Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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The Game Which Can Not Be Killed: Interview with Dead State Developer Brian Mitsoda

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 26, 2012

As I have frequently stated, I’m pretty dang excited about the indie RPG-in-development Dead State, even though I’m not much of a zombie fan. But I have been a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction and (dice-and-paper) RPGs for a long time, and Dead State’s focus on the survival aspect intrigued me from the get-go.

Over the last week, I swapped a couple of emails with Brian Mitsoda, head of indie studio DoubleBear Productions, and the lead guy on Dead State. It was a fun exchange, and led to this interview.

To mix things up a bit, we decided to make the assumption that anybody reading this here already knows the basics about the game (if not, you can catch up on it here), and instead go into more of a “developer-to-developer” Q & A. We talked more about the experience of making the game (and what led to it), and then jumped into some nitty-gritty details about the design and setting for Dead State. Brian wasn’t at all shy about going into some depths with his answers, so I expect you will find this interview to be meaty, informative, and fun.

Dead State is currently being funded via Kickstarter, with a few days left as of this writing, so you have a chance to help make it a reality. They just hit their funding goal, so any additional pledges will help make the game bigger, better, and a cooler example of what’s possible with indie game development.


Jay (Rampant Coyote): How did you get your start? What made you want to become a game designer? And how did you get to where you are now?

Brian Mitsoda: Back when I was younger, game designer wasn’t a thing, or at least it wasn’t really known as a position you could aspire to. I’m not sure the majority of gamers still knows how games are made, but the dedicated probably have a good idea of what a designer does and some possible ideas on how to become one. You can even mod/create games pretty easily now to get your feet wet. If I had known such a job as designer had existed, I probably would have spent more time prepping to become one.

Aside from gaming since near-birth, I’ve always been interested in writing and it’s a talent that I started developing in grade school. That led to my eventually becoming an English major, which helped me develop story and dialogue skills, but is not a path I recommend to anyone who is going to sink a boatload of borrowed cash into education. I got some use out of my degree, but I would go back in time and tell myself to get a more well-rounded technical and creative education. That would probably cause a paradox though.

Anyhow, I crossed the country out to Los Angeles after college to pursue a career in screenwriting, which also resulted in adding catering and bartending to my skillset. I didn’t really care much for the Hollywood system and it was already obvious that the 90s boom was giving way to the modern cycle of remakes, sequels, and retreads, so I began rethinking the decision at the same time I just happened to start playing a game called Fallout. Writing and non-linearity and branching narratives? Why, that’s some exciting territory to contemplate as a writer. And there it was – the solution.

I found out Interplay was in Orange County (35 minutes from L.A. if a car-eating microbe destroys all of the world’s vehicles except for yours) and I applied for a position in QA and got it. I got promoted up to designer at Black Isle a few months after Icewind Dale testing wrapped up. This was back in the days where development was kind of like a series of dorm rooms where a bunch of enthusiastic NES-generation twenty-somethings talked, played, and worked on games. For at least some of the time at Interplay, it was “by gamers, for gamers”, though the marketing/corporate influence was starting to show up at uncomfortable levels. Oh, and I worked on a game called “Black Isle’s TORN” (yes, it was spelled in all-caps thanks to marketing) which was cancelled – welcome to game development!

The next place I worked was Troika. Oh, man, Troika was awesome. Great staff, small teams, a lot of the old Interplay feel (we were across the street) and pretty indie/garage by modern development standards. I worked as a writer/designer for Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, which a few people have played and enjoyed, which is very cool. Had a lot of fun working on Bloodlines, but boy did we crunch on that. Troika couldn’t secure funding after we shipped the game, and sadly that was the end of that.

I went to Obsidian next and worked with some great people on a game that we all thought was going to be something special before it got cancelled. Then I worked as a creative lead on Alpha Protocol, designed the dialogue system, and wrote a first draft of the story/dialogue, though that ended up not being used in the final game.

Which brings me to DoubleBear – the studio my wife and I founded and that is currently at work on the now funded Dead State: The Game Which Can Not Be Killed!

Jay: What made you decide to take your career “indie?” Why now?

Brian: I don’t know if you sensed a theme in the story of my career, Jay, but you might say I’d like to be in control of the destiny of my project if I’m going to spend years of my life pouring every bit of my sweat and creativity into it. Also, as a bonus, I own the property and not only profit from it, but have no worries of it being pulled out of my hands and given to another studio to make into an FPS with social gaming aspects. Seriously, it would be nice to build up a studio similar to the feel of Troika without having to worry about selling our next project to publishers or building up the team to levels necessary for “AAA” development. We want to make unique RPGs or other games and not worry about all the levels of management and stupid crap at the corporate level – I suspect it’s the same for most indie developers that come from the big studios. Let’s hope that works out for all of us, because we’re getting better and more interesting games all the time.

Jay: How’s it like being an indie now? Care to contrast some of the major differences between some of your previous career efforts and your indie experiences with DoubleBear?

Brian: It’s liberating for sure, but it’s a lot of work and responsibility too. There’s no shortage of stuff to do and when no one else can take it on, it falls to me. I’m the business guy and producer, which is somewhat new, although I’ve done my fair share of scheduling and estimates at bigger companies. I’m the project lead, which is always a ton of work as most everything has to pass through my hands for stamp of approval. I’m the primary designer, although a lot of the basic design is done at this point. I’m the lead writer, and writing always takes time. And PR takes up a bunch of time. My lead programmer (Nick) and lead artist (Oscar)do help with most decisions and managing their departments, so that’s a huge help – there are some indies that do it all, and a couple of my hats off to those guys and girls.

To contrast with studio positions, you’re probably going to be managing more people, but that means more people to help out on tasks. Usually, you’ve got one segment of the game like the writing or GUI, which doesn’t mean you’ll be less busy because you might have a tighter schedule and more production meetings or events to prepare for. But doing most everything on the project, yeah, that’s new, but I’m enjoying it. We’ve got a great team and I want these guys (and girls) to have a much better experience than I have had working on games in the past.

Jay: While the Kickstarter is new, you’ve actually been working on this game for quite a while. Any surprises or learning experiences you’ve gained from development so far?

Brian: Yes. We’ve gotten much better at explaining how we haven’t actually been working on the game full-time over the last few years and that this transition from part-time to full-time for the team will result in a much faster production. RPGs take a lot of time and a lot of developers – they are amazingly complex. It’s best to have your team and your funding at the start of the project, which means our next project will go a lot faster. The development’s been outlined and partially constructed for a while now, we’ve just been waiting for warm bodies to throw in the seat for eight hours a day to get this game finished.

Jay: So – why zombies? While I know the zombie-game genre wasn’t quite as saturated when you started down this path, what was it about the “zombie apocalypse” genre that you found appealing as a designer and writer?

Brian: I wanted something real world and a natural disaster aspect, but something that hit the whole world without destroying it outright like a meteor or a nuke. We’ve mentioned it a couple of times now, but we don’t think the zombie genre’s ever really been done correctly, and never in a branching RPG before. The zombies exist for an interesting game mechanic – they’re around, they respond to noise, but they’re only dangerous in groups or when you’re wounded. Humans are the real stars of Dead State, and that’s where most of the gameplay is centered on.

I’ve always held Dawn of the Dead up as one of those horror movies that almost anyone can get into because it centers on normal people trying to deal with the collapse of society and something greater than themselves. I think it’s that hook of zombie stories that people identify with – that idea of what would I do? Unfortunately, most games have answered the question with triple shotguns and chainsaw waifs.

Jay: Has the recent zombie “fad” run its course?

Brian: Zombie stories and games are always going to have an audience. I’m okay with more interesting and unique games involving the zombie genre because a good game is a good game. Just knock off the “kill zombies, lol” bullshit, please. It really is ruining it for the few projects like Project Zomboid and Day Z that are trying to do something else.

Jay: As to the game itself: How virulent is the zombie disease in Dead State? Is zombie-fication pretty much automatic for anybody who has been bitten (although perhaps staved off with medication), or is it more of a risk-factor thing with a period of “not knowing” until the symptoms manifest?

Brian: In Dead State, anyone who gets bit turns into a zombie within three days. For some reason, antibiotics will keep the disease at bay, but only if an infected human keeps taking them. Since bites are pretty easy to spot, there’s never any mystery of who is infected, but you better believe keeping around infected people is a contentious position at the shelter. When antibiotics start to run out, you will have to handle the situation, and let’s say the options are not always going to make everyone happy.

Jay: Besides hostile humans and the ever-present zombies (and threats of the disease), are there other threats in the Dead State world?

Brian: Let’s see – starvation, coup d’etat, serious illness (for allies), suicide, unsafe use of explosives, chemical inhalation, and expired pumpkin mix. I wish we had the budget for a zoo level – it’d be like Jurassic Park but with elephants and tigers.

Jay: Dead State takes place “during the beginning” of the apocalypse, according to your kickstarter information. What kind of time-frame are we talking about? Do we get a glimpse of normal life prior to the apocalypse? And how long of a time frame would a typical game encompass? Days? Months?

Brian: Starts at about two weeks in. You play through each day over the course of months, so you can see how keeping food and morale high is going to be a challenge. You can collect data items like hard drives, phones, and USBs to get emails, text logs, and internet caches to piece together what happened in the time before the game. Those are already written for the most part – there’s about a whole book’s worth of material to find.

Jay: The trend these days in RPGs seems to be more of a convergence on the traditional action-game model, to the point where Matt Findley of inXile actually suggested that RPGs “always wanted to be action games at their heart,” but were too limited by technology. Yet you’ve chosen to go with turn-based combat. In a ZOMBIE game, which for most players would suggest adrenaline-fueled running and gunning against the flesh-eating hordes. What made you decide to ‘buck the trend’ this way?

Brian: I don’t know if it’s “bucking the trend” since turn-based and action combat have always been completely different systems and gameplay styles. It’s like saying why play chess when checkers is faster and a lot easier to explain? But more than that, it’s come down to a few key points. One, we were looking at capturing the tension of X-Com – you can’t just click the mouse button faster to avoid that Chryssalid when he sneaks up behind you, just like the zombies in our game. Two, ranged combat in squad-based games tends to play out poorly and erratically, with melee being completely worthless. Three, we’re big fans of older squad-based strategy games and modern tactical games for both PC and console and we feel like the fans of those games are underserved. There are probably some more, but the thought of running around with a squad wasting ammo faster than I can click to tell them to stop has interrupted my train of thought.

Jay: Voiced or unvoiced dialog?

Brian: Unvoiced. Aside from the time and effort involved, it would cost an additional $50,000 minimum to do the voices in a way that I wouldn’t later regret. We can only do so many voices ourselves.

Jay: More on the dialog: It sounds like you are going to have a lot of characters, and you’ve mentioned branching dialog. So how do you juggle “canned” hand-written dialog with heavy player choice, and with complex AI and relationships? It seems the latter would lead to either a combinatorial explosion of variants of the former, or dialogs that are dry and generic.

Brian: No game is going to be completely reactive AI that generates new responses on the fly, but we’re going to provide a lot of reactivity, lots of branching in character arcs, lots of dependencies on the situation and what other allies are there. We don’t think every player is going to find every ally, nor are they going to have every ally alive for all possible scenarios. We have a lot of dependencies that roll a situation into the next ally on the list – for example, if a character is targeting a certain personality type at the shelter for a conflict, if their primary “target” isn’t there, they will go with the next best one. It’s the same with allies imparting information – if you’ve heard about a place from one of them, the other won’t tell you. We have some random elements thrown in on quite a few dependencies too. It’s a lot of scripting, but interaction is one of our key features.

Jay: Okay – with all you’ve learned making mainstream and (now) indie RPGs, including canceled projects: If you had some advice to impart on other developers (especially indies) tackling the genre that you wish you’d known then what you knew now, what would it be?

Brian: If you’re going to do an RPG, just realize you are picking one of the most difficult and labor-intensive games to make, and one that almost no fan will define the same way. If it was a toss-up between making an RPG and another type of game, go with the non-RPG first. Also, always tip your bartender and RPG developer well, because both would probably rather be on the other side of the bar.

Jay: Now that you know that Dead State will be fully funded, do you have any kind of loose projection for when we can expect the zombie apocalypse to start?

Brian: Late 2013. Unless it has already started before that, which I hope isn’t the case, because I would hate to have to compete with a free to play zombie apocalypse.


I’d like to thank Brian for taking the time from his crazy-busy schedule right now for this interview. I wish him, Annie, and the rest of the DoubleBear team lots of luck as they transition into full-speed development on what will hopefully prove to be another high-water mark in CRPG design.

Filed Under: Interviews - Comments: 5 Comments to Read

  • Charles said,

    I have to stop reading “go with a non-rpg first”. It’s just too late now damit :p

    Great job Jay, this is some awesome work again!

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Brian did most the work – that’s why I love doing interviews. 🙂

    Yeah, I came to the realization at the end of Frayed Knights that it was literally the biggest project I’ve ever worked on in terms of scope… in spite of having some best-selling AAA titles and an MMO under my belt. (The MMO was probably the second-largest, and Outwars coming in third).

  • Modran said,

    Just keep on, Charles, just keep on. You’re too far gone now :).

    I plunked in the Kickstarter for the game a week ago. mightily interested in it.

  • Indie RPG News Round-Up, June 2012 said,

    […] CommentsModran on The Game Which Can Not Be Killed: Interview with Dead State Developer Brian MitsodaRampant Coyote on The Game Which Can Not Be Killed: Interview with Dead State Developer Brian […]

  • Xenovore said,

    “Turn-based”… and the last dregs of excitement about this game trickle away.