How an Evil Empire Saved Dead Cells from “Dying in the Gutter”
The extra life of an indie gaming GOAT.
Dead Cells wouldn’t exist without beer.
That’s the gist of the story I got from Evil Empire CEO Steve Filby, who was at Motion Twin during the development of the indie sensation. The team had gone to Gamescom to pitch a game which, up until that point, was going to be a multiplayer affair. Because multiplayer wasn’t nearly ready, a single-player demo was built in haste so they had something to pitch at the show. To their surprise, it won some awards. During their post-show recovery, the team took advantage of those infamous Gamescom beers.
“They're like 200 milliliters, short, really light beers. They carry them around with 50 of them on a platter and it's dangerous,” Filby tells Inverse.
Beers flowing, success fresh in the air, Filby recalled the advice of fellow game dev and Shiro Games studio founder Nicolas Cannasse, who happened to be in Motion Twin’s office during the development of the Gamescom demo. After he saw it live, Cannasse remarked that they should abandon the multiplayer version of Dead Cells altogether. The team basically booed him out of the room. Their biggest success to date had been a multiplayer web game called Hordes.
It was a crazy idea … until Gamescom.
“We were sitting around drinking beers and were like, ‘He's right, the bastard. It's true. We should probably do that.’”
At the heart of Dead Cells’ early success are lots of stories like this, thanks in large part to the unconventional studio that spawned it. Motion Twin is based in Bordeaux and is structured as a société coopérative et participative, or a workers’ cooperative. In a SCOP, employees are the shareholders and virtually all decisions are made through roundtable discussions and voting. (“Like Survivor with the coconut,” Filby explains.) It works best with small companies, and when Filby joined in 2014, there were just six employees. It gets more complicated when your game wins big at The Game Awards and starts selling millions of copies.
A Sobering Success
Today, Dead Cells is in the hands of Filby’s company, Evil Empire. A necessary evil (pun intended) created to preserve a vibrant community that has helped the game reach new heights. But why would Motion Twin even want to hand over the reins to such a big success?
“There's no rule that says you have to have an anarchistic-no rules-everybody's equal-capital A-political anarchy organization for your workers’ cooperative. You can run a workers' cooperative like a business,” Filby says, noting that even though they weren’t operating as capitalists, the team at Motion Twin understood they were always competing with capitalists. “Still, it's not exactly a business. And so they're not set up to handle the growth. And when you really start working on a live-ops game, you realize that your team is going to need to be pretty big.”
Roundtable discussions over things like art direction and game mechanics sound fun, but practical stuff like HR and recruitment doesn’t inspire folks to bring the same level of thoughtfulness and creative energy. Motion Twin could have done those things, but didn’t want to, and that work is vital if a studio is going to grow quickly.
Filby acknowledges that the “everybody’s an equal partner” structure at the heart of Dead Cells’ origin story has drawbacks, too. He cites one of his contributions to the gameplay mechanics, a roll instead of a dash to dodge. As a marketing guy, he’d never have been able to make that kind of pitch at a conventional studio. But because he was playing a lot of Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight with some of the artists, and they loved the dodge roll in that game, they “whinged, whinged, whinged” until it was changed.
“That kind of stuff is great, but it's also very tiring because if you're our lead designer, if you're Seb Bénard, you've got to deal with Steve and Matt and all of these other guys coming at you all the time being like, ‘Hey, we've got this idea, blah, blah, blah.’ And you can't just tell him to bugger off. You have to listen to him,” Filby says. “And if we manage to whip the votes to get an idea in the game, he then has to put it in the game. So that has a cost. It's definitely the thing that made the game great, but I think it's also the thing that ended up with lots of people leaving Motion Twin after the release.”
Filby left in 2016 once his contract expired, unaware that he would be back in a few years to help save the game and usher in a new era for the beloved title.
Rise of an Empire
In 2018, Motion Twin started making noises about moving on to its next game. It was still a small SCOP, and there just wasn’t the same passion for iterative growth as there was for starting something new. By that point, Filby had started his own venture called Indie Catapult, but when he heard they were “basically killing the golden goose and letting it die in the gutter,” he saw an opportunity for a win/win. If someone else managed Dead Cells future, kept it alive, it would keep the IP in the spotlight to the benefit of Motion Twin as it developed new projects. And, on the flip side, what new company wouldn’t want to helm the direction of a phenom like Dead Cells?
Teaming up with Ben Laulan and Joan Blachere — who also worked at indiecatapult — and Thomas Pfeiffer — another ex-Motion Twin employee — Evil Empire was born. Its name is a cheeky nod to its marketing and business roots. The studio started its work with Dead Cells in January 2019 but kept the news low-key, in part because it wasn’t a total break. Motion Twin still owns the IP and creative control. Evil Empire develops all the new content, but with Motion Twin’s blessing first.
“One of our concerns, and the reason why we didn't communicate big time about the fact that Evil Empire was taking over, was because we were afraid of any bad perception,” says COO Ben Laulan. The relationship with the community, and Motion Twin’s reputation, were important. Laulan explained they didn’t want to be seen as “a studio made to just milk the Dead Cells cow and that's it. We were always super focused and driven by the creative side of things.”
Evil Empire, with its conventional business structure, began staffing up to take over the aforementioned golden goose. The two studios worked together on the Rise of the Giants DLC, which released in March 2019.
“We continued doing the marketing in the business and everything that we'd been doing since day one. And then Motion Twin was 100 percent off the game by the summer,” Filby says.
Evil Empire’s first major content update of their own was the Who’s The Boss? update in August 2019. It showcases the community-first philosophy Evil Empire aimed to cultivate by cleverly integrating new enemies that mimic some of the major bosses’ special abilities. It gives players a better chance in boss battles, but doesn’t necessarily make things easier.
A popular Twitch integration mode, pitched by Filby and built by Motion Twin devs, also gained traction in 2018. It went far beyond chats and emotes by incorporating tons of in-game modifiers, like enemies spawning bombs when they die or a bloodlust mode that drains health until the next kill is made. There’s also Captain Chicken, a bird controlled by someone in the chat who follows the player around and can attack enemies or cause chaos (or both). Once again, collaboration was key to Dead Cells’ continued success.
“We got lists from some of the top Dead Cells streamers. And so we were like, ok, let's go build that,” Filby says. “Then we ended up on the front page of Twitch again, which was cool.”
Little did the team at Evil Empire know that the coolest thing to happen to Dead Cells was right around the corner.
Castlevania And Beyond
In 2022, Laulan went to Kyoto for the indie dev festival BitSummit, hoping to speak with publishers about the logistics of a physical retail release in Japan. The key companies to talk to were Nintendo and Konami, with the latter being of particular interest given the obvious influence the Castlevania series had on Dead Cells. Laulan decided to shoot his shot in the meeting, and pitched a possible collaboration on something small — like a weapon, or and Alucard cameo.
“It felt just crazy to me. And I asked them and they're like, ‘Oh yeah, sure, why not? We can do that. No problem.’ Wait a minute, it’s that that easy? Okay, let me rephrase that,” he recalls, laughing. Laulan regrouped with some members of Evil Empire’s art team and put together a pitch deck.
A week later, the DLC was happening. A few months later, members of the Castlevania production team came to Bordeaux to check the progress.
“Being able to work on the game that inspired your whole game is something incredible,” Laulan explains. “So having their production team playing the build in Bordeaux with us and giving us the thumbs-up was really something.”
Return to Castlevania launched in March, a standout DLC in a very crowded year for games. Gamers and critics alike felt it struck the perfect balance of homage and innovation, along with one of the best soundtracks of this year — or any other.
Evil Empire’s success with Dead Cells isn’t just anecdotal. When the game launched in 2018, it was seeing 98k peak daily users. Since the Rise of the Giants release that’s increased to 125k. The average daily users on Steam has doubled from 25k at launch to 50k today, and Dead Cells is the sixth most-played game on Steam Deck. The golden goose is still full of eggs six years later, and the development roadmap extends until 2025.
But how can you top something like Return to Castlevania?
“We want to focus on something special and different than what we did in the past,” Filby says. “I can't really talk about it, but it'll take a bit more time than usual because it's bigger than what we did in the past.”
Evil Empire has also started work on its own IPs, too, since its success with Dead Cells has allowed them to “take risks, actual risks” creatively, Laulan says.
If all else fails, another bucket of beers couldn’t hurt, either.
Editor’s note: This article was updated to clarify the finer points of the Dead Cells transition, and correct the list of Evil Empire founders to add Joan Blachere and Thomas Pfeiffer.