December 13, 2009 12:00 AM | Simon Carless
The latest issue of GSW's sister publication Game Developer magazine includes a postmortem of Double Fine Productions' Brutal Legend, written by studio executive producer Caroline Esmurdoc.
Brutal Legend, a unique heavy metal-themed action and real-time strategy game, was the second original title from San Francisco-based Double Fine, founded by noted ex-LucasArts game designer/writer Tim Schafer (Grim Fandango, Psychonauts).
After over four years in development, including a widely-publicized break with former publisher Sierra-cum-Activision, the game was released by Electronic Arts on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 this October.
These excerpts from the December 2009 issue of Game Developer reveal various "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" highlights from throughout the creation of the game, revealing how the company used effective management to overcome publishing woes and a "content explosion."
For Brutal Legend, Double Fine adopted agile development, hoping to eradicate the rampant crunching that defined Psychonauts' development cycle -- and it worked:
"Prior to starting work on Brutal Legend, the Double Fine team had spent the previous 5 years developing Psychonauts -- the last two years of which consisted of a giant, grueling crunch wherein the company lost its initial publisher and nearly shut its doors before ultimately releasing the game.
"When the euphoria of having shipped our first title wore off, it was apparent to all of us that Double Fine did not develop games the way other studios did, and that a different system of product development needed to be put in place. The main cause of Psychonauts’ horrifying crunch was due to our continued development of the game features even after the levels were built. With each improvement to the game mechanics came a corresponding rework of all of the levels. Lather, rinse, repeat. Double Fine, and notably Tim, needed to play the game, live it, breathe it, let it steep over time, and iterate continuously on what makes the game fun and funny.
"After research into methodologies, we were drawn to the advantages of agile software development and decided to adopt Scrum. Within the first few months of Brutal Legend development, the team was practicing Scrum, and the initial payoffs were impressive. Scrum’s emphasis on features over systems, on rapid prototyping and iteration, on cross-disciplinary teams, on people over process, and on the creation of a potentially shippable piece of software every sprint/milestone made the game playable at a very early stage in development.
"By month one we had a renderer, terrain, and a playable character (Eddie Riggs), by month two Eddie could drive his hot rod (the Druid Plow) around the terrain, and by month three Eddie could run over endless numbers of headbangers with his Druid Plow around a terrain height field. Hilarity ensued.
"We applied Scrum not only to meta-game creation, but to micro-projects as well. At the very start of the development process, we had no idea how to make an RTS, and had no suitable engine with which to make one. We solved both problems by creating prototypes with an off-the-shelf PC engine and with which a number of our team members had some familiarity: Unreal 2.5.
"The design demands of Brutal Legend were such that trying to develop the game using an existing FPS engine would have proven difficult, but having the initial access to the flexibility of Unreal Script meant we could test some of our early RTS ideas right on our development PCs. This approach allowed our designers and gameplay programmers to be immensely productive right away, while the programming team went to work building our new engine. This very early glimpse at the design challenges we would face during development, and the opportunity to iterate on something quickly with Unreal Script, gave us invaluable direction into how to architect our new engine and critical insight into the mechanics that would come to define Brutal Legend."
Content creation: the bane of HD-era video game development. Double Fine faced a particularly difficult content challenge, as the volume of content unexpectedly increased exponentially nearly overnight:
"Brutal Legend is not a small game. Fortunately, we thought we knew what we were facing and invested heavily in data/build infrastructure. What went horribly awry was that we both underestimated the total content push and, more importantly, didn't anticipate the huge content spike at the very end of production.
"From the start of the game through the end of 2008, both our rate of data churn and data growth were fairly steady and corresponded roughly to increases in staffing and team productivity. This was expected and planned and supported by the technology. But then, in January 2009, everything exploded. All at once. After three years of development we had accumulated about 2.5 GB of optimized/packed game data. Less than four months later, we’d jumped to over 9 GB.
"The central cause of this was a very large increase in asset delivery from a number of teams simultaneously. For example, we went from 0 localized files to about 100,000 in a matter of weeks. We received the high resolution video assets for the Jack Black intro and all our main menus in one heap. We made a late decision to contract additional audio work, and new ambiences and sound effects were quickly added to the game. And so on.
"This simultaneous significant increase across a number of types of content put a massive burden on our entire infrastructure, in particular our build machine, Perforce server, and network backbone. To exacerbate matters, we started to see cascade effects—where a massive hit to one system (such as a check in of 10,000 .wav files) would bog down Perforce, causing a bottleneck in all of the dependent systems (like our build server and individual check ins) and these bottlenecks would then cause other bottlenecks.
"These large content dumps also put significant strain on our runtime systems. The per-line memory overhead in the voice system was not prepared to handle tens of thousands of lines, causing us to panic about our ability to even fit on a dual layer DVD. Across the board, these unexpected increases in content caused ripple effects throughout our IO, memory, and processing profile. And because the rate of increase was both high and unexpected, the engineers responsible for wrangling these systems were pulled from their assigned work and redirected to emergency firefighting.
"Moving forward, we will be much more cognizant about working with content creators to proactively estimate the total amount of data that they plan to create and to factor these numbers into our technical designs to ensure that we meet the final needs of the product. Additionally, we plan to invest more in scalable data infrastructure in the hopes that we can be better positioned to bring new capacity online quickly should it prove necessary. With those improvements and a little luck, hopefully content avalanche handling will be something we brag about in our future projects."
Double Fine Gets Served
And, of course, Double Fine had to contend with the infamous three-way conflict between it, new publisher Electronic Arts, and former publisher Activision, which inherited Sierra's publishing contract before letting the game go:
"In June 2009, Activision Entertainment Holdings, Inc. filed suit against Double Fine, claiming breach of contract and seeking a preliminary injunction to stop the release of the game by Electronic Arts on Rocktober 13. Less than 2 months later, the case settled out of court. I can't talk about any of that in this article, or any article really. I bring up getting sued as something that went wrong because of the impact the between-publishers transition and subsequent lawsuit had on the development of Brutal Legend.
"Let’s go back a little bit. We had been working collaboratively and successfully with various groups at Vivendi for two years until Vivendi merged with Activision and we lost touch with both publishers while a lawsuit percolated. The merger announcement and subsequent diminution in publisher contact with Vivendi personnel, especially after such a previously harmonious relationship, caused internal unrest and morale dips among the team. Company meetings often included frustrating discussions about what little we knew about the current situation at our publisher, and what the various possible outcomes would mean for Double Fine.
"This demoralizing uncertainty lingered for months, during which time the leads continued to motivate the team to hit their scheduled milestones while watching our coffers run dry in the absence of any publisher payments. We learned Activision was not going to be publishing Brutal Legend through an official press announcement issued by Activision that listed the games they would be shipping, ours conspicuously absent. Again, the team was abuzz with anxiety—and the official hunt for a new publisher began, distracting Tim, myself, and various team leads during an already intense development period.
"Even after the game was re-signed with Electronic Arts, we enjoyed only a brief reprieve before the legal communications began among Double Fine and Activision and Electronic Arts. Most of the team was shielded from the drama that unfolded between December 2008 when Electronic Arts announced that they had picked up the game for publication and July 2009 when the lawsuit settled. But Double Fine’s leadership was not, and the distraction and stress took its toll on individuals and on our deliverables.
"The lawsuit was filed just as the game went Alpha, with a stipulation that it be heard prior to Gold Master being submitted—relegating Tim and myself and a cadre of team leaders to the unenviable job of information gathering, declaration writing, lawsuit reading, witness interviewing and all around non-game-making during the crunchiest, most critical time of development. The lawsuit took its toll on the team, on the company, on our product and on our optimism. Wrong, any way you slice it."
The full postmortem of Brutal Legend explores more of "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" during the course of the game's development, and is now available in the December 2009 issue of Game Developer magazine.
The issue also includes a roundup of governmental game development incentives, Front Line Award finalists, a piece on the art of creating believably flawed characters, and our regular monthly columns on design, art, music, programming, and humor.
Worldwide paper-based subscriptions to Game Developer magazine are currently available at the official magazine website, and the Game Developer Digital version of the issue is also now available, with the site offering six months' and a year's subscriptions, alongside access to back issues and PDF downloads of all issues, all for a reduced price. There is now also an opportunity to buy the digital version of this edition as a single issue.