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RPG Codex Interview: DoubleBear on Dead State

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RPG Codex Interview: DoubleBear on Dead State

Interview - posted by JarlFrank on Sat 16 June 2012, 14:58:04

Tags: Annie VanderMeer Mitsoda; Brian Mitsoda; Dead State; DoubleBear Productions; Indie; Kickstarter; Oscar Velzi

The Codex has interviewed the developers of Dead State, the zombie-RPG by independent developer DoubleBear Productions, which has just recently launched its Kickstarter campaign. In this interview, the DoubleBear team discuss the game's setting, mechanics, and other matters related to Dead State and all things zombie.


Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your previous work, and DoubleBear Productions? What prompted your decision to go indie and what are your roles on Dead State?

Annie: I'm Annie VanderMeer Mitsoda, and I'm helping design and write for Dead State part-time. I started working in the game industry back in 2004, where I got essentially hired as someone to write business emails and PR copy and shortly thereafter worked my way into actual game design. I've worked at Obsidian Entertainment and am now working full-time at ArenaNet on Guild Wars2, and I am fortunate as hell that they are totally cool with me working on Dead State.

Oscar: I’m Oscar Velzi, and I’m the lead artist for Dead State. I’m also the lead artist for The Age of Decadence, which makes my life a very busy one, only leaving some time for my girlfriend and salsa. I’m an all time indie born in Codexia in 2007.

Brian: I’m Brian Mitsoda, and I’m the Project Lead, which means I do a little (lot) of everything except coding and art, which I leave up to Oscar and Nick. I’ve worked for Black Isle, Troika, and Obsidian, but everyone knows me best for my work in VTM : Bloodlines.​

You both designed RPG in the past. Brian did the writing for Troika's Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, and Annie worked on Storm of Zehir and is now part of the Guild Wars 2 development team. What were the lessons you learned from the other titles you have been involved in, and how do they apply to Dead State?

Annie: Don't be the only writer on a massive project that also requires your full-time skills as a designer? That was my takeaway from Storm of Zehir. Also have more than nine months to make the game! Ha! Ha... ugh.

Seriously, though, though I worked with some amazing folks on Storm of Zehir, there was a lot of time when we were working by the seat of our pants, and as a writer working on someone else's module, I was worried that I was too disconnected from what was supposed to be going on design-wise. For Dead State, I'll be in a lot closer communication with the designer responsible for an area (either by being the designer in question or being married to them), and not only will we know that it's a good idea to make outlines and first drafts of writing, we'll actually be able to polish them! All too often, polish passes are things that hardly get to happen - furtively if at all - and knowing how critical these are, and how beneficial it can be to have a writer you trust look over your work and give you feedback, have definitely helped with Dead State already.

Brian: I’ve worked on multiple RPGs, which is great for knowing how not to make one and how to schedule for tasks, plan dialogue, set up systems to mesh together, and how to lead a team. For Dead State, I’ve had to use all this plus adapt to the indie lifestyle, where if no one’s left to work on something, it’s time for the project lead to learn how to do it themselves.​

Dead State is about survival. Different books, games, movies, etc. have tackled the theme before, highlighting different aspects - stories about how far people are willing to go to survive, or how the terror of the situation can change them, or just using the tragedy to strip away a person's mask and reveal his true self. So, where does Dead State stand? What effect do you want to achieve with the game and how does your game design help achieve it?

Annie: I think most zombie games, because they're so much in the twitchy-shooty vein, seem very short-term, almost like surviving a single night and then hooray, everything's all better! It doesn't really sink in, or become something that sort of hides itself in your thoughts. It sounds kind of weird to say I kind of want this game to exhaust you, to make you really want to fight for your Shelter and its survivors, to get really excited about each little victory (hooray, a couple cans of baby corn! A FEAST AWAITS!) and invested in the welfare of your allies, but there it is. After hours of Dead State, I both want you to be eager to return to the safeties of the real world and still longing to go back and do more in Splendid.

Brian: Dead State tackles all the different way survivor guilt, stress, panic, greed, and human nature can affect survivors in a prolonged crisis. There are many ways the allies and other characters can change depending on the player’s choices or the fates of others. There are going to be a lot of surprises, and a lot of players are going to see completely different sides of allies. Aside from making them interesting and provide interesting gameplay choices, I do want to make them come across as realistic. There’s a bit too much over-the-top in game writing these days, and this is a chance to do something more than the standard badasses and weirdos.​


Dead State is not only about survival in general, but specifically about survival in a zombie apocalypse. Of all possible settings, why did you choose zombies? What do you like about the zombie genre and why did you choose this particular setting for your game?

Annie: There's something unrelentingly bleak about zombies that other threats don't really cover. I mean, there are post-nuclear settings in which man is the greatest threat and there are enclaves of relative safety, but the fear of those being overrun by the very cause of humanity falling apart isn't really a thing - "Look out, ma, he's got a thermonuclear warhead!" It's a big dangerous thing, a nuclear weapon - and we know what they are and how they work. But zombies are creepy because it burrows down into humanity's deep-seated fear of infection, and loss of self - that any careless bite could mean not only the end of our lives, but endanger others as well. It brings up a lot of uncomfortable questions of morality, and even how we deal with our dead, that isn't touched by anything else.

And then most games react to zombies by having them just be a thing to shoot, and hey, that's fine, they're easy to shoot! But they have a lot more potential than just being targets, that's what we're getting at.

Oscar: I was never very much interested in zombies before this, having only watched a few movies of z-apocalypse. But after started working on Dead State I started taking an interest in it, and I love the approach taken in the game, based on the early zombie movies. The real enemy in the game are the other humans, not the zombies, and what I like most is how your “allies” can sometimes be more dangerous to your survival than the living dead.

Brian: I’ve always wanted to a zombie game that was true to the zombie genre. I mean, we’re all sick to death of zombies, really, but has anyone really ever really captured the feeling of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead in an RPG or any video game? I wanted something that focused on a natural disaster where no help was coming – there aren’t many scenarios where that works. Zombies themselves aren’t the focus of the game, but they do make for easily understandable setup and a pretty great gameplay mechanic with noise increasingly attracting them to your position. There have been post-apocalyptic RPGs, quite a lot of them actually, but there have been very few apocalyptic games or survival RPGs. Zombie games have given zombie games a bad name, but we’re going to change that by both focusing on the human element and making zombies frightening again.​

The theme of Dead State seems pretty different from most of the games you have produced before, with the exception of - maybe - SoZ. Was it a hard decision to design such a different game? Do you feel as if the game you are making is something unique in today's gaming market, or is there anything you could compare it to?

Annie: I think there are some good games out there that play with similar themes of survival, fear, alienation - Lone Survivor is definitely up there - and the second part of that is that we really did want to make a solid tactical RPG where character interaction and exploration were key features. There are other games that feature those aspects as well, but none really so far that's combined them like we aim to with Dead State.

Brian: I don’t really like making the same game over and over again and a couple of genres are just overdone (eyeing generic fantasy across the room, giving stink eye). One of the reasons we play up the survival RPG aspect of Dead State is because it IS pretty unique. Not many games feature morale, food, and ally death and there aren’t many games coming out these days that play like Fallout or Jagged Alliance. I never really got burnt out on those types of games, they just stopped making them. (And I’m not going to knock real-time squad RPG combat, but for me most of those battles play out like people running around swinging sticks at each other while someone throws glitter bombs into the fray.)​

Now, Dead State is going to be an RPG, which is a funny genre in that it is hard to get two people to agree on a definition of it. Why did you choose to make a role-playing game? What makes it exciting for you to work on one, and what characteristics of the game define it as an RPG for you?

Annie: I love lots of game genres, but RPGs are my favorite, and since we knew we'd be working with the Age of Decadence engine, it seemed the wisest choice as a initial project. So it was part practicality and part personal inclination.

You're dead-on that RPGs are insanely tricky to define, but it's the character development (both in the mechanics of building skills and in the actual personality of people) that I find the most enticing about the genre, both as a player and as a developer. Writing an average townsperson in a generic fantasy game is okay, but writing someone who's under constant fear for their lives and who might have lost a family member to a zombie attack? A lot more interesting of a challenge right there!

Brian: Not the old “what is an RPG?” question already! Fair enough, we are calling it one. So, let’s see - stats and skill tweaking is a given, wooden stick to horn of alpha gorillas weapon progression sure, lots of items to sort and fuss over, yeah we have those. But I kind of feel ripped off if an RPG doesn’t have some actual choices in the story and the dialogue that has actual reactivity and payoff on character and story outcomes. That’s one of the things we have dedicated a lot of time to and where our years of development experience really pays off. And if we’ve done it right, each player will have a different story to tell.​


How did you approach the design of Dead State's character system? What are, in your opinion, its main strengths and (possibly) weaknesses?

Annie: I think the key strength of the system is that we didn't try to mimic anything else: we knew what sort of combat structure we'd have, and built on that. For a while we didn't even have stats, and tried to do everything via skills - everything that was introduced required a solid argument for its inclusion and a clear explanation for how it fit into everything else. We didn't want anything to feel confusing or extraneous. I think that might feel like a weakness to some, since we've winnowed out more variable stats like Luck, and ones expected to influence personality like Intelligence and Charisma, but I think it frees up players to develop their character more fluidly, and spend less time fussing over base character creation and upgrade and more on learning all the other systems in the game!

Oscar: In my view, the strongest part of the character system is that it’s very tight. There are no skills or stats that feel useless, which make the decision of which ones to pick very interesting. Of course, some people who like expansive characters systems might find it a tad unsatisfactory (No charisma or intelligence? No way!).

Brian: Yeah, Annie and Oscar hit it on the head. No wasted skills, nothing in there just because they’re in every other game. Your skills will make a big difference on how you approach problems or combat in the game.​

One aspect that seems really interesting is the upgradeable shelter. Can you elaborate on it? Will different skill sets interact with the shelter in different ways? What kind of activities can the player undertake in the shelter and what kind of concerns does maintaining a shelter involve? Will we need to worry about fighting invaders inside it, like in X-COM?

Oscar: Brian will cover the mechanics side, so I’ll speak a little about the art. One thing I love about the shelter is the ability to see the changes made to them, seeing it evolve and become more and more of a base of operations and less of a school. As time progresses, things will become less clean, trees will be chopped to create makeshift fences improvements, and the classrooms will be replaced with labs, workshops, prison cells and filled with allies.

Brian: You will need skill or people of the appropriate skill level to make certain changes to the shelter. And every upgrade takes time, materials, and sometimes special materials that must be found in the world (nothing crazy, like you will need to find A packet of seeds to start a garden upgrade). You’ll need to assign allies to jobs to get anything built, so you’ll have to keep a couple back at the shelter to work on creating items, repairing the wall, modifying the shelter, guard duty, etc. You can also talk to allies, decrypt data items that shed more on the events that hit the world before the start of the game, and you can sort items/equip people. You’ll never have to worry about fighting invaders inside the shelter, but you will have to worry about keeping the fence up, because once that fence goes and allies no longer feel safe there, it’s over.​


I understand that you will be able to recruit from a large pool of NPCs and select some of them to accompany you on missions. Wouldn't a huge variety of NPCs make the player's character choice less relevant? If not, how do you avoid this problem? On a related note, if the PC is going to be the leader of his shelter, wouldn't it be the obvious choice for every player to pick the negotiation and leadership skills for his own character?

Annie: I don't think the large NPC variety would devalue the player's choice - one, because you're never guaranteed to actually get all the available NPCs in your shelter, and two, because not all of them are good at the same sorts of things. And they definitely don't have the same personalities! Not to mention that bad things happen... maybe your best sharpshooter gets a bullet in the arm and needs a few days to recover. While she's recovering, that's a chance to get someone new out in the field, perhaps - maybe see how they handle the stress?

While Negotiation and Leadership skills are important, they're never an "automatic win" in conversation - different characters will react differently to the tone of each - and the points you put into those skills come from the same point pool as ones you might devote to, say, Ranged combat, or Mechanical skill. You've got to figure out how you really want to balance all those elements! You could max your points in those two skills, sure, but that might not make you terribly well-prepared to go out into the world and scavenge...

Brian: As we pointed out, each skill has a function, and all of them can make leadership easier. It’s about player choice of how they want to tackle a problem and how they make use of their talents. Individual allies all have their strengths and weaknesses, but they can’t be everywhere at once, so you have to use them wisely. If they’re great at combat, chances are they will have to spend time healing up every so often, which means you’ll need back-ups. If they’re good at building special items, which item is a priority and would their time be better spent helping repair the fence? And then there’s always the fact that allies might get sick or depressed and then you’ve got to find someone to take their place until they come around (or you can tell them to suck it up and get back to turning out antibiotics, but they might resent you a bit for that.)​

How do you go about writing dialogue trees for all the NPCs, given that there is such a large number of them? Does the game only have interactions between the player and single NPCs, or does it try to make NPC-PC-NPC triangles as well?

Annie: The Shelter would seem a little staid and boring if NPCs didn't interact with one another - and character relationships are a very important part of the game, so we definitely have NPCs dealing with one another. Each time we brainstormed a new NPC in pre-production, Brian and I sat down and threw around ideas about how they would interact with the others, and logged potential scenarios for certain personalities that really clicked (or really didn't). And there are multiple characters in the Shelter who put themselves out there in leadership roles, and we've categorized which of the non-leader characters would potentially listen to what leader, which helps organize things further.

Brian: We plan them out by figuring out key points, information they might have, things they may want from the player, ways the player’s actions can alter their personality or respect for the player, and interactions that might come about from other allies. This gets more complex because multiple allies can be a part of many conversations. We spent a good part of the pre-production planning them out, and then we modify them as we’re writing them. Sometimes you just have to write a character to get a better sense of what works or what might be a fun route to explore with them.​

It was mentioned that there will be other survivor groups competing with you for resources. How will the player interact with them? Can he form alliances or attempt to raid their shelter? If the player keeps cutting a group off a resource (like, say, food), will the game take this into account? Also, will it be possible for NPCs that the player leave behind to show up as members of other groups?

Annie: It's wholly up to the player to determine how they want to interact with other groups. Mind, there will be times where some ragged individuals are only interested in either combat or flight, but larger and more well-organized groups (and they do exist) may be a bit easier to communicate with. Well, not exactly easier, but let's just say they're more likely to start out talking than shooting... even if there's no guarantee the latter won't end up happening anyway. And yes, if the player takes an aggressive stance towards a competitor for resources - and is rather successful at doing so - there will be consequences for them.

As for NPCs? It rather depends on the NPC, but I wouldn't count that out as a possibility...

Brian: Damn, Annie hinted at a lot of the good stuff already. But I want to emphasize, the game is about humans who COULD probably all band together and overcome this situation but don’t because fuck it, I got mine or I will take it from you. There are usually crisis events associated with voting on what to do with groups that either pose a challenge or an opportunity (you can get the basics of a crisis event in the Kickstarter video.) Bear in mind, some allies might have a problem with you just going in and blowing a hole in the leader of another band of survivors, because even if it’s the apocalypse, that’s kind of a dick move.​


We have seen from the videos that we will be upgrading our shelter and talking to NPCs. But what other things will we spend time on, for example when out of the shelter? Will we be going on set missions with specific goals, exploring Splendid and randomly discovering unique locations, or something entirely different?

Annie: Both! You'll have more freeform goals to explore and get supplies where you want, but allies will also talk to you with certain requests and suggestions which you're free to explore as you see fit. Be warned, though, not all requests can be put off indefinitely!

Brian: You’ll be looking for places to loot, following up leads, making sure basic needs like food and morale, and handling events that happen in the shelter, like law and order problems. Some events might need to be resolved in a certain amount of time, especially if you promised an ally you’d do something for them. And just to clarify, Splendid is a tiny little town – you have most of Central Texas to explore.​

You're using the same engine as Age of Decadence - does that make Dead State's combat very similar to AoD's? Are there any special actions you can take in combat? Or will we merely switch between two options, such as fast and aimed shots? Will there be different hit locations that you can aim for, possibly with local damage?

Oscar: The things they share are the grid system with the instructions for movement and the interaction with objects at a very basic programming level. The combat system itself is completely different, and built from the ground up for this game.

Brian: As Oscar said, aside from some skeletal turn-based mechanics we’re a completely different system. For one, we have noise as a big factor. Our combat is probably a bit quicker and maybe a bit forgiving in that we’re likely to give the player more of an advantage in large fights. We have allies and group orders, that’s a bit different too. All of our weapons have a different feel, so that each has their own drawbacks and strengths - a handgun might be weaker than a rifle, but its ammo is more plentiful, it’s not as loud, and it can easily be switched out to another 1-handed weapon. Melee weapons have much different collections of special attacks, giving them unique tactics in combat. Field medics can heal, and allies can be revived before they die if a medic can get to them in time. We’re also aiming to be a bit more frightening, as brought out in that moment when you enter a room to loot it and suddenly combat starts because you forgot to check the back room and now there’s a zombie chewing on your shoulder.​

Morale and panic seem to be very important mechanics. How do they relate to the rest of the game? Do they affect dialogue options and reactions, or the actions you can undertake in the shelter? Are there any interesting ways that they affect combat that you can share?

Annie: Panic is a factor in combat, where each ally has a certain default threshold of either pain they can take or "horror" (i.e. zombie presence) they can deal with before they really start losing it. You can help some characters start to shed these fears and harden themselves to the reality of the new zombie-infested world, and take steps to snap panicking allies out of their state more quickly.

Morale, however, is a factor across the board - it creates effects at both extremes that can affect ally behavior out of the Shelter, and it definitely affects people back at home. High morale can get tasks completed faster and more efficiently, while low Morale can cause allies to get depressed, think about leaving, or even begin planning a coup against you.

Brian: As Annie mentioned, if morale is not dealt with in dialogue or your overall actions in the shelter, it could manifest as someone running from gunfire or going berserk or just sitting there while the zombies shuffle toward them. Morale is a daily concern and you’ll want to find luxury items and increase people’s respect for your leadership to keep morale high. Things like starvation or a lack of fuel for the generator can also kill morale pretty quickly. When morale is high, your job is still hard, when morale is low, you better come up with a good plan quick.​

It has been said that the game has a definite ending, which implies there is some kind of "storyline" for the player to follow and not just a "sandbox" to play in. Are you going to do something like Fallout's slideshow? How linear is the main plot, and is it something the player ends up being forced into or something he can pursue at his own will? How do you combine it with the sandbox aspect and the huge amount of NPCs the player can pick up?

Annie: The nitty-gritty details of the ending are something we're going to be dealing with closer to the end of development, but there will be certain key elements along a timeline, and less of a rigid plot-point-to-plot-point sort of system. Aside from the key timeline elements, the world is very sandboxy, and the player can react to those key elements mentioned in multiple different ways.

Brian: Linear in the sense that time passes, yes. But the player can make a lot of choices within that time that can build up to many different outcomes. If they make it to the end. Think of it like this, each ally you pick up, each direction you go, every group you meet, how you spend your resources – they all open up new possibilities and situations. Your experience will come from the sum of those possibilities. I’m looking forward to hearing about how players handled their leadership in the shelter and what happened to them in the end.​


The game has a pretty wide scope, in that you have to deal with many different aspects at once, such as ranged and melee combat, exploration, resource management, shelter upgrades, people issues, etc. Given the limited resources you have as an indie team, what guiding principles do you use to balance all these aspects and how do you make sure they all work together?

Annie: I think the thing that helped the most for balancing all those aspects was a healthy pre-production timeline - before we really started getting the larger team together and making assets, we were ironing out all those elements and how they should fit together. So as far as systems go, even before we got a full-time team involved, we'd nailed down our key systems, and had started keeping a close eye on any other elements that might complicate those systems. Feature creep is the killer of many a project, both big and small, and keeping a vigilant eye out for it and shutting extraneous or overly complicated system elements down before any serious time was devoted to them has helped us rein in our resource use considerably.

Oscar: As the art lead, I focused on the creation of assets and structures that would get a lot of reusability. We have several “unique” locations, but we focus on creating models that will see lot of use in the levels. Also it was very helpful the contributions several community members made, and if the funding gets high enough, we will be able to hire several of them, making our work on the game much faster and varied.

Brian: When something felt extraneous or wasn’t working, we cut it or made it easier to implement. It’s the same with dialogue – if a character isn’t working or a sequence with them feels flat, we cut it or replace it. And, of course, for some systems we’re not trying to redesign the wheel.​

The first stretch goal for Dead State was a weapon pack which, as you explained in the Kickstarter update, enables new strategic options for combat. Are there any other aspects of the game that are similarly modular, allowing you to expand on and create new content for them separately when need be?

Annie: Well, since the game is a sandbox, adding areas of new content on the map is much easier than in a linear title, and certain creatures (like dogs as allies in combat) were planned out previously and had to be cut, but if we had the resources to add them back in, we'd already thought about how we'd like to handle them.

Oscar: As Annie explained, the nature of the game allows the seamless addition of new content like areas, models, weapons, allies, enemy factions, etc. Most areas are built with different pieces that are mixed and matched together, but if budget allows we would love to do more unique areas like a mall or county fair, or even venture inside a big city.

Brian: We have plans to support Dead State post-release, but it would be much easier if we could add in a lot of the content in our stretch goals while we’re making it. Higher funding also allows us to expand our team so that we have a much more experienced crew for any expanded content or expansions. We won’t be doing nickel-and-dime “monocles and Trapper Keeper skins” DLC packs or anything like that.​

To conclude this interview, what kind of post-release support and content do you have in mind for Dead State? Or would you like to start working on another project right after Dead State is released - if yes, what direction would you like to go in with your new project?

Annie: Whew, new project? I'm locked into thinking about Dead State right now! I'm not sure... I'd like to keep making stuff for the game, content wise - actual new scenarios and sizable additional content, not just mini-additions like armors or a couple locations - but we definitely have ideas for other games we'd like to pursue! (and personally, after the grim nature of Dead State, I'd like something a little bit more lighthearted to balance things out...)

Oscar: After Dead State and AoD, I only want a long vacation in Cuba, smoking cigars and dancing all day. But after that, it will be great to continue expanding the DS universe.

Brian: Holy shit, I want to go with Oscar! Oh, wait, I’m American… Okay, um, so post-release stuff will take care of either stuff that didn’t make the cut or stuff that the fans would like to see, some possible content to add in functionality for future titles, and maybe an expansion. We’ll want to reuse the assets as much as possible – I have some ideas, but it’s too early to think about another game. Let’s just get Dead State out and see if I still have my wits and health at the end.​

We thank Annie, Brian and Oscar for their time and wish them luck with their Kickstarter project!

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