Interview with Michael Stearns, Developer of Tiny Barbarian DX

Tiny Barbarian DX Giveaway

We’re venturing into new and exciting territory here on Pixel Pacas… Interviews! Since we have such adoration for independent and otherwise interesting games we figured this would be a nice new feature of the site. Hopefully you’ll enjoy reading the interviews too! Our first interview is with Michael Stearns, who alongside Daniel Roth and Jeff Ball, created one fantastically fun game by the name of Tiny Barbarian DX.

Pixel Pacas: How did StarQuail games get started? Were there any other independent developers you looked up to at the time?

Michael Stearns: We started quite a while back, though we had some trouble getting started and didn’t release anything until 2006. As we were working on those projects, I think the indie developer (as we’d call them) that I looked up to the most was Moonpod, they were really pushing for slick production values that not many indies were doing then. Generally I take a lot more inspiration from 16-bit console developers. Those were the games I loved and wanted to see more games like, I strongly believed there were a lot of people like me who wanted that, and I knew that those games were made by fairly small teams and couldn’t have taken too long to make, so I figured with current development tools we could do something similar. Of course, it turns out that making these games is a lot of work, so it took quite a while to really get going!

PP: The Tiny Barbarian DX Kickstarter was a success but was there ever a point you feared it wouldn’t make it? What do you think most drew people to the project to fully fund it?

MS: We had a really strong start, but it wasn’t timed very well, right before Thanksgiving weekend in the US. So on those first few days it showed every indication of meeting the goal, but the holiday really slowed things down, and I felt like maybe I’d ruined my chances by letting it get so close, and then Christmas would be coming up soon the next month. But I’d also looked a lot at other game Kickstarter projects and I’d seen that games that had a strong start tended to make it, the ones that didn’t seemed to be in trouble from the beginning, so I felt pretty confident.

I think the thing that worked for our game, and any game really, is that we had a game that people wanted to play. You just look at a thing and go “hey, I really want that.” There’d be moments in the trailer that just show those little touches, like deflecting an arrow or hopping on the cat or seeing the enemies climb up at the start. Coming at the game with a lot of “stuff” at that initial reveal makes a really strong impression.

PP: When designing Tiny Barbarian DX (or even the original Tiny Barbarian), what game-specific inspiration(s) did you pull from?

MS: Oh, there were quite a few! From a visual, thematic kind of standpoint I was thinking a lot about older arcade games like Rastan, Karnov, and Rygar. These are games that I have to admit I never really liked, but always found really intriguing, they had interesting settings. But for other stuff, probably the biggest inspiration was Shinobi 3, which had a fun up-close attack (I always wanted to use it instead of the ranged attack!) and kept the game feeling really diverse, like you’d ride on a horse in one level, or there’d be a big elevator in another, it always felt fresh and that’s what I tried to recreate. The elevator in Tiny Barbarian DX is a really cool set piece but it’s also a really obvious homage to Shinobi 3’s elevator. Instead of guys with guns crawling through the walls, I put in little guys with blow darts. (I always think of blow darts as a funny weapon for some reason!)

Tiny Barbarian Featured

PP: Conan the Barbarian is noted as one of the main inspirations for the game. What about the sword and sorcery world made you want to create a game in the same vein?

MS: It was actually Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser that got me into Sword & Sorcery, and what drew me in was because, see, in high school I had read all these sprawling epic stories like Wheel of Time in particular, and they just started to become tiresome. I still liked that sort of theme, but when I found S&S, maybe this is obvious, but it hadn’t really occurred to me that Fantasy didn’t have to be “epic,” it could be about these smaller-scale conflicts that are more personal. The stories were shorter, and in the cases of the ones I really liked–I may get in trouble here–better written! So I thought that was a bit like the old video games that I like so much, they’re much shorter but also much denser, and that’s what I like in a game. So it seemed like a good match, and I had never played a Conan game that I really liked, so I thought I’d try with a Conan-esque.

PP: What is it about pixel art that made it the perfect choice for Tiny Barbarian? Do you find the style equally, less, or more expressive than polygons?

MS: For Tiny Barbarian, besides the S&S concept, the other thing that inspired it was just making the character. This isn’t a good way to develop a game, but this is a case where the player sprite was the first thing I did. I had been thinking about how to do my barbarian-themed game idea, and I just thought it would be a funny interpretation of the character to make him so low res, and that’s really where the title came from, he has a very small presence on screen. And I think the “old” look of the game really meshes with the old feel of the pulpy serials that originally ran those stories. I would say you can definitely be more expressive with higher resolution art, either 2D or 3D, but it’s different–a high res character doing pantomime or not talking doesn’t feel right the way a low-def character does.

PP: How did you guys manage to make Tiny Barbarian DX’s music so awesome? What is your favorite track?

MS: That’s ALL Jeff Ball–he is the secret! He was already a fan of classic games but he spent some time researching the types of games he wanted it to sound like, and he would focus on the “feeling” that a certain section was meant to evoke. A really good example would be the Wizard battle theme, where I wanted this ominous quality to match my artwork, but he made a song that was surprisingly upbeat, because he felt it was important that the player not lose heart or be overwhelmed here. And I was resistant at first, but it was a great song and before long I couldn’t imagine something else playing there.

My favorite tracks are the dungeon theme, and then the palace, when you bust in through a wall and the music starts with that crash. Also all the boss themes, I really like those.

Tiny Barbarian DX Screenshot

PP: What were some of the first video games you ever played? What do you play today?

MS: Well, we’ll keep this brief! The very first game I remember playing was Frog Bog on Intellevision, which a friend of my dad owned. Later we’d get an NES, but the first game that really turned me on to games to the extent where I realized that video games were amazing and a thing I might seriously want to do and made me kind of obsessed was Sonic the Hedgehog, and later Gunstar Heroes. Last year (2013) my favorite games were Volgarr the Viking, Super Mario 3D World, and Pikmin 3. I turned into a Sega fan with the Genesis but these days I appreciate Nintendo more than ever. 🙂

PP: For all those who have yet to play Tiny Barbarian DX, why should they give it a try?

MS: Oh gosh I’m bad at this, this is why we have trailers and gameplay footage, you should be able to tell easily if you are interested just by looking! But if you love old school games, especially from the 16-bit period, then you should definitely give it a look. There are lots of games claiming to have been inspired by that era but not all of them actually capture the feel successfully, and I hope you’ll agree that Tiny Barbarian DX does!

Also we should mention the episodic style–three new episodes will be added to the game over time at no additional cost, they’re just free updates, so the game will continue to get more interesting. You can get it now and be ahead of the crowd!

Thanks for interviewing us and I hope you’ll love the game!

A big thanks goes out to Michael Stearns of StarQuail Games for allowing us to have an interview!

If you missed out on our Tiny Barbarian DX review you can check it out right here. Feel free to let us know how we can improve future reviews, or even suggest people that you would like to see interviewed!

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