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Designing each of the 50 weapons in Dead Cells to feel distinctive

July 7, 2017 | By Joel Couture

July 7, 2017 | By Joel Couture
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More: Console/PC, Indie, Design, Video

Dead Cells is a sidescrolling rogue-lite action platformer filled with generated twisting corridors, clever foes, and an array of weapons for players to uncover in the game’s stages. Fifty weapons, to be exact, and each of them offers a change in how the player approaches foes and combat.

“One of the big inspirations for Dead Cells is the Binding of Isaac," says Steve Filby, producer at Motion Twin, developers of Dead Cells. "That game is entirely based on the choice of items that you get. That’s the fun of the game.”

Weapons do provide a lot of fun for players of Dead Cells, offering multiple ways to play the game, and they’re as entertaining as they are due to a lot of work and consideration to their purpose, effects, looks, and changes they make in how to play the game.

A sword’s shifting purpose

“When we started out, Dead Cells had a tower defense aspect to it," says Filby. "You can see the legacy of that in a lot of the skills that are available, like all of the turrets and the things you can throw down and leave. They were the primary weapons when we first started development.” 

Ice grenade, diving Stomp attack, and rusty sword

"The idea is to let players try new weapons and see if they have a synergy with a secondary you’ve got. Play around with it. Have fun. Don’t get too attached to one weapon, and don’t work too much towards always having the same play style."

“We realized that wasn’t very fun – that wasn’t working. So, we moved away from that, and we said ‘Ok, we’ll take ownership of the action platformer side of things and moved to a full action platformer," says Filby. "At that point, Seb (Sebastien Bernard, lead developer/designer) said ‘You know what I love as gameplay? The Engineer of Team Fortress 2. You know how, by yourself, you’re not all that strong, but you can use your extra skills to just dominate?’”

“So, we said, let’s take that and use it," he says. "From there, as we started making it more and more action platformer-oriented, we realized that we’d put monsters in certain areas that make it difficult to fight. That’s when we started to add more melee-type weapons.”

It wasn’t just a means of giving the player the appropriate tools to deal with the types of enemies the developer included in their game, though. If that was the case, having a single ranged and single melee weapon could have solved that development problem. What the developer really wanted was for the player to have an ever-shifting experience over the course of play. An array of weapons with different play styles would keep things fresh and interesting through multiple replays.

“We’re not making a Dark Souls or a classic RPG game where you stick with one weapon and build it up,"  says Filby. "We’re making a game that’s faster-paced – that’s more focused on frenetic action – and is a rogue-lite, so based on runs. So, the idea is to let players try new weapons and see if they have a synergy with a secondary you’ve got. Play around with it. Have fun. Don’t get too attached to one weapon, and don’t work too much towards always having the same play style.”

Ice bow and whip

"You might really like hand-to-hand combat, but you’re going to come across a few of those ranged weapons and not have the choice, because they’re just so much more powerful and so much more interesting."

Subtle design choices encourage players to embrace that constant exchange of weapons. “As soon as you get to the second level, that sword’s not doing as much damage as you need to take on these new monsters," he says. "So, you’re going to have to change.”

“The difficulty curve of the game picks up along the way in order to force you to make that choice," Filby adds. "You might really like hand-to-hand combat stuff and not really like the distance arms, but you’re going to come across a few of those ranged weapons and not have the choice, because they’re just so much more powerful and so much more interesting that you need to change.”

It’s not all about forcing the player into a certain style. The weapons also ensure that the game features an element of strategy, adding that calculating element to the game through granting the player tools that may be better, depending on the situations that are coming up.  “For example, in the Ramparts, on the roof, there’s two enemies in that area – flying, distance enemies – that are quite difficult to deal with," says Filby. "Now, procedural generation has given me a tower in front of me filled with a bunch of discrete rooms with these little guys. So, I need to pop into the room, aggro one, bail as fast as I possibly can, and then take him somewhere and deal with him where I’ve got a little bit more space.”

“Or, you can say that the weapons you’ve got, say a freeze grenade, a flashbang, or something that’s going to stun them and stop them, and I’ve got a fast weapon that’s going to allow me to deal a lot of damage," he continues. "You walk straight in the middle of them, toss the grenade, and take them out while they’re frozen or stunned.”

As such, Filby looks at the weapons as a means of giving the player different opportunities to come up with ways to get through a given situation. Some changes are imposed on the player through increased challenge, but they still have enough choice of tools to grant them different ways to get through challenging parts.  “We don’t want the player to find themselves in a situation where they feel that the weapons they’ve got suck, because of the way the level’s been designed (with procedural generation). We want to give the player a sense of strategy as they run through,” says Filby.

The weapons have served many different purposes over the course of the game’s development, moving from a means to block oncoming enemies, to more action-oriented play, and then further refined with their stats and strengths to encourage a certain play style from the game’s players. They are not simply interesting combat tools, but are a means to extract a certain play style from those playing the game, and to enhance the possibilities for challenge and strategy.

A sturdy shield and a war spear

The beauty of the sword 

Filby didn’t want to just throw a bunch of weapons at the player without making them truly interesting to play with, though. Forcing the players to switch weapons, imposing a change in play style, had to have some benefit other than just increasing damage. That wouldn’t be very appealing to some players, and so many efforts were put in to make sure each weapon felt unique, exhibiting different characteristics, powers, looks, and feels.

"We take weapons that we like from other games, and then we see if there’s a way that we can make that weapon unique and interesting within the game."

“It’s been an iterative process," says Filby. "We just spitball stupid ideas around the office. We take weapons that we like from other games, and then we see if there’s a way that we can make that weapon unique and interesting within the game. You can put in short swords, maces, and any kind of mid-ranged melee weapon, but then if they all play in the same way, it’s not really providing any difference.”

For Filby, it would be important that each weapon have a different feel or functionality in the game, adding value to that variety they were shooting for with the weapon play styles, but also making new weapons more interesting to the player as they picked them up. They wanted those weapons to feel like a drastic change from what the player had before, so having dozens of weapons with similar combat styles just didn’t appeal.

“What we wanted to do was fiddle around with different ideas, but try to make them more interesting," he says. "For example, the dagger, from the front, does very little damage, but if you backstab you’re going to do critical damage.”

It’s not that players can expect their favorite weapons to never show up again, either, once it’s already appeared. Old weapons players may enjoy will still be recurring, but in more interesting ways.  “We take the basic sword and give it some kind of other interesting element. As the very first weapon in the game, it’s pretty boring – you just hack and slash. But then, the next iteration of that sword might be, if you’ve got less than fifty percent health, then it does critical hits at all times. That’s adds that little bit of difference where you can play with a basic sword, but there’s a risk and a big reward for that.”

It’s more than just the combat powers that make the game’s weapons feel appealing to use, though. A great deal of effort went into making sure each weapon had a sense of weight to its swing, or a visual flare to impacts that made them into something special.

" "We use a lot of particles, stop frames, slow downs and other techniques taken from the fighting game genre."

“The references for the feedback in Dead Cells are all fighting games, like Street Fighter 4, BlazBlue or Mark of the Wolves,"  says Sebastien Bernard. "We use a lot of particles, stop frames, slow downs and other techniques taken from the genre. For example, the critical hits freeze the game for one frame, followed by a slow down of a few tenths of a second, a nice blood spray and a specific impact sound feedback. It's the sum of all these things that create that feeling of weight when you introduce a big old sword to a zombie's skull.”

A sense of timing, or a hesitation in motion, can give a weapon a visual sense of heft, giving players a real feel for the weapon they’re swinging. Getting this right can be a slow process, taking a look at animations, frame by frame, to make the right alterations that give the swing a certain feeling.

“At the end of the day, it’s just a ‘feel’ thing. If a proposition for a weapon comes forward and we say ‘Nah, that’s awful.’ It doesn’t feel heavy or it doesn’t feel weighty enough. Then Tom (Vasseur, Creative Director, Animator) has a pretty idea of what, in terms of animation, is going to make it feel more interesting,” says Filby.

“He’ll says ‘You know what would be sick? If, at the moment this effect is here, we add an extra frame or two so that it lasts 0.2 of a second longer.’ That’s going to make it feel like a big, heavy weapon.” 

It was a slow process, one made a lot easier by some smart development decisions. “When we do the animation, it’s a 3D workflow. All of the weapons, enemies, and character are all 3D with pixel art rendered over the 3D skin. Then, what we do is pick key frames, when we export.”

“So, when we’re working on the animation, we can go ‘Oh! You know what would be awesome? If when you did the backswing on this sword, pause for a second, and then hit?’ In that situation, our programmer can go in, tweak the 3D animation, re-export, test it right away. We can have that in-game in half and hour to an hour as opposed to three or four days of re-animation,” says Filby.

“We specifically designed the workflow and the procress of creating the characters and animations to allow for the gameplay programmer to say ‘This is how I want this weapon to feel. This is how I want to be able to do multiple retakes. I want to be able to tweak and fiddle.’”

Through this choice of development style, the developers were able to fine-tune those details that make every weapon feel like it has a sense of weight and power with its swings. Through making minute, constant changes to how a weapon looks as it moves through the air, or at the point of impact, the developer could give the player a real sense of the weapon’s presence.

In doing this, the weapons are not only appealing for all of the changes they make up to the gameplay, and how they encourage players to strategize, but they also give a pleasant tactile sense as well. It would not only feel good to choose the right weapons, but it would feel good simply to swing them around.

“It’s really all about finding new and cool ways to make things die,” says Filby.

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