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From Steam rejection to success: The story of Image & Form Exclusive

From Steam rejection to success: The story of Image & Form
December 10, 2013 | By Mike Rose

In 2012, Sweden studio Image & Form received a short and to-the-point rejection letter from Valve. A year later, and with a different game under its belt, the company this time received immediate approval from the Steam overlords.

What changed then? Was it simply the quality of the second game? Says Brjann Sigurgeirsson of Image & Form, he believes it was the fact that the first game was originally a mobile title, and that neither Valve nor the press really care for mobile games all that much.

"We were a PC and Mac kids' games developer for a very long time," he explains, "then we moved into mobile development in 2009/2010, and we released an excellent game called Anthill on iOS."

The game was picked as Apple's game of the week when it released, and went on to receive tens of thousands of downloads -- but Image & Form's next step for the game was shot down fairly rapidly.

"It was a dream to have it on Steam," says Sigurgeirsson. "When we released Anthill for iOS, since it was sort of critically acclaimed, we thought OK, we'll just put that on Steam, and we'll sell even more copies. And we were so surprised when we got our rejection letter from Valve."

"It was so immaculate too," he adds. "The rejection letter was basically just a wall. It was a very short letter, saying 'Thank you, we looked at the game, we don't want it, please don't ever write to us again.' And so we were like, is there any way we can get onto Steam?"

"You have such a short time period where you can flaunt your game on mobile, because everything is happening so quickly, and there are so many thousands of games coming out every day. I think it sort of gets lost quickly."

Around this time, the studio was looking to take on a change in platform. The team was throwing around mobile game ideas, but what it really wanted to do was make something "real" for console.

"I don't want to say that mobile games are not 'real' games," laughs Sigurgeirsson, "but we really wanted to try to do something that was for consoles - for something other than just the casual crowd on mobile."

This is where SteamWorld Dig comes in. The 3DS title, in development for around eight months and released in Summer 2013, was a big hit on the platform -- so much so, that the Image & Form team quickly decided that a PC, Mac and Linux version would be a rather good next step.

This involved getting back in touch with Steam again -- but this time around, the studio received an entirely different response.

"We got an immediate approval letter instead," says the SteamWorld dev. "'Yeah, this looks great, of course we want it on Steam. We've set it all up, just tell us when you're ready.'"


But why was this? Both SteamWorld Dig and Anthill have received the same level of fan and critic acclaim, just on different platforms. Was it that the games press in general tend to shout about PC and console games more often than mobile games, and therefore Valve were more aware of SteamWorld Dig's claim to fame?

"Yeah, I think so," answers Sigurgeirsson. "Critics have been talking about the game as being a possible handhand game of the year contender, and that sort of has an impact I think. I believe the people at Valve have sort of tapped into that - they must have read it somewhere that this game is quite possibly one of the best games made this year."

But it's also the landscape on mobile that's to blame, reckons the dev. "You have such a short time period where you can flaunt your game on mobile, because everything is happening so quickly, and there are so many thousands of games coming out every day," he adds. "I think it sort of gets lost quickly."

The ins and outs of porting from 3DS to PC

How many games can you name that have been ported from the Nintendo 3DS to PC platforms? You can probably use a single hand to count them out.

SteamWorld Dig is such a name, so I asked Sigurgeirsson what sort of trials and tribulations his studio went through to get the port right.

"There were a number of things obviously," he says. "First, it's not only coming to PC, it's coming to PC, Mac and Linux, so there's been a number of issues there."

"One thing that we had going for us was that we drew everything in vector graphics," he continues. "So going from the 400 pixel wide 3DS screen to full HD - if it had been all pixel graphics, we would have had to redraw everything."

Scaling the vector visuals up wasn't too difficult, but then the team had to reanimate everything all over again, making for several rather intense months of work. Notably, the team halted production on its next SteamWorld game the moment that it received the Steam go-ahead from Valve, so that it could focus on this port.

"There were some other problems as well," Sigurgeirsson notes. "It's a 3DS game, and the 3DS has this fabulous feature of having dual screens. We had to rethink everything. We don't want the PC version to feel like a straight port, and that you would miss something, or think 'They've crammed it together this way.' We want people to pick this game up on Steam, and think it's a perfect PC game."

steamworld dig 1.jpgSteamWorld Dig

And then the team worried that bringing the game from an intense platform like the 3DS over to the big screen may not translate well.

"When you play SteamWorld Dig on the 3DS, it's so immersive," the dev reasons. "The time just disappears, because you're so into that little thing that you're holding in your hands. I was worried that when we made the PC version, was it going to be as immersive, or will you be looking around your living room while you're playing the game?"

"Luckily, I feel it's the same," he says. "But it was really a 'wow' feeling I got from playing on the 3DS. It's so immersive."

What's the next step for Image & Form, then? The Nintendo 3DS made SteamWorld Dig a success, but now that the studio is in there with Valve, is it going to become a PC developer?

"The response we got from the community and Nintendo was so great, that we promised that the next SteamWorld game is definitely coming to the 3DS," says Sigurgeirsson. "It's a promise that we intend to keep. if we decide now that we've become too important or too big for the 3DS, then we'll lose a lot in the process. Those people have been fantastic to us, and so we definitely will make it for 3DS."

"But maybe for the next game, we will try to be more of a 'real' game development studio, and see if we can't develop for more platforms from day one," he adds.

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