Interview with Olle Hakansson of ‘SteamWorld Dig’
A “metroidvania” adventure, SteamWorld Dig‘s release was trumpeted with numerous “Game of the Year” nominations when it came out for Nintendo 3DS, PC/Mac/Linux via Steam and PlayStation 4/Vita. And with the game soon out on Nintendo’s Wii U platform (28 August), it seemed timely that Olle Hakannson (Lead Programmer of ‘Image & Form’) would be seen at this year’s GDC Europe.
Sporting a t-shirt emblazoned with the SteamWorld Dig logo, Olle Hakannson came across as someone who was immensely proud of his creation. And although not the sole creator, he was still a leading light in bringing SteamWorld Dig to market, and was one of the principle designers on the title. And so as to tell me a little bit more about his game, Olle Hakannson was immensely kind in letting me interview him on how SteamWorld Dig came about.
What was the inspiration for Steamworld Dig?
The main inspiration was a game called Miner Dig Deep, which is an Xbox indie game. I don’t know if you’ve played any XBox indie games, most of them are shit, but this one is pretty good…
Yeah, that’s one reason why I haven’t played any of them…
Yeah, but there’s quite a few really good ones too. I really liked this one [Miner Dig Deep], so I played it. It’s a super simple game. It doesn’t cost much, and it’s very basic. I played it and thought “hey, we can make this better”. So we dreamed up a crazy game, me and my brother. Then we went with it up to my boss, and got him to make it, or rather, to pay for it.
So, you received external funding to make the game?
No, we paid it ourselves.
SteamWorld Dig is primarily known for it’s association with Nintendo platforms – i.e. the Wii U and the 3DS, is that correct?
Primarily the 3DS. We’re releasing for the Wii U in a few weeks, two weeks I think on August 28th. We also released it for Steam on PC, Mac and Linux, and also on the PS4 and PS Vita.
But it’s ultimately still associated with a Nintendo product…
How many people worked on SteamWorld Dig?
I think we were on average about 10 to 12 people, we had a few interns that came and left and so on. About that size. So, you could call it a medium sized team maybe.
Would you still regard yourself as being an indie studio?
I think we still do because, I know there’s a whole war about the definition of indie studios but for me it’s mostly about what kind of games you make, and about making the games you want to see to be made. So that’s my definition, and I think we’re an indie studio, even though we’re growing pretty big right now. I think we’re 17 people now.
Even though it’s come out on a number of other platforms, SteamWorld Dig‘s still associated primarily with Nintendo products. A lot of these indie studios tend to shy away from actively releasing their own games and products on Nintendo platforms – whether that be the 3DS or the even the Wii U. They just find themselves to not be very successful in targeting that demographic. What made you decide to target the 3DS first?
Yeah, exactly. It was a bit of a crazy bet I think, because we had made a game for iOS mobile called Anthill and it was a really good game, and I’m really very proud of it. It sold OK, we made back the money we spent on it and a little more, but not very much. We felt that the mobile space was more and more going toward a kind of game that we didn’t really enjoy playing or making, and today it’s practically impossible to charge anything for a mobile game. We felt that we needed to try some alternatives, and 3DS came to mind because I had worked on the DS and even the Gameboy Advance earlier on. So I had experience with those platforms, and I felt a little close to home with Nintendo and also, I think it was about the time the 3DS was taking off because it had a really slow start… Actually we had some luck because I think it was a few weeks before we released SteamWorld Dig that Nintendo released Animal Crossing: New Leaf, and that really made the platform. We really noticed that it started to take off…
The user base you mean?
Yeah, the user base. So now it’s pretty [big], I think there’s like 40+ million units out there. There’s obviously customers who want to buy games. Because they know that they get quality games on that machine. It fits us perfectly, but we didn’t know that the 3DS would be successful when we started development on SteamWorld Dig. That was the risky part of it, but it worked out.
A lot of developers have difficulty working with Nintendo, whether that be indie or established studios. How easy was Nintendo to work with?
They’ve become much better over the years I think. They still have their problems. This isn’t absolutely specific for Nintendo because all of the major studios have problems with a lot of bureaucracy and all the processes you have to go through to release a game. I mean, Apple… it’s really great how they’ve streamlined the process of getting a game through to the players and none of the others do that. I think Nintendo is pretty straight forward, they have the best developer support that I know of.
Is that for the Wii U or is that for the 3DS? In fact having said that, what is your is experience on working on the 3DS and Wii U from the perspective of Nintendo?
How it was to work with those platforms you mean?
Yeah, how flexible was Nintendo, not only in allowing you to be able to develop for the 3DS platform, but also the Wii U?
Yeah, they were great. Actually they helped us especially after we released SteamWorld Dig, but before [that] they had also been really helpful to us because they have good support for developers and so on. Like tech questions and so on.. You can actually get hold of someone. You can ask something with that company, and that’s great because that’s not the case with Apple for example.
They [Nintendo] helped us out with lending us dev-kits and so on, so yeah… I can’t complain at all about Nintendo’s support when it comes to these things. They also have been very gracious when it comes to showing off our game. I don’t know if you saw it, but they make ‘Nintendo Direct’, which is a series of videos where they show new games for the platform. We actually had the CEO of Nintendo Europe, Mr. Shibata, show our game and this was before… I mean they just tried it and they thought it was good and he actually presented the game and that was a great moment for us. I think it really helped us to get the game to go off on the platform.
How would you describe SteamWorld Dig to people who haven’t played it?
SteamWorld Dig is a mining platform adventure. It’s a game about digging, and I know how that sounds… what’s so fun about digging? But actually it’s more like exploring the underground. You have a storyline on the side where you play as a robot called ‘Rusty’, who has come to a town called Tumbletown and gotten hold of a deed to a mine. The goal is for you have to dig to get minerals, and buy upgrades and so on. There’s a storyline about finding dark and scary things underground.
Would you argue that one reason why Nintendo probably picked up your game, as opposed to say any of the other developers out there who’ve released games in the past, is partly because of the fact that your game – considering it’s 2D platform heritage, closely resonates with Nintendo’s own design philosophy?
Because one of the things that Shigeru Miyamoto states, or has stated recently, is that one of his pet peeves as far as developers are concerned, from what he saw at E3 is that there were far too many shooters on the market. And for him that’s almost indicative of the fact that people, even though they have all this power at their fingertips, from a creative standpoint the industry is still very immature. I just wanted to know if SteamWorld Dig was picked up by Nintendo only because of the fact that it was still very much a 2D game? And irrespective of the quality, if it was say a Call of Duty style shooter, would they [Nintendo] have had the same level of enthusiasm for your product?
Actually I don’t think Nintendo… you may have a point that they prefer this kind of game. I mean Nintendo knows their audience, it’s a bit younger and so on. They have a thing against too much violence, too much blood…
But you know what I mean. If it was something that appealed more to say a conventional modern player…
Well, I don’t think they’re so shallow when it comes to selecting games. I think they just played our game and thought it was good. I think it’s that simple, because the thing with Image & Form games is… we generally make very good games but we’re not great yet at getting people to take it [our games] in their hands and start playing [the game]. Because as soon as they start playing everyone loves our games most of time. So, getting that and improving and making people want to play the games, that’s what we’re working on very hard on our next game and so on.
SteamWorld Dig is obviously a game that a lot of people have said is a great game. But as somebody who has made a great product and is obviously capable of making a product that even Nintendo admire, who themselves are regarded as being almost the taste makers of what is considered to be “greatness”, what would you describe as being a great game?
You mean in general?
Oh dear. OK.
It’s like let’s just say if you did a talk, and said “how to make a great game” – using SteamWorld Dig as an example…
I think it’s just about having a vision with what the game should be about. Should it be entertaining, should it make you cry, should it make you feel angry or something? Then using all your skills to make as much of that, whatever you’re aiming for as possible, and really respecting the players time. Respecting the player in general. I think that makes for a good game, or for a great game even.
So a game shouldn’t have too much bloat?
I generally don’t like bloat. I know it probably would have been better for us if we had a little bloat in SteamWorld Dig because we removed a lot of it. I mean, the game is a digging game, we could just make digging sections twice as long without increasing the number of content. Just adding a number, and it would have taken twice as long to dig through. But that’s just bloat so we tried to reduce that, but I think a little bloat just to get up to 10 hours of game play or something to make people happy. That might be a good idea, I’m not sure actually.
I mean that’s the problem that games designers, and game makers have as well. There’s always that fine line to draw between, as you said yourself, respecting the players time but also offering them a product that is worthy of the amount of time that they’ve spent in earning the money that they need to be able to buy your product. For example, Metal Gear Solid: Revengeance – 8 hours long or maybe 10 hours… I don’t know. A lot of people thought that was really short, whereas I personally get really bored of a game after about 8 hours. For me the cutoff point is anywhere from 6 to 8 hours, and anything after that and it’s got to be a really good game in order for me to carry on and persevere. A lot of people argued that MGS: Revengeance game was really short, whereas I found that to be the perfect length. In fact I found it to be too long for my liking.
Now obviously you’ve said about how you could possibly have incorporated a little bit more bloat, made the game maybe twice as long or whatever it is, a little bit longer. But when you consider the amount of people that do complain about a game being too short or too long… Too short mostly – that’s what they complain about. But then you also consider the amount of people that get through all that content, which is very miniscule. I think it’s like 10% or something stupid like that. How do you temper that fine line between being able to give someone value for money, but also ensuring that you don’t waste your own time creating assets and levels and that bloat (as it were), which (ultimately) in the grand scheme of things wouldn’t be picked up on and savored by the vast majority of players out there?
That’s actually funny because you nailed the problem really, because as you say there’s not much value for a lot of players if we had increased and added like 5 hours of quality content, and we [would have] had to increase the price of the game – like £10 pounds more. That might not have been a better game, because most people maybe don’t want that kind of length.. So, can you repeat the question?
How do you temper player expectations, especially considering the amount of money they’ve paid, the length of the game, etc… Versus say your own time, and your own resources, where you have to generate content and when you have to ensure that you’re not ultimately wasting your own time [on content] that in the grand scheme of things isn’t going to be savored or appreciated by the vast number of players out there?
Exactly, I actually think you can be clever about these things and we’ll probably try to be more clever next time around. For example, the Castlevania series, Symphony of the Night and so on, they had a thing that, I’m not sure if Symphony of the Night had this but if you complete the game there is a special mode where you can play the entire game where the entire castle is turned upside down. That’s a really clever way of getting a lot more gameplay for the people who really want it, the people who really play to the end and so on. I think we have to do something like that to make the equation work for us, because making quality content all the way just doesn’t work. We can’t do it that way. I mean, if we had millions of fans, and we knew they were there who waited for our next game, we could put more money in it and still charge [very] little because we know the amount of players would make it go around anyway. But we don’t, so we have to be clever instead.
SteamWorld Dig has obviously done incredibly well from a critical perspective, but how has it done commercially?
It’s done pretty good actually. I think it’s definitely the most successful commercial game we’ve made so far. This is one of the questions I really would have to have my boss answer because I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to say. But, without saying any numbers we’re really very pleased with it. Especially going from one platform to another, which was kind of an experimentation for us, we were really happy about the sales results. The 3DS has sold by far the most… The other platforms are really good for us too. Kind of interestingly, Steam has been one of the worst ones.
Yeah, but I think it’s because it’s a platforming game. I don’t think those are really that…
How has it done on Vita?
I think it’s done pretty well, I’m not too familiar. The thing is that I think we have this system where if you buy it for the PS4, you get it for the Vita as well, and vice versa. Cross platform, I think we have that. So, I don’t think we can distinguish the two numbers, but on those two combined we’re very happy with the sales.
What about user metrics between PS4 and Vita? Even though the PS4 has done phenomenally well in the market, the Vita itself – given it’s length of time – has also sold pretty much the same amount of units, hasn’t it?
I think it’s in the same area at least, yeah.
Yeah, same ballpark figure. Do you have a rough indication of where players spend most of their time playing SteamWorld Dig? Is it the PS4? or is it the Vita?
I don’t think we have any numbers on that. I don’t think we get those kind of numbers. I might be wrong, I wasn’t too involved in the ports.
How easy was it for you to be able to port the game across other platforms? Having said that, given the fact that SteamWorld Dig is available on a number of platforms, which platform would argue is the lead platform? Basically which platform represents the true vision of what SteamWorld Dig is about?
OK… That’s a tricky question because we knew from the start that we wanted to make a game that worked very well on a number of platforms. With that said, I have to give a little wishy-washy answer I’m afraid. I think the 3DS is great because it makes it look really good with the 3D effect and so on, but it’s lower resolution. It looks really, really good on the Vita with the higher resolution, nice OLED screen and all. I think the different platforms have different things going for them. I definitely would say this is more of a game you would play on a handheld than on a PS4 or on a console, but of course you can play it anyway you want. It’s more of that kind of [handheld] game I think.
So, given that it’s a handheld game, even though it’s available for every single platform out there… In terms of the kind of platforms it’s been “designed” for, you’ve argued that it’s a game that one would probably get the most value out of on handheld device. Would you argue that it’s better with a lower resolution 3D handheld, or better on a higher resolution 2D handheld?
Again I have to be wishy-washy about it because when I’m sitting there with the HD graphics, I’m thinking “oh, this is nice but I’m missing the 3D effects”, because they’re not doing anything like it’s just a special effects scene that flares in the game, and the caves. I’m personally a 3DS player who likes to turn up the 3D effect. I really like the depth feeling and so on. I really like the feel of it, and I miss that when I don’t have that. So, sorry that’s my answer (laughs).
A lot of people have had difficulty in doing 3D projects in the past. You get that with the film industry and you also get that with the gaming industry. How easy was it for you to be able to incorporate 3D into your 3DS game?
The game, I mean we have the 3D camera so like two cameras and so on. But that’s just technical stuff, it wasn’t that difficult actually. We make all our games in 2D, so we use the 3D effects by having 2D layers in depth and that’s our thing so it wasn’t really a problem for us. Quite easy actually.
What other projects do you have in mind after SteamWorld Dig?
We have a new game in the series coming up.
A sequel to SteamWorld Dig?
It’s not a sequel. It’s not called “Dig”, but it’s a SteamWorld game. I think we’re about maybe a month or something from announcing it. I’m not sure exactly of the date.
We are actually here in GDC and Gamescom and [trying to] determine the details on which platforms [the game] comes first and so on. So it’s not finalized yet. Our goal is to release it on all the platforms we released SteamWorld Dig on, and a few more.
What advantages do you think… Because I know some developers are “platform agnostic”, they just like to have the game on every single platform. But then you get developers/publishers out there, where they’re very loyal to a specific platform. It used to be the case with SquareSoft and Nintendo, and I guess it’s still Squaresoft (Square Enix) now with Sony to an extent. What advantages do you think releasing a game on multiple platforms has for you as opposed to being completely loyal to a specific developer/publisher? Well, maybe not so much in that but just a hardware vendor?
Actually, I think the biggest… It’s basically about increasing your potential market like Free Fall or even more if you release a multi-platform so that’s always a no-brainer to release it on as many platforms as possible if there’s no other thing in effect so-to-speak. What usually happens with these games that are released on one platform, I’m almost 100% sure they have a deal with the platform holder.
Speaking of which, has Nintendo ever come to you with regards to a deal to maybe retain some sort of platform exclusivity for your SteamWorld Dig game or future SteamWorld games in general?
Yeah, we’re talking with all the platform holders including Nintendo about things like this.
Given that SteamWorld Dig is primarily associated with a Nintendo product, whether that be the 3DS… well, it is the 3DS because that’s what it came out on first and that’s where it kind of garnered the biggest name. Has Nintendo approached you with trying to maybe keep SteamWorld (the franchise) in-house? Almost like what they’ve done with the Sonic series?
Not to my knowledge actually, but that’s more on my boss’s table. Ironing out deals and so on… But I don’t think they’ve approached us with such a thing as far as I know, and quite frankly, I’m not sure if we would have taken it either way because we have a really nice multi-platform thing going on. We have good tech guys who can handle releasing the game on a number of different platforms, so we really don’t have much to gain from it.
The next SteamWorld game that you have in production, is it going to be a 2D platformer?
I can’t tell, sorry. Not yet.
What other kind of games do you have in the pipeline apart from SteamWorld?
Uh, let’s see. We have a lot of games actually aside from the SteamWorld series. We kind of like making the SteamWorld [games] because we can expand that universe, but I think we have at least one game for every platform, like a specific game for each platform. Then we have some things for more platforms and so on. We have plenty of good ideas. I think they’re good.
How do you come up with game ideas?
Mostly by playing games, and talking about games. From all the newer games, including the game we’re working on now – the new SteamWorld game… It came from sitting with the entire company at a lunch table, and just having fun speaking about games and “oh, wouldn’t it be cool if… blah, blah, blah”, and so I think that will be more and more our source for coming up with new games from now on. Some games come from me and my brother, like SteamWorld Dig was one of those. We sat at home playing games and, yeah I told you about this earlier I think. And my boss comes with a few solutions. The old game Anthill that we made for iOS – that was actually me and my boss speaking about, I think it was Flight Control, do you know it?
I’ve heard of it.
Yeah, OK. So it’s a game where you pull [direct] planes by drawing lines and so on. We thought maybe if we make that but in another setting, and combine it with some tower defense mechanics, and so we made that game. Where you draw, you have your Anthill and you draw pheromone trails instead and have ants patrolling and enemies coming from all over the place. That was actually me and my boss speaking… Actually it’s very mundane with the sources of all [the game ideas]. I think we’ve never come up with a game where we’re like “oh, we have to come up with a game. Let’s sit in this meeting group and speak about it”. It doesn’t happen like that. It’s more like in the shower and so on.
How long did SteamWorld Dig take you to make?
I think it was about 6 or 7 months or something.
Yeah, pretty much. We always have a few side projects and so on, so if you talk about continuous time it’s a bit more complicated. People going on parental leave and so on. But pretty much 6 to 7 months or so.
Why do you think, given that SteamWorld Dig was so successful (at least critically)… Why do you think we aren’t getting more games that are say bite-sized that do happen to.. you know.. be…
By this, you mean like shorter?
No, no… SteamWorld Dig obviously harks back to the Super Nintendo era where it was always about the 2D platformer in one guise or another. I’ve asked this before, where if it’s [the game’s] 2D design philosphy, given that it resonates so much with Nintendo’s own games as to why Nintendo didn’t have a problem in releasing SteamWorld Dig…
Given that SteamWorld Dig has done so well from a critical perspective and you’ve said that it did well enough commercially… Given it’s turnaround time of only about 8 months, maybe even less if people weren’t doing their own little projects, why do you think we aren’t getting more indie games by major studios? Because the risk factor is pretty small…
Yeah, I understand. That’s actually a very good question. I think bigger studios are always more focused on following the recipe of making a game. You talked earlier about first person shooters being manufactured. I wouldn’t say that SteamWorld Dig, or most of our games follow any recipe. Sure, we have inspiration from a number of games, but we always have to like “OK, so we make this game for a while and then we have to sit down and [decide] well is this fun? No this isn’t fun, what do we have to do to make it fun”?
It’s not really a deterministic process. I think that is what bigger publishers want, where they are able to schedule the whole thing and say “OK, we have 53% of the code done”. Because it’s a big company, and they can’t afford to have it run overtime.
Well the thing is, you’ve said it yourself that your studio happens to be about 16-17 people and a AAA game takes many, many hundreds of people. I don’t know how many people worked on Assassin’s Creed, but I think the gestation period for that is anywhere from 2 to 3 years. You have, say 600 people working on that across many, many studios. So, 600 divided by say 18 (people) equals how many games over how many years? You just think “well, surely there’s enough profit to be made by a major publisher such as Electronic Arts or Activision or Ubisoft”? I know Ubisoft have obviously taken steps because they’ve released Child of Light, and they also released Rayman Legends which was still a AAA product. Michel Ancel has now formed his own studio and it’s his own little indie studio. He’s still keeping everything in-house. You’ve got Valiant Hearts as well which Ubisoft have done. They’ve obviously taken the steps, and they’ve got the Ubi-Art framework – which does all the hard work for them, and therefore manages to ensure that the tool makes their work-processes a lot more efficient. Why do you think AAA publishers are so against the notion of having small bite-sized games that aren’t made by that many people? That ultimately don’t take a lot of time to make and can still be profitable?
I think the main reason is inertia, because they’re stuck at doing what they’re used to doing. As you said yourself, many are changing and trying something new and so on. But it takes time to for them to switch gears. It’s kind of interesting how many studios, instead of making this big giant AAA game, they cut-down and split up their teams into 4 or 5 parts and make a lot of smaller teams. The main company that comes to mind is Tim Schafer’s company…
Double Fine, thank you. They did exactly this, and I think it’s working for them.
A lot of their [Double Fine’s] recent projects have been KickStarted though, so they’ve got external funding from (basically) public support. It’s not quite the same thing…
No, perhaps not. I mean wherever the money comes from, it’s the same process of having… Instead of one giant pyramid of team members where you have to have a smaller pyramids and it becomes more complicated to manage all those simultaneously. I think it’s a difficult thing for a company to adjust to. Actually we’ve tried it ourselves, Image & Form, trying to split us up in two and make two smaller games. But, it didn’t really work because, ironically, we have to grow a little before we can do that, before we can split it into complete teams that have all the people we need for each of the teams.
Let’s just say you made a great product, you know… One of those 9-out-of-10’s (from Edge). How much effort do you need to spend on marketing, despite the fact that it’s a great product?
I personally think that a really, really good game is the best marketing tool you can have. I’m not saying that it will sell itself, but it will be much more effective than any other means available to us at least. We can’t put posters all over the town or something like that. So in SteamWorld Dig‘s case, it’s been more like guerrilla marketing as it’s called. My boss has been talking with people (for 4 or 5 months after release) and so on. It’s mostly about getting hold of people, and getting them to try the game, throwing out codes and so on. It’s continuous work you have to do but we haven’t spent a million dollars on marketing or something. We haven’t spent a lot of money at all… More like time.