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Game development can be a long, arduous process. Triple-A games can take years to produce, even with team sizes in the hundreds; with a smaller team, the development cycle can take even longer. Just look at Owlboy, the indie platformer that took nine years to develop or, on the other side of things, Duke Nukem Forever, which took 15 for various reasons.
Spearhead Games didn’t have years. Luckily the studio’s made a habit of creating games with a quick turnaround. Its latest game, Omensight, somehow hit platforms after just 18 months of development time, according to co-founder Malik Boukhira. Its previous title, Stories: The Path of Destinies, was made in 11 months. Taking it one step further, the team that worked these titles never exceeded more than 20 people.
“We have a reputation for being super fast,” Boukhira revealed in a recent stream on Gamasutra.
Although Spearhead has that reputation, Boukhira explained that it’s in spite of (and really, because of) small budgets. When you have limited funds to work with, it pays (no pun intended) to cut down on production time.
“One of the big reasons why we do games quickly is because at some point we run out of money. We have limited budgets so we have to do the most out of these budgets,” he said. “With the budget we have we try to be as smart as possible in how we create a good game.”
So what does that entail? Boukhira laid out how the studio cut corners, but still managed to engage with smart design. With Omensight, Spearhead created a game that was ready to ship and that they were proud of.
Omensight tells the tale of a powerful mage and warrior that experiences the end of the world. However, he has the chance to stop it by solving a murder mystery. With magic, hand-to-hand combat, and time manipulation, you can learn about the experiences of the dead while also visiting familiar locations.
"One of the big reasons why we do games quickly is because at some point we run out of money."
Boukhira said that one of the main things the studio did to save money was to reuse environments and other assets. Backtracking is common in games and developers use a lot of similar tricks to cut down on production time and funding, but a lot of thought has to go into how the assets are used.
For its previous game, Stories, Spearhead also reused assets, mainly by having players return to familiar locations, but the issue was that the studio didn’t do enough to ensure it felt exciting. Boukhira admitted that it felt repetitive to the player, which in a way exposed their trick.
“It didn’t break the experience except, at some point, by playing it a few times you start to realize ‘this is the same place again,’” he said. “At first you don’t realize, but the problem with Stories is the more you play it, the more that trick is revealed.”
So for Omensight, the team wanted to solve that problem.
“How can we make something that's reusable, replayable in a way that's still interesting and in such a way that we can optimize every hour we put in … without having to create a lot of unique content?” he asked.
Because of the game’s more open structure, which is essential if the player wants to feel like they have control over solving the mystery, Spearhead ensured that each path felt important and had a different outcome. There are a limited number of narrative branches, but each is designed so players are incentivized to try new routes and uncover new details. So even if the player had to go back to a previous location, there was variation.
“That's one of the challenges: make things that are versatile enough that they don't feel repetitive without being [an asset] that’s super expensive but yet you only see once,” he explained.
Boukhira gave a lot of credit to his art team for how they managed to create a distinct and appealing aesthetic without using a ton of money.
Omensight looks like a graphic novel come to life, so the colors are vibrant but the environments are generally monotone and flat. The characters are detailed, but are mostly seen from a semi top-down view.
"We control how much you can see and that saves 30-40 percent of our bandwidth when we're making the game."
It’s when you look closer that you can see the purposeful design. There are textures on the environments, but just enough to give the player a vision of rocks, or another material. Grass dots the landscape, but it isn’t overwhelming. It’s there just enough to support the idea of grass. This was all done to save money, but you couldn’t tell just by looking at it.
Boukhira said that the his art director came from a graphic novel background, but that didn’t completely impact the style.
“It's also a style that can be very cool, very expressive without requiring super detailed meshes and textures," he added. "It can still be very expressive and very fun to explore at the same time."
The player can control the camera in Omensight a bit, but for the most part, the game takes the reins. This is so the player knows where they need to go and what they need to observe, but it’s also a sneaky way to save time and energy. If you don’t have to animate an entire space, then that will save you time.
“Well first thing to know is if you don't have a free camera you don't have to art every angle in the world,” Boukhira said, pointing out some examples on the stream. “So you can’t see the ceiling in the room, nor can you see behind you and that's a trick to save art time.”
But as with reusing assets, Boukhira emphasized making sure that the choice seems purposeful. In Omensight, the camera, while out of the player’s control, does give the game a cinematic feel, which the developers liked. It also allows the player to see what they need to see.
“As you can see, it's still interesting from a visual perspective. It's more cinematic because we control the point of view,” he said. “We control how much you can see and that saves 30-40 percent of our bandwidth when we're making the game.”
With a small budget and small team, Spearhead Games needs to cut corners somewhere. However, what sets them apart from other obviously low-budget games, and what garnered their reputation for speed, is that each move -- whether it’s not animating a whole scene or reusing assets -- doesn’t distract from the game. It’s all done to enhance the game, not just to hit a monetary goal.
And the best part? When a player doesn’t notice.