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Postmortem: Humble Hearts' Dust: An Elysian Tail
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Postmortem: Humble Hearts' Dust: An Elysian Tail

October 31, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

4. Nearly Throwing Out All the Finished Voice Over

Immediately after the final voice files came in, an unforeseen issue popped up just days before submitting to final certification.

I dropped the 1700 audio files into the solution -- and realized the game was taking upwards to a minute to boot. A solid black screen displayed for a full minute with no loading animation, no splash screen, nothing. Apparently the project would halt as it analyzed each and every file (twice), rendering the game unshippable.

It became clear that in order to meet the impending milestone (that I could not miss), I would have to cut all the voiceover from the game. A year of casting, recording, editing, animating, coding. All gone. I broke down, and halfway into the day went straight to bed. I had to find out a way to tell everyone, including the 40-plus actors, that all their work was not going into the game. It honestly felt like losing a loved one.

A few hours later (which was the norm at the time) I woke up, seemingly having reprogrammed the entire dialogue system in my dreams, as well as a new way to load all content, and was able to get everything working again. This was not easy, but again, at this point it wasn't like I could put it off for later. Thankfully the game shipped with everything intact, and actually loaded faster than it used to.

This happened over the course of a single day, but I cannot emphasize how many years it took off my life. It was an absolute nightmare, and without question was the lowest point of an already challenging development period.

5. Marketing and Awareness

By far my biggest regret with the game had nothing to do with actual production, but rather that I literally had no time to build awareness before the launch. Plans for nurturing a community and reaching out to media were thrown out the window once the new deadline was agreed upon, and it's hard not to look back and think, "What if I had delayed and did a proper marketing ramp up?"

I still believe it was better to release this year, rather than try to scramble during what many are predicting will herald a new generation of hardware in 2013. But spending so many years on the game also worked against me, as a curious number of "Dust" titled games popped up throughout the game's production, sometimes even circumventing any marketing efforts I was currently involved with. It was hard to keep the momentum going for Dust: An Elysian Tail when Dustforce, Dust 514, and From Dust were all making headlines at the exact same time.

Additionally, without a strong community, it was an uphill battle once the game did start making headlines, as the visual style became an unusual point of contention, to the point that some websites refused to cover the game, despite it being part of such a prominent promotion. For their part, Microsoft did an admirable job giving the game exposure on the 360 dashboard and elsewhere, but I learned some valuable lessons when it comes to promoting your work, a skill I have not quite refined. Good reviews only take you so far.

Finally, while it was my intention to make a dialogue-heavy RPG, it's not something I'm rushing to do again right away. The time, cost, and insane amount of work that it takes to write, test, record, and localize such a thick script makes it a prohibitive endeavor.

Closing Thoughts: As the Dust Settles

However, two months after release, I can finally say it was all worth it. I hit severe depression right at launch (from being so busy with marketing/press, physical and mental fatigue, and the natural depression of finishing a project so personal it hurts), but I can honestly say I'm happy with the video game I made. I can still pick it up and find genuine pleasure in the mechanics, laugh and cry at the dialogue, and just marvel at how it looks and sounds.

While I do care that others like the game and that reviews have been very positive, I'm just happier that I walked away having a newfound respect for this medium that I love, and that I've been afforded the opportunity to continue as a game developer. I feel blessed to have seen it through to completion, and cherish the collaboration with my fellow developers.

This production has brought my family closer together, as we have experienced both death (the passing of my grandmother the evening I won Dream.Build.Play, and a tragic shooting at my local theater during crunch), and new life (the birth of my daughter). It is my hope, for anyone who reads this, to find the sort of inspiration that got me started those seemingly thousands of years ago.

In the end, my suspicion was right. Making video games really is pretty cool.

And Finally: Trivia and Random Tidbits! (Spoilers Ahoy!)

  • Castlevania gave us a lot of things, including the Mysterious Wall Chicken health item (which was added late in development thanks to our mutual love of Egoraptor's Sequelitis videos). It also gave us the visuals for Dust's double jump and slide moves (think Alucard and Richter in Symphony of the Night), the red orb/mysterious tornado, the region layout of the Sorrowing Meadow (Simon's Quest), and Fidget's projectile abilities.
  • Super Ghouls'n Ghosts' snow level inspired the avalanches in the Blackmoor Mountains.
  • Fidget's manic suggestion that Haley move her immovable forge using "an army of mutant rats! With MAGIC!" is a rather obvious reference to The Secret of NIMH. We would also refer to the incredible Mick Lauer (voice of Elder Gray Eyes) as "Mickodemus", because of his close approximation to the "Nicodemus" character from the film.
  • Fidget's first interaction with Sereth, the mysterious merchant, was a joking reference to the merchant in Resident Evil 4.
  • The Blop character in Mudpot Village, colorful regional colloquialisms and all, is based on Uncle Jeb from Space Miner: Space Ore Bust, which Alex had written.
  • The short interactive scene following the final confrontation was inspired by one of Alex's all-time favorite games, Another World, which was also modernized by Metal Gear Solid 4 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.
  • The Baron Kane and Geehan characters were obvious nods to co-developers Chris Geehan and Alex Kain.
  • The "C-C-C-C-Combo Breaker" quest is, of course, inspired by the Rare classic Killer Instinct.
  • The "If inconvenient, come anyway" gag written into one of the many hidden notes in the game is an homage to Steven Moffat's BBC series Sherlock.
  • The game's maximum achievable percentage, 117 percent, is a shout-out to Halo's Master Chief.
  • The "What's in the Box" quest title didn't start as an homage to Se7en, but as fans of the film ourselves, we ultimately decided to leave it in.
  • One of the XBLA Achievements was a reference to one of Mega Man's common nicknames, while a couple others are nods to Mass Effec
  • Originally, Fidget would literally fly off to visit the blacksmith whenever the player crafted an item on the field, leaving Dust to fend for himself. She would return several minutes later. I eventually let the player craft wherever they were (with the right item) since it seemed like an arbitrary inconvenience otherwise.
  • Much of the aesthetic of Falana was influenced by my half-Korean heritage, including clothing, architecture, and many of the consumable food items. The Korean symbols in the logo art basically translate to "Dust"
  • There are ten character cameos from other independent games, all of which have also appeared on XBLA. As a fan myself, getting the okay from each developer was a thrill, as was creating the artwork. Two original characters were created as cameos, and HyperDuck and I had a blast with the "payoff" when all were found.

Project Stats

Developers: Humble Hearts LLC, Music by HyperDuck SoundWorks and Funky Rustic, Casting by Toon Platoon Casting, Published by Microsoft Game Studios

Platforms: Xbox Live Arcade

Release Date: August 15, 2012

Developers: 1 Core, 4 Secondary, 50+ Publisher/Voice Cast

Development Time: 3.5 Years

Tools and Technology: Visual Studio, Photoshop, Painter, Google Docs & Steam for communication

Distribution: Worldwide on Xbox Live Arcade

Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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Thomas Happ
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What I have always wondered is, did Microsoft provide any sort of cash advance with which to support yourself, or was it all out of pocket?

Thanks for the awesomely detailed postmortem, Dean. You're an inspiration!!

Ramon Carroll
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Wow, this was a really good read. Thank you so much for sharing this, Dean.

Alfie Parthum
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Dean, when I was a much younger man, I used to post on your forums. I really wanted to know how it was done! Even after seeing so much of the magic in its unfinished state, even knowing how itís made, the level of craftsmanship and creativity present in your art still never fails to amaze me. This postmortem was also enlightening.

Iím happy to hear you have been able to apply your particular brand of assiduity to game development as well, and that your family life is still great. Thanks for sharing.

Muir Freeland
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This is a great postmortem, and this is a really beautiful-looking game.

Josh Mulanax
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Fantastic write up Dean - I know I'm not alone when I say that I hope to see more games from you in the future!

K Gadd
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Thanks for sharing a postmortem, Dean! Love the amount of detail in here.

Per Micael Nyberg
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Dean, Thank you for sharing your difficult but ultimately rewarding and life-altering journey with us. Great read!

Talat Fakhri
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The story is sheer inspiration. The process of making the game itself sounded like a hardcore game.

Lars Doucet
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What I think is really cool about this story, is how Dean wasn't afraid to learn new skills and techniques out of his safety zone, and created something brilliant.

Alexei Baboulevitch
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Amazing work, but it worries me that this is yet another indie game where the creator nearly tore himself apart trying to put it together. I'd love to know ó is it really impossible to create a game with similar quality while maintaining a healthy five-day work week? I'd love to make a game as personal as this some day, but I don't know if I could sacrifice my health and social life for it.

On another note, this is an incredible achievement for someone who didn't know how to program getting into it. I'm a programmer and I know I'd have a lot of difficulty with some of these problems.

Lars Doucet
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I've done alright keeping a regular work schedule with my own indie projects, but whether it's of "similar quality" is an exercise best left to the reader. I think it's possible to maintain work-life balance, but there's also just an undeniable element of risk involved.

Ramon Carroll
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I think the key question to ask is: Why do we do what we do? Once a person resolves that question himself/herself, then one can determine whether an endeavor is worth his/her time.

Hint: Wealth and fame only satisfy for a season. Autonomy, mastery, and purpose are forever.

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You could do it without the sacrifice but remember that it took this guy 3.5 years working 7 days a week. At a leisurely pace it's probably going to take you significantly longer than that.

On a related note though, this was a passion project for him. Do what you do but if you're not willing to make some sacrifices for it you could probably find a significantly less stressful hobby to get into.

Kain Shin
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The game has so much love put into it, and it really shows in just about every detail.

Keith Thomson
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This sounds like exactly the sort of game I would want, hopefully it will come out on other platforms in the future. Given the steep memory requirements, I can only think of 2 other platforms it would work on though.

Taure Anthony
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Easily one of the best reads on here, thanks for talking the time. The game looks epic.

Andrew Sum
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This is a fantastic article. Thank you so much for sharing. That voice over problem you ran into does really sound like a nightmare - realizing that something you put so much effort into would simply have to be cut. But I'm so glad you managed to figure it out, and now you've got a great triumph to tell! Very inspirational to all of us who have run into similar project-breaking problems.