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Humble Hearts

By Oli Wilkinson | Published Sep 09 2009 02:14 AM in Interviews

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Dean Dodrill of Humble Hearts answers questions about the development of Dust: An Elysian Tail, the winning game in this year’s "http://www.dreambuildplay.com/main/default.aspx">Dream Build Play competition.

A video of Dust is available on YouTube here



How many people in your team and what role did they play
in the development of your game?


I am the sole developer on this project, however I have two composers, Chris Geehan and Alex Brandon, creating music for me.




Describe your game to someone who hasn't played it
before?


Dust is a 2D, sidescrolling action game with a deep fighting system and light role-playing elements. It takes place in a beautifully hand-painted world filled with friends and enemies alike. Dust
features an engrossing story and interesting characters that will entice players to explore the entire world.




What inspired the idea behind your game?


I play pretty much everything, but have a soft spot for 2D action games. My biggest inspiration is probably the Castlevania series, as I had always wanted to see a 2D one in HD. I also wanted to
bring in combat that's popular in 3D action titles, with a light dose of role-playing elements. Visually I've taken the design of a world I've created for film, and put it into a game.


It was also important for me to create a game with options to allow players of any skill to have fun. I love hard games, but as a parent I sometimes want to take it easy, and it's a thrill to see
my children have fun with my game. Of course, anyone who wants a real challenge will also be pleased.




What type of game development team would you class
yourself as?


While I started this as a hobby, I’d say I’m an independent developer at this point. My background is in animation, so that is my strength, but I’ve enjoyed handling all aspects
of game design including writing and programming.




How long have you been programming?


I had dabbled a little in programming around the age of 10 on a TI-994a computer. While the extent of my skills was creating simple sprites, I was always fascinated with how computers were able to
manipulate graphics. I’m trained as an artist, however I have done quite a bit of html in my work.


It wasn’t until I had read about XNA that I wanted to get serious about programming again. It’s been surprisingly easy to learn, which is a real testament to the tools available.




How do you feel about being one of the top games in the
Dream Build Play 2009 competition?


It’s an incredible honor. More so this year, as the competition is very impressive. As someone who just started doing this, it’s a bit daunting to be up against teams who’ve been
polishing their title for years, but simply being in such good company has been a treat.




What does Dream Build Play mean to you, personally, as a
development team?


To be honest, Dream Build Play will be a determining factor in how much farther I want to take this project. I’d love to continue game development, but financially it’s not the easiest
field to be in.




Have you ever entered Dream Build Play before?


No, this is my first.




What do you feel that participating in Dream Build Play
provides for the game development community?


I think that Dream Build Play is the single most important event for XNA developers. It’s been exciting to see the community help each other during these last few months. There is a real
sense of community there, and hopefully some of the hard work will have its time to shine.





Describe the process that you and your team took from idea
to finished game. Did you design the game up front, or did you let the game idea evolve during development?


I had a very simply idea when I started studying XNA. As powerful as the hardware is, I just wanted to take each step slowly. Even now I feel like I’m taking baby steps as I tackle new
challenges. It’s been important for me to set limits to what is possible.


As I learned the tools I kept finding new ways to improve the game. I’m finally at the point where I can pretty much put in anything I can think of, and overcoming each challenge has been
very exciting. In reality, this whole process has been fun and refreshing for me, which is why I started in the first place.


New ideas for the game were always finding their way into the design, but I tried to be very careful not to let them overwhelm what makes the game fun.




What was the most interesting/fun part of the
process?


One of my goals was to make this look like an animated film. Coming up with ways to keep the lead character (Dust) naturally animated, yet fully interactive has been an interesting challenge.
Control and feedback were my priority, but I wanted to make sure everything you do looks ‘cool’ as well.




And the least interesting/fun part?


Probably just technical things, like garbage collections or memory issues. I’m sure that’s the answer most developers would give, as you aren’t really creating, just fixing.
Overcoming those obstacles makes it worth it.




Did you have enough time to complete your entry?


Yes, and I had roughly 2 days to spare. I was pretty careful with my deadlines.




If so, did you add anything extra in to fill the
time?


Not much. Obviously more time would have been nice, but that’s development.




If you were writing your game again, what would you do
differently next time?


I know a lot more about technical issues, and I would have been more careful there. I actually spend quite a few hours each day going back and tightening up certain areas. In many ways
that’s pretty fun, as you find ways to improve performance.




And what would you do the same way?


Honestly, I’ve enjoyed the process so much I wouldn’t change much. I guess in hindsight I’d handle marketing a little better, but I hadn’t expected to get so much press
considering I’ve done zero marketing.




Have you ever used the XNA Framework before?


This is my first time. It’s also my first time doing C, and object oriented programming. This is all very new to me.




Did Dream Build Play have any influence on you trying out
XNA Game Studio?


I’m sure it did. I probably wouldn’t have known much about XNA without Dream Build Play.




How did you learn to use the XNA Framework?


I learned mostly through books and online tutorials. The wealth of information out there is incredible, and there are a lot of generous people sharing their knowledge. The Microsoft MVPs have been
particularly helpful.




When developing your game did you use any third party
components?


No. I did look into a number of ‘game builders’, but I didn’t start this just to make a game. I started it because I wanted to learn.




What compelled you to write your own technology? Do you
think that having done things again, you'd use a third party library?


I wanted to learn. I wouldn’t have done anything differently. I’m the same way with my art skills, as I’m fully self-taught. I love video games, and art and programming are two
skills I wanted to put together.


That said, XNA makes things just easy enough that I’m enjoying it. Without XNA I don’t think I’d really enjoy this.




Would you consider making any of your code/libraries
available on sites such as CodePlex for other XNA developers to use?


Sure. I don’t know how useful my code is. I’m sure in the eyes of a real pro it’s pretty sloppy. As an artist I’d probably be more helpful with art design aspects.




What did you feel, if anything, XNA Game Studio enabled
you to do well when working on your game?


XNA is the reason I have my game today. It might sound odd, but I really love working in XNA studio. My game is very graphics heavy, and in many ways I feel XNA was tailored for what I want to do.
I’ve grown up playing games, and have always had visions of what I’d love games in the future would look like. XNA and the 360 let me create that game.




Did you have any challenges to overcome whilst using the
XNA Framework?


Too many to list, but XNA is all I know, so I don’t feel they were a fault of the framework. Just learning pains.




Did you have any particular challenges to overcome when it
came to running your game on the Xbox 360?


I was careful to test on the 360 on a daily basis. The very first time I deployed to the console I nearly had a heart attack since I didn’t understand what you could and couldn’t do,
so my frame rate was horrible. A little reading and testing later, things worked out. I’m very pleased with the performance of the console. I’m actually a huge 360 fan, so that was an
added bonus.





Which XNA Framework version did you end up targeting (3.0
or 3.1?)


I started with 3.0, and did the mandatory upgrade to 3.1. I honestly didn’t find any difference other than video playback.




Did you take advantage of any of the new features provided
by XNA 3.1?


The video capabilities in 3.1 were a nice bonus. It’s my hope to add some fully animated cinematics in the future.




If you were to offer some advice to other game
developers, what would you say to them?


If they are just starting like me, definitely keep your goals realistic. Take small steps. It’s very easy to get in over your head. And don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are a lot
of smart people out there willing to lend a hand.




Will you use XNA Game Studio to make another game?


If it’s financially feasible, yes, I’d like to continue making more.




Would you enter another Dream Build Play
competition?


I’d love to enter next year if I’m still in game development.




Now that you've got a completed game, what are you
planning to do next?


I’m an independent filmmaker, so I imagine I’d return to working on my film. I’d like to continue to make games if I can.




Would you create any further games for the Indie Game
portal?


Yes, I’m quite fond of XNA. It’s what I know. I’ve pretty much met my initial goal to learn a programming language, and I’m happy with that.




Finally, do you have any other comments you wish to make
about your game, your team, the XNA Framework, Dream Build Play or game development?


Creating this game has been one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had in a long time. I love video games, and have always wanted to create one. This game is my love letter to a style of
game that is rarely made anymore, and I really hope others enjoy it as much as I enjoyed making it. Finally, I can’t thank the XNA team enough for such wonderful tools, and letting me realize
this dream!










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