Hello everyone! Today we’ve got a very special treat for you guys! Executive Editor Brandon Bui got to take some time and speak with the CEO of Image and Form, Brjánn Sigurgeirsson, about his newest title, Steamworld Heist. And it is a doozy. Not only do we cover their new title, but we spent some time talking about game design philosophy and how Image and Form was built up.
A brief note: Image and Form is a gaming development studio out of Gothenburg, Sweden, created in 1997. This studio has created several high profile titles, such as Steamworld Tower Defense and Steamworld Dig, a highly popular and critically acclaimed platformer that released on the Nintendo 3DS and followed up with other platforms. Their latest addition to the Steamworld series is Steamworld Heist, which is due for release in Autumn of 2015 for Nintendo 3DS, release date to be announced on other platforms. Their website can be found here, and they are frequently on Twitter at @ImageForm.
Brandon: Thank you very much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to chat with me! Having met up with you at E3 this year, Steamworld Heist is actually one of my most anticipated titles of the year. How is the development of the title going?
Brjánn: My pleasure! Development is going great, we’re reaching the final stages of the process and are nearing the release.
Brandon: What was the inspiration of creating the game using the Steampunk idea? Of all the different themes out there, was there something that drew you to Steampunk?
Brjánn: *laughs* Oh boy, the is a trip down memory lane for me, going back years and years ago! A lot of people think that Steamworld Dig was the first title in the franchise, but that’s incorrect as Steamworld started out as a tower defense title back in 2010 on the Nintendo DSi, as Steamworld Tower Defense. The Nintendo DSi was Nintendo’s first foray into digital gaming, and we wanted to try the process out. At the time, there weren’t a ton of good 2D Steampunk-inspired titles, and they especially did not have a Western-themed one. So that’s how Steamworld was born.
Brandon: One of my concerns at E3 when I was playing was adjusting to the controls since I was playing on a Macbook Air. How do the controls on the PC version become more intuitive? You mentioned that the gameplay was more natural on the 3DS, or that there was an adapter of sorts for the PC version, if I recall correctly.
Brjánn: The Nintendo 3DS version was built from the ground up. Steamworld Dig followed the same concept. Starting out on the PC would be difficult because of the graphical fidelity requirements to create an HD experience. The 3DS version has a lower power processor and a lower resolution screen, so while it has constraints, it has a trump card in its dual screen feature.
With the PC version, we were able to use the second screen of the 3DS as a means to help us map features onto the PC version, such as mapping or inventories. While the PC HD versions don’t have a map fully accessible like the 3DS version, there are (hypothetically) means in which we can implement them, such as via hotkey or putting a map that is visible in the right hand corner that fades out when important action sequences are taking place.
Brandon: You know, whoever came up with the angling shot mechanic needs to be praised. Can you tell me a bit more about that, and how that came to be? It seems like a very well-executed mechanic.
Brjánn: The shooting mechanic was an issue that came up early in the developmental process, back on one of those random lunch break discussions we had. My lead designer, Olle Håkansson, played the popular shooter XCOM and sometime after that, we started to question how we could bring that shooter concept to a 2D tactical setting… which gave form to the game design document for Steamworld Heist. Then, the question was, “how could a strategy game benefit from a 2D environment setting?”
The answer lies in making it a core feature. The bounce/ricochet mechanic makes things gratifying if you do it right – especially if you see the shot bounce five times! And next thing you know, the target just crumples into a bucket of parts. Our shooter though comes out and makes things more organic (funny thing since we’re dealing with robots) because we introduce a wavering erratic factor. Editor’s note: The wavering erratic factor is seen as a moving aim that goes above and below the line of target, to add an angle to the shots. We actually got this mechanic as an idea from looking at insects.
Brandon: Insects? Do tell.
Brjánn: An iOS title that helped this along was Anthill – a real-time strategy title developed by us here at Image and Form. When we look at ants, they follow some sense of order in that they have a given sense of purpose… but they follow that order in the most erratic way possible. Their movements are all zig-zags and there is that clumsiness to it, but they get there eventually. We decided to take that erratic factor and apply it to a real time shooter, to give it a more organic feel. Which is, again, hilarious since we’re dealing with robots, and the first thought of robots is stiff movements. And then we see spiders and how perfect they are in their movements… no wonder everyone hates them. *laughs*
Brandon: When I played this game at E3 earlier this year with you, I remember sweating through that tutorial, which I found interesting because a lot of titles don’t do that to me nowadays. It makes me feel like I’m putting my soul out there in the game. What kinds of difficulties are we expecting for Heist?
Brjánn: *pulls out Nintendo 3DS* There’s going to be multiple difficulties – five of them, to be exact. The game starts out on a simple mode that is geared towards players who have never really experienced a tactical strategy game. And then there’s the second difficulty, geared towards the average player… and then it goes all the way to the biggest difficulty which is geared towards the most hardcore players… not too many people can beat this, but it is possible.
What makes our game more intuitive is that our difficulties can be changed on the fly. Usually, when a game gets difficult, it allows you to change the difficulty to a lower one, but it’s stuck there for the duration of the game. If Steamworld Heist has a mission that you find difficult, you can scale it down a notch to make it through, and then bring it back up to normal because things happen! The reverse also holds true. If you’re blasting through the game and want a bit of an extra challenge, you can also ramp things up.
Brandon: With a lot of these mechanics, they seem like they’re very polished up and had a lot of time put into them. How does game testing and bug fixing work at Image and Form?
Brjánn: Game testing at Image and Form involves our team just replaying the game constantly. For a period of several months I had eyes behind the screen, in a way, and it just was a lot of constant play throughs… which is incredibly tedious, but I loved it. I loved it and I felt that this was something that I had to keep doing. We don’t want to release a buggy product on an initial release, and we wanted to do this right.
Brandon: So, what’s next for this group of robots and for the franchise as a whole? How do you guys top the success of a previously successful title?
Brjánn: I’m going to backtrack a little bit because this goes back to Steamworld Dig. When we released this title, we had no idea whether or not this title was going to be successful. There wasn’t a great way for us to check on its status and sales back then as sales numbers were surprisingly difficult to come by. There wasn’t a means to see if the title was amazing or mediocre for us, sales wise. And we put a ton of money into the game, which was a bit of a risk because it’s terrifying if a cost-heavy game tanks. There would have been nowhere else for us to go.
Luckily for us, we made a bit more money than we put in due to the success of the title. We did have measures in place in the event that the game did do poorly, and those involved making some smaller titles. We currently have two titles that were being worked on… one of them is probably going to be shelved, but the other one actually has some potential and we might end up releasing that title as part of the Steamworld franchise. Right now though, we want to make a Game of the Year contender and do the process right. Initially, we wanted Heist out in December 2014, but due to constraints and just a feeling of unhappiness we decided to hold back on it because we just want to do things right, and deliver a game our team could be satisfied with. Thankfully, Steamworld Dig sustained itself so it allowed us a bit of time to make things better.
Brandon: Given that the date was scheduled for Fall 2015, we’re in that season now (even if it’s 37-38 C here in California in October…) and rapidly approaching the holiday season. Any idea on a more concrete release date?
Brjánn: Our goal is to aim for a release in early December… but I won’t make promises.
Brandon: Slowly going to wrap things up, but I get a lot of questions from my readers, potential applicants, and from people out there who just want to know a bit more about the video games industry and its more intricate workings. How does a developer or media journalist get started in the industry? Any tips?
Brjánn: You know, that’s a great question to ask. My big answer to that is to pester your peers. It’s intimidating to talk to people that are so big out there, but you’d be surprised at how much people are willing to help if you put in the time and ask them… especially in the indie community. Don’t be afraid to ask us for help, as we know how it feels to struggle and try to make a name for something.
For me, it used to be a completely different attitude. When I started out, I remember having to do the cold calls and emails to get a grip on some contacts, and I recall how some groups were all about having the information to themselves… but this attitude changed when I met and spoke to Anders Hejdenberg, head of a fellow Swedish development group, 1337 Games. There’s a lot more to be shared and now my mindset is changed to the point where I find it better to share information with people. Bottom line is that the industry is a friendly place, and it’s always better to try and reach out.
Brandon: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me, I really do appreciate your forthcoming answers. I look very forward to playing Steamworld Heist when it releases. Best of luck with everything, and take care!
Brjánn: You too, have a great rest of the day!
Steamworld Heist is scheduled for release in Q4 2015 for the Nintendo 3DS and for other platforms, including Playstation 4, Wii U, XBOX One, PC, and Mobile, in 2016.