[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
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
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
The player would have four orders:
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
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.
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.