Humble origins: The solo odyssey behind Dust: An Elysian Tail

Dean Dodrill: father, animator and self-taught game designer. This is his four-year journey to create the game of his dreams.

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"Rewriting massive systems this late into a project? It's crazy-making," tweeted Dean Dodrill on June 27, 2012.

Dodrill, the mostly one-man team making Dust: An Elysian Tail, was at the end of his rope. He had exhausted himself, losing 15 pounds over the course of two months — even while sitting at his desk for upwards of 18 hours a day — thanks to game development crunch, "the perfect diet." And he had just about exhausted another precious resource, time: With a concrete release date of Aug. 15, just seven weeks away, Dust's deadline was quickly approaching.

Dust features approximately 1,700 lines of spoken dialogue spread across more than 40 characters. After a frantic crunch period, Dodrill and his audio team had finalized the dialogue on June 25. "I had spent months animating all the portraits and polishing the dialogue code, which was one of the most complex systems in the game," Dodrill told Polygon over email. "Needless to say, I was relieved that we were done."

Dodrill dropped in the audio files and booted up the game to test them. But he saw only the inky blackness of a blank screen for upwards of a minute. A severe bug was causing the near-final build to double-check every dialogue file, breaking the game and — with no development time to spare — threatening to force Dodrill to cut the dialogue in its entirety.

The lone developer and his audio producers had spent a year casting over 40 voice actors, and then recording, editing and coding the dialogue and animating the characters' sprites to match. And it had all been for nothing. "I broke down crying," said Dodrill. "It honestly felt like losing a loved one."

An ambitious dream

Dodrill is a self-trained illustrator and animator with a lifelong love of video games and appreciation for 2D art.

Dust wears its inspirations on its sleeve: Castlevania, Super Metroid, Ninja Gaiden and Dodrill's favorite games, Ys I & II. It's the quintessential pastiche — a combination of side-scrolling platforming and combat, with access to new areas gated by special items, all set against the backdrop of a grandiose story. Dodrill formulated a wish list from those seminal games.

"I wanted platforming. I wanted some sort of leveling-up system. I wanted some basic loot. And I knew I wanted a combat system that was a little more sophisticated," he said, adding that "larger-scale epics" fit his idea of a compelling tale. "I'm the guy who appreciates when a game shoots high, even if it makes others groan."

Dodrill had previously created the world in which Dust exists for his work-in-progress independent animated film, Elysian Tail, which he shelved once production on Dust ramped up. The film and the game share a beautiful, expressive, hand-drawn 2D art style, a look inspired by the work of Walt Disney Animation Studios and ex-Disney animator Don Bluth. (Dust's subtitle, "An Elysian Tail," is a reference to Bluth's 1986 film, An American Tail.) Bringing those visuals to life himself in a modern video game was, for Dodrill, one of the most appealing aspects of making Dust.

Dodrill had a dream, and a well-thought-out one at that, but he didn't know if he could realize his ambition. Aside from some cutscene production for Epic MegaGames' Jazz Jackrabbit 2, he had never done artwork for a video game, let alone made one, but he felt that his art background gave him a unique perspective on games.

"It was clear to me how the designers were achieving what was happening on screen," Dodrill said, "even if I didn't understand the code underneath."

Understanding the code was the next step.

Initial progress and quick success

"Artists tend not to be great at math, so it was like letting a part of my brain wake up."

In late 2008, Dodrill told his wife that he wanted to learn how to program so he could quickly make a "small game" for Xbox Live's Indie Games channel. Microsoft offers a free set of tools called XNA to develop games for Xbox 360, Windows and Zune (later expanded to include Windows Phone 7). Dodrill downloaded XNA and Microsoft Visual Studio, and immediately joined the Creators Club, the XNA development community.

The tutorials alone soon made it apparent that Dodrill "had a lot to learn."

As 2008 turned into 2009, he tackled basic programming exercises: writing a "Hello world" program; coding a version of Pong; and using a tile editor, a tool for creating game worlds. "It's amazing how much we as gamers take for granted," Dodrill mused, pointing out mundane elements such as buttons showing up on the screen and word-wrapped text. "None of that happens by itself; it takes a massive amount of design, art, and code.

"It was honestly one of the most exciting experiences in my life," said Dodrill about the initial process of learning to code. "Artists tend not to be great at math, so it was like letting a part of my brain wake up and stretch a bit." His ambitions grew even faster than his programming knowledge; he soon realized he could move beyond his original plan for an 8-bit game. Dodrill decided to expand the scope of Dust, and aim for a mid-summer entry into Microsoft's annual "Dream Build Play" competition for XNA games.

He was helpless in one particular area: music. Alex Brandon, a friend from the Jazz Jackrabbit 2 days, contributed "a few nice pieces" to Dust but was too busy to take on the role of composer. Luckily, Dodrill had become active on the XNA Creators Club forums, where a musician named Chris Geehan contacted him. "It only took one listen to convince me he had serious talent," said Dodrill. Geehan and his partner, Dan Byrne-McCullough, comprise a team called HyperDuck SoundWorks; they performed all the audio composition and production for Dust.

With their music and his budding programming skills, said Dodrill, "I went from knowing nothing to creating a submission for Dream Build Play in only six months."

He didn't just manage to submit a working build of Dust. He won the competition outright.

Dream Build Play 2009

Winning an exhibition like Dream Build Play certainly had its benefits, not least among them a much higher profile for Dust. But it also carried some misconceptions, as well as personal heartbreak for Dodrill.

"The day I won Dream Build Play was one of the most exciting moments my family had experienced," Dodrill said. Yet mere hours after he found out he won, he received word that his grandmother had passed away. "It seems that every major milestone was met with similar circumstances," he said, characterizing Dust's development as a "series of highs and lows, emotionally."

Moreover, Dream Build Play wasn't an immediate golden ticket. The competition's grand prize of $40,000 provided a "nice financial bump," to be sure. But it wasn't enough to start a studio or cover the cost of development. Aside from the prize money, Dodrill self-funded the game from start to finish, depending on savings and his family to survive. "Needless to say, I wasn't taking any cruises or buying new cars."

Dodrill also pointed out, "Most people assume that winning [Dream Build Play] automatically gave me a contract" for Microsoft to publish Dust on Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA). But that's not the case. Dream Build Play winners are promised a chance at an XBLA publishing deal, without any guarantees: the contest's official rules warn, "The invitation to enter into a Publishing Contract is at [Microsoft's] sole and unfettered discretion."

Microsoft announced Dust as the winner of Dream Build Play in early September 2009. But Dodrill wrote and pitched design documents to the company for five months before an XBLA contract ever materialized.

It wasn't until the beginning of 2010 that Dust officially became an XBLA title. At the time, Dodrill planned to launch the game by the end of the year.

"Oh, how wrong I was," he said.

"It seems that every major milestone was met with a series of highs and lows."

Slow and steady

Once Dodrill signed the XBLA publishing agreement, a producer from Microsoft, Andrew Williams, joined the project. He proved a valuable asset. "While I'm the one who made the game," Dodrill explained, "I like to say he's the one who made it happen." Williams served as the interface between Dodrill and Microsoft, championing Dust and ensuring that the company let Dodrill make it on his own terms and his own timeline. Aside from creating an "announcement" trailer for E3 2010, the two spent most of the year working quietly.

Two more men joined the Dust team in 2011, to help out in areas where Dodrill lacked proficiency. "I am admittedly not a master of words," he said. So after "several months" of nudging from a writer named Alex Kain, Dodrill hired him to help "tidy up" Dust's dialogue; he eventually credited Kain as the game's co-writer. After Dodrill and Geehan decided to try adding voice-over, Geehan brought on Deven Mack as casting director for the voice talent. "His choices as well as his skills at directing really brought the world to life," said Dodrill.

With the extra time allocated to story and audio, development proceeded slowly. Dodrill estimated that even at year's end — three full years into the project — only about 20 percent of Dust was completely finished, although "there was a lot more content than that."

While Dodrill felt "certain" at the beginning of 2012 that he would finish Dust within the year, his aspirations threatened to delay the sprawling project even further. And as the months wore on, he began to worry that he'd have to push Dust back into 2013, because he didn't want to see his labor of love get lost amid the big-budget fall games.

Meanwhile, the strain on his family had reached unprecedented heights. He and his wife were expecting a third child, their second daughter, in June. As he toiled in his fourth year of self-funded development, he wondered if it was still worth the struggle. "I felt I had put my family through it long enough," he said.

Then April rolled around. "Then," he said, "PAX East 2012 changed my life."

A Giant bump, and a huge decision

Although Dust still had no release window, and Dodrill hadn't shown the game since mid-2010, Microsoft offered to feature it in the Xbox Live booth at PAX East. Dodrill flew out to Boston expecting "mild coverage," just "hoping that at least a few gamers" would try Dust.

It received a warm welcome on the first day of the show, with growing lines at the booth's two kiosks and interview requests from influential journalists. But the early buzz paled in comparison to the explosion in interest provided by Giant Bomb editors, who stopped by to play the game and then promoted it during their packed Saturday night panel.

"The next morning, there were lines an hour and half deep to play Dust," said a shocked Dodrill.

The reception became overwhelming. He received compliments on Dust from Penny Arcade's Mike Krahulik and from Epic Games' Cliff Bleszinski, under whom he had worked a decade and a half ago on Jazz Jackrabbit 2. PAX East was the culmination of Dodrill's efforts to that point.

Of course, Dust wasn't done yet.

Microsoft was paying attention to Dust's popularity at PAX, and urged Dodrill to aim for a release on "Summer of Arcade," an annual slate of Xbox Live titles that receive the highest level of promotion on the platform. Dodrill was torn. "I'm sure every XBLA [developer] dreams of the opportunity," he said, and "the opportunity was within reach." Still, he had planned for at least six more months of development, and he would barely have three if he needed to get Dust done in time for Summer of Arcade.

He and Williams, his producer, talked it over. Dodrill summed up the conversations: "For a couple days, it was nothing but, 'Yeah, let's do it!' 'No, this is crazy!' 'You know, maybe we can do it?'" He was aware of the steep climb ahead, made even tougher by his staunch refusal to cut content or compromise his vision in any way.

"I had put 10 percent of my life into this thing, and would only say yes [to Summer of Arcade] if I knew I could honestly finish the game I started," said Dodrill. "I have one shot to make a first impression.

"I knew it was going to destroy me, mentally and physically," he said. "But this was not something I could say no to."

The mad, delirious dash to the finish

"It was an absolute nightmare."

Dodrill never took so much as a single weekend off during more than three and a half years of development on Dust. But the crunch period demanded more: for the three months from the second week of April through the first week of July, Dodrill worked at least 18 hours a day to finish the remainder of the game — basically half of its content.

"Food would literally be placed in front of me and I would still forget to eat," he said. His wife gave birth in June, but he saw his newborn baby girl for "all of maybe two hours during the first couple weeks of her life."

Dodrill characterized himself as a "man of faith." He remains incredulous that he was able to finish Dust the way that he did, saying that it could only have been possible "through divine intervention."

He certainly believes God had a hand in solving the 11th-hour crisis that befell him: the game-breaking bug that left him sobbing at the thought of having to eliminate Dust's voice-over dialogue. Halfway into that demoralizing day, Dodrill decided to sleep on it.

Some hours later he woke up, "seemingly having reprogrammed the entire dialogue system in my dreams, as well as a new way to load all content." Dodrill was able to properly slot in the audio files, and the final version of Dust actually loaded faster thanks to his overhauled code. "But it was an absolute nightmare," Dodrill said, adding that he's still not quite sure how he pulled it off.

On July 6, 10 days later, Dodrill tweeted, "Oh, and I finished that game I was making. That was cool."

A Humble Heart

Without the imposition of a deadline, Dodrill feels that he could probably keep working on Dust forever — that's one of the reasons he forced himself to agree to a Summer of Arcade release. "It's painful to play it and see elements I'd like to tweak but can't," he said, though he's "extremely happy" with the final product. "More than anything, I still genuinely have fun when I play this thing I've made."

While Dodrill certainly wants Xbox Live users to enjoy Dust, and hopes it sells well enough to allow him to keep making games, its success seems like a secondary concern at the moment. "Above all else," he said, "I just want to be with my family again, to spend time with my children."

It's a modest sentiment from a man who just poured nearly four years of his life into developing a game predominantly on his own. But over the course of our lengthy email interview, it became clear that that's simply how Dodrill lives his life. He's always quick to give credit where due, whether to his supportive family, his hard-working audio team, his collaborators at Microsoft or the "unsung heroes of game development": testers and localization personnel.

It's at this point that the name of Dodrill's development company, Humble Hearts, seems apt. And now, having finished the journey of making Dust, he has one more simple desire.

"I would love to take time off and do some smaller games," he said. "I sort of skipped the experimental stage — i.e., the fun stage."