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POST MORTEM

GAME DATA

Number of developers: 1
Lines of custom code: 11,000
Script: 13,000 words
Cast: 18 actors
Development time (to version 1.0): 15 months

INTRODUCTION

Proven Fact #1: Everyone loves Deus Ex.  When this exquisite action-RPG dismounted painlessly from the womb of Warren Spector and friends in the summer of 2000, it dramatically raised the bar for PC gaming and took home pretty much every single award that year, including 6 Latin Grammys and several neighborhood chili cook-off "Golden Aprons."

Proven Fact #2: Except for jerks and possibly the undead, everyone loves a bit of humor.   Comedy based on one’s mid-twenties malaise (vague references to mild substance abuse, hordes of gratuitous robots, etc.) is especially triumphant.

Burden of 80 Proof is my attempt to combine these two jewels of modern truth into one juicy, delicious mod.

For years I’d wanted to build a single-player adventure game, as a writing exercise and game design experiment.   But real-life circumstances and my inability to find a captivating gameplay model (and accompanying tool set) kept the project in limbo.  So when Deus Ex "dropped," I knew I’d found the framework for my then-un-cleverly-titled modsterpiece.

But what sort of game style to pursue?  I’ve always loved fiction where uncommon characters and extraordinary quests arose amidst bland settings, so that concept got tossed in.  And having spent most of my childhood* in quiet, non-threatening locales, I thought it made sense to draw upon some of that experience.

So a few ground rules were established.  The game was to have:
  • a light, comedic tone
  • a mundane, suburban setting
  • characters with low stakes goals and “wants,” but which they’d consider high stakes for themselves in their world

My assignment was now clear: to design a fun, engaging mod that adhered to the core Deus Ex tenets (that sweet-spot combination of linear storytelling plus branching tactical flexibility), but to bring matters as far away from the Deus Ex themes and aesthetic as possible.

And so with all of this in mind, I quit my job, turned off the phone, pre-ordered 15 month’s worth of pizzas, and set to work.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

1. TECHNOLOGY

As a strikingly handsome man, I sometimes have difficulty dealing with things that are not also very attractive.   So when I first opened up the Deus Ex SDK, I was understandably a bit concerned.  However, while the tools in the SDK are neither perfect nor pretty, they were definitely adequate for the task of building Burden of 80 Proof.

The UnrealScript language proved to be functional and easy to use, and the ConEdit dialogue editor meshed well with the overall development environment.  Even the justifiably maligned UnrealEd level editor, the clunkiest tool in the set, turned out to be not entirely horrifying.

Another technology story that ended well was the issue of script management.   After getting accustomed to writing directly in ConEdit instead of a word processor, the next challenge was getting the script into a usable, actor-friendly format.  I even asked Sheldon Pacotti (head scribe for Deus Ex) how the team at Ion Storm handled the problem (short answer: they struggled too, which made me feel a little better).

I solved the problem in two steps. First, I wrote all the "action" portions of the script into ConEdit "Comment" blocks, to preserve the feel of a screenplay. Second, I wrote a super-1337 Python script to convert ConEdit’s primitive export text into screenplay format. This solution allowed for script changes at any time, without the need to manually format anything for the actors.  Plus, it was a perfect excuse to write some Python, the official Programming Language of Love.

2. BACKUPS

Since I make my living as a database guy (that’s right ladies, gainfully employed), I'm very aware of the importance of data backups.  So to safely preserve the thousands of files required to create the game, I had regular backups scheduled and running every day.  And on many occasions it was necessary to restore some files from a backup.  There was only one instance where significant work was lost; UnrealEd destroyed a map file and, due an oversight on my part, my latest backup was 2 weeks old.  I no longer remember how I reacted at the time, probably some combination of sulking and wall-punching.  But overall, the backups served their purpose very well.

3. TESTING

While every game needs testers, the decision of whether or not to have open beta testing for Burden of 80 Proof was still difficult.  For multiplayer games it's a no-brainer, since playing the same levels repeatedly is core to the experience.  But for a single-player adventure game with a semi-linear story, there were a few Possible Crappy Scenarios which caused some concern:

PCS 1: Testers would play through only once and not explore the game enough to discover potential bugs.

PCS 2: Everyone interested in Burden of 80 Proof would play it during the testing phase and then, having finished the game (with probably a sub-optimal experience), they’d not return to play the final version.

PCS 3: The only people interested in Burden of 80 Proof would be maladapted, contemptible CHUD-teens with severe pr0n addictions and suggestions like "ur mod is realy kool do u think ur mod should b set in space aand also can u add more tits and guns or mebbe guns wiith tits on them lolol hehheheh ok pls thx".

Fortunately, none of these fears ended up being justified.   The fast majority of the feedback I received was intelligent and comprehensive, with many testers meticulously exploring the game’s numerous narrative combinations and possible outcomes.   A number of players really went the extra mile; some included marked-up screenshots of problem areas, others suggested actual code solutions to thorny UnrealScript problems.

When version 1.0 was finally emancipated from Development Purgatory, enthusiasm for the game remained high even among those who’d participated in the testing phase.   And even 3 years later, when version 2.0 was released, many of the Burden faithful returned to again play, and to again offer their praise and feedback.  Throughout the entire process my expectations for the mod fan community were greatly exceeded, and for that I’m very grateful.  Thanks Internets!

4. ONE MAN BAND

As you'd expect, working without a team allowed for tremendous flexibility (and very little in-fighting).  I could make any adjustment to plot, dialogue, or environment at any time, and have a working prototype ready very quickly.

I was free to pursue any idea, good or bad, for as long as I liked, which sent some drafts into some pretty strange territory.  Hopefully, I’ve managed to keep only the most original and entertaining stuff.   (Minor spoiler: To my knowledge, Burden of 80 Proof is still the only game in existence containing a playable police sobriety test.)

Having written the script, I knew exactly which actors were right for which parts when it came time for casting**.  And during the recording sessions, I was able to verbally abuse direct the actors quickly and effectively, because the correct context for every line was known in advance (a challenge confronting many professionally-developed games).

WHAT WENT WRONG

1. DESIGN CHANGES

Like most of us, Burden of 80 Proof sports a different look today than it did on the day it was conceived.   The original intent was to create something akin to a classic text adventure game, with the 3D environments acting mainly as fun, rich window dressing.  The primary focus was to be the dialogue, and the various ways in which the NPCs would treat the player based on his conversational choices.

Thankfully, about 4 months into the project I realized that players might feel disappointed if the game did not take full advantage of the 3D first-person mechanics.  So a number of action setpieces were added, which significantly lengthened development time.   And because much of the story, economic, and mapping groundwork had already been laid, these new settings didn’t always mesh cleanly with the existing levels.  This disconnect can be seen in the office, for instance, which looks rather ordinary except for where the action takes place.  Which brings us to...

2. AESTHETICS

One of the design elements which survived the lengthy/ridiculous journey from design phase to finished product was that of smaller, more intimate environments.

I recalled the joyous times I’d had playing the Shenmue*** games, in which I’d linger and loiter around the various locales for weeks (in Shenmue-time), examining all the objects, posters, furniture, props, NPCs, and all the astonishing little details that made the experience so rich.  By keeping the levels in Burden of 80 Proof small, the idea was to evoke something of that same experience, and to allow the maps to serve as quasi-characters themselves.

Unfortunately, even keeping the levels small didn't allow time to beautify and enrich the maps to the intended degree, and so portions of the game still have what could be considered a drab appearance.  And though I like the idea of blandness as a backdrop for fun story and action, I'm not sure if most players enjoy walking through virtual offices and malls which appear as unremarkable as their real-life counterparts.  So ultimately, decoration simply lost out to scheduling.  Which is a perfect segue to...

3. DELAYS

The responsibilities of working at my day job, developing other creative projects, going to bars, leaving my job and looking for a new one, going to parties, reading piles of books, coordinating actor schedules, working at the new job, finishing errands, running, buying a house, working on films, commuting, developing other other creative projects, listening to piles of music, talking to people on the phone, recording actor dialogue, watching professional hockey games, leaving my new job and looking for a newer new one, playing piles of video games, moving into the house, sifting through mountains of recorded dialogue, working at the newer new job, sending and receiving emails, researching and installing a massive home entertainment system, eating pizza, and watching piles of movies all took their toll on my ability to finish Burden of 80 Proof in a timely manner.

Of course, all of What Went Wrong can be directly attributed to…

4. ONE MAN BAND

Yeah, this one’s pretty obvious.  Taking on a project like this by yourself is an enormous and (I now realize) patently absurd undertaking. Though the overall scope of the finished game is small (most players put the total game time between 2 and 4 hours), the sheer number of decisions to be made and tasks to be addressed during the creation process was staggering.

Since I’d never worked with the Unreal environment before, most problems had to be reverse-engineered and solved from scratch.  Steve Tack’s invaluable Deus Ex Lab and a few other sites were of great help, but couldn’t possibly cover every issue encountered during development.  The rest of the time, any problematic features had to be either replaced with a less desirable option, or scrapped entirely.

On the programming side, there wasn’t enough time to become truly proficient with UnrealScript, and the available pool of experts in Deus Ex-specific programming is very small (or maybe I just wasn’t looking in the right place).   So problems that an experienced programmer might solve easily (such as manipulating the player’s inventory) presented significant challenges, and were often solved with kludgy work-arounds.

If I had to do it all over again, outsourcing the level detailing, textures, and music (at minimum) would be an absolute top priority, so I’d definitely try to assemble some sort of small team.

CONCLUSIONS

Despite the presence of some imperfections in the final version 2.0, I'm pretty happy overall with how Burden of 80 Proof turned out.  Most of the feedback I've received has been positive, and the game seems to have a devoted fan base of players from around the world.

I must add that Ion Storm's decision to release no mod tools for Deus Ex: Invisible War, while understandable from a technical standpoint, was heartbreaking.   I was greatly looking forward to building something using the updated Deus Ex technology, if for no other reason than to make a bunch of "universal ammo" jokes.

So in conclusion, no matter if you loved this game, you hated it, you felt indifferently about it, you never played it, you never heard of it, you never heard of me, or you’re just plain physically unattractive, you can take solace in the fact that designing, building and releasing Burden of 80 Proof has been a tremendously rewarding experience for me.