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SteamWorld Quest: From Edutainment To Indie Powerhouse

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Just your typical medieval robot card battle RPG.

SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech is coming to Nintendo Switch on April 25. The latest in the long-running SteamWorld series once again takes the series--and developer Image & Form--into uncharted territory. After exploring a dusty western setting and a rusty space-faring future, Quest takes the steampunk robot aesthetic to the realm of medieval knights and fantasy, with an underlying card battle mechanic. GameSpot spoke with Image & Form founder Brjann Sigurgeirsson about how the studio created the series' unique identity, and what we can expect from its most ambitious game yet.

SteamWorld has proven to be a really flexible device for different kinds of games. Was that how it was conceived, to create this flexible framework?

Sigurgeirsson: That was a happy accident. We decided to make a tower defense game for the Nintendo DSi, but we had no idea what we were doing, really, both in terms of development and in terms of trying to sell the game. We just saw that there weren't any tower defense games on the Nintendo DSi at that time. And so we made the game, and we made it very quickly. By the time we were done with it, there were at least three or four really good tower defense games on the Nintendo DSi. Besides, we didn't know anyone in the press or anything, so we didn't know how to reach out with a game.

But then, around that time--like 2011, 2012--the App Store was getting very crowded and we thought, "This is going to be a really hard place to survive." So then we thought that the Nintendo 3DS is about to come out, maybe we can make games for that platform. And then we came up with SteamWorld Dig and decided to go for the Nintendo 3DS first. So, it actually started with this tiny game called SteamWorld Tower Defense that was about miners just trying to transport gold from their mines.

From the beginning, it was the other way around. The robots were the bad guys and the humans were the good guys. At lunch one day, one of us said, "Wouldn't it be more fun if the robots were the good guys and the humans were the bad guys?" So when we made SteamWorld Dig, we just decided to continue on that, the steam-driven robots would be the upstanding heroes and the humans, the Shiners, would be the lowlifes.

In SteamWorld Dig, there's hidden ancient technology and you have fun playing with that concept--technology we recognize from our own time.

After we had made SteamWorld Tower Defense, when we released it, we were actually quite intrigued ourselves. We [asked ourselves], "What could possibly have happened in the world to make this scenario come about? Something terrible must have happened to humanity. Why are these robots around that are so low tech? When did this happen? Did the world end around the year 1900 or something? Maybe that could be it." That's how we started messing with it.

Is it fair to say SteamWorld Dig was your first big breakout?

Yes, it was. SteamWorld Tower Defense certainly wasn't, but it paid for itself. Image & Form today is 25 people in development, and a few extra helping out with PR, marketing, publishing, and so on. At that time, I think there were four of us, so it didn't take much to count as a success by our standards. If we could keep the lights on, the game was doing alright. SteamWorld Dig, on the other hand, we weren't really prepared for people to like the game that much.

I'd been the lead programmer before SteamWorld Dig, just around SteamWorld Tower Defense. I decided that the others guys were just a lot better than me at programming and I'll just do some of the other stuff. And so with SteamWorld Dig, I decided, I'm just gonna help out with the design of the game, but I'm gonna be in charge of selling the game afterwards. It wasn't until we were done with the game in June 2013 that I realized that this game is coming out in August and I have no idea how we're going to sell even one copy of this game.

Was that around the time that [Nintendo] was starting to get into the Nindies label?

At that time, I remember talking to people, really clever people, who were convinced that consoles and so on would disappear in just a very short time. When Nintendo and the others saw that a lot of small studios were struggling to make ends meet on mobile, because there were just so many games coming out all the time, this indie friendliness that came about was something that they could and should capitalize on. So, maybe we were one of the first experiments down that path. Here was this game called SteamWorld Dig that was the perfect example of an indie game and maybe one of the first indie games for the Nintendo 3DS that was decent. We were just lucky.

[Nintendo] picked up on the game and they loved it and they included it in Nintendo Direct in August 2013, and yes, that made SteamWorld Dig our first breakout hit. It made me really proud of myself because I thought I was being such a marketing genius, but really it was Nintendo being very kind to us.

SteamWorld Heist is a very different setting than Dig. Where did that come from?

A lot of the guys were playing X-COM at the time. One of the main irritations obviously was the randomness of hits. You could shoot someone critically from a really long distance if you were lucky, but you could miss point blank as well. And we thought if we made a 2D version or something that is turn-based like X-COM, but we set in 2D, perhaps we could really actually use a skill system the way we actually used it in SteamWorld Heist.

The [thought] at the time was, what if we have a game like SteamWorld Dig, where the reviews were unanimous in that they said, "Yes, this game is too short and this studio is still learning but I can't wait to see what these guys were up to next." We sort of felt that it was a chance of a lifetime to make a game, or a follow up, that wasn't just more of the same. If we could make another game that was completely different from SteamWorld Dig, but was perceived to be just as good or better, then the studio would be quite interesting.

So having Heist in between the two SteamWorld Dig games established the flexibility of the studio--not just the franchise, but of the studio to make different kinds of games.

Yeah, and that was more important to us than you can probably imagine. Before [SteamWorld Tower Defense], we were a work-for-hire studio, completely and utterly unknown to anyone. We were making edutainment games for the Nordic market. We were commissioned by a publisher to make these kids games. We made somewhere from 25 to 30 edutainment games in a franchise, and we hated it towards the end. We were doing the same thing over and over and over again. We dreaded that. If we had made SteamWorld Dig 2 right after that, it would have been very hard for us to depart from the Dig series.

But we also recognized that if we can position Heist in SteamWorld, it also means that SteamWorld itself becomes very versatile. We can use SteamWorld, the IP, for any kind of game that we feel like making.

All that leads to SteamWorld Quest. Your games tend to blend genres, and Quest looks like an RPG plus card battles. Is that how you define it?

I'm glad you put it in that order because it really is an RPG, probably even more like a JRPG game with card battle mechanics. It's not a card game. That it's an RPG is the most important thing. Then, it has card battle mechanics sort of at its core.

Do you have particular favorites, JRPGs or card battle games that served as an inspiration?

I actually asked the game director what he thought. The best answer there is Mega Man Battle Network and Fate/Grand Order. It's those games that have inspired the team.

What do you think would surprise us about the way that the battle system actually works?

What will surprise you is how simple it is, but how deep it is at the same time. We mix genres in a way, and we come up with a new recipe or slightly different from what has been done before. We have an RPG game that we've added card battle mechanics, but the card battle system or the card system itself shows what we've tried to do with every game.

The guys were playing X-COM. Myself, I had a ton of small kids at home, so I didn't have the time to play very many games around the time we started making SteamWorld Heist. But they told me, "Well, you should. You should try X-COM. You can play it on your iPad, old man." Then I started playing it and I realized after a day with that game that I was still in the tutorial.

Sure, I had to change a few diapers in between, but it was still taking forever. One thing I think we do really well at Image & Form is take any kind of gameplay, twist it a little bit, but also make it accessible, make it easy to understand and easy to play. I actually think fairly young people can play SteamWorld Quest. For one, I think it's safe for work. It's not very brutal, although there are battles, there are swords and stuff. There's no blood or anything. But you can actually also understand, as a fairly young person, how to play the game. Then you can also craft your cards and you can upgrade your cards and so on.

How did you approach the story for SteamWorld Quest when you're making a game in a genre known for having sprawling, epic storylines all the way throughout?

The main writer of SteamWorld Quest, one of the guys who works here, he felt that we could take all of the story out of [Heist and Dig 2] and people wouldn't care so much about it. So, from the very beginning we knew that the story [in Quest] was going to be very important. The main thing was this sort of epic quest that the main characters embark on. It would be strange to call it anything else than SteamWorld Quest because they're really on this epic quest.

You opened a poll to the fans, and RPG was the overwhelming favorite. Were there any others that were even close?

I think we actually steered it towards that. We were actually worried that people would think something else, like, "No, make a racing game" or something. Yeah, we made it easy for people to pick RPG.

If they had picked a racing game, you would have said, "We're going to do that eventually, but for right now, we're doing this"?

Yeah, definitely, that would have had to be the answer because we were more than halfway down the line with Quest at that time, I think. That would've meant trouble for us. But yeah, it was a huge relief. And also, everyone here is a big Nintendo fan and we've been wanting to make an RPG or a JRPG for a very long time. It's sort of like a childhood dream for a lot of people working here.

Should we expect Easter eggs or other references to the existing SteamWorld games? Or is there going to be anything more explicit connecting to the other games?

Obviously it's steam-driven robots in a fantasy, medieval setting, right? I think I was just under the impression that, great, we'll need to resolve this. Like, it was just a dream or something like that. But this is on the main SteamWorld timeline.

Internally, do you have a document that's an actual timeline--this is when and where, X, Y, Z takes place?

Yeah, we do. It's so cool.

And we'll never get to see it.

No, it's the coolest thing because you think, "Yeah, really?" But there's an explanation for this. And it also means that, to me, personally, that there are a few games that we can make, actually, because of that.

How are you approaching balance for using cards as sort of the backbone of your battle system?

It feels like it doesn't matter that we think that we've balanced something perfectly. Someone's always gonna break something. With Dig 2, the game was perfect, and it's like, "God, the balance is fantastic." And then there was this speedrunner who, two hours into the game, realized that if he just slid back and forth on water, then, for some reason, he would get an amazing slingshot effect, and he could jump straight up in the air and just be gone and break the game. We were just laughing at it because it was just so silly.

The thing is, I don't think it's gonna be that easy to break this. [But] there are so many different cards, so many ways to use them and so on, that I'm sure someone is gonna come up with a way to completely make one of the main characters super-overpowered.

Worst case scenario, the end-boss is easy.

Right. And there's another thing. One of the things that bugged me personally about the original SteamWorld Dig was that more or less every review mentioned that it was too short. And we made a vow never to make a too-short game again. But then, it's not about length. It has to be interesting the entire time as well. I find in RPGs, you end up grinding quite a bit. We tried to steer clear of that. But, at the same time, we want to make games that are meaty. That there's quite a bit of gameplay in every game. So this one is definitely not going to be too short. It's gonna be a lot of meat on the bones.

Do you have a time estimate of how a playthrough typically takes?

My first playthrough, I didn't get to the end boss. I stopped playing after somewhere around 25 hours or so. But I think I was probably fairly close then. So, maybe somewhere around there.

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