The Dead Cells developers are game-jamming their next project

‘What’s next?’ For an independent studio riding high after a big hit it’s an exciting question, and a daunting one. After the success of its excellent action roguelike Dead Cells, Motion Twin is in the process of deciding what to do. In a normal studio the higher-ups would get together, make a decision, and then tell the rest of the studio what to make. Motion Twin is different. Visit their website and you’ll see the message “NO BOSS” proudly displayed on the front page. No-one at Motion Twin has a job title, and everyone has an equal share in the company. 

That’s great for staff members who get to take home a share of Dead Cells’ success, but it comes with unusual challenges, especially when the studio needs to make a big decision about its future. When I arrive at the Bordeaux studio a small team has been generating prototypes for four months. One programmer is working on a Sekiro-inspired third-person combat system. Another leads me through a slideshow of gorgeous concept art, explaining how the prototyping process works. 

It’s fluid, and ruthless. A designer might inspire an artist to create some concept pieces, and the concept pieces influence the designer’s idea of what the game might be. The moment the idea runs into major problems, it’s killed. The best bits are pillaged, and might make their way into future prototypes. At some point, organically, the team hopes to arrive at an idea that everyone believes in.

Twin studios

The prototyping team is small, and made up of Motion Twin veterans. The rest of the team consists of newer staff members, and they work on upcoming updates for Dead Cells. In a flat business structure it’s difficult to keep team members focused on separate projects. Motion Twin does this by existing, technically, as two businesses. The Dead Cells division is called Evil Empire. 

“On a daily basis, it’s like we are just working together every day,” says Motion Twin vet Sébastien Bénard. 

“But we decided to make a different company to manage everything which is Dead Cells related, just to make sure that we can actually be part of the team which is focused on making new things without any interference.” 

The two teams sit side by side in a small open-plan office, and move around regularly to show each other work. Evil Empire generates ideas for new Dead Cells updates, but these ideas are still approved by former Dead Cells developers at Motion Twin. It shows that even in a ‘no boss’ environment, there are hierarchies, they’re just less visible than they would be in a conventional studio. The advantages are clear, however. Team members freely offer feedback on prototypes and concept pieces. Artists are free to make game design suggestions. The designer might disagree, or incorporate the feedback in future builds. 

The structure challenges the idea that employees in creative industries must specialise in just one discipline and stay shut out of others. A programmer needn’t just be a programmer, even if that’s their main day-to-day role. Of course this only works if the team isn’t too large. Scaling up is a significant challenge for Motion Twin. Every new hire introduces a new voice and potentially affects the cut that everyone takes home from a project. There are practical office considerations too. Everyone needs to be able to move around and talk freely without disrupting each other.

Flat pack

(Image credit: Motion Twin)

PC Gamer has visited hundreds of studios all over the world, but this one is not quite like any other. Motion Twin and Evil Empire has an informal structure like Valve, but with a profit share system rather than a peer-reviewed pay system. The team is small and great at generating ideas, but there’s an underlying pragmatism to the prototyping process. The team are also testing engines, workshopping creative processes to answer essential questions like ‘how long does it take to create an attack animation’—this is the gritty organisational work that underpins game development. 

Scroll down to move through some of Motion Twin’s beautiful concept art. The team’s keen to stress that its next title probably won’t look like this—it’s all experimentation. But, when its follow-up does come out, return to these pics, and maybe you’ll see the shadow of an idea that survived and found its way to the finished game.

Left: Many of these early concepts show a friendship between a robot and his loyal dog, which was going to be a central mechanic in early prototypes.
Right: Motion Twin works in bright colour palettes. Partly because they’re gorgeous, but also because the artists enjoy working with exciting colours every day.

(Image credit: Motion Twin)

At one point the game could have been set on a series of floating islands. This eventually gave way to a prototype where you play as a plane rather than a robot.

(Image credit: Motion Twin)

Motion Twin is keen to do something different to Dead Cells’ dark fantasy setting. The future provides a good break.

(Image credit: Motion Twin)

Instead of a dog, your wellbeing is tied to a companion in a shifted dimension. But the team reckon that it would be very difficult to create a meaningful bond between player and partner.

(Image credit: Motion Twin)

This image retains the idea of a humanoid playable character who can hop onto vessels to move between islands.

(Image credit: Motion Twin)

But what if you played as the plane instead? Here we see an obstacle that might appear in the open sky levels for you to fly through.

(Image credit: Motion Twin)

Motion Twin created a playable version of the plane game and found the level design process particularly difficult.

(Image credit: Motion Twin)

In the open air the player expects to be able to fly anywhere, and invisible walls feel too restrictive and unfair.

(Image credit: Motion Twin)

Left: Gwenaël Massé imagines a post apocalypse not too distant from Bethesda’s Fallout series. Importantly, he also brings a very good corgi.
Right: Thomas Vasseur was the art director on Dead Cells. He brings a powerful colour palette and Japanese forms to the ‘robot and his dog’ concept.

(Image credit: Motion Twin)

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This article was originally published in PC Gamer UK issue 336. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, you can subscribe now in the UK and the US.

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