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Postmortem: Double Fine's Brutal Legend

March 25, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

[In this postmortem taken from the December 2009 issue of Game Developer magazine, iconoclastic developer Double Fine Productions outlines the complex and at times daunting process of developing its action/strategy rock god epic Brütal Legend, taking in everything from legal troubles with Activision to tool development and everything in between.]

If the adage "go big or go home" applies to any software development effort, it applies to the making of Brütal Legend. As we did previously with Psychonauts, Double Fine once again bet it all on innovating -- this time on a game borne from the Full Throttle side of Tim Schafer's mind. Brütal Legend is a molten, balls-forward, third person, open world, strategic action-adventure interactive ride into the very soul of heavy metal.

The development story started out simply enough. After shipping Psychonauts, Double Fine created a collection of concept work, a pitch document and a game trailer intended to capture the spirit of Brütal Legend. Most publishers we spoke to were interested in the game concept, but their questions commonly indicated that they didn't understand where we were headed with it.

Questions were posed to us, such as "Why heavy metal? How about rock, or country, or hip hop instead? Why would you want to play as a roadie? How about playing as a rock god?"

One publisher, Vivendi Universal Games, did not ask these questions in the pitch meetings -- or in any meetings. They understood the game for what it was, and signed it for what they knew it could become.

We started development by focusing first on the multiplayer mode of the game -- our thinking was that since we'd never made a multiplayer game before, figuring that out would be our top priority. It took 16 months to do so.

In Rocktober 2006, we delivered a fully playable Ironheade vs. Tainted Coil skirmish to our publisher. At Vivendi's request, we then focused on the single player campaign, expanding its scope well beyond the initial design.

This is the period in which we added the voices of Jack Black and a host of other celebrity talent to the game, as well as other enhancements that solidified the vision for the campaign experience that we ultimately shipped. In June 2007, we delivered the first meaningful portion of the single player game and also promptly admitted that all of the changes we had made to the game content put us way behind schedule.

Our first schedule revision extended the project by ten months, the second by another seven. Initially scheduled to be released in May 2008 under the Vivendi Universal Games/Sierra banner, Brütal Legend finally shipped on October 13, 2009, published by Electronic Arts.

Double Fine encourages innovation, but that drive also means we can't always rely on previous experience to predict how a feature or an approach will turn out. On Brütal Legend, the practice of continuous iteration and concept refinement led to a number of prototyped ideas, many of which survived to ship in the final game, but just as many of which were left to digitally fossilize in the annals of Perforce.

Whittling down to ten the list of things that went right and wrong during the development of Brütal Legend presented a considerable challenge. Here are some lessons that were the most surprising or impactful.

What Went Right

1. Pushing Creative Limits

Brütal Legend was to be the interactive amalgamation of the over-the-top ridiculous (yet deadly serious) world of heavy metal. We were reverent fans of the genre and felt it would be an honor to bring that world to life. Brütal Legend began with a simple list -- a game that embodied everything that could be found on a heavy metal album cover: chrome rivers, pools of blood, volcanoes, caves, fire-breathing metal beasts, laser panthers, bladehenge and beerhenge, dominatrices, latex and chains, disembodied undead heads...

To that we added the core gameplay. We wanted to make a brawler adventure game, where the player was a heavy metal roadie who evolves into a rock god over the course of the game. Brütal Legend on the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 would have the brawn of an action game and the elegance of an RTS.

We learned early on in our relationship with Vivendi that RTS was a naughty word in the console space, so we stopped calling it by that name and, by extension, so did Electronic Arts -- positioning the game largely as an action title in the marketplace.

We wanted our RTS to exploit the consoles' advantage; putting the player in the center of the action. We wanted to give the player intuitive control of a character that could perform a variety of badass movements and abilities and also allow the player to personally bond with that character. And we wanted that character to command dozens of masterfully-dialogued troops simultaneously.

One of our biggest challenges in solving the RTS accessibility issue was squad orders. It took numerous attempts and countless focus tests, but we ultimately decided on a simple unification of the orders interface, wherein the AI behaved as the player would want them to on the battlefield.

The player would have four orders:

1) "Follow," where Eddie gives his troops commands to move to a specific location and possibly attack, allowing the order to be given only within "shouting range," a relatively large distance around Eddie that did not encompass the entire map -- solving the forced (ignore path enemies/obstacles) and non-forced (engage enemies along the way) issue by making the "follow" order non-forced when Eddie was near his troops and forced when Eddie was far away.

2) "Defend," where Eddie could command his army to stop moving and hold position, aligning them in the most advantageous manner (melee up front, ranged behind, support in the rear) facing the camera.

3) "Move," where the migration would be forced until the army is close to its destination, at which point it would engage nearby foes.

4) "Charge," a non-forced move to the enemy that is closest to the average position of all nearby enemies if your army was not attacking, and a forced move to the attack position even if that meant disengaging from their current activity if your army was attacking.

The Double Fine incarnation of a console RTS occurred to us not in an early pre-production meeting, but over years of painstaking iteration and reinvention and rework. We tested our progress in periodic "Mandatory Hour of Fun" sessions, where the entire team played the latest build and then met as a group to discuss what was working well and what was frustrating or could be made better. This open forum for the exchange of ideas as well as the momentum for continuous iteration fueled profound changes to the core game mechanic over the course of development.

Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

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Dave Sodee
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Love the game

r marc
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I think as a game Brutal legend tried to serve up too much on one plate.

I would have been content to just play as Eddie as he encounters this strange new dimension/universe. I didn't need the large open world or the RTS stuff, in fact I lost

interest as soon as the other elements started to kick in in earnest. I love the premise of

the game alot and I really loved the cutscenes. I would love to watch all of them like a real

time film they were that good as was the casting.

I love the art style and just the idea/premise/property that is Brutal Legend in and of itself.

Nice work under alot of stress all you guys and gals at Double Fine.



ken sato
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Impressive shift, process, recovery, process.

Minor schedule and developmental changes can often cause major problems in delivering per milestone, so it is particularly interesting to this level of process changes versus normal internal forces and rather uncommon externals.

Just for reference, I was part of another project with similar metrics but made different choices. The outcome was 'different'.

Matt Hackett
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Very interesting process, good insights and terrific damage control on the developers' parts. The game is admirable in its innovation (I enjoy games that combine genres, like Blaster Master and Act Raiser back in the day), and I appreciate the effort and passion.

Bart Stewart
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Commendable honesty. There are some solid insights about what works (and what to watch out for) that I hope other studio leads will pick up on.

Otherwise, my only concern is that this game didn’t use the Scrüm methodology....

Oliver Snyders
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Haha. Scrüm.

Also, thanks for the great, informative article, and thanks for the great, rocking game.

Double Fine is class.

Tim Johnston
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This article....well.....ROCKS. Thanks for all the really great insight.

Joshua Pfeiffer
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Glad to see Bert get a shout out in that article. He really is a great tester, and all around swell guy.

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Love the game. My only thing was that when I first played the demo, it was a hack n' slash. When I got the actual game, it turned into an RTS.

Was a big WTF moment for me.

Great article. Loved the insight and lessons it teaches.

Daniel Galarza
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I love the Action RTS hybrid parts, and the multiplayer. Totally innovative and I'm never playing another console RTS again unless it's just like Brutal Legend.

Henrick Stankenheim
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Concept = great

Writing = great

Art style = great

Game = really lame

Andrea Bambury
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Excuse me. It was very clear in Double Fine that BL was an RTS hybrid. EA decided it was a good idea to market it as an action game instead. Double Fine played along; all game previews and even some reviews strongly downplayed (hid?) the RTS side of the game. Gamers were induced to think that BL was a light-hearted, heavy-metal-themed take on God Of War.

No one else has a problem with all this? Is it just me?

ken sato
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Pop quiz:

Which is title is more interesting:

(1) Brutal Legend: The Sequel (With less RTS)

- OR -

(2) Brutal Legend: Ode to the Three-way

I ask the question simply because concept-wise, it's clear that when a studio is having difficulties game play and marketing suffers. In my experience this is due to the additional work load placed on management and production towards the mid and end of the project. So much communication and coordination is required, time is short, and much of your time is spent in 'due diligence' tasks. Add on top of it the additional requirements for legal prep and you can quickly see how time per day quickly runs out. (24 hours in a day, hah! I once worked a 56 hour day!)

Finally, if you chose option 1, you have a future as a game reviewer.

If you chose option 2...let's talk.

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I chose option 1, because I think it would be totally wicked for a game with the stylings of Brutal legend to have straight and refined hack n slash gameplay, like something from ninja gaiden. I can't realistically wish for this because I don't really expect it from schafer; hes known for delivering delicious concepts, not solid gameplay, and you can't have EVERYTHING perfect

Andrea Bambury
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@dario, I can imagine that. I also think making it an RTS hybrid was a bad idea, but this is obviously subjective. I just can't justify this:

- an Evil Publisher™ (taken for granted, alhough EA are turning into the good guys, in theory)

- most game reviewers (unsurprising, still sucks)

- Schafer and Double Fine (surprising, considering the guy's background and reputation)

all teaming up to run what I would personally call a scam. And they basically got away with it.

You want to design a game in a way that won't be liked by many people and won't sell much? Go ahead, it's your choice. Just stick with it and don't wrap it in a deceiving package for sale.

r marc
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I think a Parody of God of War with Eddie AKA Jack Black returning to do battle against the force's of Techno or some other musical Genre would be a great idea, Add more humour and some wicked combat set pieces aimed firmly at the 18 to 30's with more epic music and you are on a winner. Double Fine, contact me if you think this idea rocks!

I have a whole stack more.


Ron Marc

Daniel Galarza
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I have a solution for those who don't like the amazing hybrid of action and RTS.

1. If you take away the amazing RTS elements, you have Nintey Nine Nights.

2. Play Nintey Nine Nights. You will be bored in one hour.

3. Go back to Brutal Legend.

Why can I figure out the controls and so many can't?

David Peterson
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As much as I love Tim & DF, Brutal Legend lost me when it turned into an RTS. I think this is largely because the whole game prior had not been and RTS, and I wasn't really expecting it. That, and I've kind of moved on from that genre anyway. Not because it's bad, just my tastes have changed.

Anyway, looking forward to seeing what they come up with next. I liked the universe, just couldn't finish the game...

Daniel Galarza
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Dario, the same could be said about people dropping Brutal Legend when they find out they have to press Up on the d-pad to make the Headbangers attack.

The entire Action/RTS thing is not new either. Natural Selection, Battlezone and Sacrifice are all the same thing. Brutal Legend just did it on a console. If EA were cherished this instead of hid it, say by having a multiplayer demo with a simple tutorial, giving people time to learn and experiment with the advanced gameplay mechanics, the game wouldn't be getting the "lol RTS" complaints it would now. Instead all the marketing revolved around Jackie. I'm certain somewhere along Double Fine would have liked people to know they made their first multiplayer game. A demo showing both single player and multiplayer.

The game tends to click with people better when they fully upgrade and summon the Hindenburg on top of their enemies.

ken sato
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The game tends to click with people better when they fully upgrade and summon the Hindenburg on top of their enemies.

That comment just made my day. (Dozoyoroshiku.)

Daniel Galarza
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Thank you. I like your first comment.

"Finally, if you chose option 1, you have a future as a game reviewer."

Too true. I'll never forget Yatzhee, who is a big fan of Tim Schafer (but not enough to learn his game). The moment the game resembled an RTS in his eyes, he immediately dropped it in a panic and asked his "RTS expert" to evaluate it and tell him it was bad. Nope, suddenly he cant tell it apart from Halo Wars (but he's pretty sure it's therefore not good).

Ironically, the reviews for BL are quite high. Metacritic holds at 82. Tim Schafer said this in an interview...

"When we showed the game to EA, they were interested but wanted to test the concept. In focus tests, the stage battles rated high. What's interesting is the people in those groups aren't told anything about the game and have no expectations for it. One of the things you notice looking at Metacritic ratings is that the highest scores come from those who really enjoyed the stage battles, and when you get down to the critics who didn't like the stage battles those reviews often center around their expectations about what we were going to make, instead of looking at the stage battles for what they are in a fresh way. "