Interview : Matthieu Richez talks Dead in Vinland

Like a true survivor.
Trying to tell an affecting story about a family of castaways through a survival/management game is quite the balancing act. Dead In Vinland dared to tackle it and the studio's co-founder Matthieu Richez talked to us about how they managed to pull it off.

Hi Matthieu. To start off, please introduce yourself in a few words.

I co-founded the dev studio CCCP 13 years ago. We're mainly known for educational games (serious games), but we've always developed games. In recent years I decided I wanted to take the company in a new direction: Now we develop games we like to play ourselves and work more like an indie studio with no constraints. I am Lead Game Designer on these games.

How would you describe your day-to-day work in a few words?

I split my time between studio management (as little as possible :wink:) and on game design for our games. It's actually very varied: I can spend a day writing dialog for a character or designing a new system for the game or answering questions from graphic designers/programmers; or I could be doing paperwork, profitability tables, managing partners, etc.

Where does your love of survival games come from?

Hmm, well I like two elements of these types of games: careful management of sparse resources and the difficult choices you have to make, and how character relationships evolve in an isolated situation. One of survival's assets is that it's fertile ground for creating memorable stories, which are written or conveyed by the gameplay. But I'm not really a die-hard survivalist, even though the prospect of hiking in nature with just a backpack on appeals to me more and more these days :)

What were your references for Dead in Vinland, for the atmosphere, world and game design?

It wasn't particularly straightforward. We were somewhat inspired by our previous game, Dead in Bermuda. During production we read Vinland Saga a lot, and I know that it was a great source of architecture and Viking gear reference for our AD because the manga series is well-regarded for being historically accurate. I was told after the game released, but for certain characters and the dialog tone I was perhaps subconsciously inspired by the Kaamelott series by Alexandre Astier and by the many Terry Pratchett novels I read when I was young. We were also inspired by Darkest Dungeon for the combat, especially in terms of animation techniques because the mechanics are quite different if you study them.

In terms of game design, what was the most difficult aspect in Dead in Vinland?

We added a lot of layers to the management, and the most complicated aspect is that all the gameplay elements — and even the dialog — have an effect on each other. For example, making the combat easier will mean that the player will have more loot, and that his characters will be less injured, and so they won't necessarily need to be healed, so they can go and find more resources during the day… Basically, changing a single value somewhere can have huge repercussions throughout the game. And to evaluate this, we needed to do several days of test sessions. I remember in the last week before release, I increased the chances of contracting certain diseases by 1%, and it made the game totally unplayable!

What was your biggest challenge?

Well, I admit that we took on a bit too much for Dead in Vinland. I didn't want to have any regrets, so I wanted to put all I could in the game, but we ended up having to cut at least four characters and some features to make it manageable. We started production with three people and I had thought we'd manage to complete the game with three, but ultimately it needed 10 developers to complete the game on time (we also had to delay release twice from the original planned date). In terms of writing in particular, I needed three additional game designers for support. We completely underestimated the workload, but we somehow did it in the end.

How did you use randomness in Dead in Vinland and why?

Hmm, given that Dead in Vinland is "quite hard" where players often need to start again, we needed to have randomly generated elements to ensure there was fresh interest for new games. We also used randomness to simulate reality: When you go fishing with a piece of string on a stick, you might manage to catch lots of juicy fish, but return empty-handed the day after. If there were less randomness, the game would be like an enormous puzzle with one solution. In fact, there is no perfect solution: Just like in survival situations in the real world, you don't know what will happen, and you have to adapt to whatever fate throws at you :) We also see randomness as a way to generate challenges for the player without a linear script. As a player, I tend to prefer automatically generated challenges through procedural generation than a completely scripted quest, which may be really well-structured but is ultimately "single use."

How did you go about testing the balance of the game?

With difficulty! x) There was a crazy month when I would be tuning and adjusting settings in the day and then testing all night. It was really hard. Our AD also spent a great deal of time on the game, so we would discuss it. And we asked the whole team — even those who hadn't worked on it directly — to test it with fresh eyes. On the whole, the testing that other people did helped me to see what was too difficult, but I knew that I was also a good judge of the game's difficulty because we wanted a challenging game, and I know that those who play this type of game are enthusiasts who will be even better than the dev team. So, I basically balanced it for my "level," then lowered it a tad to make it more accessible.

Have you already learned some lessons from Dead in Vinland? If yes, what?

Oh yes, definitely! We really listen to the community and we read just about ALL feedback from players (which takes a lot of time). So, we try to see what we could do to improve for our next games. One of the biggest lessons I think I've learned is to maintain a certain "clear" consistency between all the game's elements: the name, the AD, the gameplay, the writing. I think many players were expecting a sandbox survival game with big burly Vikings, and so they were a bit disappointed to see that it was more subtle and more narrative than that At a less general level, for the moment I no longer want to place a game in a historical context, it's a lot more work for not a lot more benefit. Be careful with RNG, the more info you give players, the more likely they will be frustrated. Things like that.

Do you have any advice for those wanting to become Game Designers?

Taking a game design course helps a lot because it puts you in a proper team environment and internships that give you your first professional experience. Go to game jams. Write concepts. Make games, even with basic tools like RPG Maker or similar. Try lots of different games, including board games. Try to understand their strengths. Travel. Watch series and movies, read… And take ideas and concepts from them. These days, there's no excuse for not having a portfolio of actual work to show. The tools are out there, you just need to work at it seriously.

Thanks, Matthieu!