Interview with Brjann Sigurgeirsson (CEO of Image & Form Games) on SteamWorld Franchise



I have greatly enjoyed the SteamWorld series, with Dig and Heist being some of my favorite games in recent years. They mix and match genres in creative ways but still hold a high level of polish and quality. Today, I am honored to announce that I was able to interview one of the minds behind SteamWorld Dig and Heist. Brjann Sigurgeirsson, CEO of Image & Form Games, took some time to answer a few of my questions on the SteamWorld series and more.

RK: Thank you for doing this interview with me! My first question would be how was you introduced to video games and what was your very first video game? Did you enjoy it?

Brjann: My first video game must have been Pong, actually – a neighbor kid got it and we didn’t leave his living room for days. So I guess I must have enjoyed it quite a bit! Another fond game memory was Ports of Call on the Amiga, and getting my first Nintendo Game & Watch. I got a lot of mileage out of those games!

RK: That is great to hear, my first video games were on the Nintendo GameCube era (the Sonic series) and I greatly loved games from that point onward. What inspired you to enter game development?

Brjann: I grew up feeding coins into arcade machines in grotty, cramped video arcades around the end of the seventies – or, at least, as grotty as the come in the picturesque Gothenburg northern archipelago. Couldn’t feed that many coins per session, since kids at the age of 12 didn’t net amazing allowances at the time. Back then it was Space Invaders, Dig Dug, Asteroids, Defender, Rally-X, International Karate and what have you. They were really fantastic, but at the same time so great that I never thought I’d be making games like those. In fact they felt unattainable, like they couldn’t have been made by simple humans. I wasn’t really interested in the developers themselves, and finding out about them would have been near-impossible for a 12-year-old kid from the outskirts of the known world.

You could say that the graphics were quite simple at the time, but the feeling was magic. A challenge and ritual, preceded by a prayer that this particular coin would last longer than the one before, and a wonderful sensation of achievement when it did. Quite unlike most gaming today where you simply press the replay button when you die, although I guess you could draw parallels to present-day masters of fighting games. I felt alive and stood in awe when someone shone at the arcades. Then I got lucky – in the fall of 1980 my school got to borrow an ABC80 computer and an instructor, and we were encouraged to try developing for it.

 

That was development in the real meaning of the word: the damn thing didn’t even have an OS and couldn’t do anything at all, except for the stuff we made for it. I was still twelve, and I made some very simple games for it. It wasn’t that hard once you got the hang of iteration and conditional statements. But that was the first real inspiration, realizing that I could make games – and that if I had time, I could scale those games. I could never persuade my parents to buy me a computer, so I didn’t program very much at home. My best friend was a single kid, and the bastard got a Commodore VIC-20 for Christmas ’81. I was extremely jealous, but soon noticed that he wasn’t that into it, and so I hogged it every time I went over to visit.

RK: That is a powerful story, as game development starting at such a young age should be commended for. Making games is hard, so trying to learn how to make them at a young ages is very impressive. I always wanted to help make video games but I shifted my goal into writing about them! With your origins of game development explained, how was the SteamWorld concept born?

Brjann: All our game ideas are usually conceived during lunch breaks. That’s when many of us come together and talk about stuff. I should feel guilty about this since everyone’s by definition not at work while having lunch, but we don’t always toss around game ideas; a lot of lunch hour discussions revolve around politics, pop culture and what have you. But yes, that’s where they’re most often “born”. What we do then is just throw the ideas around without any real effort – it’s not like we’re trying to come up with new games, it’s just a relaxed forum for discussion.

As you’ve probably noticed, our games aren’t just different from each other in genre; they’re genre mashups, which makes them interesting on a quite other level as well. We try to not just nail core gameplay mechanisms, but also strive to make our games a bit more than one-trick ponies. Anthill is a line-drawing real-time strategy castle-defense game, SteamWorld Dig is a mining platformer, and SteamWorld Heist is a turn-based combat strategy shooter.

When an idea “sticks” we draft a game design document. It’s very rough at the outset. Then our artists discuss what it should look like, while our programmers and designers talk about what needs to be done. When in development we often run in the wrong direction, because typically our games haven’t really been done before. We experiment, backtrack and try new things if stuff doesn’t work. Very much of the game comes together at the end!

RK: I’ve noticed how different each game feels in both style and genre, so hearing how you come up with game concepts makes a lot sense. Letting them naturally come out is a great idea as it allows the concept to grow and mature with time. I appreciate how every game your studio produces is unique and does something creative; it gives the games a creative identity. When making ‘SteamWorld Dig’, what were your favorite moments or challenges when making the game?

Brjann: The challenge of making SteamWorld Dig was largely financial – we had to create very many systems, since we hadn’t made a game like that before, and it took a very long time to get those in place. Before you can decide to go all in with game development, many studios need to finance their work by taking on work-for-hire projects, which in turn slows down development. If you release a title that sells well, then you can ease off on the side projects and “live off” the cash you make from the previous title. But when you don’t have that, you have to raise cash somehow.

We thought that SteamWorld Dig was going to be a good game, so we were quite impatient. Another challenge was how we were staffed at the time; our senior programmers are world-class, but there were only two of them at the time, and they inevitably became bottlenecks. My best SteamWorld “moment” was a week during spring 2013 – a week that actually started badly. We had tested SteamWorld Dig on a number of people and the game simply wasn’t fun enough. We had invested (by our standards) very much money in the game, and it would have to sell rather well for us if we were to be able to continue. In short SteamWorld Dig was a gamble, and at the start of the week we’re talking about, it didn’t look like the gamble was going to pay off.

So we didn’t produce anything for a whole week, but instead just chased that elusive “fun factor”. And it worked – when we resumed development we managed to make a very good game. Yep, we ran out of money and had to stop short, but SteamWorld Dig is really good. I was very proud that the team could do it – because it wasn’t a case of pulling it out of a hat – and I was proud of myself for believing so hard in the game.

RK: Hearing this about Dig is very interesting, as the game has a lot of personality and charm. The amount of time and effort your studio put into the project to find that ‘fun factor’ paid off greatly, as many gamers greatly enjoyed the game when it released. Where you surprised by the reception Dig got when it launched on the Nintendo 3DS?

Brjann: Yes, quite a bit actually! We had released a relatively successful game before that, Anthill, that I mentioned briefly above. That game came out on iOS, and we were completely caught by surprise when Apple featured it. One of the sad things about the App Store is the congestion, and many games barely come out before they’re forgotten. It felt like it was over in the blink of an eye.

With SteamWorld Dig it was different; it felt like we could own media space for quite some time. It started with the game being well received, we were up and coming, people were curious. The timing was of course important too – Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft were suddenly indie-friendly when they sensed that a lot of developers were keen on getting out of mobile-only. We were probably faster than many to realize that mobile-only was a very fierce place to be. And another thing as well: Animal Crossing had turned the 3DS into a system seller, and many of those players were done with that game around the time SteamWorld Dig came out. They were looking for something new to play.

RK: I’m glad you was pleased with the reaction SteamWorld Dig got with gamers! I agree about your comments on mobile gaming; it is a market with promise but one that is difficult to get into. The Nintendo 3DS improving it’s hardware selling situation improving back in 2013 helped cement it as a major handheld this generation next to the PS Vita. When bringing Dig to PlayStation Platforms, were you surprised by the reaction from the PlayStation community?

Brjann: Well, that too – my first “real” console that I ever bought was the first PlayStation, and coming out with a game for PlayStation felt like a milestone in itself. Again, our timing was good – the PS4 had only been out for a very short time when we launched SteamWorld Dig for it, and people were eager to fill their system with good content.

However, I would say that there is a very much more defined community around Nintendo systems. Many Nintendo gamers get up in arms about their platform – they get Nintendo-centric tattoos and what have you – which I find isn’t really the case with PlayStation or Xbox gamers. There is an extensive culture and very strong IPs tied to Nintendo. Nintendo consoles have been around for so long, and many people started their gaming on one of their systems. A lot of memories!

RK: I love the PlayStation platforms just as much as Nintendo systems, so I am happy you was able to release the game on both Eco-Systems. I felt that the Vita was a great fit for Dig and it looks fantastic on the Vita’s screen. What were some development challenges when bringing Dig to PS4 and Vita?

Brjann: The biggest challenge was to make a version of the game that would work effortlessly on a single screen. SteamWorld Dig was made for the 3DS with its dual screens. Inventory, map etc felt very natural on the lower screen. Other than that it was a joy – the PS4 is a truly powerful console, and the Vita is a great extension of it.

RK: I felt that you did a great job adapting the game to Vita and PS4. Did you consider using the Vita hardware (touch screen, ec) for that version of the game?

Brjann: Yes, we felt we had to, since it was there! The touch screen is quite convenient when handling inventory, and I found I actually tinkered with the inventory much more since it was so handy.

RK: When you and Image & Form Games started production of SteamWorld Heist, what inspired you to switch game genres from Dig?

Brjann: The biggest motivator was the success of Dig, and that we’d actually already “switched genres” once before in SteamWorld with SteamWorld Tower Defense.

Just after the release of Dig, and before we got started on the Steam version of it, we were working on two very different things: the prequel to Dig and a small iOS game called Spin Demon. Both of them looked promising from the outset, but two slightly depressing facts soon dawned on us: (a) the scope of the prequel was going to be smaller than Dig, hardly the grand thing you bring out after a great “debut album”, and (b) Spin Demon was going nowhere. It looked very nice, but it wasn’t fun enough. We couldn’t nail down the fun factor.

But it was mainly the first of the above. I was getting anxious that we’d pass up our moment to shine if we did something mundane and less ambitious immediately after Dig. We were “haunted” by that ever-present last line of almost every review: “Can’t wait to see what this studio is up to next.” This was our opportunity to surprise and amaze. And so when our lead designer Olle Håkansson presented the idea, we decided to go all in with Heist.

RK: Did any strategy genre games influence the design and gameplay of Heist?

Brjann: Most definitely. I know for a fact that Olle was totally engrossed in XCOM at the time, and that’s also how it started. He was praising that game during lunch one day, and then someone said “Wouldn’t it be cool if…”, which is how everything typically starts here. We could also study the side-view perspective of Worms, although no one was enamored with that game the way Olle and a few others were with XCOM.

Personally I was more than happy. I love strategy games. I’m sure I play at least ten online chess games per day, and strategy games is what I get hooked on. It’s like crack, I imagine. I forget everything else and don’t want to do ANYTHING else when I play.

RK: When Heist released, were you happy with the reception it received? I personally really loved my time with the game.

Brjann: Yeah, the praise for the game has been almost overwhelming. For example, did you know that together with Nintendo’s Super Mario 3D World, SteamWorld Heist is – according to Metacritic – the highest-rated Wii U game of all time? Or that it’s on the top-five all-time list over Vita games? Or – which JUST happened – that it’s the Editors’ Choice and top featured game on the iOS App Store? I mean, every time we release it on a new platform, something milestone-y happens. We should just continue to find platforms to release on! xD

The iOS version is interesting, because you can’t really play it as fast on an iPhone/iPad as on other platforms. I just read in a forum that a guy spent 42 hours to complete the game, and he didn’t come across as a slow guy. Rather, he felt he was getting his money worth big time. That rhymes well with what we’ve set out to do – to create quality entertainment.

Quality-wise, the game definitely holds its own – and it’s made by a crew of 12 that has now grown into 18. Compare that with the armies of Nintendo, Capcom and the rest; Image & Form perhaps delivers the most bang “per pound” in the industry. It’s proof enough that we’re now world-class, and that we’re doing things right.

We could definitely improve how we market our games, though. They ought to sell better, but we’re learning as we go along.

RK: It is fantastic to hear that the game did so well with critics and gamers! Did you intend for Heist to connect with Dig & other SteamWorld titles? I noticed when I played the game that many sound cues and some parts of the look mirror Dig.

Brjann: Yes, we did. There’s obviously room for games between Dig and Heist, since there are chronologically so many years in between those two. In the future the links backward – and forward! – will be more tangible.

RK: What does the future hold for Image & Form Games and are you continue to work within the SteamWorld universe for your next project?

Brjann: Yes, the next game is a SteamWorld game…

RK: Can you share what platforms this new project will be on? I would love to see Image & Form continue working with PlayStation and Nintendo platforms.

Brjann: …and we’ll announce everything about the new game when we are ready. This time people won’t have to wait too long from the announcement to the release.

RK: Thank you for answering that question. Very excited about your future announcement! Any game you are currently playing?

Brjann: Chess! As usual, I try to fit at least ten chess games into my day – every day. I just downloaded Ori and the Blind Forest, that’ll be interesting! The producer of that game emailed me the other day just to congratulate on how awesome he thinks SteamWorld Heist is. So I’m going to return the favor – I’ve only heard very fine things about Ori but haven’t had time to play it yet. I’m looking forward to it.

RK: Heard fantastic things about Ori and the Blind Forest so I hope you greatly enjoy that game. Any final thoughts you would like to share?

Brjann: As usual, I’d like to ask everyone to step outside their boundaries: try some good game you think you’re not going to like. You can trust other people judgment – if a game is perceived as good, there’s a good chance it’s actually good. 😉 You’ll be surprised at how much you’ll enjoy it. Start with an Image & Form game, I hear those guys rarely disappoint. xD

RK: Thank you for answering my questions Brjann! It was an honor to have you here on 3WIREL for this interview!

You can find out more about Image & Form Games projects on their official website, Facebook and Twitter pages. Both SteamWorld Dig and Heist are out now for a number of gaming systems (PlayStation, Nintendo, Xbox, iOS), so consider giving those games a shot if you enjoyed this interview.

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