Interview with Image and Form CEO Brjann Sigurgeirsson
Small studios are often more open to communicating directly with smaller websites and media outlets, and this is very true of all the staff members at Image and Form. Not every companies CEO would take time to answer questions, but the mind behind the SteamWorld franchise (SteamWorld Dig, SteamWorld Heist), Brjann Sigurgeirsson, did just that for us. Image and Form almost went “off the grid” after the launch of SteamWorld Heist on the 3DS, not because they didn’t care, but because they are so very busy. So we had some time to ask Brjann a few questions and he happily obliged. Our full interview is below.
What has life been like at Image and Form post launch (of SteamWorld Heist)?
Well, we’ve apparently taken up the habit of doing things around major holidays – we submitted SteamWorld Dig for approval right before the summer holidays in 2013, and SteamWorld Heist was released just before Christmas 2015. For the development side of Image & Form, I think getting the game released in December for Nintendo 3DS was quite a relief. We’ve worked on the game for 22 months, so releasing the game – and receiving an amazing amount of praise in the process – made it a lot easier to enjoy the holidays.
For me personally and my colleague Julius Guldbog, who handles PR and social media, obviously it meant that we worked double overtime from release on December 10 until Christmas Eve. Only two weeks of intensity, but it was all the more intense! We slacked off very much during the holidays, to be fresh for January.
Overall, it’s been a huge relief. The guys and girls managed to finish up the game in time for release in December, there were no bugs – which is pretty amazing in itself these days, when day-one patches have become standard practice – and we’ve been getting rave reviews. When the dust settled, we noticed that the only new 3DS game that scored as high as SteamWorld Heist in 2015 was Monster Hunter 4. Now, having Image & Form compared to Capcom is of course very flattering…
…flattering for Capcom, that is. They’re thousands of employees, they’ve had four iterations to make Monster Hunter as good as possible, and the fourth is supposedly the best yet.
By contrast, there’s seventeen of us at Image & Form, and SteamWorld Heist is the first time we make this kind of game. We must simply be godlike. 😉
You have received some great praise for the game. What would you say the most interesting review comment – negative or positive – that perhaps you did not expect to hear?
There are two comments that stand out as most surprising. One of them is a somewhat negative comment we weren’t expecting, and the other is a negative comment that we expected to hear, but was surprisingly absent. Reading reviews is a good education and an indicator that you can always improve: in our “least Swedish and humble” moments we actually think we’re one of the best developers on the planet and can do just about anything (at least in 2D), but most of the time we know we’re still learning.
The first one: we thought the “small” inventory space was a good way to get the in-game economy running – you’d sell off old guns to buy new ones – and to help players steer clear of “the paradox of choice” when you run up an inventory of approx 100 weapons (and the same for utilities). We honestly didn’t dream of the inventory management being an issue! But many reviewers have noted that “if there’s ANYTHING negative in this game…” and gone on to discuss the inventory system. There’s definitely something to be learned there.
The second one: I thought we’d get slammed for the limited “visibility” on the 3DS, where you wouldn’t see exactly if/how a “no-scope” weapon would hit an off-screen target. Almost like you needed a ruler to play the game! VERY surprisingly, no one has mentioned this as a negative – in fact we’ve been getting POSITIVE feedback about that! And here we’ve already decided to use the better performance of HD consoles to eliminate this shortcoming… or feature, apparently!
Other than that – forgetting our Swedish sense of humility for a second here – I’m not surprised about the positive comments regarding gameplay and graphics. We know that our graphic artists are world-class, and our designers/programmers are outstanding.
You guys are excellent dealing with the community. You were always retweeting and favoriting my #nottruefact Tweets, and I notice lots of interactions with others. What makes this type of relationship so important?
It’s more than important: it’s essential to how we work. I’ve taken the liberty to brag a bit in the questions above, but we know what we are: a relatively small developer with a lot of indie credibility. It would be haughty beyond reason to shun all the wonderful people who take time to talk to us.
We can’t spend very much money on marketing efforts to make our games visible, so we depend on word of mouth – and the quality of our games. The tagline of EA Sports is “It’s in the game”, which sums it up very well. For a smallish developer, it all starts and end with the quality of the game. If we ever make a bad game, or one that doesn’t live up to people’s expectations, we don’t have the muscle to steamroll them into buying it anyway. To illustrate: the SteamWorld Heist review score is much higher than that of Star Wars Battlefront, for example. But we can only dream of Battlefront unit sales – Star Wars is a fantastic IP, and EA’s PR/marketing machine is enormous. So even if the Battlefront game is less than stellar (yep, I love puns), a lot of people will buy it anyway. We’re too unknown to have the “anyway” customers. We have to – and want to – talk to everyone on a scale that we can manage. Apparently they go on and talk to their friends.
It’s PR on the level where we are as a studio – we’ll try to make do with 20-ish people on the team. If we grow any bigger, it’ll be harder to continue being close friends striving towards the same goal: to make games that we want to play ourselves and that people want to recommend to each other.
How much of SteamWorld Heist was ‘crowd sourced’ via your numerous contests?
A bit, but nowhere near a point where we would lose control of the game. A few hats were designed by contestants, and it was a really fun contribution. On the other hand, a few contests were designed to discuss lore ideas and start speculation about the characters – so that contestants immersed themselves in the game before it was out. We
What would you have loved to add to the game that you couldn’t, and why?
Personally? That’s the easiest question: online versus-mode multiplayer. I play at least an hour of chess online every day, and Heist would be perfect for it. It’s skill-based and fair, and since it’s turn-based it doesn’t suffer from lag etc. The catch is that it would take us around six calendar months to implement it: we use our own C++ game engine, and we’ve never made multiplayer games before. It simply takes longer than you’d think. But…
…it would be KILLER!!