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Interview: Supergiant Games On The Striking Action RPG Bastion

Gamasutra spoke with Supergiant Game's Amir Rao to discuss the studio's action RPG Bastion, the inspiration for the games artistic design, and how going indie allowed the team to take a "high risk" approach to development.
With its striking art style, reactive narration, and somber tone, Supergiant Games' Bastion employs unusual aesthetic elements with traditional action RPG trappings. Developed largely by veterans of Electronic Arts LA, Bastion is an isometric action RPG that sees players traversing a surreal landscape and fighting monsters, gathering items, and rebuilding a ruined world. The game also features a dynamic narrator that describes various elements of the game based on a player's actions. Bastion is the first independent title for Supergiant Games, and was featured in the Penny Arcade Expo's indie showcase, The PAX 10, held earlier this year. Gamasutra spoke with Supergiant's studio director Amir Rao to discuss the transition into indie development, the inspiration for the game's artistic direction, and how the team eschewed traditional development habits after going independent. Can you tell us a little about Bastion? Amir Rao: Sure, Bastion is about a kid who wakes up after a big calamitous event happens to his world, and he's supposed to go to this safe haven, a place called The Bastion, and all he finds there is an old man. No one else shows up, so the two of them have to build the world back up together. It's an original action RPG with hand painted backgrounds, nimble combat and a fully narrated experience. Now, you're the only guys at the PAX 10 who have experience in mainstream production. AR: Yeah, a lot of us worked at EA LA. The co-founders, Gavin and me, worked at EA LA, as did Greg Kasavin. We used to work on the Command and Conquer games. We shipped Command and Conquer III and Red Alert III, and the Uprising expansion. We quit in 2009 and moved into a house together, and started making games with the two of us, and now we're five. What are the best things about working as an indie? AR: So, a couple things-- first of all, we're very fast. We're way faster than we were on a giant 60, or 100, or 120 person team. If someone has an idea like four hours later you know if that idea is terrible or the best one you've had so far. The ability to just execute on something without all the overhead of planning the number of artists who need to get involved, producers, development directors. All that stuff is there for a reason, to manage risk, but we are allowed to be risky, as a small team. And what is the worst thing? AR: I think when you have a job at a big company, you're always afraid that someone on high is just going to destroy you. When you have a job at an indie, you're just afraid that the market is going to eat you up. That you're going to make some awful creative or business or networking decision that is just going to sink you in this space. It's just all the great unknown. So far, are you preferring indie development? AR: I am definitely preferring it. As good as it was to work on a really efficient and good team at EA, on the RTS team, it's always been our dream to go independent and do something on our own, so it's great to work on that. Is there anything specific about Bastion that made you feel like it had to be indie? AR: Yeah, absolutely, and I think it's in two parts. It's in the development process and the tone. The tone is something really unique, and I think it's something that you have to play to experience, but I think it's something that works really well. It's got a dark tone in a really bright world. The second thing is that the development process is completely organic. We don't have a production schedule that's taking us all the way to ship, and what we're going to do every single week. We make something, we iterate on it until it's great, we move on to the next thing, and iterate on it until it's great. That process can work on large teams, but it's much harder to pull off. So between the vision and reality, what's the difference so far. AR: The vision for Bastion was we wanted to make an original role playing game with a unique tone and some sort of building element, something where you would go out into the world and bring stuff back. We love RPG towns. RPG towns are like some of the best feeling things. You remember the rogue encampment in Diablo, and the towns in Morrowind and Oblivion and all that stuff. And we thought a way to make that more powerful is if you actually participate in its construction and help populate it by finding survivors out in the world, and bringing materials back to extend it even more. That was the broad idea, and it wasn't even much more than that. A lot of the things like the art style, zones, and music, all of that came together afterward. So far, it's close to that, for sure. I mean, it has some other stuff that we never planned, like the fully narrated experience. We just tried that and it was so exciting that we decided, you know what, if this guy could react to everything that you're doing, that would be awesome. And we tried to think back, what was the best, reactive narration game you could think of in the past, and we thought of NBA JAM. NBA JAM had amazing reactive narration. That's definitely among our many influences. That's one of the things. How about with development, how has going indie been different for you? AR: It's way more loose and way more fast. We do some things that are probably high risk, that maybe are too high risk, and maybe as we mature as developers we won't do them, but we were working on the mechanics behind some of the weapons up until a few days before we locked down the build for PAX. Stuff like that. Do you guys have anything in the works for distribution? AR: So, we would love to be on all the major distribution platforms, but right now we're still working on that, and talking to people. That's definitely in the works. We're starting right now, because we just revealed the game today. How has being selected for the PAX 10 affected you guys so far? AR: That was such a huge morale lifter for the team, because we're toiling away on a game, in a house. It's like, 'Will anyone love this?' Do we love this? We definitely do. Enough to work on it every day for many many hours, and then to actually get it in front of people, have it judged by the jury of our peers and people who are big taste makers in the industry, like Mike and Jerry at Penny Arcade and all them, that was really awesome. It felt really good. And then once we got in, we planned the whole thing around it. We needed to update the build. We wanted to try to announce with some of the press sites before that, so the build needed to be done before then. It's probably like the first time we planned ahead more than a month. We said, 'Okay, we got this thing, and now we really want to capitalize on it. You don't get to choose those breaks, so when they come, you should make the best of it.' Totally off topic, but have you ever seen, I think it's a French browser based MMO called Dofus? AR: So when we showed the game to just some developer friends at GDC, one of them, Daniel Cook, was like 'You need to play the game Dofus, cause that game has an amazing art style.' We hadn't hired our artist Jen full time at that point yet. We hired her shortly after, and then we looked at Dofus and said 'Wow, that game looks freaking amazing.' It's gorgeous. AR: Yeah, so we definitely looked at it. It's got hand painted isometric world just like ours, and I think that what they're doing is really amazing, and we hope to be able to do something in the same league as them. Yeah, as soon as I glanced at your game, my first thought was 'Wow, that looks a lot like Dofus', which is a compliment, absolutely. AR: Yeah, I mean, some people on the forums were like, 'Yeah, it looks like a VanillaWare game.' Like Odin Sphere and stuff like that, and we were like, 'That's awesome." That's some of the highest praise you could get. Are you guys already starting to plan what comes next? AR: We are totally focused on Bastion right now. We're planning in terms of what comes next for the development team, and trying to arrange meetings with people who can put us on the and stuff like that, but beyond that, it's just Bastion.

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