Martin Rae, president of the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences, moderated the panel. The Academy is made up of 22,000 game makers and hosts the yearly D.I.C.E. Awards in February. Before the introduction, the live action video for the 2013 D.I.C.E. Awards played for the audience. The D.I.C.E. Awards is a ceremony where the members of the Academy – game developers – nominate and vote on the best in their field. Supergiant Games has won a D.I.C.E. Award for Bastion while being nominated for several categories. Rae by way of introduction stated he feels their peers in the Academy will look at what they are doing with Transistor and nominate them next year.
After his brief introduction, Rae began asking Greg and Amir the questions sourced from the community. While all 10 questions and the audience generated ones elicited thoughtful and fascinating answerers from Amir and Greg, four stood out as giving larger insight into how Supergiant functions as a company creatively and philosophically.
What would you say is the biggest challenge for you creatively and technologically for the studio in general?
The team at Supergiant has grown to from seven working on Bastion to ten people for Transistor. They have a diverse group of people working at the studio, so designing by consensus is not an easy process, nor is it the practical one. To describe how they handle creative decisions at the studio, Greg told Amir to go into his Sunshine (2007 film by Danny Boyle, 2/3 good and 1/3 bad) analogy. In Sunshine, a team of astronauts and scientists go on a mission to restart the sun because it is dying. At a point during the movie, the team runs into a distress call from another ship. Now they have a choice to either answer it or continue on with the mission. The pilot suggests taking a vote from the whole team to decide what to do (democracy will decide the course of action), but the captain says no. They are a group of experts and the expert will decide the course of action. For Supergiant that means the expert for a particular creative decision will make that decision. It is deference to expertise.
For art things, Jen (Zee) will decide. If it is writing then it falls to Greg, music is Darren’s call and Logan (Cunningham) should decide performance. Amir joked, “If it is an engineering call they just figure it out…” It becomes a matter of trust in that person to do their best work and for people to tell them when they are not. The difficulty comes in the grey areas, where ownership and the expert become vague. Amir gave the example of the UI in Bastion, where multiple areas are in play (art, usability, sound, etc.). In those cases they have conversations on the best route. Greg stated that they try not to compromise on creative issues. The team does not want to browbeat someone into a particular point of view. They will catch that and discuss why it does not feel right. Then it is discussing things to a point of agreement and trying out something. If it fails, they will try something else. That process continues until they have something to show off to the public.
Rae said that their studio was a great size at ten people to keep in one room to make creative decisions. Following up that their studio has been successful and will continue to be successful. What happens if they grow to a studio of 40 people?
Amir stated that the studio is not growth resistant, but they only hire when it makes sense. They hire to feel complete and on Bastion they did not feel like a complete team. Anytime they hire someone it is because they want to unburden someone else. They did not have an in-house modeler and animator or visual effects for Bastion. The burden for 2D art all fell to Jen. Greg stated that they are very cognizant of when they hire people because of their creative process and how much of it works because of their current team’s chemistry. Adding that bringing in anyone, no matter how talented, will change the dynamic because it is a new personality and another voice, variable. Plus, there is a large amount of history among the current members of the team. They want to hold onto their current creative process without having to make power point presentations. Currently, they spend no time doing that rather they talk through decisions.
Have any player’s responses to Bastion surprise you? Did any of these responses shape how you went into Transistor?
Amir answered, “I think all the overwhelming positivity to Bastion was a huge surprise.” At PAX, they get touching responses from fans on the floor when they express to them how much they liked the game or were moved by the game. “We take none of that for granted,” he added.
The response to Bastion exceeded their expectations about how impactful the game was. The team still receives e-mails on a daily basis from people who were moved by the game. “Early on in its development, we had this thought of we want the game to be more than just fun to play, and leave a lasting and positive impression,” Greg stated. For the team, part of it was practicality since it was a single-player only game. After the people’s time with the game was over, “We want it to leave you with something. If it is just fun. Fun is very effervescent, and once you stop having fun, you kind of just forget about it. So, we try to make it resonant. Do whatever we could to make it resonant,” Greg said.
There have been some hugely surprising and touching responses to Bastion. One person wrote an article about Bastion helping him deal with his divorce, while another person wrote to Supergiant telling them how playing Bastion help him make peace with the recent passing of his brother while he was in mourning. “We couldn’t have possibly expected that, but it made a certain kind of sense thematically, in terms of what Bastion is about,” Greg said. Greg joked, “Bastion is not a self-help guide.” Then he added, “You can’t expect for something to impact people that way, but, of course, all of us are here because games impacted us when we were growing up. It is amazing that we could have provided that for some people out there.”
When demoing a build at PAX, they notice when multiple people do something similar. The team takes note of those moments and figures that it might be worth adding something into the game that reacts to that specific action. In Bastion, during the early parts, where the narration responds to specific actions like the Kid raging for a while or falling to his death and this causes people to laugh. The team takes it seriously, not simply as a funny line, but as a moment that they want players to respond to in a specific way. So when they head back from PAX, they put more work into those moments to ensure they land the way the team wants. They look for moments where people connect, then refine them to make sure more people can have those moments.
Rae asked Greg and Amir, a question that inevitably gets asked during these 10 Questions panels, the how you break into the industry question. How do you get in with the big boys?
Amir’s response was suggesting that those with a passion for a game idea should go do it themselves. Now is the best time ever if you have a game idea because you can do it yourself. It is easier than ever. The best thing to make a game now is to be an independent as possible. It is advisable to make it 100 percent yourself if you can, but if not then find a group of like-minded people to work on it with you. Now it is easier than ever to be successful as a smaller team.
“There is a misconception around, ‘I have a great idea for a game, would you like to hear it?’ The answer is, and this is kind of rude actually, no because the ideas are a dime a dozen. We go through so many ideas. It is the ones that stick and the ones we can actually pull off using the limited resources we have, those are the really valuable ones. We don’t know which ones those are until we try them,” Greg said. He echoed Amir’s advice to go make it yourself because this is the moment in history where it is easier than it has ever been to make a game. The bar for entry right now is very low.
Another user question that sparked a great response was about music and design. Does design lead music or music lead design?
For Supergiant, it varies. “The key is that Mr. Darren Korb, our composer and musical director, is involved early on [in development]. We talk a lot about tone early on in the project when we have nothing. We think about the kind of tone and atmosphere of the game we eventually want to exist. Music has a really potent ability to create atmosphere and tone in the absence of anything else. Darren is sort of the tip of the spear, as it were, in terms of discovering our tone,” Greg answered.
They discuss tone and then Darren goes off to compose. He will often come back with a piece of music that articulates the tone the team discussed or wants to aim for. It is not always immediate, as with anything, there are adjustments, but it gets there soon enough. With Bastion, it wasn’t the first piece that Darren composed, but early on in the process, Korb came up with the main theme and various pieces that made the final game. In the first month of development, the build still had rough placeholders, but the music that makes it to the final game was already there. That music set a goal for the team to build toward during development. “It’s interesting; Darren coined a term early on for the kind of music he was making, which was like ‘acoustic frontier trip-hop’,” Amir stated.
Amir brought up the shift in Bastion from act 1 to act 2, where the Kid heads to the Wild Unknown. This is a case where the team knew they wanted to move from a ruined city to the wilderness. Here they had a sense of where they wanted to go. It was a desire to evoke the imagery and feel of a Louisiana Bayou. This gave Darren plenty of visuals to influence his compositions. Then there are collaborative instances like “Build that Wall”, where they want to create a specific moment during gameplay using a vocal piece.
“In a lot of games, the music comes later,” Greg said. “But it’s different when collaborated directly with someone like Darren,” he added. Darren scores the game while playing it at the same time. So, he is involved heavily in the design process. This allows music in Supergiant games to be music more deeply integrated into the final product.
“We mentioned we were overwhelmed by the response to the game, but in particular, how people responded to the music blew me away,” Greg said noting the subjectivity to music and how many people loved the soundtrack.
The other questions shed some light on other interesting tidbits. For example, what challenges a smaller company like Supergiant faces and what freedoms it allows. When Amir and Greg worked at EA, all the decisions on the games they made were made above them. Even the specific decisions for certain elements were made by someone a few floors up. Being small allows them the freedom to make their own decisions, but puts the pressure on them that if something goes wrong on a decision level, it is all on them. Then there are issues on an infrastructure level because all the decisions need to be made by them. Keeping the lights on is their job as well as development. Also, they do not have the luxury of someone else setting their demo/booths at cons. Their entire team is usually on hand to run a PAX booth. That makes it difficult to move from developing a build to then showing off whatever build they have before the con takes place.
They do not choose the isometric viewpoint lightly. With their RTS background, it is something they are comfortable using. However, on Transistor they went through many camera decisions, but finally decided to go with isometric. It is what worked best. As with all of their creative decisions, it is not something they arrive at lightly or without discussion and experimentation. When asked if anyone picked up on surprising details in Bastion, it seemed that everyone picked up on all the subtle things in the game. The response to Bastion was thorough and it was great for them to see the little details get noticed. Also, both endings in Bastion are canon if anyone was wondering.
Some other interesting details from the panel were the two gentlemen’s influences and what the biggest creative decision for the company was. The most obscure influence for Greg was the work of William Gaddis that he read in college. While Amir’s was a response from Gary Gygax to a letter he wrote to him as a kid saying he changed the rules in D&D because he did not like them. Gygax sent him a letter saying that it was okay for him to change the rules. Their biggest creative decision when designing a game is to see if they can make a world and if they can make another game that can resonate with people.
What became clear when listening to Amir Rao and Greg Kasavin respond to questions during the panel is that Supergiant is a thoughtful studio that takes all the various creative decisions that go into crafting a game extremely seriously. It is a studio that works closely together to deliver a stellar product. Also it is one that knows when to listen to the team’s smart and dedicated experts on specific issues related to their expertise. They appreciate all the fan responses telling them what their game meant to them and listen to those responses on various levels. Supergiant is a small, but hard working company that wants to make games that convey a sense of place, tone and atmosphere. More than that they want to make games that resonate and leave an impression.
A gracious thank you goes out to Debby Chen, Niyosha Arthur and the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences for allowing myself and Chance Asue to cover the panel. The 10 Questions panels are something that future PAX attendees should seek out because it is an illuminating experience.