Not too long ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with Brandan Lee, project leader for Fallout: New California, (formerly Project Brazil). Being direct, I naturally asked him the first question that came to mind. (Please understand that this interview was conducted before the project was renamed.)
“First off, when will part two be released?”
“When it’s done.” Brandan says. Fair enough. The team gets asked this question almost every day as they post updates on their Facebook page.
“Where did the name Project Brazil originate?”
“Project Brazil was a working title. I needed a name for my first save in the editor, and I had watched Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film Brazil the night before. Before we released Part 1 in 2013, I polled our Facebook fans about changing it to the official tile “Fallout: New California,” which is more honest to the story, but they overwhelming voted to keep Project Brazil. 95% voted to keep it out of 330 people. So it stuck.”
Obviously this didn’t quite stick. While Project Brazil was a friendly code name for the mod, New California does suit the theme and setting much better. While the new name does seem to be growing on some, others prefer to call it by its original designation.
“So what inspired you to take on a project the size of ‘Project Brazil?”
“I really like large, complex spaces in games that feel like home. I love environmental design and I’ve been doing it for years trying to capture that intuitive feeling. I’ve done it now, professionally a few times and I’d like to make a career out of it. I had a dream in 2010 after some rough life events, and decided I wanted to make a post-apocalyptic California and journey across it. I had just started playing with the GECK, and Project Brazil was born.”
I see where Brandan is coming from. Where New Vegas left holes to fill, the modding community was there to fill them. While NV did return to the west coast, many longed for a full 3D representation of the locations they know and love. Project Brazil takes place within the boundaries of the original Fallout’s map, north of The Glow and East of the Boneyards.
“Had you any idea how big PB would be when it started?” I enquired. Surely a project of this scope and scale would require a tonne of planning and co-ordination.
“I didn’t know the exact scale of FPB until I wrote it all out. That got trimmed back to what we are releasing now, and the sheer scale of the work was still staggering to a naïve young modder like I was. I never expected 5 years of work. I thought we’d be done at 3, max. Little did we know…”
I stand corrected.
“Will we see references to or remnants of Fallout and Fallout 2’s stories in Project Brazil? As the locations seem to cross over one another.”
“Project Brazil bridges Fallout 1 and 2 with 3 and New Vegas. We play out in California, just outside San Bernardino, with influences from New Reno, The Boneyards, and San Francisco. The remnants of the Master’s Army are a big plot point, as are the Enclave who are leaving California after their final defeat by the NCR and Brotherhood.”
As mentioned before, the plans to incorporate the West Coast Fallout stories into PB should make for some very interesting storytelling. Many loose ends were left untied by the end of the original two games. These gaps were left for the fans to fill with their own imagination. Brandan and the team too that to the next level.
“If we had a 100 person team, Project Brazil would have visited those places. But with a 2 man team, we just stayed in the desert outside civilization. It takes place in the Lore in 2260, between New Vegas and Fallout 2, and just before Fallout 3. It fits the lore tight as possible.”
“You mention in the project updates that there was quite a bit of dialogue to process. How many voice actors did you have? Were they friends, family, or strangers?”
“We had 47 voice actors in total, for Part 1 and 2. They voiced 13,000 lines of dialogue, which all together constitutes 22 hours of in game voice acting. That makes FPB one of the largest quest mods ever made, probably #2 right behind Enderal, which we contributed to as well a couple actors for their English localization. The Frontier looks like it will be right behind us, which we talk to on a regular basis.”
[The Frontier]( http://www.falloutthefrontier.com/) is an equally impressive mod for Fallout: New Vegas, partially set in Washington State.
“All but three of the voice actors I know personally from work or my friends. I do a lot of film making and theatre, or at least, I did. And that means I have a tight knit community I can rely on for acting talent that is top quality. I received some pretty intense acting training myself, which, while I don’t act (turns out I’m not very good) it gave me a very clear understanding of how to direct and write for actors, which I enjoy immensely.”
“How big is the team? Are there permanent and non-permanent members?”
“There are two leads, Rick HK and I, Brandan Lee. We do the overwhelming majority of the work. I handle virtually all the level design and art, writing and voice, social media and management. Rick handles virtually all the programming, both for the main quest and supporting architecture, scripting scenes and events, as well as data management.”
It is truly phenomenal, how a team of people could decide to work together, not for monetary gain or fame, but just for something they love, and create what is essentially an entirely new game.
“FPB together is our saga.
Currently Mark Hickman drops by to assist with editing and writing small snippets of terminal quests, and Ole Ingebrigtsen is testing and various issue tweaks. We get other modders in the community who drop by for one off donations of resources and problem solving, but for months it’s just been the four of us.”
”Did you have the story and characters planned out beforehand, or did it just come as you kept developing?” Brandan’s response to this question is very long, but very interesting. He goes off on a tangent, but a really interesting tangent. I restrained myself from editing it down into something shorter, because quite frankly it’s just too compelling.
“I did. It turns out most mods just sort of organically evolve as people throw things into the blender. So do most games. But I’m lucky that my brain knows the entire story start to finish and every key event the minute I sit down to create it. I draw an outline on day one that more or less survives years of development changes. I then look at the major events and locations, roll a few rudimentary characters that I want to see representing what human character traits and personalities I’m attracted to as a gamer and writer (toss in a little good marketing) and then I write the dialogue start to finish.
“As I write dialogue I also sketch out scene scripts from a code and art developer perspective, keeping in mind the level design and assets that have to be created to achieve this. I try not to be too imaginatively boxed in, but I write for the knowledge of what modular animations I will have (as they are limited and must be reusable in other scenes, so no specific emotes should be called for that can’t be reused in other conversations) and I then apply some basic quest script assignments, naming variables and conditions in the architecture.
“I write a single paragraph summary at the top of the document, followed by a complete breakdown, and then the characters are written out one at a time. Each character contains their events and codes for that quest, and a brief description for the coding team of what to do and how to lay out the triggers and markers for their AI within planned or already made levels, either as concept art or grey-box. Finally the document is attacked by the code team who translate the esoteric into the concrete, and annotate the narrative with named conditionals and architecture.
“This gets everyone on the same page, literally. The documents can get huge and a little daunting, but they are vital. The less paper you use and the more you use a tool like Articy Draft and Google Docs, the better.
“As an open source project you can see all our documents here.
“I then focus on making sure the dialogue is delivered naturally, the cadence of each line sounds like a human being talking, and I focus on the small moments that make a digital character’s personhood, ensure their issues are relatable, and their topics interesting. I try not to create too many throw away generic characters, but tropes happen from time to time. This establishes the game’s tone, which impacts heavily the art and atmosphere of the overall game.
“You really have to poll your crew to make sure your story isn’t too depressing or too zany, depending on the personalities working on the game day and night for years. You also need to keep your target audience in mind. After all, these characters are talking to them, not you.
“After that, we edit the writing after I’ve written the entire story as a giant brick of text containing every variable and branch. That dialogue goes into the engine every time I write a quest document, and from there it becomes part of the core architecture of the game.
“If I had a full team of developers this method would make sure that from day one, everybody knows the long term plan, and can get to work on specifics from the beginning level of the game to the end. They’re never in the dark and the big goals are never in question. There’s always a clear way forward step by step. So the main quest team can be very busy making the core of the story happen, the animators are busy, the art and level teams are busy, the sound team is busy – from Day 1 we know where we are going and why.
“Of course, that full team became just Rick and I!
“So what can you do?
“You should keep a separate group of off-the-wall creative types and just let them create whatever they feel like. They can make this cool thing while you’re writing, and you can go, ‘ooh, we can use that here!’
“This team should ideally also be responsible for a lot of your gameplay, controller sets, and environmental code and art. That way they will still have a job after the main quest is scripted, and can still be related to the core dev team working on the main quest.
“The hard part is making revisions. Because I make a pretty ornate web, and big changes require a lot of secondary and tertiary shifts. So if an executive or an investor throws some harebrained… I mean, ‘valued input’… into the mix, then I have to adjust accordingly. But this system is modular, so I can quickly do re-writes based on the architecture we already have and reuse the modular animation assets (because I planned for that from the start by using non-specific animations and assets.)”
For those that could barely understand a work of that jargon, it essentially means that the animations, and other assets are made to be used in a variety of scenarios. Creating a specific table lamp for example, for a specific room, and a different table lamp for a different room would waste a lot of data. This is why many objects in games are the same, they’re just re-used from different areas to cut down on size. Usually these changes are so small you may never notice.
“This writing method would be really good for mass scale RPGs like Mass Effect, Fallout, The Witcher, etc., because it plans in advance to give the animation and art team the maximum amount of time working on modular asset quality, which make up 95% of the game that your players see every second they are in the game world.
That remaining 5% is unique Hero assets, which add depth to areas and characters, but they’re not the soul of the game. The soul is in the bulk. So your off-the-wall developers that are in the land of imagination – the ADHD reaction chamber we keep on the other side of the office – can focus on Hero assets. The more detail oriented and obsessive team can focus on the architecture and engineering.
“If you focus on the modularity from the beginning, and you know your story in advance, then you’re good to go.
“People can still throw their own ideas into this and they integrate seamlessly. That gives personal agency and ownership to your co-developers, so they’re not chained to their desk carrying out “your” vision. This is a big web of a core spine, with all the organs and tendons and muscles created by the co-developers with their own unique take on what those areas are like. That kind of compartmentalizes the off-the-wall randomly generated ‘cool stuff’ that the art and design teams come up with, so they don’t spill over into the big picture, and that contributes to a much richer experience with more varied areas that feel like they are their own voice, while still being coherent as part of the overall narrative.
“Now you have a game that needs testing and QA (quality assurance), but it is done. Any extraneous features you want to iterate upon can now be added in as part of the big picture. Then you do the voice acting, which is the final cementing in of your game’s voice and ties it all together.
“If you can help it, make voice acting the last layer of developer sediment, that way you avoid major revisions. Which can be costly, and take inordinate effort to produce to a level of quality modern gamers expect.
“Finally, you write your official game guides and release material. That includes social media. If you’re building marketing and a fan base this whole time, getting players involved and seeing the kinds of narrative they appeal to, you’re doing well.”
Tl;dr: Brandan gives us the full development cycle of a game.
“What are your tools of the trade? Are you using the GECK, or a combination of other tools?”
“The GECK, along with hlp’s GECKPowerUP and FNVEdit, TESSnip, and lot of 3rd party tools to work around Bethesda’s arbitrary and frustrating proprietary formats. NifTools was invaluable, as have been other community utilities all created by fans.
I also use Photoshop, 3dsMax, mudbox, World Machine, Quixel Suite Ddo and Ndo, as well as After Effects and Premiere Pro, FRAPs – a lot of tools you’d find in a developer studio. Because I also develop games and films for work as a day job.”
“What are your plans after Project Brazil? Will you develop your own titles, or will you continue to make mods?”
“I will be developing a few small indie games. I want to use Quixel Megascans and Unreal Engine to create a Cave Painting Side Scrolling Castlevania-like platformer. It will use photoreal textures and light projection to create a realistic backdrop for a tribal story, linking the deep ancestral past to the modern era of street art today.
I’ll also work more on Shadow Star, an indie game the size of Project Brazil. But that is a massive project for someone with no money and a skeleton crew, so I’ll likely put off on that until I have the resources to really invest in it. I may help out a few mod teams to begin building bridges for Shadow Star’s human resources. When you aren’t born rich, and you have no money, you have to build your empire by hand until others are persuaded to pitch in.”
“How did the release of Fallout 4 impact development of Project Brazil?”
“It was annoying, but didn’t change anything. Fallout 4 is a whole new world and really didn’t change the way I see the universe we’re working in. Fallout 4 has much nicer lighting and data handling, but it is otherwise not a factor in what made Fallout 1 and 2, and New Vegas, the world I want to work in.”
I couldn’t even imagine this happening. Working for years on a single game, the most recent iteration of the engine, and all of a sudden an updated version is release that does everything better. Hats off to Brandan and the team for sticking with it for such a long time.
“Do you think Bethesda / Obsidian would approve of your mod?”
“They sent up a personal congratulations for Part 1. Hopefully they enjoy Part 2. I’m sure they have forgotten we exist. Probably for the best.”
“Did you expect the type of feedback you’ve gotten since the initial release? Did it impact development?”
“I actually thought we were going to be judged a lot harsher than we were, because I know every flaw in Project Brazil by heart. Part 1 especially had some decisions baked in that embarrass me to this day – kind of like showing your childhood scribbling off to a hundred thousand people. There are still a lot of things in Part 2 that on a professional level embarrass me and I wish there was more I could do to force New Vegas’s aged engine to cooperate and look better. Cliffs that look like melted plastic and LOD that looks like brown blurry waves.
“I hate it. I can do so much better, but that’s the best I can do without a deep overhaul both of the source code and art. That is work I don’t want to do nor have the months to spend on it.
“But the response from players wasn’t focused on the things I hated, it was overwhelmingly positive. That shocked me, because this is the internet and humans can be really terrible people online! But instead we get fan mail almost daily and it really uplifts and encourages me when the rest of the process is rather spirit sapping and long suffering.”
It just goes to show that your biggest critic is always yourself.
“Finally, what kept you going all this time?”
“A personal quest for vengeance and glory”
That concluded out interview with Brandan Lee. All of us here want to think him for taking the time out of his very busy schedule to answer a few questions, even going above and beyond in some aspects.
You can check out Project Brazil / New California’s latest news every month on ModDB, and daily updates and musings from the Facebook page.