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

At E3 2013, I had a chance to try the game and see Spearhead’s design ideas in action. My team consisted of a man who definitely had some gaming experience, two women who were familiar but didn’t seem to be avid players, and me — a games journalist who plays just about everything. Despite a rocky start as we applied our various levels of aptitude to the game, it wasn’t long before we were a pretty well-oiled machine, moving boxes and objects around levels by utilizing each of our unique powers.

Things really came together in one of the later levels in the campaign demo, in which players were tasked with protecting a baby chick from other, attacking laboratory creatures. The test chamber included a number of ways to destroy the enemies, like a set of grates that belched fire when a certain switch was pressed, and objects that could be propelled at the attackers. Introducing a sort of group combat really showcased how players could work together as each power complimented the others. Shouts of coordination allowed us to position enemies and then cook them, or block their approaches and then fling them to their doom.

The demo ended with a challenge level, in which players had to push a rolling ball up a spinning cylinder that was filled with holes. Keeping the ball moving was tough enough, but the real challenge came from keeping the ball from plummeting through glass traps and gaps. The challenge level defies players to go as high as they can — our team didn’t set any records, but by the end of the challenge, we were a fairly effective cooperative unit.

Tiny Brains is nearing the end of its development — and the reactions of players at E3 suggests it is accomplishing the goal it set out to meet. Darveau said that Spearhead Games’ approach to creating the game has a lot to do with keeping it true to itself, instead of guessing at what the developers think players will buy.

In explaining the lessons he and the rest of Spearhead try to take to heart, Darveau pointed to perhaps an unlikely source: romantic comedies.

“I feel like the philosophy behind every single romantic comedy is always the same: it’s a guy who wants to get a hot chick, and to get her, he tries to be what he thinks that she wants him to be,” Darveau explained. “It always fails miserably, and at one point he decides to be himself — and then it works. Same goes for video games.

“And for me, trying to write gameplay on paper … makes as much sense as trying to write the first draft of a song. When you have a song in mind, you don’t try to describe how it will sound, right?”

“And honestly, it sounds perfectly logical when I say it, but it’s incredibly hard to really apply it in real life. Because what happens in video games is exactly the same. You start building and crafting your game, and maybe you find new mechanics and new breakthroughs, and new ways to make stuff. But then you look at what exists already, and how games are made, and how they are structured, and how they are pulled off, and what are the success stories. And then you start getting influenced by that. You start trying to identify, because of the marketing and because of the existing products, what you think that people want. And you try to steer and you start to Frankenstein your game in that direction.”

It’s an easy trap to fall into, Darveau said, and resisting that urge seems to be part of what has led to Spearhead’s development culture. There are no design documents, Darveau said — nothing is committed to paper. Instead, everyone on the 12-person Spearhead team is encouraged to just make their ideas into reality, and let the prototypes speak for themselves.

“The thing is, if you want to innovate and you want to create an experience or even a level that was never created before, it’s not possible to imagine it from its parts,” he said. “If you’re doing, for instance, the shooting of Call of Duty, then you can write it down — ‘I want the shooting of Call of Duty.’ This is something you can write down and people will know what you’re talking about, because Call of Duty is a prototype for what you’re doing.

“But if you want something that is a bit more new, it makes no sense to try to write it on paper. And for me, trying to write gameplay on paper … makes as much sense as trying to write the first draft of a song. When you have a song in mind, you don’t try to describe how it will sound, right? Same thing when you draw — when you make the first draft of a drawing, you don’t write it in text, right? And for me, trying to make gameplay this way, in the form of text, is as absurd as those things.”

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