Episode 305 — Tarsier Studios — Little Nightmares
Episode 305 — Tarsier Studios — Little Nightmares
Tarsier is an independent game studio situated in Malmö, Sweden. They are the developers of Statik and the award winning Little Nightmares franchise.
Founded in 2004 as Team Tarsier, the team eventually changed their name to Tarsier Studios when they released their first two projects involving SCE properties in 2009. They’ve shipped the following games: Little Big Planet (1, 2 and 3), Rag Doll Kung Fu, Tearaway Unfolded, Little Nightmares (1 and 2), Statik, The Stretchers.
In this Podcast, Tarsier’s creative team talks about the inspiration behind their award winning Little Nightmares franchise, adapting production to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and the future of games in VR.
[04:39] The Tarsier Team’s Introductions
[07:02] The History of Tarsier Studios
[09:06] Diversifying Game Publishing
[17:46] The Inspiration Behind Little Nightmares
[24:44] Coming Up with the Look of the Game
[31:24] Adapting to COVID-19 and Its Challenges
[33:13] The Importance of Soft Skills
[39:27] VR Games and Statik
[42:47] The Team’s Contributions to Little Nightmares
EPISODE 305 — TARSIER STUDIOS — LITTLE NIGHTMARES
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 305! I’m sitting down with the creative team at Tarsier Studios, the one responsible for the video game Little Nightmares. We talk about the inspiration behind their award-winning series, adapting production to the times of COVID, and the future of games, including in VR.
I’m super excited to dive into this interview. Tarsier is based in Sweden. I only recently discovered this game and its creativity blew me away! I thought it’d be fun to sit down with some of the creative team. We talk about a lot in this Podcast!
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
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INTERVIEW WITH TARSIER STUDIOS
[04:39] Allan: Alright, guys! Thanks for taking the time to chat! Do you want to quickly introduce yourselves?
Nicklas: I can go first. I’m Nicklas Cederström. I work as a Game Director at Tarsier Studios. I’ve been in the gaming industry since 1998. I’ve worked at Massive for 15 years. I was a Creative Director for the Division. And now I’m a Creative Director / Game Director for an unannounced secret project at Tarsier.
Rory: Hey, Rory Sweeney. I’m an Animator at Tarsier. I’ve been animating for games for 6 years, I’ve been with Tarsier for 3 years, if you can believe that! Time flies! I’ve mainly worked on Little Nightmares II, and now working on the unannounced project.
Camilla: My name is Camilla Carstensen. I’m an Associate Producer at Tarsier. I’m also the Manager for our Art Team, for two of these routy people in this meeting. I’ve been working at Tarsier for almost 3 years. I was the Associate Producer for Little Nightmares II, and now I’m working on the unannounced project.
Ole: I’m Ole Josefsen. I’m a 3D Artist at Tarsier. I’ve been here for 2 years and it’s my first job in the industry. I’ve done some internships before then.
Domenico: I’m Domenico Favaro, I’m an AI Programmer. I’ve been in the industry for almost 7 years, for 2 years at Tarsier. I’ve worked on Little Nightmares II, on the monsters. And I’m working on the unannounced project.
Dave: Yeah, I’m Dave Mervik. I’m the Narrative Director. I’ve been at Tarsier since 2010. I’ve been in the industry for 20 years now. I am also working on the unannounced project which is called…
[07:02] Allan: I appreciate it, guys. What’s the history of the company? How did it get started and grow into where you are now?
Dave: I can do it! I’ve told the story a million times! One time, I may tell a fake story: “So, we were in Paris…” I wasn’t here when the company got started by a team of students called Team Tarsier. They were all part of a game incubator. They had this idea for a prototype for a City Metronome which became the very early prototype for Little Nightmares. They took that prototype to E3 in 2004. Everyone loved it but no one signed them up. They all took a trip to LA and came back sad. That put them in touch with Mark Healy and that led to their relationship with Media Molecule [MM]. They’ve been around for a long time. When we got our own installment of Little Big Planet, you can see there was something unpleasant trying to sneak out of the IP. It’s such a charming, delightful world, but we still managed to make it feel upsetting.
[09:06] Allan: I really love that about your games. You have this cute but dark approach. My wife bought me an Xbox for Christmas and we ended up playing Little Nightmares. With Rag Doll Kung Fu, is that what put Tarsier on the map? It was a pretty big hit and it led to Little Big Planet. How was that received?
Dave: I’d heard of Rag Doll Kung Fu before I’d heard of Tarsier. In comparison to my first job, I’ve never heard of anything they’ve done. That was actually cool because I’ve played Rag Doll Kung Fu. It showed that they could ship a game and pull off physics. They gave it their own flavor. You never see sometimes what the company has been working on.
[11:39] Allan: In terms of a timeline, who is the oldest employee?
Rory: Little Nightmares II is when most of us would be when we came on.
[11:45] Allan: Going back to what you were saying about working on a project and not knowing if it would be picked up. I’m curious about the general atmosphere of the industry. I’ve worked on Half-Life and BioShock. It’s only been in the last 10 years where you have a marketplace for your game. What has it been like in your previous experiences working in games? Do you feel like it’s a little bit more competitive where there is a chance now for the little guy to get some attention?
Camilla: I think definitely! It’s becoming more available for indie developers if they have something interesting and unique. All these publishing channels make it easier. You don’t need the big publishing or the big marketing. If you make something small and it starts trending on YouTube, a publisher can pick you up. So even the smaller companies can get a piece to go through development.
Rory: For sure! I’m from a place where there are a bunch of small studios. I’ve been part of both. You always run a certain risk when you develop a game with a small team, but you have a chance.
[14:04] Allan: Obviously, you’re an international group of people. How often do you recruit international artists, world wide?
Rory: Dom knows a lot about visas.
Domenico: I’m the only non-European here. There are a lot of nationalities on the team, mostly all over Europe. It’s been fun, you feel included! Everyone loves video games and which is why we love working together.
[15:10] Allan: I was reading about Little Big Planet that Tarsier tended to pull a lot of people from the community who would be, say, building maps. For all of you, have you found that to be an organic way to get the attention of developers, in that tight knit community? To build a lot of content but also get a chance to get recruited through that content?
Dave: I remember when that started happening with Little Big Planet. It felt so new at the time. The people who loved the game and devoted so much time to creating that game — completely unpaid — purely out of passion, they started to get their dream shot. It felt like a cool turn for the industry. That’s so common now! MM started doing that with LBP creators. I don’t even know if that’s a sneaky way anymore. It’s becoming more of a standard. If you want to work on the game, show us a module or something cool you’ve done with our tools. Back then, it was really fresh. I was a fan of LBP. I had a bunch of creators and I looked for that stuff. I had a fanboy feeling. It feels a lot more democratized. Very cool!
[17:46] Allan: At the same time, it lines up so well. Obviously if you’re doing free content for that game, it means you’re passionate about what you do. Leading up to that, you’ve all worked on different games. Where did Little Nightmares come from? It has that cute little style but you’ll get scared playing it. My wife showed me a TikTok video screaming at the game in the dark. Job well done! What’s the backstory?
Dave: Little Nightmares started in a bunch of little ways. You can trace it to City Metronome. It was toward the end of our working on LBP and we started daydreaming about what kind of game we wanted to create. We wanted to create a game where gamers were left alone. We had a tech of the doll house and then the concept team did some unbelievable sketches. It was all these things coming together. We had some money come in. As things grew, we had to have a game design document. For weeks, we sweated together putting the world together and how it would feel. (For some of the money, it had to feel European. “Definitely Kafka-esque!”) Then it became its own thing.
[21:59] Allan: How would you, guys, describe it? Is there a coin phrase to describe it? “Cute but f-ed up”?
Camilla: Atmospheric, I guess.
[22:30] Allan: For me, a lot of the design feels like French animation. You’ve mentioned that there were a lot of concepts bouncing around? What was the inspiration for the look and the feel of the game?
Rory: I can go on all day about that! For the two camps, the player and the monster animation. The monsters are a bit wrong. They’re sort of stop motion and don’t make sense. We’re talking about Jason and the Argonauts stop motion stuff. It just taps into something super cool. For the players, there were a lot of Ghibli references, like Mononoke and Spirited Away. Super nice focused movements, less Disney.
[23:59] Allan: I love that! It works so well in design. Did it take a long time to lock it down?
Rory: I didn’t work on the first game. I joined the second game and adapted to that style. I had to follow a blueprint and it took a long time to acclimatize.
[24:44] Allan: With the character design, where did you get the inspiration for that? It’s so beautifully designed! The look is really elongated and very wrong. Where did you get these ideas?
Camilla: I think it’s a collaboration between different disciplines. Our Art Director will give it to our Concept Artist who will then start to come up with ideas. You look at them and think, “How?! I could’ve never come up with that!” It’s fascinating to see happen. With the visual design, they have a great collaboration. It will take some reiterations to find the perfect look after.
[26:16] Allan: In terms of designing the game, what’s your typical process from concept to completion? How many phases does it go through?
Rory: I think I speak for all of us: Things are found at the last moment. Is this too scary? Too funny? Too long? It goes between different departments for a long time.
Nicklas: We’re mostly working on a new concept during the pandemic. That has been challenging. Working during production is easier than starting up a project. I’ve started up many projects! But this one has been challenging because we’re doing Zoom meetings and you can’t get the energy floating back and forth in the room. Now, you have a lagging webcam, or people are talking at the same time. That’s been really challenging, actually! I long for the time when we can get back to the office. It feels too stale now. There is no dynamic nature.
[28:37] Allan: I’ve talked with Pixar and ILM. I was surprised to see how they were able to move 2,000 employees to their homes and have them work via VPM. Taking your creative process, how did you find that creative flow while working from home?
Dave: Weird! It’s been really weird. Like Nicklas was saying, there is so little dynamism. All you have is this little box. You don’t have the real time conversation. The practicality of getting everyone home is one thing, but it’s the other stuff — the soft stuff — that has been challenging, at least from my perspective. There is nothing better than bouncing your ideas off of someone as you walk past their desk. It’s been weird.
Dominico: I feel like we were fast to send everyone home. We were finishing Little Nightmares. On the tech side, we understood this is what we had to do. The moment that we had to start a new project and the brainstorming, and creating meetings, we really had to adapt.
[31:24] Allan: Knowing that you had your unknown project, I imagine there were some concepts kicking around. What has it been like to move into development of the new project during quarantine?
Camilla: I think it demanded a lot of planning from producers. There’s been a lot of things up in the air. When we started this project, ideally we’d like to have everyone in the same room. Instead, we had to drop in and drop out of different calls. You really just lose touch with people. It’s not something I’d like to repeat in the future.
Dave: We kept hearing that a lot in the early phases. “If it weren’t for Corona times, we’d send you off to a castle. But instead, we have to do it this way.” It’s supposed to be this period of such high energy. Instead, it’s all in this little box.
[33:13] Allan: I imagine some of the concepts will be: Big open spaces and people congregating. You, guys, mentioned soft skills earlier. I’m curious about your company culture. I’m always nerding out about not necessarily hiring the best person, but hiring the best person for the team.
Nicklas: They do need to show the skills that we’re looking for, obviously. That differs from studio to studio. At Tarsier, we have a unique style. We work with the design department. We’re in the process of hiring right now, by the way, so if you’re a game designer — call us! We’re looking for more traditional game designers but we’re interviewing really competent people. They may not be the right fit for our studio, but they get to meet more people. If their personality fits at Tarsier, that definitely helps.
Dave: We used to do these weird psychological tests at one point.
Camilla: When was that?!
Dave: It was way before all of you, nice people, showed up. I used to walk past the room where it was happening. I thought it would put people off. But what we do now is do a studio interview: The same people in every interview, so we can make a recommendation. We’re trying to be ourselves as much as possible and have them be themselves. It’s been really good. Most of the people have been a good addition and it doesn’t mean that everyone has to have the same opinion. But cool chemistry is important.
[36:57] Allan: Are there any typical red flags? I feel like a lot of people aren’t aware of these things.
Camilla: Something that can put me off is if people are constantly trying to speak over you. It doesn’t help to do it online either due to the lag. That is what I find off-putting. It’s amazing how we can hire internationally. Once COVID has passed, we do want people to relocate to the area. It’s a basic thing. If someone is not within a one-hour commute, we ask if they can relocate.
[39:27] Allan: Have any of you been tied to Statik? It’s such a different game with VR. What was it like to work on?
Dave: Amazing! That would be me again! It was a fantastic project to work on. It’s been my career favorite, in my entire career. It was the perfect sized team (10-12 people). Sony was strategic, but they gave the funding and left us alone. There was a lot of creative freedom. There was no safety net for any discipline. I was a writer on that. I had to do it. Everyone had to step up and deliver. We had to communicate well. We couldn’t blow it. It was super invigorating creatively speaking!
[50:09] Allan: What were some of the challenges on the project?
Dave: There weren’t any people checking up on you. You had to keep up the motivation yourself. When you work with external publishers, you get that reality check. But with this, we had to come up with our own motivation. We’d go, “Am I wrong here? I think this line is funny.” It was the first time we stepped out on our own. We were also self publishing it.
[42:47] Allan: What are your thoughts in terms of VR as a platform?
Dave: I love it from a storytelling side of things, in terms of what you can do and how you can mess with a player. It can be really special if you think about the hardware you work with. You completely erase the wall between the player and the game.
Rory: I got a VIVE last December and I hesitate to say it’s one of the best experiences I’ve had. I’ve lost my mind. It connects with something so innate. It makes things amazing. And it makes the fun parts even more fun. I can’t wait for more games to come out!
Ole: I think the entry bar is even lower for non-gamers. You’re just using your hands. It’s so natural! When you’re using VR, the graphics don’t matter. You have depth perception, you’re already in that world. It has great potential!
Dominico: Right before Tarsier, I was working with VR games. You have to shift your mind around it. Everything has to be directable. On the immersion side, you have to make it more believable. It’s a whole different thing.
[45:54] Allan: The first time I put on the original VIVE headset, I was so excited for the next 15 years from now! We’re getting to a point where things are maturing and I hope that RRR games transition to that.
Dave: Everyone is so quick to put it down. They complain that no one is innovating, but then when we innovate — they want a controller. Which one do you want? At the end of the day, people worry about the bottom line. Will there be enough people with headsets? Is that why you’re in it? When you first got into games, surely it wasn’t because of money. It was because you wanted to give people a thrill.
[47:30] Allan: From a business perspective, you can really corner the market. You can do the classics from a new perspective too. But a lot of people get turned off. I wouldn’t mind if you just talked about what your contributions were to Little Nightmares?
Nicklas: I worked the least on it. I was hired to make another game for Tarsier. When I joined the studio, it was a great way to join the team. I started working on that game for 2-3 months, on the first reiteration of the combat mechanics. It was a really good way to get to know the studio and the culture. But then 2-3 months later, I started working on another sequence.
Rory: I was working on Mono, making it move and getting it to interact. I worked with Nicklas for the first iteration. There are so many animations! I animated more in the last year of production than I have in my whole career. It was super fun! Any problems we had — we had every problem under the sun — we put out a lot of fires.
Ole: When I joined, it was the middle of production. Full steam ahead! A lot of my tasks were around producing props. In the beginning, it was about adapting to the style, really getting into it. Then it was about churning out these unique assets and props. There were a lot of them!
Dominico: When I joined, there was already an AI Designer on the team. At the same time, I felt like a part of the creative process. We wanted to have the same feeling as the first game, with the presence of the monsters. The enemies in every room had to be different, there was so much work to do with every room!
Camilla: When I started out at Tarsier, it was quite early in the production process. We had the white boxes and did a small demo. I started as an EP. Art was very exciting to me and it was coming easily to me. I moved on to being an Art EP. It’s not always easy to plan a game! But we made an amazing game at the end. It’s hard to see where an EP contributes to the game. But there was one point when we were discussing the last two rooms, but I brought up an idea. I came up with one!
[55:00] Allan: Producing is always one of the tougher jobs because I feel like with artists and developers, you’re the ones responsible for creative different tasks. You have to make sure everyone has what they need. It’s hard to impact things or to be there for your team. You don’t get to say, “I made that little trinket over there!”
Camilla: It’s much more about planning.
Dave: With both games, I was in from the beginning, honing in on the story. Then, that’s left because it’s a visual game. The Art Creative Directors dive deeper into the telling of the story, while I moved back to world creating. Concepts Artists come up with something people get hooked on. The theme we’re working on and the story we’re telling, it has to fit together. That’s my role in all of this.
[57:44] Allan: I appreciate all of your time. Where can people go to find out more about Tarsier?
Dave: We’re on Tarsier.se. You can apply for a job there. We have a really cool person working with our communications, so we’re a lot more present. We’re now on Twitter and IG.
[58:57] Allan: This has been awesome, guys! I appreciate you!
Rory: It’s nice chatting with you, Allan!
Camilla: Thank you for having us!
Thanks for listening! I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank the team at Tarsier Studios for taking the time to chat.
I do have a free course right now. Check it out at www.pricingclass.com.
I will be back next week. Until then —
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