Candid Conversations – Interview with Supergiant Games

It does not happen very often. By the time I completed Bastion I felt content, happy – with my choices, excited – to replay the game and eager – for Supergiant’s next game announcement; which may not happen for quite a while. It does not happen very often because most independent games often leave me with distaste. The potentials are massive, the results are under realized.

I do not know how to classify Bastion. Many say it is like Diablo or Torchlight and I don’t blame them because an isometric ARPG is the closest I can get by just looking at it. Experiencing its atmosphere is another matter.

I have a regret that I played this game much later than I intended to. By the time I could get my hands on Bastion, I had read a bunch of reviews of unspoilery nature, watched trailers and gameplay footage and looked at some screenshots. Regardless, I went into the game pretty much fresh with not a lot of expectations. It turned out to be the most unpretentious independent title that I have ever played.

Everyone is an artist at Supergiant Games. Gamersmint had a chance to interview their Creative Director Greg Kasavin. He talks about Bastion, Supergiant games, the indie scene in the west and a lot of other interesting things.

GM – Can you guys talk a bit about SuperGiant Games and how you guys got together from EA. By the way are all you guys from EA?

Greg – Sure, our studio was founded in September 2009, starting with just two people before it grew to its full size of seven during the course of Bastion’s 20-month development. Three of us are from EA – myself, and the two cofounders Amir Rao and Gavin Simon. We worked together on the Command & Conquer franchise, namely C&C3 and Red Alert 3. During that time, though, we were inspired by what was happening in independent game development and wanted to create an environment in which we could do our best work, freeing up as much time as possible from the complex dynamics and management overhead that comes with working at a much larger studio.

GM – It is fairly obvious but every name has some history. What made you choose ‘SuperGiant Games’?

Greg – The studio was up and running for a number of months before it even had a name, so the name “Supergiant Games” isn’t necessarily one that was inherently meaningful to us from the start. We thought of probably hundreds of names and ultimately it was the one that stuck. We realized it would gain meaning over time and that’s part of why we deferred on naming the studio for as long as possible. The “Supergiant” in the name refers to a category of star, a type that’s so massive it’s almost unimaginable. Imagination is important to us so we wanted a name that felt suitably ambitious but also playful-sounding.

GM – A lot of independent titles (such as Ron Gilbert’s DeathSpank and later Torchlight) have taken the isometric, action RPG route. Bastion sets itself apart with the narration that has been praised a lot. Was the passive, third person narration a conscious choice from the conception or was it an accidental discovery?

Greg – We always intended to set stand apart by way of having a rich narrative and a more active playstyle relative to other action RPGs, as well as making a game in 2D. We didn’t know from the start that we’d use narration to deliver the story, though. The narration technique emerged during prototyping as a solution to how we could deliver a deep narrative without interrupting the play experience with cutscenes or other conventions used by story-heavy games.

GM – As a personal opinion, I felt both endings in the game, require a sacrifice; depending on what the player’s definition of the word is, they slightly antagonize him. Choose one and the calamity repeats, choose the other and no one can ever live again. Is the story of Bastion a Shakespearean Tragedy?

Greg – I’ll take that as a compliment, though I don’t think Bastion’s story has all the characteristics of a tragedy. Most notably, only one of the principal characters can die in the story, and even that character can be saved if the player chooses to. To me it’s more of a fable or traditional fairy tale. Those are stories about dealing with life through the metaphor of a fantastical setting, and that’s why they’re classic and suitable both for children and adults. Real life does not provide clean, unambiguous, happy endings. You always have to take the good with the bad. I wanted the story of Bastion to feel identifiable in spite of the fantastical trappings so I was never interested in giving it a conventional purely-happy ending. I think the two endings are quite different emotionally. One of them I think is quite hopeful and optimistic.

GM – I am going to diverge a little here and talk about cinema. Back in the 50s, the French magazine Cahiers du Cinema basically laid tenets for film criticism and formulated the auteur theory. It was also highly essential for the French New Wave.

Greg, you have been a video game critic during your time with Gamespot and now your independent title has generated a lot of interest and I personally love it. Do you think we need a manifesto to bring in a revolution which can be perpetuated by some critics themselves?

Greg – I think most comparisons between the history of film and the history of games are deceptive. The entire historical context is too different for direct comparisons to be revealing. The Internet wasn’t around in the 1950s to give everyone a voice. Do we really need manifestos today when everyone’s voice is so loud already? Controversy and outrage have no meaning anymore.

My work as a game critic was focused on standing for the consumer. My goal was to provide useful information to game players trying to decide where to spend their time and money. I wanted to keep doing it so long as the work seemed valuable. It wasn’t about trying to elevate the art form or anything like that. I personally don’t think it’s game critics’ responsibility to try and change or evolve games, but they’re welcome to try. I think game developers are the ones who have the power to do something about the way games are, which is why I wanted to become a game developer.

GM – Do you think game reviewers can be categorised as critics? Do you miss being in video game journalism?

Greg – I think game reviewers are critics, yes. That’s exactly what they are. I more frequently hear the term “game journalist” used, and I take some issue with that term as a catch-all for anyone who writes professionally about games. It’s too specific. I never considered myself a journalist, but I did consider myself a critic and an editor. There are some excellent game journalists out there writing insightful investigative reports, I just don’t think this describes most people who write about games.

I don’t really miss my past work, though occasionally I wish I was in a position to write about certain games that fascinate me for one reason or another. I still do that sometimes on my personal blog, and think writing will always be a part of what I do. I love the work I do now, and am ultimately more interested in creation than deconstruction.

GM – Talking about Bastion, how did you approach Warner Bros. games? Did they have any hand in publishing the game or they simply acted as the distributors and handled the marketing?

Greg – Warner Bros. is our distribution partner on Bastion. We self-funded the project and needed a publisher primarily to get on the Xbox and the marketing support was useful as well. We spent no time pitching the game around and instead took it straight to the public, namely by having a good playable build at PAX Prime in 2010. This generated a lot of interest and excitement, causing publishers to come to us. WB stood out as the most enthusiastic from among the interested parties so we ended up going with them.

GM – I recently came across some backlash regarding alpha projects being funded (ala Minecraft and recently Voxatron)? What’s your take on this idea?

Greg – I don’t have strong feelings about this. Who’s to say what makes a finished game anymore? Retail $60 games often launch with game-crippling issues that take weeks to get fixed. Meanwhile Minecraft has provided untold millions of hours of entertainment for players at a nominal cost even in its alpha and beta forms.

This type of early-release approach wouldn’t have made sense for a game like Bastion, which has a relatively limited amount of content and is highly dependent on a polished presentation to deliver its story. If we offered the game early it just would have felt bad and unfinished. But I think if this type of distribution method makes sense to other developers, they should try it. Their audiences can decide if it’s worth it or not.

GM – How good is the indie developers’ ecosystem in the west?

I’ve seen guys like Notch (Minecraft) and Terry Cavanagh (VVVVVV) support the humble bundles with their donations. Even Jonathan Blow (Braid) has been fairly supportive of interesting games and ideas and has openly expressed it at times. His involvement in the indie-fund, with others, is heartening to look at. Could you share your thoughts on this?

Greg – There’s never been a better time to be a small independent developer, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. I think there are many game players out there who are receptive to interesting new experiences, and the various digital distribution platforms out there make it simple to offer such games to those players at an affordable price. To your point, I also think independent developers tend to be rather supportive of each other, partly because they’re not deadlocked in direct competition like most AAA game studios.

GM – How did you initially support the funding of development? Which was your biggest challenge during the setup phase of the studio?

Greg – It’s a self-funded project so it’s through the shared sacrifices of the cofounders, the team, and our close friends and families that we were able to get started. The cofounders moved into a house together and worked where they lived, so they were able to reduce their costs of living by quite a lot in order to buy as much time as possible for prototyping, building up the team, and everything else.

In terms of what was the biggest challenge, it’s hard to single out one thing when almost everything about the situation was new to us. Amir Rao our studio director had to figure out many of the mechanics of starting a business in California, everything from figuring out how to incorporate to getting legal representation and so on. A lot of it is ugly, detail-oriented stuff that has nothing to do with making games, but of course it’s worth doing if it results in a studio environment where the team can spend almost all its time on the creation process.

GM – How long did it take you to prototype the basic mechanics of the game?

Greg – Bastion spent around nine months in a prototyping phase. At the end of that phase we had the prologue of the game, or roughly 20 minutes of gameplay, at close to a shippable level of quality, and we had a fairly clear sense of the work remaining. At that point we still had a ton of additional content left to build and some important design questions to answer along the way, though the remaining content went much faster than the initial prototyping. It felt really good in that respect.

GM – Were there any features, mechanics, elements (weapons, items) which were good on paper but not included in the game because of time and other constraints? Would you like to share some of them with the fans?

Greg – We didn’t design anything on paper for Bastion, everything went straight into the game. Since we iterated rapidly, there was a lot of stuff we tried and then changed or threw out because it didn’t work. We had weapons like the whip, which seemed like a good fit for the world aesthetic but just didn’t look good or feel right, or provide a meaningfully different experience from the Scrap Musket – a much more successful weapon. We were interested in the idea of a planting system in the Bastion, where you could plant stuff and it would turn into new stuff, but we never were happy with the results. We prototyped cooperative play and didn’t like what that did to the play experience and decided it didn’t fit.

All of these cuts were in the spirit of making sure the core experience was strong and didn’t have any weak, loose ends. We didn’t cut anything due to time constraint and as so when I look back, I’m very happy with the kinds of decisions we made about what to include and what not to include.

GM – I recently played Portal 2 and loved it. But, somewhere it did not have the same ‘wow’ as the first Portal. It seemed too sequel-ish. The narration in Bastion is unique and no doubt works well in the game. Are you willing to use a similar mechanic for other games?

Greg – We wanted to create a sense of surprise and wonder in Bastion, and that’s achieved partly through our use of narration. We have no plans for a sequel to the game, but even if we were to revisit this fiction at some point, I think we would work very hard to make sure it once again created a sense of surprise and wonder. That would mean not resorting to reusing familiar ideas. Personally I think Portal 2 did an excellent job of making Portal feel fresh again, but I don’t envy how hard it must have been for them to do that.

GM – You have stated, in the past, that Bastion is all what needs to be told about the kid’s story; it is also a successful IP. From the business point of view would you plan to continue the IP through DLCs or other games set in the same universe (something like Bioshock Infinite to the first Bioshock)? Are there any stories that you think need to be told or any mechanics that can push another game but not necessarily a franchise?

Greg – From a business point of view, we don’t have some long-term plan or grand vision for the Bastion IP. I think we will be protective of it first and foremost and not do things to cheapen it. The story of the game is meant to be self-contained so we won’t be extending the end sequence with DLC or anything like that. That said, I do think we created the sort of world that could be extended to any number of different stories if it ever made sense. We wanted the world of the game to feel rich and interesting, and we’ve received a lot of positive feedback to that effect.

GM – What are your opinions on DLCs and microtransactions in general?

Greg – It’s hard to have a strong opinion about such a broad topic. Some DLC is very good and some is very bad. I think games like Bastion, which try to achieve a strong atmosphere and immerse the player in the experience, have a particularly challenging time of integrating DLC or microtransactions in a way that doesn’t feel immersion-breaking or exploitive. I generally agree with a philosophy expressed by Valve that it’s important to make a great game first and figure out how to monetize it later, in whichever way makes the most sense for that game.

GM – How was your experience with Steam and XBLA from the approval process point of view?

Greg – We had a great experience with both services. On XBLA we were chosen to be the lead title in this year’s Summer of Arcade, so that was fantastic. Steam was easier to work with partly due to the nature of there being no central quality standard for PC games. It’s “more OK” for a PC game to be riddled with bugs and crashes than for a console game, and Steam isn’t responsible for testing everyone’s games the way Microsoft is. When a PC game is buggy, the developer is blamed. When a console game is buggy, Microsoft and the Xbox are blamed, together with the developer. Microsoft has a rigorous set of certification requirements designed around having a minimum quality standard for the Xbox. It’s understandable from their perspective and I think it’s ultimately good for game players.

GM – It has been sort of a mini-revolution lately with so many independent titles getting the attention they deserve, starting with Braid. Of course the new media and digital distribution has played a hand in that but what do you think has caused the change in the mindset of people, both consumers and developers, and they’ve learned to embrace it?

Greg – I think the stagnation and cost hikes of AAA games have helped create the opportunity for smaller independent games. Of course, digital distribution services like Steam and Xbox LIVE Arcade and PSN and Apple’s app store all are major factors, too. Today it’s very easy to find a great game for a small amount of money or even for free. Some of these games achieved great success, or were very inspiring, and those two factors in turn caused a lot of developers to take an interest in the space. Likewise, a couple of years ago, big game studios were getting shut down left and right due to the economy. This caused a lot of smaller studios to spring up.

GM – Being a small studio I’m guessing you must have handled all the QA work by yourself. How important was game balancing in the QA process? Did you get any external help in the form of user testing for recalibration and balance?

Greg – The tuning and balance of Bastion was extremely important to us, though we come from a background of making real-time strategy games and competitive shooters, so having a balanced experience is something we care a lot about. We did playtest the game externally for feedback about all aspects of the experience including the tuning. We also played the game on team a lot and took everyone’s feedback into account during the final balancing passes. Amir was chiefly responsible for tuning the game and was tweaking little values up until the very end. We’re happy with how it finally turned out – in particular we really wanted all the weapons to be valuable all through the game and I think we achieved that, in addition to having interesting upgrade choices around them. The Shrine system for game difficulty I think also worked out quite well.

GM – Where do you guys draw your inspiration from? Please mention other forms of media and art as well.

Greg – It’s hard for me to say where we draw inspiration from because it’s so many things and it’s different for everyone on team. One thing we all share in common is we’ve been playing games since we were very young, though each of us has interests outside of gaming too. I studied English literature in college, and so did Amir, so I think some of our preoccupations with narrative come from having read a bunch of books that handle narrative very different from how games tend to handle it. Several of us also have a lot of love for pen-and-paper role-playing games.

I think we wanted to make a game that could make players feel like how they felt playing some of the classics when they were younger. Personally I’ve always played games on computers, consoles, and in arcades back when arcades existed, and feel the influence of each of those things in Bastion.

GM – Bastion’s art sports an interesting colour palette. How many iterations did you had to go over before settling down with the look and feel?

Greg – We worked with several different artists on the project before Jen Zee our artist and art director joined. Jen found the style of the game rather quickly, though, and we fell in love with that style pretty much at first sight. Jen didn’t really have the luxury of a long preproduction phase to find the game’s style – just about all the stuff she created for the game went straight into the game. The high-contrast style of her work really delivered on the kind of world we wanted to create, where it was rich and fantastical like a storybook but also communicated a sense of loss.

GM – Did you guys work with any freelancers on the art given the large number of animations or everything was handled in-house?

Greg – Jen did all of the 2D artwork for the game, and we worked with several external artists on a contract basis for 3D modeling and animation and visual FX, as well as for what we call map beautification, which involves going through all the levels and making them look suitably atmospheric using the assets Jen created.

GM – I think the best compliment about Logan, that I heard, was in the Zero Punctuation review by Yahtzee. He mentioned it being ‘disturbingly’ sexy. What’s the secret behind that whiskey stained voice of his? Is he a fan of Tom Waits?

Greg – Logan’s much younger than he sounds in Bastion, and modestly attributes the character of his voice partly to lots of whiskey and cigarettes. Logan’s natural speaking voice is very different from the narrator’s voice. Once Logan did the initial voice test for the game, though, we found the narrator’s voice rather quickly in just a matter of days, since we already had a good idea of the kind of tone we wanted.

GM – Is there a particular reason why you chose a neo-cowboy style for the narration?

Greg – We were interested in having a fantasy-frontier aesthetic for the game, of subverting the expectation of having a flowery, verbose fantasy narrator. A specific reference was the American author Cormac McCarthy, who writes excellent, minimal dialogue that has a hard edge as well as a poetic quality. We were interested in seeing if our game could create a similar feeling.

GM – Finally, when are you guys coming to India so that we can all hug you?

Greg – Soon as we can afford the airfare! Thank you for taking an interest in our game and our studio.

GM – Thank you for your time.

Bastion is now available for purchase on XBLA and Steam.