Apr 15, 2023

From Dead Cells to reinventing retro IP: The untold story of Evil Empire

We talk to CEO Steve Filby and COO Benjamin Laulan about how the Dead Cells DLC developer is stepping out of Motion Twin's shadow and striking on its own

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Dead Cells has officially sold over ten millions copies.

The milestone was announced today, and crowns six years of ongoing support for the indie hit that initially released in Early Access in 2017.

The title has had a string of successful DLC since its original launch, the latest one being Return to Castlevania, in partnership with Konami.

While the game's success has been largely covered, less prominent is the fact Motion Twin handed the reins to another developer after the first DLC in 2019.

The studio, which is run as a cooperative, has been vocal in the past about wanting to remain small after the roguelike's success. Supporting Dead Cells in the long run would mean growth in a more traditional sense than what Motion Twin envisioned for its co-op structure. And that's where the idea for Evil Empire came from.

Co-founded by CEO Steve Filby (Motion Twin's former co-CEO and head of business development), COO Benjamin Laulan, creative director Joan Blachere and CTO Thomas Pfeiffer (also former Motion Twin), Evil Empire became the place to do "everything the [Dead Cells] devs didn't actually want to do – which turned out to be actually quite a lot," Filby laughs.

And it might have felt a bit like history repeating itself for Filby as this is exactly what he did when he first joined Motion Twin.

"I joined the video games industry in 2014 at Motion Twin directly, before we actually started working on Dead Cells," he tells "I came on as the marketing and the 'do everything that devs don't want to do' guy, in a workers cooperative, which was a very diverse role, because there's lots of things you need to do. And so I've been working on Dead Cells since the very first time that we had that stupid idea," he smiles.

Towards the end of Dead Cells' development cycle, in 2016, Filby "all of a sudden had a lot less work to do" so he created his own games marketing consultancy, Indie Catapult, which Blachere and Laulan soon joined.

"We worked [almost] exclusively as a contractor on Dead Cells, and we also worked on a couple of other games like Northgard from Shiro Games," Filby says, with Laulan adding that their work could be summed up as "some kind of ninja publisher" for Dead Cells.

"And then eventually when Motion Twin decided they were done with Dead Cells, we thought we weren't and went 'Wait, there's stuff that we can do!' And that's how I became the CEO of Evil Empire," Filby continues.

The development and release of all DLC after 2019's Rise of the Giant has been quietly handled by Evil Empire, with Motion Twin moving on to other projects.

"That part of the whole setup, we kind of deliberately didn't really talk about a terrible lot to begin with," Filby says. "[The contract that links Motion Twin to Evil Empire] was written with the idea of saying, how can we continue to create more Dead Cells while allowing Motion Twin to go off and create their new game, and not have to worry about that? But also allowing us as a studio to exist, not just as the 'work-for-hire company that makes Dead Cells'."

The work-for-hire label is actually one Evil Empire doesn't want – the contract it continues to have with Motion Twin is down to the studios' close link, but Evil Empire is very much not for hire (more on that later).

The Bordeaux-based company, which employs 65 people, is now in the very unique position of coming out of stealth to make a name for itself with its own projects, while simultaneously already being behind one of the most successful indie games of the past decade. We ask Filby whether it can be frustrating at times, to be working on this massively successful IP that does not belong to the studio.

"The [short] answer would be: yes... I mean, 'frustrating' can come with a lot of negative connotations in the sense of 'bad Motion Twin', when it's not the case. It's more like, if it were 100% ours and we had therefore 100% creative control, could we or would we do more with it? Probably. But at the same time, our big thing was using the work that we're doing on Dead Cells in terms of creating the DLCs, and the revenue share that we're generating from that, to create our own games. So we've always seen Dead Cells as this stepping stone.

"If Motion Twin wanted to sell us the IP and we had a spare million dollars laying around, sure, it'd be great," he laughs. "But as it is, we very much see it as a stepping stone to making our own IP."

Filby clarifies that Dead Cells "isn't going anywhere." The team has a roadmap of content that gets the title to at least the end of 2024. And while Evil Empire is set on making its own IP, for now the studio has signed two deals to revive two retro IPs that Filby describes as "really big historic parts of the video game world."

He explains that over the years, off the back of Dead Cells' success, Motion Twin has always had offers to work on well known franchises.

"But Motion Twin doesn't work like that. Because they're focused 100% on their original IP. And at some point we had these awesome offers coming at us. At the time, I was wearing my Motion Twin hat, I didn't think that we had the chops for me to put on my Evil Empire hat and say 'hi, I know some guys!'

"But eventually people actually started asking me directly, saying 'Well, look, you guys are doing all this work on Dead Cells now, you have taken over things and what you're doing is fantastic, why don't you make the next game in X awesome series that you've been playing since you're a child'? And so from there, we ended up signing with two third-party IP holders to make the next instalments in these really massive video game franchises."

The first title will come out in Early Access next year, while the other is planned for 2025. But Evil Empire is "not interested in remastering games," Filby says, so its take on these IPs will be different.

"We're not going to make a copy-and-paste of a previous thing. We really are talking about rebooting or reinventing. The IPs that we're working on have been dormant for quite some time but you can't offer what was previously offered. You have to make a game for today's audiences. You can't expect your crappy jokes from the '90s to work with today's audience.

"It's also important that it's co-creation. We're not a work-for-hire studio. Even if you were to come to us with a brief and say, 'Here's $6.5 million and you have 372 days to make this game with exactly that amount of money to these exact specifications', that's not what we do.

"[The IP holders] gave us the creative freedom and the cash to make this thing and we'll go away and do something awesome with it, and come back and hopefully have a game that's gonna resonate with people today, while still bringing to the forefront the strong elements of the IP."

But it's difficult to brush away the work-for-hire label that people have or will inevitably associate with Evil Empire. The studio's name isn't quite as familiar as Motion Twin despite the amount of work it's done on Dead Cells, which can present a bit of a challenge from a brand perspective.

"It has to do with the way we presented ourselves at the beginning of the creation of Evil Empire," Laulan says, explaining that the low profile was a choice. "This is exactly what we wanted at first. Because we were kind of worried about getting that news to the community. 'We are Evil Empire, we are going to take over the whole development of your beloved IP'. How is it going to work for the community? Will they see us as a studio who just wants to milk an IP?

"So the idea at the beginning was to really [tune] down a lot [of] who exactly Evil Empire is. Steve is ex-Motion Twin, Thomas is ex-Motion Twin, so we presented ourselves as ex-Motion Twin people. But we wanted that messaging to be kind of blurry because it was a bit frightening to announce that to the players.

"And now, when we look back, we understand that we could have done things differently. Because obviously if you respect the community, if you're transparent with them, you can pretty much get away with anything. And we just realised that it's not a big deal that Evil Empire took over the Dead Cells IP since we proved we were worthy of it."

Evil Empire should grow to 70 staff by the end of the year, from four when it started out in 2019. It's grown fast, and is an interesting change from Motion Twin's co-op set up. We ask Filby why the team decided to go for a more traditional company with Evil Empire.

"The cooperative setup is a viable one, but you'll notice that there's not a terrible lot of co-ops in the world," he says. "I don't think that's anything to do with, like, the evil Machiavellian forces of capitalism, I think it's got to do with who wants to do what in a video game company. Running a co-op is actually a surprising amount of work because you're an owner. And if you're not, then you're in a co-op that has some kind of hierarchy, some kind of structure.

"Some of the elements of the co-op things that were implemented [at] Motion Twin were a little bit chaotic... You know, I made a joke on our website once that it was anarcho-syndicalism," he laughs. "So everybody's equal. That actually meant that it was really taxing in terms of time and energy you have to put in. Because every part of you is in it, you have to fight for everything all the time.

''And so to be perfectly honest, I didn't want to do that again. And also because, right from the get-go, we knew we wanted to be bigger than ten people. And that required a structure. I was always surprised, I thought, 'Oh, now that we've made Dead Cells, Motion Twin will be able to recruit with their eyes closed' and it's actually not the case. It's really difficult to hire when you're at Motion Twin because of the whole workers cooperative thing. It's actually a surprising sort of brake on the process."

Filby says he wanted to create a "professional development studio" where people "can project themselves across a whole career" and "have the stability to actually live off it" — aided in no small part by the solid financial position Evil Empire is in thanks to the deal with Motion Twin. The studio has an R&D team, nicknamed 'Skunk Works', working on new ideas for when the Dead Cells team eventually runs out of things they want to do.

"We're probably like the spoiled rotten brat if you will, because we've made all this money off Dead Cells and it's [given] us all this independence," he laughs."So stabilisation is what we're up to now. We've got to finish the games we're working on, think about what the future for Dead Cells is."

He concludes: "And if we come out with an idea from this Skunk Works team that really starts to resonate with people, we can slowly be putting them on this new project, and federating people around one of these ideas. Or if, god forbid, one of our projects flops, which inevitably will [happen], we can roll the team straight onto a new project without having to go through an entire pre-prod phase necessarily from scratch.

"So the future is hopefully creating this little perpetual game-making machine that will just provide the financial stability and the maturity that will allow our developers to just keep making games."

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