Wednesday, September 11, 2013

SPC Interviews: Brjann Sigurgeirsson (Image & Form)

The folks at Image & Form have something very special they can boast about. Their game, SteamWorld Dig, has reached the number one spot on the Nintendo 3DS eShop charts in all territories. That's no easy task, or a task to scoff at. I recently caught up with Brjann Sigurgeirsson of Image & Form to discuss the studio's transition from children's games to games for a broader audience, the development of SteamWorld Dig, and the future projects the team will be working on.

Phil Stortzum (PS): Before we dive right into things, can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself? Things such as your experience in the gaming industry, why you decided to enter the industry, favorite games, etc.

Brjann Sigurgeirsson (BS): I'm 45 years old, got five kids and a dog. And a cat. And a fairly understanding wife. I started making small games on a system called ABC80 at the age of 13 back in 1980. Every pixel was as large as a lump of sugar, and I was programming in Basic. Those were the days! Then, in 1991, Apple released System 7 and I happened to live in Tokyo. The company I worked for switched into a multimedia outfit, and we made a lot of questionable titles that weren't really games, but these days would have fit into the genre called "gamification". It was quite interesting. There were no rules for these multimedia titles, the whole industry was learning as it went along.

My favorite game of all times is chess. I've played it for as long as I can remember, and I still play a few games every day. It's the greatest game ever invented. It's simple, it's complex, and it's FAIR. There's no luck, no hardware advantages, no lag issues... just two minds pitted against each other. It's wonderful, and it's fresh every time.

For video games, I'd like to mention a game called Spaceward Ho! for the Mac. It's also an old game, but it was fairly recently ported to the iPad. Lovely space explore & conquer game, fantastic in depth and charm and quite unknown to most. The Monkey Island titles are superbly quirky and funny. And obviously everything where Sid Meyer has been involved in. After the first batch with Space Invaders, Defender and the like, my first real arcade game affair was with a game called International Karate. Low-res graphics, good controls... very gratifying.

PS: How did Image & Form come to be?

BS: Image & Form, besides having the worst name in the gaming industry, for the longest time wasn't even a game studio. My wife at the time and me started out after many years in Japan, followed by a couple more in San Francisco. We were waiting for multimedia to catch on in Sweden, so that we could go home and find employment. We had done quite a few different multimedia things by then, and thought we would be kickass employees. When we moved back to Gothenburg in 1997, we applied for work here and there - and got all the jobs we applied for. This made us cocky enough to start our own business, and the name was a worst-case compromise. We made a lot of presentations, graphic design and websites the first years, and didn't get into real game development until a Norwegian publisher asked us a save a sinking children's game in 2002. Then we made more and more of those edutainment games (using ole faithful Macromedia Director), until we one day realized that we were a game developer.

PS: Image & Form previously worked on many PC games for younger players. What made the studio decide to shift focus and make games for older audiences?

BS: At one point, when we were nearing 30 titles in the franchise, we understood that we had to do something else. We were eight people at the time, and everyone was creatively starved. Plus the fact that sales of physical PC/Mac CD-ROM games was starting to decline quite rapidly. We had to do something else. The App Store was opening its doors at that point. Great things were afoot.

PS: What made the team decide to move from PC to iOS devices/Nintendo 3DS? Will you return to PC development in the future?

BS: We moved out of necessity - see above. In 2010 we released our first Nintendo DSiWare game called SteamWorld Tower Defense. It surprised us by breaking even in a quite terrible marketplace, but we also were scared of doing more things for the Nintendo DSi. It was a much smaller market than we had expected, and we didn't want to go into distributing physical games - we were determined that the future lies in digital distribution. We made a couple of poor-selling iOS titles, and then we suddenly had a major hit with Anthill for iOS towards the end of 2011, which was selected as iPad Game of the Week and won awards and nominations. We weren't really prepared for it, and it feels like it went away as quickly as it had come. But we felt that we could actually create great games. It shattered a glass ceiling of sorts for us.

We will most likely return to PC development, and probably sooner than you'd expect. The possibilities there are greater than ever.

PS: What changes did the team experience from the jump from making PC software to making games for mobile/handheld devices?

BS: It's a big difference, especially if you factor in that we went into developing for a radically different audience. So it was a huge leap: new platform, new tech, new consumers. In retrospect, it looks quite daring, but we didn't know what else to do - it was either that or leaving game development.

We found that mobile development was very different from mastering physical CD-ROMs. In many respects, it was simpler and less scary. But at the same time, the PC/Mac titles we made were work for hire, and so we were leaving a very comfortable spot and going into the great unknown. Since we had been "hiding" behind a publisher the whole time, we didn't have any good press contacts etc. It took us a while to get used to this new role.

PS: All of the developers we have spoken with so far have stated that working with Nintendo is much easier than before. How is working with Nintendo, in the team’s view? Are they, indeed, easy to work with?

BS: I couldn't agree more. Nintendo has been friendly and personal, while the application and submission processes are almost as hard as before. It's a good thing, since it means you're likely to continue seeing quality titles on Nintendo's platforms. Less serious developers will shy away from the hassle.

But the biggest change probably occurred here in our office. With SteamWorld Dig, we weren't as intimidated by The Big N as we were when we put out SteamWorld Tower Defense for the DSiWare Store.

PS: Do you believe the eShop is satisfactory in its current shape? If not, what would you improve?

BS: I would like to see more games, but not at the cost of quality. The App Store has an amazing variety of games, but it's getting harder and harder to find what is good and what is not, and I wouldn't want the eShop to be in the same position. I also believe that Nintendo should make some special category for third-party games. We managed to beat their own titles on their home ground (with a lot of help from Nintendo themselves!), but I think SteamWorld Dig is a very unusual animal and it's not a thing that will be repeated easily. It's tricky when the platform owner has the capacity to plug their own games, it could easily become unfair. So an "indie shelf" or the like would be very interesting, as long as it's not tucked away in some dark corner.

PS: For those that are unfamiliar with your new game, what can you tell our readers about SteamWorld Dig? What makes it compelling compared to all the other titles released on the Nintendo eShop?

BS: In SteamWorld Dig, you take the role of Rusty, a robot newcomer to the ailing mining town of Tumbleton. You take over the mine from your Uncle Joe (who's gone missing), and start digging down to find out what is going on. You dig, you fight, you climb up and down, find lots of strange stuff... and face the ultimate showdown in the end.

SteamWorld Dig has some elements that appear in classic games, but it's not like any other game. We like to call it a "platform mining adventure": the controls are those of a platformer, the objective is mining, and the background story makes for excellent emergent gameplay. You can play it in different ways, slow or fast, and still not do it "wrong" - it caters to both explorers and speedrunners. The visuals are stunning, and the gameplay mechanics are fantastic and deep. It's a gamer's game, and should appeal to everyone who likes classic games.

PS: Where did the inspiration for SteamWorld Dig come from? Did any other games influence its creation?

BS: There are a lot of digging (and non-digging) games that obviously inspired us, but the biggest inspiration came from Dig's spiritual predecessor, SteamWorld Tower Defense. After we had released that game, we would sit and discuss how this strange world had come about, where robots were the friendly master race and humanity had been demoted to living underground as greedy, unsympathetic trolls. We always wanted to expand on the story, and finally decided to go for it.

PS: How long was development for SteamWorld Dig? Were there any issues, problems or challenges the team had during development of the game?

BS: We started developing SteamWorld Dig in October 2012 and submitted for lotcheck at the end of June 2013. For us, that's a very long development period.

The main issue appeared some 2-3 months into development: the game simply wasn't fun to play, and early testers were looking at us with "what am I supposed to do now?" expressions on their faces. We decided to take a step back, not develop anything for a few days, and just brainstorm around this problem. We then made some bold decisions, to introduce the wall-jump that we'd been avoiding - we thought the game would just be too short if you could dig vertically down and jump up the same way instead of having to zig-zag your way down - and to shorten tutorials to a minimum. Rather, let people find out for themselves what they're supposed to do, and don't let them go until they've learned it.

PS: What is the team most proud of regarding SteamWorld Dig?

BS: I think different people are proud of different things. Art director Tobias Nilsson and his team of graphic artists are - and should be - proud of everything they did: the characters, the environment, the lighting, and the special effects. Lead designer Olle HÃ¥kansson and the programmers have created an amazingly compelling gameplay, which doesn't let you go. Script writer Peter Broqvist should take pride in scaling back the background story to a minimum - people don't have to be told exactly what's happening the whole time, it's very gratifying to read between the lines.

I'm proud of the team's commitment throughout the process. It's easy to realize at one point that a game isn't going to be as good as you hoped and then simply continue "to do what you're told to." When SteamWorld Dig needed fresh ideas, the whole team pitched in and put it on the right path again.

I'm also proud that we managed to get to the #1 spot in all the territories. For an indie title, it's a near-unattainable achievement. But that's not something we did by ourselves - a lot of selfless people have helped. It's easy to root for the underdog - and wonderful to watch that underdog win.

PS: How is it being an indie developer in today’s video game industry? Do you encounter any struggles? Is there any sort of risks involved?

There's the everyday challenge of making the right decisions. If we bet on the wrong game or on the wrong platform, we're out of business. Complete failure is potentially never further away than the next title. There is personal financial risk and dependencies. If the wrong people quit, you can't simply call in the next ones from the bench.

That said, being an indie these days is very exciting. Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft have understood there's a vacuum or window of opportunity right now, when many indie developers realize that they're simply not making money on mobile.

PS: Are you able to divulge any hints about future projects? Does the team at Image & Form have an idea or two on what they’d like to develop?

BS: Right now we're working on three things:

- where to take SteamWorld Dig next

- the next installment in the SteamWorld series (mind you I'm not using the word "sequel"), and

- a wonderful iOS game called Spin Demon.

We are full of ideas the whole time, and have around 10-15 strong game ideas that we would like to realize one day. Most of them are unique and very different from each other.

PS: Does Image & Form have any desire to enter the console marketplace for your digital games? Is that a possibility for the future?

BS: Yes. And yes. :)

PS: Is there a possibility of porting SteamWorld Dig to the PlayStation Vita, or creating a completely new game for Sony’s handheld?

BS: Yes. And yes. :D

PS: Is there anything else you’d like to specifically say to our readers or anyone passing by?

BS: Play more games. Or rather, play more GOOD games! Life's too short to play - and develop - mediocre, subpar or me-too products. So look for quality. It's out there.


We can't thank Brjann Sigurgeirsson and the gang at Image & Form enough for their time. It's never easy going through an exhaustive list of questions, but Brjann did so splendidly. Be sure to check out SteamWorld Dig on the Nintendo 3DS eShop if you haven't already. SuperPhillip Central hopes to have more interviews coming down the pipeline. 

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