Game Front 1-on-1: Tiny Brains’ Dev Sees a Design-Driven Future

Standing at E3 2013 in a lab coat, watching people play the game he’s been working on for months, Simon Darveau is having a blast.

Darveau might once have been considered “Mr. Assassin’s Creed.” He was the design lead behind Assassin’s Creed III’s much-lauded naval combat. He worked on core systems of Assassin’s Creed II, and that work was strong enough to see it carried through to two more games in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. And he served as the design closer on Brotherhood, as well.

All in all, he was pretty comfortable and well-treated working in triple-A game development at Ubisoft in Fall 2012, when he finished work on Assassin’s Creed III — and that’s why cutting loose from Ubisoft to become a co-founder of Montreal-based indie studio Spearhead Games cost Darveau so much sleep.

“It’s becoming obvious that the future does not belong to sheer production power… It belongs to those who are able to create strong, innovative products….”

But, as Darveau said in an interview with Game Front, forming a new studio was the only way he felt he could be part of what he sees as the future of video games.

“I am, at my core, a production engineer, so when I think about stuff, I tend to compare it with the stuff I know, which is the manufacturing industry,” Darveau said. “So I feel like, if the first game for the industry was the equivalent of the work of the craftsman, then the phase we just crossed is the industrial revolution, where the power belongs to those who know how to expand, how to mass produce, how to push the production power. This is what has happened in the video game industry lately. And I think that what happened in the manufacturing industry after that, is that the designers started to take the power. They started to think about … How can you design products that are more innovative, better crafted?”

“It’s not the sheer production power anymore, and to be part of it — to be part of the future, I feel like this is a totally different culture, it’s a different way to think, it’s a different way to develop your studio culture. And I just feel like I had to develop this if I wanted to be part of the future.”

It’s the rise of indie games in the last few years that was the tip-off, it seems. More and more, talented game designers with interesting ideas are creating great titles that, Darveau noted, are capable of going toe-to-toe with the triple-A industry. It’s not hard to point to much smaller titles, such as Journey, The Walking Dead: The Game or Minecraft, and see them pitted against powerful triple-A franchises for Game of the Year awards and the like.

Despite having a much smaller budget, Darveau said, the indie games are often coming out victorious — because the industry as a whole is shifting.

“It’s becoming obvious that the future does not belong to sheer production power,” he said. “It belongs to those who are able to create strong, innovative products, who know how to create games that really fit technology and social realities, that are truly creating new kinds of experiences. And honestly, to create those experiences is why I joined this industry in the first place. And I really felt like I wanted to take a leap and try to see where I could go.”

Immediately after finishing production on Assassin’s Creed III in August 2012, Darveau was on a plane back to Montreal to begin working on Spearhead’s first title: a four-player, couch co-op experience called Tiny Brains. The studio formed in September 2012, and with about six weeks of testing and development left on Tiny Brains (give or take), the game looks to be finished within a year of Darveau taking the leap.

Tiny Brains looks to be a game perfect for parties, but its ambition is larger than that. Originally, the title was born out of an innate need: to have a game that Darveau and Spearhead Games co-founder Malik Boukhira could enjoy with their less-gamerly girlfriends, as couples. The developers realized there were no true cooperative games that were deep enough to keep hardcore players interested, but light enough that casual or non-gamers could still play them and enjoy them.

Hence came the idea for Tiny Brains — a co-op title that keeps individual mechanics as simple as possible, and builds depth through how players interact with one another. Each player takes on the role of one of four lab animals, and each of those has been experimented on to give it some kind of telekinetic superpower. One animal has the equivalent of a Jedi-esque Force Push ability, another has Force Pull; one can manifest blocks out of thin air, and the last can switch places with movable objects, effectively teleporting.

Puzzles find players working together to manipulate objects and essentially clear rooms, with level design that might be reminiscent of Portal’s test chambers. Because each player has only a single ability, all four must work together to move blocks or balls around each room. In that way, Tiny Brains speaks to even non-gamers, because they only have to learn one thing, as Darveau put it.

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