Developed by RocketCat Games, Death Road to Canada is a road-trip action-RPG set to the tune of the zombie apocalypse. We speak to designer Kepa Auwae about getting into indie games, the benefits of having backstabbing friends, and why slow zombies are the best zombies.
ONLYSP: Thanks for being available for this interview. I’ve played the game for a while now – and I suck terribly at it, but had a lot of fun and have a couple of questions for you.
Kepa Auwae: Great, glad you liked it. [There’s going to be a] new build soon that adds even more stuff.
ONLYSP: For starters, let’s give our readers a bit of background on you. I know you took a bit of an unusual trajectory into gamedev – you studied formally to be a nurse, right?
Auwae: I was a pediatric nurse for a while and got into game development arbitrarily. The people that started making games with me also had no game developer experience. I knew them because we played the old MMO Asheron’s Call together.
ONLYSP: How did that come about? You know, from being in an MMO chatroom and convincing two others you could have a shot at making a game together?
Auwae: I always wanted to pursue it. I just decided to one night. I always wanted to make games, [so I] saved up some money, and convinced the others to try to make one with me. I figured it was worth a shot. We worked in our spare time. Our first couple of games were successful enough that we all moved to full time work.
ONLYSP: So how does the work happen? How does the conversation flow when you want to create a game? What does the back-and-forth look like?
Auwae: We coordinate using a shared design document, then a checklist where we track what we have to do next. Everyone has a lot of autonomy to do what they think is right for the project. So everyone has a hand in it, and it’s easy to do with our tools. We collaborate and both add changes to the game, sometimes working on the same thing and other times working on different facets of the game.
ONLYSP: Okay, onto Death Road to Canada. There’s a definite Oregon Trail vibe, that seems to be a big inspiration for U.S. devs – what do you think makes it special? Or am I way off base here?
Auwae: Death Road ended up being a kind of greatly expanded version of Oregon Trail in its theme. Actually being able to explore cities as 500 slow zombies hobble at you, and interactive fiction scenes where your characters’ personalities matter. It wasn’t originally supposed to be a tribute to Oregon Trail, and I don’t think it really is now. The early versions of Death Road to Canada involved exploring and developing one big city. But then I thought of open world games, where the problem becomes that the travel is kind of boring. I think that fast travel in open world games is a tacit admission to this.
ONLYSP: Yes, totally. There were a few games that did it right, but in most it’s just yucky.
Auwae: So from there we thought of Oregon Trail. That way you’d be constantly going into new cities, but on a smaller scale. This also matched well with our idea to have interactive fiction inspired scenes, which could then take place on the road. The idea is, you get the sense of travelling the world, but with a fast pace.
ONLYSP: So what was the original goal? Building a base, a safe haven, instead of reaching one?
Auwae: It was about temporary base building, with an eventual end goal of escaping the city safely. Inspired by Rebuild originally! Like an action-based Rebuild. Sarah Northway’s game.
ONLYSP: Right. So of course there’s much more personality. Traits play a big part [in Death Road to Canada]. In fact I was impressed when at a couple of times a situation – that interactive fiction you mentioned – was solved due to a trait I had been totally unaware of. How did you decide to create this system, and how do you balance it – if at all?
Auwae: I’ve always been interested in figuring out systems where you could have randomly generated personalities. We started with the idea of having each character with a bunch of traits on a number scale, both skills and aspects of their personality. It simplified a bit over time, but it’s mostly pretty close to the original plans. The end result is that different personality traits combine to form an aspect of a character that gives new results in the Interactive Fiction parts of the game. Like someone that’s really perceptive but with a bad attitude ends up being paranoid. They’re always on guard and can see traps, but they may see traps where none are there.
ONLYSP: I was totally backstabbed once. That girl was a jerk.
Auwae: She may have been handy in other ways, though.
ONLYSP: Oh yeah, she was like, the best partner ever! Until she stabbed me on the back!
Auwae: Someone that might backstab the group in times of trouble could also be used to rob other groups sometimes, if they have the right combination of traits. The balance comes from most traits having both a positive and negative aspect, depending on individual situations. If she stabbed you in the back at the first sign of trouble, well that’s the way it’s balanced. Like one trait isn’t a solution for everything that can happen. A mix of different traits in a group is the most desirable thing, since it gives you way more options.
ONLYSP: Do you see some scenarios where the random / hidden traits will make the game unwinnable? This one time, I had my two starting characters and Horse [a unique character – a special kind of character whom you may or may not find during the course of the trip, that is not randomly generated, but usually quite quirky. Horse’s quirk is that he can run quite well…but nothing else] and they died and I was left controlling Horse. And it was really fun to play like that, up until I got to a siege [an event where the player is cornered and must survive while a timer counts down] and all I could do was run around while two hours counted down. It was kind of hilarious.
Auwae: The Unique Characters in the game sometimes throw rules out the window. They’re a whole different thing. So you could get to an unwinnable scenario with the uniques, maybe. Horse is a bad example because you maybe could have won from running around during the whole siege. Maybe.
ONLYSP: Yeah I tried that. Was swarmed, though – but almost made it!
Auwae: One character is a hockey masked man with a chainsaw. He’s functionally immortal, if he dies he’ll just come back a day later or so. But if he’s in your group, your other group members start mysteriously disappearing.
And if he’s the only one left, he quits. So it becomes a race to keep filling your team with people. This could lead to a game over. But you do get a choice to recruit him or not, initially.
Originally it was more or less a game over to be reduced to one character, too. We changed this so it’s more likely to keep going until you get more people back. Part of the design of Death Road is that you’re often getting new people to recruit to your party to make up for losses. Then again, you might even be able to beat the game solo. It’d be more difficult.
ONLYSP: I think you should add an achievement for beating the game solo as Horse!
Auwae: That’d be easy enough if you murder everyone else on the final stage. Horse could just run from the carnage, it’s his thing.
ONLYSP: On my playthroughs, I felt that a big part of the experience was the need to discover the mechanics for myself. Is this design or do you expect to expand the tutorial for launch? Or maybe I’m just a bit rubbish at it!
Auwae: I think the tutorial is staying nearly like it is. Letting the player discover the nuances of the mechanics is interesting. We’re adding more hint text though, such as being able to talk to NPC’s in trader camps. We recently added trader camps/towns to replace the old trader interactive fiction events. Now you can run around and see and talk to the different traders, which are picked at random from a big list of possible traders. In the same areas there’s friendly people to talk to, and it’s a good spot to put in some handy hints.
ONLYSP: That sounds more interesting. A bit more RPG-ish, maybe?
Auwae: Like a JRPG town, yeah. But with procedural generation elements. Random towns, random people, random traders.
ONLYSP: So as someone that’s been playing with a keyboard since PCs arrived in the household, I have to ask: what’s up with the arrow keys as default movement option?
Auwae: WASD is mostly for mouse control, I thought. For keyboard-only games, the standard seems like arrow keys ZXC as a base – maybe popularized by Spelunky’s keyboard controls. I wanted really simple controls for Death Road because I figured it’s a zombie apocalypse game that families can play together. Kind of cutesy zombie apocalypse, two-player co-op. Family friendly-ish gore explosions. I also wanted to not do a point-and-click aim or twin stick shooter, but to introduce some awkwardness to the shooting controls. It’s based on your character’s shooting skill. More shooting skill equals faster aiming, turning, and better shot piercing.
ONLYSP: I didn’t get to try co-op. but I really want to. Even though the site is called “Only Single Player.” I might get in trouble with my boss!
Auwae: Co-op was pretty recent! It’s same-screen co-op for now, but we really want to add split screen.
ONLYSP: Beautiful pixel art, by the way. A lot of indie devs thrive on this kind of art, and the public seems very receptive; in the meantime, devs that used to be masters at it seem to be avoiding 3D recently, Mighty Number 9 got a lot of flak for going 3D instead of the 2D the concept art promised. You guys seem to kill it with 2D. How do you manage that?
Auwae: We were able to do a lot of character customization in 2D mostly because we planned out the animations to be both simple and mostly based on code instead of art. I was inspired by Wasteland Kings (now Nuclear Throne) to steal their “no one has arms” bit. That made things a lot easier.
Due to this [code-based animations], we were able to have lots and lots of different characters and body parts for character customization. If we didn’t do it this way, having a lot of character customization would be way more difficult. Generally, 3D is a lot better for character customization, because you can just add pieces. That’s probably a reason you see a big move to it for some games. For the Castlevania spiritual sequel [Bloodstained] anyway, not sure why they did it for Mighty Number 9. 3D’s automatically considered “higher production value” by most people. This is probably the bigger reason, the easier character customization (in many cases) is maybe just a small bonus.
ONLYSP: So what zombie games are you looking forward to in the next year?
Auwae: Are there any that are doing slow zombies?
ONLYSP: I’m not sure – we don’t really know how Resident Evil 7 will turn out on the zombie front. I guess you’re not a fast-zombie guy? Maybe that Capcom one? I dislike fast zombies too. Dead Rising, that’s the name.
Auwae: Dead Rising, yeah. First, I want the record to show that you took a long time to think about if any were doing slow zombies. I think Dead Rising wasn’t really about the zombies as a threat, though. It was more about the bosses, which were human psychopaths
ONLYSP: This is true, it was actually the most interesting message of that game.
Auwae: I like slow zombies because almost no one bothers [to do a game with them]. There’s lots of zombie games but they’re all Left 4 Dead zombies now, I think? They’re all fast and there’s always the smoker and the tank and etc. Sometimes they slightly change the name and appearance of the smoker and tank and boomer but there’s usually just the one formula for video game zombies. A big thing with Death Road is that we wanted to be a game that tried to do the Romero zombie style. Slow, dumb, relentless; 500 shambling after you at a time, crowding you in a corner. I don’t even know if Day Z or H1Z1 and etc have zombies in them anymore. Whenever I watch a stream of these games, I barely see them now. Maybe they all got taken out. It’s way easier to do fast zombies than slow zombies and have them work in a video game. Especially if you can only have 10 zombies actually “active” at a time due to console hardware limits. We have some zombie special appearances, mostly as jokes. There’s only one zombie type in Death Road, though: the type is “Slow Romero Zombie”.
ONLYSP: That’s something about Death Road: the zombies are really slow, and you underestimate them and get cornered. The threat is in the swarm. I think you nailed that.
Auwae: Yeah, they’re a big swarm, and they track your scent and have increasing levels of aggression. In the beginning, you could try to sneak or push through them without attacking. And then a bunch start following you, and then they get more aggressive, and soon you’re fighting through a massive swarm if you’re not careful or fast enough. We wanted to make a game where you didn’t really want to attack the zombies if you could get away with it. It’s pretty funny to see people run into this concept like it’s a brick wall. A lot of people play the game initially by trying to fight every zombie. This doesn’t end well. Eventually they figure out that there’s no point in it, and they should loot and run whenever possible. The dawning realization [is] that you shouldn’t spend the zombie apocalypse slowly trying to kill 20 zombies in a parking lot with a kitchen knife while starving and exhausted.
ONLYSP: Yeah. I totally got there when I had to play solo as Horse. It’s like “oh, there’s actually a lot you can surpass just by running”.
Auwae: Yes, especially if you’re a fast character. Run Speed stat [is the] most important stat.
ONLYSP: Well, you’ve given us a release date of 22 July – I’m guessing that’s rock solid?
Auwae: Yeah. We’re mostly just wrapping things up. The trader camps were the last big addition until after the game’s out. We plan on doing a lot of free updates to the game to add more content. That and some rare encounters that are going in soon. Bug fixing, final balancing until the game is out.
ONLYSP: Thank you for your time. I’m looking forward to play the game on launch!
Death Road to Canada will release on Steam on the 22nd of July, and will be available to play on Windows, Mac and PC.