As we’ve seen in previous editions of Wireframe, balance is one of the most difficult aspects of being a solo game developer: juggling family life with stolen hours in front of a computer; finding the energy to push your pet project forward after a long and exhausting day at work.
This was something designer Jamin Smith found particularly challenging with his debut game, the point-and-click adventure and FMV hybrid, Headspun, initially released for PC in August 2019. What was originally intended as a diverting hobby quickly grew into a three-year project that had to be squeezed in around a demanding day job; towards the end, burnout set in, as Smith tells us the game “ballooned into something far too big and complex for one person to manage.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, though, here’s a bit of back story. Smith began work on Headspun after a bout of reading pop psychology books – among them Professor Steve Peters’ The Chimp Paradox. “It basically outlines how we have two voices in our heads,” Smith explains. “The rational, intelligent, conscious voice, and the primal, irrational, subconscious voice.”
All of this planted the seed for Headspun’s premise: an adventure game set in the human brain, where two halves of a character’s personality vie for control. Like a darker take on Pixar’s animated film, Inside Out, Headspun introduces Theo, the survivor of a car accident who’s lying in hospital, and the two characters inside his head whose job is to rebuild the mental devastation wrought by the crash. Headspun imagines Theo’s brain as a high-tech science facility, overseen by the businesslike Ted (who the player controls) and the more rebellious, laid-back Teddy.
While the meat of Headspun unfolds as a 2D adventure, with hand-drawn graphics in the vein of artist Jamie Hewlett’s work, the story also progresses through live-action sequences, where we see the outside world through Theo’s eyes. It’s a design choice that neatly delineates the game’s interior and exterior events, while also saving Smith the time-consuming and costly process of designing and animating these sequences by hand. “As a solo developer, I could never create the amount of content needed to service the story I wanted to tell,” he says. “I could, however, film it, while also benefiting from a very clear ‘real world’ outside of the game. The idea of a game which was half live-action and half 2D adventure really grabbed me creatively.”
Smith quickly realised, however, that telling the story he wanted to tell with real actors and sets would still prove costly: he’d originally planned to have the game’s framing story take place at a house party, which would have required more locations, actors, and extras to wrangle. To sidestep this, Smith rewrote the story so that it took place after the party, where Theo deals with the fallout of that night’s events from a hospital bed. “This meant I could shoot the game in one room over that key period of recovery, with a small cast of actors, and tell the story I wanted to tell with the limited budget I had.”
Around two-thirds of the way through its development, Headspun was picked up by indie publisher Wales Interactive – a deal which meant that the finished game would ultimately be ported to the PS4, Xbox One, and Switch. The publisher interest was undoubtedly a boost for Smith, but it also meant that what had begun as a casual side project was now, as he puts it, “a second full-time job” that took place in-between his daytime career as global brand manager at Square Enix.
“The most challenging aspect of development was the entirety of [that last] year,” Smith tells us. “I’d work 10-6.30 at the day job, travel home and rush a bit of dinner, and then work flat out from 8ish until 3am on Headspun. I’d do this near-enough every day of the working week, with more time poured in over the weekend. It was tough going, and burnout hit pretty hard towards the end… It was a classic case of feature creep, and my complete disregard of any sort of schedule meant that new systems and mechanics kept appearing in the game. Ultimately, I developed a game that was too big to handle as a solo developer, which meant it suffered in certain areas.”
Given that it’s the product of just one developer, though – one handling live-action filming and scriptwriting as well as 2D art, animation, and programming – Headspun is an impressive achievement. And while Smith admits that he may have given himself too much to do for a debut project, he’s now taking what he’s learned on Headspun into his next title. “The scope is certainly smaller – and something I can handle as a side project far more efficiently – but the ambition behind it is genuinely much bigger,” he says. “It still has narrative very much at its core, and I’ve been working with some really exciting technology to bring its story to life.”
After a long development, having a game finally emerge in the real world might sound like a dream come true. But for Smith, Headspun’s release was a little more complicated. “I found launch day quite traumatising. I hated it. The game launched with a fair few bugs – especially on the console versions – and it was all I could focus on. There was some good PR for the game in terms of exposure, with some big publications picking up the game for review due to the unique concept, but I couldn’t bring myself to read a word of it. All I could think about was how I needed another month or two to make it better. I think the pressure solo developers can put on themselves mounts up pretty quickly in instances like these – it’s all on you, there’s no blame to shift – and it all comes to a head when the game is suddenly available publicly.”