Interview: dev_hell Will Have Several Side Stories And Potential Multiple Endings
One of the greatest things about indie titles is the amount of creativity found within the game mechanics and the overall setting. The recently revealed dev_hell from Unhinged Studios perfectly fits that description. It is a first-person narrative deckbuilding roguelike game, but the entire gameplay is set within an office, with the players taking the role of a new dev.
Admittedly, this might be relatable and even nightmarish for some developers. Still, from what we can see in the trailer, the game has done a splendid job of blending all these different elements. As such, we spoke with Del Sharratt and Don Westerndorp, Co-Founders of Unhinged Studios, over an email interview to get more behind-the-scenes details about this nightmarish dev simulator.
Introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your work on dev_hell.
Don: Unhinged Studios was formed in 2020, maybe a year after Del and I first met. We discovered we shared the background of being art school dropouts who wound up in corporate software development. And more importantly, we realized we both ultimately wanted to make video games. The rest has been a little bit of a roller coaster ride.
Del: We both bring unique things to the table as far as our creativity and skills go, and we also both happen to be very opinionated about how things should be. I think that dynamic has generally allowed us to produce much higher quality and more meaningful results, despite and due to the emotional labor and combativeness that comes with some of our decision-making.
Starting off, I am very curious to know whether the concept of this game was brought up on a whim or if this had been in the back of everyone's mind for a while.
Don: The idea started in 2019 when I mentioned to a coworker during a sprint planning meeting: “What if there was a game like Papers Please, but Jira.” Jira is the standard task management software in the industry, so that game would have been a project/product/scrum manager making sure tickets met expectations before they could be closed.
Eventually, that morphed into the idea of essentially dragging your team kicking and screaming to success. This was the inspiration behind dev_hell 1.0, which was like Slay the Spire, but your coworkers would be represented by decks that they used to create “situations” that you would use your own deck to solve.
Del: But after the pandemic hit, the concept didn’t feel as culturally relevant anymore since most of tech had gone remote. I was also personally interested in a concept that would allow more of a story structure than what we currently had since dev_hell 1.0 — which was originally called DEVHELL — didn’t revolve around set characters with much dialogue or personality.
Instead, we ended up pivoting to a more action-oriented game for about a year and a half before realizing the scope for that was more than a little too ambitious for a two-person team. Then, finally, at the beginning of 2023, we sat down to deeply reevaluate how we could use what we had already built to make something new. Admittedly this was a bit of a stressful time.
Don: We had a lot of game framework built, a 3D pipeline, a motion capture system, a pretty slick in-game UI, as well as some pretty well defined concepts for making a deckbuilder. This was around the time the Twitter acquisition was happening, and we had a new random idea: “What if it was like Inscryption, but instead of Leshy, it was a caricature of Elon Musk that you played cards against to prove your code was salient enough to keep your job?”
Del: And it’s worth keeping in mind that when Elon took over, he started by firing people based solely on the number of lines of code they had written…
Don: What we really wanted to do was make the player actually feel like a software developer, so we started expanding the narrative and the cast to meet that goal. That’s how we arrived at the concept we’re working on today. It’s a long story, but it feels like this is the background for most games that are made, especially in the indie scene!
How long has the game been in development? And how many people are actively working on this project?
Don: The dev_hell we are releasing this year has been in development since late 2022, but we’re using many of the components we built as early as 2019. This allowed us to start building the game immediately by reusing existing frameworks.
Del: Our team currently has 5 people. Don and I are the Founders and handle most of the creative direction, design, art, and programming. We have two other devs who are old internet friends of Don’s who were very down to be a part of one of many of his wacky projects over the years. They help with programming and give feedback on the narrative. And we have an incredible musician who just happens to be starting out in the software development industry this year.
The game's premise, combined with the roguelite deckbuilder elements, is a rather unique combination. Is there a particular reason why the team went in this direction?
Don: We felt it was one of the best ways to abstract the actual ways developers accomplish their tasks. Most importantly, though, it gives us a lot more replayability than other approaches we could think of, and it enables us to create situations that force the player to juggle priorities and choose the lesser of many evils.
Del: I’ll say on my end that I pushed for a premise that would allow us to create a more personal, immersive experience. So inserting the player as themself in this world in first-person felt like the best approach, and also would encourage people to take their own personal thoughts and feelings into their play-style, consciously or otherwise.
Don: The final reason is that it’s practical. Systems that only change when the player takes an explicit action are significantly less prone to bugs. We want the player to have a high-quality experience and only have to deal with the bugs on the cards they’re battling!
Will the game adopt any other office dynamics, such as siding with a bad character, talking behind others' backs, etc.?
Del: Absolutely. We are designing the characters to feel as real as possible, so there are no pure good or pure evil characters, but some definitely lean one way or the other.
There are multiple side stories in the game the player can dig into that explore both stories about the characters as well as the company you work for. If they reach a resolution to a side story they’ll often receive a very powerful reward. These can sometimes involve balancing risk vs reward, as it may make your deck weaker in the short term.
Don: For example, one of the first side stories the player will encounter is trying to figure out who is actually responsible for making the roadmap at CodeNOW. There may be multiple endings to this story, one of them involves gaining a very powerful card named “The Roadmap.” That card will destroy any opposing bugs or tech debt on the board because fixing bugs and clearing tech debt is never on the roadmap!
We have a lot of ideas outlined and are focused on including the best ones in the initial release. This will create a lot of replayability between runs and let us do a lot of interesting things with the narrative progression. No full playthrough will ever look completely alike if you choose to engage with specific side quests over others or favor certain coworkers.
Are any characters in the game inspired by real-life people, perhaps someone who gives developers a hellish time?
Don: The characters in the game are generally inspired by an amalgamation of real-world experience and stereotypes. We’ve received comments from testers that certain characters are exactly like people they know, but we must stress that this game is a work of fiction!
Del: We will say that the CEO, Serena, is partially modeled after Elizabeth Holmes and that the CTO, Niall, takes some inspiration from Michael Scott. However, no coworker is exactly based on any particular character or person.
Would you like to share your own personal dev_hell story that you hope other developers don't go through?
Don: While we can’t go into specifics about personal experiences, the main thing we want for all individuals in tech is clear expectations for their roles. You should never have to worry about what is required of you and if you’re meeting those goals, but the nature of software often makes these expectations quite hard to define.
Del: And to a more emotional end, we want the moral ambiguity – or even overt exploitative nature – that often embodies this industry to be a focal point. No matter what role you are working on in tech, you are participating in a force that possesses a lot of influence on society. That can be a difficult place to be, especially given the passion a lot of devs have for their work. Idealistically, being able to work for a conscientious company should be a much lower bar.
What were some of the major challenges that you encountered during development?
Don: Our main challenge has been navigating how to best deliver a consistent and engaging narrative that fulfills all the goals we’ve outlined so far. We’re confident that we have a good overall structure to the story and have many major points well-defined, but we’re being very diligent to make sure it all will come together.
Del: This is not intended to be a one-dimensional game, and the combination of different layers unraveling and the player’s own unique journey through it should leave the player with things to think about. Planning for something that has an impact is much easier said than done, but I think the weight of our own views should bring that out in the end.
Do you have any plans to release the game on consoles?
Don: For the initial release, we are targeting Steam, Windows, and English only. Since this is our first title, we want to make sure we do one build exactly right and then expand from there. If we see demand for consoles or other operating systems, we will support them, but we want to ensure that if we do that, it is ultimately done correctly.
Del: And that we can afford the appropriate help, especially with localization, to make sure it does the content justice.
Anything else you would like to share with the readers?
Don: Although this is our first video game title, our team has a lot of experience shipping software. We have experience making mistakes, and we know how to learn from them and correct them. Luckily we have much better stakeholders in this situation: fellow gamers. That being said, we can guarantee we will always put in our best effort to make an experience as fun and bug-free as possible.
Del: Try to approach dev_hell with an open mind. Know that your experience as the player is just as important as anything that happens throughout the course of the game.
Don: We will be posting weekly updates on Steam and engaging with the community as much as we possibly can, so give us a follow and ask us anything!
dev_hell is a first-person narrative deckbuilding roguelike game from Unhinged Studios. It is scheduled to release on PC sometime during 2024.
Shoaib Rashid is a passionate Gamer and an experienced writer who has been covering the Gaming Industry for over 3 Years. He started his career as a freelance journalist, writing reviews, previews, news, guides, and features for various industries. He joined VA Gaming as a Writer in 2022 and was promoted to Content Editor in 2023, where he oversees the editorial tasks and ensures the quality and accuracy of the content.
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