Image & Form had a great 2014 releasing 2013's Nintendo 3DS hit SteamWorld Dig across a multitude of platforms (including PS4, Wii U and PS Vita). And while Image & Form have many years behind them as a company, SteamWorld Dig was in many ways their biggest and boldest project to date. Now the company is focused on SteamWorld Heist, a turn-based strategy title set to land on a multitude of platforms in 2015 and beyond.
"SteamWorld Heist is a game about space adventures and survival," replies Image & Form CEO Brjann Sigurgeirsson when asked for the customary elevator pitch. "Recruit a team of rag-tag robots to explore and scavenge the remains of a destroyed world. Board enemy ships and command your crew in a unique variety of turn-based combat."
Having worked on games aimed at young children and mobile titles (achieving success with strategy title Anthill on iOS), SteamWorld Dig was the first big game targeted towards a core audience on consoles and handhelds (even if it was preceded by SteamWorld Tower Defense on Nintendo DS in 2010 as a downloadable title).
"There were two main events that triggered the switch for me personally and I will recount those here, but I also want to mention that my intelligent co-workers probably saw the writing on the wall earlier than me," explains Sigurgeirsson. "In 2012, when we decided to move from mobile (and we haven't closed that door, by the way), the App Store was getting very congested and the pendulum was inevitably swinging over from paid games to free-to-play."
"My first "epiphany" was in March 2012 at GDC in San Francisco. When I entered one auditorium to listen to a lecture on monetization, I realized that I was the only guy in the room wearing a T-shirt - at a developer conference. The rest looked like they were fresh out of business school. It felt all wrong, those guys would never develop a game themselves. The landscape and definition of game development - mobile development, that is - was changing, and I didn't like where it was going. We were in no position to change the way we (wanted to) make games, we were small and very game-focused, not monetization-oriented. I felt we wouldn't have made it, so we started looking at what other options there were."
"The second was in May 2013, where I sat in a big discussion with other CEOs of Nordic game companies. The topics were are relating to mobile games and how to make money from it. I was thinking, "Am I the only person in here who doesn't really believe in this?", and then a brave Danish CEO mustered up the courage to voice exactly that sentiment: what is the big trick? How do you actually capitalize on this? It was like the bottom dropping out of a barrel. It turned out that almost everyone was really concerned, and they were either not making any money or not nearly as much as they had thought going into mobile development."
Two epiphanies, but the change at Image & Form was already well under way at that point.
"By then we were almost ready to launch SteamWorld Dig, and it was obvious that there had been a reaction throughout the industry," continues Sigurgeirsson. "Mobile wasn't the savior, perhaps it wasn't even the logical next step. We launched at a time when the biggest buzz wasn't monetization, but rather indie-friendliness. Like us, many mobile devs were starting to look around for other options, and they approached Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft, hoping for oceans a nicer shade of blue. We had been quite early, and Nintendo decided to bet on us as one of "their" indies. There was a race among the three, to be the most indie-friendly platform. It worked out really well for us. We have a great audience, wonderful ties with the platform owners, and we make the games we want to make."
Ultimately, Sigurgeirsson isn't ruling out a return to mobile platforms, but it won't be about trying to nail that perfect monetisation model.
"Today we feel that we don't need mobile; we can thrive on all other platforms combined. But I still view mobiles and tablets as great gaming platforms, the viability varies with each game. Whereas the controls in SteamWorld Dig wouldn't work on a touch device, we think SteamWorld Heist will be a perfect tablet game. We still don't understand how to monetize F2P games, and I don't think we're that interested. We want people to enjoy our games without us lurking about asking for cash the whole time. It'll be a paid game, and it won't be cheap."
The obvious route to take for a developer after a surprise hit like SteamWorld Dig would be to do a sequel, but while Image & Form return to the SteamWorld universe it won't be for a sequel to Dig, at least not now. And that the fact that they're doing Heist is down to the game development equivalent of a coup d'état perpetrated by the dev team.
"It started while I was away at a game conference somewhere, dead set on the fact that we were making the prequel to SteamWorld Dig after completing Dig itself," Sigurgeirsson recalls. "But when I got back the entire office had conspired about a new game, and our lead designer Olle Håkansson took me aside when he had enough to pitch it. It was a game of much bigger scope than the prequel, and it sounded awesome. My only condition was that we could weave it into the SteamWorld universe somehow. And it fits quite snugly."
"The main inspiration was our stance on games. We love turn-based strategy games. Everyone in the office loves to play board games of all kinds. As a complete and helpless chess addict, I for example think all games should be turn-based. Well, maybe not exactly all... but turn-based games are very interesting, and we've found a unique angle in Heist."
We previously mentioned that Image & Form plan on bringing SteamWorld Heist to virtually every modern platform (including Mac, Nintendo 3DS, PC, PS4, PS Vita, Wii U, and Xbox One, and potentially Android and iOS down the line). They'll finish one version and release it, then move on to the rest, much like they did with SteamWorld Dig.
"SteamWorld Dig brought about an almost digital change for us," says Sigurgeirsson. "We always knew we wanted to be on their platforms, but these days we know they also want our games there. We want to publish on all platforms, and they understand that. As you can imagine, that's very comforting."
"As I wrote above, we're on very good terms with the various platform owners. It's not just because we know how to make decent games, but also because we have the same objective. Before I met with the respective reps, I was a bit nervous. After all, these people are "somebody", forces to be reckoned with. Meeting them has been endearing, and we are very much alike: we all love games and want to play great games."
"If I can urge largely unknown, fretting devs sitting on a good game to do one thing, it would be exactly that: meet the platform owners, they're all terrific, friendly people who will never be rude to you. They may want to be, but their job description forbids it."
Looking forward to the next year, Sigurgeirsson is full of optimism both when it comes to SteamWorld Heist and the company:
"First, [I hope] that everyone at Image & Form stays safe, healthy and ingenious. That SteamWorld Heist continues to develop into a really fine and unique game, and that it breaks all kinds of sales and review records. Later, that we can develop the next SteamWorld game quickly and have it ready by year-end 2015. Small things as well, like bringing the Alexa rating of our website, www.imageform.se, into the top 100,000. We're in a very different spot going into 2015 than previous years. We're not rich, but we're brave. It's a great time to be alive."