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

Design documents also create another hurdle to contend with: the political process that results between people trying to understand one another’s ideas.

“What works, what feels great, it’s so intangible, it’s so impossible to express, that trying to write it down just starts a huge political process, where you’re trying to explain what you mean, and the other guy will kind of bring objections, and say what he thinks it will be, and then you will be calling meetings,” he said. “There will be a political process until you reach this lowest common denominator, the baseline that everyone kind of agrees with, but that, at this point, has nothing whatsoever to do with the game you’re building. And then at that point, you kind of have a contract. You have something that took time to build, something that took a big process to build, that you give to someone, and you kind of shackle him with it.”

That process just doesn’t work for Darveau, and it’s not how Spearhead operates. “I believe more than anything is that we’re just a group of humans that want to create the best possible experience, and anyone who has an idea that is worth trying, has the power to try it,” he said. That means no strict delineations of developers into departments — there are still programmers, modelers and designers, but they’re not separated out from one another.

It’s an approach that seems to be working with Tiny Brains, but Darveau said the team has also spent plenty of time play testing. There have been more than 50 play tests so far, he said, and the team is continuing to do two per week until Tiny Brains is finished.

All that testing helps the team find out how the game’s systems work in the real world, or how players expect them to work. Much of the game’s iteration has taken place based on what Spearhead has seen players doing with their powers in the game. If a group of players expects a button to react a certain way when they fire their powers at it, for example, the developers have worked to change the game to meet those expectations.

To Darveau, Spearhead’s culture feels like the cutting edge of games, even though it’s a different experience from working in triple-A, and challenging in its own way — and, at times, very scary.

“(Working as an indie developer) is actually for me, much more fun (than triple-A), but it’s also much tougher, in the sense that there are no boundaries,” he said. “It’s our budget, our project, we manage things the way we want. So we are responsible for what we’re doing. There’s no one who will ever block us, because we’re in charge here. What happens often in a big studio is that there are so many layers of management, that it gets a bit hard to take risks, because if you really want to take a risk, you have to convince other people. It’s kind of hard, if you have a boss, and your boss has a boss, and there are a couple of people who will never play the game who are still stakeholders in the project.

“It’s both scary and incredibly exciting in terms of freedom. It makes you feel like you have the power to decide your own fate.”

“When you’re working for yourself, you can seize every opportunity. It’s both scary and incredibly exciting in terms of freedom. It makes you feel like you have the power to decide your own fate. Both have their pros and cons, but honestly, for me, right now I’m having such a thrill that sometimes I almost feel bad about it.”

That thrill is what drove Darveau to leave triple-A in the first place, and it makes the entire experience worthwhile, he said — even if Tiny Brains should fail or Spearhead close. He likened the experience to working as an indie developer to the earlier days of video games, when almost every new game that came out was establishing entire genres. That sense of creation was what drew him to video games in the first place, and he said he gets that again in working on Tiny Brains as he and the rest of Spearhead try to re-define the cooperative experience.

“I feel like we are truly expressing ourselves working together, like working in uncharted seas to see where it will bring us,” Darveau said. “It makes me see how fun it can be to really create. Making a video game can be amazingly fun, and it is right now, for me, amazingly fun. And I think it shows in the game that we are having fun creating it.”

Tiny Brains is due out for PC, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 this fall, and later for next-generation consoles.

Read more of Phil Hornshaw’s work here, and follow him and Game Front on Twitter: @philhornshaw and @gamefrontcom.

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