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Have a Nice Death devs talk underworld office life heading into Early Access

Death Incorporated opens its doors on Steam Early Access next week, so Shacknews gathers around the water cooler with some of the makers of Have a Nice Death.

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Paperwork and bureaucracy can clog up just about any line of work, even the lucrative business of death itself. What happens when Death, the founder and CEO of Death Incorporated, is buried in paperwork resulting from too many souls being taken from the mortal plane? In Have a Nice Death, the Grim Reaper must take matters into his own hands and navigate the perils of every department in the underworld in order to bring his subordinates under control. However, this is a 2D action roguelike, which means Death will need several passes at this to ultimately get the job done.

The team at Magic Design Studios, in conjunction with Perfect World Entertainment and Gearbox Publishing, have some grand plans for Have a Nice Death, a game first revealed during The Game Awards 2021. The biggest plans include a stint on Steam Early Access, starting next week. To get an idea of what players can expect to see and how the development team will build on their current product over time, Shacknews made an appointment and had an office appointment with Lead Game Designer Simon Duertre, Marketing Coordinator/Narrative Designer Meredith Alfroy, and Creative Director/Animation Director Nicolas Leger.

Shacknews: Explain how you came up with the game's premise. How did you come up with this spin on Death and how the afterlife works in this universe?

Nicolas Leger, Creative Director/Animation Director: During a team meeting for our previous game, Unruly Heroes, I scribbled a little sketch of Death. I've always been fascinated with the macabre and the allegorical representation of death. This sparked a conversation about what it would be like if Death were in charge of the underworld and worked in a traditional office setting. With everything that's been going on in the world, I was thinking that Death would probably be pretty busy processing paperwork for incoming souls and in desperate need of a vacation.

Meredith Alfroy, Marketing Coordinator/Narrative Designer: Yes, the team thought this unique take on death would make an incredible setting for a video game and from there, Have a Nice Death was born.

Also, the game is a commentary on modern corporate culture and the futility of trying to maintain a healthy work life balance. Working hard - especially in the corporate world - is a subject that resonates with many people in our society, including developers. As a result, the inspirations come from professional experiences that we've had, heard about from our loved ones, or just stories that we hear. Some of us are big fans of the TV show "The Office" and often use the show as inspiration for the game. But mostly we've been inspired by all facets of office culture in Have a Nice Death from dealing with difficult employees to the more mundane tasks like loading up on coffee and powering through a mountain of paperwork.

Shacknews: What can players expect from each department of Death Incorporated? Artistically and aesthetically, how will the development approach the design of each section of the Death empire?

Alfroy: Each department is an abstract representation of causes of mortality (industrial pollution, addictions, etc.), reflecting the universe where the Sorrow (the boss level) is working.

Leger: About the creative direction, we made the choice to limit the color in the game. But during early development, it was difficult to clearly identify each world (the game was full monochromatic at this time). We sometimes approach our worlds from a purely graphic point of view, but also need to take into account technical constraints related to procedural generation (limited level-art control, need for modular elements).

From this concept, we then identify strong iconic elements that will make an impression in our environment. We’re working on graphic rhythms, particular contrasts (of light but also of graphic density), a repertoire of specific form, adding colors to important gameplay elements. The goal is to create an original vision of the topic addressed, in this case a more or less metaphorical cause of mortality.

We can thus play with accumulation vs minimalism, curves vs. corner, clear/obscure etc. In any case, we want to keep everything consistent (whether it is the world in itself) or the overall coherence of the game, but also different (visual diversity and impact of each world).

Simon Duertre, Lead Game Designer: From a design perspective, we tried to give each department a specific philosophy to differentiate it from the others. A department has a theme and from that, we develop a vision of how we want the player to feel and play. Some can, for example, be more open with a lot of rooms for platforming and movement, while others are more claustrophobic or more maze-like.

We tried to add specific enemies and bosses that resonate with these themes to offer a specific challenge to each one.

Shacknews: Roguelikes have become increasingly popular over the last few years. How are you approaching the roguelike gameplay loop and what sets Have a Nice Death apart from some of its contemporaries?

Duertre: Many of us at Magic Design are fans of the genre. We have played a lot of them and it speaks to us. Games like Binding of Isaac, FTL, Hades are among our favorites of the last ten years, so we really wanted to explore the genre.

One of the goals for Have a Nice Death was to have a good mix of improvisation and foresight. We wanted the player to both be surprised by each run, in order to give the feeling of what we call the "golden run," but still be able to have agency and try to influence the run to get this satisfying feeling of being overpowered. This occurs by offering the player many choices, while switching up gameplay, as to not encourage "save-scumming," for example.

Another thing we really tried to improve on was the marathon feeling of the genre. Our game is mainly difficult, not because the Boss can oneshot the player, but mostly because each injury taken cannot necessarily be healed instantly, so players will have to pay for each mistake later on.

Alfroy: We've incorporated all of the mechanics that gamers already love about roguelikes but put our own twist on the genre with a unique hand drawn corporate setting that’s rarely been explored in video games.

Shacknews: How did you decide on 2D for this game? What makes this game best suited for 2D, as opposed to 2.5D or 3D?

Alfroy: Before joining the gaming industry, Nico had an extensive background in animating TV shows and films. He brought his passion and experience to Unruly Heroes, where he was the Director of Animation with [animator] Sebastien Parodi and they both won an Annie Award for best character animation in a video game. The team wanted to keep this style/technique for Have a Nice Death. Additionally, Nico had always wanted to create a hand drawn game and the rest of the team felt the same way.

Duertre: Well, the main thing that is important to note is that the studio has intensive experience making 2D games. We know how to make the movement of characters feel good, how to manage the enemies in a 2D space or how to handle the various art layers. Our focus was to make gameplay feel good, and we knew how to do that right away.

But there was also something else we had to consider. Most of the players have played a 2D platformer and will know how to control their character instinctively. So it became our goal to make a "simple" game that could speak to a lot of people.

Shacknews: Lastly, what are some improvements you'll be looking to make over the course of Steam Early Access? How will you look to expand on the game and what specific feedback will you be looking for from players?

Duertre: Offering the game with Early Access is something that we have had in mind since the beginning of the development. We are perfectly aware that many new systems could be improved and would benefit from other additions, but we are very excited to show the players how the game will evolve throughout time.

We want to add more content, we want additional enemies and mini-bosses to both encourage players to check out the new builds and also punish one trick pony type of players. We also want to create new systems that add more variety to the gameplay loop, encouraging risk/reward type of game.

Regarding our interaction with players, there are many points we want to discuss with them. The primary one is the difficulty of our game as we want to make one thing – a fun game. Adjusting the difficulty is just a way to achieve this, but some players may prefer other adjustments, like less of a power creep, for instance.

Alfroy: We have a clear and precise idea of the experience we want to offer for the game's full launch. However, we do not rule out deviating from this based on community feedback. We try to leave enough room to respond to the players' expectations. In addition to what Simon is saying, of course we want to offer a fun game, but also we’d like to surprise players. We have lots of ideas that we want to add in the game.


Have a Nice Death will enter Steam Early Access on Tuesday, March 8. The full release is coming soon to PC.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

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