Old School Gamer Magazine chats with Ryan Hewer (Project Director, Little Red Dog Games), who gives us the skinny on Deep Sixed, which takes a heart chunk of inspiration from classic sci-fi TV and film, as well as an obscure board game. Detailing the creative process, Hewer lets us know exactly what makes this game and the world inside of it a unique one.
Old School Gamer: How was Deep Sixed born?
Ryan Hewer: Deep Sixed was first drafted while we were nearly completing production of our first commercial game, Rogue State. We knew we wanted to make another single-player game where you’re racing against an entropic system, but we were interested in moving from a turn-based to a real-time environment to make the stress a little more personal. We found inspiration in Vlaada Chvátil’s Space Alert boardgame – where multiple players work together to keep a dysfunctional spaceship in one piece – and in the operating-under-pressure gameplay of Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. But in all honesty, the biggest influence on this game has to be the episode “33” in the newer Battlestar Galactica series. Warp into a place, stay there for 33 minutes (surviving wave after wave of hostilities as your ship gets torn to shreds), and then warp out without any reprieve in sight. This is the exact feeling we wanted to accomplish with Deep Sixed.
Old School Gamer: What makes it special?
Hewer: One of the best compliments we like to hear is that there’s really nothing else out there like it. What I personally think makes it special is the fact that while you’ll be facing adventures fighting monsters out in the nebula, the game is really about the art of spacecraft maintenance. It’s a game about O’Brien, not Sisko.
Old School Gamer: How influential was Star Trek to the game?
Hewer: Certainly as much as any other science fiction properties. We’ve crammed in as many winks-and-nods as we could to properties including Star Trek, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Moon, Sphere, Flowers for Algernon… There’s just a lot there for the observant (and persistent!) player.
Old School Gamer: What video games from the past have influenced it?
Hewer: The power distribution system is heavily inspired by FTL; the dozens of time-sensitive puzzles may remind you of Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes; and the manual as a primary gameplay mechanic certainly has similarities to Papers, Please. There’s a feeling similar to ‘80s classic Psi-5 Trading Company as well.
Old School Gamer: What did you learn during the development process?
Hewer: An entirely new engine. Deep Sixed was prototyped using Adventure Game Studio, the same engine that we had used for Rogue State. We got involved with the Godot community and found the engine extremely flexible to use; it became clear that Deep Sixed, with its blend of 2D and 3D elements, would really benefit from using a modern game engine. So we built it from scratch all over again in Godot – and we’ve had a great time watching the game (and the engine) evolve into something incredible.
Old School Gamer: Any fun stories?
Hewer: In early testing, we were experimenting with a new event that would occur 35% of the time. I tested it 12 times. The event happened every time. I was positive that something was messed up with our numbers and raised the issue with our lead programmer. He tested it out – and it worked just fine. I went back at it with a 13th test – and indeed, everything was working as intended … even though neither of us made any changes to the code. The odds of my experiencing 12 positive cases in a row is .0003%, but there you have it. I won the lottery of discovering bugs that didn’t exist!
Old School Gamer: Bottom line: Why must someone play Deep Sixed?
Hewer: How often do you find a game that’s truly unconventional in terms of visuals, story and gameplay? Deep Sixed rewards actual learning over longevity. This isn’t the kind of game where you’ll eventually get strong enough to survive if you’re patient enough; this is a game where you’ve got to understand the systems at play and apply that knowledge – and the reward that comes from actual mastery of those systems far outweighs the reward of a game that would have you grind XP to win.
Old School Gamer: The game is beautiful. What inspired the art?
Hewer: We knew early on that we wanted the spacecraft to be crowded, colorful, and full of interesting things that a player would be tempted to click on and manipulate. It’s way too tempting to make things look all grimdark to fit the dystopian tone of the setting. But again, this is a game that seeks to break tropes and expectations – and we got to again work with the terrific Derek Restivo, whose Moebius-inspired art direction for Rogue State was just the level of weird and cool we wanted to recreate.
Old School Gamer: How are you a better developer because of this game?
Hewer: We’re certainly smarter developers because of this game. We made a lot of business decisions along the way based on our experiences with our first game, but three years has brought about huge changes to the marketplace – and the old expectations no longer apply. Regardless, our skills and scope have changed dramatically – and now our bottlenecks are time and capital, rather than skills or tools. It’s amazing how far a team can go with just two games.
Old School Gamer: What about the musical score?
Hewer: Our lead programmer, Denis Comtesse, is also a very skilled musician. He composed all the music in Deep Sixed and did a phenomenal job of pushing the adrenaline when needed – and providing the serenity for those brief pauses when we collect ourselves and say, “Okay, what’s next?”
Old School Gamer: What’s next?
Hewer: The fact that we’re statistically much more likely to be a commercial failure than a commercial success always looms over our heads as we try to put food on the table and take care of our families. It’s very hard, as an indie developer, to face that fact. The kind of person who knows the industry data, knows what they’re up against and says, “Oh well, I guess I’ll go do something else, then” is programmed differently than the game developers I prefer to work with. We’re storytellers in need of an audience, and making games is something that we intend to do forever because this is who we are and what brings us joy. We’ve got a new game cooking – a sequel to Rogue State with completely re-imagined mechanics, along with a few side-projects that may manifest into other development tracks.
Old School Gamer: Anything else you’d to add?
Hewer: We’ve been lucky to have such a supportive community and we’ve been thrilled to see all the positive reception surrounding Deep Sixed. As a developer, there’s nothing quite so entertaining as watching your game being streamed and seeing how people pick up the little breadcrumbs you’ve left thinking, ‘Nobody’s going to notice this.’
Patrick Hickey Jr. is the author of the upcoming book, “The Minds Behind the Games: Interviews With Cult and Classic Video Game Developers,” from McFarland And Company. Featuring interviews with the creators of 36 popular video games–including Deus Ex, NHLPA 93, Night Trap, Mortal Kombat, Wasteland and NBA Jam–the book gives a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of some of the most influential and iconic (and sometimes forgotten) games of all time. Recounting endless hours of painstaking development, the challenges of working with mega publishers and the uncertainties of public reception, the interviewees reveal the creative processes that produced some of gaming’s classic titles.