A surprise release during this year’s E3 festivities, Dark Deity takes elements from classic Fire Emblem and other strategy-RPGs and gives them a modern spin. We talked to the indie game’s creator, Sword & Axe’s Chip Moore, about the state of the genre and what Dark Deity does differently.
Graham Russell, Siliconera: First: why did you make this game?
Chip Moore, creator, Dark Deity: In 2018, I was a junior in college getting an econ degree, and I would find myself frequently Googling “games like Fire Emblem.” Obviously, I’m a gamer. I love Fire Emblem. I play all sorts of things, but Fire Emblem in particular has always drawn me, because there’s nothing else like it. I was super-disillusioned with the degree I was getting. I hated the work I was doing at summer internships. And I thought, during winter break of junior year: “I’ll just make a game. Why not?” So I taught myself to code.
It’s been two and a half years since then. The first six months or a year looked very different than they do now, let’s put it that way.
I think this genre deserves more of a chance than it’s getting. Especially among my younger generation who are so used to these big multiplayer games now, and the strategy-RPG is just nonexistent.
You were talking about being a junior in college in 2018. This game that you’ve made is an homage to Fire Emblem, for sure, but it’s an homage to an era of Fire Emblem that you weren’t really alive and playing games for, so how did that come about? How did it become this GBA-era thing?
It’s a combination of things, right? Partially, it’s what we’re able to achieve as a small studio: 2D. 3D has its merits, and there are ways in which it’s easier, but what I looked into learning was 2D. Partially, it’s because I have always thought that the 2D sprite work in these sorts of games is significantly more expressive.
But how it came about that it harkens back to the GBA or older games… I have older brothers who played Fire Emblem, so I got the hand-me-down Game Boy and that sort of thing. As a gamer, I’m really not a true strategy or RPG fan, I play all sorts of things. And what we wanted to do with Dark Deity is to take the strategy-RPG, the format of a Fire Emblem, and just take the baseline and run with it in every way we can and make it our own. That’s how we came to the class system we have, and the advantage system.
What were the main things that you saw as… not necessarily problems, but things you could do with the genre that were not being done before?
The biggest thing is players making choices that make an impactful difference and that have both positive and negative ramifications. Games in general are trending in this direction, but especially SRPGs. You might make story choices, but they don’t impact the game you’re playing very much. Or you might make class choices, but you don’t really change the character all that much by doing that. We wanted to make a game where the player has a huge amount of agency in how their characters turn out every time.
On a more granular level, there were a couple of problems that we wanted to address. Of course, probably the biggest one being permadeath. I think it’s a huge barrier to entry for a lot of new fans. It’s a small part of why the genre never really took off in the way that I believe that it could one day. Because it’s a scary prospect that if you play poorly, you’ll permanently lose these units.
When Fire Emblem introduced the idea of permadeath and casual mode being the two extremes, it sort of created a split in the fan base. With neither in my eyes being the best solution! So we wanted to find how to handle defeat states without making it too punishing to the degree that you’re just wasting your time? And how do we not take it all the way to the point at which playing poorly means nothing? That led us to the Grave Wounds system. When a unit is defeated, they lose ten percent of one of their stats, depending on what killed them.
Your 2D style, your pixel art… the type of player who is nostalgic for that look is often nostalgic for the punishing “permadeath only” thing. It’s interesting that you’re trying to take on both of these problems at the same time. Do you anticipate any friction with that?
We’ve definitely had some pushback on permadeath not being a thing. Which is totally fair! Because people want that. But the game, and how easy it is to die, is centered around Grave Wounds. It’s easy to lose your units! In a normal SRPG with permadeath, it has to be achievable to not lose your units. In Dark Deity, enemies are really strong, your units are really strong and things scale pretty high.
Making mistakes can be very punishing at times. Not having permadeath has given us freedom to really go wild with the systems and really create a sandbox for building these characters. They can get really strong and enemies can get really strong and it’s not going to make the game this unpleasant experience where you get an hour into a level and you have to restart.
Speaking of a bunch of systems and going wild with them! I don’t want to belittle the amount of time in your life two and a half years is [laughs], but for a super-small team indie game, that’s not a particularly long dev cycle!
No, it’s not!
What did you do to rein in your scope and make sure that it was something that you could complete?
That is a fantastic question! A couple of things. Everyone has four weapon trees that they can upgrade as an individual unit. These don’t change the cosmetics of their attack, so a cleric has the cleric attack animation. We sort of saved a lot of our dev time on being efficient with that. The spells do change the animations, though.
In terms of limiting scope, the bonds are the big deal. Hitting a reasonable amount of bonds that we can write and have be good. Every character has ten other characters that they can bond with and view three conversations between each pairing. So there’s 450 conversations total. Which is a lot! But we had ample time to write them.
There’s sort of an artistry to — and this isn’t the most delicious quote — but there’s an artistry to cutting corners where people aren’t going to notice that it’s a corner cut. We had to learn very early what is actually cutting corners and what is focusing on things that are impactful.
Part of our scope control was knowing our strength was in creating a sandbox where we’re just going to give you as many amazing options as we can, and if it’s not the most curated experience, we can live with that as long as it’s really fun to play.
That’s interesting to me. At first glance, doing this GBA-style pixel art for animations is geared toward people who love that aesthetic, but when you talk about scaling back the number of animations and things like that, that leans into the portion of the audience — that admittedly, I’m a part of — that after the first map or so, you turn off the animations because it’s taking way too long.
When you play these games, do you turn off the animations?
I am like you, I turn off animations. But I like some of the animations! You can hop in the options and just turn them off, but if you want, you can hit a button and skip one. So it’s sort of a middle ground. Sometimes it’s nice to watch, like, a cool spell happen, but if you’re just trying to get through, in the moment, you can do that. I think it improves the pace a lot.
On a similar pacing note: map size. What is your ideal map size? This is the kind of thing that defines games, you know, how long a map takes. What were you going for?
There are some levels that take significantly longer than others. It was a huge focus for us to tie the levels deeply into the story, so when you’re playing the level you feel like you’re playing the story. And that sort of requires that they be flexible, length-wise.
We have a 14-unit team size, so they get pretty big! And building a team in Dark Deity is different from building a team in another strategy-RPG. The characters have extremely well-defined niches, and you build them to do very specific things.
I think it’s important to note that Dark Deity is more of an RPG than it is a strategy game. It is both, and the strategy is important, but the primary focus of this game is in building your units up and creating cool builds.
Okay, last thing. I have to ask this because everyone in the comments section will hate me if I don’t. I know you’re just releasing the game and this is a mean thing to ask.
You porting this thing to Switch?
We would like to.
The truth of the matter is that this is the first game I’ve ever worked on. I’m 23, I’ve never shipped a game or worked on a game. I would like to, it depends on how the Steam launch goes? It’s something that I will try to make happen, but I just can’t make any promises. There’s no guarantees right now. But if I can, I will!