Interview: Digging into SteamWorld Dig on PS4 and Vita with Image & Form
Posted by Sammy Barker
The mining genre has launched an unearthly assault on the PlayStation brand over the past few months. While they may have been late to the construction site, the likes of Minecraft, Terraria, and Spelunky have all taken Sony’s systems by storm. Next on the rota is SteamWorld Dig, which is set to tunnel its way onto the PlayStation 4 and Vita later this month. In order to prepare for the impending Metroidvania inspired release, we caught up with Image & Form’s talkative boss Brjann Sigurgeirsson to chat elevators, touchpads, and much, much, much more.
Push Square: SteamWorld Dig has been a tremendous success on the Nintendo 3DS, but for those who are maybe hearing about it for the first time, can you give us the elevator pitch?
Brjann Sigurgeirsson: Well, SteamWorld Dig is what we call a "mining platform adventure". I'm afraid that doesn't tell anyone what the game is really about, but I was lucky when pitching this product that the elevator broke down mid-ride, allowing me to reveal the following to the listener.
Before the game starts, almost all of mankind has been blown to bits around the turn of the 19th century. Sorry about that. Some 50 years earlier, a clever scientist named Charles Babbage succeeded in making a mechanical computer. This in turn led to the creation of servile, steam-driven robots capable of carrying out fairly simple tasks. Getting fat, lazy, and greedy as a result, humans decided to create quite advanced weapons, and an arms race began without people really being prepared for it.
The survivors were fairly uninteresting people, the variety that you wouldn't bother going to war with – y’know, the low-brow, moonshining kind. They disappeared underground to avoid the fallout, and then they forgot about the surface. Luckily, most of the robots survived and continued doing their regular stuff. Without knowing or caring, they ruled the world. A few hundred years passed.
Then a robot named Rusty – our protagonist – gets a letter from his Uncle Joe, who's naturally also a robot. Joe hands over the deed to his mine to Rusty, and asks him to join him in the small mining town of Tumbleton. Rusty arrives, and the game starts.
Rusty meets other friendly robots in Tumbleton (there are three of them at the outset), and in the shape of Rusty you start exploring his uncle's mine. You'll find a lot of ore to be mined and sold in town, where you can conveniently upgrade Rusty's equipment. He has to keep track of his health in order to not "die", his water supply in order to produce steam, and his coal furnace, his only source of light. Rusty will also find a number of caves, where he can upgrade his functionality with speed boots, new types of tools, and other nifty robotic stuff.
Who left all of this stuff behind? Did his uncle build all of these things? Why do the robots talk so funny? And why does Rusty adapt so well to all of that foreign technology? Answers to questions such as these and others lie in the dark, slightly scary underground.
PS: Wow, that’s some elevator pitch. You describe the title as a ‘platforming mining adventure game’. What served as some of the inspirations behind the release?
BS: Although we would like to firmly state that the only inspirations have been important and universal (such as love, peace, and friendship among robots), SteamWorld Dig certainly also is inspired by some other video games. There, I've said it. We are very impressed with the learn-as-you-go-along upgrade systems of Metroid and others. And there are elements from other mining (or digging) games, such as Dig Dug and Miner Dig Deep.
But the biggest inspiration was our own predecessor to SteamWorld Dig, a game called SteamWorld Tower Defense. It's a mostly harmless tower defense game that we made for the Nintendo DSiWare Store back in 2010. It had a charming twist to it: the robots were the good guys and the pesky enemies were human.
That twist made us return to SteamWorld. We couldn't help but wonder why the robots were upstanding folk running gold mines, and the humans were such greedy, aggressive lowlives. How had that come about? What was really the story here? So, we wanted to make another game in the series and give away a bigger slice of the background. The premise of SteamWorld Dig was interesting, because it built on the mining track established in SteamWorld Tower Defense, and we love games about mining.
And at least I love mining itself – there’s something inherently wonderful about looking for and unearthing hidden treasure. I haven't told my wife, but I'd secretly love to take her on a vacation on a historical beach somewhere with one of those metal detectors, hoping to dig up some old Viking or Roman treasure. Just as secretly, she'll not want to come.
Anyway, we discussed how we could mix mining with other great gameplay mechanics, and voilà...
PS: As you mentioned, there’s a hint of Metroid and Castlevania to the game. Can you talk about some of the upgrades that players will unlock as they progress? What’s your favourite? Are there any that got left on the cutting room floor, and why?
BS: The first upgrade that you'll run into is speed boots. With them, not only can you traverse long stretches of loose soil and survive, but you can also jump higher than before since you have a running start. Another one is a drill, which lets you take on previously impossible rocks. My favourite is probably the Steam Punch, which is a steam-driven, strange, and quite robotic tool: Rusty builds up pressure, and then throws his clenched fist in any direction. Please don't ask how he gets it back, as I guess it's something technical.
PS: What were some of the inspirations behind the art direction? There’s obviously a Western style to the lead character Rusty, but the environments look Spelunky-esque at a glance. Did that game influence you in any way? How did you happen upon the final style, and how many iterations did you go through to get there?
BS: I think that Spelunky looks like older mining games, too. It's pretty hard to make a 2D side-view mining platformer without making the kind of decisions, graphics-wise, that have been made before. So I guess it would be fairer to everyone to say that all mining games have influenced us in some way. Spelunky is quite different from SteamWorld Dig – it’s more of a roguelike, whereas SteamWorld Dig is more of a Metroidvania type of game. The final style was there quite early on – we have great graphic artists like Agnes Mikucka, who does the characters, and a brilliant art director in Tobias Nilsson.
PS: You’ve obviously decided to bring the title to the PS4 and Vita on the back of its positive reception on the 3DS. Did its success take you by surprise a bit, or were you quietly confident that gamers would resonate with your game?
BS: I wish I could say that we had everything figured out long before we released on the 3DS, but it's not true. We actually had our noses so close to the screen during development that when it was done we weren't sure if it was decent, good, or even great. It turned out that people thought that the game was amazing, but we weren't sure. We waited a couple of weeks just to make sure that we weren't dreaming, and then we started developing the next SteamWorld game.
PS: How will the game differ on the PS4 and Vita? Are you adding any additional content, or is this just a straight port? Have you encountered any challenges converting the game to Sony’s machines?
BS: Well, for one, we're able to guarantee 60 frames-per-second in full HD. Although many PC gamers got this experience, we couldn't go out and say it since many are stuck with slower computers. It's the great advantage of working with standardised systems – everyone has the same hardware configuration.
The challenges have not been on the technical side, but rather understanding and following the submission process accurately. Last week we got word that the PS4 build had gone through without a hitch, which may be a first – but then again, we're always worried about submissions and try to do them right the first time, since it means that the platform owner can trust us to not be sloppy.
PS: How are you taking advantage of the two systems’ unique features? Will you be employing the touchpad or light bar on the DualShock 4? How about the camera or rear touchpad on the Vita? What do you think that they add to the game?
BS: The touchpad is actually put to good use, as we've configured it to handle the inventory – it’s quite a clever button really. It makes me wonder how far you can go with it: can mobile touch-based games be effectively ported to the PS4, relying on that one button? It’s very interesting new technology.
We use neither the camera nor the rear touchpad on the Vita; we tried hard to think up a good use for them, but our efforts became art for art's sake. The game doesn't need those inputs.
PS: What are your experiences working on Sony’s systems so far? The Japanese giant has touted both the PS4 and Vita’s easy development environments, but are you finding the consoles as easy to work with in practice? What have been the biggest challenges that you’ve faced?
BS: Like I said, the biggest challenge has been trying to understand all of the guidelines and the submission process, where to find information, whom to ask for what, and so on. Luckily the PS4 more or less is a PC on steroids, so the technical part of the port hasn't been too nasty. I believe it was actually quite straightforward. However, the other day, Sony Europe told us that SteamWorld Dig is the first game for the PS4 that has passed through submission on its first try, so maybe it's just that our guys are a little bit better.
PS: With total respect to the 3DS, you’ve got a little more horsepower to work with on the PS4 and Vita. How are you leveraging that in SteamWorld Dig?
BS: As mentioned, you can expect full HD at 60 frames-per-second. However, our programmers are a cut above the rest – they actually squeezed 60FPS out of the 3DS as well, which I think is more of a feat.
PS: How have you found the experience working with Sony compared to Nintendo? Are they more or less hands-on with you? Have you found getting support any easier, or has it been a delight working with both? Could you compare and contrast your experiences with the two companies?
BS: Well, so far we've only "met" our friends at Sony on the phone and via e-mail. They've been very friendly and very patient with us. What amazes me the most with both Sony and Nintendo is how fast they are to respond. If I didn't know any better, I'd think that they're just sitting around waiting for us to get in touch with our silly questions and rookie requests – and with their submission procedures, we have a lot of them. I can only imagine how tiresome it must get for them, but they simply deliver, and more often than not they respond in a happy manner.
I look forward to meeting "our" Sony guys at GDC in San Francisco, which actually coincides with our launch on 18th March in the Americas (and a day later in Europe). I'm curious to see if they're like "our" Nintendo people. I hope so, because meeting the Nintendo folks for the first time was such a joy. They're simply kind, intelligent, and regular. I met them in person for the first time at GamesCom in Germany just a couple of weeks after the 3DS launch, and they made me feel like the most important person on Earth. They didn't have to, but they did just that.
What does it mean to be indie friendly? It seems that most platform owners strive to fit that description these days. I think it's very simple: indies are fuelled by passion for their games. We are less interested in calculating return on investments than the amazing feeling of releasing games that people enjoy. We want to spread joy, and we want recognition for it. In a simple sentence: we want to be loved. A platform owner can make us feel that, and that feeling makes all the difference in the world. You'd think that the industry is all about sales, but it's actually very much about love and empowerment. There's a lot to be gained by being indie friendly. More indies will approach you, and they know that their games had better be good. In the long run, that means a steady flow of better games on the platform.
We still haven't released on PlayStation, so I don't know what coverage and exposure we can expect at launch. I naturally hope that Sony will carry SteamWorld Dig with as much enthusiasm as Nintendo did when we released on the 3DS, although it will be difficult to top that. This may not be known to PlayStation gamers, but Nintendo did something quite unprecedented with our game: on the release date in Europe, Nintendo of Europe CEO [Satoru] Shibata himself narrated a full minute of SteamWorld Dig footage during a Nintendo Direct. Usually, their video broadcasts highlight their upcoming first-party titles at length, while third-party titles get a few seconds each. There and then you could feel the difference, [and] how they were changing their attitude towards indies.
You could argue that SteamWorld Dig is a port, that it isn't "Sony's game", and that Image & Form isn't "Sony's indie" – but I think that it's a golden opportunity for them to show how great their hardware is, and that the game looks and feels better on their platforms. With the love that we're getting from both Nintendo and Sony, we're not choosing sides. We love both.
Sorry, what was the question again?
PS: Your background is in work-for-hire development, but can you talk a little bit how you’ve found the experience of developing and publishing your own game? Presumably this is something that you’d like to keep doing?
BS: Yes, we definitely want to keep making and publishing games. For the longest time we were pretty much a production house for publishers of less-than-stellar PC and Mac edutainment games, and we were quite... monitored, if you like. It was good business, but there wasn't very much room for outside-the-box creativity. I was the lead programmer, which didn't exactly bring us forward; I could program and was pretty tenacious, but I was by no means great – more of an assembly-line worker than an artiste.
Then one day in late 2009, I tricked Olle Håkansson (who is now our lead programmer/designer) into coming to work with us on the Nintendo DS ports of the games, which the publisher had asked us to handle. He quit his other job, and the day after he started the publisher informed me in a brief e-mail that they had found another, cheaper studio for the DS ports. Oh, and the CD-ROM titles we were finishing up would also be the last ones. Best regards.
Staring in disbelief at that e-mail, I had the most defining minute of my career, and maybe my whole life. We had made quite a bit of cash from those PC and Mac games, and one option was to swivel around in my chair and tell everyone that they had two months left on their employment contracts. As the sole owner of Image & Form at the time, I wouldn't suffer very much, I'd always find something else to do, and there was plenty of money in the company bank account.
The other option was to take the big step towards a future that was quite uncertain, both economically and creatively: to try and stand on our own legs, and make our own games. It's easy to make it sound grand that I chose the latter, but it was much less bold than it sounds: I just couldn't bring myself to sack a brilliant guy who had just quit a good job on his second day in the office. And besides, everyone else was very creative. One of them was our incredible art director Tobias Nilsson. If we were going to drown in the process, at least we would have tried.
Shaking off that awkward feeling of uncertainty with this new resolve, I felt like Jerry Maguire walking home that day. And just like him, I spent lots of moments kicking myself in the coming months for not taking the easy way out. It took more or less two years of agonising work-for-hire and less-than-great games to finally hit with the slightly fantastic Anthill for iOS, which Apple picked as Game of the Week. On the day following its release, I felt that the decision to go our own way had been justified: we had made a great, innovative game. In retrospect, I personally flubbed the ball quite badly on the PR side with Anthill. Three days after the release, we could see the sales curve take a downturn, and I had no idea whatsoever how to reverse it. I wasn't prepared enough to handle and sustain the title. And in a sense, it was a good lesson: I decided to get better at PR.
PS: What’s next for Image & Form? We’ve heard that you’re working on a new title in the SteamWorld universe? What can you tell us about that? Can we expect your future projects to arrive on PlayStation platforms?
BS: I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you. If I ever got the chance, that is, since the rest of Image & Form would probably kill me first. I tend to say (and promise) too much, and then I either have to backtrack or everyone at the office has to work their butts off to deliver what I've promised. So, regarding the game that we're working on right now, I've decided to gag myself for a while. I'm not going to say a word about it. But yes, it's a SteamWorld game – but while it follows the chronology and features steam-driven robots, it's going to be a very different game. And hell yes, it's going to be awesome – the scope is beyond anything that we've ever dreamed up, and it will make a Game of the Year contender like SteamWorld Dig look like a cute little school project, and...
...there, see what you've done? You made me put together a very large frame for the next game. The guys and girl will have an awfully huge canvas to paint. Thanks a lot. But yes, it's definitely coming to PlayStation platforms, if they'll have us again. And yes, it's going to be great. Full stop.
Thanks so much to Brjann for taking the time to talk at length to us. Are you planning to excavate SteamWorld Dig for your PS4 and Vita? Search out your biggest spade in the comments section below.