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Thursday, August 27, 2015

On building a 2D XCOM: An interview with Image & Form's CEO


Image & Form are one of our favourite indie developers at Digitally Downloaded. Its breakout title, SteamWorld Dig, wasn't its first game, but it was one to find success across multiple platforms and remains a very good example of how a simple idea, when executed well and with a balanced gameplay loop of work vs reward, can be really addictive stuff indeed.

Spurred on with the success of SteamWorld Dig, Image & From are now hard at work at a new title set in the same universe. SteamWorld Heist will be a very different game though. As a turn-based tactics game, it looks and feels similar in many ways to the excellent XCOM... only it plays out in two dimensions, rather than three.

I had a sit down with Image & From's CEO, Brjann, to chat with him about the life of an indie, what inspired SteamWorld Heist, and a little about what we can expect from the game.

Related reading: Check out a trailer for SteamWorld Heist here.

Digitally Downloaded (DD): What inspired you to take the direction of SteamWorld Heist for your third game in this franchise?
Brjann Sigurgeirsson (BS): It's a bit of a long story, so please bear with me. In June 2013, when we had finished developing SteamWorld Dig for the 3DS, we realised that we'd spent far more time on that one game than on any game in the past. And so we decided to make two smaller games right on the heels of Dig: the idea was to spread the risk that way - the more games we'd have out there, the better. And we didn't really know that Dig would take off like it did - we'd had our noses so close to the screen that we didn't know if the game was mediocre, decent or good. We had to shelf those two games pretty much immediately after we'd gotten started on them, because Dig had been so successful. We talked to Valve who more than happily would put the game on Steam as soon as we had an HD version, and so we broke off development of those two. I think one will never see the light of day, whereas the other...

Brjann Sigurgeirsson

While making the HD version of Dig, we started talking about XCOM and turn-based games in general at the office lunch table: you know, the typical "wouldn't it be cool if" discussions. And a couple of months later, when we were about to release Dig on Steam, we had the game design document for Heist ready. It was actually called Heist from the very start. I had the idea that it should be called something easier, like SteamWorld Raid or SteamWorld Loot... apparently it had to follow that one-syllable formula! But I got voted down: there are quite a few games around with the words "Raid" or "Loot" in them. And yes, there are few "Heist" games out there as well...

From the beginning it wasn't a SteamWorld game - it would be soldiers in space going on heist missions - but I figured it would be a good idea to dig where we stood. With two SteamWorld games I reckoned we had the start of a franchise, and it would be strange not to continue. Also, it made for a very interesting concept, to make games in a franchise where the world and artstyle is the same, but where the gameplay was allowed to vary wildly. If SteamWorld Tower Defense had been more similar to Dig in terms of gameplay, it would have been harder, but we'd already done it once, so... I figured let's make it a rule instead of an exception, and insisted that it be set in SteamWorld.

The other "demand" I had was that it would absolutely, definitely, without a shadow of a doubt have be released before Christmas 2014, so that we could be in the GOTY running two years in a row with two different games. It was a vain demand, I really wanted to build our credibility - but it quite quickly became evident that we didn't stand a chance completing SteamWorld Heist before year-end 2014. And as it turned out, we weren't even close. But as far as my demands go, I figure one out of two is at least half good.

DD: This one is obviously a very different kind of game to the Tower Defence and digging platformer that we saw in the previous two games. Was it a challenge to make the gameplay of Heist match up with the theme and style of the franchise?
BS: Yes, it turned out to be quite a challenge. Now I understand one of the key reasons why studios are so keen on making sequels - it's just a lot easier reusing the tech from the last game! With Heist we had to do almost everything from scratch, even create a new level editor worth its name.

We have a pretty powerful proprietary C++ 2D game engine that lets us make a lot of cool stuff and still run at 60 fps, which is harder than it sounds. But whenever we want to do something we haven't done before, for example every little subsystem required by turn-based combat, we have to do quite a bit of coding. So it's not only that we've had to experiment with the gameplay and balance, but we've always known that it would require a tremendous amount of brainy stuff as well.


DD: How does the XCOM-like strategy work in two dimensions? What kind of strategic challenge will Heist provide players, and how difficult are you making it?
BS: Well, it works really well. We wanted to make a game that isn't primarily chance-based, but rather skill-based - where you're rewarded for your aiming and timing skills. It's actually hard to do that in 3D, because it's difficult to visualise exactly where every shot will hit. The 2D sideview simplifies things a lot - where you hit determines how much damage you make, and you can see that quite clearly. It also means that the movements become more obvious and clear: where is a good position and what will my character be able to hit from there? We can also interact with the environment in a plausible way. Many objects can be shot to various effects, which affects gameplay and your strategies.

This time we decided early on to include multiple difficulty levels. It's a relief, because it accommodates for all kinds of players - the ones that want something incredibly difficult, but also the likes of me, who are happy to survive. You can also change the difficulty level up and down during the game, which is quite nice.

DD: In the previous SteamWorld games, the art style provided such an interesting setting, but the narrative itself was quite thin. Are you fleshing out the storytelling in this game? How will that work?
BS: Haha, yes! In Dig, the story was bare-bones at best. But it also worked for that game: Rusty himself is a silent, get-the-job-done type of character, pretty much like Clint Eastwood in a lot of movies.

Captain Piper is a lot more like Han Solo, and the recruitment of a wide variety of characters - each with their own back story - opens up for a lot more story. A simple indicator is the word count - there's more than ten times more dialog in Heist than Dig. Every character brings a piece of the puzzle as to what has happened and how the world works now, so the story unfolds as the plot thickens. That's another of the benefits of making a "slow" strategy game - players play at their own pace, and that means they can indulge themselves both in gameplay and story.

DD: This game is being made across many different platforms. Has it been difficult as an independent developer to simultaneously develop for so many different architectures?
BS: No, not really - but that's mostly thanks to the fact that we're not developing for all platforms at the same time. We'll release on the 3DS first, and then we'll release on all other current-gen platforms - even on mobiles and tablets as a premium game, since Heist isn't input-dependent like Dig - according to a staggered schedule that hasn't been fixed yet. We're using PCs and Macs for developing, which means we have an HD version running in parallel to the 3DS version.


The tricky part is that we're planning content DLCs for Heist as well, so this coming winter and spring we'll do a lot of resource juggling among Heist DLC, Heist porting, and developing our next game.

DD: I know it's very early to be talking about the future, but will this be the end of SteamWorld, or do you have more ideas for the franchise yet?
BS: We have quite a few ideas, actually. As long as Heist doesn't bomb completely - and at this point I'm fairly confident it'll be received well - we'll make more games in the SteamWorld series. In fact, we already know what the next game is going to be about, and as long as Heist holds up, it'll be a SteamWorld game. Sorry for not going into greater detail, we like to focus on one game at a time - and now it's Heist time!

DD: Do you think its becoming easier, or more difficult, to be an independent developer? Why?
BS: It's easier in the sense that the platform owners have proved themselves more accessible than before - as long as you have a decent game idea, you can approach them with it. It's not hard to find out whom you're supposed to talk to. And the flip side of that makes it more difficult - so many developers are now abandoning mobile and trying their luck on the traditional platforms instead. Steam has opened the floodgates, which means there's one less sure-fire Eldorado around.

I think we are on the right track in that we develop our games for as many platforms as possible. Making one great game and making it available everywhere is relatively low-risk and inexpensive. I like to think of it as eggs and baskets: not very long ago developers would go for large numbers of games on one platform (mobile), and living off the proceeds from the games on that one platform. It made good sense, since you don't have to worry about different tech, different platform owners and different communities. But having all your eggs in one basket also means that you're vulnerable when conditions change - as things have on mobile with congestion, zero visibility, etc. At some point you'll have to learn about the other stuff anyway.

Instead, you "only" have to make sure that your game is great, that you have a golden egg that can be placed in a number of baskets. Since we're staggering our releases, it also means that we can concentrate on media coverage and the community that is specific to the platform at hand. Which in turn means we get multiple revenue streams and promotion opportunities from one single game.


Related Reading: An interview with Sigurgeirsson from 2013.

DD: Finally, what games are you playing at the moment (other than SteamWorld Heist, of course!)
BS: My boring answer will cause you surprise and dismay, and I can feel my credibility going down the drain. You caught me with that question at a bad time after I've played a number of really cool indie games, but I guess it's more fun if I'm brutally honest about the current state of affairs. Right now I'm playing three games on a daily basis: FIFA 2015 on the PS3 with my football-crazed son, who beats me consistently despite fielding India's 1-star national team against my 5-star Manchester United, Candy Crush Soda on my iPhone during toilet breaks and while waiting for the coffee machine. Suffice it to say I'm spending more time in the bathroom than usual at the moment! And finally chess online on the iPad, for never less than two hours each day.

- Matt S.
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld
On building a 2D XCOM: An interview with Image & Form's CEO
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