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Interview: Image & Form Games on Developer Tips, Working with Nintendo & Sony and Being Indie

The CEO behind the indie hit SteamWorld Dig walks us through working with Sony and Nintendo, the strength of good art design, tips for picking platforms and the importance of game pricing.

After releasing the highly acclaimed SteamWorld Dig on PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Nintendo 3DS and Steam, Image & Form Games is a model of how an indie can make it big on consoles. CONSULGAMER sat down with Image & Form Games CEO Brjánn Sigurgeirsson for a discussion on how he operates his studio. Read on for indie tips, as well as a conversation on how the company succeeded with SteamWorld Dig – by sticking with strong art, finding the support of Nintendo and Sony, and marketing the indie way.

How Image & Form Games Found a Blue Ocean with New Platforms

CONSULGAMER: How would you say new markets and platforms for games make your job easier or harder?

Sigurgeirsson: It opens up new opportunities, but just because there is a new platform doesn’t mean you have to jump on it immediately. We were early with PlayStation 4 and in hindsight I’m actually very pleased that we did, because when a platform is establishing itself you have a blue ocean on that platform for a while and that makes it really interesting. With SteamWorld Dig, we decided to do it for PlayStation 4 and Vita, but not for PlayStation 3. There were a lot of people that asked us about that decision and we just saw that porting our PC version to PS4 was very simple, while porting it to the PS3 would have entailed quite a bit more for us, so that kind of decided it for us. As long as the platform owners are easy to deal with, it’s not a problem, it’s rather more opportunities.

Building Tools In-House

CONSULGAMER: What tools did you use while building SteamWorld Dig for your Game Engine, art assets, workflow management, etc.

Sigurgeirsson: We use our own tech, so we program everything into C++, and then my guys apply their magic and then it works. We use our own tech because we’ve tried around a little bit with Unity and so on, and I think it’s a very good way of making games where you’re not hampered by the restrictions of Unity, but there are restrictions within that tool. As long as we have the expertise for it, we’ll stick to our own engine, as we can get a lot of performance out of our games for any platform.

There’s a lot going on in certain stages of SteamWorld Dig, but we still managed to squeeze sixty frames/second out of 3DS which I thought was actually quite good. And also, with Unity, which we’ve been glancing at, you still cannot go to the 3DS for example with Unity, so it sort of decided it for us.

Then, we do all our artwork in-house. We’re still very much of a 2D studio and as long as we can produce beautiful 2D art, I don’t see that we’re going to switch over to 3D games.

Image & Form Games HQ
Image & Form Games HQ

Discounting Games Should Only Go So Far

CONSULGAMER: Discounts seem rare on the Nintendo eShop, how did the SteamWorld Dig’s half-off sale on the Nintendo eShop play out?

Sigurgeirsson: At first we sold SteamWorld Dig at full price, and then we sold it at 20% discount, and then at Christmas we sold it at 33% and then we just wanted to try to see what happened if we went half-off. I think that is about what we feel that we can discount this game at, because then the game costs $4.49 on the 3DS, and half-off on Steam or PlayStation is $4.99. I don’t want to discount any lower than that because, coming from mobile, we see what happens when developers or even self-publishing developers race each other to the bottom and just want as many people as possible to buy the game. I don’t thing we’ll go lower than a half-off discount, and then shoot me if we do.

Image & Form Games CEO Brjánn Sigurgeirsson
Image & Form Games CEO Brjánn Sigurgeirsson

There’s value in games, at least in most games there’s so much value that you shouldn’t be giving it away for too little because it sort of hollows out the value of a game. If you buy a game at two bucks, if you buy anything in life that costs two dollars, you can’t expect too much. If you buy a coffee that’s two dollars, you’ve sort of lost your entitlement to complain about that coffee because it’s too cheap. (I’m talking Sweden here now by the way, in the US I’m sure you can get a decent coffee for 2 bucks, but here it’s like if you pay very little for something then you shouldn’t be complaining about it.) And you’re sort of catering to the wrong audience -- we want to sell quality games, and we want to sell it to people who don’t mind paying for it.

I think ten dollars for SteamWorld Dig is either on the cheap side or just about right. I think the game -- some people race through the game when they first play through it -- they finish the game in four hours. And you sit there thinking, “Hmm, I got four hours of entertainment here, was it really worth ten dollars?,” and then they realize they can replay the game, and the game will be differently set up, so the next time you play the game is going to be a different experience.

I think that we can justify the price tag, but, like everything else, you start discounting it after a while just because you need the volume, and we can see how the curves work, whenever we’ve had a sale, we’ve had some strong day-to-day sales after that on the E-Shop. On Steam it’s very different, when it’s at full price the game flatlines, and when you discount it, it sells many thousands of copies, and it’s a very, very, different marketplace.

“We had a big hit in 2011 with a mobile game called Anthill for iOS. It’s a brilliant game and I think more people should try it.” - Sigurgeirsson

Work For Hire Work

Sigurgeirsson: After we did Anthill we set to prototyping some other game ideas and they didn’t really pan out, and then we caved in and took on some more work for hire for more than half a year. And that was a big mistake, it felt like simple cash at that point, easy money.

It turned out to be the same sort of drag working together very closely with the publisher, and the game that we made sort of suffered in the balance between us. We were compromising and they were also compromising. And the game suffered for it.

When we were done with that around late summer 2012 I made a vow never to rely very highly on work for hire again. I think we can still do it, but it will have to be under better circumstances than we did at that point, so we’re really trying to be our own people and self-publish.

CONSULGAMER: I talked to someone at another studio who said they’re starting to see a benefit from work for hire, as when they’re doing prototyping they can have a few people working on the next game and they can then can keep the rest of their staff busy through work for hire. Do you see that as a viable path for studios that can also put out their own IP and their own games?

Sigurgeirsson: I think the possibility or the opportunity to do work for hire is really good, exactly for the reasons you just mentioned, but it’s also obvious that you’re not putting as much of your heart into the work for hire project as you do with your own project, so if we can, we will really try hard to work very consistently on our own project, rather than survive on work for hire. But just like you said in that very phase when you’re prototyping and you’re not sure if it’s going to work or not it can be beneficial for you to do that.

Visual Design By Image & Form Games

CONSULGAMER: How do you tailor your graphics to fit a certain audience?

Sigurgeirsson: That is a good question. I think we’re still so small that we work within our own resources, and we know what we can do and what we can do well. And we sort of hope that our visuals appeal to a broad audience, rather than the other way around: how can we make this appeal to as many people as possible?

We have one of the most exciting, interesting art directors in the world in a guy called Tobias Nilsson, and he’s just so good that we rely on his art style for every game and it’s interesting to see how that works. Because our games do not, and they will not, look identical to each other. It’s how he evolves in his art style, and it’s how our art style evolves as well. And it’s tricky because now there’s fifteen of us over at Image & Form, and I think five or six of those are graphic artists, and they have to play catch up with whatever goes on inside his head, and so that’s what sets the bar for us.

Self-Publishing on Mobile and With Nintendo and Sony

CONSULGAMER: First, congrats on Steamworld Dig, it’s done great on a number of platforms. Given what you just discussed in that the art style looks different than what’s out there with a lot of other games, that approach might make some of the larger publishers nervous. They may want to be able to easily package and box a game with visuals they think fit specific markets. Given that and given kind of the way your game received really strong support from Nintendo with their younger audience and strong support from Sony with their selective next-gen audience, how did you manage the marketing from the start and through the end and figure out who your target audience is and how to talk to them?

Anthill by Image & Form Games
Anthill by Image & Form Games

Sigurgeirsson: That’s a great question, and if you don’t mind I’ll just step back in time a little bit and talk about Anthill again. We made that game first, and we tried to pitch that to a few big mobile publishers. This is when we started in self-publishing, and one of the reasons why we decided to self-publish that title was that one of the more interested publishers wanted to change the art around. Now, this is a game about ants, and simple-minded insects that raid your precious anthill. They asked us if we could make the insects look cuter, more cuddly – bigger eyes and so on. I think if we had more resources at the time that would have been an option, but we pitched it to them pretty late in the process, and it would have entailed too much work for us to change it around. And so we decided at that point, “OK, we’re going go with this, we have to do it ourselves, because we can't afford to change it around to tailor it to what the publishers think.”

SteamWorld Dig
SteamWorld Dig

Then, with Steamworld Dig, we had come very far in the process as well when we first showed it to Nintendo in March of 2013. It would have been very hard if they had said something like “Yeah that’s great, but can you make it Manga style?” We probably would have despaired and tried to find another platform owner to pitch it to! So, being small means that you have to pin your hopes on what you’re doing is right, because you don’t really have the leeway to change everything around so that it fits a certain platform.

And Bryan, I know exactly what you mean when you talk about the younger audience on the Nintendo platforms and so on. I was really scared going into that first meeting that they would say, “Yeah it’s nice and everything, but look at all these other Nintendo products. SteamWorld Dig doesn’t really look Nintendo to us.” They didn’t. They were very kind to me, played it for a while and nodded. I was afraid that they were giving me the Japanese treatment, being very polite and then going home to compose that “Very nice game, but...” e-mail. Instead they took it home and played very much more and loved the game. They’ve been very patient with us that way, they’ve given us enough freedom to do this, and they’ve understood that we can’t cater exactly to their needs – or at least what we perceived were their needs.

We had the same experience with Sony later on, where Sony had only one small demand on us, and that was ‘it has to be best on PlayStation.’ It’s something that they told us a few times, and so we made it slightly better than it had been on 3DS and Steam, and that way I think we can safely say that it’s actually best on PlayStation. But we don’t want to leave the Nintendo and Steam communities behind -- that was the main reason why we didn’t change too much around for the PlayStation version. So, a short answer to that is Sony has been very kind to us as well, as they haven’t asked us to change too much.

Inside the Studio at Image & Form Games
Inside the Studio at Image & Form Games

Marketing SteamWorld Dig and a Strong Reception from Nintendo

CONSULGAMER: In terms of marketing, what marketing methods do you find most effective?

Sigurgeirsson: Well, then, bear with me again, I’m not going to talk forever, but it’s very interesting to see how we got into this. We’ve sold quite a few copies of Steamworld Dig, both at full price and during sales, so you’d think that we’re some sort of marketing gurus. Almost like we know what we’re doing.

We finished development of Steamworld Dig in late June 2013, and it was released August 7 in the US on the 3Ds, the day after in Europe. In Sweden it works like this -- in July everybody goes on vacation, because it’s warm in July. It’s not like in other excellent countries where it doesn’t matter when you take time off, but here you do that. In July, Sweden stops. So we finish the game, we submit it to Nintendo, and we have July off. During all of July I tried really hard to relax, but I knew that it was my job to actually market the game and make sure that people found about it, and I had a really hard time relaxing, because I knew that when I was going to get back to work, we would have one week or 10 days to build some sort of buzz about this game. And I think one thing that we had done -- we had done very little before that -- in March we sent out a press release about the game, and then when we got back, we had a few days left of July, maybe it was ten days before, we decided to print fake robotic money and sent out fake bribe letters to key industry players, and fake train tickets inviting them to come to Tumbleton, this little town in SteamWorld Dig. So that was the cute part of it, the indie guerrilla marketing method.

The other one was that, we had constantly been talking about indie games with Nintendo, and Nintendo had mentioned to me in March that they were trying really hard to become more indie-friendly. We had been very lucky that Animal Crossing: New Leaf had been selling so well, it had been a system seller for the 3DS, and just about the time we released Steamworld Dig, sales had started to fade for Animal Crossing. So, anything that was released while Animal Crossing was really strong sort of drowned in Animal Crossing, and it was starting to fade a bit, and then came Steamworld Dig. We had been talking to Nintendo, and trying to make them use Steamworld Dig as sort of a, as their ticket into indie-friendliness, meaning that if there is one title that you can use to push this thing that you are becoming more indie-friendly, please use Steamworld Dig.

And then I got so incredibly lucky when I got back from that vacation, which was pure personal agony really. It should be four weeks of loveliness, Sweden is really nice in July, but I couldn’t sleep for a month because I was so worried about the game failing miserably. When I got back, the second day in the office, we got an email from Ed Valiente at Nintendo Europe, saying, “I have been playing this game all of summer and it’s eaten up my whole vacation. You bastards. We really want to include it in Nintendo Direct,” which is their video broadcast. And that email transformed me from a bona-fide loser, a super idiot, into at least someone who looks like he knows how to do marketing, and I can’t say we’re experts. But I think it's one method, that you can actually work really closely together with the platform owners, and try to see it from their angle, or pitch to them what is so beneficial for them with this specific game.

A Nintendo Direct in August 2013 highlighted SteamWorld Dig, with narration by Nintendo of Europe President Satoru Shibata.

We’ve also used Twitter extremely heavily, trying to be fun and interesting on Twitter. So we went from 70 followers in June 2013 to about 2,000 followers in early August. I made every mistake that you could think of in that process: I was spamming people, I was being obnoxious and butting into conversations, but at the end of the day I tried to be likable, so that I think that it works out.

We’re trying not to be too cocky, we know that we’re learning the whole time and in many respects -- not in development, but in the self-publishing department --we’re still learning everyday how to do stuff. So I would say, the big hint, my advice there is to be humble to everybody that you talk to, and love everybody, and talk to everybody. If anybody talks about your game, make sure to connect with them and to strike up a conversation and be nice. Be nice to everybody. It’s of course, maybe it’s just silly advice, because it makes just perfect sense to be nice in every situation, but if you don’t pretend to be something that you’re not, then I think it works in your favor.

Image & Form Games After SteamWorld Dig

CONSULGAMER: What do you think is next for your team?

Sigurgeirsson: I’m fortunate; I know what’s next for my team. Since December last year we’ve been working very hard on the next SteamWorld title. It’s not the next SteamWorld Dig game, it’s the next game that we’re putting out is in the SteamWorld universe. It’s the same type of characters that are the protagonists, they’re steam-driven robots, but the setting and the gameplay will be very different from SteamWorld Dig. The reason why we’re doing that instead of making SteamWorld Dig 2 is that we think that this game that we’re working on is just so much more excellent a game than I think we could make of SteamWorld Dig 2. Dig 2 will be fantastic as well, it will be bigger in every direction compared to Dig, and it has to be, since the only gripe that people have with SteamWorld Dig is that it’s kind of on the short side, but in between, before SteamWorld Dig 2 we are making this fantastic game, which is called SteamWorld “something,” we are going to announce the name quite soon, and we will keep you in the loop on that of course.

This interview was conducted by Eric Gustafsson and Bryan Cashman of CONSULGAMER and is lightly edited from the original recording. Learn more about Image & Form Games at their website.

Follow CONSULGAMER on Twitter or subscribe to our site for more developer profiles, indie tips and game industry discussions. 

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