Is it a game about Forensic frolicking? Mortuary mazes? Crematorium canvassing? Cemetery searches? Startling seances? No, nope, not at all…. Mike Dies focuses on the survival and frequent death of a lost astronaut stranded in outer space.
So, I’m going to be honest here, I have the fortitude of a tantrum throwing toddler when it comes to dying in games. It’s my competitive nature. A game that advertises certain death should be at the bottom of my playlist. But Mike Dies promises to make dying fun and it delivers.
Splat! Pow! Kaboom! Aagh! Hahahaha! The dynamic scenarios under which Mike meets his untimely demise had me rolling on the floor rather than throwing my controller. Alex is the the guy who has brought to life Peter Pan’s infamous quote “To Die would be an awfully big adventure.”
I’ll let him tell you more about it.
WHat is Mike Dies?
“Mike Dies” has a storyline behind it that’s a lot more complicated than the title would let on. After flying his spaceship into an asteroid field, Spaceman Mike finds himself fighting for survival against hostile aliens, a ruthless kingpin and his own personal demons.”
What is the story behind the title “Mike Dies”? What other names did you consider?
When we first started creating this game, we named it after the portal-like energy in the game which we called ‘TelePortals’. Unfortunately, due to potential brand confusion with another popular game involving portals, we needed to look for an alternative.
Our character designer accidentally made the main character look like my Uncle Mike. We thought it would be funny to name the main character after him, so we started calling the game ‘Mike Dies’ as an inside joke.
After years of trying to rename the game, I let the name ‘Mike Dies’ slip during a meeting with a publisher. The publisher insisted that we go with that name, so it just kinda stuck!
This resulted in an awkward conversation with my Uncle about the new name. We actually included a section in the credits called ‘Special Mikes’ to prove that we still love the important Mikes in our lives!
How many different ways are there to kill off Mike?
All of the deaths are physics-based, so there are potentially an infinite number of ways to bring about poor Mike’s end!
Our philosophy while working on the game was ‘death should be fun’. When players die in the game, we want them to laugh. Substituting a positive emotion in place of a negative emotion dramatically reduces player frustration and makes Mike Dies more accessible than many other in the Masocore games.
Do you have a favorite way to kill Mike off?
The bullet levels are some of the hardest in the game, but they produce some of the best deaths. Turn on slow-motion deaths and fall victim to some bullets to see ultra-precise Mike dismemberments!
I also enjoy the death where Mike is ejected into space – it’s so brutal and over the top that it’s almost impossible not to laugh at its absurdity.
How long have you been working to bring it the over 300 levels of Mike Dies to life?
Mike Dies kicked off back in 2012. It actually started out as a music platformer, but we ended up changing it to be more Metroidvania-esque about a year in. This greatly extended the development cycle, but we’re pleased with the final result!
There actually used to be over 600 levels in the game, but we ended up cutting more than half of them after playtesting. A lot of work went into those cut levels, but we ended up with a stronger product that flows way better.
Tell us about your team and their parts in the creative process.
I was the project director, level designer and writer on the project. Every time you laugh at a bad pun or feel like throwing a controller, you can thank me for that!
Joe Kelly was our programmer and sound designer. He’s the reason things work.
Kyle Perry was Shader Artist and QA guy. He ended up assisting with design as well. When you’re in a small indie team, sometimes you need to wear a lot of hats!
Chris Cannavo and AJ Gillespie were our main artists and animators. And Rachael Gold was our composer – her website is here: http://rachaelnicolegold.com/
What did you use to develop Mike Dies and why?
We used Unity to develop the title. At the time, it was the tool that was both most accessible and that most of us were most comfortable with. It’s possible that we might explore Unreal or another engine for our next title, but that will just depend on the needs of the team and the title.
What schooling or experiences have you had to prepare you for Game development?
I actually never went to school for game development; I entered the game industry straight out of high school. That’s not the route that I would recommend in most cases – college is great for networking at least. But I had been learning game development all throughout my pre-college education, so I was very fortunate to land a job in the industry with little professional experience.
From there, it’s just been rising to the challenge of individual projects as they come and learning whatever I needed to in order to get the game done. I’ve had a number of great industry mentors, so that’s helped a lot. But having that drive to finish a product is the number one key to success.
What challenges have you encountered along the journey to bring Mike’s adventure to life?
The length of the development cycle was definitely the largest obstacle we faced. Changing the game from a tiny music platformer to a Metroidvania-ish game easily added about four years onto the game’s development cycle. Keeping the team together and motivated for that duration of time certainly took its toll on all of us!
What inspired you to keep moving past those obstacles?
Playtesting was our key to success. In addition to helping us tighten up and polish the game, once positive playtest results began to pour in, it dramatically improved team morale and helped convince us all that we were making a product worth finishing.
Twitch streaming also helped keep our focus in check for some time. Interacting with the community, bantering with each other and hearing fan feedback was a terrific experience.
What kind of testing did you do previous to releasing your game?
We playtested Mike Dies almost non-stop; we had at least one new person playing each week!
Playtester feedback was invaluable in refining the flow, removing frustration points, adding checkpoints, and making navigation between levels more intuitive. Our credits are mostly playtesters!
I also have a QA background, so that helped us catch a lot of bugs before we shipped. It’s impossible to catch everything though; our player base found tons of new issues the instant we released. It was inevitable, but we’ve fortunately been on top of fixing everything!
Were you expecting all of the positive reviews you’ve gotten since the Steam release?
We knew from playtester feedback that we were making a quality product, but we are still thrilled that the general public has been so receptive! There is definitely a difference between public opinion and family/friends – we’re glad to see that it’s been mostly consistent!
Now that the Steam release has been successful, are you looking for other platforms to bring Mike Dies to? Why or why not?
One of our next goals is bringing Mike Dies to other platforms. We want to get as many people playing it as possible, so we don’t want to limit ourselves to just PC. Additionally, platforming games like ours generally see better success on console, so we’d very much like to make sure this game connects with the right audience!
What was the game that made you say, “Wow! that’s something I want to do?”
When I was about four years old, I played the original Super Mario Brothers on my Grandma’s NES. It was at that exact moment in time, that I said “I want to make video games when I grow up!” So that’s exactly what I did!
But the game that changed my life forever was most likely Chrono Trigger for the SNES. The perfect merging of narrative, gameplay, visuals, optional content, and music forever changed my perspective on what games can be. Someday, I would like to make a game that is as meaningful and life-changing to other people as that game was to me.
Are there any other tips you can give to enhance gameplay?
There are loads of little secrets I want to reveal to make traversing Mike Dies easier, but we teach a lot of that through our level design, so I don’t want to give too much away!
The best advice I can give to new players is to keep an eye on your surroundings. Many players progress past the first area and are initially confused by how they missed so much content. There are secrets everywhere if you can learn to read our environmental tells!
How was the process of writing a script for Mike?
In order to write for Mike and figure out his voice, I essentially method-acted him. I developed everything about him from his history, to his mannerisms and his personality. Once I had established his voice, I began writing his dialogue.
Outside of a few gameplay moments, Mike usually only speaks when the player grabs hidden communicators around his ship. In order to write these communicator lines, I first needed to nail down what I wanted them to say.
My initial step was listing out everything that the main game’s narrative didn’t fully explain – this includes many of the mechanics, hazards and character backstories. I then divided them out evenly across all of Mike’s communicator lines.
Since we wrote the finer details of the story after we completed the game, it actually took me the longest time to piece it all together. I sat staring at my computer screen for days without making any real progress on it. Then one day, I was in the middle of a big bowl of Pho when it just suddenly all hit me at once. I borrowed a pen from the waiter and wrote down all of Mike’s lines back to back on about ten napkins.
The team was ultimately more than satisfied with the results. It was then up to our voice actor Chris Rando to bring Mike to life!
What was your favorite part of the game development process from start to finish and why?
I enjoyed writing a lot of the characters, especially some of the snarkier ones like the Hunter and the Client. I have a background in comedy writing and it was nice to let loose!
The hunter levels was also particularly fun to design. These levels are mean and full of traps. Generally, we always telegraph hazards in advance, as our level design philosophy in the title was “Dance with the player.” We never unfairly pull the rug out from under the player… except in those Hunter levels.
Well technically, we do telegraph traps by having the Hunter present in a room. But it’s still a mental game for players to figure out what those traps might be; we actually use that meta against the player for a few hilarious surprises!
Watching playertesters and streamers fall for these traps makes us on the development team laugh every time. But due to our generous checkpoints, players laugh too!
do you have any dev to dev advice for other indie developers?
Watch your scope! This was our problem with Mike Dies and we had the same problem with our previous title Dark Scavenger. Don’t make something you can’t finish! We did manage to complete both of these titles, but it was by the skin of our teeth. The longer that a project goes on, the less likely your team is going to stick around to see it through!
And do whatever it takes to finish your game. If people quit, find new people. If you can’t find new people, learn to do it yourself. If you don’t have time to learn a skill, compromise until you have a product you can complete.
Finishing a game takes dedication, hard work and creativity. Don’t give up if you can’t see a product through to its original vision – adjust it! Adapt to your new constraints instead of abandoning the project. Intimidating constraints often birth the most interesting design decisions and innovations!
Now that Mike Dies has been released, have you begun work on bringing another story to life or are you taking some time off?
We are indeed discussing our next big thing! We’ve learned a lot from Mike Dies and have come a long way as developers since we began this project.
For our next title, we’ll likely be bringing our unique brand of weirdness to a more modern genre. We can’t say much about it now, but we might have some announcements sooner than you think. Stay tuned and feel free to follow us on our Twitter or Discord for more information!