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Black Pants Game Studio on Tiny & Big, Optimal Game Performance, and the Pareto Principle

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Here you can find the original interview on Indie Games Channel.

What would you do if some jerk ran off with the only precious heirloom your grandfather left you? Ok, that heirloom is a pair of underpants, but it’s still a precious memento. And really, why wouldn’t you spring into action when the thief is mocking you by waving trousers at you?

This is the wacky premise behind the Tiny & Big series from Black Pants Game Studio.

Tiny & Big’s tale is an ongoing saga, as the developers are tirelessly working to complete the series’ upcoming episodes. Even with a busy schedule that includes this month’s Independent Games Festival, the crew at Black Pants were kind enough to talk to me about the series, crafting great characters, the importance of having a diversely skilled team, and the future of Black Pants and Tiny & Big.

IGC: How long has the Tiny and Big series been in development?

Johannes Spohr (Engine Programmer): The prototyping began almost exactly 2 years ago, in February 2009. The first playable build of the slicing gameplay was running about 3 months later. We had planned to enter the IGF student showcase in October, but missed the deadline by more than a few days…the first public beta was released in March 2010. Somewhere around that release, we decided to form Black Pants Game Studio, and there was much rejoicing! We also decided it was beneficial for the game to become BFFs. Now, after working together for that long, we aren’t afraid of platonic male intimacy anymore. Thus Tiny & Big has made everyone of us a better human being, and has proven that game making does shape character!

IGC: The idea for the game is unique and the characters are a lot of fun. Where did the overall inspiration for Tiny and Big (the characters, the play mechanic, etc.) come from?

Sebastian Stamm (Creative Director/Comic Artist): I have always been a great admirer of games like Day of the Tentacle, Sam and Max, Woodruff, Hot Wheels (Commodore 64) and Earthworm Jim. They all had that certain cranky style, that made them special and self-contained. What made them different from a lot of games was their own visual language, a clearly elaborated and distinct, yet consistent cosmos. I can still look at those games and get the same tickling as from reading a comic book by Dave Cooper or watching Futurama. Plus, these games all had marvelous and unique characters and great stories. In general, that made and still makes them stand out from other games. So when developing the visual appearance, the style and characters of our game, I always tried to bear in mind what made me excited about the mentioned games for such a long time. So why is Tiny such a big weenie who enjoys technical handicraft? Weak characters have always been fascinating and more tangible to me, as they keep on struggling their way through the world extra-painfully. There’s much more interesting and weird potential for conflict in that than in other main characters. So it was pretty clear from the beginning that we didn’t want to make a game around a uberhuman with an universe to save. Tiny just wants his underpants back.

The inspiration for the look as a whole would be: indie comic book! I personally always wanted to see the look of a comic (means sound words, drawn outlines, speech bubbles and the flat colors) in a 3D videogame, without losing the individual smell of a drawn comic in a pile of straight rendered lines and vector art. Now, after more than one year in production, we have found ways to preserve the hand drawn feeling of a comic.

IGC: What have been some of the major pitfalls that the team encountered during the development cycle? Were there any unexpected obstacles the team may have run into during the game’s development?

Sebastian Schulz (Game Developer): Performance was a big issue for us. Give the player a tool that cuts a world into pieces, and some will do it without caring about the impact on the frame rate. One guy sent a screenshot where Tiny is proudly standing between hundreds of pieces he cut from one pillar. He was jolly about that this is possible, but the game became unplayable in the process.

So we did a lot of optimizations to prevent frame rate drops and pushed the boundaries of the physics engine forward. Now, the simulation and the rendering system are working concurrent on multi-core machines, and we use simplified proxies for collision detection. But in the end, with great power (in form of a bad-ass laser), comes great responsibility (for the player in the sandbox).

Use it and you can shape the whole world, but be careful not to destroy your way to the end of the level, or even crash the game. That’s the laserness of Tiny & Big!

IGC: One of the more difficult aspects of indie game development is marketing and creating an awareness of the game. Did you have trouble spreading the word about Tiny and Big and what do you feel is the most effective way to create awareness for indie games like the Tiny and Big series?

Christian Niemand (Programmer and Operating Officer): Yes indeed, creating an awareness of the game is a very difficult aspect for us. We as an indie developer don’t have a big budget to raise a huge marketing campaign. The only way for us to spread the word is a social media based marketing concept using the usually suspected platforms like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Indie DB and so on. Additionally, we have little experience in this marketing stuff. But what we’ve learned until now is that you need to be very present in the net. You have to find bloggers who are happy to write about you and your game. The bigger their community, the bigger the chance to reach people who will follow you on Twitter or subscribe to your news feed. Almost always, blogging people are very forthcoming and happy when asked to be added to our press mailing list. This list is only used for really important news and not for some kind of bullshot spamming. Our philosophy is to keep a great relationship to the blogging press and we try to make every update they get from us an important one. In addition to the blogosphere, you have the opportunity to administer a project page on the Mod/Indie DB platform and if you are busy as a bee in writing news and uploading media, you can constantly place your page in the top rankings and get featured on the title page. And title pages are very important to get more attention. A very good but rare chance to get press reports are competitions. If you are participating in one of them, the organizers will help promoting your game. And even if you don’t win any awards, the people are crawling through the participant lists and blog about their personal favorites.

Conclusion: Public relation and gentle exploitation of interested people is a continuous process and (d’oh) a lot of work. You cannot assume to reach every member of your target group by shoving one big marketing campaign down their throats.

IGC: What advice would you offer to aspiring student developers, like yourselves, in regards to developing an indie game?

Christian Niemand (Programmer and Operating Officer): At first they should make their own small projects to learn about programming, game design, project management and so on. The theoretical stuff which they get in university courses are very important of course, but it is essential to gain practical experience as much as possible. There’s one problem in particular, which comes up in almost every student project and we don’t exclude ourselves here. In many cases, students overestimate their skills, or rather underestimate the scale of their project. It’s very important to get a project finished and polished. If someone has a job interview, finished projects always make the biggest impression on the interviewer. When in an advanced state, the temptation is extremely high to put a project on ice, because you have several new ideas and the initial euphoria is mostly gone after a few weeks. But it is incredibly important to keep your focus. Bear the Pareto principle in mind. The last 20% to finish a project need 80% of the entire work time. So my first short advice is: Make as many projects as you can, but keep it as simple as possible!

The second thing we’ve learned, is that in most cases one person cannot master all skills which are necessary to create a videogame. At the beginning we were only two programmers and later three. Our entire content like models, textures, sound and music etc. was created by ourselves or grabbed from the internet. This resulted in a couple of programmer-art styled prototypes which are miles away from a seamlessly designed game. Besides, we lost a lot of time and did work we weren’t very good in and without experience. What I mean is, programmers should do programming and artists should be artsy. Focus your work on things you are good at and interested in. Since we’ve expanded our team by two professional artists, we improved the entire visual style and game design by an unbelievable factor. And furthermore, the artists have a very different point of view on topics like game design. As a programmer you often have an overly focused view on technical restrictions and that’s why you eventually eliminate a good idea before you get to the final thought. An artist usually has a more abstract view and does not care about the technical nerd blabber. Over the course of many spicy discussions, we always have to find a compromise. In many cases, the implementation of a teammates’ requirements seems impossible at first glance. But by further inspection, more and more light shines into the darkness, while we’re pushing each other over our personal skill boundaries. And sometimes, this results in an awesome new game feature. Therefore my second advice is: Build up a heterogeneous, skilled team with homogeneous goals.

IGC: What’s been the most enjoyable part of developing the Tiny and Big series?

Sebastian Stamm (Creative Director/Comic Artists): Working in a party of five humble gentlemen, that provide a genuine working atmosphere. Plus, having the biggest possible freedom for everyone of us. Plus eating pizza every Thursday at San Marino’s.

IGC: What are the future plans for Black Pants Games Studio? Are there any future projects that players can get excited about?

Sebastian Stamm (Creative Director/Comic Artist): After finishing the behemoth that is Tiny and Big, we are going to develop some smaller projects. Right now, we’re fully wrapped up with crafting Tiny & Big, but everyone on the team is tinkering with little game ideas and prototypes for the time after the production of Grandpa’s Leftovers (in their precious spare time, driven by the demon of game production mania!)

There will definitely be some additional levels for Tiny & Big after the release of the first episode. Just as with other games: I don’t want to reveal too much, but maybe you’ll find yourself in a Black Pants Game (TM) in which you command tons of zombies round the globe. Or fly a super customized space ship, that is very customizable. One of us is even mumbling about another comic related game about dusty coal…

To sum it up, we hope to be able to make unique and different games for the next few decades. So that in the far future, our clones will be able to go on doing the same thing.

IGC: When can players expect to play through the rest of the Tiny and Big saga?

Johannes Spohr (Engine Programmer): We’d really like to know that, too! It all depends on how much success Grandpa’s Leftovers is going to have, and how much of that success will be converted into money/food to supply our workforce. Unfortunately, we won’t have the pleasure to be supported by funding forever, and a semi-steady income is a long-term goal, at least for our non-crazy employees. So the future of Black Pants Studio, and thus of the aforementioned saga, very much depends on the next few months. If all goes well, one episode per 8-10 months would be a nice rhythm. This would put episode 2’s release around summer 2012. What players should expect, though, is a small side project from Black Pants hitting shortly after Grandpa’s Leftovers!

IGC: Thank you, Black Pants Game Studio, for taking the time to talk to us today!

Tiny & Big’s first adventure, Up That Mountain, currently has a demo available with the full version set to release later this year. Check out IGC’s impressions of Up That Mountain here. Tiny & Big has been named a Student Showcase winner at the 2011 Independent Games Festival.

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