What does an indie team do after its first big hit? We talked to Brjánn Sigurgeirsson, CEO of SteamWorld Dig developer Image & Form, about its new project: SteamWorld Heist, a turn-based strategy game set in the world of the breakout mining title. In the game, you’ll assemble a team of robots and take them into spaceship shootouts in a fight for resources and survival.
Snackbar Games: What is it like making a game after making a successful one?
Brjánn Sigurgeirsson: It’s hard. It’s not automatically easy. When we were done with the development of SteamWorld Dig, that was June, like exactly two years ago. It came out in August on the 3DS first. And we didn’t know. I mean, we’d been so engrossed in making the game, so we didn’t know if it was flawed, or decent, or good, or bad, or great? But we knew that we were very tired at that point. So it’s like “okay, everybody, let’s go for vacation,” so everyone went for vacation in July, and we’ll just pick it up in August and see what we do. So the first few days, we were talking about what kind of PR and marketing we were going to make for Dig. It’s coming out in seven days, and we didn’t have a plan for it.
SBG: Oops! That’s… that’s probably fine.
Sigurgeirsson: Right? It’s totally rookie-ish. And it was my fault, right? It was my job to get it out there. And we got lucky with timing, and also coverage that we got from several different places that we hadn’t expected. Like Nintendo Direct did one minute of SteamWorld Dig there, so it was very special.
The other guys had started making two smaller games, because we didn’t really know what to do. And there were 12 of us, so we reasoned that we could divide into two teams and make two small games. While we were doing that, it was evident that this game has actually landed pretty well, that people like it. And then we got an email from Valve. “Do you want it out on Steam? You don’t have to stand in line.”
SBG: So this was completely unplanned, like “hey, do you want to do a PC version of this game?”
Sigurgeirsson: Right! So we’re like, “wait, we have to stop. We have to focus on this now.” And I was happy with it, because I was thinking, now that SteamWorld Dig is successful, we’ve become somebody. We have to think about what our next game is going to be. Is it going to be two small efforts?
SBG: Did anything happen with those two small games?
Sigurgeirsson: They’re still sitting on the shelf.
SBG: It’s not like one of them developed into this?
Sigurgeirsson: Oh, no actually. One of them we’ll make later. And one of them we’ve decided not to do.
But while we were porting to PC and making the HD graphics, we were talking about, “wouldn’t it be cool to make a turn-based game?” And everybody says, “yeah, that’d be cool.” So how is it going to work? Is it 2D? So we’re exploring it and thinking about it quite a bit.
SBG: Was that a personnel choice, like “this is what we’re capable of making?”
Sigurgeirsson: This is what we want to make. It was more like that. This sounds very pompous, but I actually think we’re capable of making good games in any type of genre. But since we’re so limited, we can’t make AAA games. So it was like, “what can we make that we want to make?”
And then I was very happy, because yes, this is great! This is a much bigger game than SteamWorld Dig, and potentially it’s a much better game also than SteamWorld Dig. So I set up two conditions. It needs to be set in SteamWorld. It wasn’t obvious from the beginning. That’s one. And it has to come out before December 2014. So one out of two isn’t that bad.
SBG:: One’s a little more crucial to the bottom line.
Sigurgeirsson: Yeah! [Laughs.] Yeah, it is.
SBG:: So how’s that going? From a “we missed our deadline” perspective?
Sigurgeirsson: I think we were in September or October 2013 when we were discussing that. We started making Heist in January 2014. So it felt like we had oceans of time until the end of the year. Also, we didn’t know that so many things would happen during 2014 that would give us enough money to extend it beyond that. I thought that, when we talked about it first, that we’d have to have it out, for financial reasons, in 2014.
SBG:: What sorts of things happened last year?
Sigurgeirsson: Quite a number of things! We released it on more platforms. We came out on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita. The PC version came out in December 2013, so in the spring it came out on PlayStation, and then also on the Wii U in August. We didn’t expect any real sales from those platforms.
We used to be a mobile developer, so there you have a 72-hour window to recoup your money, and if you haven’t, you’re not going to get it back. So we thought, “this game came out in August 2013, it’s coming now to PlayStation in March… nobody will get this game.” But they did, and they did in droves. And we actually made quite a bit of money. And then, with Steam sales and everything, it was generating enough money for us to be very comfortable up until now. And then it came out on Xbox One, and that went… well. We’re not rich by any standards, but we’re comfortable actually.
SBG:: It allowed you to keep making the game you intended to make.
Sigurgeirsson: Yes! To make it into what it’s supposed to be. And that’s a lesson that we took with us from Dig. We borrowed money to finish that game, and by the end of it, it felt like we’d borrowed the equivalent of Fort Knox by our standards. And we still needed to cut content from SteamWorld Dig, so it’s actually smaller than we envisioned. When we were done with it, it was like, never again are we going to make a game where we have to compromise on what it is going to be.
SBG:: Do you ever see returning to SteamWorld Dig to make the game with the scope you originally intended, or with a larger scope?
SBG:: Is that the “break in case of emergency” if-all-things-go-wrong plan, then? SteamWorld Dig 2?
Sigurgeirsson: [Laughs.] No, it’s not that. I think SteamWorld Dig 2, if we make it, is going to be an awesome game.
SBG:: On the other side, do you see the studio making anything that’s not a SteamWorld game for the foreseeable future?
Sigurgeirsson: Hmm… yeah. I actually do. I think it’s been a good choice to sort of dig where you stand, if you pardon the pun. Where we have SteamWorld, it’s a decently-known brand. Enough people know about SteamWorld for enough people to be interested in seeing what’s coming next within that same universe.
SBG:: It seems a little like the PixelJunk branding, in that there’s a certain style to it. “The game’s not going to be the same at all, but trust us.” Which is why I wondered if branching away from the franchise is something you’d want to do.
Sigurgeirsson: I think that, if we do it in the foreseeable future, which I think we do, it’s going to be a one- or two-off, making very small games that we want to make.
SBG:: Maybe one of those on the shelf?
Sigurgeirsson: Yeah! Well, one of them is SteamWorld, and sort of under the umbrella. I think that other games that are not SteamWorld games will have to be games that cannot fit in the universe.
SBG:: If you can make it fit, you will.
Sigurgeirsson: Yeah. And it’s a tremendous feeling to use SteamWorld like that. It was a conscious decision not to make SteamWorld Dig 2 after SteamWorld Dig. It would’ve made a lot of sense to make it, in certain ways, because we had the mechanics in place and the art style. We wouldn’t have to reinvent, or think up a lot of new things or different things. But if we had made SteamWorld Dig 2 directly after Dig, I think we would’ve been stuck in that “yeah, it’s that mining game company.”
So instead, when we decided that SteamWorld Heist is going to be a SteamWorld game, it was a great feeling of, “yeah!” We made SteamWorld Tower Defense, we made SteamWorld Dig, and now we’re making SteamWorld Heist. We can use this universe to do whatever game we want to make. As long as it’s steam-driven robots in that world.
SBG:: So from a gameplay perspective, what do you think SteamWorld Heist delivers that other games don’t? What is new about SteamWorld Heist?
Sigurgeirsson: So it’s a turn-based combat game. Most, if not almost all, turn-based combat games are percentage-based. If you shoot, there’s going to be a dice roll somewhere determining if it hits and how well you hit. This is purely skill-based. Since it’s 2D, you can sort of follow the trajectory of a bullet and see where it hits. That is the amount of damage that the bullet is going to do.
It also delivers a quirkiness, but also a depth, to robot characters that I’m not sure we’ve seen before. Robots with a history, it’s kind of interesting. In the game, you’ll recruit new characters the whole time to increase your roster and get new abilities and new characteristics. Every robot comes with his or her story, and it’s interesting that robots should have a history, or a past.
SBG:: I guess you can only do that in a game where robots are the only thing, because otherwise the robot has to serve this role, as this soulless thing.
Sigurgeirsson: As the robot! That’s true.
SBG:: Are there ever going to be non-robots showing up? Is the idea of SteamWorld that it’s 100% robots?
Sigurgeirsson: That’s a very interesting question. In SteamWorld Dig, we had the remnants of humanity, but *they’re* the soulless creatures. They’re the cannon fodder, the enemy that doesn’t have a past, really. I think those humans will resurface in SteamWorld. There are also going to be other types of robots that are not steam-driven, that are not this wholesome, upstanding, decent type of robot.
Thanks to Brjánn for taking the time to talk to us! SteamWorld Heist will release this fall, debuting on 3DS and following later on Steam, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U, Vita and mobile platforms.