Mobile gamers more interested in 'passing the time' than playing, says SteamWorld Dig dev

Brjann Sigurgeirsson talks changing climates

Mobile gamers more interested in 'passing the time' than playing, says SteamWorld Dig dev

Last year, Image & Form's SteamWorld Dig, a 3DS eShop title combining elements of Metroid, Spelunky and Terrariareceived a glowing reception across the board.

Keen to expand is success to date, the studio has just announced that the game is headed for both PS Vita and PS4, following on from releases on both Steam and the Japanese eShop.

We caught up with Image & Form CEO Brjann Sigurgeirsson to talk about the developer's growth to date, future plans for the SteamWorld series, and why he feels life on iOS and Android isn't a good fit for the studio.

Pocket Gamer: How has the eShop climate changed between the releases of SteamWorld Tower Defense in 2010 and Steamworld Dig in 2013? How has this affected your strategy?

Brjann Sigurgeirsson: We didn't really know how much it had changed, but we had a feeling that Nintendo was opening up towards indie developers.

And then we made a wild assumption: since SteamWorld Tower Defense had managed to pay for itself despite the close-to-horrible shopping experience that was the DSiWare Store, we believed that we would be able to sell tons of copies of SteamWorld Dig on the 3DS eShop, even if the game wasn't a hit.

We simply compared the scale of the eShop with that of the DSiWare Store.

It really was a wild assumption, a hunch gamble. When we decided to go ahead with SteamWorld Dig in October 2012, the eShop hadn't proved itself, and the jury was still out on the 3DS.

Today we can look back and safely say that the 3DS is a success, but at that time there were no locomotives such as Animal Crossing: New Leaf or Pokemon X & Y, titles that cemented the 3DS as a viable platform.

So, releasing SteamWorld Dig for the 3DS was a gamble, but there was another important aspect as well - we didn't really know where else to turn.

We knew no-one at Sony or Microsoft, we had applied to get our iOS hit game Anthill onto Steam but had been rejected, and we felt certain that making yet another mobile game was an even bigger gamble.

As marketing strategies go, we decided to go after the online Nintendo community, primarily via Twitter and Nintendo forums.

Early on we pledged to answer - and love, not bother - everyone and anyone who talked about SteamWorld Dig. And I think we did really well - at certain points it felt like everyone was talking about the game, and they were talking about it in a positive manner.

Where have you had the best reception with SteamWorld Dig so far? How was its recent Japanese 3DS release received?

Geographically, the US is doing best both on Steam and the eShop, which is probably not very surprising. And Steam is an incredible place to be - we sold a large number of copies in just two days during the release, and then during a flash sale at Christmas.

Japan is a world of its own. We had an extraordinary launch, and the game sold very well at the start thanks to great exposure via personal interviews with us in Famitsu and the like.

However, subsequent lack of coverage and communication has taken its toll, and now day-to-day sales are quite low - actually disappointingly so.

I lived in Tokyo for six years, and I'm very used to the notion that things work differently there. There are a number of reasons why sales aren't as smooth over there as in the rest of the world.

First, we're required to use a publisher for the Japanese eShop, so we don't interact directly with fans and reviewers.

Second, Nintendo of Japan does not issue review codes for eShop-only titles, which means that you cannot easily persuade review sites to cover your games.

Third - and perhaps most surprising - Japanese review sites and magazines traditionally do not review titles that are only available as digital downloads. I don't know if there are exceptions, but this is the rule.

Fourth, Nintendo of Japan doesn't take as kindly - or kindly at all - to sales promotions as Nintendo of Europe or Nintendo of America, which means that a game is destined to stay at its price point until Nintendo of Japan decides it's time for a sale. The Japan office seems to operate very much on their own.

Fifth and finally, SteamWorld Dig is "yoge," that is, a foreign game. The Japanese taste in games - and art, movies and what have you - is quite different from that of the west. The art styles and game mechanics of most Western games don't appeal to the Japanese audience.

Apparently in Japan GTA V has only sold 10 percent of what it sold in the US. The opposite is also more or less true, so there's nothing strange here.

After the success of SteamWorld Dig on the 3DS, why did you choose to adapt the game for PC before PlayStation Vita?

At one point Valve turned down Anthill, so getting SteamWorld Dig onto Steam was our Holy Grail. No, that's not the main reason, but it felt very good to be accepted, and we reasoned that sales could be superb on Steam and through other PC, Mac, and Linux download services.

We decided to make a PC, Mac and Linux versions of SteamWorld Dig partly to widen the audience, but also so that we could more easily take the game to other platforms.

The 3DS version is great, but there's the issue with two screens and less-than-HD graphics, which isn't standard on any of the other viable platforms today. After making the PC version first, it's been quite easy for us to port to other platforms.

But getting SteamWorld Dig onto stationary platforms was also a good way to diversify the game. If we had gone directly to the Vita - which is an excellent device - Dig could easily have been branded as "a handheld game."

It isn't that simple, although I personally love to play games on the go. Dig has realised its potential on the big screen, where all the minute details and animations are visible.

I believe that almost all games are more immersive on handheld devices compared to playing on a computer or in front of a TV screen. That's where the handhelds really excel, but going to Steam showed that the game shines on all consoles, since it makes full use of traditional controls.

SteamWorld Dig was on sale over the Christmas period on both the eShop as well as Steam. Which platform performed better sales-wise? How did it fare during its 8-hour Flash Sale?

We had the same percentage off - 25 percent - and Steam outperformed the eShop quite clearly. However, maybe the comparison isn't fair.

By that time, the game had been out for the 3DS for four months, and less than three weeks on Steam - it was a much newer SKU. Also, Nintendo had problems with the eShop during Christmas - the eShop was down almost everywhere for two whole days.

The exposure you get during a flash sale is fantastic, and nothing on the eShop - or any shop in the known universe - can compare. It's amazing to sit in real time and watch those numbers tick.

Still, SteamWorld Dig performed really well on the eShop during the Christmas sale, actually quite a lot better than I had expected. And the eShop still shows better day-to-day sales at regular price. In total, we still have sold quite a few more 3DS "units" than Steam "units." The shopping patterns are quite different.

It is obvious that Steam features a lot more games, and that their storefront is made for sale shopping.

In previous interviews you have mentioned the issue of the iOS market being too crowded to stand out. What does this mean in terms of Image & Form's future on iOS and Android devices?

Very good question, and one of my favorite issues. We're a traditional game developer in the sense that we want to make great games, and we want to survive doing just that. We can create great moments in gaming, but we're not good at - or even very interested in - monetisation schemes.

iOS and Android presents other problems than just being overcrowded. The congestion, which means that anything goes, that your game is visible for an extremely short time and also quite hard to find, is just one thing.

Another reason was the fact that the mobile top charts have frozen. The same companies have topped the grossing charts for some time now, and they're good at what they do - they're not about to let go.

It's very hard to get onto the top charts. This is what happened to Facebook gaming, and a major reason why many developers left that scene.

Free-to-play also rules the roost. This requires an organisation that is very different from your traditional development studio - you have to create games that support the business model and you need experts at in-game economy.

What's more, the focus is not necessarily on the quality of the game anymore, but rather on how users can be tipped over the edge to become customers. In effect, games have to become shops - no entrance fee, but please don't leave without making a purchase.

Do I sound bitter? I don't mean to. Like I said, the leading players here are very good at what they do and they should be respected for it, not resented. But apart from a very small number of exceptions, mobile is a lost arena for upstarts and indies that need to make money from their games. That's a pity, and it's not how it started out.

I've seen so many interesting game ideas being born on mobile, and I believe they'll be fewer and farther between in the future.

The audience doesn't really want to play - they want to pass the time. The vast majority of the mobile audience prefers casual, less demanding games.

If a game becomes too difficult, it's very easy to switch to the next thing - after all, that one's also free, you only lost the time you invested. Which in turn means less intricate games - again with a few exceptions.

This also pushes new devs and indies towards PC and traditional platforms, since they cannot afford the numbers game on mobile and don't necessarily create games that focus on retention.

In the future, diversified gaming on mobiles will become less interesting to most of us. This may sound strange, since most predictions show that mobile gaming will continue to rise.

And in some respect, I guess it will. But I believe we all reach a point where we don't want to spend a lot of "phone time" playing games. We've now gotten used to our smartphones, and we know what they're good for.

If you like to play games, when's the last time you bought a mobile game, or downloaded a free game that you've spent a lot of time with?

I know exactly when I bought my latest game for iOS - it was Simogo's masterpiece DEVICE 6. That was months ago, and keep in mind that I'm a guy who's intent on keeping tabs on what games are coming out, and that includes mobile games.

After a long period of "experimentally downloading" iPhone games, I'm now busy doing all the other, regular stuff on my phone - calling, texting, using productivity apps, interacting on Facebook and Twitter. Short-burst games work, but I find many of them pointless - to the point of calling them pastime instead of games.

I hope I am proven terribly wrong, and that we'll instead see some sort of backlash in mobile gaming. I believe Apple in particular will have to turn the spotlight towards quality games - not only bestsellers - and I hope that consumers will tire of being monetised the entire time while passing the time on non-rewarding games.

It shouldn't be too hard for Apple to maintain a list of best-rated games - all with the same required minimum number of user ratings - for people who are genuinely interested in playing good games.

This list will also freeze, since it's meant to show the best of the best. But it would give consumers a quality index that isn't easily found at the moment. I would love a list like that, and I would probably start at the top and pick off those games one by one as long as they appeal to me.

Note that I burden Apple with this task; it seems that Google has never pretended that Android is a platform for games of any quality, although gems are hidden here and there as well.

But does all this mean that we absolutely will not try releasing games on iOS or Android devices in the future? No, it doesn't. If we can get Apple to take on our titles that have proven themselves on other platforms - and lift them up into the light - iOS will be a viable platform for us.

But in a broader perspective Apple will have to become as committed to quality as, say, Nintendo in order for hesitant developers to stay on or move to their platform. Creating quality games and then hoping to win the lottery isn't a sound strategy.

With the PlayStation 4 version of SteamWorld Dig opening up new doors on home consoles for you, what will Image & Form's primary platform be for upcoming titles?

That's a very hard question. While we certainly would like to release on all platforms at once, so that all platform owners feel that we truly love them just as much as any other, it's probably not a good strategy.

We're too small to support all communities simultaneously, and staggered releases suit us best - that way we can focus our PR efforts on the platform at hand and can spread out our workload.

When we released Dig for the 3DS, I worked myself into a state of bliss - if you ask me - and mania - if you ask my wife. The game came out on three continents at the same time, and I slept two to three hours per night for a couple of weeks, trying to catch up and respond to every request and every little tweet about the game.

Material-wise I was unprepared but emotionally I went all in, and it was truly exhilarating. So much recognition and positive reinforcement wherever I turned; really dangerous stuff for a confirmation junkie, a constant stream of candy, ice cream and thick gravy, or like inviting an alcoholic into the champagne shower.

Things got more balanced with the Steam release - there were more of us sharing the work and we were better prepared - and going to PlayStation 4 and Vita now, I'm almost sober.

I mentioned Steam and the Vita earlier, and the PS4 is simply amazing. It's very powerful yet easy to work with, and for the first time we have a product with great time to market.

Ever since I bought the original PlayStation console, it's been a dream to make a game for it. And it means something else in the eyes of others: my non-gaming friends think that we've suddenly broken through - like getting a game onto PlayStation is like being knighted, since they don't know about the 3DS or Steam. But yes, it's a feeling of accomplishment and a very exciting platform.

So it could be really hard to choose the primary platform for coming titles. However, we've gotten so much attention from the Nintendo community that if we make a game that would work on the 3DS as well as other platforms, we will probably go for that first.

Or maybe we'll just give it to the highest bidder.

What can we expect from the next three entries in the SteamWorld franchise?

Well, we haven't discussed this in any detail anywhere else yet - so why not start here?

So far we have thought up five games in the SteamWorld series, although I suspect it doesn't end there; interesting new ideas crop up every week. Two of the SteamWorld games have been completed so far: SteamWorld Tower Defense and SteamWorld Dig. Chronologically, they're #1 and #3 in the franchise.

We have a vertical slice ready for #2, which is the prequel to Dig. It's a marvellous little game and a delightful genre mix. Then there's the obvious sequel to Dig, which is #4, and it's grander than Dig - a bigger world and another setup, but very much in the Dig vein.

We will develop both of those, but the next one we'll release is actually #5. It will inherit some of the Dig mechanics, but it'll be a completely different type of game.

If we're not completely out to lunch, it'll garner a much bigger community than Dig, where you could typically finish the game in a two-three days and never had the chance to discuss the game with anyone else while playing. The next game will invite players to discuss strategies, etcetera while they're playing.

This spring we'll announce this new SteamWorld game as loud and wide as possible. Until we've decided on how we'll do this, I'd better shut up and not promise too much too soon. I have a tendency to do that, and the rest of the team always pays for it.

To paraphrase Fame, they usually end up paying in huge quantities of sweat.

After spending years in Japan collecting game developers' business cards, Danny has returned to the UK to breed Pokemon. He spends his time championing elusive region-exclusive games while shaking his fist at the whole region-locking thing.