An IP that can mold into anything
After reviewing—and loving—SteamWorld Quest, I wanted to chat with Brjann Sigurgeirsson about the game, its development, and the origins of the Steampunk universe that keeps on giving. The head of Swedish studio Image & Form was all too happy to oblige and we spent the next 40 minutes chatting about managing growth and expectations, working with an IP that can mold into anything, and more.
This interview was done with SteamWorld Quest just a week away. Enjoy!
Brjann Sigurgeirsson: Hey Dan!
TechRaptor: Hey! How are you doing?
Brjann: I’m good… I think [laughs]
TR: Yeah I bet. It’s busy over there, then?
Brjann: Yeah, it’s very exciting right now. It always is just before [a game launches].
TR: I can imagine. How’s it been, then?
Brjann: Some things have been very straightforward this time and some of them have… not been. [laughs] But it’s always like that. One thing is that we set out to be done with the game around, like, I think we had a cut-off in mid-March, so that meant we actually had the review codes [sent out] three weeks before. And that’s never happened. In the past it’s been “OK, the game’s out in 14 minutes, let’s send out the codes”
TR: Sure, we got ours pretty early, which was kind of a surprise.
Brjann: Right. So, that’s gone really well and, obviously, in the bigger picture that means we actually got the game done on time. That [usually] never works. It’s always a question of how late or how delayed will it be. [laughs]
TR: It’s nice when things go according to plan. Let’s get into it then. First of all, tell me about SteamWorld. How did the concept come about in the first place?
Brjann: Well, it depends if you want the “real” story or not. [laughs]
Brjann: The real story is that we were making mobile games for a few years. We were making kids games for PC and Mac for many, many years. And then, the App Store came about and we made a few shitty mobile games [until] we actually made a really good one, in 2011. But before that, in 2010, the Nintendo DSi came about and we decided to try that, as well. [We wanted to be sure not] to put all our eggs in one basket with the App Store, so we made this little game called Something Tower Defense. That was actually the working title, “Something Tower Defense”. We ended up using steam-driven robots in a Western setting, and then we called it SteamWorld.
TR: How did that concept come about?
Brjann: We just decided that a good setting to have a tower defense game would be with gold mines. There would be evil robots trying to enter the mines and steal your money. So, you would put people down to shoot down the robots. But that was like concept phase stuff until someone in the office said: “wouldn’t it be more fun if the robots were the good guys and the humans were the low-lifes?”. We hadn’t really started drawing anything yet so I said OK, let’s try that. And that actually made a lot more sense. We realized we could make the turrets look robotic, like little robot characters. Anyway, it was a really small effort this game, and afterward, we were really intrigued by questions like “how did this world come about? What could possibly have happened for the world end up like this?”. We liked the Steampunk aesthetic and we liked the Western setting, so we thought about making another game. I’m not sure how you say it in English, but I kind of had… Delusions of grandeur and wanted to make this game. I thought that if we had two games then we’ll have a franchise. [laughs]
TR: [laughs] Sure, sure.
Brjann: So naive, right? So, we started making SteamWorld Dig back in 2012. We thought, “well, we should probably have a little bit of lore, at least for our own reference.” It was very exciting to write that [back-story], so we started planning the next game - because SteamWorld Dig actually did really well - in 2013. The game director for most of the SteamWorld games - a brilliant guy called Olle Håkansson - presented a space game where you would run around heisting other ships. So, I said, “that’s great, but we’re working with this franchise now.” I suddenly realized it would be so fantastic if we could make any kind of game within this SteamWorld universe. I decided it needed to be set in SteamWorld and that it needed to come out in December 2014. So, [of course], it actually came out in December 2015.
TR: Of course.
Brjann: It was really well-received [when it launched] and we read a lot of people’s reactions being like “wow, you can throw anything at this team and it’ll come out really well.” So, that was really inspiring.
TR: With Heist, how did you go from a Western setting to a far-flung Firefly-inspired thing?
Brjann: Yes, how exactly? It doesn’t make much sense, does it? [laughs] There was a lot of things we realized we needed to elaborate on [for the back-story] before we even started on Heist. Because the Earth has literally exploded in Heist, we had to figure out how that came about. We needed to write a game that would fit between SteamWorld Dig and SteamWorld Heist to would explain all that. [More specifically,] we needed to write the ending for that so the setting of Heist could work. Anyway, we really wanted to make this heist game. Obviously, if the characters were [galavanting] in space, a lot of time must have passed. This meant we could make them a little bit evolved. Still fairly simple, but still evolved.
TR: So, basically, you were like “we really want to do this Firefly game, we’ll fill in the gaps later.”
Brjann: [laughs] Yeah, that’s exactly it. You nailed it. I’m trying to sound clever here, but that’s really all it was. I’m glad you called it a “Firefly game” because that really was a big inspiration. And so was XCOM. We wanted to make a 2D-XCOM with a Firefly taste to it. [Intially,] we actually had a male lead character that basically looked like the show’s captain (Nathan Fillion) if we werea robot.
TR: Anyway, you were about to get into SteamWorld Dig 2. I was a really big fan of that when it first came out. Tell me about it.
Brjann: Thank you. We’re really happy with how that turned out. We thought we were going to spend a year making Heist, but we ran into so many dead-ends. The fun factor wasn’t there and so on. So, we ended up working on it for two years instead of one. I was really happy with the reception of that game, though. We actually had money now [laughs]. We finally made a game that actually sold well. I had actually borrowed the equivalent of the Gross Product of France or something crazy [to fund Heist]. So, after we were done with that game, we were just very tired. We wanted to [follow it up with] something simple, something familiar. And so we got to work on SteamWorld Dig 2. After we started, we said this won’t - it cannot - take any longer than 8-9 months to make, but, of course, it took 18 [laughs]. We’re very happy with how it turned out, though.
TR: Well, I think it came out great. It’s a much bigger game than the first one. I remember, after finishing Dig 2, I went back to play the first one again and you forget just how small it is by comparison. Dig 2 is quite sizable, actually.
Brjann: Yeah, absolutely. Dig 2 actually has a lot more dimensions to it than the first. The first game was an effort of around 6-7 people, [whereas] there were about 18 of us when we started making Dig 2. It makes a big difference.
SteamWorld Quest's Development and Design
TR: Tell me about SteamWorld Quest, then. When did you start drafting up the concept for that?
Brjann: Right, so we had made Tower Defense, Dig, Heist, and Dig 2. [Although we were all really proud of those games], there was a feeling that not everyone’s voice was being heard equally when it came to deciding what games to make. It seemed like the same people were discussing the design of games and what they would be about each time. Other people were interested in pitching their ideas, too, so we had a week during the development of Dig 2 where people were allowed to take all the time they needed to come up with concepts and pitch their ideas. There were some really great ideas there, and Quest was one of them. We should probably talk about this again in six months, but the basis for the game wasn’t originally a card-based thing. [It went through many iterations] before we settled on the cards and I’m really glad we did.
TR: Well, I think it turned out really great. I really loved it.
Brjann: Thank you. I’m really happy with how it turned out. I think it’s really tight and everything. But yeah, with Dig 2 the inspiration was clearly Metroidvania-type games, Heist was XCOM and Firefly, so we needed something new for Quest. A lot of people here like to stay in the office after work and play card games and tabletop games so there’s a lot of love for that kind of thing here already.
TR: So, where did the inspiration for the card stuff come from then? My first thought was Slay the Spire, have you guys been playing that at all?
Brjann: I’m *sure* people have been playing that around here. This might surprise you, but I actually don’t play a lot of video games myself. I watch a lot more than I play. I find them too addictive, honestly [laughs]. So, I’ve seen a lot of that game and I’ve talked to our designers about it. There’s definitely some influence there, yeah. The way the cards are laid out is similar, the UI, etc. [However,] there are a few other games that served as inspirations. Baten Kaitos was a big one, for example, as well as Fate/Grand Order and Mega Man: Battle Network. They were our main inspirations, but we were definitely inspired by the look of Slay the Spire.
TR: Sure. So, tell me about the process of going from the sci-fi setting of Heist to the traditional fantasy setting of Quest?
Brjann: Well, it’s going to sound like a joke. But, who doesn’t like robots? We love robots. We love Westerns, too, and sci-fi. Everyone loves these things, right? They’re easy to love. Finally, you have fantasy. A lot of the people in the office go LARPing (live-action role-play) and it’s something that [if you’re into it] you don’t quite understand, or you don’t think it’s something you’ll ever do, but people love fantasy. Everyone loves fantasy. So, of course, we wanted to do something in that setting.
For a very long time, my favorite movie was The Princess Bride, so Quest is actually filled with a lot of nods to that. The opening, for example, where the father is telling his son the tale of the robots, is exactly like the start of The Princess Bride. That was definitely a big inspiration. But yeah, going from space to fantasy, if you like both things, it’s actually not such a big leap. Before Quest, we were set on robothood beginning in the 1900s, but apparently, with Quest, it seems robots have been around much longer. And we’ll get to that in the future, how that all ties together. But it’s really cool because it gives us a lot more time to play with.
TR: Yeah, you’ve really expanded the universe a lot there. That’s interesting. So, do you think you’d do more games in that time period?
Brjann: Well, it’s hard to say at this point, but if we feel the same way we do about it now, then why not? This may sound pompous, but with every SteamWorld game we’ve made, I’ve been very happy but also worried that this is the pinnacle. That we’re never going to be able to a game this good, you know? So with Quest, it opens up a whole new bag [ideas]. We already have a lot of cool ideas [that would fit into] that time frame, so if people love it then I don’t see why we shouldn’t.
There’s one problem with it, though. There aren't enough people [at Image & Form]. I would really love to see us making a Dig 3 and Heist 2, you know? I want to play another Quest.
TR: Right. You just want to make it all, don’t you?
Brjann: Right, exactly! It’s like baking a cake. The West tastes good, space tastes good, and fantasy tastes really good. We want all of it!
TR: It seems like you just make whatever you want to make. But it must be difficult because you’ve still got to find that balance.
Brjann: Absolutely. We just cheat at the end and call it SteamWorld something. Then we totally backtrack on the story and act like we had it all planned out from the beginning [laughs].
TR: So, you do consider everything to part of the same canon, then?
Brjann was a bit ambiguous with his answer here. He didn’t deny the idea, but he wouldn’t outright confirm it either. It seems he wants it to be a bit of a mystery for the community.
TR: OK, so let’s talk about the Switch for a second. How did it come about as being exclusive to the Switch?
Brjann: Well, Dig actually came out first on the 3DS, as did Heist. With Dig 2, it came to Switch just a few days after it launched elsewhere. So, this time, as before, it’s not like Nintendo owes us anything and it’s not like we owe them anything. We just feel like we have a really strong and kind following among Nintendo players. I think they’re always giving us the benefit of the doubt. We always get really genuine feedback and we love that. We feel that we want to give back to this community because they really care about games. They’re a community that loves games and wants them to be good, which keeps us in check a bit, too, I think. It keeps us at our best because we know that as soon as we release a game that’s mediocre or disappointing, people willl stop being interested.
TR: Can we expect Quest to appear on other platforms in the future?
Brjann: Right now, we’re only talking about the Switch. We can’t say for the time being.
TR: OK, sure. Well, it’d be great to see it elsewhere. I think Quest is a great fit for the Switch, though. I had a great time playing it on there. It looks really sharp in handheld mode and blown up onto a TV.
Brjann: Thanks. We think so, too.
TR: How long has the game been in development, then?
Brjann: I’d say we started right after Dig 2. It comes to about 18 months.
TR: It seems like they all take around 18 months, doesn’t it?
Brjann: Yeah! I mean, imagine that. 18 months of your life, every time. It’s a big commitment. That’s another reason not to make bad games.
TR: Because it’s a waste of time, yeah [laughs]
Brjann: Right [laughs]. It’s a long time. You got so much older. But yeah, 18 months. As I said before - naive of me again, I suppose - I envisioned it wouldn’t take any longer than 11 months or so until release. And that means from the very start of development to the testing phase right at the end. But, I guess it needs to take a lot of time if it’s going to be good. We always get into arguments about when to release the game. One person wants another two months to test the game, another wants to just be done with it, you know? You need to find a sweet balance there. We could develop these games forever if we had the money.
TR: Right, yeah. So, just hypothetically then, what genres would you like to try? What’s your dream SteamWorld game? Brjann: I think that’s a really personal question, actually. The team would like to take it any direction, really. And I really mean that. We’ve toyed around with many ideas. It’s a problem in itself because you realize how small you are and that you won’t be able to make all these games. It’s like being a musician who has a thousand song ideas but only a lifetime to record them [laughs]. Some of them are just never going to see the light of day, right?
For me, though, I think I’d love to make a Battle Chess game. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that, but I’d love to do that with robots. Just have, like, a great variety of animations and stuff. Exactly like Battle Chess, you know? We wouldn’t change the rules or anything, it’s just chess but with more [personality and style]. I’d just love to see robots do it because then it’s not so bad. You’re not really killing people.
TR: Well, maybe that’ll be the next game [laughs].
Brjann: Maybe [laughs].
TR: But, basically, expect *anything* from the next SteamWorld game?
Brjann: Yes, exactly. We don’t even know what it’ll be yet.
TR: Sure. So, final question, you’ve got all these characters from all these different parts and timelines of the SteamWorld universe. Do you ever envision a game or a story where you could bring them all together?
Brjann: Like an Endgame-type situation? I like the idea of them all being connected somehow. There’s actually a little easter egg in Quest referencing Dig 2. I won’t spoil it for players, but it’s out there. I like the idea of having conscious nods to other games. Like, Rusty appearing in Heist - although, it seems not many people have noticed that. But, I think I like the idea of referencing the events of other games during dialog. And that’s probably going to become bigger and bigger, too. Since the lore keeps getting bigger, it feels like something we could publish, you know? Make it into something larger.
I’m fascinated by the work of George R. R. Martin. The way that he’s written an incredible amount of backstory for all these different characters just so he can tell his story, which is humungous, right? It’s crazy to imagine. What an achievement.
TR: Absolutely. Thanks so much for your time, Bjrann. Best of luck!
We'd like to thank Brjann for speaking with us. I also reviewed SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech and loved it, calling it “another resoundingly successful hit in a series that has seemingly no creative limits." Read it here.
What do you think? Did you enjoy Brjann’s insights? Are you a fan of the SteamWorld games? Let us know in the comments!