If you’re not familiar with Tarsier Studios’ name you’re more than likely to be familiar with their body of work. Founded in 2004 as Team Tarsier the studio has worked on various PlayStation titles and content packs, the most notable being their work on the much acclaimed Little Big Planet series. They recently made headlines in early 2017 with their first party IP Little Nightmares, originally titled Hunger. This also marked their first major multi-platform release. We’ve talked more about it with them over here.
However, that’s neither here nor there. Today we’re going on a pretend visit to their headquarters in Malmö, Sweden and asking them about their day-to-day activities, graciously, they indulged our curiosities. To this end, we sat down with Dave Mervik, Senior Narrative Designer to find out more about the studio.
If you’re a frequent reader of our Developer Focus series you might know we like to kick off hard and ask the studio to pitch us their company as a workplace as if we were a job applicant. Here’s what Dave offered us in response:
“I actually think one of the best things is that we don’t have a stock response for this kind of question! The answer’s probably gonna change from day to day and person to person, but for me, one of the best things is that Tarsier wants you to feel at home, and they’re always looking at new and better ways to help that happen. There’s attention paid to social stuff with regular gaming nights, brännboll in the park, Friday breakfast, and there are also more specific areas that can differ from person to person, where they try to find the best way of working for everyone. Tarsier is always trying to improve, largely because it’s not just a company, there’s a genuine connection between the company and the people that started it, which gives it a heart that I’ve not experienced before.”. We looked up brännboll for you, don’t bother. It’s some sort of Viking Baseball they play up there.
Moving on, we asked for an imaginary tour of the company. The good news is that Dave gave us a very detailed overview. The bad news is that “Well, we’ll be moving into our new offices at the end of August, so this tour can function as some sort of eulogy for the old place!
When you first enter the office, you’ll find yourself looking at more lampshades than any company really needs. You’d be forgiven for thinking we were some sort of wacky workplace, but we’re not. There’s a little bit of a steampunk vibe going on, with a huge metal tube snaking its way throughout the building. It’s supposed to be for ventilation, but we don’t get even a dribble of oxygen out of it, so it’s just a big, useless, metal tube. The left-hand bit of the office is pretty much all working areas, so not much to talk about there. To the right is where we have our pride and joy, the game room, where Christer has poured loads of his time, money, and home-made speakers into providing us with a really cool place to watch movies and play games. Hopefully, he’ll make us an even bigger one in the new office!
Further down is a room that we’ve called Wonderland. I can’t remember why, but it’s certainly the comfiest room we have, and it’s decorated with terrible old records, which I guess is kind of wonderful. On the other end of the scale is ‘the misery room’, a place that just has a bad feeling about it. They’ve tried moving it, re-furnishing it, even renaming it to ‘The Boardgame Room’, but somehow it remains awkward, sterile, and uncomfortable, so the old name follows it around. Deservedly so.”. Won’t lie, those lampshades sound amazing.
As to what makes Tarsier Studios stand out, in Dave’s opinion: “Other than all the stuff I mentioned above, I’d say it’s because it’s not trying to be like those other companies. Tarsier’s always had a strong sense of its own identity and how it wanted to do things, and even though it’s taken ages to get to the point where we’re putting out our own stuff, we’ve got there in our own weird, fun, slightly dysfunctional way.”. We think it was worth the wait and we’re looking forward to seeing more in the same vein.
At the moment, Tarsier Studios employs around forty-odd people (mind the hyphen) but that number has varied and continues to vary depending on the work being done. The company started out at around ten people and grew to close to 60 while developing Little Big Planet for the Vita. Now they’ve found their equilibrium and seem to have stabilised at around 45 people. And now we’re about to find out how a regular day looks like for those employees.
“We have pretty flexible working hours, so we can start anytime between 7am and 10am, and then finish between 4pm and 7pm, respectively. The first thing for most of us is to have a coffee – Swedes take coffee very seriously – and then get cracking. Once everyone’s in, the teams will start off with a sync, so we all know what each other’s gonna be working with and if we need to have any further discussions. That’s about it, to be honest. The only other regular thing is that Niño – one of the office dogs – will bark like hell at least 7 times a day. He doesn’t like running, dancing, sudden noises, or raising your hands up unannounced. Which are like my four favourite things, so we don’t get on all that well.“
Tarsier were very frank when we asked about crunch times. They use the Agile development paradigm (which luckily as a developer the author of this piece is familiar with) which awards some flexibility and allows for focus shifting, and while crunch seems to be unavoidable and to come with the territory at times, they are always looking at ways to reduce it. This is probably somewhat made better by the fact that they try to do as much as possible with the resources they have in-house and try to outsource as little as reasonably possible.
2017 saw the release of Tarsier’s two original IPs: The self-published VR game Statik and the Bandai-Namco-published platformer Little Nightmares. They were both well-received so we were curious about the atmosphere around the office due to this: “We’re really happy! They’re two very different games that have taken two very different paths to release, so it’s been brill to see them both being received well. Statik has been our first self-published game too, so although we haven’t been able to give it anywhere near the amount of exposure that Bandai Namco has managed with Little Nightmares, it’s been an invaluable experience that we can build on next time.”. On moving away from platform exclusivity, they had this to say: “We had always wanted to make our own original games, so we always knew it was a strong possibility. As to what the future holds for different platforms, it’ll just depend on what makes the most sense for the game in question.”
Now on to the more probing stuff. With its bizarre style, we were curious as to how exactly Little Nightmares shaped up within the Tarsier Headquarters. Of course, it wasn’t very easy to put into words, but it’s interesting stuff nonetheless: “As I’ve probably said before, the game you see today started life as a bunch of different ideas and ongoing discussions.” Dave tells us. “These things found each other at a time when the company was seriously considering going independent, and so the concept gained traction. The creative process, though, is a hard thing to really convey, because it just feels like your normal day. You have a job to do and you try to find ways to do it well, which almost always involves talking to other people and bouncing ideas off each other. We like to have a strong core concept that the whole team understand from the outset, so that your ideas have a focus, and if you come up with something that captures the team’s imagination, you then just have the nice and easy task of pulling it off!“.
Now with the dust settled after the game’s release we found out that there is new content for it underway in the form of Secrets of the Maw which will follow a new character who escapes at the same time as Six, the base game’s protagonist and it will be published in three chapters, the first of which is set to arrive later this month.
Sweden has a very active and prolific game development scene. We’ve spoken to studios such as Coffee Stain Studios in the past and got the sense that Swedes foster a friendly sense of community within the gaming scene, so we asked Dave if they maintain any kind of rapport with the rest of the “competition. Unsurprisingly, they do: “Yeah, we always see each other around. Every few months there’s a game dev meetup, where we all head to a local bar for a drink and a catch-up. Then, of course, there is the Nordic Game Conference every year, right here in Malmö. This is a great chance to see what everyone’s been up to, meet new startups, and take part in the magnificent Marioke!”.
VR, as emergent technology is one of the topics we’re more interested in so we always take the time to ask companies what, if any, their experience has been with developing for VR. Having published the aforementioned Statik which our own Daniel Pitt has enjoyed greatly we felt like Tarsier could have some more insight about what challenges one might face. Gustaf Samuelsson, one of the programmers that worked on Statik had this to tell us: “Our biggest issue was tracking the controller since the positional tracking only works when the PS4 camera can see the LED light on the Dualshock. A big part of the gameplay is rotating and moving the puzzle device around to see all the different sides, so we had to solve that somehow.
A big part of the solution was to exaggerate the rotation of the controller when applying it to the box, meaning that the player never needs to rotate the controller more than 45 degrees in one axis – the added bonus being that this actually made the game more comfortable to play! Other tweaks included never using the back or bottom of the puzzle device for gameplay elements and using a lot of filtering of the tracked data so that the box is not 100% responsive. Although this may sound like a bad thing, the reasoning behind it is that since the box is bigger than the actual controller, all movement feels exaggerated and the smoothening gives the impression that it is fully responsive and that the player has full control.”. This Gustaf guy sounds pretty clever.
Getting close to the end of our time with Tarsier Studios we asked Dave what employee amenities they enjoy and he was pretty enthusiastic to tell us: “We have it pretty good here! We get 1000kr per year to put towards healthy activities [Editor’s Note: Around half a yearly gym membership, my research shows], six weeks paid vacation, badminton every Tuesday, and free breakfast every Friday (including excellent music and strong coffee). We also try to have at least two big company parties per year, one in the summer before everyone disappears on holiday, and another to console ourselves at the onset of another long winter. Then, as I mentioned earlier, we have regular gaming nights, board game nights, a game room (with well-stocked game library), a cellar where a few of us drink some booze and make “music”, and kickoff days where we goff and do something fun together at the start of a project. Tarsier, and Sweden as a whole, puts great importance on work/life balance, which has been amazing to me coming from the UK, where they generally don’t.“. Got to love those Nordic countries, except for the aforementioned long winters. But I suppose one gets used to those.
We also wanted to know if there were any developers Dave admires and why: “I admire anyone that tries something different, developers who are brave enough to ignore the populist route, cool enough to not care about it, or single-minded enough to not know it exists. These are the people that push the medium onwards and change perceptions of what games are all about and what they’re capable of. In no particular order then, some of the developers who have expanded my horizons over the years have been Lea Schönfelder, Davey Wreden, Fumito Ueda, Vander Caballero, David O’Reilly, Tim Schafer, Nonny de la Peña and Lucas Pope.”. Well. I know some of those names, myself.
In closing, we wanted to know if there were any games Tarsier Studios employees like playing around the office when taking a time out. Dave was honest about his participation in such events: “As I’ve said, we have regular gaming nights at the office, and the game that we’ve played more than any other is Rocket League. I say “we”, but I’m not one of those people because I’m so utterly bad at it. I love driving games and am a huge fan of Pro Evo, but when you mix those two things together, you might as well replace me with a slab of meat. Right now, the thing I’m most looking forward to is the triumphant return of Micro Machines, and hopefully it’ll show up at one of our future ‘Fight Nights’.”
We thank Dave and Gustaf for the time they took to answer our questions and we wish them and the fine folk at Tarsier the best in their future endeavours. In Dave’s own words: “It feels too early to say what’s next, but whatever we do in the future will be something that we find exciting. You need to have that spark, that thing that gets everyone’s minds whirring and jetting off in hundreds of different directions. That’s what we had with both Little Nightmares and Statik, so when that feeling comes around again, we’ll work with it in whatever way works best.”
Little Nightmares is out now for Xbox One, PS4 and PC. Statik is available now exclusively for PSVR on the PS4.