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Monday
Nov262012

Mini Muscle Man: Michael Stearns & Tiny Barbarian

As mentioned a week ago, Tiny Barbarian DX - the sequel to the absolutely lovely Tiny Barbarian - is up and running as a Kickstarter campaign, hoping to garner enough support to make it to release. As a long-time fan of the diminutive warrior, I got in touch with Michael Stearns of StarQuail games to talk a bit about the making and history of his once-freeware, now-hopefully-profitable franchise.

As a reminder, if you haven't played the original Tiny Barbarian, you still can, for free, and you should, because it's grand.

EG: Alright, let’s start with the basics. Who is Michael Stearns? What is StarQuail Games? Give me the short history.

MS: Well, I’m just this guy, you know? StarQuail Games is me and my friend Daniel, who started working on games in high school together. We didn’t release anything under that name until several years later, and that was Sky Puppy, which we entered in a contest for one-switch games and placed pretty highly in (8th out of over 100 entries, I think). That was in 2006. The game we’re probably best known for was Astroman in 2010.

So Daniel and I are both from a small town in Washington. In 2010 I also moved to the Seattle area and took some classes in 3D modelling, thinking I’d get a real job making games, but the current state of the industry just really didn’t excite me, and at the same time I was making Tiny Barbarian on my own, so it was hard to stay interested in the direction the classes were pointing me. Shortly I had to find some kind of work again, but eventually the urge to make games took over and I started Tiny Barbarian DX.

EG: What inspired you to make the first Tiny Barbarian? It obviously draws its fictional inspiration pretty directly from The Frost Giant’s Daughter, but were there specific gameplay inspirations?

MS: I certainly have influences, but from a gameplay perspective I don’t think I drew on anything really specific. It’s a pretty simple game, after all, just jumping and swording! There were a couple indie titles that were really inspirational to me, Arvoesine and Star Guard, in terms of creating a shorter type of game. Really I just gave a character a sword and did what felt natural to me, though “what felt natural” certainly comes from playing tough old games like Ninja Gaiden and Megaman.

[Tiny Barbarian] DX on the other hand has some more deliberate stuff that I had always wanted to include, like how enemies can be bashed into one another like so many Treasure games, and I had recently played Shinobi on the 3DS, which is a really brilliant game, and I wanted to incorporate some elements of its flexible combo system. Other stuff, like being able to deflect arrows (and other things), was just something people asked for in the first game, though there are lots of games I love that allow you to do that sort of thing.

EG: The words “Treasure” and “Shinobi 3DS” make me very happy in that answer. (Shinobi 3DS really is pretty great.) Also “swording” is a great word!

How long did Tiny Barbarian take you to put together? Even though as you say, it was pretty short and “simple”, the level of polish was pretty high, for a freeware title.

MS: It took about three months. A lot of the art was done prior to development so I had a little head start there. I had woken up one day and thought “I wonder how small a barbarian I could make” and that’s kind of when the design occured, I ended up making a lot of the enemies at that time as well. At the time I didn’t know if I’d ever actually put those sprites and backgrounds in a game, I was just having fun.

But that’s part of why the polish was so high, having set a kind of target with the graphics, the programming had to match, it wouldn’t be any fun if it looked good but played sloppy. I was a real nuisance at the TIGSource forums around this time, I had a lot of questions. :)

EG: I’m glad you stuck it out. So, Tiny Barbarian DX. You announced back in August that the little guy would be coming back for a sequel. When did you start working on it? Did you always plan to do a second installment, or was that a decision you made after people responded to the first game?

MS: I had done planning for multiple stories right from the beginning, but even after I finished the first game, I wasn’t sure I’d do another, there are so many low-fi games out there, after all, but people had responded so well to it that I decided it was worth exploring some more. I started coding it again in February 2012, and it was really slow going. I had begun “teasing” bits and pieces of the game on my twitter and made a little website for the new game, but I didn’t really do a real announcement until the Kickstarter.

In August I put a video together to show to other developers at a Seattle indie games event, and thinking (vainly) that perhaps some of them would want to watch the clip again from their own homes, I left it public, but someone found it and shared it and the next thing I knew it was all over the place! That and the positive response other developers had really gave me the confidence to work towards the Kickstarter and go full time.

EG: Speaking of multiple stories, the episodic format you’ve picked for Tiny Barbarian DX seems to line up with the pulp nature of the original Conan material, and The Frost Giant’s Daughter translated pretty smoothly into a game. Will you continue to parallel Robert E. Howard’s stories? Will we be seeing Tower of the Elephant in there, or Hour of the Dragon? Or are we off on all new adventures?

MS: They’re kind of a mix of all-new and “heavily inspired by.” Officially that’s as close as I want to be, because I do plan on selling this one, and of course I want to do my own ideas, too. Part of what makes Tower of the Elephant so great is that it establishes a lot about Conan as a character, and the savage vs civilization motif. You aren’t going to see that in Tiny Barbarian, but you will get to climb a tower!

EG: Aren’t the Conan stories public domain? I’d hope you wouldn’t be in trouble using them. Regardless, I’ll take what I can get.

MS: I think they are -- I actually looked into this a while back -- but it seems kind of murky, not many people seem to have a clear idea of what stories are public domain and what aren’t, and as far as what elements have been “trademarked” and are therefore off-limits. Mainly to me, there are still official adaptations (lots of comics, in particular) being made of the Howard material, so I don’t want to get too close to that.

EG: Fair enough. Since Tiny Barbarian came out, the 2D action platformer has come back into vogue a bit - Rayman Legends and New Super Mario Bros U are going to be big holiday games this year, and stuff like Mark of the Ninja and Dust: An Elysian Tale dominated X-Box Live Arcade this year. Is it suddenly a crowded market? Or does the added popularity of the genre help? Tell people what makes Tiny Barbarian DX stand out.

MS: I think it’s a good thing, I don’t think those games are really crowding the market (there are certainly not enough mainstream 2D titles to keep me happy!), and if anything they’re bringing in new players or reminding old ones how fun those sorts of games can be, which is good news for everybody. What I think stands out about Tiny Barbarian most is the setting, being inspired by that kind of pulpy sword and sorcery vibe, and the delivery mechanism with new episodes is also pretty unique, at least in a low-priced game like this. What I worried about initially was really more on the indie side of things, there are so many low-fi platformers out there, that’s something that’s harder to stand out against, but Tiny Barbarian is still pretty visually and conceptually distinct, and the idea of the character seems to have a lot of appeal.

EG: Agreed. It’s weird that there haven’t been more Conan games, honestly; though I know that there have been a few, just not very good ones. Maybe making him very very small is the secret! (Actually, now that I say it, I might not be kidding; Tiny Barbarian being tiny probably allows for a much more epic-feeling scene in a 2D space.)

MS: There’s definitely something to that. I did do some experiments with a larger character and it really was a completely different-looking concept that didn’t really have the same appeal. I’d like to tackle it again sometime, but it wouldn’t really be Tiny Barbarian!

EG: Speaking of price and distribution, 2012 has pretty much been The Year Of Kickstarter. Talk a little bit about your decision to use it for Tiny Barbarian DX, and what the early reaction to that has been (if it’s not too early to say).

MS: I don’t know, we might come back next year and say that 2013 was the Year of Kickstarter! I have certainly been encouraged by the recent successes on it, but I planned to do something with it from the moment I heard about it, which, it turns out, was back in 2009. (Yikes!) It really is an exciting thing, what it means for creators and consumers alike, I’m not going to go on about the potential of a glorious post-kickstarter future, but it’s hard not to be excited about the possibilities.

That said, I mainly went with Kickstarter because it is kind of the thing to do! It’s low-risk for everyone involved, and it’s big enough that just by being on it, you attract people that you wouldn’t normally have -- a lot of my backers have come from people who browsed to it on Kickstarter or saw it under staff picks, more than those who came from any other individual referral so far.

Early reaction was fantastic, and I’m still getting over how it did right out of the gate. People really do seem excited about it, and I’ve been blown away by the backers from outside the US -- Tiny Barbarian has players all over the world! That said, it hasn’t been one of those Kickstarters that backs immediately in just a few days. Things also really slowed down over Thanksgiving, unsurprisingly. I don’t know if the current lull is because of that, or if it was more the natural course of things. Regardless, it’s over halfway there, and I know we can do it, but I’m going to be slightly neurotic until it’s over.

EG: Understandable. I’m glad to see it get off to a strong start, though. I have something of a Kickstarter addiction, so I can never tell whether my impulse to back a thing is indicative of how others will take to it. Looks like at least in this case, I’m in good company.

Anything else before we wrap up? Feel free to tell people anything you like that we didn’t cover about yourself, your game, StarQuail, your thoughts on badminton, whatever.

MS: Badminton is really fun! The unique aerodynamic qualities of the shuttlecock really make it stand out against other racket-based sports. I’ve seen an interesting game set that I can’t remember the name of which uses a ball with tendrils that can be attached in different positions to create drag or unpredictable movement. Badminton is a pretty old game, but people are still creating interesting variations on it!

But also, seriously, thanks for the interview, and thanks to all your readers for their support! It gets cornier every time I say it, but every “tiny” bit helps!



Indeed. Thanks to Michael Stearns for taking the time to talk with me about Tiny Barbarian DX - I'm excited to jump back in those tiny sandals and wield that tiny sword. If that sounds good to you, too, head over to Kickstarter and chip in. 22 days to go. Let's get tiny.

This interview also appears at Colony of Gamers, which is a site full of great people that you should visit.

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