Dicey Dungeons’ Terry Cavanagh And Chipzel On Inspirations, Characters, And The Crystal Maze – Feature

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© Distractionware

Roguelite deckbuilder Dicey Dungeons surprise-launched on Switch in the middle of December and has been keeping us busy over the holidays with its addictive blend of eye-catching art, cheeky humour, brilliant soundtrack and — of course — dice-based dungeon crawling.

We recently caught up with designer Terry Cavanagh and composer Chipzel via email to talk about the origins of this gem, how its characters and mechanics formed and evolved throughout development, and how classic British game shows helped shape the game and set it apart from your average fantasy deckbuilder.

First, we speak to designer Terry…


Nintendo Life: We’ve read that Dicey Dungeons was born from a roguelike game jam. Can you tell us a little about that and how your ideas developed over time?

Terry Cavanagh: Yep, that’s right! The very first version of Dicey Dungeons was a prototype I made for Seven Day Roguelike jam in 2018. You can actually play the earliest version of the game in a web-browser.

Basically I’d been wanting to make something small inspired by the game Dream Quest, so when that jam came along I decided it was the perfect opportunity for it. The game I had by the end of the first week was a mess – but there was enough there that I knew it could be something really special. I made it my full time project and haven’t looked back since.

Did you have any other games or inspirations in mind during development?

Dicey Dungeon’s biggest inspiration is Dream Quest, which is a mobile roguelike inspired by Magic: the Gathering, and is one of the big origins of the “deckbuilding roguelike” genre. It’s a bit of a cult game, beloved by designers – I love it to bits. It’s hard to get into why without getting derailed, but I really respect its wild approach to balance, its playfulness and its pure design focus. I find it really refreshing, and really wanted to do something of my own that explored the same space.

Outside of games, I think of Adventure Time as being a major influence for the game’s overall tone and feel. Later on in development, we thought a lot about TV Game Shows as a way to bring everything together, which inspired a lot around the feel and the story and the progression.

Lots of people on the team brought their own inspirations as well, of course. For example Marlowe is a big fan of Chrono Trigger, and you can see some references to that in her art and in the game.

The characters each have a pretty unique feel within the overall framework. Did the classes and their abilities come from character ideas, or did their personalities form around cool mechanics you wanted to try out?

For the playable characters it was definitely a process of figuring out what I wanted to do mechanically, and then figuring out a character that fit. The robot for example was always designed as this kind-of blackjack-playing character, but it took a little while to figure out it should be a robot.

For the enemies it was a bit more of a mix. Very very early on I just had a lot of fantasy tropes, goblins and wizards and rogues, but I wanted to get away from that so I started broadening it out a bit, adding weirder creatures, figures from Irish mythology, animals like baby squid. For a while there was a blowfish, which eventually became Sneezy, who’s a hedgehog who’s allergic to dungeons.

For a while there was a blowfish, which eventually became Sneezy, who’s a hedgehog who’s allergic to dungeons.

When Marlowe came on board we talked about wanting to get away from D&D-style fantasy tropes even more, so she started changing things up with her sketches — coming up with new designs that worked around the mechanics, but reimagined the creature — so the vampire bat became a vacuum cleaner for example. She would also come up with totally new characters, and I would come up with an enemy design to match. It was a nice back-and-forth process!

Do you have a particular favourite?

I’m really really fond of the Witch. I just love how she works mechanically – for me she’s by far the most fun character to play. She might not be the most popular contestant among players, but I think if you really, really get into the game, you’ll come to see that she’s the most interesting.

For the enemies, maybe Cornelius. I love his design, the sound, I think he’s fun to fight against — the big scary attack with a really slow countdown — and he’s based on a ghost story my parents used to tell me, so I like that about him too.

Dicey Dungeons Witch© Distractionware

Some players see the term ‘roguelike’ and switch off, which seems a real shame considering how broadly the term is applied these days. Is the use of that label – however accurate! – something you worry or think about when deciding how to market the game?

It’s funny, I guess fashions change! This really wasn’t a consideration when I started working on Dicey Dungeons at all, but it’s something I hear more and more now – that people are starting to get a little tired of roguelikes. Roguelikes have been really popular for a while now, so maybe the tide is turning against them a bit.

But interesting design spaces are always going to be interesting, regardless of what the current fashion is. And genre is only useful to a point anyway – there’s always a lot more to what makes a game tick than what genre it falls under. For whatever it’s worth, I think Dicey Dungeons is pretty different from most roguelikes out there (which I find really funny, because it scores very well under the Berlin definition!).

How long did Dicey Dungeons take to arrive in its final form? Was a Switch version always on the cards?

I did always think it would be a good match for Switch, but I wanted to make sure it was a really, really good port.

I started work on it in February 2018, and launched it on PC in August 2019, eighteen months later. Then once that release was stable and I’d had a little bit of a break, we got to work on the Switch port. We’re a scrappy little team of independents, so it just wasn’t realistic to have it ready to launch on everything at once.

I did always think it would be a good match for Switch, but I wanted to make sure it was a really, really good port. I think it’s worked so well – we owe a lot to our Switch programmer for the port, Ruari O’Sullivan, who did the really hard design work of figuring out how to make the controls feel good on a gamepad, which is no small problem. I think the end result is fantastic – when I play the game myself now, the Switch version is the one I go for.

The art and music adds a whole other layer to the experience. Can you talk a little about how Marlowe Dobbe and Chipzel came to be involved?

The game didn’t start out as a big project where I intended to put a team together and make a huge game, haha. At first it was just this dumb week-long game jam project. Once I thought it might be going somewhere, I started releasing free alphas every couple of weeks to get feedback. Around the — I think — eleventh alpha or so, I started bringing other people in.

Chipzel was the first to come on board – I’d been looking for an opportunity to work with her for years, since Super Hexagon. At that point it became clear we were going to need an artist too – so I ran an open call and were very lucky to find Marlowe, who’s just been amazing. One of the first things we did as a team is put together a “teaser” for the game – which is a bit dated now, but which I find super interesting to look back at:




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