Japanese Strategy-RPG Meets Western Sensibilities
A Kickstarter for Dark Deity was put up in August 2020, a colorful strategy-RPG that looked like a fresh take on the genre’s classic roots. The project blew its funding goal of $12,000 out of the water, taking in over $75,000 by the end. After years of hard work, Dark Deity’s release is drawing closer, later in 2021. I had the opportunity to sit down with Chip Moore and Dylan Takeyama, two of the lead developers on the small team.
The team behind Dark Deity is a group of fans trying to make the strategy-RPG they’ve always wanted to play, and we talked about everything from the game’s unique take on design elements like permadeath, to how much the project has changed from its inception.
Retroware: To start off with, how did the project form?
Chip Moore: Dylan and I, in late 2018, we were on winter break from college. We’ve talked for a very long time about getting into game development, sort of being a lifelong dream, and we have the time that we both felt like, you know, we earned a place for art school, we are going forward with that. We have room for something big. Let’s- let’s do it. Let’s get into game development. We would find ourselves googling games like Fire Emblem and not finding anything that, you know, sort of piqued our interest. So we thought, why- why aren’t there more SRPGs? You know, it seems like it’s not impossible to develop. Why don’t we just make it? Why don’t we make the game we want to play? And went from there.
Dylan Takeyama: Yeah, I mean one thing about the, you know, the Japanese style is like a– it’s kind of an easy medium to get your first game out. Especially with the portrait art like it’s not something super realistic. I think it was kind of out of our scope at the time, and you know, we’ve always enjoyed the kind of pixel art aesthetic, that sort of thing.But yeah, I guess it’s kind of a staple, the anime-type Japanese style of the SRPGs.
Chip: Yeah. Something I did want to comment on is that you say, Japanese, you know, strategy RPG. Something that I think we’re doing that we are really happy with is putting in more Western spin on a type of game that is generally restricted to heavily, you know, Japanese virtues and values.
Retroware: And what kind of background does everyone on the team have? Does anyone have a specialization in tactical RPGs, things like that?
Chip: Not in the slightest [laughs]. I mean, Dylan’s graduating with a Philosophy degree this year. I graduated with Econ and Math last year. Nick, who’s our narrative designer, has the closest to a video game background because he’s a minor in video game design, or his program, you know, partially focuses on it. And then John and Sam, who are the other two members of the core team, both graduated from the same school that I did with completely unrelated degrees. Uh, and none of us have ever worked on games before so we’re all complete newbies and everything…
Dylan: Yeah, a lot of our– I guess, talent, just comes from us playing video games for so long. And we just know the ins and outs of all these different games and we know kind of what makes a good game, or we like to think we do.
Chip: We like to think we do. Yeah.
Dylan: Yeah. We hope we do. [chuckles] That’s for sure, and that’s kind of a lot of where our game philosophy comes from is kind of just taking things from other games- not taking…
Chip: We go around the rules, I guess.
Retroware: The inspiration from Fire Emblem is obvious but are there any other series or games that you’ve kind of drawn inspiration from or have kind of influenced the project?
Dylan and Chip: Absolutely. Yeah.
Chip: I would say that what we’ve- what we’ve tried to do is we’ve taken the formula of the strategy RPG of the Fire Emblem which just you know, happens to be the king of that genre, and we’re sort of applying tropes from a whole bunch of different genres to what we’re doing. Like Dylan, I both play World of Warcraft. The skill system in our game, I would say is actually closer to a World of Warcraft type than another SRPG. Obviously, you know, how it applies is within the same realm, but how we went about deciding, what are these classes going– what are they going to feel like? It leans more MMO, I would say.
Dylan: Yeah. Like a big thing is with Fire Emblem – Like we both enjoy Fire Emblem a lot, but there are some things with Fire Emblem that we didn’t really like, kind of like the monotony. But the classes are kind of similar. They feel very– the same and so we took inspiration from other RPG games where you can really design your character and build around that character and you know, they say like a real-like character identity and class identity as something we really wanted in Dark Deity, and I don’t really see that in Fire Emblem so that’s one thing I guess.
Chip: The more recent games present a choice that doesn’t necessarily have a huge impact, a lot of the time, which I think is a gripe a lot of people have. And while I do like all of the newer games as well they’ve disappointed me in, you know, certain ways and they’ve wowed me in others. And sort of the values that I look for in an RPG are lacking now and that’s where it comes from is, you know, I want to make a good RPG. It’s a strategy RPG, but the RPG does matter.
Retroware: With that– I was wondering about the class system. And how do you make sure that the class system feels satisfying to players and that it feels like they have a lot of choice within that realm?
Chip: Hmm…number one thing is that making your choices impactful, right? The aptitudes, which is you know, the percent chance that a stat will go up when you level up, come about half from the character and half from the class itself. So, the class path that you do choose factors quite heavily, and then pair that with our advantage system, with how your damage type determines your effectiveness against other kinds of units, as well as the class skills, which are hugely impactful. It definitely– if you put your character into a different class path, they will feel different.
Dylan: Yeah, it’s just the way our class system works as you know, it’s completely designed around just each playthrough being completely different in each character. Because you can just spec into one role like Barbarian, and then go into Knight or rather Champion. Those are two different classes, tier one-two and tier two-three, respectively. This is going– a completely different than if you’d gone I don’t know, Knight, in your second tier because you have different- a different set of skills, and they’ll interact differently and that’s kind of what we want. Like when I said, class identity and character identity, that’s kind of what we were aiming for.
Retroware: Yeah. And I did see too that, one of the other things that sounds like it makes each character unique is the Eternal Aspects. How do those affect each unit and how do those play into the overall kind of experience?
Chip: So to tell you, Eternal Aspects are more of a cherry on top type of design. They are not intended to define the playstyle. They’re not going to be central but what they do is, once you’ve, you know, sort of dictated, “This is what my character is good at. These are their strengths,” you can take the aspects which have various effects from making you deal more damage on counter-attacks to like, swapping your stats around. You can take those and say, “I want to take this as a step further and really specialize in one way and tho the aspects allow you to do that in a modular way, where you don’t have to stick to it for a whole playthrough, because they can be traded around.
Retroware: I think one of the more important aspects of any strategy RPG is going to be map design, obviously. How have you gone about trying to make each map feel unique or make them feel dynamic?
Chip: Yeah. So the fun thing about having fifty-four classes is that a lot of the map design actually comes through enemy variety, and how you go about placing the enemies. So we’ve made sure that, if there is an objective in the map. I mean, there’s always an objective in the map but whatever it is, it’s tailored to what is happening in the story at that moment. It was really important to us that, it’s not always just run down the lane and kill everything in sight. But making it so the map feels like a distinct moment in the story and not just the combat you have to do to get to the next piece of story, if that makes sense.
Dylan: Yeah, and like another thing is, you know, we’ve also added our own sort of like mechanics in the game. We won’t get into that too much but, there are different ways to get through the level and there are strategies to do that sort of thing. I really don’t want to say anything in particular here, but you know that it’s- it’s fun to, you know, mess around with those sorts of things.
Chip: Yeah, to- to mess around with the tools that you’re given.
Dylan: Exactly and each map, you know, it has its own thing, so yeah.
Kickstarting the Project
Retroware: I’m kinda switching gears a little bit. I was wondering what the story, obviously not getting into specifics but in general, what kind of tone are you going for? Because strategy RPGs can have wildly different tones in terms of their stories.
Chip: Yes, absolutely. Ours, I think, changes throughout the game depending on what’s going on. We don’t-it’s not necessarily consistent because it does– you do go through big structural changes for what the characters are experiencing, but something I would say, is a big pillar is determination I would say to a degree, humility. The characters that, you know, maybe haven’t had a lot of experience in a leadership role growing into that and seeing how there can be hiccups there and it’s not always a natural thing.
Retroware: You’ve been announcing a lot of voice actors recently. Was it always planned to have voice acting or was it something that kind of came along?
Chip: No. That- that came along as our VA director loves to remind us.
Dylan: Yeah. There’s a funny story about that. [chuckles]
Chip: So the person who handles all of the logistical side of the voice acting, Molly Zhang, had reached out to us when we first dropped the reveal trailer because she’s a huge Fire Emblem fan, and loved strategy RPGs. And she was like, “Yeah, I’d love to help out with this.” And we said, “Oh, you know, it’s not in the cards right now.” So we sort of get the- when she’s annoyed with us, we get the, “Oh it’s not in the cards,” [laughter] because it wasn’t planned. We, as first time designers, we had no idea how much it would cost, what it would be to implement, and it turned out to be, you know, totally doable within what our scope is, which was a pleasant surprise
Retroware: Yeah, and how has the reception been to the casting calls? Because there’s some- there’s some prominent voice actors that have been announced as well.
Chip: There are.The reception’s been really good, people are excited. I try not to pay too much attention to the specifics on that because we cast blind from a list of, it’s just Irving one, two, three four and five. So we’re just as surprised as other people are, one that’s, you know, someone huge- we’re like, “Oh my God, this is so cool. This is our first game and we got these super-talented people.” And- and every voice that goes in the game is just awesome.
Retroware: Yeah, definitely. And is the scope of the voice acting, is every character going to be voice, basically?
Chip: More or less, yeah. There might be- there might be like villager one that doesn’t get a line but outside of that. Yeah.
Retroware: One of the other gameplay aspects that caught my eye was the injury system which is a big change from the typical permadeath. What’s the idea behind that and how does it play into the game versus permadeath and things like that?
Chip: Yeah. So what we wanted to do with Grave Wounds – if you’re a fan of the genre, you’ve played a level for fifty minutes and gone in a one percent critical and died with your best unit at the end and had to restart and do the whole thing over. And then the next time over, you get bad level ups and it just puts you in a bad mood. We wanted to introduce a way that you’re still punished for making poor strategic decisions and you still have to play the game well. But there’s more of a curve where you can say, you know, my time going back and replaying this level isn’t worth the two strengths that I just lost. Right? There’s more agency on your end because if you lose your best unit, you’re going to restart the level in permadeath. And in this system, you don’t necessarily have to, and of course you’re gonna reset more if you’re dying early in the level. When I play, I’ll reset earlier in the level mode most of the time if someone dies. But you know later on, if you’re on the very last enemy and you lose a non-essential stat, it’s sort of– it feels good to see what stat it is- it comes in and you’re like, “Oh what a relief, you know, I made a mistake but everything is okay.”
But there is still that terror of you know, what if it hits my high-strength unit and I lose five strength and he’s useless. I’m really happy with how it’s turned out but we’re yet to see how the mass public deals with it. So we’ll see. I’m very interested to see if people like it or not.
Retroware: With the Kickstarter, it seems like it was quite a bit more successful than you expected it to be. Has it allowed you to kind of increase the scope of the project and do things that you didn’t think you were able to?
Chip: Definitely, we’re not treating the extra money on top of everything like income, right? Like that’s all going into the game. And it might not be a whole new system, but what it is is just a higher quality, more quantity of, you know, the asset types that are maybe non-essential but that we said, “You know, let’s do more.”
Chip: That includes two like, for voice acting, we’re planning two voice NPCs on some of the enemies. And that’s something that we definitely wouldn’t have been able to do if the Kickstarter hadn’t gone super well.
Retroware: Yeah. One thing I have noticed is that the sprite art in battle has changed quite a bit from the announcement.
Chip: Yeah, yeah. [chuckles]
Retroware: What kind of prompted that change? Was that part of the Kickstarter success as well?
Chip: We were going to make that change regardless of how the Kickstarter went. I mean, obviously, if it didn’t get funded at all, we wouldn’t but, you know, assuming that the Kickstarter funded, we were going to make that combat art change. And it’s actually a good thing that it overfunded as much as it did because that has been a huge project largely because we are trying to fit an entire redesign of an asset class into the time between Kickstarter launch which had been a shorter time promise than we ended up able to deliver on. But now, we’re through all but I think outside of a couple of boss animations, we have two classes left to finish so we’ve sort of made it there now. But it definitely– it definitely was a huge project.
Retroware: Yeah, I can- I can only imagine, honestly. Like you said earlier, that everyone’s kind of new to game development here. What has kind of been the biggest struggle or hurdle that you’ve had to get over during development?
Chip: Controlling scope maybe, Dylan, what do you say?
Dylan: Yeah, yeah probably. Because we wanted- we were ambitious. We wanted to add all these things to the game. And you know, it’s just with the team we have, it’s not a huge team. So it’s not like we can just bust out all these things.
Chip: That’s more of a high-level struggle, I would say, day to day we’re a lot more efficient with just doing general development things than we were when we started now. And I’d say development is going ten times as smoothly now even with more people working on it than it was when we started in 2018. So I’d say just kind of learning on the job has been what has taken the most of the time.
Dylan: Yeah, that’s not necessarily because we aren’t coders. You know, we aren’t all that sort of thing. I think it’s just first-time devs, the experience you get for your first game, I think that’s kind of, you know, we’ve kind of learned as we go and it’s- I guess that’s how- that’s how it is.
Retroware: How have you adapted to the COVID situation and development during that? Has that been a struggle at all?
Chip: It’s been a struggle. We’re extremely blessed that most of us are in a very good spot. And, it hasn’t been a huge impact on the core dev team, but there have been members of the team, really important members of the team that have been impacted a lot more heavily by it. So it’s been- it’s definitely been hard.
Dylan: Yeah, for like a lot of other people, it’s kind of, we’ve had delays with certain deadlines. And, that’s okay, but we understand, you know, it’s all good.
Retroware: And how has the fan reception been so far? How has fan feedback and input kind of changed things?
Chip: Oh, it’s blown us away, in every sense of the term. The community has been driving us since we announced the thing. We had no idea how it was going to go but we have such an amazing backing of people that like really, really, really, care about the game. So we want to honor that by listening to feedback and really digging into, you know, if they have gripes with things that we show. Really look at, what are doing wrong here? You know, we’re the first people to look and try to see what we’re doing wrong, and having the community behind us has helped a lot with that.
Life After Launch
Retroware: The Kickstarter said that you were hoping to release on other systems as well as PC, of course. Is there any word on how that’s going? Does that look likely at this point?
Chip: It’s impossible to say until the PC launch happens because we’ve always said, we don’t want to compromise that launch. But we promise that we’re going to finish the game. And it’s something that we definitely would like to do as a team that we want to do, but it is going to depend on how the PC launch goes.
Retroware: With the PC launch coming up later this year um, do you have any plans for supporting the game or patching or add-on content, anything like that?
Chip: So, we do have add-on content. So the stretch goals from the Kickstarter, which is another thing that we said we’re not going to delay the game for this but we will get it done. The stretch goals are going to be post-launch content. So character side stories, the villain side stories, beach mode, and the lore journal, are all going to be after launch updates to the game, pretty much.
Retroware: My final question, that I’m pretty curious about is, you know, with this being the first game you put out, obviously, the focus is on getting that out first, but do you have any idea where you go from here?
Retroware: Are you guys going to stick in game development? What’s the plan?
Chip: Yes. We will be sticking in game development. And we have been heavily planning recently what we want to do next. We’re really really excited. It makes us want to finish the game, or I’ll put it that way. I’m really excited for what is to come next.