From what we’ve seen since the console’s launch back in March, the continued success of the Nintendo Switch has been marked by the corresponding success of numerous indie titles. Porting over an already successful franchise like Azure Striker Gunvolt or by revitalizing classics like Wonder Boy and Blaster Master: Zero have added a great deal of value to Nintendo’s newest platform, and it seems a safe bet that the Switch is a great place for a franchise to find a new home.
With SteamWorld Dig 2, developer Image & Form is laser-focused on success with the Switch. We sat down with CEO Brjann Sigurgeirsson at PAX West 2017 to talk about the SteamWorld franchise, its history on the Nintendo 3DS, and finding a home for the upcoming sequel.
Digging up history
“We ‘accidentally’ started [the SteamWorld franchise] in 2010,” said Brjann “with a game called SteamWorld: Tower Defense for the Nintendo Dsi.” He recalls the timing of the series’ first installment, noting that by the time the game released there were numerous other tower defense-type games available. For a new studio just stepping out into the market, this was a less than stellar position to launch.
Still, the game went on to receive positive reviews and some great feedback from fans, who were fascinated by the world Image & Form had created. Humans in SteamWorld are something of a secondary, underdeveloped race, while steam-powered robots have risen to prominence. It made for a solid framework for a larger world, and as the studio began to branch out the world grew with them.
When the original SteamWorld Dig launched on the Nintendo 3DS eShop, fans quickly gravitated to the new platformer as it garnered high praise from reviewers. Before the game’s release, Image & Form was in a precarious position. “We’d spent all our money,” said Brjann. “When we did a postmortem [before release], we said ‘let’s never be in this position again.”
After the game’s launch, fantastic sales quickly changed the team’s perspective. “I said [forget] these small games,” Brjann laughed. “Let’s do something really grand.” So, the team set to work looking for something new. Having developed both a tower defense game and a digging-focused platformer, Brjann hoped that tackling a different genre yet again might show Image & Form as a studio with a varied skillset.
What came of this was a turn-based strategy game set hundreds of years after the events of SteamWorld Dig, where robot pirates roam space in search of ships to loot. That game, SteamWorld Heist, landed in 2016 on nearly every platform capable of gaming, from the Nintendo 3DS to iOS, Steam and home consoles. Needless to say, the team was met once again with high praise, and SteamWorld Heist still holds an “overwhelmingly positive” overall rating on Steam alone.
With the series’ success so firmly established, the team sought to revisit its earlier work. According to Brjann, the team wanted to “finish the work they’d started” with SteamWorld Dig, and build upon the features that had been left out of the final release. “With Dig 2,” Brjann explains “we’re now implementing all the things that didn’t make it into the original.”
Brjann points out that the original SteamWorld Dig focused heavily on it’s core aspect: dig down, grab treasure, haul it up, sell, repeat. It was a game that, while it did provide some worldbuilding elements throughout, set a lot of things aside that the team really wanted to add “other dimensions” to the sequel.
Exploration and story are part of that. During the short demo I was able to play during PAX West, these elements were certainly clear and present. Exploring the world was a necessity, not just to find valuables but to learn about the different features and threats within the game. I often found the level design driving me subtly in the opposite direction I expected to go, only to realize that by the time I’d gotten back to where I started, I’d gained a new ability and a better understanding of obstacles than I would have had just sauntering towards my goal.
It is, by Brjann’s own admission, a very “Metroid-Vania” inspired loop. However, the level design and core play feel very focused, with a nice balance of open-ended exploration and subtle guidance. I never felt overwhelmed by the layout of the caverns I explored, but also didn’t feel like I was walking a pre-set path. There are classic, but effective, game design elements at work here that make SteamWorld Dig 2 feel both accessible and complex.
Throughout the short demo, I also encountered several characters that served to expand the world and drive the plot forward, as well as inform gameplay. Brjann confirms that there is a cohesive story here that will connect to both SteamWorld Dig and SteamWorld Heist. While he couldn’t provide specifics, he did agree that fans of Heist, which is set hundreds of years after Dig 2, should see a few threads from the futuristic strategy game come together in Dig 2.
With the success that Image & Form found on the Nintendo 3DS, it’s no surprise that the team was eager to get their hands on Nintendo’s newest console as soon as possible. “Whenever I had a chance to talk with Nintendo,” Brjann recalled “I always ended every email with ‘So…when can we get a [Nintendo NX] dev kit?”
Finally, during a meeting at GDC 2016, Nintendo asked what Image & Form had planned for the future, and what their timeline looked like. “It sort of fit,” said Brjann, referring to the state of SteamWorld Dig 2. The team knew they were on track to release in 2017, and given the franchise’s history with Nintendo it felt like a good time to make the jump from the 3DS to the Switch.
“We didn’t really know [how the Switch would be received.]” Said Brjann. Lucky for the team, the Switch’s success is more than obvious at this point. Speaking with Brjann, I got the sense that Nintendo is intent on making independent games a part of that success going forward. Veteran Nintendo developers like Image & Form have a strong position to launch on the Switch, both from their level of experience and the franchise recognition they offer with a universe like SteamWorld.
Brjann also pointed out how easy Nintendo has made it to develop games on the Switch, especially games built with multiplatform releases in mind. Image & Form uses a proprietary game engine for the SteamWorld series, but he also noted that engines like Unity that have traditionally lagged behind on support for Nintendo platforms still have an easy time. To me, this is a key element of successful indie development for the Switch; easy deployment with minimal adjustment means that teams can focus on core development and spend less time optimizing for the Switch alone. It does a lot to shine a light on the number of ported indie games like Slime-san and Azure Striker Gunvolt, but also gives us a glimpse into how the Switch can keep pace with other home consoles and PC going going forward.
Overall, my short time with SteamWorld Dig 2 only left me wanting more. Performance-wise, the game is crisp and smooth with responsive controls and a beautiful 2D world to explore. Classic platforming elements blend well with the brick-breaking dig mechanics, and it certainly feels like a game where there’s always something surprising to…well, dig up.
Image & Form have an opportunity here to help set the pace for independent games on the Switch. The SteamWorld series is beloved by fans of the 3DS. SteamWorld Dig 2 is positioned to launch just ahead of the all-important holiday season (a Q4 that’s shaping up to be the biggest Nintendo has seen in years.) With that kind of momentum, if you weren’t watching this studio before now, its time to start.
SteamWorld Dig 2 hits the Nintendo Switch eShop on September 22nd, 2017. Keep an eye out for our full review in the coming week!