There's a good chance you've not played one of the best games of 2013. Back in August, 3DS download game SteamWorld Dig came from nowhere, to receive a flurry of 8s and 9s. It was a breakout hit on the portable platform, and deservedly so. At that perfect meeting point between Metroidvania and Mr Driller, capturing the essence of Spelunky, and achieving absolutely precision platforming, it was a massive, joyful surprise. And yet, as I devoured it, I kept thinking: wouldn't this be even better on PC?
RPS can exclusively reveal that it is to be. An HD remake will be arriving on Steam on the 5th December. We've got the world's first footage of the new version below, and the first interview with the team about the transition to the Mother Platform.
It's possible that some will baulk at phrases like "Metroidvania" or simply just "mining", thanks to their ubiquity in indie gaming of late. I can assure you that such fears should be put aside. SteamWorld Dig, at least its 3DS version, manages to pickaxe out its own unique path, something new and interesting in its own right. While you certainly will be digging down and down and down, seeking out valuable ores, it very quickly becomes apparent that there's far more going on here. Not least just how much freedom you have in the routes you take, the objectives you seek, and the intricate complexities of mining in such a way that you can comfortably retrace your steps, and explore further. And all of this is delivered via a fixed narrative, with a beginning and end. Plus, and I can't stress this enough, it's just so much damned fun. Take a look:
To find out more, we grabbed Image & Form's CEO, Brjann Sigurgeirsson, to ask about the remarkable reception of the 3DS version, the process of moving it to PC, and the potential for future instalments in the series.
RPS: A lot of PC gamers won't be aware of SteamWorld Dig. There seems to be quite a divide between the 3DS, and the wider gaming world. Can you explain the core idea of the game, and a bit about the critical reaction?
Brjann Sigurgeirsson: Most certainly, and thanks for having us! SteamWorld Dig begins when our hero Rusty - your typical lone steam-driven cowbot - arrives in Tumbleton, a small Western mining town in great need. Something about Tumbleton and the mines is clearly wrong. The town's sole miner - Rusty's uncle Joe - has mysteriously disappeared shortly after summoning his nephew, and Rusty's first simple task is to find him. When he discovers his uncle's fate, he must take over the deed and start digging away in order to reveal all the strange things that are going on underground.
Hoping that it provides some sort of elevator-pitch explanation, we like to refer to SteamWorld Dig as a "mining platform adventure". The objective of the game is mining for precious stones and metals, while the controls are that of a 2D platformer. And since the game has a defined beginning and end with emergent gameplay, where the story is fleshed out one hint at a time, it is an adventure in itself. You scavenge the mines for ore, get back up to the surface to sell your loot, and use the cash to upgrade your tools. Hopefully you get better and stronger, since you'll need better equipment to tackle increasingly tougher enemies, soil and rock the further down you go. Since you are steam-driven, you need to make sure you have enough light and water. Also, Rusty changes throughout the game, as he discovers and assimilates strange contraptions hidden in caves deep down - and his new abilities come at a price.
We released SteamWorld Dig for the Nintendo 3DS in early August. Critics-wise, SteamWorld Dig has been nothing short of a sensation; everyone wants to see a great game from a small developer become a classic. The Nintendo-specific press and sites have raised it to the skies, which can make you a bit suspicious (or happy, in our case) - obviously they want more players on the 3DS platform, and that may account for some of the extremely positive reviews.
We were therefore extremely relieved when major "generalist" gaming sites such as IGN and Pocket Gamer, for example, adopted SteamWorld Dig as their new pet game. Pocket Gamer gave it a perfect 100/100, and IGN almost went all the way with 95/100. Scores like that must be taken seriously - sites like that don't have a specific platform to promote. But IGN has also gone further: they mean that SteamWorld Dig is one of the very best 3DS games ever made, and have included the game in their Game of the Year discussions.
I don't think that SteamWorld Dig is a particularly Nintendo-esque game, if you can picture what I mean by that. It fits the PC just as well. It's not cute; here's a robot protagonist burdened with a task worthy of a Clint Eastwood character in a cartoonish but dark, foreboding environment, and it simply looks kickass in HD. It looks and plays wonderfully on the 3DS, but the high-definition PC version is something else - it's vibrant, detailed and simply stunning. So it doesn't feel like a port at all, rather it's a brand-new perspective on this game where it reaches its potential.
RPS: How did it come about? What was the process that saw you get from no game at all, to this game idea you wanted to develop?
Brjann Sigurgeirsson: Well, bear with me on this one: although we're small, Image & Form has been around for quite some time. We developed a boatload of kids games for PC and Mac before going into iOS development, where we struggled for a bit and then made an awesome game called Anthill in 2011. It's still one of the highest-rated games ever on the App Store.
But before that - almost as a parenthesis - we made this innocuous little tower-defense game called SteamWorld Tower Defense in 2010 for the Nintendo DS. Or the Nintendo DSi, to be precise. The DSiWare Store was Nintendo's first effort at digital downloads, and we decided to give it a try. We were even more naïve back then, and didn't have time or resources to promote it properly. So we were quite surprised when SteamWorld Tower Defense paid for itself. True, we didn't spend very much time and resources on developing it either, but still. With that "success" in the back of our minds, we regarded the Nintendo 3DS and the eShop as a viable future platform from its inception. The shopping experience on the DSiWare Store was nothing like the App Store. The interface was clumsy, and it was almost impossible to find what you were looking for. You may think that we were relieved that we didn't lose money on that game and decided to never think about it again.
But there was this one strange little detail in SteamWorld Tower Defense that kept bugging us. You see, we figured it should be a humans vs robots setup, and at some point we decided on a whimsical role-reversal - the robots should be the good guys and the humans rather greedy, dynamite-wielding lowlives who were trying to break into the robot mines, and you had to stop them. Review sites picked up on that corny little detail, and so we started spending parts of our lunch breaks talking about it: What had actually happened here? How could this world possibly have come to be, where the robots are the friendly "master race", and humanity is reduced to a pack of scumbags? And slowly but steadily, over the course of a year or so we built the story of SteamWorld in between programming and drawing other games.
And so this little tower-defense effort became the seed to its muscly younger brother, SteamWorld Dig. Other things came into play as well: mining games such as Minecraft and Terraria - both milestone games - became very popular, and we liked them a lot. Being old-school gamers, we wanted to make a game that paid homage to classics such as Super Metroid and Dig Dug. So: we wanted to make a mining game, because mining is inherently exciting, and it would have some Metroid-like gameplay mechanics. And it still had to be unique, not a me-too product, and our own. We had the SteamWorld story, and in October 2012 we went to work on it. We were done in June 2013 after having spent all our savings and borrowing the equivalent of the GNP of a small African country, and after that the marvellous gratification of universal praise started in early August.
RPS: Why do you think it was so very popular? I mean, beyond that it was extremely good. What was it about SteamWorld Dig that caused such big appeal?
Brjann Sigurgeirsson: When we were done with it, we didn't really know what to think about SteamWorld Dig. We believed it was good, but we had no idea how it would be received. I was pleading with our lead designer Olle Håkansson to provide me with a few unique selling points that I couldn't think up myself, and he calmly replied "Can't you just tell them it's a great and gorgeous game?" Today, some three and a half months after release on the Nintendo 3DS, I think SteamWorld Dig has a mix of things going for it. Here are some of those:
- The theme of the game is very appealing. The graphics are a mix between Western, steampunk and the sort of robots that you'd like to meet and hang out with. This also resonates in the music score - Western spaghetti twangs combined with the loneliness of the underground.
- There is a strange, hypnotic rhythm to the digging. In real life, digging is hard and exhausting work, and that may be why we appreciate it so much in computer games - perhaps we get a sense of accomplishment from actually shaping the underground with a pickaxe! Also, mining is discovery in its purest form. Chip away a few more times, and you'll find something wonderful. (I secretly want to surprise my wife by taking her on a vacation with a metal detector and a shovel and roam the beaches of some promising coastline where hopefully a lot of old pirate ships have run aground. I'd operate the metal detector, and she'd operate the shovel. Just as secretly, she doesn't want to come along.)
- SteamWorld Dig is a return to classic gameplay mechanics - work, get rewarded, use the cash to get better equipment so that you can work more efficiently. You don't have to bother saving, the game does it for you everytime you get to the surface. And then, at frickin' PERFECT intervals - just when you need something new to happen - there are the caves, where you can permanently upgrade Rusty's abilities. The timing of this is almost uncanny.
- IT'S A GAMER'S GAME! We don't tell you what to do, or how you should play the game. If you want to explore it fully, do it. If you want to speedrun to see how fast you can beat it, be our guest. If you want to dig a little more to the left - well, all that soil is there for you to dig through and create your own tunnels!
- And finally, we're a small, friendly developer: we're the good guys. A handful of determined people who beat Nintendo's own massive games in the eShops - in their own backyard - all around the world. We're always available on Twitter (@imageform) to happily discuss SteamWorld Dig and gaming in general. I think this Twitter frenzy made SteamWorld Dig seem ubiquitous the first few weeks after release.
RPS: Why did you choose the 3DS first? The game doesn't depend on 3D in a particular way, and really has the vibe of a PC indie. What was it about Nintendo's machine that appealed?
Brjann Sigurgeirsson: You're right - it DOES feel a lot like a true-blue PC indie! There are a couple of reasons. First, we released it on the Nintendo 3DS first because we like to play games on the device, and as I mentioned above, we felt that SteamWorld Dig really ought to work on the 3DS both commercially and in terms of function - the 3DS is home to a number of really great platformers, such as Mutant Mudds, Mighty Switch Force and many of Nintendo's own platform titles. And obviously we had released a Nintendo DS game earlier, so we felt that we would be able to draw on that experience. If you're counting, then SteamWorld Dig is actually the second game in the SteamWorld series, and its predecessor could be bought on the eShop - so we were hoping for a bit of synergy there. And the people at Nintendo were both very respectful and encouraging from day one.
Second - and this is just as important - we seriously didn't think we had that many options. The mobile marketplace was changing, and we were starting to lose faith in our chances of repeating the paid-game success we'd had on iOS with Anthill. We had no connections at Sony or Microsoft, and we only had absurdly remote dreams about Steam. (We actually tried to get Anthill onto Steam a couple of weeks after its release on iOS, and we got an immaculate rejection letter that managed to sound both friendly and irreversible at the same time.)
I guess we could have gone for one of the other PC digital download services, but Steam is king, that's where we wanted to be, and we didn't know how to approach them. This was just a hunch at the time, and I'm happily proven wrong about this, but we believed that we couldn't afford to go with another PC download service since we thought sales would be too low. Also, there are so many PC games out there, they are so readily accessible, and so many of them are great. There are really great games on the 3DS as well - most of the releases are quality titles - but we believed that we would be able to stand out there since there simply aren't that many releases every week.
RPS: So you're almost done moving it to PC - what's that process been like? Few games make the transition - has it meant starting from scratch, or can a lot be directly translated?
Brjann Sigurgeirsson: Most of the code can be used as it is. Throughout the development process, we made a point of being able to test it on PCs, since we had a limited supply of 3DSs. And we draw all our sprites in Illustrator and keep the work files in vector format, so we haven't had to redraw everything from scratch - but it's been a lot of scaling work going from the 400x240-pixel top screen of the 3DS to HD graphics, and we've had to redo quite a few animations.
But then there's other stuff, such as the big difference between single and dual screens. On the 3DS, shop items, the map and other status icons reside on the lower screen, leaving the top screen pretty clean and uncluttered, and we've had to rethink quite a few things there. And there is a difference in how much you can see at any given moment - on a PC you'll be able to see more of the surroundings at all times. If we had just scaled everything up to fit the PC screen, Rusty would have ended up looking very big - too big.
Then there's the input method - going from the D-pad to the keyboard. It's not a quantum leap by any standards, but it's needed a bit of testing. The controls feel responsive and just right on the 3DS, and we don't want to lose any of that in the transition. And finally we've redone the music since we think PC players will experience it differently - making the loops longer, more varied and better suited for playing with headphones.
RPS: Have you discovered surprises during the process? Are there limitations that the PC presents, or freedoms it provides?
Brjann Sigurgeirsson: No surprises yet, I think. Work on the PC version has been almost boringly on-schedule! It's a much more quirky platform than the 3DS obviously, requiring broader support for different screen aspect ratios and resolutions, multiple control schemes (including configurable controls), etc. But not exactly surprising.
The freedom of performance is perhaps the most important one. We had a lot of trouble squeezing 60 FPS out of the 3DS (mostly bound by the processor), and obviously this wasn't a problem on the PC. We actually took the opportunity this gave us to add some extra visual flair to the game, reworking the rendering for smoother updates and adding a subtle bloom filter.
RPS: You've said the PC version will have new content. Can you talk a bit about what's been added? Do we finally have the endless mode fans have been begging for?
Brjann Sigurgeirsson: We're adding achievements, cloud-saves and other Steam-related features. When it comes to additional gameplay content, we have plans for this, but aren't sure right now how much will make it for the initial release. We'd rather take our time to get it right and release the new content in a patch, than to rush it and deliver crap on day one.
RPS: I think I've seen murmurs of a sequel - will that be a 3DS exclusive once again, or might the PC get to see it at the same time?
Brjann Sigurgeirsson: We will definitely release the next SteamWorld game for the 3DS, if they'll have us. It would be strange to leave the 3DS community; they've embraced SteamWorld Dig and carried us, and we owe them a lot. And the people at Nintendo have treated us like royalty.
Will we be able to release a PC version at the same time? As with everything else, I believe it'll be a matter of resources. If we can manage releasing on multiple platforms simultaneously, then we'll probably do it unless we find reasons not to. We use our own C++ tech, which means that we can't simply press a button and have multiple versions ready in a day, which adds time to the process. At the same time, we're not restricted by the limitations of a development environment. We're still small, and even if we would manage the development end of it, we would have to coordinate a lot of PR and marketing in different channels. We want to give full attention to all of our players, and we only have one Twitter account!
Finally, let me comment briefly on the murmurs you've heard about a sequel. A few days after SteamWorld Dig was released, we were so relieved by the overwhelming reactions that we deemed it safe to start developing the next SteamWorld game - we had a number of good ideas lying around. And a month into that, we suddenly got word that SteamWorld Dig was more than welcome on Steam. We immediately and frantically began to build the PC version of SteamWorld Dig, so the new game has been on hold for about two months now. But before it was put on hold, my brilliant co-workers at Image & Form managed to produce a fantastic vertical slice of the next SteamWorld game. I played it, and I jumped with joy. However, please note that the next game in the SteamWorld series will NOT be a direct sequel to SteamWorld Dig - it will not be a SWD2, we'll save that one for a while. The gameplay of the next game will be similar... and, at the same time, quite different. Let the murmurs continue.
Oh, and one very last thing: As you can tell, I'm probably the worst-named CEO of the worst-named game dev studio in the world, so it's very fitting that SteamWorld Dig also has a pretty quirky name. I'm glad that now that we're coming to Steam, a part of the name finally gets anchored somehow. Full steam ahead!
RPS: Thank you for your time.
SteamWorld Dig will be on Steam on the 5th December. We've yet to play any PC version of the game, but if it's as good as the 3DS build, it's going to be something special.