TPG gets a bird’s-eye view of the episodic 2D platform action game, Tiny Barbarian DX.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Tiny Barbarian DX.
I’m Michael Stearns, and I’m the developer for Tiny Barbarian DX. I do all the game-specific code and scripting, and pretty much all the creative stuff besides music, which is done by Jeff Ball.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
I got started quite a while ago, with my friend Daniel Roth, who was working on a game with his dad at the time. They needed someone to do some art, and that ended up being me! That was way back in high school, and we always had ideas and plans for other ideas but didn’t really get going on that until we were out of college and started collaborating as StarQuail Games. Eventually I started coding myself, and we have the current split, where he makes the engine and tools and I do things with them.
Where did the idea for Tiny Barbarian DX come from?
This is actually a long story! A while back Daniel and I were working on an idea for a class-based Guantlet-type game, and Barbarian seemed like an obvious class, right? The trouble was that I had trouble coming up with a barbarian character that I liked. I didn’t really understand the appeal of that sort of character at the time. So I started doing “barbarian research,” reading some of the old fiction, Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser ended up being a real favorite, but of course, I really liked Conan, too! And I felt like Conan, like the real REH material, had this kind of under-exploited humorous side that isn’t really making fun of him, but is more like, there was just room for a more light-hearted take. So I started developing this barbarian character for some game or other. During Astroman’s development I had the thought to try to reduce him to the smallest possible size, and the result was really appealing. It all kind of spiraled from there!
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Tiny Barbarian DX?
Tiny Barbarian is definitely the most popular thing we’ve done, it’s been well received, and it was also the first game where I really cut loose and did what I wanted to do, so I think the big lesson here is to not hold back, and make a game that’s true to yourself. I also learned that I’m often not as fast as I thought I might be, so despite having done plenty of work on my own before, keeping myself motivated is always an on-going thing, even when it’s something I really care about. It’s easy to get bogged down and slack off! Bad me! Bad!
In its current form, how close is Tiny Barbarian DX to your initial vision?
As I developed the game I tended to come up with ideas on the fly or forget about old ones as they became less interesting, so I can’t really say, my vision changes as the project does. I am not sure what the original vision was anymore, how different it might have been. But I’m very happy with the look of it and of the characters, so in that sense it feels like what I wanted all along.
Some devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game. Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Tiny Barbarian DX and if you faced a similar challenge.
Tiny Barbarian DX was going to be very hard from the outset, and we tested it quite a bit to help iron out the roughest spots before release and I think I hit it pretty well, many users have had positive feedback in that area. There were a couple spots that I did change based on user feedback, and the big addition was a game save mechanism, which doesn’t really make the game easier (the opposite, I think!) but it does make it more approachable for players with limited time. I was really delighted to see the changes made to the boss with the whip and bombs come together for new players. He’s still difficult, but when I started only I could beat him!
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Tiny Barbarian DX would run on the various PC system configurations?
The game is made in XNA/Monogame, so much of the compatibility stuff was taken care of us in advance, provided the minimum system requirements are met. Despite being a retro game, it’s all a cheat, there’s no way the game could run on 16-bit hardware the way it was made, and it makes use of some very basic pixel shaders (Monogame won’t run without them) so even though those are very old standards by now, there are still some computers and laptops that don’t have them, even ones that are made somewhat recently. For those people I’m sad to say but it’s time to upgrade!
We also had some gamepad trouble early on due to being overly-trusting of what came built-in with Monogame, and for whatever reason that ended up being really unpredictable, a controller that worked on one system wouldn’t work on another, and Daniel ended up needing to build us a new input system.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Tiny Barbarian DX.
From our earliest development, we aimed for higher-res graphics. I remember being shocked to see how old 16-bit games actually looked on a PC monitor, and all the tricks that a standard def TV took advantage of to make them look better than they really were. When we did Sky Puppy, for instance, we aimed for 640×480 resolution, which isn’t big today, but it was over double what you’d expect for a “pixel art” game at the time. After that I started doing art in Flash, and trying to keep it from looking too “Flash-like,” and I think we were pretty successful with Astroman.
But in Astroman I really tried to preserve the look and feel of a retro game while keeping the graphic quality high, so I already had that going when I started Tiny Barbarian. For DX, I tried to make the color somewhat distinctive, and looked at a lot of Frank Frazetta art to borrow color schemes from. I really wanted it to look authentic, both as a retro game and for its subject matter.
The music was done by Jeff Ball, who also did the Astroman soundtrack. From the getgo I knew I wanted a rock-type of soundtrack, not anything classical. I was listening to lots of classic rock, especially Rush, and thinking “this is the right sound for the game!” Jeff really wanted to do chiptune music though, and he has really good sensibilities when it comes to this sort of thing, and the songs he made are really incredible, they really nail the feel. There would be times when he’d give me a song and I’d be like “no, this doesn’t work at all” but then I’d listen to it more and come back and say “ok it won me over after all.” He really knows what he’s doing!
The level design in this game is a little tricky! It needs to feel like an action game, of course, but it also tells narrative so the various rooms, despite being made of blocks, need to have a certain sense of place and make sense in context. It’s a bit of a hard thing to balance, but when it works the effect is really satisfying.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Definitely there’s a sense of isolation. I know a lot of indie developers are really good at sticking together to combat that, but I’m not very good at it to be honest, so it’s pretty often that I feel like I’m going crazy all by myself. You definitely need to be able to feel like what you’re doing is worthwhile on your own, it sounds easy at first but sometimes it can be really rough. Having customers who are really excited about the game really helps a lot!
How did you go about funding Tiny Barbarian DX and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
Tiny Barbarian DX was a Kickstarter project, though I had done a lot of work beforehand. My friends and family were really blown away by the support it got, and many of them contributed. Even some who were, I think, Kickstarter skeptics before, once someone they knew had done one, I think it opened up their eyes a bit to what the system is about and who could be on the other side of it. My family especially, I think, they’ve always been supportive of me, so even though the Kickstarter was a pretty modest success all things considered, seeing how many people were interested and willing to chip in, even if they weren’t interested in games I think it gave them a better appreciation of what I’d been up to.
Can you tell us why you chose to release a demo for Tiny Barbarian DX?
The demo for Tiny Barbarian DX isn’t really a demo, it’s more like a free prototype version that I just made for fun, at the time I didn’t know for sure if I would make something bigger out of it. I haven’t actually released a demo for DX, which is different on a lot of levels, but in general, if people like that first game, they’re going to love DX, there are improvements in every category.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Tiny Barbarian DX professionally?
I certainly value them, but I also don’t worry about them. As a consumer I have a tendency to blow off reviews that disagree with my views, like I’m more likely to read reviews for entertainment or to feed my existing excitement for something. Like if a reviewer doesn’t like a game but I still think it looks cool, I’m all “what does that guy know?” It takes a really strong review to actually change my mind, I always want to judge things for myself! But as a professional I definitely do value their opinions, but the comments that are likely to actually spark changes are just as likely to come from testers or end users, and I hear from them all the time!
How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?
I like it! I’ve bought a bunch of bundles myself, but I also view it as kind of “racing to the bottom.” Of course, not everyone pays the minimum amount, and it’s great for promotion but I kind of feel like things like that need to be timed right. I haven’t done it yet but I’m interested, of course!
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
I have to admit I don’t really know what the whole industry is doing. I’m in a lucky position to be able to work with whatever DRM models are out there, either always-on or whatever, so I’m more interested in it from a game industry “narrative” perspective than something that I feel really effects me. But I know I’m an exception here, most of the games I want to play don’t have DRM on them in the first place.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Tiny Barbarian DX?
This kind of goes into the DRM area as well. There’s definitely a sense from developers, I think, that they need to protect what they make and depending on the video it might not be any different from their perspective to just giving someone a copy of the game. For TinyB, though, I support it. People want to show off, because it’s a hard game, and I definitely want to support that! In my case there’s no doubt that awareness is the big thing, if there are Tiny Barbarian clips on YouTube, even of the whole game, the awareness is good for me. Again, I’m going to trust my consumers, people who want to buy the game will turn off the video before it spoils too much for them, if that even matters for them. And of course there are three more episodes still to be released!
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
Again, I’m not sure what the current trend is. Most games I want to play have very little DLC, if any at all. I’m pretty neutral on this. But if I buy a game and I like it, and now I can buy more of that game, then I think that’s great, I haven’t had a bad experience or played a game where I felt too much of it was walled off via DLC, because, well, I don’t give those games my money! This actually ties to Tiny Barbarian DX, because of the episodic format. I’m effectively giving away the DLC for free, but really, customers know that going in, so they’re paying for it up front. It’s my hope that it works out, obviously!
How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Tiny Barbarian DX?
Honestly I wouldn’t like it for Tiny Barbarian. If a person is able to mod TinyB, they may as well just fire up Game Maker or something similar and make their own game. There are SO many tools out there that make game making so much more approachable, it is, after all, what got me going on it myself. I do appreciate the enthusiasm that modders have but for me, I’m much more interested in seeing what original games they’d make themselves. Of course, some mods are essentially new games in themselves, so there’s that side of it too.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
I think I’d have to say–and this is more for people who are just starting out, I’m the worst person to be giving “business advice”–to just go for it, dive on in! As I said above, it was a big change for me to begin doing programming myself and the results have been great. If I have a regret in life, it is not learning to code sooner. So even if you feel like you can’t draw or can’t code or can’t make music or whatever, if you feel like that’s holding you back, then just learn, get that over and done with, because you might surprise yourself with what you can do.