In the first of this 2014 'Year in Development' series, Image & Form CEO Brjann Sigurgeirsson follows up on last year's article to highlight the key moments that influenced the studio's year.
It's that magic time of year again, and what better opportunity to look back at 2014, a year that's been magic in its entirety! Most of what's been of importance in 2014 actually started in December 2013. When we rang out the year, Image & Form had released SteamWorld Dig on Steam three weeks earlier, and we were very pleased with ourselves. I'm sure a lot of developers think releasing on Steam in itself wasn't a big feat, but to us it was: for the first time in the company's history we'd made an actual multi-platform game. (Or bi-platform game if you want to be picky about it, as the 3DS and PC/Mac/Linux only leaves a tally of two, but hey...)
The Steam version of Dig entailed a copious amount of work. There were the obvious obstacles of producing a single-screen version from the dual screens of the 3DS, with all the UI changes that meant, but also re-exporting and re-animating everything in HD. Luckily we draw most things in Illustrator first, that is, in vector format. That means we didn't have to re-DRAW all the graphics, but many elements needed a bit of extra love, since the graphics would now be in plain sight — HD is both astonishing and unforgiving.
Luckily again, the artists here — led by our world-class art director Tobias Nilsson — set the bar quite high already from the start. They pay an almost painful attention to detail (and if you are the guy paying, it actually IS painful sometimes). When I first saw the HD version on a big TV screen in the office, they had animated the characters during dialogue sequences. It was very nice, but I immediately noticed there was something wrong with their eyes. I stepped closer, and saw that there were tiny, tiny cogs working behind the "eyeballs" of the robots as they spoke. I almost screamed with delight, and then Tobias told me they had been there all along, also in the 3DS version. Which almost made me angry, since that effort was wasted on the 3DS. But apparently he'd been playing the long game from day one, while I'd been worried we wouldn't survive economically. If we'd gone bust shortly after releasing the 3DS version, his artistry would've been moot: "pity you can't see the eye-cog animations, they're actually really nice."
And we also needed to change a few things that weren't that visually obvious to the player: we dropped the camera back a few steps so that more tiles were visible. At first we did a 1:1 conversion from the 3DS to HD, but then Rusty simply became huge. It didn't look right. Or to be more precise, I was my usual impatient self and thought it looked good enough, but the others wanted to make it better. Now he looks perfect in HD, but to stop you from being able to "see too far" we had to move quite a bit of things around, create new tile sets and what have you. On December 5th, four months after the 3DS release, we let Dig loose on Steam. We thought it sold well, and unfortunately we went up against Chucklefish's excellent crafting adventure Starbound on the very same day. I can't help but wonder what would have happened if we'd been "alone" that day! But with so many games coming out all the time, you have to be prepared to butt heads with at least one major release.
Finally we were done. Or so we thought. One aspect of releasing to the 3DS had been effortless - platform testing:
"Is the game working on your 3DS over there?"
"Good... I guess we can stop testing then."
Releasing on PC/Mac/Linux is more or less exactly the opposite experience. Within an hour after the Steam release, we were buried in support mails about the game not working with more or less obscure gamepads, in certain configurations, with this program running at the same time, etc etc etc. For the next couple of hours I was chewing my fingernails and was starting to ask around if I could borrow someone else's fingernails to chew on, but our cool-as-cucumber programmers killed bug after bug with swift precision. It was like watching snipers take out targets, and after a short while it was quiet again.
But another big thing also happened more or less exactly a year ago: our lead designer Olle Håkansson started writing the first lines of code that were to become SteamWorld Heist. The conception of Heist is typical for I&F, where all the best things happen at lunch. Some time in November 2013 someone, presumably through a mouthful of meatballs, said "Wouldn't it be cool if...", and a week later there was a VERY rough but plausible game design. Appropriately I was out travelling somewhere bragging about the amazing prototypes we had in the works, but in truth I was stalling.
Just after the release of Dig, and before we got started on the Steam version of it, we were working on two very different things: the prequel to Dig and a small iOS game called Spin Demon. Both of them looked promising from the outset, but two slightly depressing facts soon dawned on us: (a) the scope of the prequel was going to be smaller than Dig, hardly the grand thing you bring out after a great "début album", and (b) Spin Demon was going nowhere. It looked very nice, but it wasn't fun enough. We couldn't nail down the fun factor.
Now, I have a pretty impressive number of personality flaws. One of them, which is of little consequence, is my irrational fear of carpeted hotel corridors. Can't stand to be in one, I'm convinced there'll be really scary twins standing just around the corner of every turn — thanks a lot, Stanley Kubrick. Another flaw is more important, and that's being optimistic to an equally irrational degree from time to time. While talking to people or lecturing on game development (yes, for some reason they let me do that from time to time), I'd sort of in passing mention the fantastic follow-ups we were working on back home, while secretly hoping — no, counting on — that we'd soon come up with something quite dazzling to replace the prototypes (although I should mention that I really, really like the Dig prequel. Systems-wise it's on the simpler side, but great nonetheless.)
So when I got back to the office that time in November, the gang had had enough lunch breaks for Olle to be ready to pitch Heist to me. I was very relieved and excited, and replied with a very short list of "CEO demands" (I have this inner vision that CEOs demand a lot of things, so I felt I had to):
1. The new game would have to be set in the SteamWorld universe. By now it was clear that SteamWorld Dig was a hit, and we should capitalize on the traction and give people what we thought they wanted.
2. It would absolutely, definitely and without a shadow of doubt have to be ready for release during 2014, so that we could be in the running for Game of the Year awards two years in a row. If we spilled over in 2015, we'd be back swimming in the oblivion of anonymity. Instead of being hailed as the biggest and most inventive artists ever - slamming home the radically different Heist a year after succeeding with Dig - we'd be forgotten, lost, the kind of slackers not even slackers want to hang with. In short, a 2014 release was a MUST.
Summing up, SteamWorld Heist is set in the SteamWorld universe, and it will be released some time in spring 2015... the incurable optimist in me thinks one out of two is at least half good! Then again, Heist is simply a much more complex game than Dig, and takes longer to develop. It's more or less what we've been doing throughout 2014. Rather than cashing in I've tried to expand the studio, and we're now 18 people on the payroll. I feel we're still a family
This embarrassingly long text is bound for publishing on Nintendo Life, so I'll mention only briefly that we released Dig for PlayStation 4 and Vita in March 2014 and that it's done quite well there. Who knows, it may be heading for another major platform as well soon...? Dig was also included in Humble Indie Bundle 12 in September, which is something of a milestone for indie developers. We don't make very much money from each copy that way, but it has cemented SteamWorld Dig as a classic indie game. This has been noticeable in community discussions around Dig — comments are very rarely negative, and people pride themselves in recommending it to others. Amazing? You bet!
And finally, in big letters I'm proud to tell you that SteamWorld Dig came to Wii U at the end of August 2014, about a year after the 3DS release. Since Dig was originally designed for two screens, I'd argue that the Wii U version is the best one to date: with the 3DS we were forced to fill both screens with meaningful content, and here was the reward: The Wii U makes clever use of dual screens, HD, 60 frames per second, animations galore, more music and multiple languages. I'm sure a lot of people will pick up the Wii U version during the ongoing Christmas sale!
In 2014 we've continued to learn a lot, and probably in particular about publishing and talking to the press. Those of you who recall my rantings of yesteryear are probably still crying with laughter over my feeble attempts to reach out. We're better prepared this time, and we talk about SteamWorld Heist as much as we can. The hype is building up, and you can follow the progress on www.imageform.se/blog.
Happy holidays, and hope 2015 turns out great for all of us!