Dicey Dungeons puts the Michael Barrymore magic back into dungeon crawling.
It’s the final day of EGX Rezzed. Everyone – attendees, press, developers showing off their games – is ready to collapse into a heap. My last appointment for the show, the rogue-like, turn-based dungeon crawling, blackjack-influenced Dicey Dungeons, has someone playing on it before I get a go, someone who couldn’t have been older than six or seven years old.
He is the game’s biggest fan, according to both designer Terry Cavanagh and sound designer/composer Niamh ‘Chipzel’ Houston, known together for their previous work on Super Hexagon, to the point that not only did he finish the showfloor demo of it several times, but got Cavanagh to pull out the Early Access Alpha build for him to continue playing.
“Is it good?” I ask him. “Yeah.” I ask then, “Is this your favourite game of the show?” He responds, “Yeah!” before looking to get on and play the game again.
Rezzed was one of three weeks’ worth of shows that Cavanagh and Houston demoed the game back-to-back-to-back in the Spring between GDC, PAX East and EGX Rezzed. Now as the game gets set to leave alpha ahead of a full release later this summer, they both talk of how the game adapts to different playstyles and how they adapted its running theme of primetime 90s quiz shows like Strike It Rich or Irish quiz show Winning Streak (if that last one goes over your head, it’s because you’re about to see questions and answers from a trio of Irish folk here between Monaghan-born Cavanagh, Tyrone-born Houston and me, a Derry-born-and-based idiot).
The first thing that comes to mind when I played this was, and I said this to Niamh, how adaptive it was to many playstyles. There was one playstyle that could suit me, but if I tried something else, it may not necessarily tickle me. How do you adapt for so many playstyles for the game?
Terry Cavanagh: That’s a good question. When I’m putting the character together, I try to make sure that there are enough combinations of equipment that interest you as much as possible, regardless of what you find. You can lean into certain playstyles and they should work, so long as you make the correct plays. Best example in the game is probably the robot’s level upwards. This is going to be very involved and require that you play Dicey Dungeons, but the idea is, when you first level up as a robot, you get offered two pieces of equipment.
One is called the ‘Buster Sword’, which makes it safe to go over your target. The other is called ‘Ultima Weapon’ and obviously there are Final Fantasy references here. It means you do double damage when you hit the jackpot exactly. What that means is that it branches into two different directions and you’ve got a playstyle where you really care about hitting your jackpot as often as possible and you choose other pieces of equipment that make that easier or work with that, or maybe you pick a playstyle where you don’t want to have to think about the blackjack element of that character too much. So, the Buster Sword means that you can just go for damage and things that will work regardless of what you roll. That also works. And all of the characters have something like this going on.
The ‘Faith’ has a crowbar and a poison option at their level up rewards, so you can lean into having to do a poison pistol, which works quite well if you happen to get the items. Likewise, the crowbar playstyle can work quite well, if you get certain things that are… I’m losing my train of thought here, but the point is giving people interesting decisions and letting them put together builds that make sense with the equipment that they found or happen to find in the dungeon.
I guess it’s time for me to hand it back to you then, Niamh. How do you make a soundtrack that’s just so in tune with a game like Dicey Dungeons and the sound design as well, how it fits, what works with the theme of the game and its gameplay?
Niamh Houston: We’ve been in Early Access, so it was a little bit rough at the start because it was like trying to find what is it about this game that needs to really shine. Mostly, I have focused on sound design and through that, we came up with the story. [Whenever] I was playing the early versions, I really got the sense of 90’s game shows because it’s all this luck of the draw.
Like Michael Barrymore’s Strike It Rich or something like that?
Niamh Houston: Yes, exactly. So I was like, “I’m getting the sense of a game show,” and then I put this into the Discord that we had and then Terry came back a day or two later being like, “I’m stuck on this game show idea and I think we should do something with that.” So then, of course, the sound effects and stuff… I kind of had a bit of direction there to go, “it needs to have this sort of cartoony, game show, sort of like interesting vibe.”
Then we just loved chiptune and the soundtrack is now actually going to be changed slightly to try and sort of hint more at the game show element. I like the idea of it being a chiptune at the forefront, but with layers of funk, and disco, and house, and jazz. Some of them, I’ve managed to combine all the ideas I’ve had…
Niamh Houston: Yeah. Which hasn’t been… the new style isn’t actually in the game that we’ve been showcasing, but it is going to be coming very soon.
What is it about you two that you find yourselves so fascinated to collaborate with each other, because you’ve obviously got a few games together. What is it about the general relationship between you two that makes it work?
Terry Cavanagh: Very tough question.
Niamh Houston: Because we are both Irish.
Terry Cavanagh: Yes, that’s basically it. All Irish people can like collaborate without any difficulty whatsoever, you know?
We just work and drink.
Terry Cavanagh: Yeah.
Niamh Houston: I love Terry’s work as the game’s designer and I believe that you love my work too.
Terry Cavanagh: Yes, I don’t need to work as a musician. I’ve listened to her albums on repeat while working on various projects. Like, Super Hexagon came together just from listening to her albums over and over again and she’s just the perfect person for that game. She’s been fantastic for Dicey Dungeons as well.
Niamh Houston: I’m gonna cry.
Terry Cavanagh: So passionate about making the game sound the way she wants it to sound and then making that just come across like, I don’t know, we just…
Niamh Houston: …we get each other.
Terry Cavanagh: Yes, we both respect each other. Artists and creatives work very hard to make the best work we’ve can.
It’s just this perfect mesh of doing design, music and sound, mesh them all together and just go, “here’s the big Irish big bang?”
Niamh Houston: Now we have Marlowe [Marlowe Dobbe, the game’s artist] in the equation and she’s just slotted in perfectly and she’s just done absolutely phenomenal work for the project. It’s the reason why people are drawn to the game.
Terry Cavanagh: Yes. Marlowe is incredibly talented. We’re very lucky to have her.
Niamh Houston: She’s brilliant. Such a good, good, good person.
It’s fascinating that this is actually my last game of the show and the thing that really stuck with me is the kid coming up and wanting to play the game after playing it so many times.
Niamh Houston: He is my best friend… I love that kid. He has played every single character. He only died once and he completed the demo with every character without dying.
Terry Cavanagh: He not only did all the levels that he can do in our showfloor build, he wanted to play more, so I had to dig out the actual Alpha build for him on the computer so he could play stuff that wasn’t in the demo.
Niamh Houston: He’s got the game and he got all the pins. Every character and I swear to God, he’s our number one fan. I love him. He’s great. He’s so cute!
Terry Cavanagh: Lots of good questions as well. “What happens if you do this?” I’m like, “God, I don’t know, give it a go and see what happens!”
Niamh Houston: I’m looking forward to playing his games.
I guess finally then when you do leave for Early Access, I don’t know when that’s going to be, but when you do leave it, how do you take it forward from there? Because there are many elements of potential there. Like adding new characters, and because it’s such a roguelike state of play for the game and the fact that the characters of the game have different playstyles, there’s definitely potential there. How do you see the game going forward after that initial release?
Terry Cavanagh: Well, we have a very clear vision of what we want the final game to be. So there’s a huge amount of content in the game. Not all of it is in the Alpha just yet. Our next launch is actually going to be our last. So once we’ve done that, we are going to stop doing the Alpha, and we’re just going to focus on getting the final version out. We already have six characters in the game and each character has six different game modes. So in total, there are 36 different game modes that you can play.
We have a very clear idea of what we want the final version of the game to be. I’m a big believer in games feeling finished. That’s been the conflicting thing about doing Early Access for me because games in Early Access are never really finished, right? You are always adding more to them and I like games to be done. I like games to have…
Terry Cavanagh: Yes. Exactly. I think it’s better than diluting it with infinite content because at a certain point you sort of start to scrape the barrel and your audio sounds good and I want everything in there to be super solid and everyone there to love playing.
At some point you just want to bring everything over to the next thing. Whatever that is going to be.
Terry Cavanagh: Yeah.
Like any ideas you think of for Dicey Dungeons, you just think, “no, no, no, stop, stop. Next thing. Next thing.”
Terry Cavanagh: [laughs] To be honest, I’m really at the point where I’m running out of things to put in the game. I’m working very hard to think through every avenue that can be explored mechanically. Yeah, I’m very happy with how extensive things are and people have played the game for hundreds of hours already. There’s a ton of content there.
What about you, Niamh, you say you want to re-tweak the soundtrack. How happy are you with how things have progressed?
Niamh Houston: It’s amazing. We’ve come so far in such a short space of time. It’s like the three [of us], me, Marlowe, Terry, have been working together for like ten months?
Terry Cavanagh: Yeah, about a year.
Niamh Houston: It’s not even a year yet. It’s just come together so well and we’ve been demoing for three weeks now. Literally. It’s just got such a good reception and everybody seems to really love it. We all really love it as well, as a game. We’re really excited to play it still after all this time and it just keeps getting better and better. It’s been amazing.
The Dicey Dungeons Alpha has recently closed, you can play the final version of this Alpha ahead of launch via the Dicey Dungeons itch.io page. Stay on top of developments by following the team at @diceydungeons!
Johnny Cullen is a freelance writer and author from Derry, Northern Ireland who has written for Eurogamer, VG247, Official PlayStation Magazine UK, GameDaily.biz and so many more since July 2009. Come @ him about The Last of Us, Metal Gear Solid 3, Jonsi and Alex or the Four Horsewomen of WWE on Twitter @JohnnyCullen.