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Gamescom 2015: Steamworld Interview with Image and Form Games

During Gamescom this week, I had an opportunity to speak, in a lengthy conversation, with the CEO of Image and Form Games, the creators behind the mechanical, and much lauded, Steamworld Dig. The all-round pleasant gentleman, Brjánn Sigurgeirsson and I discussed the composition of the Steamworld universe, the current state of Nintendo and beyond, the ethos of fun in games and far more intellectually stimulating subjects: Eurovision.

Scott Russell: So, Brjánn, when is Steamworld Heist due for release?

Brjánn Sigurgeirsson: All right, so it’s coming out this fall. We don’t have a specific date yet so we don’t speculate. But it’s starting on the 3DS and after that it’s coming to all other platforms in a staggered release schedule.

SR: Steamworld Dig came out on Nintendo first, right?

Brjánn: It came out on 3DS first, yeah. Early on, after Dig, I got silly because I was so ecstatic about the sales I promised that the next game would come on 3DS first. A kind of rookie move to do that but I think we have a great community there as well as among the PlayStation players and so on. But yeah, if you go out and promise a game then you sort of have to go out and make good on it.

Steamworld Dig
Steamworld Dig

SR: That’s genuine. It’s fair to give your first player base attention. So, as it’s going to be coming to PlayStation and Xbox in a staggered way, when do you think the last release schedule would be?

BS: I think the last platforms are going to be sometime during the spring of 2016 so it’s like going to be spread out evenly, with a couple of months between platforms. I think we’re probably going to do PlayStation 4, Vita and Xbox One at the same time because Microsoft has this parity clause that if it comes out earlier on PlayStation 4, they officially don’t want their game on Xbox One.

SR: Really?

BS: Yeah. But if the title is interesting enough, they’ll bring it [over].

SR: Okay, I didn’t know that.

BS: Officially, that’s what it is.

SR: Well, whatever you have to do, I guess.

BS: *Laughs* Exactly.

SR: While we were playing Steamworld Heist just a moment ago, you said that you wanted to create a shared universe between the games. You’ve had a western mining simulator, and now you’re doing a turn-based shooter – what else would you like to do in that world?

BS: Everyone thinks that Steamworld Dig was the first Steamworld game. Well, it wasn’t, actually. We made a game called Steamworld Tower Defense. Which unsurprisingly is a tower defense game, and we put that out before the Nintendo 3DS; we made it for the DSi. We sold that digitally and it was the first game that we self-published. And so now that means we’ve made three games with radically different gameplay each time. I think Dig was very popular, so it’s not unlikely that we’ll make Steamworld Dig 2, but if we do it’s going to be bigger in every direction. And if Heist becomes a success then maybe make Heist 2, but we really want to make more. We have lots of ideas for interesting games and one of the hardest things about making a game is like, “how do you give it personality?”, and now we have that. We have the universe, and you sort of familiarise yourself with these steam-driven robots. It doesn’t have to be the exact same characters or the same species.

The original Steamworld game.
The original Steamworld game.

SR: Yeah, you can make so many different kinds of robots with different personalities. Do you think personality is important in a game?

BS: I think it’s super important. It’s really hard to franchise something that doesn’t have personality. Like, you can make racing games forever and ever and ever, but that’s not what we want to do. We want to have personality inside the universe, so that we can actually differentiate by making new types of gameplay.

SR: So how did the creation of this world begin on DS?

BS: It started out with us making mobile games. We made a few shitty ones and then we made an excellent one, Anthill. When we made that game we thought, “Okay, that’s great. Now we can continue making more mobile games because we’re so famous, right?” – for like 48 hours or something. But then the app store was getting so congested, and the price scale was tipping towards free to play, and we didn’t know that stuff; we weren’t interested in it. We were like, “What can we do? If we’re not on mobile, can we make games that fit on every other platform?” Because then we could have a decent sized ocean that we could sort of swim in. So we decided instead of putting all of our eggs in one basket, we should take this one egg and put that in a lot of different baskets.

Anthill: the excellent mobile game.
Anthill: the excellent mobile game.

SR: Do you think that towards a handheld was an important place to go?

BS: Yeah, I definitely think so. I mean we play a lot of handhelds, particularly the 3DS is popular with us and so it’s also that. It’s like “I really wanna make a good 3DS game.” That was sort of the thinking behind Steamworld Dig. And then we sort of expanded on it. Instead of making something radically different we could just use that brand, a franchise if you like if we’ve now made three games in it, and sort of build on it. We can make lots of games within Steamworld but they don’t necessarily need to tie together in terms of gameplay.

SR: Does Steamworld Heist tie into Steamworld Dig in any way?

BS: It does, yeah. There are some flashbacks. But there is at least one game coming in between so that game is sort of going to tie them both backwards and forwards.

SR: What type of game would that be?

BS: I’m not sure. *Laughs* Well, I’m not sure I’m going to talk about it. *Laughs* Right now we’re sort of focusing on Heist so I don’t want to get into details about it.

SR: Okay, that’s cool. So, how do you think Steamworld Dig has done? Has it propelled your company into recognition after its release?

BS: Most definitely, yeah. It made a huge difference. Some developers, they stay on one platform and then they become well known or famous within that community. I really don’t think there is such a huge difference between, say, PC or PlayStation or Xbox, for example. Tech-wise there is very little difference. But if you measure it by inputs, then you also have Nintendo being in that same space. And so that means you have to make these staggered releases because there are so few of us. It’s just me and Julius [Guldbog, community manager] doing PR community, so we sort of have to focus on one group at a time, and that means that we can have ourselves well known with each community as a result.

SR: Speaking of the similarities between PC, PlayStation and Xbox, do you think you prefer working with Nintendo’s hardware?

BS: No, I wouldn’t say I enjoy working with their hardware more. If anything it’s a pain in the ass *laughs* because it’s so different. It’s so much weaker, and the dual screen and so on… It’s not that we’re shunning it, because we really want to make games for the 3DS, but if we wanted to make it really simple I think we would do that. We would make it PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, Vita, Xbox One and that would be it.

SR: Considering that Nintendo’s hardware is so different and difficult to work with, what do you think of their upcoming console, NX? Does the fact that it could be a mixture of mobile and console intrigue you in any way?

BS: I think that would be really cool because, I mean, Nintendo gamers, they’re different from other gamers, right? They get Nintendo tattoos and stuff. They’re really diehard fans. If it’s a mobile device then I’m sure you’d get a huge population of Nintendo fans buying that stuff. But if it’s not; if it’s just another game console that’s similar to the 3DS or similar to the Wii U, that doesn’t add anything more to it, I think they’ll be in trouble.

SR: Yeah, it has kind of been going that way. I think they’re kind of damned if they do, damned if they don’t at this point. They’ve been everything new and innovating but they’ve been doing worse and worse every time. I really don’t know what would help them. But perhaps if it’s a console that enables the Wii U game to be brought out of the home, then that could be a start.

BS: Yeah, exactly. If it’s a sort of a mix. So you just dock it or whatever and then it becomes your stationary Wii U hooked up to your TV set. Perhaps maybe that’s what they’re looking at. When they made the Wii, that was such a huge invention; it was so innovative with the Wiimote and everything. The 3DS is the DS with the 3D effect on it. The Wii U is the Wii with the screen. Tech-wise it isn’t that much of departure. But interestingly, Sony or Microsoft aren’t getting slammed for what they’re doing. PS3 and PS4: where’s that massive difference? Sure, the PS4 looks better – but it’s the same.

Graphical improvements, but the same game nonetheless.
Graphical improvements, but the same game nonetheless.

SR: It’s like the fans have a vendetta against Nintendo or something.

BS: I think also it’s historical. I mean, Nintendo has been around for a long time. At one point I think they were 90 percent of the game industry and so they’re expected to not only be a money machine, but also to be inventors at every stage.

SR: I think that’s why it’s so sad that people have somehow come to associate Nintendo with negativity. It’s absolute pessimism when they talk about NX. Not many are confident in what they can do now.

BS: Well it’s like you said, “They’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t.” Like with the Wii U, it’s pretty safe to say it’s not what they hoped it would be. It sort of, to put it mildly, lowers everyone’s expectations. Let’s just hope they come up with something great. I wouldn’t mind if it sort of breaks off; if it’s not backwards compatible. I suspect that they’re going to do something that is an evolution of the 3DS and the Wii U. Like you said, something that you can bring on the go. Something to make it different.

SR: Okay, so we will pull away from Nintendo and go back to something more relevant. What were your inspirations for this universe that you’ve made?

BS: Well, for Steamworld Heist, one of the biggest inspirations is obviously X-COM. A lot of the guys in the office are X-COM fans. Usually in the office it starts as a lunch hour conversation. Like, “What if we made a 2D, side-facing, turn-based shooter? Would that be interesting, or how would it work?” You sit there and spend a lot of lunch breaks just idling about it or just talking around it. And then, so many things clicked in place for Steamworld Heist so we decided to go for it. We really wanted to make it now because it’s always like that. I mean, if you can, and you’re really excited to play it yourself you really want to make it right away.

X-COM: an inspiration behind Steamworld Heist.
X-COM: an inspiration behind Steamworld Heist.

SR: Steamworld Dig is a western, and Steamworld Heist is set in space. Are there any particular works in those genres that inspired you?

BS: Oh great, yeah! There are a lot of cultural inspirations, too, like we’re sort of linking with Star Wars here and there. You recruit your crew mates in bars, and then also the whole character set up of Firefly. That’s an inspiration. They’re humans but are sort of a ragtag crew of space pirates.

SR: And what about the western influence?

BS: Westerns are always cool. *Laughs* Well, we modelled Rusty [form Steamworld Dig] after Clint Eastwood. That’s a guy that doesn’t talk too much, he just does it. This guy who comes along and just realises that bad shit is going down and, like, “I gotta take care of this. Nobody else is gonna take care of it.”

And also, it was a timing thing [historically] because we were thinking that the story behind Steamworld, it will take me 15 seconds to tell you… well… 30 *Laughs* but here it goes: there was this inventor in the 19th century called Charles Babbage who actually designed a thing called the Difference Engine and then he designed the Analytical Engine. But nobody could build them because they were so intricate. They then passed the touring test for computers actually, so if they had managed to build and manufacture them then we would have been computerised a hundred years earlier than we were. So that would have been around 1850 rather than 1950. We were like, “What if that would have worked?” We would have had a lot of calculations that would have been done more accurately and so at around the start of the 20th century, a lot of technology would have been escalated. But stuff like electricity wouldn’t have been around on a grand scale really and, unfortunately, weaponry would have been amazingly advanced at that point. So, humanity basically blows itself to bits [in the Steamworld universe] and leaves behind robot servants that have been doing all the grunt work. They’re still walking around and they’re just happy, hardworking simpletons really; they’re not that intelligent. So that is why the game’s are set during the turn of the century. That is why it is a western.

Rusty: A robotic Clint Eastwood.
Rusty: A robotic Clint Eastwood.

SR: So it’s set on Earth? Apart from the space one, which is set in space.

BS: *Laughs* Yes. It’s set on earth.

Scott: That’s interesting. I played Steamworld Dig and I thought that it was set on some alternate world where robots had taken the place of humans. Thank you for telling me that. That’s quite cool.

BS: Right, because when you play Dig, you have these almost zombie-like creatures that you run into and they’re actually humans. They’re the lowlifes that nobody bothered to bomb. So they’re still around but have just go underground to brew moonshine and stuff. They’re really like the dregs of humanity.

SR: Okay well… I’m making this up on the fly, I hope you know that.

BS: I’m making this up on the fly *Laughs*.

SR: *Laughs* Well, that’s good. Would you ever be interested in making anything else? Or moving away from this universe in the future?

BS: Yeah, because some games won’t be able to fit. Even if we really tried to shoe horn it [the game], we can’t really make it fit within this Steamworld universe and so those games will have to be different.

SR: Does anything in 3D interest you?

BS: We’ve actually made games in 3D in the past. Well, not photorealistic 3D, but we have made 3D games. I think that 2D can be so brilliant, [but] I think a lot of 3D games are beautiful. Take low poly games like No Man’s Sky. It’s beautiful. So it’s not that we hate 3D, it’s just that this is the art [2D] that we create. I think it looks so nice that I’d like to call that art. It’s not only artwork, it’s art.

SR: So what sort of 2D games have inspired you?

Brjánn: Obviously there’s Metroid, right? And, I’m so old that when I started playing games they were obviously in 2D. It sounds old to go back that far but I was so impressed with the arcade games that came out. I thought that all of them were great when I was a teenager or younger than that. All of my cash would go into those machines, and everything was new. Every game idea was new. Like Dig Dug; nobody had made a game like that before obviously, and Q*bert or National Karate. They were invention upon invention. Pacman and other classics are immensely inventive. So you obviously want to go, “What is it that makes those games so great?” You always want to ask yourself that. While we’re making games the hardest thing is finding the fun factor; that little twist to things. It takes us a long time [to find it] actually, and we scrap a lot of stuff along the way.

Metroid: a 2D inspiration.
Metroid: a 2D inspiration.

SR: What do you think is necessary to make a game fun? I know that’s a wide question.

BS: Yeah, it takes balls and it takes patience, because it’s not going to be done like: “Yeah, and there is the game, and probably it’s fun to play.” With Dig – that’s a good example – three months before we were done with development I met with Nintendo for the first time at GDC in San Francisco in March 2013. We had told ourselves that we should have some sort of intelligent digging system so that you don’t have to dig straight down; you have to make sure that you can jump your way upward. So there wasn’t a wall jump three months prior to release, you had to zigzag your way down one tile at a time so that you could jump back up again. It was like that for a very long time and we told ourselves, “Yeah, this is smart. This is probably intelligent digging.” Then we noticed that the testers were like, “How long do I need to play this?”, which was not a very good sign. So that was the state the game was in when we showed it to Nintendo and they were being polite: “Yep, this looks nice. Thank you very much for showing it.” “So can we put it on 3DS?” “We’ll get back to you…”

When I got back, we decided to stop developing for a week and just find the fun factor. Quite a few things that came into place during that week were, well, wall jumping was one thing and the caves were another. That’s probably what it takes: step back for a while and ask yourself seriously, “Is this fun?” or “are people going to enjoy this?” If the answer is no then you have to scrap it or you have to redo it.

Rusty enjoys digging intelligently.
Rusty enjoys digging intelligently.

SR: So play testing is important, then?

BS: Yeah, it’s very important, and it’s more to be honest to yourself like, “This is not great. We have to rethink this somehow.”

SR: Do you think events like this an important factor as well? Like letting the press come and play the game, too?

BS: That’s important and also just regular people. Grabbing people off the floor to play it is very important. If you can get “uninfected” people trying things then you can ask them after, “What do you think?” And they’ll say, “It was cool. I think the camera movement was shitty and I think your breath was bad.” They’re going to be pretty honest. They’re not going to say, “Oh, it was nice.”

SR: I think a lot of people do that with Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed. They feel that because they liked it last year they’ll like it this year so it’s an easy sell. But if it’s something unknown, you kind of need to bring someone in to show them because they’re just going to walk on past if they don’t know what it is.

BS: Yeah, and when we do play testing and bring people into the office we never point them in any direction. We give it to them and just say, “here.”

SR: Do you have a big following in Sweden?

BS: No, not necessarily. I wouldn’t say [from] any particularly nationality either. Sales are like, almost equal. The US is 40 percent, Europe is 40 percent and the rest of the world is 20 percent. So we just try to stay in touch with everyone; talk to them. If anyone mentions Steamworld on Twitter we jump on it, and try to talk to them.

SR: Yeah, trademark that.

BS: *Laughs*.

SR: So, more importantly, being from Sweden, did you watch Eurovision?

BS: Yeah, I did.

SR: Were you proud?

BS: I was actually, because for some reason it’s a huge thing in Sweden. And everybody says they’re not watching it and everybody watches, so it’s fun when we send an artist that is a super professional [Måns Zelmerlöw], because that’s what he is. So when he won he also beat the Russians, which I thought was a totally hypocritical entry.

Sweden's ecstatic Eurovision victor.
Sweden’s ecstatic Eurovision victor.

SR: I couldn’t agree more. When one of the presenters said, “Tonight is about leaving the politics behind, it’s about music…” and I was like…

BS: “Fuck you.” The Russians aren’t.

SR: *Laughs* Yeah, I don’t think art can leave politics behind at all. I can’t believe Russia came second.

BS: I thought it was just rude, and really blatant.

SR: I’m sure the singer has those beliefs about equality but yeah, the rest of the country is not like that. I don’t know.

BS: *Laughs* No, exactly. I think it was double [the victory]. We were happy winning, but we were ecstatic for kicking their ass. We were very proud.

SR: The UK didn’t do so well.

BS: They rarely do, you know?

A sombre note for British pride finished up this insightful interview.

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