Interview

Supergiant Games talks San Francisco

Supergiant Games talks San Francisco

On the last day of our latest week-long look at the development scene in San Francisco, we're signing off with one of the local indie scene's most respected outfits, Supergiant Games – the team behind both Bastion and the forthcoming and highly anticipated Transistor.

We caught up with one of the outfit's co-founders – Amir Rao – to talk about Supergiant's past, present and future, and its wider position within San Francisco.

We couldn't start our chat with Rao, however, without immediately bringing up the recent accolade he received from Forbes Magazine, with the Supergiant man having earned a spot in the publication's 30 Under 30 countdown.

"I was honoured to get it," says a thrilled Rao. There's a lot of really amazing people on that list. It's also a great parents accolade. When your parents don't understand much about games, they can understand what Forbes magazine is!

"The last time they were that excited was when Bastion was mentioned on [US TV channel] NPR. I'm constantly surprised by it. It came down to the game that the team made. It's just that we made a game that did really well. We just treated it with care."

Holding back the hype

Care is also being given to Transistor, the increasingly hyped follow up to Bastion that Supergiant has completely self-funded with the revenues generated from the new game's predecessor.

Rao and his team were thrust into the public eye at E3 in 2013 when Sony invited them on stage to demo the game alongside some of the year's biggest games from the top publishers.

"The game is coming along great. We're making really good progress. It's the magical time when it feels like something new and cool goes into the game every day. It's a really good spot for us right now," Rao tells us.

"Success definitely has an impact. The Bastion team was seven people and we've grown to ten or eleven. We make games differently now, but things haven't changed much. Everyone is responsible for the same roles and craft.

"It's all being done under the tremendous weight of expectations after Bastion and that can sometimes get overwhelming, but when we go to events like PAX and see people's excitement for the game it's really energising."

The pressure on Supergiant's second release is immense. Critical and fan response to Bastion was slightly overwhelming for the small team, transforming it from an unknown entity to one where ever element of a new release is under scrutiny from the press and public alike.

It's had a big impact on everyone involved, but going from developing Bastion with no one taking an interest before release, to developing Transistor with a reputation and plenty of attention has given the team a lot of confidence.

"Everyone handles it differently depending on where they're at in the project. Personally, I'm glad that people care one way or another and that they're interested in what we're doing. That they're curious to see what we're doing next," says Rao.

"That's actually relieving because I remember what it was like at the start when there was a lot of anxiety about if we were even going to make something worthy of attention. It can get overwhelming if you think about it too much but it's nice to know that people are interested."

Bastion's reputation, however, was built up over a relatively long period of time – more than in a year in all - whereas Transistor looks set to generate interest from day one. Part of Bastion's long tail was down to the gradual approach Supergiant took to porting the game to additional platforms.

As such, Supergiant isn't yep a mobile property – it'll launch on PS4 and PC initially, with the developing taking note of post release demand to determine future porting.

"A lot of Bastion's sales history was built overtime. We didn't release it with one big push. Part of that was we kept bringing it to new platforms and supporting it over time. It's one of those things that kind of built and we don't take it for granted," claims Rao.

"We go where game players are. We started on XBLA which was the home to a lot of games that inspired us, like Castle Crashers and Braid. Going from there onto PC was natural for because we're longtime PC gamers. Then we went to other places like Chrome, iOS, Mac and Linux.

"For us, we played games on all of those platforms so we wanted find out if there was a home for the game on those platforms which could inform subsequent decisions.

"Every decision we made to release Bastion on a new platform was made serially. It wasn't a grand plan to spend a year and a half working on this stuff! Every time we did something it made sense to try something else because new opportunities opened up."

Multiplatform might?

But is Rao surprised that more established indie studios don't follow this same route?

"I think that in a lot of cases indies are smart not to bite off more than they can chew. Just making a game at all can be hard. It is generally so much work to do in the first place so you need to control your scope if you're resource limited," says Rao.

"The thing about bringing it to more platforms afterwards is that it can be a challenge to get other people to port your game and it's a challenge for a creator to port a game if there aren't interesting reasons for doing it.

"I can see why it doesn't happen as often but the truth is you have an audience in a lot of places if there is interest in your game, but it's hard to know that at the start."

As such, Supergiant has focused heavily on the PS4 version of the game, with what Rao describes as Sony's genuine enthusiasm about indie innovation inspiring Supergiant to put its weight behind the console.

"Their excitement was infectious. They been really great in giving us freedom to get on with the project and bringing us onto their stage at E3 and giving us all sorts of support. We've really enjoyed working with them," Rao tells us.

"The initiative that Sony has in terms of pursuing indies was clear before we started working with them. They were already working with Jonathan Blow on The Witness. That strategy was actually a manifestation of their third party team and their real excitement for games.

"They love independent games. It comes from a really genuine place of wanting to work with cool creators to help them reach the large and passionate PlayStation audience.

"For us, that's the core reason for wanting to work with them. They were the first on console to allow self-publishing and that was great for us because we want to control our own destiny."

As well as working with a giant like Sony, Supergiant stays grounded by embedding itself in San Francisco's indie scene. Rao and his colleagues are close friends with their neighbours at Double Fine and many other local studios.

Like Jason Cirillo at Gaijin Games, Rao's favourite thing about San Francisco is the people that he gets to work alongside.

"My favourite thing is the community of developers that we have here. We recently did The Day of The Devs which was hosted by Double Fine and there were a lot of cool developers there. Even Cappy came all the way from Toronto. It's just a warm scene for that," says Rao.

"On the business side the Humble Bundle guys are here and we're always had a close relationship with them. It's fun to be able to hang out with them and see their involvement in games.

"There's a full range of independent stuff and AAA teams but there's a little less of that now with what happened at LucasArts and Zynga."

Eye on indies

If anything, the recent layoffs at LucasArts and Zynga may only add to the independent community in San Francisco.

New studios seem to be springing up across the city almost constantly, despite the financial risks highlighted by everyone we've spoken to this week. Rao says the costs are a big problem, but you need to take risks to reap the benefits of the Bay Area games scene.

"If you have a community or family that can help you, emotionally and in other ways, that can help with the raw cost of living and renting in the city. People should do what they think will help them make the best game," Rao advises.

"For different people that might mean being by themselves or being in a community. In terms of the raw cost, there's no way of getting around that. If budget is a constraint, living in San Francisco can really hold you back. But it comes with the benefits of the community, the media and publishers."

That media connection is one Supergiant more than most has taken advantage of. The studio's creative director, Greg Kasavin, was previously editor-in-chief over at GameSpot, which is also based in the city.

Kasavin's connection with the games media was the catalyst between much early press interest in Bastion, although it did come at a cost. A handful of outlets opted to pass on a Bastion review because of their close friendships with Kasavin, while those that did was accused of a conflict of interested by readers.

Is it possible, then, for a studio that has ties to the games media to avoid being perceived as having the press in its pocket?

"A lot of those relationships were formed because Greg Kasavin knows people personally. That doesn't really get you much if you don't have something interesting though," argues Rao.

"We're not in constant contact with the press because we're in San Francisco. Most of our coverage actually happens at places like PAX. In many ways the most important aspect of what we do is having something to show, talk about and play at PAX."

"If you look at the Building the Bastion series that we did with Giant Bomb, that was handled really well. They were really interested in doing it because they thought their community would be interested to see how an independent game gets made.

"Every month we checked in with them to show them what we had done and talk about where we were at. They would cut together the footage we had shot ourselves while developing stuff.

"They opted not to review the game, but it's only been really useful to talk to people directly about what we're doing and show the kinds of stuff that we're up to here."

Of course, at GDC next week there will be even more opportunities for studios like Supergiant to meet not just the local games media, but the world's press.

Rao loves the show and would always attend it wherever it is located, but having it in San Francisco is a big win for the local studios.

"GDC is an amazing show. It's a place for us to see our peers. It's a huge advantage to be able to walk there from the office and check it out. I think a big part of it is that it brings in a lot of international friends," he concludes.

"It's fun to see our friends from the likes of Playdead and Frictional. We've been in Humble Bundles with those guys so it's fun to see them and find out how things are going with them.

"The whole range of the games business is represented in San Francisco. It's got everything."

Joe just loves to go fast. That's both a reflection of his status as a self-proclaimed 'racing game expert', and the fact he spends his days frantically freelancing for a bevy of games sites. For PocketGamer.biz, however, Joe brings his insight from previous job as a community manager at iOS developer Kwalee. He also has a crippling addiction to Skittles, but the sugar gets him through the day.

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