Last week I sat down with Brjánn Sigurgeirsson – CEO of Swedish indie developer Image & Form – to discuss Steamworld Dig and gain exclusive information about the studio’s new project.
When I speak to Sigurgeirsson, the studio’s home city of Gothenburg is experiencing a rather damp winter afternoon and night-time is drawing in. Such miserable weather can be enough to be put a dampener on anyone’s sprits – “Gothenburg is a wet dream for rain lovers” – but he’s in a good mood, with the studio currently enjoying the successful launch of their most recent game on Steam.
They’re also a studio that’s pretty busy at the moment. “Quite a few things are happening,” Sigurgeirsson says once we get going; “these last few days, we’ve been responding to a few Game of the Year awards and trying to keep up with that. We were hoping to be on the shortlist for IGN, to be on their top 10 games of the year. We didn’t make that list, but we think we’re on the shortlist for handheld and indie games, which is good enough for us.”
With success comes recognition of course, so it’s no surprise that many people are wondering what’s coming next from the developer.
“When we finished Dig in June this year, we were looking forward to releasing in August on 3DS. We didn’t dare start development of the next game immediately – everyone had to pitch in with the release plans,” he explains.
“You won’t believe me, but we actually had very little planned even just a week before launch. We didn’t really know what to do; it was my task to launch the game, but I had trouble sleeping the whole summer because I was so ill-prepared for it. I really didn’t have any idea it would be as successful as it was. We’d had our noses so close to the screen the whole time in development that we didn’t know if it was a good game. And when we realised that it was a fabulous game, that people thought it was amazing, we thought: great!”
If he comes across as pleased with himself, then he has every right to be. So far on both platforms combined, Dig has been very successful – though Sigurgeirsson isn’t willing to share the exact sales numbers right now. He’s surprisingly modest and self-deprecating though, for a guy who’s just seen his studio go from being relatively unknown to an indie heavyweight almost overnight.
In the developer’s offices, some tastefully framed artwork adorns the walls – character art from Steamworld Dig and Anthill, one of their previous games on iOS. Other than that and a mural on one wall, there’s very little to indicate that you’re in anything other than just a regular office. But I have to wonder: does he ever feel like the success is going to his head?
“We’ve been very lucky,” he tells me. “People seem to think that we’re being very professional but really it’s more that a lot of things just happened to come together! We’ve been counting our blessings; I thought it would sort of ease down. So we just had to take a break from everything and try to be a little bit more prepared [when] we got the ok from Steam to have a version of the game on their platform.”
Sigurgeirsson isn’t ready to share the name of their new game, which is currently in the early stages of development. “If you know what we’re like then it will probably change,” he says, before giving a characteristically warm chuckle.
He is willing to share that it’s due to be another game set in the Steamworld universe. It’s not Steamworld Dig 2, though. “What we have ahead of us is 3 more games in the Steamworld series, for sure,” he tells me. “The thing that we’re working on right now is not Steamworld Dig at all; it won’t be a digging game. It will be in the Steamworld universe and the characters will be recognizable, [but] it will be totally different type of game.
“People who are hoping for a Dig sequel will have to wait, but [that too] will be bigger than the first game was, in all directions.”
If they weren’t before, then now the developer is certainly forward-thinking and rather ambitious. But if the next game in the series isn’t a sequel to Dig, what is it? Sigurgeirsson is surprisingly open on the studio’s plans – at least, as far as can be expected from a team enjoying such tremendous success and an increased profile. “When we started developing [the next game], what we kept doing for a month and a half was actually a prequel to Dig. But when we started working on the Steam version of Dig, the guys in the office came up with a really brilliant new idea: not a sequel, not Steamworld Dig 2, but perhaps the game that comes after, or the game after that. And so we looked at it and we just thought: God, that’s so brilliant. It’s so grand!”
Their plan is to complete their current project before moving on to Dig 2 and then later returning to the prequel that they’d previously started, he tells me.
I ask him what he means when he says the new game is grand. “The scale of the game is just so good that as soon as we had finished porting Dig to Steam, we immediately started focusing on that,” he replies.
With the talk about scale, people are obviously going to ask: is it an open-world game? “That’s a good question,” Sigurgeirsson says and it’s clear from looking at him and from the slight pause which follows that he’s choosing his words carefully.
I say to him that he seems to be trying hard not to give too much away, and he laughs. “Sorry about that! It’s just that I have a tendency to promise too much [and] you disappoint everybody if you don’t deliver.”
So what can he tell me? “What we want to do is to create much more of a ‘community’ game in the Steamworld series, meaning that people will play it for many more hours and discuss different strategies. No-one will complete this game in a day or two; they’ll be playing hopefully for weeks, and then we’ll add more stuff to it.”
Explaining a bit more about what he means, he tells me: “You can buy Dig and you can finish it in maybe one sitting, in a single day. And then when you’re done with it, it’s interesting to talk to people about how you solved certain things. But a game you can discuss while you’re playing it is just so much more interesting.”
When he mentions community aspects, does he mean multiplayer?
There’s that trademark laugh again before he responds: “Maybe! I would love to just be able to give a simple answer. I think the game that we’re working on now would lend itself wonderfully to co-op play, but we’re very aware of how much more development time it would take to perfect that. If we can manage it then we will make a bigger game and then we will be able to have multiplayer.”
So it’s certainly a possibility then. If it does happen, what form will it take?
“If we can get multiplayer in there, it won’t be versus play; it will be co-op. If we could get that in, it would be tremendous but it [would have to] be excellent, the best game of the year.”
He goes on: “What we’re looking at now is a single-player game that lends itself excellently to people discussing various strategies, how they tackle things and how different people solve things across different playthroughs. There will be so
many ways to tackle every scene in the game… it will be very open to discussion.”
Does that mean random generation? After all, roguelikes are currently experiencing something of a comeback at the moment, with Path of Exile, FTL and Rogue Legacy – among others – working to make the genre a favorite in the indie scene.
Once again, Sigurgeirsson laughs and it’s clear that he’s enjoying my attempts to tease more information out of him. “Yes, there will be a lot of random generation: it will be a core feature of the game. Also, it will be random in more than one way. You’ll understand it when you see it, because the premise that we have is that we want people to ask themselves: how will I succeed in the game this time? The conditions of the game will be different every time.”
I mention Fez and how the game’s challenge extends beyond the platforming and into wider areas with the amount of secrets and riddles to be solved. Is that, I wonder, something which the team is considering?
“I don’t think, at least at this stage, that we’ll have that wider level of meta-discussions going on about the game; but I really think it will be perceived as a grand game, with a lot of new takes on how a game like this can be played.”
There’s yet more laughter as he pleads: “Can you please stop asking me about this now?”
It’s clear that he’s becoming wary of how much information he’s giving out about the upcoming title, so I ask him what platforms they’re currently hoping to release on and when they think the game will be finished.
“We’re kind of looking at everything really. One thing we try to be very clear about with ourselves is how wonderfully the Nintendo community – and the company itself – has treated us. We were really nobodies before Nintendo lifted us up. So we’re never going to forget what they’ve done for us and the 3DS is one of the platforms that we want to launch on from day one; and then obviously Steam, if they’ll have us again, and [after that] we’ll look at what the other platforms are doing.”
He has to think for a moment before discussing the hoped-for development timeframe and I’m reminded of what he said earlier about promising too much and not being able to deliver. “Realistically, I think we’re looking at a release in October 2014. If we count 8 months and take into account Swedish vacations, we’ll be done maybe next September,” he says cautiously.
“With Dig, it took us about 8 calendar months. We’re aiming to have a much grander game [this time], but developed in the same time frame; we’re very careful to make sure that we’re doing everything right, from the very start of development.
“We don’t want to make a game that is smaller than Steamworld Dig, and we don’t want to make a game that is the same. We want to make something great.”
Later that evening, as I listen back to the interview recording and read through my notes, I’m struck by just how ambitious Image & Form are being with their new title. With any creative team that’s tasted success, there’s pressure to follow up on it. For many, the temptation is to take the easy route and play it safe, but that’s a temptation that Brjánn Sigurgeirsson and his team are certainly resisting.
Whether or not they are able to deliver on those ambitions and strike gold a second time is something that we won’t know for certain until their next game is released; but for now they’re thinking big. That’s something to be applauded in an industry where so many follow-ups are just more of the same with a different number next to the title.