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5. PAX East 2012
Aside from the Dream.Build.Play win in 2009, and an "XBLA Announce" Trailer for E3 2010, Dust: AET remained dark as I toiled away in my dungeon. I entered the fourth year of development, and while I hadn't burned out yet -- and Microsoft remained generously patient -- I had high hopes that this would be 'the year' the game saw release.
However, in early 2012, I took a hard look at the project, and while I could finish the game by the end of the year, I would have to wait until 2013 to avoid the holiday onslaught. I had already sacrificed enough of the last three years from my family (again, with hardly any days off), and I didn't want to put them through a fourth.
Microsoft internally had high hopes for the game, and my producer arranged to have a demo shown at PAX East in Boston. This was incredibly generous of them, as they handled the booth, leaving me only to cover my own accommodations. Considering I wasn't swimming in money, I was thankful for the opportunity.
PAX arrived, and everything changed in the span of about 48 hours. I'd expected a small showing, a few interested fans, and a lot of people passing by my booth to play the other XBLA titles that were being prepped for release in the coming weeks. We started with a moderate showing -- but then Giant Bomb swung by and mentioned the game at their PAX panel. Then Mike Krahulik from Penny Arcade stopped by to check out the game. Then Cliff Bleszinski. It wasn't long before we had lines over an hour long to play the game.
Needless to say, after spending so long on the game, I'd lost nearly all objectivity. But seeing so many people playing and enjoying the game was one of the most validating moments of the game's development for me. Also, after working with him for over a year via Steam Chat by that point, I finally got to meet my co-writer, Alex Kain, in person. Between that and hanging out with my partners at Microsoft, it was a fantastic show.
Less than a week after returning from PAX, Microsoft suggested I pursue a Summer of Arcade release. How could I say no?
1. The Most Difficult Three Months of My Life
After a lot of back and forth with Microsoft, my family, and a whole lot of prayer, I said yes to Summer of Arcade. I would have to take an already massively difficult eight to 10 months of development and cram it into three. I knew I would see very little of my family during that period (despite working from home), including my newborn daughter, due just two months later.
Much of what happened after that is a blur. I was already used to working seven days a week, but now those turned into nearly 20 hour workdays. I couldn't go to bed saying "I'll finish that tomorrow" because tomorrow would bring a new set of challenges. I'm a pretty "got it together" kind of guy, but I broke down a number of times. If it wasn't for my family literally placing food between me and my monitors, I wouldn't have eaten. The days where I realized I hadn't stepped out of the house and looked at the sky for over two weeks made me realize how crazy this all was.
I can hardly remember cranking out all the cutscenes, wrapping up the remaining enemies, and populating the rest of the world during those hectic weeks. I have no idea how I was able to rewrite several massive systems -- including one to resolve a bug that threatened to cut all the voice over from the game -- just days before certification. I consider myself a man of faith, and it was certainly tested during those dark hours.
And it wasn't exactly a walk in the park for my collaborators. On top of working on multiple projects themselves, we were all caught off guard by the accelerated schedule. HyperDuck produced music and sound at an insane pace, Toon Platoon was recording and editing hundreds of lines across 40 actors seemingly overnight, and Alex and I rushed on last-minute changes to the script to accommodate the actors and to lock it down for localization.
Looking back, I honestly can't explain how I got it done. Everyone on the inside knows how deathly close we made it, from nearly cutting all dialogue and cutscenes, to issues in certification and localization -- the list goes on.
2. Biting the Bullet and Axing Features
On the subject of trimming content, Dust: AET was originally envisioned as a much larger game than it ended up being. Once I had the core mechanics down, I made the tough decision to prune my initial concept. There were actually a lot more non-combative plans, such as owning property, farming, fishing, and so on. I'd spent a lot of time planning these features and, perhaps even more problematically, envisioning them naturally as parts of the game in my head. For the longest time, Dust: AET needed these disparate components to be Dust: AET.
Most of these grander concepts were pulled simply out of necessity. It's immensely hard parting with a concept -- any concept -- that you see adding value to your dream game, but the reality of being one man and really wanting to get the game done before the universe imploded weighed heavily on my mind.
One idea, however, stuck around longer than any other: the concept of building up a small town using your amassed wealth, similar to the town-building mechanics seen in games like the latter Assassin's Creed titles. This town was where your rescued "friends" would live, and new building types would provide passive bonuses to you on your adventure. Remnants of these ideas persist in some of the materials you acquire.
Alex: This was still on Dean's plate when I came onto the project in 2011, and at first it sounded like an awesome idea. First of all, it served as a money sink, which is always helpful when you can grind enemies and wealth. Secondly, it gave players a kind of third "progression pillar", in addition to advancing the storyline and their own stats, giving players something else to build up. Unfortunately, as Dean mentioned above, he's just one guy, and Dust: AET was still far from complete.
I suggested that Dean reconsider the "build your own village" concept, but I could tell he had already crossed it out of his own internal design documentation. Once in a while he would wistfully refer to it and ponder whether he could squeeze it in, even in a less-robust state, but the realities of game development hit hard. There would be sacrifices and cuts, and the early feature creep that represented the fun and experimental beginnings of the project were long behind us.
3. Overcomplicating the Finale
Alex: Towards the end of 2011, Dust: AET was beginning to come together. It was impressive seeing the levels going up screen-by-screen, but a rather large problem was looming in the background this whole time: the story was nowhere near finished.
In actuality, the outline Dean had laid out called for an entirely new sixth chapter -- a massive third act that took the player to brand new locations fighting against a new main antagonist and changing the entire focus of the storyline. Length-wise, this finale would have tacked on another couple hours of gameplay time, which equated to another several months of development time.
In the interest of getting the game done, Dean and I resolved to cut this final section of the game and tighten up what we had, promoting General Gaius up to main antagonist and centering the game around his campaign. While this sounded great on paper, it meant a lot of late-night, multi-hour conversations with Dean where we hashed out numerous alternate story possibilities. How would we tie the caverns, meadows, and mountains into the new Gaius plotline? How would we be able to establish Gaius as a villain when you don't actually meet him until the end of the game?
For Dean, the problem was more about cutting content that he had already worked on. When you're on a team, cutting content is a fact of life. When you're one guy, every single asset you create is important. The area had already been laid onto the world map, the music had already been written, and Dean had spent years envisioning the ending in his head. Then I came in and politely (sort of) threw that out the window.
In the end, Dean ended up agreeing with my decision to cut the third act and consolidate the story we had. It was hard to part with the mysterious final villain, but the game ended up a lot tighter, and the story felt much more satisfying ending where it did.