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PlayStation 4′s Tiny Brains Q&A with Malik Boukhira

Posted by on October 30th, 2013 | 0 Comments | Tags: ,

With the PlayStation 4 launching in less then three weeks the excitement is building here at PSNStores as we all anticipate getting our hands on the new console and the host of PSN games that will be available at launch, like Spearhead Games Tiny Brains.  Featuring a cast of four different animals that you and three friends take control of to solve physics based puzzles, Tiny Brains is set to be a great co-op experience for the PS4 and one that will put your reflexes and teamwork to the test.

To get more details about the game Malik Boukhira, one of the co-founders of Spearhead Games, carved out some time to answer a few questions we had:

Q: Tiny Brains is your first release as Spearhead Games. Can you tell me a little about Spearhead Games and how the company started?

It all started over 20 years ago.  Well, sort of.  Co-founder Simon Darveau and I have been friends since elementary school.  I remember even back then we were scheming various projects, like writing a comic book, or creating a (paper) RPG.  When we were teenagers, we were talking about how cool it would be to do video games.  That was just daydreaming back then.  Simon and I initially took very different career routes, yet somehow, we both ended up Game Designers on Assassin’s Creed 2!

After a few years working on AAA titles, we felt it was time for us to take a step back.  The video game industry is rapidly evolving and we believe that in the near future, video games will shape our lives in ways we can’t imagine today.  And while there’s something epic in working on huge AAA games, we wanted to have the flexibility to be part of the changes to come.  By creating Spearhead Games, we wanted to take advantage of an indie studio’s small team dynamics to learn new development methodologies, experiment and search for innovative types of game design experiences.

So I left EA after working on Dead Space 3, and Simon resigned from Ubisoft Singapore where he was a design director on Assassin’s Creed 3.  Once Simon landed in Montreal, he basically had no possessions and nowhere to go, so he stayed at my place.  So for the first few months of its existence, the official address of Spearhead Games was my apartment, where Simon was my roommate, or as some people like to say, my house cat, but I won’t get into that story now.

During that time, we started working on what would eventually become Tiny Brains.  We had no money, but some passionate people gradually joined to help on their free time, and build the first prototype of the game.  That prototype eventually allowed us to raise funding, which in turn allowed us to get an actual studio with tables and PCs, assemble an awesome dev team (that actually gets paid), and even allow Simon to get his own apartment!

Q: Your game Tiny Brains is a co-operative puzzle game with some unique gameplay concepts. Could you describe the game to me and what inspired you to create it?

Tiny Brains is a cooperative action puzzler that follows four lab animals that have been so much experimented on that they basically developed super powers.  Each of them has a unique physics based ability.  They must work together and combine their powers to solve various challenges in their attempt to escape a mad scientist’s experiment.

How did we come to this? Well we’re basically gamers, and we love playing coop games.  We came to the idea of the game after spending many evenings playing coop games among friends (usually 4 of us sitting on a couch), and basically going through every coop game we could find.

While we had a blast with many coop games out there, over time we starting thinking of things we would love to do if we created our own coop game.  I’m sure many gamers have similar wish lists for their favorite game genre…It just happens that we’re game developers with a freshly born studio so we can actually do it! 😉

Accessibility was one of the first things we wanted to address : making sure it was easy and comfortable to have 4 players on the same console and screen, but also making sure our game would be playable (and fun!) by gamers and non-gamers alike.  After all, it did happen quiet a few times that one gamer friend brought along his girlfriend for the evening, who doesn’t happen to be a console gamer.  I got to see what happens when a casual gamer tries to play a First Person Shooter on console for the first time… And I don’ think running in circles while looking at the ceiling is fun for many people 😉

Getting the game with controls and basic concepts that everyone could get into was one thing.  But the other thing we really wanted to have in our coop dream game was to make sure that coop wasn’t just a superficial feature in the game, but it would actually be meaningful : we wanted the players of our game to actually have to take each others actions into account, actually have to talk to each other to succeed.

In short, we aimed at creating a game with accessible, yet meaningful coop gameplay.  The result, we came to realize when we finally got people to play it, was something very social, something certain people call a party game for gamers.

Q: Each of the rodents you play as have their own abilities. Can you describe each of the different characters and how their abilities can be used to solve the games puzzles?

First there’s Dax, a purple bat. He’s been modified to be able to project a supersonic wave that effectively can Force Push objects away.
There’s also Stew, the Rabbit with the green and black rubber suit.  He’s electrically charged (actually has batteries in his ears, according to some X-rays). His power is to Telekinetically Pull objects towards him.
There’s also Minsc, a chubby blue hamster; he can create a physical block out of thin air, he can also make it erupt, thus projecting objects or friends who are standing on it.
Finally there’s Pad, the red eyed mouse, who’s brain is so big its exposed under a protective glass cap.  Pad can teleport, by swapping position between himself and an object.

All these abilities are complementary and work well together.  For example, Minsc can create a Block, stand on it, and DAX can then Push the block over a gap, allowing Minsc to safely reach the other side.

While many challenges have a principal way of solving them, in reality, the gameplay is very emergent, thanks to its physics based nature.  There are many ways to solve each challenge.  The game’s initial experience is fairly simple and very fun immediately, providing for a very low barrier of entry. However, there is also a lot of depth to the mechanics, thanks to the physics based approach.  Players can find creative new ways to combine their powers and learn to leverage their subtleties. Its something you can easily realize when you see someone from the dev team finish single-handedly in 10 seconds a challenge that took you and three friends 5 minutes to complete.

We think this combination of initial simplicity and the inherent depth bridges the gap between hardcore and casual gamers.

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Q: With online competitive multiplayer being the big thing these days you don’t see co-operative games that often anymore, especially ones with local multiplayer. Why did you decide to embrace local co-op for Tiny Brains?

We decided to thread the local coop route specifically because we don’t see those type of games very often anymore, and we happen to love them.

We basically made it the core of our game experience.  Unlike many games who build first the singleplayer experience, then adapt it to coop, we conceived the game to be coop first, then we developed a fun single player experience based on it.

We wanted the game to be jump-in jump-out 1 to 4 players, yet be uncompromising on the level design side to offer the best coop experience.  So we developed a very cool system that allows to dynamically change the layout of a level depending on the number of players currently in the game.  So the levels are always fun no matter the number of players, even if some join or leave the game in progress.

Q: At this years E3 and PAX EAST Tiny Brains got a lot of praise from the people that played it. Were you surprised with how well the game was received?

At Spearhead, we do a lot of playtests, almost weekly.  We constantly iterate on the game based on player’s feedback.  PAX and E3 were basically a huge public playtest (at PAX East we actually handed questionnaires to everyone who played the game to ask them for feedback).  Despite our internal playtests, we were still very anxious to see the reactions of people who weren’t friends or acquaintances!  And seeing all the positive reactions, with all kind of people, from gamers to kids, laughing and yelling as they played the game is hugely rewarding.  It basically gives meaning to all our work and effort.

One of the things that amazed us the most, was seeing a group of four total strangers hop into the game, and by the end of the demo start talking to each other and high-fiving, literally changing from strangers to friends, at least for the duration of the playthrough.

Q: Tiny Brains will be a launch title for the PlayStation 4 and will also be releasing on the PlayStation 3. What made you decide to release the game on PlayStation and how has it been developing the game for multiple Sony platforms at the same time?

We knew we wanted to release the game on consoles, as the couch coop experience is core to our game concept, but we didn’t have a preference towards a specific platform.  That being said, Sony made it very easy for us get the game on their platforms.  Even when the game was at a relatively early stage, we had the opportunity to present it to Sony people.  Accessing Sony hardware, talking to Sony staff was always very simple and easy.

As for developing on multiple platform, well that was challenging.  It was the first time we went through the entire process of a game development.  In AAA development, teams are huge, and there was always people taking care of things you didn’t even know about.  As an indie studio, we have to do all those things, so there was many we were learning to do for the first time, especially when it comes to releasing the game on multiple platforms.

Q: Can we expect any unique features for the PlayStation 4 version of the game?

Yes, among other things we use the unique features of the PS4 controllers. For example, the light color of the controller will be the same as the character. The light also indicates the cool-down of your unique power. So basically, when you play the game in coop locally, a quick glance at your fellow player will let you know which character they are playing and what they are up to.

And of course exploiting the additional power of the PS4 by having more physics objects, more destructibles and multiplying the size of the horde of evil baby chickens!

Q: You have received funding from the Canadian Media Fund to help with the development of Tiny Brains. How has it been working with the Canadian Media Fund and what impact on the project has this funding made?

Basically, if not for CMF, Simon would still be my roommate!

CMF is a great initiative to foster innovation in the industry.  It has also proven to be key to help develop the indie community in Montreal.  CMF funding helped kickstart many new great indie studios, including Minority, Red Barrel or Compulsion.

On our side, it really helped get both Spearhead and Tiny Brains off the ground, by allowing us to hire a full time team and buy the necessary equipment.   Working with CMF is great, they are friendly and it’s easy to communicate with them.  And unlike many other forms of funding, they are not intrusive in the game’s development, once the concept, budget and timeline have been approved.

The challenging part is actually having a project approved, its much harder than most people think. Of a hundred projects submitted every cycle, only a dozen are approved.  So the project and the application must be top notch.  We took several months preparing our submission for Tiny Brains.

Q: What can we expect from Spearhead Games once Tiny Brains is finished and released?

While developing Tiny Brains, we not only learned a lot about coop gameplay, we also accumulated a lot of ideas that didn’t find their way in the game, but were nevertheless very promising.  We hope to have the opportunity to push further the concepts we present in Tiny Brains.  But we also have several new game ideas that are very exciting to us and that we’d love to work on.  But for now we’re fully focused on releasing the most awesome game possible with Tiny Brains, so we’ll see once that’s done.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to tell our readers?

Thanks for reading!  You should definitely try Tiny Brains, it’s (even) more fun than reading this.  Just download the FREE trial on PSN!  If you don’t like it, you’ll get your money back, guaranteed! 😉  Couch coop is the best!

I would like to give a big thank you to Malik Boukhira for taking the time to answer my questions. Tiny Brains will be available on PS4 in North America on November 15 and in Europe on November 29th.