2. Sound and Music
It was finally time to find a composer. While I had been handling the sound effects and foley work myself, I knew that I'd need a strong soundtrack to accompany the visuals.
I first reached out to an old friend, Alex Brandon (Funky Rustic), of Unreal/Jazz Jackrabbit/Deus Ex fame. While I couldn't bring him on full time, he did end up providing a number of wonderful tracks for the final game. Shortly after, I met a couple of guys out of Ireland, who would eventually define the sound of Dust: AET and bring it to a level beyond my wildest dreams.
Let's let Chris Geehan of HyperDuck Soundworks tell the story.
Chris Geehan: When I found Dean, I was extremely nervous about whether I could convince him to give me a chance, but once I spoke to him, I was relieved by his interest and my chance for an opportunity to impress him. This started what I consider to be more of a friendship than a work relationship, and one of my most cherished friendships at that.
The work process between Dean and me boiled down to this: Dean would present me with YouTube videos or music in Dropbox for references, pointing out specific moments in the music for any of the themes he wanted to sway influence on. In sound design, it would actually be a case of us talking about a sound, and Dean saying, "One sec...", coming back to me with a video yanked from YouTube's archives, and a specific minute and second in it which pointed out the right reference for what he was thinking. It was a bit mind-blowing -- not how Dean could find these references, but how he did it within 10 seconds, nearly every time. I'm not kidding.
So on Dean's end, there was never a problem with explaining what he was thinking of. What came over time, however, was Dean's willingness to let me follow through on musical and sound ideas that we hadn't really discussed -- and when I took risks, it really began to pay off. Jumping from the Ys I - IV style to cinematic orchestras, wild synths, and epic booming percussive beds was probably the biggest risk of all.
And it never stopped being risky; every song I re-did, or wrote in that style, got bigger and more complex each time. I think I spent nearly six weeks writing the Everdawn Basin theme, and that includes rewrites. The risk made it exciting, for Dean and ourselves, albeit an occasionally stressful kind of exciting. But that comes with taking massive leaps like that --for me, anyway.
Click to download an mp3 of composer Chris Geehan comparing old and new musical styles in Dust: An Elysian Tail.
I would sit down at my piano to write a lot of the Dust themes at the start, but any musician will tell you, you write differently on each instrument, so the shower head was also used for pulling out wild melodic runs. The Everdawn Basin theme came about when I had my hair full of suds as I falsetto sang in the shower and quickly rushed out after to record down what I had sung (badly). I have always felt that I've never really been so inspired by a project as I was with Dust -- from the moment we started it, until it was done. Even now, it still feels like the biggest (and is the biggest) project we've ever been a part of, and that was inspiring to work with.
3. Good Publisher Relations
In July 2009 (six months after "real" development started) I decided to lock down what content I had and polish up a submission for Dream.Build.Play, an annual event where the best XNA / Xbox Live Indie Games games are judged. I had low expectations, since this would be the first time anyone outside of a handful of playtesters actually played my experiment, so I was quite surprised when I won the Grand Prize.
A month later, Microsoft got involved. After several months of pitches and contracts, Dust: AET was upgraded to the status of Xbox Live Arcade. I was assigned a producer to work with, Andrew Williams, who not only became instrumental in providing feedback and championing the game up to its release, but a good friend as well.
There's been heated debate these last few years about the relationships between indie developers and mega game publishers. After all, on a philosophical level, it seems almost contrary to the indie spirit -- to be working on this intensely personal project while also working with some of the largest companies on the planet.
But when I say that my partnership with Microsoft went well, that isn't just some publisher platitude or marketing bullet point. Aside from some stressful moments during the certification process (which is less about game design and more about getting the code up to snuff), everything went very -- almost absurdly -- well. They were about as hands-off as a publisher could be, but always provided valuable and objective feedback on the game (which I needed after staring at it from a foot away for nearly four straight years). They never forced me to change a gameplay feature or add in something to appeal to a different market -- they let Dust: AET grow on its own, and I think they know that's the best way to do it.
Signing that deal had charted a new direction in my life. My small three-month project was far behind me and I would spend the next three years, without breaks or weekends off, finishing the game.
4. Story, Dialogue, and Voices
I had written the outline for the story very early on, and had personally done a good chunk of the script for chapters 1 and 2. Soon, though, I realized that to really make it shine, Dust: AET needed a healthy dose of professional wordsmithery. In mid-2011, I brought on a friend, Alex Kain, to help iron out some rough spots and tidy up the script. While he was initially only tasked with editing text, his role grew to the point where I ended up crediting him as co-writer.
Alex Kain: I was originally introduced to Dust: AET through its Dream.Build.Play win. I thought it looked like a real breath of fresh air from the never-ending 3D arms race, and I decided to ping Dean through the e-mail on his website, just saying I loved what he was doing and I'd love to chat about the game.
Surprisingly, he emailed back almost immediately and we started talking about... well, everything. At the time, I was working for a mobile games studio called Venan Entertainment and I'd had a major hand in writing dialogue for an iOS shooter/RPG called Space Miner: Space Ore Bust. Dean, coincidentally, was a fan. It wasn't long before Dean was letting me play builds of the game and I was rewriting huge chunks of dialogue.
One thing that didn't change was the "amnesiac hero" plotline. Since Dust: AET was in many ways paying homage to the games we loved growing up, it only made sense to use one of the medium's most long-standing storytelling tropes. The biggest challenge we had was the "twist" at the end. The existence of a twist doesn't really come as a surprise -- it's inherent to the trope, and everyone expects one by now. A lot of time was spent making the late-game story reveals as interesting as possible.
Dean: I was extremely happy with how the story wrapped up, and feel we did a good job taking the narrative into a fresh direction from what was a seemingly familiar beginning. In fact, after launch, we had quite a few gamers expressing to us that the narrative really resonated with them.
Alex: When Dean brought me on, he was very clear that he didn't just want "cartoon fluff" -- the goal was to do a story that dealt with deeper themes. The story, from its earliest stages, had always been a dark one, but we always looked at it as being more in line with where animated shows and films had been in the early-to-mid '80s, before the Disney Renaissance hit.
The animated films that Dean and I grew up with were generally pretty dark, with stuff like An American Tail, Secret of NIMH, The Black Cauldron, and even Jim Henson's Dark Crystal (which wasn't animated, but you get the idea) all dealing with very heavy themes ranging from genocide to animal experimentation, but they also had an undercurrent of absurdity to keep things fresh for kids. That was the vibe we wanted to present with Dust, and I think it helped us craft a story with real gravitas that appealed to both children and adults while also allowing us to maintain the family-friendly E10+ rating.
Of course, even though we knew where we wanted the story to go, Dean and I labored extensively over pretty much every line of dialogue. Sometimes the changes would be insignificant, like altering the wording, while other changes had tremendous ripple effects. It got much more strenuous the closer we got to the localization lock, which is when all text in the game has to be 100 percent final so it can be sent off for translation.
Dean: When Dust: AET initially graduated to XBLA, Microsoft had asked about the possibility of adding voices to the game. I thought it would be too difficult to manage, being my first project, as I had enough challenges already. But after a couple years of development, it seemed a shame that such an epic story had to remain silent. Chris agreed, and set off to find a way to bring the characters to life.
Chris: In early 2011, I brought on Deven Mack of Toon Platoon Casting, an extremely talented voice actor I found on Newgrounds. I had really wanted to get his voice in Dust: AET somewhere, perhaps narrating, but once we started talking, we realized there was potential to bring a full cast on board. Mack was a blessing in disguise, and I speak for Dean and myself when I say we're grateful to have found him. Clear vision and plenty of directorial skills made casting a lot easier than we imagined; so much choice and good communication made the stressful parts of the voice acting project more manageable.
Deven Mack: When contacted by Chris in April of 2011, I quickly discovered that the game was going to be something very special, and I wanted to ensure that its quality of voice work reflected the great care being put into its development. I have a very extensive background in voicing TV cartoons, and had just come off directing actors for a Newgrounds Flash game called Hunters: Relic of Stars -- experiences which proved invaluable in preparing me for the monumental task that lay ahead.
Taking the indie-level budget into consideration, for months on end I focused on scouring several corners of the internet for aspiring and freelance vocal talents. The hundreds of actors I reached out to combined into roughly one thousand audition files for me to wade through. I would then narrow each character's auditions down to a top five or so actors, which I would submit to Dean, Chris, and Alex for further consideration.
Although I gave occasional tasks to my assistant and trusted second opinion, Edward Bosco, I personally handled the vast majority of the audition coordinating, recording session scheduling, directing and post editing process for the game's voice work. Having all my actors record remotely from their home studios and directing them over Skype provided some challenges in and of itself, but made the end result that much more unique and special to me. Six different countries are represented throughout Dust: AET's final cast of 40 very talented performers, many of whom were getting their first big break.
Dean: One of my greatest joys was hearing each character come to life. Working with Deven to choose from each fantastic audition, and then preparing the final lines for the game, are memories I will always cherish. It was quite surreal to hear such incredible voice talent contributing to my little indie game. Of course, once the voices started coming in, the static character portraits that I'd been using up to that point seemed a little stark. Microsoft asked if they could be livened up a bit.
That solution -- crazy as it was -- was to have animated portraits for every character in the game (over 80 unique animations). I would separate the portrait art into segments and then map/rig them onto orthographic geometry in my 3D suite. Some artwork would be mapped onto deformable geometry so that ears, cloth, and belts could sway as the character idled.
I would then traditionally animate the mouths with a general mouth pattern, and then assemble a large sprite sheet with the character animation above, mouths below.
In code, as each line of dialogue began, I would queue up the next sprite sheet (which was a multi-threading nightmare, as it had to load and run seamlessly). A pre-baked "voice analysis" would be read, and the animated mouth would display if there was voice playing. It wasn't a perfectly synched effect, but since it ended up looking about as good as most anime, I was happy with the result. I created a dialogue editor capable of handling portraits and branching options, and also handled voice analysis for the pre-baked mouth movement (a feature implemented over a nightmarish matter of hours just before submitting to cert).
The final element necessary to tell my story would involve animated cutscenes. When an accelerated deadline was imposed near the end of production, I was left with three options: do the cutscenes as motion comics (a technique I'm not fond of), remove them completely, or use a limited-animation technique similar to anime.
Despite having only animated in the full-blown "Disney" style (at 12/24 fps), I had no choice but to learn how to create limited animation in a very short time frame. During the most severely brutal period of crunch, I created over 6 minutes of hand-animated cutscenes for Dust: AET in a matter of weeks. This was in fact the very last content to be put into the game before cert.