It's a bit hard to believe, but Vicious Cycle's PSP-exclusive Dead Head Fred
was originally conceptualized as a light, Rayman
-esque Gamecube title geared for a younger set. The developers determined, however, that the initial concept was "too edutainment" -- but they liked the game mechanic, and set out to retool it for an older audience.
So where'd they begin?
"We started by changing the tone of the story to something a bit darker and off-the-wall. We maintained the mechanic of head-gathering and -switching, but set the game in twisted version a '40s film noir detective film. Despite the rather dark story and characters and the premise of ripping off heads, the original pre-production visuals that came back from our contract artists were still playful and cartoony. We didn’t feel this was too much of a problem -- we aren’t the targeted demographic.
The initial test groups thought that the look still skewed too young. Also, apparently the youth today want guns, guns, guns. One of the most common questions asked at those focus groups were, 'Where are the guns?' 'When do I get to pick up a weapon?' Ah... game development in the post-GTA world..."
Eventually, they picked a successful concept to reframe the game mechanic, and added scripting and voice acting, plus the use of their Vicious Engine, to the list of things that went "right." But of course, no project is a walk in the park, and the team's scope might have been too ambitious:
"Dead Head Fred is the biggest game that we’ve ever made at VCS. If you complete all of the side-missions and mini-games, you’re looking at a whopping 30-40 hours of game play! You don’t get that on most next-gen games, much less handheld titles.
The game mechanics also increased the scope of development exponentially. We ended up including nine different heads in the game, each of which has its own unique properties. Because you can use any head that you have available at any time, the entire game from start to finish had to be balanced for play with every head. (This diversity also increased the workload for the art department. Every head makes Fred move and act differently, so separate animations had to be created for each. For all intents and purposes, the game essentially has nine separate player characters!)"
You can now read the full Gamasutra-exclusive postmortem
, which contains much more from the development process triumphs and trials (no registration required, please feel free to link to this feature from other websites).