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Postmortem: Cutler Creative's Last Call
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Postmortem: Cutler Creative's Last Call

May 11, 2001 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

In 1995 I drafted the original concept document for Last Call ( it was known as Bartender USA at the time). The original concept was a traveling game. The player would start bartending at the local Howard Johnson's and by earning tips would move progressively to a swank New York City bar. At the time I had absolutely NO experience in multimedia production or game design. But one question persisted: "Why can't I learn to bartend on a computer?"

Cutler Creative was officially born with a trip to Sears, credit card in hand, to buy a computer. With this purchase, I began to contemplate how I would produce a demo of the game. One exercise which to this day I have found very valuable was writing our "Book of Questions." I posed myself over 300 questions and spent the next couple weeks answering them one by one. Some examples included: "How will you eat while the game gets made?" "Why will someone play this game?" "What happens if your publisher bails out?" "How will the player shake the shaker?" I attended E3 in Atlanta, staying at the appropriately named "Dream" Hostel, attending seminars, and walking the convention floor. This world was completely foreign! For some reason I gravitated to the other non-industry newbies -- people hawking soap opera games, head-to-head sewing simulators, and other ultra-niche products. The experience was both intimidating and encouraging. Also, staying at the hostel was a group of European developers with a killer futuristic driving game. I forget the exact details, but the game sported some insane frame rate. In comparison, a bartending game seemed tame and not in keeping with the general trend of the industry. On the flip side, the convention was littered with other niche products. Finally, for some real-life experience, I got a job at a bar waiting tables and politely asking the drug-dealers in the bathroom to relocate.

After some networking (with designers, not dealers), I found a Macromedia Director programmer with some experience. Joel Hamburger would turn out to be an invaluable asset for the project -- eventually co-producing the title, composing the music, and handling countless technical problems. I assembled a 3D modeler (to model bottles, bar exteriors for the cutscenes, and the interface), a 2D artist (Peter Fink), and a scriptwriter (Patrick Rhody). The demo was completed in three months. We actually filmed ourselves pouring different colored liquids for a photorealistic "pouring window." This photoreal approach never made it into the game, but it was a learning experience. One character would approach the bar at a time, and invariably we ended up doing the VO. The demo featured some nice cutscenes thanks to Erik Borzi, an experienced 3D modeler. Finally, some much needed industry insight was provided by Dan Feinstein -- former Acclaim producer -- and friend of a friend.

A still from the pitch video cut scene. Note, these were eventually abandoned in the final version, but they helped sell the demo.

We incorporated these cut/splash screens into a promotional video. This video was shopped with little success to various publishers. To make the pitch more professional, we hired Paul Palumbo (frequent Gamasutra columnist) to write a short, sweet sell document. This instantly upped our credibility. For most, the content was a little risqué. Simon & Schuster had recently published Deer Avenger -- a spoof of the popular franchise Deer Hunter. Deer Avenger was timed perfectly. We fit into SSI's current strategy, and they agreed to publish the game for Christmas. In retrospect, there was an instant mismatch of expectations. With a functioning demo, we seemed well on our way to completing the title with time to spare. While we weren't about to admit it, we had bigger plans for Last Call.

The team and office were assembled quickly. We cut costs whenever possible. Many of our machines were donated. We also purchased computers and monitors from a corporate fire-sale. We shared our workspace with two crazy French designers. We made our furniture out of plywood.

Euralis Weeks, an SVA graduate, was our first hire. As art director, she started work on mocking up the new interface and designing characters. Equally important was her recruitment effort. Without her contributions we would have not finished the title. For animation talent, we worked primarily with SVA students who had recently graduated, or were working during the summer. They completed the bulk of the character animation. Our writers stumbled onto our doorstep by accident. During my stint as a cocktail boy, I had been lucky enough to bring a laptop with demo to work. Susie Felber, author of Comedy Central's Karma Central was emceeing a comedy night and was very kind to check out the demo with her friends. I stayed in touch with Susie and eventually contacted her when we began to work on the character bible. Susie dragged her brother Adam into the fray, and our writing staff was complete. For many team members, this was their first project as well. We were definitely naive, but this fresh perspective pushed us to create a game WE would want play -- a quirky, unconventional, thought-provoking, and funny title. Our animators were fresh out of art school, and friends and family chipped in to test and tweak. Last Call was an organic group effort. When people ask, "Are you a developer?" I normally respond, "No, we are a gang of non-gamoids." Could we develop a 3D first-person shooter?... No. Did we make a "game"?... Yes.

The team remained motivated throughout the project. Our staff braved 100-plus-degree days with no AC, the remnants of a hurricane, a flood, and raging tempers. In the final analysis -- despite all the money and time lost, the dedication of our staff will stand out as bright spot in the project.

Customers line up in Last Call.

One of our biggest challenges was the unknown. We didn't have a much of a design model from which to base our product. This was a game that "I would like to play." For much of the design and development process we were continuously rethinking game design assumptions -- designing as we went. This process, unfortunately, was not compatible with the standard time frame for mass-market titles. We had a general idea of our target market: gamers who would play the game for kicks and a diversion, and nongamers who would gravitate toward a topic more familiar (burp) to them. Our goal was to create a game that taught drink mixing in an entertaining way -- the kind of game that you could play at a party or with friends,. How could you ever make a "fun" game about bartending, people would ask. Visions of bottle spinning, bar fights (we have those), and flaming shots spun in people's heads. We guessed right on some points and wandered astray in other areas.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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