Interview: Brjann Sigurgeirsson (Steamworld Heist)

Steamworld Heist LogoSteamworld Dig was one of those games that took this site by storm.  It started with Shelby and spiraled from there.  I, personally, ended up playing through the game on four different platforms and live streamed a speed run to the bottom of the world.  Needless to say we were actually very interested in talking to the folks at Image and Form when they announced Steamworld Heist.  I recently got the chance to chat with Brjann from the developer about the game.  Here’s that interview in all it’s glory.  It’s long, but it’s good.  He gives some great insight into how feedback affects not only a game, but the communities overall response to it and even the developers themselves.  You also find out which company he’d like to work with in the future to get characters like Rusty into other properties.

Buckle up.  It’s a long, bumpy ride, but it’s a good one.

Thanks for joining us today.  Can you introduce yourself to everyone?

Hi all, I’m Brjann (Editor’s Note: It’s pronounced Brian) Sigurgeirsson (Editor’s Note: No clue), the CEO and founder of Image & Form, a small studio based in rainy, windy Gothenburg, Sweden. Or it’s usually rainy and windy… today we’re having a one-off with sunshine, and it’s WARM! Yay, spring is here! 🙂

We’ve made games for over ten years, but it’s not until recently things have taken off. For the longest time we were a work-for-hire studio, grabbing every chance to make money – very much a hand-to-mouth operation. Then, in 2010, we started making our own games. It was either that or dying a slow, painful death from lack of creative outlet.

BrjannEconomically, the idea of self-publishing without a safety net wasn’t very sound – if either of our initial efforts hadn’t worked out, we probably would have gone bust. But our three “major” tries (at least in the sense of financing – remember you’re reading the words of a growing-studio CEO) panned out: SteamWorld Tower Defense in 2010 (for the DSi), Anthill in 2011 (iOS) and then our breakaway sleeper hit SteamWorld Dig in 2013-14 (3DS, Steam, PS4/Vita, Wii U so far… and Xbox One coming very soon).

In a sense we’ve transformed ourselves three times during the past few years. First, going from work for hire to self-publishing is a big step. Second, with Anthill we proved to ourselves that we could actually make really good games. And third, SteamWorld Dig put us on the map for real – we went from being nobody to somebody. Somebody with a lot of potential, that makes GOTY-quality games.

You’re currently working on Steamworld Heist, a follow up to Steamworld Dig.  Can you tell us a little bit about what the game is?

It’s a follow-up to SteamWorld Dig, and as such a bit demanding. It’s pretty much the same way a musician has to follow up a successful or acclaimed album. So rather than making a direct sequel with similar gameplay, we decided to make something quite different.

So what is it? The elevator pitch: SteamWorld Heist is a game about space adventures and strategic shoot-outs. Play as Captain Piper and recruit a team of rag-tag robots to explore and scavenge the remains of a destroyed world. Board enemy spaceships and command your crew in a unique variety of turn-based combat, where the outcome is determined purely by your own skills.

There were all kinds of reasons for making Heist instead of a straight-up sequel – and probably tons of reasons against as well. Primarily we didn’t want to get caught directly being “the devs that make those digging games”. We got the idea for Heist and decided to go for it. Heist is set in SteamWorld, the same world as Dig, which is still inhabited by steam-driven robots – and just about there we run out of similarities. I’m not sure the games could be more different: SteamWorld Dig is a mining platform adventure, whereas SteamWorld Heist revolves around turn-based combat strategy.

Steamworld Heist 1I’ve heard you call it a sequel to the sequel of Steamworld Dig.  How does Steamworld Heist fit into the world of Steamworld Dig, if at all?

It actually does fit, and we didn’t have to go crazy trying to invent some far-fetched connection. Heist is set a few hundred years after Dig (years don’t really matter that much to robots, see Wall-E for comparison). Something’s gone terribly wrong with the Earth, and the steambots have been forced to take to space (logics don’t (sic) matter that much to robots either – how did steam-driven robots invent space travel?). Different factions have decided to cope with everyday life in different ways. The protagonist, Captain Piper, is a space pirate and quite similar to the original cowbots.

We call it the sequel to the sequel, because there is an obvious gap between SteamWorld Dig and SteamWorld Heist. I’m sure we’ll explore that gap sometime soon, we just need to wrap up Heist first.

What can you tell us about the overall story of the game?

I’ll tell you the conditions at the very start of the game, so I don’t give away too much. Since resources are scarce – primarily water, which the robots need for their internal and ship engines – Piper leads a lowly existence heisting enemy ships (and those enemies are really nasty, so it’s totally OK) and scavenging water and other loot. She recruits new members to her crew, and slowly her morale changes in the face of the challenges she and her mates face. In a sense, she goes from being Han Solo to Luke Skywalker. Or Princess Leia. Or Robin Hood… or Mother Teresa. There, I’ve muddled the waters enough.

Steamworld Heist 2There are a lot of destructible environmental objects in the game.  How much of the environment will players be able to interact with?

An adequate amount. Sorry, a pretty hard question to answer. 🙂

What about multi-player.  Will there be multi-player modes available in the game?

Not from the beginning – just as with Dig, we want the players to identify with the main character, and then single-player is the way to go.

Do you think the above sentence sounds just like an excuse? Well, you’re partly right. We use our own C++ tech, and therefore “tacking on” multiplayer isn’t done over the course of a coffee break, to understate grossly. If Heist is a big success we’ll build very interesting multiplayer capabilities and release it as DLC. We already know how it will work. Sadly, we also know what an incredible amount of work it entails. If we could include multiplayer within less than six calendar months, we probably would have delayed the release of the game. Now we can add it afterwards.

Anthill 1What about online functionality?

Nothing really, and I don’t think we’d aim for it anyway – besides multiplayer, it would boil down to community interaction of some sort, and the communities are so different. For the 3DS we could add some sort of Miiverse and Streetpass functionality, but we intend to release Heist on all platforms. It would be artificial at best. We prefer to hang out in Miiverse and talk to our friends outside the game.

Heist, being a turn based style game, is a very different game to Dig, which featured you interacting with enemies more in real time.  What are some of the differences you’ve seen in developing a turn based game compared to something like Dig? 

Thousands of differences! One of the much bigger challenges in making Heist is the balance of the game, that is, how difficult it is at any given time. In the beginning we thought we’d make Heist really hard, with almost roguelike penalties. But then we noticed that if you made small tactical errors, you could actually find yourself in unfairly severe trouble after a very short exchange of actions and counteractions. In a sense, similar to when you make a really bad move in chess – which of course is the best game of all time. 🙂 It was too harsh, and we changed it towards more of the penalties you find in Dig. It was fascinating to see how much more fun the game became after that.

Quick note: one of the wonderful things about chess is that it’s always fair – the best mind always wins in an ultimate contest of skills, and there’s no luck anywhere. Another very underrated quality of chess is that it’s simple and infinitely complex at the same time. That’s very hard to achieve. It’s almost impossible to make a modern game where you get that sense of fairness, because the complexity lies somewhere else – often buried in a large number of parameters. Heist is a skill-based game, but sometimes you can inadvertently slip up, make a “finger error” or time a shot wrong. The first iterations of Heist would eat you in seconds, and it felt almost… unfair. Or worse, it didn’t feel like it was worth the effort to restart. The new mechanism feels so much more interesting.

Steamworld DigI absolutely adored the soundtrack to Steamworld Dig.  It had that old west flair that just put you in the mood for the game.  Can we expect something similar in this game?

Yes and no. As you may know, the radically great band Steam Powered Giraffe are making the official soundtrack, and it’s very exciting. The in-game music is also great, and perhaps even more along the lines of what you describe. The music will actually play a more central role in Heist than in Dig. You’ll see what I mean. 🙂

Everyone I’ve talked to that played the game absolutely loved Steamworld Dig.  What’s the overall reaction to that game been like and how were sales across all the various platforms?

Very glad to hear that, you seem to talk to people with great taste! ;D When we wrapped up development, we honestly didn’t know if we had a bad, decent, good or great game. Our noses were too close to the screen, and had been so for a long time.

We had set a review embargo for the release date, so when the first review came in – 9/10 from Australian one-girl outfit gamesblip.com. I was tremendously relieved: at least ONE site liked it! And then the rest poured in, and the reactions were much more positive than we could have expected.

We started out on the 3DS, and the first days of sales were actually slightly disappointing – at least compared to what we had expected. We knew that we had to sell around 100,000 copies to break even, and in our naïvety we believed that was going to be easy. But then Nintendo of America started featuring us, and Nintendo of Europe extended their feature – and that, incredibly, pushed us up to #1 in Europe, USA and Australia. It took us a lot longer to reach break-even than we had thought. But we got there after a while.

Steam carries massive potential. We’ve sold almost as many copies on Steam as we have on 3DS. And in terms of money we’ve been successful on PlayStation Network as well. And although the Wii U version of SteamWorld Dig is arguably the best one, it came rather late in the cycle – almost a year after the 3DS version. Wonder how Dig would have fared if we’d released it for the Wii U day one?

Steamworld Heist 3If you had to pick the worst bit of feedback you received for Steamworld Dig what do you think that would be?

Now that’s a really good question, because it’s really central to digital publishing. Long answer here, so bear with me.

I’d like go back a little bit further, to 2011 and the feedback we got on Anthill. We got marvelous user reviews when we released Anthill for iOS. In fact, Anthill is one of the highest-rated games on the App Store to date. But once in a while we’d get a “bad” review, and it annoyed me that I couldn’t answer that user to address his or her problem in person (I’m old enough to be convinced that personal involvement with customers is a wondrous thing).

App Store reviews are nearly anonymous – there’s no contact info, no interface to communicate anything back. Here’s someone who’s bought our game and isn’t happy, and the simplest way for them to vent their frustration is to write a bad review. We have our contact information in the game, but it takes a bit of work: the user must go into the “About” screen, jot down the email address and contact us. We’d be happy to set things as right as we can, but it’s quicker – and standard procedure – for a frustrated consumer to recommend other users against buying the game – instead of getting their money’s worth. Whenever someone writes us with a complaint, we try to make the best of the situation. After all, here’s this customer that takes the time to write to us. It usually ends with us being able to set them up with something that makes them happy instead of angry. And a loud happy customer is obviously a hundred times better than a loud angry one.

The worst feedback we received for SteamWorld Dig was a major Swedish gaming site that gave it a poor score, 2 out of 5. What was worse, the review was quite condescending – written in the kind of superior tone that can make you go ballistic if you’re at the receiving end, and a quite Swedish phenomenon: many reviewers of cultural phenomena compete with each other in self-importance. It was really tough, especially as it appeared two days after release and we were wearing our nerves on our sleeves. They had visited the office a scant week before and done a lengthy interview. We got the impression that they liked the game. We were completely unknown, and here was a major site talking to us! And then the editor-in-chief gave the review assignment to a guy that didn’t even seem to like the genre… It felt awful and strange, really. I had to stop myself from writing them an angry, despondent e-mail.

Steamworld Heist 4But it also showed something general that I hadn’t really been aware of before: if an article is negative about something, the comments from readers tend to follow that tone – and vice versa. Check out any article, it’s really true! It’s like we can’t think or judge for ourselves – the sheepishness that got Barabbas off the hook when Jesus got crucified lives on. Perhaps this type of schadenfreude or sheepishness again is very Swedish, but that review drew negative comments like flies to a pile of ****. On a small scale, I got a whiff of what it must feel like being Phil Fish, with haters just piling on by force of habit – and with the warm, cuddly notion of not having to go against the grain.

I mentioned that our iOS game Anthill has gotten great reviews throughout. That’s wonderful, but sometimes you wonder. One site let a guy that hates ants review it. He spent half of the review discussing why he hates ants, and among his “cons” when summing up the game was “it contains ants”. Letting an ant phobic rant about ants is hilarious on some meta plane, but I mean… really? As a journalist you must muster up some kind of responsibility and turn down the assignment if you feel you’re not fit to review a game. I’m certainly not asking for carte-blanche praise. But I certainly mean that consumers depend on unbiased, insightful reviews written by experts. If you don’t fit that description for a certain game, then give that game a pass.

Interestingly, the Swedish site went revisionist just a week after publishing their review, when it turned out that the rest of the world was raving about SteamWorld Dig – and ostracized the reviewer in another article about the game. Also typically Swedish, rooting for the winner is something we do historically well. 😉

Rusty RunbowIt was recently announced that Rusty was going to be featured in another game Runbow.  How did that come about? 

Dave Proctor, one of the splendid guys at 13am, simply shot me an email and asked. In the indie community it doesn’t have to be harder than that. That doesn’t mean that we automatically agree to everything. But he sent a gameplay video, and I thought Runbow looked really cool. We then met for beer and Mexican food in San Francisco during GDC and had a wonderful time. I hope Runbow does really well, and that 13am continues to be successful.

That’s one thing I’ve always liked about the indie game world.  They’re not afraid to let their characters show up in someone else’s game.  It’s good for both parties involved.  Do you think more games should be open to character swaps like that? 

Yes and no – I think it’s one of the things that makes the indie community such a nice place. Any indie developer can contact us – or anyone else – and ask anything about development, marketing, contacts, you name it. Or suggest that we collaborate on something. You could be romantic and say we simply do it because we love games, but it’s also because we CAN. It takes us no time at all to decide and act quickly on these matters. Bigger studios probably have a harder time doing it.

Personally I think Nintendo should be more open to character inclusions – and many other things – since they’re so community-driven. Imagine Smash Bros with all kinds of heroes on the Nintendo platform, not only characters owned by Nintendo. But to them it would be a huge process. Indies can shake hands with each other much faster. For example, I can’t imagine that 13am would ever screw us over; you only need to meet people once to understand how they’re built and what makes them tick. And it took half a beer to understand that we and the guys at 13am are the same. We’re game developers, not lawyers or profiteers.

If you were to have another character in Steamworld who would it be? 

Er… not sure I understand the question, so I’ll interpret it my own way. Captain Piper in SteamWorld Heist is an excellent SteamWorld character, and so are her potential crew mates. Inventing them is great fun. Since they’re robots and that’s what unifies them, we can think up all kinds of additional personality traits that set them apart. My favorite character at the moment is Piper’s old friend Sea Brass – an ex-whaler, peg leg and all, with a mind preoccupied with revenge. What could possibly have happened in his “life”? How does a steam-driven robot become and quit being a whaler? How would a robot exact revenge? And for what?

Ah, but now I understand what you meant – sorry for being slow. 🙂 I actually contacted the guy behind Spelunky at one time to see if we could do something with Spelunky Guy in SteamWorld Dig – you know, having Rusty suddenly turn into him when entering a special cave or something, a very modest, fun cameo at the most. I thought it would be very cool. Never got a reply. 🙂 At the time I thought he could at least have answered and vowed to at least answer every similar request myself. I believe I do, but I understand better now – at the time of writing this answer there are 170 unread emails in my Inbox, and then I spend much of my time doing just that – writing and responding to emails.

What game would you like to see Rusty, or another of your characters, appear in?

There’s this very cool guy called Jools Whatsham, who runs Renegade Kid. He’s always been nice and helpful. I wouldn’t mind Rusty appearing in one of their games. We’ll see if that’ll ever happen. 🙂

Imagine if you were the star of your own video game.  It’s up to you to save the world. You can have super powers or a super-giant mech that defies logic. Which do you choose to save the world and/or universe?

Super powers – of course! I actually AM the star of this game that you and me are playing right now. My name is Charismo, and my super power is that you have to do my bidding due to my irresistible charm and charisma. I hereby command you to publish this interview sometime soon on your site. You won’t be able to resist! 😀

Can you give us any hints about what we might see in that sequel to Steamworld Dig should it be released?

It most certainly will be released, and we already have the game design document ready. The big hint is that it takes place between SteamWorld Dig and SteamWorld Heist (for those who didn’t know). Other than that, I have vowed to keep silent about it for a good while yet.

Back to Heist.  What platforms will the game be available on and when can people get their hands on the game?

It will come out on all major current-gen platforms. In alphabetical order (not order of release, which is yet to be determined): 3DS, Linux, Mac, PC, PlayStation 4, Vita, Wii U, Xbox One. And major mobile/tablet platforms as well.

Thanks for joining us today.  Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers before we finish?

The same thing I always round off with: Play games. Play MORE games! It’s just like food: variety is good for you. 🙂

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