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Postmortem: Vicious Cycle Software's Dead Head Fred
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Postmortem: Vicious Cycle Software's Dead Head Fred

November 8, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 5 Next

What went right?

1. Designing and concepting the characters.

As mentioned previously, we got started on the right foot. While the programmers were refining our technology, we began designing the game and concepting the characters. This process took quite a while. For example, it took about four months or so to get all of the Massive Black character concepts exactly the way we wanted them. One of the cornerstones of art direction is knowing what you want. You have to review and critique the art quickly or you will eat through your budget in no time -- especially if you are outsourcing the work. Indecisiveness can ruin you.

The characters went through numerous revisions. This was especially true for Fred, who was the very first concept that we completed. He was the cornerstone of our game, so his look dictated the look of the entire product. Our publisher, D3, suggested that we focus test the main character and see how people liked the design. The first group that looked at the work only had a page of information to go on with regards to the story and eight concept paintings of Fred to examine. This first focus group was made up of people of all ages, and they all said that the look was too young. We took their comments on the concept drawings

We pushed the envelope and went edgier and more mature with the next round. This time, the focus test results were very positive. What we ended up with was a darker Fred, a character that painted with a Norman Rockwell style, but exhibiting a demented film noir look. With the look established, we completed the concept work on the remaining cast of characters in the same vein.

2. Scriptwriting and VO recording.

When creating an entirely new world populated with unique and twisted characters, you have to make sure that everybody “gets” what that world and those people are all about. We set out knowing exactly who Fred Neuman, Ulysses Pitt, and their fellow residents of Hope Falls were, but we realized that in order to convey the characters and settings -- not to mention the twisted humor that was one of the cornerstones of the game -- to the player, we would need cinematics. A lot of cinematics.

While Fred’s lead designer, Adam Cogan, concentrated on the game play, one of our other designers, Dave Ellis, dedicated more than a month to writing the dialog for the cutscenes. Starting with Adam’s character bios and location descriptions in the design document, Dave fleshed out the personalities of Fred and the other characters in the game and presented them in cinematics that would convey all of their quirkiness and give players a glimpse of what life in the twisted noir world of Hope Falls was like. Adam then went through and wrote the in-game dialog for the characters based on the style established in the cut scenes. Both designers then worked with art director Ben Lichius to trim down and edit some of the longer scenes so that the animators had time to finish everything before we went gold.

When everything was down on paper, there ended up being thousands of lines of dialog in the game. This made the VO recording sessions among the most ambitious (and grueling) that we had ever dealt with. Fortunately, we managed to cast some of the best voice talent in the industry. Aside from a glitch with one actor (who shall remain nameless) who walked out on a recording session and set production back several weeks, everyone who had a part in Fred was a consummate professional. We got some great performances from everyone -- especially from our two leading men, John C. McGinley (Fred) and Jon Polito (Pitt).

The hard work and dedication of everyone involved in creating the cutscenes and in-game dialog really shows in the final product.

3. Focus testing the gameplay.

In addition to setting up focus tests for the look of the game, D3 put together two extensive focus groups to test the gameplay. This was an extremely valuable experience, and is something that every development team should do as a standard part of the development process.

One of the first things we learned was that our set of combos for combat was too shallow. Originally, we wanted the gameplay split evenly between combat, adventure, platforming, and puzzles. The focus test showed that we were too light on the action, even though we thought we were providing enough to the player.

With this feedback in hand, we had a mini-design summit focusing on Fred’s attacks. We set out to create a different set of combos for each of the heads. Some combos were strictly offensive, while others were used as counter moves. We wanted a mix of melee attacks and ranged attacks, a variety of special moves, and beheadings and rage attacks. In revisiting the combat design, we nearly tripled the number of available attacks. We also increased the complexity of the combos in the game to appeal to make the combat less simplistic. The focus group also had trouble with the game controls and didn’t always know what they were supposed to do. In response, we added a tutorial in the beginning of the game and planned how we would introduce new mechanics throughout the game. We made it a point to go over the game with a fine-toothed comb, documenting where we introduced a new mechanic and providing the player with an on-screen tutorial and some VO to explain the new mechanics. We also added an on screen graphic that showed the player what head to use in certain situations. Although it always seems to be overkill to tell the player too much, our testing revealed that players needed an extra nudge from time to time.

We cannot overstate the necessity of thorough focus testing. It was an eye opening experience and we will definitely do it again.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 5 Next

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