Interview: Image & Form on its SteamWorld Dig Adventure and Hopes for Wii U
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
"I believe 2014 is going to be a great year for the Wii U"
Just recently Image & Form confirmed that SteamWorld Dig is coming to the Wii U this Autumn / Fall, which is certainly terrific news for fans of the 3DS original. In some senses it's entirely logical, as the title has been upgraded for HD releases on PC and PS4, while also making its way to the PS Vita.
Once the news was announced we got in touch with the studio's CEO, Brjann Sigurgeirsson, to talk about the announcement and the journey the company has taken with its break-out hit; we tackled the title's history as well as the success its impact has had on the studio's priorities. Sigurgeirsson gives us a detailed run-down on these topics while sharing his thoughts on the Wii U, even mentioning that the team has considered projects on the platform before now.
First of all, your blog explains that releasing a game on a Nintendo home console is a dream for you and the team. Can you explain that further, in terms of what it is about Nintendo that's made this an aspiration?
Well, I guess it's no secret that most of us at Image & Form are huge Nintendo fans. We've done stuff for the DS, the DSi and the 3DS earlier, and we've owned and played games on all their systems before that as well. My first "game machine" back in 1981 was the Game & Watch, and it changed my life - 13 years old at the time, it got me obsessed with the idea of making games. And compared to the other guys, I'm nowhere near being a die-hard!
We didn't make any games for the Wii, mainly because we weren't technically ready for it. But also because we didn't have any connections among publishers, and also we didn't see any real possibilities to make money. It felt like Wii Sports was THE title, and people weren't buying very many other games for the Wii, regardless if they were Nintendo games or third-party titles. So it feels good that we're FINALLY ready to launch our first Nintendo game for the living room.
At what point did you start working towards a Wii U release? For example, was it before or after the PS4 / Vita and PC ports?
Time has really flown since we released SteamWorld Dig on the 3DS in August last year, and at times it's been pretty much a case of just holding onto our hats. We've been thinking about a Wii U release from the very beginning, but with limited resources and a big new SteamWorld game in the works, we've had to constantly weigh our options and revise our strategies. Hopefully I won't offend the Wii U community now, but when opportunity knocked with a ticket to Steam at a time when Greenlight was still in full force, and getting Dig onto the PS4 while the console was still brand new, we had to move the Wii U version down the line.
Also, as much as we have wanted the Wii U to succeed from day one (see above), it feels that now's the time it's got a chance of taking off with Mario Kart 8 and Smash Bros coming up. It may be a bit rude to wait for a console to succeed before putting your game out there - like you're letting someone else take the blows - but we're growing, we're investing everything we earn into making the next game even better than Dig, and we can't put a game on any console just because we want to. We have to be sure that it's worth our while, otherwise we go bust.
So when we were done with the PS4/Vita launch, we started the process of getting dev kits and what have you for the Wii U. We believe there is a surprisingly bright future for the console.
What sort of changes did you make, for those versions, to upgrade the experience from the small screens of 3DS into full HD?
We draw our graphics in vector format, so fortunately we didn't have to redraw more than some of the graphics. But due to how our production pipeline is set up, we had to reanimate almost everything. It wasn't really difficult, since we knew how it was supposed to look, it just took a bit of time.
The added graphic space and the stronger hardware meant that we could swing a bit more freely. The HD version of the game contains a lot of animations that didn't make it into the 3DS version. Also, many things that were actually in place on the 3DS suddenly became visible. That may sound strange, but the difference in resolution is actually quite staggering.
One of my personal worries going from the dual-screen 3DS to the single-screen HD version was how we would translate the UI, which we were quite happy with. But it was unfounded - very clever people work at Image & Form - and I don't think you'd be able to tell that the HD version is a port from a dual-screen setup. And getting 60 fps was obviously a breeze. Dig actually runs at 60 fps on the 3DS as well, but that took a lot of genius.
Are the foundations, in terms of engine, in place from those HD versions to bring across to Wii U? Are you using a tool-set like Unity, or bespoke options?
No, we're using our own C++ tech also for the Wii U version. Compared to, say, Unity, our setup takes quite some time from the get-go, but it makes a lot of sense. I'm sometimes jealous of other devs that use Unity or the like, because they can get protoypes and playable versions ready very quickly. We're a heavier machine, more of a systems company, but when we're up to speed we're unbeatable.
Sure, it entails a lot of nuts-and-bolts work - for example, we make our own particle generator from scratch. But using our own tech gives us a lot of freedom in the long run. We're not hampered by tool-set limitations. For one, it means that we can still be very strong on the 3DS, an option that Unity developers must forgo. But it also means that we can twist and bend everything to get the best possible performance out of every platform and situation. And I believe that it lets us deliver deeper games, because we know that we can do anything we want.
To be honest, we weren't sure anyone but us would like SteamWorld Dig when we were done developing it.
While Wii U fans are no doubt delighted the game is coming this Fall, we'd like to discuss the process of porting the original. First of all, is it fair to say that when you developed SteamWorld Dig for 3DS that multiple HD ports weren't planned, or was this always on the cards?
Oh wow, what a revealing question. To be honest, we weren't sure anyone but us would like SteamWorld Dig when we were done developing it. We were done by late June, took July off, and launched early August. We decided to wait and see how the reviews went, and whether anyone wanted to pick it up. To put things mildly, we were taken by surprise. And caught out cold without a master plan.
How would you summarise that period between releasing the eShop original and the move to porting to other systems? Was it a case of going with the 'flow' of a break-out hit, were there a lot of decisions made at short notice?
Haha, the embarrassing questions continue!
A week or so before launch we had actually started on two separate projects (one iOS game and a prequel to SteamWorld Dig) when we realised that we could - and should - first capitalise on the success of Dig. When it became apparent that Valve would be happy to let us publish on Steam, we halted the development - first the Dig prequel and then the iOS game - in order to focus on the HD version of Dig.
But although this may sound less-than-thought-through, it was a blessing in disguise. When we were done with the HD version, in the meantime we had somehow come up with the idea for the SteamWorld game we're currently working on. Which was very fitting, because delivering a follow-up on a success is tricky business and now we think we have a game of great magnitude.
We've seen other download developers have a first major hit and then produce multiple ports to make the most of that success. Has SteamWorld Dig performed well for you on Sony and PC platforms?
You've highlighted that moving to HD slowed down and pushed back other projects. Is that a source of regret, or is the team primarily pleased to have a popular game to expand onto other platforms?
It's very hard to stop developing a game - like we were with the Dig prequel - when you feel it's good, but you worry about it for some other reason. In our case, we were afraid that the prequel wasn't going to be big enough. So we came out of it happy, we had expanded Dig AND we had a new game idea of the appropriate proportions.
You told us last year that you were working on a new entry of the SteamWorld franchise for 3DS, and I believe you've re-iterated on Twitter that 3DS will still be 'first' with that game. Can you provide any update on its progress, and whether the portable is still lead platform?
It's progressing, and it'll be very different from Dig. We still aim at releasing first on the 3DS.
Image & Form is an experienced studio with multiple games (including the first SteamWorld game on DSiWare, of course), but we think it's fair to say that SteamWorld Dig has made the company's name in the past year. Can you share some of the emotions of the team, perhaps go through a few key moments of this SteamWorld Dig-era?
It turned out that we have far more followers there (on Miiverse) than in all other channels combined. I was quite surprised... I had simply underestimated the Miiverse.
Well, Dig has been a roller-coaster ride. Completing development of our first really big self-published effort was a mountain of joy. Anthill for iOS, which we made earlier, is a fantastic game and we were brave with it, since we didn't really have a lot of clues as to how self-publishing was done at the time. But Anthill pales when you compare with the man hours, the sheer bulk of time, that we put into Dig.
A scant few months before completion, we had a big scare: Dig simply wasn't fun, or at least not fun enough. We'd do in-house user tests, and they'd ask us what they were supposed to do and where to go next. Not at all reassuring, not one bit. And then we decided to stop developing, and instead spent a week squeezing the fun out of - or rather into - that elusive bastard of a game. At that point we had, in order to finish the game, borrowed enough money to put us all in the street if it didn't do well. And I knew we still had to borrow more. And the game wasn't fun. It was a nightmare.
But maybe that's where we're at our best. When asked, I told the lender Dig was going to be great, a marvellous hit even. It wasn't great at the time and I was lying through my teeth, but dev lead Olle Håkansson, art director Tobias Nilsson and the others pulled it off. Coming out of an entire week of brainstorming, Dig started ascending towards greatness. And my grand lie felt like it was shrinking day by day.
But Dig becoming a really good game left me with my personal shortcomings, which I pretty nakedly told about in another Nintendo Life piece — Image & Form - A Year in Development. In short, I felt like the rookie goalkeeper on an otherwise awesome team. I got incredibly lucky when the game took off and also sold well.
A more recent key moment was when my friend Martin Defries, the ever-brilliant CEO of Rising Star Games, helped getting Dig cleared for Steam. It was a moment of vindication, since Valve had politely but quite bluntly turned down a PC/Mac version of Anthill two years earlier. And even later, when Sony told us they wanted Dig on PlayStation 4 and Vita, I realized we had become legit. Brand recognition at amoeba level: less geeky friends didn't know what the 3DS or Steam was, but even my mom knew about PlayStation.
Your blog post has said you're not sure what to do with Miiverse or the GamePad, so instead can you maybe tell us what you think of Nintendo's social network and controller?
Sorry, that blog post was a bit sweeping - I think we meant that we haven't decided yet.
For one, we are fully aware of the power of the Miiverse. We work quite intensely with social media, we schedule interactions, make sure to keep conversations going, and so on. But the Miiverse is something else. Our quiet character-design genius Agnes Mikucka runs our Dig 3DS Miiverse community, and one day recently I asked how we were doing there, if there was anyone talking to us there at all. It turned out that we have far more followers there than in all other channels combined. I was quite surprised. By that I certainly don't mean that I underrated Agnes' efforts; I had simply underestimated the Miiverse. Nintendo has really done something great with their loyal fans there, and it's hard to find counterparts elsewhere. We'll put even more effort into the Miiverse with the Wii U version in place.
As for the GamePad, we definitely have ideas on how to put it to good use. It's what really sets the Wii U apart from all other consoles, which makes it so much more interesting. My only gripe with the GamePad is that it's so toyish. Being a stuck-up prat when it comes to hardware exterior design, I almost cried with relief when the 3DS XL came out. I would have liked it more if it weren't so... plastic.
Have there been any surprises in dealing with Nintendo for the Wii U switch, or has it been a smooth process?
It's been smooth sailing so far, but we aren't done yet. At the very end we'll have the somewhat nerve-wracking lotcheck process, which makes predicting a release date quite... unpredictable. However, we now know more or less what to expect up until that point. And they're being very helpful. If anything, we were surprised how quickly we got the dev kits once the agreements were signed.
Are you personally a Wii U fan, and optimistic over its chances of a strong 2014 and beyond?
This may come as a surprise, but I personally do not own a Wii U. I actually own very few game consoles these days: a 3DS, a dusty PS3 and a few tablets. I've got five kids, and I'm struggling to regulate the gaming hours for some of them. For example, my ten-year-old son plays a lot of Minecraft and watches even more Minecraft let's-plays. To him I'm only moderately cool - sure, I'm the only dad around that makes video games, but it's not like I'm Notch or anything. (Bono once pointed out that his daughters thought he was pretty lame - the only good thing about him being a rock star was that he could get free tickets to Madonna concerts. I'm certainly no Bono, but similarly the most credit I've gotten from my boy is when I got tweeted by Notch.) I've tried to make him play other games just to broaden his view and learn the history of games, but that ends up adding more game time to his day. So whether I want to or not, my own gaming more or less extends to office hours and late nights in bed with my phone or 3DS. But we got a Wii U for the office very early on, and I was particularly happy to see Luigi's Ghost Mansion in Nintendo Land. It was so fresh to see hardware perfectly applied like that, a game showing what the GamePad setup was really about.
Play games! Play MORE games - step outside your usual preference and discover all the great games out there. You're playing on a platform that contains a lot of quality. Sample it!
We got so excited about it that we immediately pitched a non-SteamWorld multiplayer idea to Nintendo, specifically tailored for the Wii U and the GamePad. There were a few hitches with the game design there, some things that we hadn't worked out - and so they politely turned us down. (I am bitterly convincing myself that they're so eager to see the next SteamWorld game that they don't want us working on anything else.) Who knows? Maybe one day we'll get to make that game as well.
So it's not from a personal perspective but rather from a business standpoint that I've been frustrated with the Wii U up until recently. I've thought that Nintendo hasn't been clear on WHO should buy it, and WHY. The Wii was a family console, it was affordable, and it came bundled with a set of fun family games. It was a total no-brainer. The Wii U on the other hand is a powerful console that can handle far tougher assignments than running Mario or Wii Sports. But can that be the main selling point, that it can play graphically way more advanced games? Would that mean catering to other than die-hard Nintendo fans? That's a tough sell. And the families don't need it, they already played the Wii and then put it away. In their opinion they already have a Wii - why would they need two?
But suddenly everything looks brighter. Mario Kart 8 is a hit, and Super Smash Bros is hyped to perfection and will be great - hopefully the system seller that Animal Crossing: New Leaf was for the 3DS (which, in retrospect, wasn't a hit platform until that very game came around). So, personally, I believe 2014 is going to be a great year for the Wii U. Which puts us in a sweet spot!
To finish off, do you have a final message for our readers?
The message is the same as always: play games! Play MORE games - step outside your usual preference and discover all the great games out there. You're playing on a platform that contains a lot of quality. Sample it! And if you're not satisfied, then start making your own games. It's incredibly satisfying.
We'd like to Brjann Sigurgeirsson for his time.