Interview with Dicey Dungeons’ Terry Cavanagh

Turn-based roguelike Dicey Dungeons is the newest game by VVVVVV (2010) and Super Hexagon (2012) developer Terry Cavanagh, published independently for PC in 2019 and for the Nintendo Switch on December 15, 2020. My love for this game is no secret – I’ve spent over twenty hours on it in the past two weeks – so I was grateful for the opportunity to discuss it with Cavanagh in an email interview last week.

What is your background in the video game industry?

None at all, haha. I’ve always been independent. I went indie more than a decade ago now – since then I’ve made 3 commercial games (VVVVVV, Super Hexagon and Dicey Dungeons), and a bunch of smaller freeware games and things.

For those unfamiliar with it, could you please give your elevator pitch description of Dicey Dungeons?

Sure! Dicey Dungeons is a kind of boardgamey, combat focused RPG. You play as one of six different giant walking dice, fighting your way through dungeons, collecting loot and trying to defeat Lady Luck, the literal goddess of chance and fortune.

What (I think) makes it interesting is that it’s mechanically all about exploring the limits of what you can do with a dice based roguelike – the six different characters all play in wildly different ways, and the game is structured around “episodes” which remix the basic rules of the game.

What inspired this unique, luck-oriented game world and what attracted you to the roguelike genre?

I originally started Dicey Dungeons as an entry in a game jam called 7 Day Roguelike, where you try to make a roguelike in seven days. It, uh, took me a bit longer than that in the end.

The game’s big inspiration is Dream Quest, which is an amazing mobile roguelike inspired by Magic: the Gathering. I love that game a lot, and with Dicey Dungeons, I started out by trying to put my own spin on that genre.

Dicey Dungeons is carefully balanced in spite of its wealth of customization options. How long did it take to develop the game and what were the greatest or most surprising challenges?

As far as challenges go, the big one was that Dicey Dungeons was my first big collaborative project. In my previous work, I’ve worked on my own or maybe with one other person in an indirect way – for VVVVVV and Super Hexagon it was me plus a musician for example.

Dicey Dungeons was a much bigger project: I made the decision to go all in and put together a team with an artist and musician and writer and another programmer, and someone doing PR, and that was all very exciting, but totally new to me. It’s been great – we’ve ended up with something I’m so proud of, and it’s obviously just a totally different (and much better!) game than it would have been if I’d worked on it on my own.

Who is your favorite character? How about your favorite combination of skills?

I’m very fond of the Witch. I think she’s really interesting to play, and when I replay the game myself I usually find myself playing as her (or as Robot). I have to think more on a turn by turn basis about how to approach each battle and how to deal with the dice I get – for me she’s just the most interesting character. Although not everyone agrees – she’s a bit divisive!

Favorite combination of skills: ohh, this is a good one. I find it hard to narrow down, but one I really like is the Robot build designed around Dragon’s Tooth + Overclock. This one’s very lategame so it’s hard to explain unless you’re already pretty familiar with how Dicey Dungeons works, but basically, Dragon’s Tooth is a really hard weapon to use and very risky, but it pays off with huge damage if you can pull it off. There’s actually an achievement in the game just for using it, because I really wanted to encourage players to try it.

Are there any characters or abilities that didn’t make it into the finished game? If so, what caused them to be cut?

There are some mechanical things that didn’t go anywhere, but there’s no, like, seventh playable character that’s not in the final game. One particular idea I couldn’t quite get working was a very early version of the Witch: I was trying to do something with magic square puzzles, those maths puzzles where you have a grid of blank spaces and have to write numbers to add up to certain values. I wanted to make a spellbook that was about fitting dice into the right slots, but I couldn’t get that to be fun – I think it was too mathsy anyway.

Dicey Dungeons’ art seems to echo the animation of Pendleton Ward’s Adventure Time and Roosterteeth’s Camp Camp. Did these or any other works influence Marlowe Dobbe’s designs?

I can’t speak for Marlowe, but we definitely talked about Adventure Time as an inspiration from quite early in the project, more in terms of the tone of the game and the sort-of general sense of taking silly things seriously, really believing in your own fiction and committing to it. When I first described the Warrior to the team, I said that I wanted him to be a cross between Finn the Human and Homer Simpson.

Visually, I know that one big inspiration that Marlowe brought to the game was Mary Blair, the Disney animator, whose work turned up in some of Marlowe’s mood boards as a starting point for thinking about a visual direction. I know she’s also a big fan of Chrono Trigger, and I think there’s a little bit of that in some of her designs, especially the Inventor!

Could you describe the process of porting the game to Switch? Have you considered porting the game to other home consoles or releasing additional downloadable content?

We’re using an interesting open-source framework called Haxe, with a library called OpenFL, which was challenging in some ways because there’s not a lot of people who’ve done Switch ports with it yet. So we’re a little more on our own than we would be if we used something like, say, Unity. But I think it’s been worth it, and I’m a big fan of open source technologies and we owe a lot to OpenFL for how well the game runs on Switch.

The Switch port was led by Ruari O’Sullivan, who joined the team to help us with the port. A lot of the work he did on it was really design-focused, figuring out how to make the gamepad controls feel really good on the Switch for example. He also did a lot of work to optimize it for console, and a lot of those optimizations made it back into the PC version.

We don’t have any immediate plans for other console ports, but we are thinking about mobile! As for more content, that’s on the cards too, will see how things go next year, fingers crossed.

Are there any other indie studios with whom you’d like to collaborate on a future project?

Not for the moment! Dicey Dungeons was the first time I’d done such a big collaboration, and I’m kind-of looking forward to having some time to do smaller things on my own while I figure out what the next big thing might be.

If you enjoyed the interview, I recommend picking up Dicey Dungeons for the PC or Nintendo Switch and following the project on Twitter; it’s currently on sale at Steam so don’t delay. You can also find me on Twitter under the handle @SinginBrakeman. Thanks for reading, and be sure to let me know what you think about Dicey Dungeons in the discussion below!