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Swedish studio Image & Form thinks big with SteamWorld Heist Exclusive

September 16, 2014 | By Mike Rose

September 16, 2014 | By Mike Rose
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing, Exclusive, Video

Back in April, I was feeling lucky. I emailed Brjann Sigurgeirsson at SteamWorld Dig studio Image & Form, with the subject line "Fishing for info." They were working on the next SteamWorld game, and I wanted -- needed -- to know what it was.

These fishing requests don't always turn up the goods, as you might expect, but this particular line caught a big one. 24 hours later, I'd been introduced to SteamWorld Heist, a ridiculously ambitious Dig follow-up that involved steam-driven robots in space, with side-scrolling turn-based combat, and roguelike elements to boot.

Image & Form had been caught off-guard by the success of SteamWorld Dig the year prior, and was now looking to capitalize on that traction in a rather big way.

Five months later, the Swedish studio is finally ready to reveal all about its next impending baby. I caught up with Sigurgeirsson once again to find out why now is the right time to talk.

When we talked in April, you guys were wondering how much of the game you needed to have in place before you could do the big reveal. What is it about now that has made you decide this is the right time?

Sigurgeirsson: If we didn't do it now, we'd be making the same mistake that we did with Dig. Nobody knew that that game was coming out, and people were like, "Why aren't we talking about this game?" So that's the big reason. We need to start talking about it.

We've had tons of problems just getting this teaser out. It's always like this at Image & Form. I'm not in development any more, so I never get anything. I sit here in my little - we call it "The Executive Lounge", it's like a small shitty room with two chairs in it. And nothing comes our way [laughs]. Whenever I go over to the guys and say, "Can I get a screenshot of the game?" They say no, it's not done yet. I say fuck sake, I'm trying to do some PR work here, can't you at least give me something? I understand that development is important, but can't you at least view PR as 10 percent of that? If you can work on the development from January to September full-time, can I at least get one screenshot?

They say, "It's not that - if we show a screenshot, people will think that's what the game is going to look like." And I say yeah well, you've been working on it for eight months, it's supposed to look like that now! [laughs]

So when we decided on this date, about a month ago, our art director went and had knee surgery, and there was a complication on it. He's the only guy who is really comfortable working in After Effects. So we were all praying that he wouldn't have a complication to the complication. When he got back to the office, we were like "Let's fucking do this!"

The popularity of Dig was a big surprise to you, and from what I remember, you were actually making another game as the follow-up to Dig - then once you saw the popularity of Dig, you decided "Well, guess we'd better go off in a different direction."

Sigurgeirsson: We had to start again. It was like this - we released it in August, and we were rookies back then - apparently we still haven't learnt very much! So we didn't know whether it was going to have any traction at all. When we released it, we realized "Shit, people love this game. The next thing we do has to be sort of in the game universe. What can we do?"

The first thing that obviously sprang to mind was to make SteamWorld Dig 2. We wrote all of the plot for that game, but while we were doing it, we were thinking, "It seems kind of obvious that that's what we're going to do. If we make Dig 2, we're going to be this mining platform game developer. Can't we do something else?"

So instead, we developed a vertical slice for the prequel to Dig, which is a really interesting game mechanic. But it was a bit on the small side - a neat game, but not like "BOOM". We'd been working on that for two months, and around that time we managed to get SteamWorld Dig on to Steam. We had to stop focusing on this prequel so that we could make the HD version. We'd been working on that for a month or so, and the guys in the office had a lunch break and started talking about how cool it would be to make a space game, with turn-based strategy combat.

An early mockup of "The Space Bar," a local pub where players can gather information or recruit new crewmates.

Someone started drawing things up, and they talked some more, and then they came to attack the wallet - me. They said this was the next game we should make. I said it's brilliant, just one change - I want it to be in the SteamWorld universe. Can we do that? I mean, it wasn't very plausible that steam driven robots would have as much intelligence as they had in Dig, so if people we buying that concept, I'm sure people would accept this quantum leap! [laughs]

So that was probably in around November of last year. And in December, our lead designer Olle Hakansson started working on the game design document, and putting the bigger systems in place. I think we're more or less a systems company. We always start with the computer systems, and that's one of the reasons why I never get a fucking screenshot to work with [laughs] It's all about the graphics being reiterated and reiterated the whole time. It's very programmer oriented.

Yeah, I remember when you were talking about moving SteamWorld Dig from 3DS to PC, and you were telling me the rigmarole you went through to get the visuals ported across.

Sigurgeirsson: It's interesting too -- we call our lead designer "Dr. No", because he just says no to everything. If I come up with an idea, it's just a big no no. He rules with an iron fist. If he quits, we're doomed, because nothing would get done. [laughs]

Your self-publishing and promotional tactics have obviously evolved heavily since last year - it's interesting that your announcement about the Zoink partnership last week appears to have coincided with this one. Is there a connection there?

Sigurgeirsson: You could say for people who are perceptive, there might be a connection - but otherwise the Zoink deal is something that we established just a month ago. We've had it in the works for quite some time, and we've been discussing it back and forth about how we're supposed to work together. Now we've decided that yeah, we should do it like this.

It's this self-publishing corporation that we're going to do. We've been self-publishing our games for years now, but Zoink has never self-published any games, and they very much want to get into it. They've had a great collaboration with Ripstone for their game Stick it To the Man, but in the end, Zoink doesn't get to keep the IP. For a very creative guy like Klaus Lyngeled, their CEO, that's always going to be a pain in your butt. You make these great things, and then at the end of the day, you don't own them.

So for a long time, he's been very interested in getting into self-publishing. We sit very close to each other, although as companies we are actually quite different. They are very graphics oriented, we're very systems oriented. We have the same kind of setup in the companies, and me and Klaus are very much alike. So we want to make things together, but we've decided that if we went as far as merging, it would be detrimental. We have great ideas here, and they have great ideas there, so let's just keep the development things separate, and collaborate on the publishing.

So what will happen is, those of us who are working with publishing here will be sitting as like a moon between these two planets. We're going to divide our time between the two companies. One of the challenges will be to do that in a fair manner - making sure that I don't slide over to do "more important stuff" for Image & Form, because I own it. How come they coincide? It's basically that this came together in August, and now we have to come out with the information about Heist. If we didn't come out with it now, it would have been late.

You've previously said you want to make sure that your next game is out on Nintendo platforms first, just like Dig was. Are you still sticking to that?

Sigurgeirsson: I've said that before, and I've also been forced to eat my words many times before! But that's still want we want to do. We're big Nintendo fans, and we really want to come out early on the 3DS at least. There are so many reasons for it - the Nintendo community still talks to us every day, and we have tons of Miiverse followers. I think they feel that we are Nintendo's indie, so to speak. So it would be very strange if we decided to go to another platform before Nintendo.

So the plan is release in spring 2015. That's fairly close!

Sigurgeirsson: Yeah, it is. It always sounded so far away. I really, really wanted it out in November or December this year, just to be able to have one game released per year. But it's not going to happen. In the office, we have what we call "The Feature Shitlist", which means if I start pressing the time schedule too much, more and more of the cool features end up on the shitlist. I sit there saying "No, this feature has to be in there!" And they say, "Great! So that'll be February or March then."

How much of the criticism that you received for SteamWorld Dig have you taken on-board for Heist? For example, I know a lot of people said that Dig was too short - did you take that to heart?

An early sketch, showing the 2D side view perspective in a combat situation.

Sigurgeirsson: Oh yeah. And Heist is going to be potentially much, much longer. Like Dig, the player will be in the driving seat, and you'll decide what you do. Even if you're going to race through the game, we'll be looking at some 10 or 12 hours of gameplay. It has to be there somewhere - it's interesting, because you can't please everyone. Some people say "It's so short, I love it - I hate long games!" But it was the number one gripe, and it was the number one regret we had as well. If you sell something that is too small - if as a consumer, you don't feel like you're getting value for your money, then as the company selling that product, it's very hard to argue with people about that.

If you feel that you're being ripped off, then we've done something wrong. So I think this time the playtime is not going to be an issue. It was an issue with Dig, and when we released Anthill in 2011, it was an issue then. Even with the game before that, SteamWorld Tower Defense, it was too short.

I guess one of the problems you'll have now, especially with a turn-based game like this, you can accidentally go in the other direction and drag it out. You might make it long and boring!

Sigurgeirsson: Exactly! It's a real worry. It has to be interesting. So long into development, SteamWorld was so boring. You'd just dig, and we thought we were being clever with intelligent designs, and whatever we tried to fool ourselves into thinking would work. It's not until you give the game to players and tell the player they are in charge - that's when the game becomes free, or enjoyable. Instills a sense of freedom.

We're probably going to do it the same way, with the minimum of hand-holding - you can decide what you want to do in this game. It's really important. We can't just have long sections where you're grinding for hours and hours without seeing any improvements.

With the SteamWorld brand, I'm guessing your plan is to make it as big as possible. What other plans to you have set in motion to make that happen - I'm assuming you're not just making Heist right now.

Sigurgeirsson: Yeah. One of the things I'd like to see next - and everything is subject to change of course - when someone has an idea, everyone takes it seriously, and we discuss it in detail back and forth. Nobody gets rejected immediately. We give every little idea a lot of talking space. That could be during lunch breaks or whatever. But probably the next thing you'll see from us is two games coming out quite close together. Heist is so big, and the whole team - there's 17 people at Image & Form now - it's a big cash drain, so Heist has to make it. I'm confident that it's going to be a great game, and it will actually give us so much freedom to do what we want to do next.

I think next we'll have two teams working in parallel on two different game ideas in the SteamWorld universe. We'll release one, and then at surprisingly short notice after that, we'll release the next game.

So you're turning it into the next Call of Duty, basically [laughs] Just make a first-person adventure game set in the SteamWorld universe... although that's probably just Minecraft, so I think you've missed the boat on that one.

Sigurgeirsson: I was tweeting yesterday that now that Microsoft has bought Minecraft, Image & Form is now Sweden's largest mining game developer [laughs]. But yeah, these two smaller efforts, by no means are those going to be lousy games. There's going to be tremendous, but just not huge in scope. They're also going to be different types of games. And that's maybe where we differentiate ourselves from everyone else. With every game in the SteamWorld series, we want to experiment with mixing genres to get something really interesting out of it.

That's like the indie dream, right? Being able to just experiment and mess around, and make whatever you want.

Sigurgeirsson: At least you can try to be perceived that way. It sounds so cool, but actually we're so worried and nervous about everything. We're very conscious about what we do. We keep our ears very close to the ground, almost in an over-obvious way. With Heist, it has so many elements that are so appealing - steam-driven robots in space, turn-based combat with roguelike elements... if someone else was doing it, I would say they are stealing a lot of stuff. But we're being very inspired [laughs]

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