Image & Form Games CEO shares tips for picking platforms, conducting work for hire, discounting games and using in-house tools.
After releasing the highly acclaimed SteamWorld Dig on PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Nintendo 3DS and Steam, Image & Form Games is a model of how an indie can make it big on consoles. CONSULGAMER sat down with Image & Form Games CEO Brjánn Sigurgeirsson for a discussion on how he operates his studio. Part One, below, covers operational considerations for I&F. Come back on Thursday for a discussion on marketing and partnering with Nintendo and Sony.
How Image & Form Games Found a Blue Ocean with New Platforms
CONSULGAMER: How would you say new markets and platforms for games make your job easier or harder?
Sigurgeirsson: I think it opens up new opportunities, but just because there is a new platform doesn’t mean you have to jump on it immediately. We sort of did with PlayStation 4 and in hindsight I’m actually very pleased that we did, because when a platform is establishing itself you have sort of a blue ocean on that platform for a while and that makes it really interesting. With SteamWorld Dig, we decided to do it for PlayStation 4 and Vita, but not for PlayStation 3. There were a lot of people that asked us about that decision and we just saw that porting our PC version to PS4 was very simple and I think porting it to the PS3 would have entailed quite a bit more for us, so that kind of decided it for us. I think that as long as the platform owners are easy to deal with, it’s not a problem, it’s rather more opportunities.
Building Tools In-House
CONSULGAMER: What tools did you use while building SteamWorld Dig for your Game Engine, art assets, workflow management, etc.
Sigurgeirsson: We use our own tech, so we program everything into C++, and then my guys apply their magic and then it works. We use our own tech because we’ve tried around a little bit with Unity and so on, and I think it’s a very good way of making games where you’re not hampered by the restrictions of Unity, but there are restrictions within that tool. So I think, as long as we have the expertise for it, we’ll stick to our own engine, as we can get a lot of performance out of our games for any platform.
There’s a lot going on in certain stages of SteamWorld Dig, but we still managed to squeeze 60 frames/second out of 3DS which I thought was actually quite good. And also, with Unity, which we’ve sort of been glancing at, you still cannot go to the 3DS for example with Unity, so it sort of decided it for us.
Then, we do all our artwork in-house, it’s, we’re still very much of a 2D studio and as long as we can produce beautiful 2D art, I don’t see that we’re going to switch over to 3D games.
Discounting Games Should Only Go So Far
CONSULGAMER: Discounts seem rare on the Nintendo eShop, how did the SteamWorld Dig’s half-off sale on the Nintendo eShop play out?
Sigurgeirsson: At first we sold it at full price, and then we sold it at 20% discount, and then at Christmas we sold it at 33% and then we just wanted to try to see what happened if we went half-off. I think that is about what we feel that we can discount this game at, because then the game costs $4.49 on the 3DS, and half-off on Steam or PlayStation is $4.99. I don’t really want to discount any lower than that because, coming from mobile, we see what happens when developers or even self-publishing developers race each other to the bottom, and just want as many people as possible to buy the game. I don’t thing we’ll go lower than a half-off discount, and then shoot me if we do.
There’s value in games, at least in most games there’s so much value that you shouldn’t be giving it away for too little because it sort of hollows out the value of a game. I think also if you buy a game at two bucks, if you buy anything in life that costs 2 dollars, you can’t expect too much. If you buy a coffee that’s 2 dollars, you’ve sort of lost your entitlement to complain about that coffee because it’s too cheap. I’m talking Sweden here now by the way, in the US I’m sure you can get a decent coffee for 2 bucks, but here it’s like if you pay very little for something then you shouldn’t be complaining about it. And you’re sort of catering to the wrong audience I think — we want to sell quality games, and we want to sell it to people who don’t mind paying for it.
I think ten dollars for SteamWorld Dig is either on the cheap side or just about right. I think the game — some people race through the game when they first play through it — they finish the game in four hours. And you sit there thinking, “Hmm, I got 4 hours of entertainment here, was it really worth 10 dollars?,” and then they realize they can replay the game, and the game will be differently set up, so the next time you play the game is going to be a different experience.
So I think that we can justify the price tag, but, like everything else, you start discounting it after a while just because you need the volume, and we can see how the curves work, whenever we’ve had a sale, we’ve had some strong day-to-day sales after that on the E-Shop. On Steam it’s very different, when it’s at full price the game flatlines, and when you discount it, it sells like, many thousands of copies, and I think it’s a very, very, different marketplace.
“We had a big hit in 2011 with a mobile game called Anthill for iOS. It’s a brilliant game and I think more people should try it.” – Sigurgeirsson
Work For Hire Work
Sigurgeirsson: After we did Anthill we set to prototyping some other game ideas and they didn’t really pan out, and then we caved in and took on some more work for hire for more than half a year. And that was a big mistake, it felt like simple cash at that point, easy money.
It turned out to be the same sort of drag working together very closely with the publisher, and the game that we made sort of suffered in the balance between us. We were compromising and they were also compromising. And the game suffered for it.
When we were done with that around late summer 2012 I made a vow never to rely very highly on work for hire again. I think we can still do it, but it will have to be under better circumstances than we did at that point, so we’re really trying to be our own people and self-publish.
CONSULGAMER: I talked to someone at another studio who said they’re starting to see a benefit from work for hire, as when they’re doing prototyping they can have a few people working on the next game and they can then can keep the rest of their staff busy through work for hire. Do you see that as a viable path for studios that can also put out their own IP and their own games?
Sigurgeirsson: I think the possibility or the opportunity to do work for hire is really good, exactly for the reasons you just mentioned, but it’s also obvious that you’re not putting as much of your heart into the work for hire project as you do with your own project, so if we can, we will really try hard to work very consistently on our own project, rather than survive on work for hire. But just like you said in that very phase when you’re prototyping and you’re not sure if it’s going to work or not it can be beneficial for you to do that.
Come back on Thursday for a discussion on working with Sony and Nintendo, and tips on successfully marketing an indie game.
This interview was conducted by Eric Gustafsson and Bryan Cashman and is lightly edited from the original recording.