It’s no secret that Sony is getting behind independent game developers in a big way this year. Their Playstation 4 console will have a solid dozen or so downloadable indie titles available on Day 1 and a total of more than 30 in the proverbial “launch window.” For some perspective, the PS3 launched in North America in 2006 with a meager 2 PSN games. This go ‘round, it seems Sony’s aiming to provide a prominent platform for smaller games upon their console’s launch, games that don’t trade in broadly recognizable franchises or high-end graphical marvels.
Tiny Brains is one of those games. The first ever release by Montreal-based indie startup Spearhead Games, Tiny Brains’ premise serves as a metaphor for the small studio’s big console launch opportunity. In the cooperative puzzle game, you and your fellow players take control of one of four lab animals, each of which has developed their own special power as a result of being experimented upon. Together you traverse levels and solve puzzles as you fight back against your laboratory overlords. The founders of Spearhead Games have backgrounds at big studios like EA and Ubisoft, and each has a specific skillset they’re contributing to Tiny Brains. It’s not that the staff at Spearhead is looking to stick it to their former triple-A employers, but they are striving to stand out and hold their own ground as independents. They trained in the labs and now they’re ready to show off their powers.
“It’s an amazingly exciting experience,” Tiny Brains game designer and Spearhead Games co-founder Malik Boukhira told me in an interview. “We’re treading new ground among the very few people who have knowledge of how the PS4 works. As an independent studio, it’s very stimulating to take up that challenge for our first game.”
Traditionally, launch games are built to show off the graphical power of new hardware, but indie games like Tiny Brains have to find more nuanced ways of proving why it makes sense to play them on next-gen machines. “We don’t have 50 artists on the team, we have 3. So it’s really about creating a new gameplay experience, something that’s innovative.” Though you might not expect it from an indie studio, Boukhira assured me that “there’s a lot of cool stuff we can do on PS4 that we couldn’t do on previous consoles.”
One way they’re attempting to distinguish themselves is through some of the PS4 controller’s unique design features. “Because each character [in Tiny Brains] has a different color, we use the colored lights on the PS4 controllers to indicate which character you’re playing. When you use your [special] power, the light will dim out and then come back when it’s ready.” Boukhira went on to add that they also use the controller’s on-board touchpad as “a sort of a pointer,” allowing you to “make an arrow appear and move it around the level and indicate things to your teammates.”
However, even with all of the excitement that comes with new consoles, Boukhira indicated that there are certain pressures that come from developing a launch game –pressures that are shared within Spearhead’s 12-person staff instead of spread out across a team of hundreds. “Everything has a direct impact on the game, so everybody has more responsibility on the project,” Boukhira noted, speaking of Spearhead Games’ non-hierarchical structure. “No one has [prior] experience working on PS4, so we had to learn all of the new things. Since we’re a small team, we don’t have specialists; everyone [needs to know] a bit of everything.”
While there is definite pressure on launch game development, Spearhead Games has also been granted some flexibility. Until late last week, Tiny Brains was slated to release day and date with PS4 on November 15, but the studio decided to hold back the game a week and a half for additional “polishing.” Boukhira felt confident that that was the right move to make, stressing that ensuring Tiny Brains is the most complete game it can be is more important than whether or not it shows up on a list of Day 1 titles. After all, for Spearhead Games, Tiny Brains is not just about the launch of new hardware, it’s the debut of their studio. Boukhira and team are staking their reputation on four genetically modified rodents going up against industry titans, which could prove to be a thought-provoking experiment in its own right.