IGM Interviews – Lisa Brown (Insomniac Games)

Now I know what you’re thinking: “Say what??? Insomniac’s not indie! Those are the people who make Resistance and Ratchet & Clank for crying out loud!” And while, yes, Insomniac is responsible for developing big budget AAA experiences on consoles, they are in fact an independent studio. I guess you could call them one of the “AAA indies” that have been categorized, since we now live in a world where “indie” doesn’t have to directly correlate to “no money.”

Okay, with that out of the way, today’s focus isn’t about the current big budget Xbox One experience the team is working on, titled Sunset Overdrive, it is instead centered around a new and exciting indie experiment from a small group of Insomniac employees: Slow Down, Bull.  Headed up by Lisa Brown, a designer at Insomniac, Slow Down, Bull is the team’s first experimentation with open development. This means that the entire game will be designed in the public eye, allowing for the general audience to tune in and comment about the process as they see fit, potentially even contributing to the game’s development. It’s a uniquely indie approach to game dev, one I’m glad to see a traditionally AAA developer embracing wholeheartedly. I spoke to Lisa about how the development process differs when moving from a large-scale project to one that only includes a handful of people, and also found out what gamers can expect from the upcoming, bullish title. I think it’s worth a read:

Indie Game Magazine: So first, how does the development process change once you scale down the team size, if at all? Does working on Slow Down, Bull have a distinctly different feel from developing, say, the upcoming Sunset Overdrive?

Lisa Brown: Oh yes, it is very, very different. I guess the most similar feeling between the two projects was when Sunset was in pre-production, since we had a smaller team then, but even then it was like a dozen or more people. With this, it started out as just me building prototypes on my own, and then getting input from people around the company. We only ramped up the team (“ramped up” to 4 people total) in the Spring.

But in both pre-production and on this project, there’s a lot more fast iteration, just discussing things with the team and throwing stuff in, and trying it and testing it and changing what doesn’t work, etc. But on a big project like Sunset, when you role into production, things get complicated. The further along things get, the more hard constraints fall into place.

With Slow Down, Bull we’re still going to reach a point where you can’t be changing stuff dramatically all the time, but you can be a lot more nimble for a lot longer, if that makes sense. Working in a big team on a AAA [game] is kind of like 80+ people all trying to brush each other’s teeth, and you only have like 5 handmirrors to pass around among you. It’s a huge juggling act of coordination, which can be fun and exciting, but also really, REALLY different than working on a small team or solo project.

The adorable Slow Down, Bull team. Lisa Brown (center), is the ringleader

IGM: For a lot of indie devs, open development is all about community feedback, and often results in features being added, adjusted, or sometimes removed entirely, depending on the community’s input. What does open development mean to Insomniac, and how can the community get involved with Slow Down, Bull?

Lisa: I think we’re being somewhat conservative? I mean, we definitely listen to and respond to suggestions in the dev streams (my favorite is when someone suggests something and the team immediately comes up with the same idea, only it gets to the stream 20 seconds later). However we’re not at a point where we’re like “hey community, tell us which feature to add next!” It’s something we’ve learned a lot from our console games, as far as needing to maintain a consistent vision for the game. I think for us the open dev is more about showing the process of development to the players, and occasionally that means saying “no we aren’t going to do that and here’s why.”

But we’re certainly learning as we go, and I love explaining to the audience exactly what sort of problem we’re trying to solve and hear their ideas, just to get a context for where they’re coming from. I do hope we can get some direct input as we go, like it’s a possibility that our community will help us name our bull in the end, but I’m not going to be like “hey throw out a bunch of name suggestions!” I want them to see the process of the game a little bit, and maybe get to know the character as well as my team does. If that makes any sense 🙂

(Editor’s note: Folks can also head over to the Forum discussion thread to give feedback as well.)

IGM: Where did the idea for Slow Down, Bull come from? It’s certainly a unique premise for an action game.

Lisa: It’s gone through quite an evolution, but it started out for me as an exploration of mechanics constraints. I picked two design constraints: I wanted to make a game that only used 2 buttons and see how much depth I could get out of it, and then I wanted to try playing with the idea that your input stops motion instead of causing it.

So the very earliest prototype was something moving forward, and you pressed a button and it stopped, kind of like a reverse runner, I guess? I themed it as a bull trying to avoid knocking people over because I was amused by the twist of a very cautious bull, instead of one that charges into everything. After that, things started layering through playing around and iterating. I wanted to give you a reason to NOT want to press the button, so that’s where the stress meter came in. Then we let the buttons also steer the bull, because just stopping and going was a little too limiting.

It went through many iterations before we even got to the bull collecting things, but each time I changed something I think I injected a little bit more personality into the bull: He was getting stressed out, not angry, he loved to collect things because they were beautiful, he was very cautious and didn’t want to knock anyone over because he was worried about being perceived as a big clunky, raging bull, and he wanted to collect the most things because he’s an overachiever, and that’s why the whole thing was so stressful, etc etc. I’d get these qualities in little bits, but it took quite a long time before I was able to coherently piece them together into the “story” of the bull.

I mentioned this last stream, but for a future stream I think I want to go through the prototype and show how it changed over time, just go into version control and sync to whatever it was at in a certain point in time and point out what changed and why. It might be interesting for people to see how it evolved. But as far as the mechanics, they were a little quirky and unusual, but we did a ton of playtesting which shaped them into something fun for people to do.

IGM: Actually, that sort of leads into my next question about presentation: Insomniac Games is indie at heart, but most gamers and indie developers know you guys as a premier AAA studio. Does the Slow Down, Bull team feel any sort of added pressure to set an example for the indie space on how to take open development and “do it right,” considering that many indies will likely look to you guys as a role model?

Lisa: Well, this is definitely a huge learning process for us as well. It’s funny that you mention the role model thing, because for this we’re looking to a lot of indie devs for inspiration, and for setting examples. Vlambeer in particular was what inspired me to pitch the performative development thing. So I guess if anyone ends up looking to us for an example, it’ll end up being one giant ouroboros of indie/AAA influence, haha!

It would be nice if other AAA studios might see this as an example of how they could do similar things with their own teams if they can. Like if they see us doing something experimental, then maybe others would feel comfortable trying it as well

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