Image & Form’s Brjann Sigurgeirsson speaks at the Game Developers Conference about the making of SteamWorld Dig 2.
In today’s climate, developing a single hit game is no small achievement. So hats off to Swedish studio Image & Form, who, having worked exclusively on mobile for many years, have now released a series of successful titles on PC and console.
The studio has also established a valuable IP with the SteamWorld universe, a vibrant mashup of post-apocalyptic steampunk and the rootin’ tootin’ Wild West.
The SteamWorld franchise has rather humble origins, beginning with the release of SteamWorld Tower Defence on the Nintendo DSi in 2010. The game’s modest performance led to development of SteamWorld Dig in 2013, which was a sizeable hit on Nintendo 3DS before coming to Steam and home console. It was followed in 2015 by turn-based tactical game, SteamWorld Heist. And last September, the studio released a full SteamWorld Dig sequel to wide acclaim.
In his GDC talk, ’Better than the Original: Making a Sequel to SteamWorld Dig,’ Brjann Sigurgeirsson, CEO of Image & Form, spoke about the opportunities and difficulties of creating SteamWorld Dig 2.
A growing studio
One of the biggest changes for Image & Form during the development of SteamWorld Dig 2 was the growth of the studio itself. The commercial success of the previous two SteamWorld titles saw the studio grow from a permanent staff of 10 (plus a dog) in 2013, to 22 in the run up to SteamWorld Dig 2’s launch last September.
“Most notably we now have full-time animators, and two level designers,” says Sigurgeirsson. “And that’s a fantastic thing. Level designers, just treat them well. Feed them, keep them happy, pay their salary.”
Sigurgeirsson explains that he didn’t think the first SteamWorld Dig would sell in huge numbers, although he hoped it would perform well enough to pay off the studio’s $560,000 debt. On release, the game was championed by Nintendo of Europe, and became a 3DS hit, earning a Metacritic score of 82 and a number of 10/10 reviews along the way.
“It was unbelievable,” Sigurgeirsson says. “For us it was a new reality. Before SteamWorld Dig we had no self-esteem at all.”
Despite the positive response overall, some complaints were directed at the game’s relatively short length. SteamWorld Dig was smaller than planned due to time and financial constraints, and this was one of a number of elements Sigurgeirsson wanted to address in its sequel.
“We actually cut content from SteamWorld Dig,” he admits. “We had more stuff planned, but we just couldn’t fit into the game. We weren’t able to borrow more money. It was surreal to owe someone over half a million dollars. You imagine people who steal a half million dollars, they run off to the Bahamas and hide for the rest of their life.”
The challenge was to make a sequel that built upon the first game’s established digging mechanics and was more generous with its content, but also one that avoided becoming a grind.
The most immediately obvious change between the two games can be found the art and animation. The studio moved the animation system from Flash to Blender, and evolved the sequel’s art direction by adding in more detail and smoother animation transitions.
“We were getting better at what we did,” explains Sigurgeirsson. “Our art director wanted to explore something new, and also we had more graphic artists, and they were just getting better and better.”
The result is a busier, more vibrant, aesthetic that is consistent with the first game, but with added depth, and character.
Another benefit of the studio’s additional art resource can be found in the quality, and quantity of the key art used to market the game. (The results of which can be seen at the top of this page.)
“Not only were the in-game graphics better, but we decided to a spend a lot of time so that we could show the game looking richer,” Sigurgeirsson says. “We also had time to experiment with a movie poster for the game, one that would become the real key art seen for the game.”
Simplicity and complexity
Another method in which the sequel was fleshed out was by reducing the friction found in some aspects of its gameplay, and by adding more complexity to other areas.
“We also decided that in the game you would be able to get more types of equipment, and to also get rid of the things that made the game repetitious.”
In SteamWorld Dig, health was a commodity to be bought using the resources found through the digging mechanic. This was one element simplified in the follow-up.
“In SteamWorld Dig 2 we decided that whenever you get up to the surface, your health, water, and light is automatically replenished,” Sigurgeirsson says. “We also decided to add radically cool things that would be useful at the end of the game.”
Once example of a ‘cool thing’ is the jetpack that protagonist Dorothy gains in the game’s closing hours. It’s one of a number of concessions – another being a helpful hook shot – that open up the game world for the player in its last act.
“Whenever you got ‘the thing’, you should get this feeling,” Sigurgeirsson explains. “How was it possible for me to play this game before I got these things? That was the feeling we wanted to instil in people.”
“At the end of SteamWorld Dig 2 I’m just flying around with a jetpack, I’m not necessarily playing, I’m just flying and looking at things.”
And to give the game a little more complexity, a new ‘Cog Mod’ upgrade system was added that enables players to customise Dorothy’s tools with reconfigurable enhancements. This was supplemented by an array collectibles to discover, designed to some extent to extend the game’s length, but also to reward its most committed and thorough players.
“We decided on artifacts that you find in the game. When you find them all you unlock some really really nice post-game content,” says Sigurgeirsson.
However, the most fundamental change in SteamWorld Dig 2 is the way its environments are created. The first game was, in part, procedurally generated. For the sequel, the entire world was hand designed.
“When you design something as good as you can make it, you can ensure the same experience for everyone, and just tweak it and tweak it and tweak it, and make it better and better. Two guys spent just thousands of hours making the game and putting it together.”
The extra work and polish has paid off for Image & Form. In terms of first week unit sales, SteamWorld Dig 2 was seven and a half times more successful on Switch than the first game on 3DS.
“I was completely taken aback by this,” admits Sigurgeirsson. “I actually emailed Nintendo and asked them if there was something wrong with their system, because the figures were just so tasty.”
Sigurgeirsson believes that launching early in the console’s lifecycle was key, just as it was with the 3DS in 2013.
“Coming out fairly early on a new platform is important. Make sure that you’re releasing your game for the newest platform, because people are still buying games for it.”
And due to a difference in price point, SteamWorld Dig 2 actually generated over 18 times the revenue on Switch compared to the first week on 3DS. The Switch version also outperformed its Steam and PlayStation counterparts considerably over the same period.
Sigurgeirsson attributes some of the game’s success to the longevity of the the first Dig title.
“At this point, the original has now been out for almost five years,” he says. “There are quite a few people who have gotten the game, one way or another. They bought it, bought it in a sale, maybe got it through PlayStation Plus or some sort of deal. And that gives us a user base that’s really big, and can give us that week one performance.”
The game’s success is certainly deserved. Since September 2017, SteamWorld Dig 2 has been released on Windows, Linux, Mac, the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation Vita. It’s also expected to come to Xbox One later this year.
The game has also garnered a higher Metacritc score than the original, and a 97% recommendation rating on Steam. And for our money, its digdugvania gameplay even eclipsed the much anticipated Metroid Samus Returns.
“One piece of reality in running Image & Form is that it’s always been a hand to mouth experience. Whenever we get money, it’s time to pay the rent, to pay the salaries, and so on,” Sigurgeirsson concludes. “With SteamWorld Dig 2, suddenly, those everyday worries, those every week worries, those every month worries, are not there any more. It’s an incredible thing.”