Gears for Breakfast’s Jenna Brown on Designing her First Video Game
Traditionally December is a time to reflect on the year. But, for Gears for Breakfast’s 2D Art Director Jenna Brown, it would be more fitting to look back a little further. The first game she worked on, called A Hat in Time, may have been days away from its console release, but it would wrap up nearly three years of work.
Suitably, she marked the occasion with a picture she drew on Twitter. The top half of the image would depict a little girl sat in front of a Sony PlayStation and a TV with Insomniac’s Spyro the Dragon on screen, with the iconic purple figure watching on; while the bottom half revealed the girl to be grown-up but sat next to a vaguely familiar child in a top hat. The two were about to jump into Gears for Breakfast’s A Hat in Time on the PlayStation 4, a system that had played host to characters from Jenna’s childhood.
The image would not only be a suitable metaphor for the journey Jenna had been on but that of A Hat in Time’s long development from a platforming love letter to one of last year’s indie successes. The idea for a game inspired by Super Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie and Psychonauts came from A Hat in Time’s Director Jonas Kærlev in 2012. He believed that there was a shortage of 3D platformers in the modern day and it was partly due to Donkey Kong 64, a game that he felt overwhelmed players with too much item collecting.
Jenna was notably absent from A Hat in Time’s inception as she was studying Illustration at the University of the Creative Arts in Farnham, England, and with different ideas. “I actually had no intention of getting into game design, whatsoever, or concept art of any form,” Jenna explained. “It wasn’t on my plan of goals.” It wouldn’t be until a conversation with Kærlev that Jenna would be convinced to give it a go and help out with the texture art part-time, which involved updating alpha textures to their final stage. She would then join full time after graduating from the University in 2015. “It was a complete 180 of what I expected to do,” she admits.
Upon joining Gears for Breakfast, Jenna would quickly discover she had a unique and different perspective, being that she had never played any of the games that A Hat in Time was billed to be a love letter to. Rather than playing the platformers of Nintendo’s N64 era or knowing the sights of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, she had grown up with Sony classics like Spyro the Dragon and Crash Bandicoot.
“One of the good things about not having those ties is that it comes with a lot of freedom, but it also comes with a lot of intimidation,” Jenna explained. “Building something from the ground up when you have zero idea of the base or the hook of what inspires you. You have to rack your brain and figure out ‘Ok, I want to have this style in the game, but I don’t have any frame of reference of what other games do it.
“When I finished doing some visual ground up concept work and we released the game, someone said ‘Oh, did you get inspiration from so and so?” the answer she tells me was ‘No, but that would have been very helpful!’”
If you ever play A Hat in Time, you are likely to bump into some of Jenna’s art first hand. A gallery can be discovered upon the protagonist’s ship that features her work, and a mission in Dead Bird Studio involves photos you take appearing on screen. The most notable inclusion is the games loading cards, not just for the art but its role in evolving how Hat Kid looked and acted. While the team had moved away from the Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker style visuals, the new direction didn’t bare any similar influences.
“It kind of became a coincidence of my style in general, it’s quite cute,” Jenna explained, regarding the loading screen cards. “She became cuter and cuter, but also more of an asshole. She’s got her own attitude, her own mission and she’s not afraid to mess up people’s lives to get her timepieces. She’s very dedicated but also very child-like.”
While the game would undertake delays and a long timeline of development, things would quickly progress for Jenna and her expanding team as she swiftly found herself in the role of 2D Art Director, and with a new chapter to design.
“I had never done this before, so I needed all the help I could get,” Jenna said. “Especially in Alpine Skyline in chapter four, I had to direct that from the ground up. Every mountain, every possible direction it could take had to come from a catalyst. Getting to that point was extremely hard, it’s a huge task for anyone, let alone a beginner.”
Despite the overwhelming task at hand, Jenna was able to rely on some subtle Spyro inspiration to help her with the level design. “Visually their environment art was gorgeous, and in Alpine Skyline especially, Shela’s Alps was a huge inspiration for me,” Jenna said. “I love Shela’s Alps; it was in Spyro: Year of the Dragon. It was nice because it had a lot of verticality in there and featured the goat enemies too. As soon as we were doing mountains, I knew that was the one place I was going to go.”
The level would come at the expense of another — Sand and Sails initially took its place and had been shown off in various betas to the public before it would prove problematic and be organically cut. “It wasn’t fun, none of it was fun,” Jenna explained. “The gameplay wasn’t fun, and visually it was quite constricting for us.”
The reaction of the game’s backers was one the Gears for Breakfast team had to be ready for. The game was created in a public space via Kickstarter, which is an online platform used to appeal for public funding. The platform would reveal the good and the bad side of the game’s development, as the team had also included a PC editor so players could mod and take assets from A Hat in Time.
“Those assets were incredibly public, and as a result, people had very public expectations that these characters and worlds would survive to final,” Jenna explained. “So when they didn’t, some people were upset, and some people were confused. Some people thought the game suffered from the cut content and you have to take that as a consequence of being a Kickstarter.”
The openness was arguably necessary, the stages from inspiration to fruition took a total of five years, and development had begun way back in August of 2012, with a Q2 2013 release being anticipated before long delays.
“One of the side effects of Kickstarter is transparency. You have to be transparent with your backers. The side effect of that is you show all the sides of development, as pretty or as ugly as it can get,” Jenna explained. “The prime example, for us anyway, is that we had a lot of content, especially in the alpha and the beta, a lot of ideas, potential characters and worlds that got cut. In the normal developmental process, that wouldn’t be shown.”
The game would eventually release October 5th to favourable reception, but December’s console release proved to be more meaningful. The picture Jenna shared on Twitter in anticipation went viral (It currently has 78k in favourites and 19K in retweets) and prompted replies from Insomniac and Spyro’s original Game Designer, Michael John. I felt that I couldn’t pass up the chance to ask her about it.
“I posted that as an emotional tribute to how far we had come. Because I never expected in my life to become a game developer let alone making a platformer, in this day and age, which for a lot of people thought it was a dead genre,” She told me. “So to be able to make a dream genre game, on the PlayStation 4, was a dream come true for me.”