Earlier today Image & Form announced SteamWorld Heist, the next entry in the franchise that made its mark and surged to popularity with SteamWorld Dig on the 3DS eShop. It's quite a departure for the steampunk IP, adopting a 2D turn-based strategy approach with healthy doses of resource management thrown in. We were rather impressed in our early hands on impressions.
In preparation for today's announcement we had a lengthy chat with the developer's CEO, Brjann Sigurgeirsson, to learn more about the project. The early build lacks a great deal of context and storyline, as would be expected at this stage of development, so Sigurgeirsson set the scene for us.
It’s a game about space adventure and survival, where you recruit this team of rag-tag robots and explore what’s left of a destroyed earth. The idea of the core gameplay is that you board enemy ships and command this crew in a unique variety of turn-based combat — but obviously it’s not only about this combat, it’s like Dig, it’s going to be story driven. There’s going to be a start, there are going to be characters with quite a bit more depth hopefully than we got to with the characters of Dig, and there’s going to be an end to the game. So in those respects they are similar, but otherwise the gameplay, as you have seen, is really quite different. Where Dig was a Metroidvania digging platform adventure, Heist is a turn-based combat game set in space featuring steam driven robots. So they’re very, very far apart in terms of gameplay.
"Far apart" is a particularly important theme for this title; while that steampunk aesthetic and charming music is still prominent, this shares little else in common with SteamWorld Dig. New genre, new concept, and a setting far from the primitive mining that came before. In fact, Heist probably isn't even the game that was teased to us at EGX last year; based on the timeline of development that would have been an alternative that followed Uncle Joe, the poor victim discovered at the start of Dig.
We actually started on the prequel that was telling more of the story about mysterious Uncle Joe, he would be like a main character, and that’s what we were working on for a couple of months last Fall.
So that’s where we were at and I was thinking nothing else, but the thing was that I played a vertical slice of that game and I really liked it. I thought it was a great game. Hopefully, or very likely, we’ll be making that game as well. The problem we had with that was there was always a nagging feeling of that game being too small and so we thought “Can we beef this game up?”, and it just didn’t feel like we could. The gameplay for that game; it was going to limit itself, so to speak.
Then we had to break off from that, not because we didn’t believe in the idea but the thing was that we had got in touch with Valve that told us we were welcome to put SteamWorld Dig out on Steam, so we had to break that off and start recording it to HD format. Then, while we were doing that, Olle and his brother Bjorn, they came up with the idea for Heist sometime, I think, in November last year. Initially they weren’t thinking of it as a SteamWorld game but rather as a space exploration game. I said it was a great idea as long as we could fit it into the SteamWorld lore and find a not too illogical way to put it in the SteamWorld future. I think we’ve actually done a good job of that. There was some integration between Dig and Heist as well.
That integration of lore does feel relatively natural in this title, with steam once again prominent in driving technology; the travelling range of the ship and movement options of your crew are all driven by steam, even if it is simply standing in for the basic turn-based mechanic of limited movement. That origin as an unrelated game, however, does bring us to the fact that this is, in the developer's words, a "sequel to the sequel". Image & Form has been careful to emphasize that this is a new game in the SteamWorld universe, ensuring that no-one labours under the apprehension that it's a sequel to Dig.
We’ve gotten quite a lot of reactions like that on Twitter, et cetera, then people are asking “When is the sequel coming?” We try to make a point of telling people that we’re working on the next SteamWorld game, but it’s not the sequel to Dig; rather we think there will be at least one game in between Dig and Heist. There could quite possibly be two games actually, but at least one, where we connect the dots between where Dig ends and Heist starts. So Heist is not a sequel to Dig. It’s rather we’ll fit one or possibly two games in between Dig and Heist because we have so much of the story to tell in between. So, if Dig was set somewhere around the start of the 20th Century, I think maybe two or three hundred years have passed when Heist starts.
The big reason is that it would be very strange if Dig ended and Heist took off from there, because suddenly you have these steam driven robots roaming around in space in Heist, and obviously they’re not very intelligent so you would have to give them a few hundred years to figure out how to get these steam driven spaceships and to get that to work.
Even with lore retrospectively bolted in, it's clear that SteamWorld Dig's mysterious main enemy and technologies provided a convenient route into a future in outer-space, even if there wasn't a great deal of initial conceptual planning to bring the storylines together. It did all begin, which is perhaps forgotten due to the high profile success of Dig, with SteamWorld: Tower Defense on DSiWare.
In Dig you get a whiff of this strange hive mind called Vectron towards the end of the game, or actually throughout the game, where you pick up things that Rusty and his lot could not possibly have developed themselves. So in Heist you meet more of that faction, or that race, or whatever; you’ll know quite a bit more about those guys in Heist. So in that way, yeah, Dig's a little bit of a precursor to Heist, but I should also say that it’s sort of developed naturally. It’s not like we thought “Okay, we have this great game called Heist, let’s make a game called Dig that sort of explains the beginning of Heist”; it wasn’t like that.
We made Dig just because we thought it was a great game idea. Then the thing that set off Dig was this game called SteamWorld Tower Defense, where for some reason the robots were the good guys, and the humans were the low-lifes and the bad guys. It was whimsical when we made it, but then afterwards we were thinking quite a bit about it. It’s like, what must have happened for this world to exist in this way? The steam driven, pretty unintelligent, robots, why are they the good guys? And these humans, how can they possibly have degraded this much? So we spent a lot of time thinking about that and that sparked the development of Dig, or the story behind it, then we expanded on what can happen after Dig, where can we take this story? So, we came up with Heist.
Like SteamWorld Dig before it, Heist will aim to establish a set of mechanics — even within a strategy formula — that gives flexibility to the player's progress. Rather than plotting your own route to dig ever downwards, the emphasis will be on manipuating the environments and a team of robots to get the job done. Environments "will be very important to gameplay" with cover mechanics and destructible areas integral to how battles and exploration will play out. Bringing together a diverse, levelled up crew — funded through heist loots — will be fundamental to progress; understanding the team's capabilities will be key.
So there’s going to be the captain. There are going to be various types of shooters, and I think you’ve seen a few of those in the demo. You’re going to have the engineering troops that will have to work with the environment, but also, let’s say that you enter or you raid another ship and it turns out that they’ve got a better engine than your ship has, if your engineers are skilled enough or many enough then they can actually dismount that engine and carry it over to your ship in pieces and rebuild it. So you have that technology. Or better shields, or they can find some technology that it’ll take some levelling up on their part to understand what that technology is so you can use it. You’ll also have a brute class with different players there who are very tough but don’t do as much damage, and so on.
Then there are different mission types. The Heist mission is one type of mission, then you’ll have rescue missions, and maybe takeover missions as well, meaning one mission could be beating all the enemies that are on the ship and then you’ll have a whole slew of enemies but there won’t be this alarm system going off, meaning that what you have to do on that ship is take everyone out. That maybe sounds easier, but that might be a lot trickier because there will be so many more enemies in place from the start. Then there’ll be rescue missions where maybe you go and find a specific robot that they’ve locked away in a dungeon somewhere, so you need to take out the guards there, and maybe that’s more of a stealth mission where you try to avoid engaging the enemies of the ship.
With ship raids being turn-based strategy affairs, it's only common to draw comparisons to other titles in the genre. While the side-on 2D perspective and manual weapon aiming are unique factors, there are naturally wider concepts that'll be familiar to strategists in the gaming world. Fire Emblem: Awakening is an exceptional — and recent — game that immediately came to mind when playing the game and speaking to Sigurgeirsson, with underlying principles and mechanics that are rather similar. One example, in this "cruel demo", is the toughness of the game and a permadeath setup. If you lose a robot in a raid it is completely destroyed; in the demo you could return to the bar — the source of crew recruitment — and spend precious money on a replacement, yet you'd also be bumped back to level 1, losing upgrade progress. With heists being dangerous and tricky affairs all money earned counts, and it seems daunting to lose such progress in what seems to be a harsh in-game economy.
That seems to be key to this title, with Image & Form keen to force players into focusing on their actions and thinking carefully, rather than rushing in.
The thing is also that I think when you died in Dig what happened to you was that you lost half your cash; that was the cost of rebuilding you. Here it’s going to be less forgiving because you will have your crew and you’ll upgrade all those people. Hopefully we can also add enough personality to every character to make them interesting, because otherwise it would be, in effect, just cardboard figures, you won’t worry so much about them dying. It’s also if you spend resources on upgrading those recruits, you really want them to stay alive because if they die they’re lost to you and their progress as well. So it’s going to be very, very important to not be sloppy in this game. That’s not new, I think the first time I played Dig I died 37 times.
I think the greatest game in the universe is chess. One of the things I love about chess is there’s no luck. It’s not uncommon that when you play a real game of chess you sit there for 6 or 8 hours on end and all it takes is just one slightly careless move and you’re at the short end of the stick. So I love that about chess, it’s really fair that way, you have to be on your toes. This game is going to inherit a little bit of those characteristics, that you’d better play well or you’re going to get punished for it.
Another description of the game that reminded us of Awakening was the aim to being together a story-driven experience with a non-linear approach. While it's possible to simply target story levels, ignoring side-quests and additional challenges means you may, ultimately, find yourself to be too weak and under-prepared as the difficulty ramps up; variety, to keep us interested, will be a priority to make this work.
I think it will be great fun if we could find a balance where just doing the game in a linear fashion doesn’t give you enough strength to beat the game, but you would have to take on side missions that aren’t pointed out to you. You have to do stuff on your own to build up enough energy to take on the real baddies. The important part there would be that you decide yourself what you do, and all the missions that you take on will be rewarding in one way or another.
Some missions will also be that you have to succeed and if you don’t then your ship will be raided. The enemies will swarm into your ship, et cetera, and you have to defend your own. So I think we’re working with a lot of very different things there. One interesting thing is that it’ll probably be unlikely that any ship that you encounter will look exactly like any other ship, because we will dynamically fit the areas of enemy ships together, so that it means that if you run into a ship that looks a certain way then it will be quite probable that you haven’t played in that way before.
The locations where the enemies are and where you find the different objects, and so on, that’s going to be randomised.
SteamWorld Heist is full of promise at this stage, and is an undeniably brave move from Image & Form. There would have arguably been nothing easier for the developer than to rapidly turn around a SteamWorld Dig 2, a minimal iteration on its biggest hit to date. Diving off into new territory is certainly refreshing from that perspective, and gives the studio the chance to establish SteamWorld further as its defining IP.
Finally, Sigurgeirsson addressed the issue of platforms. Due in February / March 2015, Heist will ultimately arrive on 3DS, Wii U, PC/Mac/Linux, PS4/Vita and Xbox One; that's a lot of platforms for a small studio, making release parity across them all seem unlikely. There's no indication yet which systems will come first, but the company CEO was keen to emphasize that his team is very aware of the passion that Nintendo fans have for the franchise.
We really want to put this out on the 3DS, of course. It’s not because you’re from Nintendo Life I’m saying this, but the Nintendo community is just incredible. I mean, they’re so diehard and so attached. The basic idea of Nintendo is like a bond between them, and they’ve taken a liking to us. We put Dig out a year ago and we are still interacting very much with them.
Also, it’s not only the sales of SteamWorld Dig, quite a few people here in the office are walking around with Nintendo tattoos and so on. For some reason I seem to have hired a lot of Nintendo geeks. So it’s not unnatural for us to think about the 3DS because we play a lot on the platform.
As for Wii U, I think it’s a great platform. It’s so cool; you’re not glued to the TV, you can take the game with you and play it. I think that’s really quite nice.
It is clear that, at some point, 3DS and Wii U owners will have a chance to jump into plenty of raids in SteamWorld Heist. The final product is a way off yet, but it's certainly worth watching.
We'd like to thank Brjann Sigurgeirsson for his time. Let us know what you think of these details for SteamWorld Heist in the comments below.