• Larry Kilgore III

PixelSmiths Ep. 9: Children of Morta w/ Dead Mage Studio Director Amir Fassihi



The growth of an indie studio over the span of a decade.


On this episode, Larry & Clinton talk with Amir Fassihi, Studio Director at Dead Mage Studios, creators of Children of Morta. Children of Morta is a hack'n'slash action RPG with a rogue-lite approach to character development, where you don’t play as a single character - but a whole, extraordinary family of heroes.


In this interesting conversation, they talk about the creation of the studio in 2010 and how it's grown, how Amir's role at the company has changed over the years, some of the lessons learned while developing their previous releases, and how Children of Morta grew from a side project that was only supposed to take 6 months, into a game they spent 5 years on, and is the biggest release for the studio so far.


Other games discussed include: Garshasp, Shadow Blade, God of War, Hades, Binding of Isaac, Nuclear Throne, Risk of Rain, the Diablo series,

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Find Children of Morta on Steam: https://store.steampowered.com/app/330020/Children_of_Morta/


Visit the Dead Mage Studios website: https://deadmage.com/

Follow Dead Mage Studios on Twitter: https://twitter.com/deadmagestudio

Follow Amir Fassihi on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ahfassihi


Transcript:


Larry Kilgore III:

Video games are an art form. From the bits and bytes of the old school arcade cabinets to the technological advancements of the modern era, video games have been a way for creators to tell stories in an interactive environment that can be shared the world over.


Clinton Bader:

Developers, designers, visionaries, and storytellers, like the artisans of old, it's, their blood, sweat, and tears that go into crafting these unique and innovative experiences for players. But oftentimes the independent artists get lost in the overwhelming space, that is today's hectic gaming market, and on PixelSmiths, it's our goal to be a platform for those artists to celebrate their drive, their vision, and the work it takes to create their art.


Larry Kilgore III:

On this episode, we'll speak with the Vancouver-based studio director for Dead Mage Studios, creators of Children of Morta, a roguelike hack-and-slash adventure. This is PixelSmiths.


Larry Kilgore III:

Hello, and welcome to PixelSmiths. I'm Larry Kilgore, III, podcast creator and video game enthusiast.


Clinton Bader:

And I'm Clinton "Paper Thin" Bader, an eSports broadcaster and commentator, and we're here today to give a voice to the vision and the creative process involved in making indie video games.


Larry Kilgore III:

Today, we are talking to Amir Fassihi from Vancouver, British Columbia, studio directo and mage at Dead Mage Studios, creators of Children of Morta. Amir, thank you for joining us on the show today.


Amir Fassihi:

Thank you for having me.


Larry Kilgore III:

So, Amir, of all the people we've talked to so far on the show, you're one of the people who's been running their own studio for the longest amount of time. Dead Mage was founded in 2010, and you've made several games before working on Children of Morta. Can you tell us a bit about your background, what led you to wanting to create your own gaming studio, and what things were like running your studio during those early years?


Amir Fassihi:

Yeah, sure. So, for me, being able to make video games was a love, a passion since I was in junior high school. I grew up in Japan in the eighties, and those were the days that the Nintendo entertainment system came along, and so I grew up with Mario, Zelda, and all the fantastic Nintendo games. And I always dreamed of being able to make it. I guess, many, many other kids are like that. I studied engineering, so I was always interested in the programming side of making games, and I did small tests here and there while I was in university, and then afterwards, when I was working, I was working in a 3D engineering software company called Dassault Systems. We were working on... It wasn't video games. It was 3D modeling software, but I had this passion, so I would just go to GDC. I read articles and everything, but nothing came out of it. I mean, being a programmer alone is not enough.


Amir Fassihi:

Until one day I met a very good friend of mine, Cyrus, who was a 3D modeler. We weren't friends back then, but we became friends. I was friends with his brother, who was a programmer. And I said, "I'm interested in video games." He said, "I'm also interested in video games. You want to do some tests?" "Yeah. Why not?" I said, "I'm going to do some programming. You can do some modeling stuff." It started as a two man team, and after a couple of months we added two more friends, a concept artist and an animator. We worked for two years just as R&D or just studying, learning about making games. But it all went really well. So we were able to increase the size of the team to six, after two years of working on those prototypes and models. And that was how the company started, actually. So a couple of friends getting together and just banging their head on the wall and trying to learn.


Clinton Bader:

So you said you were raised in Japan. Can you tell me how that came about? I live in South Korea, so I'm actually kind of always curious about how other people come to live in Asia as well.


Amir Fassihi:

Yeah. So my father, he was actually in the embassy. I was born in Iran. My father was the armed forces attache of Iran in the Iranian embassy in Japan, in Tokyo. So we moved there with my whole family, and I started there from fourth grade up to seventh grade, and yeah, that's how we were in Japan.


Clinton Bader:

Did you like growing up there? Personally, did you enjoy the experience of going to school there?


Amir Fassihi:

Oh, I loved it! I loved every second of being in Japan. And, you know, when I left Japan in '88, I never went back, unfortunately, until I think 2018 that we went to attend the BitSummit game events in Kyoto and then to Tokyo Game Show. Again, because of my love for Japan, we have been working on a game which is called Tale of Ronin. It's a game set in feudal-era Japan about ronin, and so for that game, we have gone to Kyoto and Tokyo quite a few times. So I think I went there, it was after close to 28 years or 29 years, and I loved the fact that many things had changed and many things were exactly as they were 28, 29 years ago. But yeah, I really enjoyed being there.


Larry Kilgore III:

So there were a few games you've released before Children of Morta. There was Garshasp, Shadow Blade, Epic of Kings. Can you tell us a little bit about what making those games were like with the small team that you had?


Amir Fassihi:

Yeah, so, initially the biggest mistake any team with little experience makes is dreaming big and selecting a scope, which is way, way, way bigger than what you can do. So for Garshasp, the first game, it was a game that we wanted to make to be like the God of War game. So we were all fans of God of War I and II back then, and we said, "That's great. Let's make a game like that." And it was our first try and none of us had industry experience before, so it was a very crazy decision to do. Although we did work a lot on it, we worked on it for four years. We learned a lot. The result was a mediocre game, but it was very fun. We did a lot and it was a lot of challenge.


Amir Fassihi:

And we learned that, as an indie team, there are certain games that you have to focus on. I mean, you can't go and try to compete with the triple AAA out there, of course. So we learned it the hard way, but afterwards Shadow Blade was the first time we decided to make a game for mobile. Mobile was rising. It was an action platformer, so a lot of things that we have learned for our previous games, which were action/adventure games, we used in this game, but the scope was smaller. It fits our team much better. And it was very well received. It was promoted by Apple many times, and it was a rather successful game on iOS. After that, we knew better what kind of games we can make rather well.


Clinton Bader:

You said that you tried to dream big. You went for something that was inspired by God of War, which is a huge game made by one of the bigger companies. Obviously, people would say that, yeah, it's hard to make a game like that, with that kind of scope, but I want to know: What are the specific limitations that indie companies face when they want to be ambitious? When they want to make games like that?


Amir Fassihi:

Well, that's a very good question. There are quite a few things, many things, but one of the important ones is that, well, huge games, the mainstream games, they have high production values, meaning they have a lot of content. They have a lot of polished content, a lot of game assets, a lot of animation, a lot of music, sound, a lot of story. And, first of all, if nothing else, creating that much content is very, very expensive. Then, when your team needs to be bigger than a certain size, let's say the easiest team size for making games is seven, and then, after that, maybe 15. Then, if you can handle it, 20, 25. Then, the next level would be 50.


Amir Fassihi:

Those games or teams, that's 100, 200, 300, in case of Assassins' Creed, thousands of people working. Now the more you have people on your team, the production becomes much, much harder, and you need very experienced people that have been in the industry, knowing how teams work and what the dynamics between them is, in order for that army to move forward. So then you can get drowned, if you have many people without the best producers in the industry for your indie team.


Amir Fassihi:

The other things are, so in the games, they don't have big budgets for marketing. You don't have huge marketing budgets. So the only thing that you can rely on is word of mouth for your game to be realized and played by the target audience. So in order to have word of mouth, you need to have some unique angle in your game. You need to have some hook. Otherwise, no one is going to care about your game, and you don't have the big budgets for advertisement, so you are left with nothing. So getting to that hook is a different way of making a game. You have to really find some creative aspect of it and make that really polished. Usually in the games, they don't care about the other things as much. It's okay if you don't have the best animations in the world, as long as you have some new experience, which is what some part of the audience are interested in. So the dynamics are different.


Clinton Bader:

That's actually really interesting to think about. So kind of tangentially related to this, you're the studio director. I'm curious about what does that role entail. What kind of responsibilities do you have? And how has it changed since the early days of your company to now?


Amir Fassihi:

I was always interested in programming for games and AI, and that's how I think everyone starts. They are interested in something about the game process. Some like game design. Some like writing stories. Some are artists. So in the early days I did a lot of programming, and I realized that there are other things that someone has to take care of. For example, what should the artists focus on now? How many game designers do we need? What should they do this month? Next month? Our game needs music. Who's going to create the music, right? We have to release some time. What are the steps needed to release our game? So there are all these questions and problems that someone has to think of. And I did realize that it seems that I have to think about many of those problems also, as we had great artists, programmers, who wanted to do art and wanted to do programming, so someone has to do it.


Amir Fassihi:

So I was the company co-founder, and I realized that that's something I had to do. It was very hard in the early days, because doing programming and then trying to take care of other aspects of the team is not easy at all. You know, programming needs a lot of focus, and then you forget about everyone else. So as years passed by, I did realize that I'm becoming a burden to my own team by trying to do something in the game, so I have to do less and less of programming and less of design and more be ready for all the problems or the requirements that a team can have. So as a studio director, I would say the task would be, if we have game development, then this would be mostly meta game development, meaning if game development means doing the things that makes a game, or as a result, a game will be prepared. Meta game development will be doing things that, as a result, you will have a team that will make a game.


Amir Fassihi:

So it could be many things. Hiring, who to hire, making decisions about projects. In the game industry, there can be a lot of distractions. Should we work on mobile games? VR games? Should we try MMOs? There is crypto these days. So what should we focus on and why? And then what do our team needs? What is our company culture? How can we maintain the good aspects of the culture? Is everyone on our team being effective and efficient? If, no, why not? What can we do?


Amir Fassihi:

So it includes whatever problem comes, where you have to fix in order to have a performance team as a result. So it's less creative regarding the game content itself, but it's more creative in the sense of finding creative solutions to have a creative team.


Larry Kilgore III:

So let's talk about Children of Morta specifically. It's a game that mixes elements of roguelike, RPG, and hack-and-slash gameplay to tell the story of the Bergsons, a family of heroes trying to save their celestial forest home from the spread of corruption. Where did the idea for the story come from?


Amir Fassihi:

So Children of Morta has an interesting story. One of our game designers, who was the lead designer on Shadow Blade, his name is Sherevin. He had a few friends that they were working on a side project as a school project. They were all university students. So they were a team of five. They worked on a little game, and then after they finished that game, they wanted to continue and work together. So we told Sherevin, who was working with us, "Why don't you bring everyone over to our studio and they can just use the space here? And then you can work on your own project here while you're in the studio. Maybe other guys on the team can help you guys and mentor and whatnot."


Amir Fassihi:

So they did that, and they had a few ideas, but when they talked to everyone, they decided to make a roguelike game because they thought that it fits a small team very well. And they decided to use pixel art because again they thought that it's going to be easier for a small team, and they had two artists. So there were different ideas for a roguelike, but in one of the meetings, someone just suggested, "What if they are family members?" And it just was very interesting for everyone, and the artists started to sketch and draw family characters. "And this is the grandmother, this is the uncle. This is the little girl." And everyone thought that it's an interesting concept. So that's how it initiated. And the idea was for this game to be a very small project, to be finished in six months, but then eventually it took much more than that.


Clinton Bader:

What about some of the inspirations for the gameplay and those kind of things? I mean, I think anybody who's played like hack-and-slash, isometric type games, is going to feel somewhat comfortable with it, but where were you guys getting your inspiration for some of the ideas of how to mold the game itself?


Amir Fassihi:

Initially, for the gameplay, games that inspired us were Binding of Isaac. Nuclear Throne, if you remember, that was another game.


Clinton Bader:

I played that. Yeah.


Amir Fassihi:

Yeah. [inaudible 00:14:29]. There was Risk of Rain that came out in those years. So those games were the inspirations for the type of gameplay that we were after. But you know, when two years passed, Children of Morta became the main project of our whole studio. So everyone else from other teams, they joined that team. We had, at some point 22 to 25 developers working on the game. It started with a team of five. They worked for close to a year and a half, but then it expanded afterwards. So when it expanded, and we had new designers, then one of the inspirations was Diablo, Diablo 2, Diablo 3. We had game designers who love that game, so they got some inspiration regarding combat from that game.


Larry Kilgore III:

See, I definitely see that too. I've I was talking to Clinton earlier. I've put in a lot of hours on Diablo 3, and yeah, the dungeon crawling aspects of the game remind me a lot of that. It's a very addictive gameplay cycle.


Clinton Bader:

It reminded me a bit of Hades as well.


Larry Kilgore III:

What do you think it is about Children of Morta that makes it different from some of the other games we talked about, like the games that inspired you, like Binding of Isaac and Diablo and things like that. What makes it different than those games?


Amir Fassihi:

So there were two things from the first days that were interesting for us, and they proved to be interesting for our target audience also, when we launched the Kickstarter campaign, and those two things were the idea that the characters, the protagonists, are a family and you can play as any family member and go to the dungeons or following their story. So it's a story about a family, and then your characters are family members. And secondly, we had the idea of adding story to a roguelike structure. So we call this a narrative-driven roguelike or story-based roguelike, so roguelikes, usually they didn't have fixed stories. Some had like tiny bits of procedural story only, but in Children of Morta, we tried to have a fixed plot with tiny bits of procedural story. So I think those two were the differentiating factors. Adding to that was the art style. I think the art style was rather different, too, and from the first days we got very positive feedback regarding how the game looks, because it is pixel art, but it was a little bit different from the usual pixel art. We had high-resolution pixel alert at some points with smooth animations.


Clinton Bader:

Yeah. The family house, in particular, I find to be just gorgeous, almost cathedral like, so yeah, I really like the pixel art in it.


Larry Kilgore III:

Most of the games that we've covered so far on this show, they are pixel art in some form, but to me, it very much combines that high res, very high fantasy look with pixel art. So it's got a very unique look to it. Well, this has been a great conversation so far, and we'd love to dive further into the development of Children of Morta and what kind of challenges you and your team faced in getting it published. We're going to take a quick break, and we'll be back with more from Amir.


Larry Kilgore III:

This is PixelSmiths, the podcast that gives a voice to today's indie game developers. I'm Larry Kilgore, III.


Clinton Bader:

And I'm Clinton "Paper Thin" Bader. And we're talking with Amir Fassihi, studio director at Dead Mage Studios. So we've been talking about the game itself, some of the inspirations and other things that brought you to make it. You announced Children of Morta in September of 2014. It released on PC in September of 2019. That's about five years or so from the inception to the end product. What was the development process like? We talked a little bit about it. I think we talked about kind of the expansion of the members of the team, right? From like five to 22 and that kind of thing. But can you give us some details of some of the obstacles you faced during that and kind of the process that you had to go through?


Amir Fassihi:

Yeah, sure. So the story was like this: Initially, the plan was for this to be a very small game for a very small team, six months max. So they started working on it, and things looked really good since the early days. So one thing we did with the team was we said, "Okay, let's have a team test session every week." So every week, on Wednesdays, we would invite someone from the studio to play the current state of the game. Obviously in the early days, it was just a few capsules running around. Some capsules for enemies, capsules for our main character, but we kept this, and it was a very good practice. So we got feedback from everyone. Then, we invited friends to play the game. Then we saw that it appears that everything is working well, so those were the days that Kickstarter was really popular. I mean, it is still popular, but I guess it was a little bit more those days. And we said, "Well, what if we try Kickstarter?" We had never had any experiences with it before.


Amir Fassihi:

So we did that. We launched the campaign in February, I think, 2015, and it was successful. We got a lot of positive feedback. After that, we said, "Okay, so it makes sense for us to continue and work on this game." And we had some funding, so we continued working on the game. We expanded the team a little bit, to seven or eight, and we kept working on the game. The idea was that we said, "Okay, let's try Steam Early Access." So when we were close to two years mark, we said, "Let's go for Steam Early Access. If there is positive feedback, we will continue and work on the game. If not, well, we should stop." Because we had ran out of our money, and that was a major decision point for us.


Amir Fassihi:

We were also negotiating with some publishers. We were sending pictures and game demo to publishers and trying to get their feedback and see if there is anyone interested. And we knew that we would want to work with good indie publishers, if possible, not just any publisher. It was around that time that we were contacted by 11 bit studios. They are the developers for This War of Mine and FrostPunk, and they have been an indie publisher for a few years now. They had not published any games at that point, when they contacted us. So we started negotiating with them, talking with them, and we decided to sign with them and work with them as their publisher. One of their requests was to stop the early access if possible. So they said, "If we sign, will you stop the early access plans?" And we said, "Well, why not? If we can get some funding, if we know that there is a publisher with us, yes, early access is something that we can cancel," but we hadn't started it. We had just planned for it. So we did that. And then we continued working on the game. And now we had feedback from publisher also.


Amir Fassihi:

And then in year four, we wanted to release. But with the help of 11 bit studios, we did extensive player testing. So they had focused testing sessions, where they invited all kinds of players to try the game, and they gave us a lot of feedback. And based on those feedback, we and the publisher decided that it might be best if we continued and work on the game still more. So we went into year five, and eventually we, yes, launched in 2019.


Amir Fassihi:

So it took a long time. But the important thing to note is that we got proper feedback in different stages. So it was rather an informed decision to delay the game. It was never a black box where we said, "Okay, we don't know anything. We don't have any feedback. Let's work on it just because we ourselves want to work on it." Which is dangerous. Some indie teams might do that without getting external feedback, they might delay their project, and then at the end of the day, they see that, "Well, maybe there isn't as much interest as we thought." So that was why six months turned into five years.


Clinton Bader:

There's something I wanted to ask you about that I've been thinking about with the game. Something that I think is underutilized in a lot of games, just any type of game. The co-op aspect of the game, when was that actually introduced? Was that something that you guys thought of from the beginning? Or was that a later addition to the game?


Amir Fassihi:

So co-op was in our plans from the beginning. It was actually from one of our Kickstarter promises. However, it was local co-op. Initially we never planned for online co-op. That was something that, when we signed with 11 bit studios, they suggested, and then we said, "Well, yeah, why not? We are going to do that." It proved to be a huge challenge because online games, they better be designed for online from the start, from the basic architecture of your code base. So in our case, our code base wasn't designed for online game, and we had to modify it in the middle of the project in order to add online features, it was very tough. That is why we weren't able to release online when the game was released in 2019. We released online last year in 2021, and the next update is going to be online for consoles. So it took us a long time to prepare online for the game, which, yeah, it is a very important aspect of such a game, hack-and-slash, top-down games. They're much more fun if you play it with your friends.


Larry Kilgore III:

I'm curious. How much would you say the architecture change and how much extra work did you have to put into it, changing it from a local game to being capable of doing online?


Amir Fassihi:

Oh, a lot, a lot. I think, overall, maybe it was an additional, maybe two years work for our technical team and QA team, because other than the technical matters, testing online games is much more harder, so in our case, we weren't prepared for that. So it proved to be a big challenge, but it worked out well eventually.


Larry Kilgore III:

Are you happy with the decision to make the online co-op possible?


Amir Fassihi:

That's a very, very tough question. Yeah, I think we are happy. I mean, I'm not sure if our programmers are happy, but I think they liked it also, because in small teams, everyone's heart is with the game. That's the beauty of it. And they really wanted to deliver it. And they really had hard days, but they persevered and made it happen. So it was big. I'm sure they are proud of what they did. It doesn't matter how hard it was.


Larry Kilgore III:

So you were talking about before, when you were looking for a publisher, you didn't just want to find any publisher. You wanted to find a good publisher, and you guys went with 11 bit studios, but even you said they hadn't published any games yet. So I'm curious, what was it about them that made them stand out from the other people that you were talking to and made you decide this was the right publisher to work with?


Amir Fassihi:

You know, we had bad publishing experiences before. In 2011, when we released our first game, we had a bad experience with a European publisher, and we had a good publisher experience with Crescent Moon Games, who published Shadow Blade on app store. And we had heard about various developers working with publishers, and we knew that some publishers can really make you better and just make your game successful. And then there are other publishers that really don't matter. And maybe they just take some cuts of your revenue while they don't add anything. So that was why we were talking to the rather well known indie publishers, pitching our game and getting feedback, and we got rejected a lot, by many publishers, but 11 bit studios, initially, we thought, "Yeah, this company hasn't published any games yet, so it might be risky if we want to go with them."


Amir Fassihi:

But the more we interacted with them and the more we heard about what their plans are and how they think about our game and what kind of people they are, the more we were inclined into going with them. So I think it took close to eight or nine months for us to make the decision, from the first day that we got an email from them till we signed. We met them. So we went to Poland a few times. They came to see us. So a real human connection formed, which I think is very important, at least for indie teams and their publishers. There has to be trust. There has to be honesty. You have to really feel that you are both on the same team. This is very important. And you have to really make sure that the publisher is going to care for your title at least as much as you are caring, right?


Amir Fassihi:

Some publishers, they have a huge catalog, and your game is just like any other game. But even the first email that we got from 11 bit studios, they showed how much they know about this game. They talked about the features of our trailers. I mean, how to play the game. The trailer, the art, the features, they were very specific about it, and that showed us that they are different from other... publishers that might just give you generic answers.


Amir Fassihi:

And so I think it was mostly an emotional decision because of the human connection that formed, but then it's proved to be an extremely good decision for us. They released their games. And I think today they are one of the best indie publishers. They have very good games. They released Moonlighter. They have other games that they've released right now. And whatever they had promised as a publishing team, they did deliver. And they were very patient with us.


Amir Fassihi:

Another important factor for us was the fact that they are developers themselves, so they understand developers very well. I imagine if we were working with a strict publisher, they might have canceled the project after the first delay, but in the case of 11 bit studios, they were like, "Okay, we are developers ourselves. We know that it is hard. And we know that you guys have worked, but these features are not there yet. So we think it's a good idea to delay it. If you guys are okay, let's work on it even more." And so that was really heartwarming, for us to hear that they understand the situation, and they are suggesting solutions. So it worked out really, really well. And we had a very good collaboration with them.


Clinton Bader:

Yeah. Patience is often something that people forget about in this day and age. I really actually like that because, on this show, we really focus on the development side of things. And we talk to the game developers themselves, but you gave a lot of insight into what publishers can do to try to court good games and how they can behave in a lot of different aspects. So I thought that was really, really good.


Larry Kilgore III:

We've kind of covered, too, that having the right publisher can do a lot for your game and having the wrong publisher can also negatively impact your game. And it's good to hear that you went through the time to find that. And also the fact that the intangible human element, as you put it, like they hadn't published yet, but you made that connection, and them being in the same shoes as developers yourself, like you said, the fact that they were able to understand what you go through and be on your side, I think is a very important part of why the game has been successful.


Clinton Bader:

So, Amir, Children of Morta has been out for a couple years now. It seems very well received. It has very positive reviews on Steam. This game is pretty successful in my eyes. How do you feel about its reception and those kind of things?


Amir Fassihi:

Well, we are very happy that it was received well. The team, they spent a lot of time on the game, and we had many, many tough days, and the team endured a lot of hardship. You know, as an indie team, you are independent. Being independent means you have a lot of existential crisis. You are worried. You don't know what happens. You don't know whether your game will sell at all. Will people hate it? Will people like it? Who is going to help you? You know, it's very hard. And our team really, really did their best, and it wasn't easy. And a lot of times, team members fall in depression. They think nothing can happen. And what we had was the company of our team members. They supported one another. We have a very supportive culture, fortunately. The only thing I wanted for this team was success for end product, so that they get what they deserve.


Amir Fassihi:

And fortunately it did happen. For Children of Morta, for some reason, there was always positive feedbacks. We got positive feedback before we had Kickstarter, then during the Kickstarter campaign, then when we shared the game with the backers, then every time after that, whenever we were in game shows, showing the game, usually people liked it. They liked the emotional aspects of the game. They liked the family aspects of the game. They liked the look and feel. So this stayed, fortunately it stayed, and well, we have a lot of ideas regarding how it could have been better and we have a lot of wishes, but I think everyone in the team is really proud of what they did. It was very hard, but at the end of the day, it turned out to be a well-respected product, so we're happy about that.


Larry Kilgore III:

So tough question for you. If you could change one thing about either the final version of the game or something that happened during development, what would it be and why?


Amir Fassihi:

Yeah. You know what? We wished we could have worked more on the combat aspect of the game and the second-to-second game feel inside the dungeon crawling part. In the last months of the development, our designers didn't have enough time to focus on that part, mostly because they had many other things to worry about. One of them was the narrative design on the game, because very late in the process, we did realize, after one of the extensive user feedback tests, that our story is not really about a family. I mean, we always wanted to have a story about a family, but our story is not really about a family. So we knew that, if it was going to be a story about a family, then we shouldn't be able to change these characters with any random character and have the same game work. For example, let's say, if your story is you have to go and kill Boss X, and your characters happen to be family members, what if you replace them with a soldier and a ninja and a warrior? Is this set-up going to work? Well, if it does, then your story is not about a family. If it doesn't, then your story is about a family, and it only works if you have family members.


Amir Fassihi:

If you take the daughter and the brother out, then the story is not going to work. So we learned this in year four, and we went back to the drawing boards. We redid a lot of parts of the story and created a lot of new cut scenes and changed the narrative design aspect, so our designers were quite occupied with that part and also the game systems, because we wanted some of the game systems to reflect the idea of a family, also. The way the characters progress, the skill tree system, and many other things.


Amir Fassihi:

Any negative feedback about Children of Morta is regarding the combat. Sometimes the pace of combat drops, and sometimes dungeon crawling is not as fun as it should be. So if we were able to change one thing or add one thing, we would've worked more on the second-to-second combat experience of the game. The story part, the narrative part, the emotional part, the music, all that we think is good enough, but this part needed more attention. Some games, like Hades, they excel at that. They are masterpieces in second-to-second combat experience and dungeon crawling. So, yeah, that's something that we would work on.


Larry Kilgore III:

So with Children of Morta out, I know you talked a little bit earlier about Tales of Ronin, so I'm assuming that's the next project on board for you guys, but how's that game going? Can you tell us a little bit more about it and when we can expect to see something new from Dead Mage?


Amir Fassihi:

Sure. Tale of Ronin. So this was another side project, a small project that started while we were working on Children of Morta. And we started this, since one of our programmers, he was away. He was in different countries, and then he came back. So we wanted to break him into the team, but we didn't need programmers for Children of Morta, so we said, "Why not let's start a very small, very tiny game project, and you can be the programmer, and we have an artist, and he's going to be the artist, and let's make this very, very small game." And that again became bigger and bigger and we had more and more ideas for the game, so initially it was going to be a very, very, very simple roguelike, adventure-type game. But then it turned out into an RPG adventure with turn-based combat game. So we have been working on it for some time, but it was always the side project. So our number one focus was always Children of Morta, making sure it goes. We have a publisher. We have deadlines. Making sure it's on track.


Amir Fassihi:

But it has been close to a year and a half now that we have been able to focus more on Tale of Ronin, and we're looking forward to having something ready for the public. It might be early access. It might be a small release. Next year, 2023. Hopefully. It is a narrative heavy game, so some of the ideas that we learned in Children of Morta regarding how to have procedural stories, we are expanding here, expanding a lot here. It has 2D art style inspired by sumi-e paintings, Japanese ink wash drawings, so that's the art style inspiration. It's all hand drawn, hand-drawn animations. It has a turn-based combat. There are some rather new ideas in the combat, where it's simultaneous turn base, where you don't have your turn and the opponents' turn, and then your turn, and the opponent. You select your moves, and then it gets resolved simultaneously. So there are some new rules over there, and there's a lot of story in it. There's a lot of research in it.


Amir Fassihi:

We like the game to be historically accurate, as much as possible. It's not going to be a historic game. We will have our creative freedom, but we wanted to know the facts and then change them if we need. One of the very good feedback we got when we were in Japan, in Kyoto, was that some of the Japanese people who were evaluating games there, they thought that it's a Japanese game. And that was a good test for us, because we hate to be able to look ignorant and do something without-


Clinton Bader:

Yeah, I'm excited about this. I really like turn-based RPGs, and it sounds like a really good game. You got to come back on after you guys are ready to release it.


Amir Fassihi:

Sure, sure. And then, very recently, we have started on a new project, which is unannounced at this point, but our Children of Morta team has transitioned to this new project that they're working on. The aim is for a 2024 release. We will be sharing more information about what it is hopefully soon, but all I can say is that it's similar to the type of game that Children of Morta was.


Clinton Bader:

Awesome.


Larry Kilgore III:

Well, I will say Children of Morta has proven to be a great game, and it sounds like you guys got a lot more things that sound good on the way. So, Amir, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us and talk about your game and join us here on PixelSmiths.


Amir Fassihi:

Well, thank you very much for inviting me. It was a big pleasure for me, and I wish you the best.


Larry Kilgore III:

The music in this episode is from Children of Morta and was composed and performed by Hamidreza Ansari. Children of Morta is available now on PC, Mac, Nintendo Switch, and Xbox and PlayStation platforms. Follow Dead Mage Studios on Twitter @deadmagestudio. To find out more about all of their games, visit their website, deadmage.com. PixelSmiths is brought to you by Podcamp Media, where we provide branded podcast production services for businesses, podcampmedia.com. Executive producers, Dusty Weis and I, oversee editing and production.


Clinton Bader:

And you can follow me, Clinton "Paper Thin" Bader, on social media @paperthinhere and on Twitch, twitch.tv/paperthinhere.


Larry Kilgore III:

Thanks for tuning into PixelSmiths. I'm Larry Kilgore, III.


Clinton Bader:

And I'm Clinton "Paper Thin" Bader.

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