A peek behind the brains developing the upcoming 2D adventure, Burly Men at Sea
Now hard at work on its second title, Brain&Brain is, as its name might imply, a development studio comprised of precisely two brains: those belonging to David and Brooke Condolora. The two are both life partners and development partners; they are currently in development on their second game, Burly Men at Sea. Their first, a point-and-click adventure game called Doggins, was released in early 2014 and went on to pick up nominations for SXSW’s Gamer’s Voice Award and Indie Prize Best Mobile Game.
The Brain&Brain partnership began when Brooke was a freelance graphic designer and web developer, and David was an assistant editor at Pixar. “We’d always wanted to work on a creative project together, and had even chosen the name Brain&Brain, but we hadn’t yet found the right way to mesh our skill sets,” recalls David. “In hindsight, it was so obvious that we should make games; we both grew up with them, played them together all the time, and they perfectly meshed Brooke’s artistic skills with my technical background.” Eventually, they started work on a game, and that simple “just for fun” project became Doggins.
For its part, Burly Men at Sea began as merely a title, which Brooke developed a story around. The premise hasn’t particularly changed since the beginning: a trio of big, bearded fellows set out on a folklore-inspired adventure. The rest came together from research into sea-based Scandinavian folklore. “When we were living in Los Angeles a number of years ago, we somewhat jokingly talked about opening a coffee shop,” David says. “Somehow, the name Burly Men at Sea was thrown around, and Brooke sketched three bearded men sailing in a coffee cup. We never forgot the name, and when we talked about future games, it was quickly chosen as our next project.”
The duo eventually moved to San Francisco, where they did a mix of office and remote work (though they were almost always together in the same physical place). Some days they would work in a studio in their apartment, others at a coffee shop, and a couple of days a week they’d head to GameNest, a game developer co-working space in San Francisco. “Changing environments helped us stay focused and keeps us from getting too burned out,” David says. “We also found being part of a co-working space helpful for inspiration and shared knowledge. If I had a question about Unity, I could ask one of a number of Unity developers in the same room with me. It was extremely helpful when getting started.” That schedule has changed as the team has rolled onto BMaS, however: now they’re nomadic farmhands.
Here’s the thing: BMaS has been entirely self-funded so far, from savings and sales of Doggins. This has worked well in the sense that it’s allowed the team to work on the game full-time, but, according to David, it proved not entirely sustainable. “To stretch our money further, we decided to turn our lives into an adventure, and are now working part-time on farms around the United States in exchange for room and board through WWOOF USA,” he explains. “Not only did that cut our costs significantly, we’ve also seen new parts of the country and learned practical skills. It’s also been great to balance work on our computers with work with our hands, which is something we really believe in.”
As a working couple, David and Brooke as a complimentary duo: Brooke handles art and animation, and David does programming and sound design. “We’ve also found it helpful to designate one person as the project lead, so that differences of opinion are easy to resolve,” David says. To that end, Brooke is the project lead on BMaS, and is also writing the game; the plan is for David to be the project lead on their next game, and to keep alternating from there.
“Now that we’re both doing this full-time, it has definitely become more monetarily challenging,” Brooke says. “But, being a couple, we’ve had more flexibility to pursue creative funding methods, like WWOOFing together. It can also be difficult to limit work talk to working hours. But to be honest, we don’t try very hard—except at high-stress times—because we really do love what we’re doing.”
“As for working challenges, we get along surprisingly well,” she continues. “Disagreements do come up, but we deal with them collaboratively, and the game is usually better for it.”
An early reference for the game’s branching storyline was O. Henry’s short story, “Roads of Destiny.” It explores how small choices made by a character lead to different series of events with a single conclusion. Other story and character influences were Edgar Allen Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” the Kirk/Spock/McCoy triad of Star Trek, and Scandinavian folklore from books like Benjamin Thorpe’s 19th-century Northern Mythology.
The creators cite other, more contemporary influences on its approach as well: Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky Route Zero for its inventive narrative methodologies, and Zelda: Wind Waker for direction in making sea travel interesting (their conclusion: focus on anything but the sea travel).
The clean, beautiful visual storytelling of the game’s narrative scenes draws influence from Saul Bass’ innovative children’s book “Henri’s Walk to Paris,” as well as modern Scandinavian illustration, the colorful fishing villages and geography of Norway’s Lofoten Islands, Olaus Magnus’ Carta Marina, and the graphic approach of Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon.
The biggest criticism Brain&Brain received with Doggins was its length, which is something the duo is certainly keeping in mind this time around. “With that said, we also believe that short stories have their place, if they deliver a satisfying experience,” Brooke says. “Players enjoyed Doggins, but they were surprised by the ending, which meant that the story didn’t fully deliver.” So, while Burly Men at Sea will be a longer game, their focus remains on telling a solid story.
Indeed, time is a consideration very much of the essence on the development side as well. “I think that the only resource that matters anymore is time,” David says of his tiny team’s mission. “As a small team, it’s the one thing we constantly need more of, so the biggest lesson to learn is how to scope appropriately and do things efficiently. Efficiency is the easier and more enjoyable skill to develop.” Burly Men at Sea, for instance, has an all-vector-graphics pipeline, which has proven to be extremely efficient: one SVG file can contain an entire location pre-populated with objects, or all the frames of an animation. It also serves the dual purpose of making the game resolution independent, precluding the need for multiple sizes of every image for multiple platforms.
Not that making a game with two people is anything resembling easy. “Scoping appropriately is far more difficult [for us],” David says. “It’s hard to cut things out, and even harder to know how long the game will take to play through when finished. Is there too much content, or not enough? If we add a few more scenes, do we have the time to create all of the art assets we’ll need for them? We’re still learning how to be better at scope and project size. I think it’s something that comes with experience.”
One new feature the duo has implemented in BMaS is its innovative viewport mechanic, which, as far as they know, hasn’t been done before. “It’s exciting and completely terrifying to unveil a new storytelling method,” Brooke says. “We had no idea if players would love it or hate it, but we knew the response wouldn’t be neutral. Fortunately, the reaction to our first public demo was unanimously positive—and that was despite the early and still-rickety status of the mechanic, which we’ve since refined to a comfortable level of polish.”
Like Doggins, BMaS is a labor of love in more ways than one. “We’ve discovered that what we both love is telling stories,” Brooke says. “We had tried other outlets, both together and individually, but none captured our imaginations like games have. I guess our vision and design philosophy are summed up by what we call ourselves: quiet adventurers. We tend toward a minimalistic approach to life and what we make, but we have an insatiable desire to see and do more. I think this comes out in both of our games, but especially in Burly Men at Sea.”
Burly Men at Sea is available for pre-order now on the Humble Store.