Living rooms. Typically these are places where you watch TV, sit around on sofas and Lazy-Boys, talking, nodding politely at your grandmother’s adoration, maybe playing charades. Living rooms are not known as crucibles for great videogames. But it does happen. My own gaming career began in a living room. Start-ups run on the cheap out of necessity and living rooms are inexpensive alternatives to office space. Bonus if that space comes rent-free and with access to your parents’ fridge. The last thing you need to be worrying about when you’re in the fever pitch of developing a seminal game is where your next meal is coming from.
So it was lucky for Amir Rao that a living room was available. He and Gavin Simon were both Command & Conquer refugees and alums of EA with an idea for a game. They wanted to create an action-RPG in which players build the world themselves. That game was Bastion – beautiful, award-winning, much adored. But back in 2009, it was merely a glimmer in their eyes, a concept in search of a home. And it found a home. In San Jose. In a living room. Amir’s Dad let them set up shop in his house and it was thus that a great game, and a little studio aptly named Supergiant, was born.
They began with little recognition in an industry that tends to eat idealists alive. Two junior members of a large and storied EA team armed with nothing more than some (pretty valuable) experience on a great franchise and a dream, Gavin and Amir were inspired by games like Braid, Castle Crashers and Plants vs. Zombies – games crafted by small teams with lots of love and attention to detail. They left EA, not just because of those great Indie games, but because they admired what was going on in the Indie development community – small teams of dedicated gamers were building beautiful things, not for money, but for the love of games.
“We love it when games feel like they were made with care and bear the mark of their creators,” Amir says. “For us, we draw a lot of inspiration from the games that we played as kids and we seek to make games that spark players’ imaginations in the same way.”
Soon, several of Amir and Gavin’s friends joined them at Supergiant: Andrew Wang, who worked on the Modern Warfare series at EA; Creative Director Greg Kasavin, who also worked at EA and was once Rao’s roommate; Art Director Jen Zee, who was referred by a mutual friend; Voice Actor Logan Cunningham; and Audio Director Darren Korb, who has known Rao since elementary school. The living room was getting cramped, but something magical was happening.
They entered their game into the PAX 10, a hand-picked group of independent games selected by Penny Arcade to appear at PAX Prime. They were lucky to be selected in such an elite grouping and drove all the way to Seattle in a van to unveil Bastion to the world. The response was tremendous. The audience absolutely loved the hand-painted 2D artwork, the stirring score and the narrative technique of the game. That debut led to Supergiant partnering with Warner Bros. to distribute the game across a variety of platforms.
“We created Bastion in about twenty months and debuted it on Xbox LIVE Arcade in 2011,” Amir says. “We created all additional versions of Bastion internally over the following year and took the game to PC via Steam and other digital retailers, plus Mac, Linux, the Chrome web browser, iPad and iPhone. We developed a lot of design and technical expertise around these platforms and are proud to have a strong fan base on each of them.”
Supergiant builds their own engines and tools. Their engine started in XNA and has expanded to allow them to ship on XBLA, PC, Chrome, Mac, Linux, iPad and iPhone. They used Mono to power all the versions after the PC. Amir says that the biggest initial challenge was building a team alongside building the game.
“We started without the writing, artistic, systems, engineering and musical talents that would be brought on later members of the team,” he said. “There was significant anxiety around those things until we were joined by Greg, Jen, Andrew, Logan and Darren.”
At one point during development of Bastion, they spent a significant amount of time and energy integrating an elaborate ‘gardening’ system that would govern many of the game’s player progressions. Inspired by games like Harvest Moon and Viva Piñata, they wanted to design an organic ‘planting’ as a metaphor for character leveling. Ultimately, that feature did not come to fruition, and they removed the system before unveiling the game at PAX in 2010.
“Our best ideas often come from a problem-solving perspective,” Amir says. “So when we pursue ideas that simply seem unique, we sometimes have trouble integrating them into the rest of the game.”
Bastion has sold in excess of 2M copies, with iOS being a big contributor to that success. They re-imagined the game for touch devices and learned a lot about design and UX issues on tablet devices as a result. Now they’re ready for their next big project. The original Bastion team is intact, and they’ve moved out of the Amir’s living room into an actual office space in the SOMA district of San Francisco. They’ve brought on a few more people and are working on a new project called Transistor, a game so wildly anticipated that people stood in line for hours at PAX this year just for a chance to play it. Transistor is slated for release sometime in 2014.
So if your kid comes to you one day and says “Dad, I have this idea for a game that I think could be really great.” Don’t ignore him or her. Clear away the coffee table, relocate the flat-screen and give up your living room for awhile. It may just be your ticket to a comfortable retirement , and the world can always use another great game.