Creating Downloadable Content
Jeff Gardiner, Senior Producer
I've been banging my head on the floor trying to come up with a way to make a producer's job seem glamorous and exciting. All's I have to show for it is a pounding headache and a nosebleed….
My name is Jeff Gardiner and I'm a senior producer here at Bethesda Softworks. I've been on the team since the tail end of Oblivion, and have been the lead producer for all of the Downloadable Content starting with Oblivion's Horse Armor and up through Fallout 3's Broken Steel. Between these projects I produce the Design department. As a former designer myself I'm able to empathize with the creative difficulties the department often faces, and lend a hand from time to time on the high concepts of game design. Most days it's like herding cats, but they're wonderful chaps with a broad range of experiences and expertise and they always manage to keep me guessing.
As I look through the past diary entries I note a lot of hands on discussions complete with fantastic pictures and descriptions. So, I figured I'd take some screen shots of my MS Project files and talk in depth about the subtle balance between time, work and quality. I'm sure that will enthrall and entertain. Or maybe you'll end up with a pounding headache and a nose bleed too.
Instead, what I'll elaborate on here is the process of Game Creation in relation to our Downloadable Content. I'll attempt to cast light on that magical, occult alchemy that occurs in a veil of shadow deep in the basement of a North Rockville office building. Perhaps we'll both learn something in the process.
Towards the end of the development of a game, there are three pretty well known, but very loosely defined phases, known as Alpha, Beta and finally Gold. Prior to that there are two major phases, Pre-Production and then of course Production itself which is where the bulk of the game goes from documents on paper (or in someone's gray matter) to the screen where we can all enjoy them. It was right before we went Beta that the decision was made to start thinking about our DLC. Now, before you think we just cut existing content from the game in order to milk our fans, let me explain in more detail how we view these various stages.
Pre-Production is a smaller team of core leads, working out the high-level theory from game rendering to character modeling to systems design. It's here where the story is born and concepts are drawn out. On Fallout 3, this phase began while we were still working on Oblivion. For Operation: Anchorage and the other DLC this phase was relatively short as most of the game systems, and obviously our core technology, wouldn't be changing.
The Production phase is where 'the rubber meets the road' to use a trite cliché. It's a time of iteration, where we put things up on screen and see what works. It's not unusual to be working on the technology, the tools, and the game itself concurrently – which leads to a lot of fits and starts, rushing and waiting.
When a game goes "Alpha" we like to make sure that all existing game systems and art/design assets are in the game in some capacity. They might be rough, or downright placeholder, but they're all there. Then we can begin polishing, stress testing, and balancing. It is (to many a developer's chagrin) a time to assess what needs to be cut, but also what needs to be added (to many a publisher's chagrin.) On Fallout 3 we ended up adding a lot of art. We also cut out about 40% of the Downtown DC landmass. But that's another tale.
Ah, then the "Beta" phase. The Beta phase means kiss your loved ones goodbye and watch the gray hairs come in. It's like being locked in a box while a Behemoth dances on your face. It is a very intense and harrowing time where every decision you make, even down to fixing the most innocuous bug, means you can miss your "ship date," when the game is finally released. The Beta phase then gives way to "Gold;" Gold being the last phase in which we ship the final code and assets off to duplication. Our Beta phase is often staggered; we start locking down various aspects of the game, and finally go "true Beta" when we're only fixing major show-stopping bugs.
Now back to the Downloadable Content. As Fallout 3 was nearing "true Beta," most of the content developers, our Artists and Designers, were playing the game around the clock. That process comes to an end once we start locking down the content for Beta, so this is the time we transition the team onto our additional content, now and forevermore entitled "DLC." To kick the DLC off we held a large team meeting in our theatre, where developers came with ideas, slides and stories. We heard from everyone; ideas included costumes, weapons, sweeping gameplay changes, new settings, alien worlds, even a crazy-clown carnival. What we ended up with were two great quests that were in some ways amalgams many of the ideas pitched in the meeting. Those being Operation: Anchorage, which was an attempt at a more traditional shooter experience and The Pitt, which is Fallout at its best with a new settlement, faction, and morally ambiguous quest line.
The creation of Fallout 3 DLC is about taking a critical look at the game we just made, and deciding where to experiment. What to add. What would we, as fans of the game, like to try? Like to experience? All of us at this point have played Fallout 3 for hundreds of hours. You begin to identify missed opportunities. Stories that need to be told, weapon lists that need filling out, creatures that need allies. Enter the DLC.
All of our DLCs are unique in that regard and reflect the amazing talent we have working here. However, like a birthing processes, the creative one is not without its fair share of pain, blood and stinking afterbirth. Operation: Anchorage was changed mid-course in development, was under a brutally tight schedule (after a brutal crunch,) all while we're still working out our new team dynamics and production schedule.
Operation: Anchorage was originally supposed to be sort of… an RTS. A Real Time Strategy simulation, using the Fallout 3 assets. While it does have customizable strike teams and a branching mission structure, it's just not an RTS, clearly. So, not everything always goes according to plan. In fact, it rarely does. But, we kept the overall story of the content intact, and were able to introduce some unique gameplay and lots of ridiculously powerful weaponry for players to experiment with. All of this and we were able to get it in the hands of the fans at a very rapid pace.
We didn't even know which DLC we were going to release first. Both were in development concurrently. We made a last minute decision based on which one we felt we could finish in the given time, and which one would benefit from the additional time given. Settlements and complicated layered quests with several paths and outcomes require more iterations, more details, and a lot more testing. The Pitt is the result of that focus and care, and will explore another new setting from the revered Fallout 3 canon, Pittsburgh itself.
Now to Broken Steel – which continues the main story and increases the level cap. We had no intention of doing this, or continuing the story, at all. The idea for Broken Steel was not finalized or even talked about in the big team meeting I had mentioned earlier. It came about two months after the game was on the shelves, right before Christmas.
Broken Steel has presented several of its own unique challenges. The first one that gave me pause was the need to reprise the roles of so many voice actors. We're actually wrapping that up now under the watchful and masterful eye of Mark Lampert. The next thing that was a concern was 'fiddling' with so much of our existing content. One of the scariest things about making DLC that drops right into an existing game is the potential to create new bugs. I've worked on 13 of these things now, and something always goes wrong in the 11th hour. It's very rarely easy to fix or benign, so we're keeping a cautious and watchful eye on Broken Steel. So far, so good.
The last hurdle for Broken Steel was actually raising the level cap. The conundrum was not only how to continue the quest where the player dies, but how to make the game challenging for the player who has maxed out six of their skills and has Tesla Armor and a Gatling Laser. Al Nanes and Brian Chapin have done wonders with the story, while Jeff Browne and Bruce Nesmith have stepped up and created a game that will definitely challenge even the most veteran Fallout 3 players.
And that leads us back to Production. With Operation: Anchorage on the store shelves of cyberspace, I'm left with wrapping up The Pitt and Broken Steel. That entails daily meetings, creative strife, getting the content translated into French, Italian, German and Spanish. Plus there's the scheduling strife, budgeting, Ratings Board submissions for various organizations and governments, working on a strategy guide and managing personality conflicts. And surprisingly, none of this gives me a headache or a nosebleed. I wouldn't trade it for the world.