody’s thinking about how to tackle the problem as a country or even species.

So if the zombies represent a global natural disaster, why not use an actual natural disaster (e.g. a meteoric collision, or climate change) as the backdrop for the apocalypse? Why zombies? Was it a matter of the interesting mechanics they could bring to the table, a marketing thing, or something else?

The reason for not doing an unspecified apocalypse is to use the zombies in their original context – fear of the unknown and unstoppable foe. Our zombies provide a gameplay hook (make too much noise, zombies start looking for you) and a real psychological threat – that is, something that defies logic trying to kill you. It’s understandable that people are panicking and having morale issues because the dead are coming back to life for no apparent reason and anyone could very easily become one of those things. We know zombies are overdone, but have they really done right in an RPG or game? In a way that they’re creepy and not just cannon fodder? We want to make zombies scary again.

The trailer you released on June 5th paints a very bleak picture of the game world and your role within it. You’ve mentioned before that there is a definite endgame here, however: one that presumably involves surviving with the cooperation of others. I don’t know if it’s possible to answer this without spoilers, but I’ll ask anyway: how do you reconcile that with the idea that no one works together as a country or a species when disaster hits their own backyard? Is it about overcoming that every-man-for-himself inclination to ensure our mutual survival?

There’s always someone that survives, right? The human instinct for self-preservation is very strong and it’s a blessing and a curse for the species. We’re really good at surviving as a species, not always as a civilization. Somewhere always there’s a band of humans that has used deception, cunning, and physical strength to come out on top. We’re terribly good at being terrible when life and death is at stake. Actually, the player and the shelter might not survive if they’re not careful.

Romance seldom gets much screen time in post-apocalyptic games, which is a little strange when you consider that the need for procreation would be dire with humanity on the brink. Is that going to be addressed in Dead State at all?

My thoughts on this – when each day might be your last, I’m not sure it’s romance so much as plane-going-down grab anything close and go for it kind of instinct. There might be some allies with existing relationships, but don’t expect any involved relationships because you’re going to be too busy running the shelter to get caught up in chocolates and roses. It’s not like human desire won’t come into play here, but traditional romance is kind of an old-fashioned concept in the apocalypse.

How many recruitable allies are you planning to have in the finished game?

Dozens. And each one is pretty complex from a scripting and dialogue node count. We’re pretty sure it will take multiple games of Dead State to find all the allies and explore all the different sides of them.

You’re using Torque 3D for the Dead State engine, which means Windows-only. If you had it to do over, would you prefer a multiplatform engine using something like Unity? Or was the work that Iron Tower did on the Torque engine so valuable that it wouldn’t have been worth it?

Pretty much the reason we’re working with Torque 3D is so we can repurpose some of the work that has already been done for Age of Decadence and draw upon our lead programmer and artist’s experience with the engine. It would have taken longer to create the base of an RPG from scratch on an engine that we hadn’t used before. Also, we’re very much looking into the possibility of Mac and Linux support, but we can’t confirm we’ll have it 100% for the Kickstarter unless we can guarantee it. Things can change in the engine, and we may eventually have ports.

It’s been a while since Dead State was first announced. How far into development would you say you are? What still needs to be done?

We’re pre-alpha. What that means is that the design is laid out, some of the story, dialogue, art assets, GUI, items, tools, and programming have been completed, but there’s a lot to do. While Dead State was announced a while ago, it’s an indie project that has had limited funding and many of its staff worked on it in their free time. With Kickstarter funding, we’ll be able to make most or all of the team full-time and get Dead State finished a whole lot quicker.  RPGs are huge games to build, and we have a fraction of the staff of a major studio like Bioware (in fact, their HR department is probably larger than our team.)

The Kickstarter page says that $15 is “nearly half the launch price.” I’m concerned about the way some people will react to this. I recently put my own strategy RPG on Desura at a $24.99 price point; people visited the page and 1-bombed it en masse because it cost more than other indie games. What do you think of the increasing pressure people are putting on indie developers to release complex RPGs at a casual game price point?

To most people – games is games. They have no idea that RPGs take more time than other types of games. All they see is “indie” and therefore assume it will be cheap. You see that on iPad games too where everyone gets angry at someone for charging over a $1 for their game. The best thing we can do as RPG developers is to try and explain that RPGs are not as simple to make as retro adventure game or top-down shooter and hope that they understand that if the market doesn’t support teams that make RPGs, there will be fewer available. No matter what, though, there are people who aren’t going to understand the difference. We get requests to offer up stuff at near cost because some people see Kickstarter as a store and not a fundraising site. Let’s just not start calling ourselves “triple-B” or something stupid like that to make a point.

You mention in your Kickstarter video that you hope to use the money not just to finish Dead State faster, but also to build the base of a new RPG company. Is $150,000 really enough to accomplish that?

$150,000 isn’t enough to build a company, but it’s the bare minimum needed to finish Dead State. And here’s the thing – DoubleBear will own Dead State and profit it from it as long as it sells, which does give us a revenue stream to help fund future projects. But, $150,000 is a minimum, which is why we want to shoot higher than that – much higher. It will give us the funding we need to hire on extra people and immediately start working on post-release support and content updates for Dead State. Kickstarter and Amazon take almost 10% of whatever we make before we see any of it, so it’s important for people to realize that their support now builds a much stronger game now rather than post-release. If you see the video and it looks like something you want to play, putting money down now is much better for both DoubleBear and you, the player. I know there’s been some Kickstarter burnout, but it’s just as important for funding new game ideas now as it was when it was the new hotness a few months ago. All we ask is a few minutes of your time to watch the video and see if we’re making the type of games that you want to play.

Anything else you want to add?

Well, first of all – thanks for letting us talk about Dead State. And as I said, if you’re sick of zombie games – so are we. Check out the video on our Kickstarter and give us a chance to show you what we can do with “zombie” games and RPGs. That’s all we can ask.

Thanks, Brian.

Dead State is currently running a Kickstarter campaign. If you’re interested in contributing, you can visit the page right here.

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