Conducted By Adam Ames
Independent video game studio, Supergiant, released Bastion on Steam one month ago to rave reviews. TPG has the opportunity to speak with Greg Kasavin, the Creative Director behind Bastion. Greg speaks about how Bastion came to be, life as an independent developer, DRM, piracy, US Senate Bill S.978 and much more.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Bastion.
I’m creative director at Supergiant Games, which in practice makes me a writer / designer on the team. I did the writing and story work in Bastion, and also built roughly half of the levels in the game, among other things. We’re a relatively small team of seven people so everyone is responsible for big portions of the project. I’ve wanted to make games since I was a little kid and Bastion is the first game I’ve worked on in a writer / creative director capacity, where I got to devise the world and the characters and so on, so this project was especially important to me.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
Prior to Supergiant, I worked at Electronic Arts in Los Angeles on the Command & Conquer franchise, specifically on Command & Conquer 3 and Red Alert 3. That’s where I met Supergiant Games’ co-founders Amir Rao and Gavin Simon. I was a producer at EA, and contributed writing and design work, while Amir was a level designer and Gavin was an AI engineer. I’ve loved computer games my whole life so the opportunity to work on a legendary franchise like C&C was very exciting for me. At EA I gained a lot of experience quickly and met some great people, though it’s very refreshing now working on a much smaller team. Prior to EA, I worked in the gaming press, most notably as editor-in-chief of GameSpot.
Where did the idea for Bastion come from?
The initial idea for the game was simply to make an action RPG in which you build the world around you. We knew we wanted to make a 2D game, and also wanted for it to have an emotional impact on players through its story and atmosphere, though the specific details came together gradually. We love action RPGs but felt the genre was relatively underexplored both from a gameplay and storytelling perspective, so that’s why we chose to go in this kind of direction.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Bastion?
We work faster and get to higher-quality results by being a small team. What’s worked very well for us is having a highly tactical workflow, where we never overschedule and take on numerous small tasks that can typically be completed in a day or at most a week or two. Turns out all those little pieces can add up to a full game over time, and it helps to break down the work into those bite-sized chunks to prevent from getting overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the entire project. We pushed ourselves very hard to get Bastion to the quality level we wanted, and we all recognize that’s not the kind of thing we can keep doing indefinitely, else we’ll burn out. But we approached it knowing what we were getting ourselves in to, and knowing that if we could make a good game the first time around, we’d have other chances to do it again in the future under hopefully even more favorable conditions.
In its current form, how close is Bastion to your initial vision?
Bastion didn’t start with an overly specific vision, though I’d say that the final version of the game is very true to our original intentions in all aspects. We wanted to make an action RPG where you build the world around you, something could have a strong emotional impact through its narrative and atmosphere, and something that was very easy to pick up and start playing. The feedback we’ve been getting from players suggests that this is exactly what we’ve done. Also from a story perspective, the story of the game and the key moments in it are very true to what we had planned. All the major features we wanted, the kind of gameplay feel we wanted, and the kind of character customization we wanted are all in there. We were very interested in making a complete-feeling game where everything tied together.
Some indie devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game. Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Bastion and if you faced a similar challenge.
We spent lots and lots of time tuning the difficulty of Bastion to feel just right, and making sure we had a clear idea of which sort of player the game was for. We assume very little outside knowledge on the player’s part, just some reading ability and a familiarity with basic input methods used for games. It’s true that as developers we all have a tendency to become overly proficient playing our own content, to the point where we can lose sight of what new players will encounter. To that end, playtesting is really the key, observing new players go through the content and seeing which stumbling blocks they encounter. This not only helps for difficulty tuning but also for interface design and story writing.
We worked to ensure the default difficulty level of the game was suitable for most players. We wanted it to feel challenging but to be forgiving, and then we offer our Shrine system for letting more proficient players ramp up the difficulty for greater rewards. I think that system worked out nicely, as it lets players decide on game difficulty after having played around with it for a bit, and it’s all integrated into the fiction as well.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Bastion would run on the various PC system configurations?
We put a lot of time into translating the controls to mouse and keyboard, making sure that players on PC could move with all the intended agility. We do offer gamepad support, but at no point did we rely on that as an option – most PC game players don’t have gamepads so the default PC controls would have to be as good or better than the console controls. We got it to where we were happy with it, plus the controls are fully remappable for those players who like to tinker around with the default settings. Other than that, we had Bastion running on PC all during development so there were no major technical challenges in bringing over the game, just a lot of little things we needed to do to make sure the game felt right at home on PC.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
I think the toughest aspect of working for a very small studio is just that it can be scary. Your future feels uncertain, and if your project fails, you’re done. The reality, though, is that working for a big studio is no different these days, or if anything it can be even less stable. I think all of us on the team have made personal sacrifices as part of this process. For example, Amir and Gavin the studio co-founders dropped everything to move into a house and start working on this game. Living where you work can be fun and productive a lot of the time, but it isn’t always, and those guys knew it going in. Most of us quit perfectly good, stable jobs in order to do this for much less pay, in the hopes that we could do something more creatively rewarding that might one day be sustainable as a real job, and all that takes a leap of faith I think.
How did you create funding for the development of Bastion and did you receive emotional support from your family and friends during this time?
Bastion is a self-funded project, and yeah, it involved digging into our own pockets and those of our families and whatnot. We didn’t seek out venture capital funding or anything like that. We could never have made this game without the emotional and financial support from our families.
Tell us about the process of submitting Bastion to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
We didn’t really encounter any resistance getting Bastion published, as by the time it was ready to be published, it had become pretty highly anticipated among independent games. Our game is out now for both the Xbox 360 and PC via Steam. There are different standards and requirements on both console and PC as you can imagine. Microsoft puts games through a rigorous screening process, testing for a variety of specific cases unique to their console. PC publishing is more lenient because there’s no universal quality standard but the kinds of problems we solved in the console version tend to benefit the PC version as well. In some respects it’s easier going on PC, where we can update the game quickly and have a direct conversation with our players, though we always aimed to have the game on both platforms.
How much pull do you have when setting sale and regular pricing through digital distribution channels? Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price for Bastion?
It’s hard to quantify the amount of pull we have, but yes, we have some influence over the game’s pricing, especially on PC. We certainly looked at other titles when considering Bastion’s price point for launch, though on the Xbox 360, Microsoft determines pricing. I’m glad the game was priced the way it was because I feel it offers a terrific value for that money.
Tell us about your relationship with Warner Bros and how that came about.
Warner Bros. is our distribution partner on Bastion. It’s a hands-off relationship meaning we have full creative control over the game and look to WB for support in those areas where their large size is a benefit. Every game released for Xbox LIVE Arcade or PSN for that matter is published either by the first-party or a third-party publisher. We got a lot of interest in Bastion after we debuted it at PAX last year, and eventually decided to work with WB. They trusted us to focus exclusively on development while they supported us on the publishing and marketing side, allowing us to have a strong presence at events like PAX East and E3. It’s been a great relationship thus far.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Bastion.
We were always interested in capturing a specific tone for the game, and the art, music, and level design all exist in service of that tone as well as the type of play experience we imagined. I could write volumes about how we created each of these individual aspects, though suffice it to say we benefited from having a specific idea for the experience of playing the game and in having specific individuals responsible for each aspect of the presentation. For example, as our composer and audio director, Darren Korb could deliver an unfiltered version of his musical ideas. Likewise, Jen Zee our art director is the only artist on our team so she created the vast majority of art for the game in her own way. Amir Rao and I did the level design, collaborating closely. I wrote all the story and narration, with Amir serving as my editor. We all played the game a lot and frequently gave feedback on each other’s work to make sure everything was coming together.
For the most part, big budget studios no longer release PC demos while almost every indie developer does. Why do you think this trend is occurring? Tell us why released a demo for Bastion and the difficulties in doing so.
Shipping a demo can take a lot of effort, and it may no longer be worth it for big studios, especially when the success or failure of their games is often predetermined by the number of preorders they’ve received. What’s more, demos for their games can be very large in terms of file size so the demo content may not be accessible to a lot of players. Be that as it may, we wanted to release a demo for Bastion because we really want people to try it – chances are they’ll like it. From day one, we were letting people get their hands on the game, because playing it is even better than watching videos of it or whatever. Games are meant to be played, and we want people to purchase our game with confidence that they’re getting something great. A demo can help do that.
There was no real difficulty in releasing a demo for us because we already had the content carved out and had already released a free trial version for the Xbox 360.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Bastion from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
It’s great getting feedback on Bastion through whichever means people want to use to give us feedback. We get a lot of comments through social networking sites as well as via email, and we also like to check up on message boards, where the discussions can be relatively unfiltered meaning players there don’t assume the developers are reading. We value constructive feedback and love hearing about people’s experiences with the game. It helps us understand what we did well and where we have room to improve. It’s also important to us to align external feedback with our own internal postmortems, to make sure we have a good grasp on our own strengths. I personally spend a lot of time reading message boards about games, so it’s just something I like.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Bastion professionally?
I was a game critic for about 12 years before I got into game development so I have a deep-rooted respect for game criticism. As such, I value reviews a great deal. My stance, though, is that there’s no arguing with someone’s experience with a game. When a review comes in, whether it’s positive or negative or somewhere in between, you take it at face value and try to extract from it what worked well for that player and what didn’t work well, and try to understand why a player could have had that experience overall.
How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?
The Humble Indie Bundle is the one of these I’m most familiar with, and I think it’s fantastic. It’s been an amazing deal and the whole user experience around paying for it, or not paying for it as the case may be, has been great. I’ve bought two of them over the past couple of years. The pay-what-you-want thing I think is a very cool model that works well in some instances. I’m glad it’s been extensible to more than just that one Radiohead album, which was the first case of something like it that I’d seen.
As to whether we’d be interested in contributing to something like that down the line… sure, who knows? The terms of it would have to make sense for us. We want to be able to afford to keep making games on our own terms, so we do need to make some money in order to keep going, but my understanding is that some of these bundles can end up doing pretty well for the games involved.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
It’s a thorny issue that makes me shake my head. We have no DRM in Bastion, though I guess some players consider Steam to be a form of DRM. At any rate we invested zero effort trying to combat software piracy because we feel it’s hostile to paying customers and a losing battle overall, especially for a small studio like ours. Software piracy is a reality, and the way we deal with it is by trying to make a great game that’s worth paying for. To that end, we’ve had a number of people email us out of the blue admitting to having pirated the game but paid for it later. We think that’s great.
Ultimately I want as many people as possible to play Bastion, but I also want to be able to keep making games for a living. I don’t care if some people pirate the game as long as I can afford to keep making games. As to why bigger companies are investing so much into anti-piracy solutions, I think they’re helping make us smaller guys look better and more customer-focused. We want to focus all our effort into serving our paying customers as well as possible, so that people can feel good about spending money on our games.
Bill S.978 was introduced to the Untied States Senate earlier this year which could make it illegal to post unauthorized copyrighted content on YouTube and other video sharing sites. How do you feel about individuals outside of Supergiant Games posting gameplay videos of Bastion?
There are tons of great Bastion-related videos out there, including cover songs of some of our music and various gameplay videos. I appreciate that the game inspires people to create that kind of content and it’s hard for me to imagine a scenario in which we took issue with something like that. These people are helping spread the word about our game, after all. The idea that people would always have to seek our express written consent anytime they wanted to post a video of our game is pretty absurd, as the amount of time it would take to respond to those kinds of requests would feel like a total waste. YouTube is one of those things that can’t be stopped and shouldn’t be stopped, I think. The Internet has done a fine job of regulating itself to this point.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
It’s hard to give a sweeping opinion about DLC, except to say I like it just fine when the content is good. For a lot of big publishers, they make a lot of their money off of DLC. It wouldn’t be happening this much if it wasn’t worth it to them. I don’t like the idea that some good content gets held back during development for the sake of DLC, but on the other hand, some developers – including smaller independent developers like Team Meat – have done a great job of supporting their games with free content over time. This keeps players happy and keeps them talking, which in turn spurs more sales over time, so it’s one of those rare everybody-wins types of scenarios.
DLC as a concept is nothing new. I remember buying the mission packs for the old Wing Commander games in the early ’90s. They were awesome! They let me play more of what I loved about those games.
Recently, there has been a lot of talk about modding of PC games and the relationship developers have with modders. How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Bastion?
With Bastion, we put no work into obfuscating the file structure, so the game is highly modifiable and its structure is exposed for everyone to see. Hopefully everyone will play it the way we intended before mucking around it the files, but hey, once they’ve bought the game (or pirated it I guess), it’s theirs to do with as they please. You can go into the XML files or the text files and change all kinds of stuff around, creating new weapons and enemies and so on.
While we didn’t include any special tools for mod support, we’re of course open to the possibility of user-created content for the game. Mod communities have kept any number of PC games alive for years. In our case, we’ve already had several folks come to us expressing interest in translating the game’s text into other languages, for example. We shipped with French, Italian, German, and Spanish translations only, but maybe one day we’ll see the game in Polish, Portuguese, Russian, and more. We’re patching in support for additional languages based on requests from these kinds of players. I love this kind of stuff because not only does it show how passionate some players are about the game, it also means many more people out there will be able to play it for themselves.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
There’s no formula for doing this stuff so the best, most practical advice I can offer any up-and-coming studio is to not hesitate to reach out to other small studios who’ve done the work already whenever there’s uncertainty about how to proceed. In our experience at least, small studios tend to be very forthcoming and open about what’s worked for them and what hasn’t, and when they can share their experiences, they can often mutually benefit as a result. All the smaller developers are in the same boat together anyway against the cosmic forces pulling the game industry in all kinds of different directions these days, so the little guys may as well team up whenever it makes sense.
TPG would like to thank everyone at Supergiant for allowing us to enter the mind of a fabulous PC developer with informative and detailed answers. You can pick up Bastion via Steam and also follow Supergiant on Twitter and Facebook.
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