main

Studio Spotlight

Supergiant: There’s a Bastion in my Living Room

July 15, 2013 — by Vincent Carrella

feature4.jpg

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.

Gavin Simon and Amir Rao
Amir Rao and Gavin Simon were both Command & Conquer refugees and alums of EA with an idea for a game.

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.

Bastion Wall
They created Bastion – beautiful, award-winning, much adored.

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.”

Supergiant Team
Amir Rao, Andrew Wang, Greg Kasavin and Camilio Vanegas

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.”

Bastion
“We love it when games feel like they were made with care and bear the mark of their creators.”

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.

Building a Team
Chris Jurney, Lead Programmer.

“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.”

Awards
iOS was a big contributor to Bastion’s success.

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.

Audio

Composer and Audio Designer Jonathan van den Wijngaarden on How Ambition can Kill Your Project, Coded Illusions, Fairytale Fights, his Mentor and his Love for C&C.

January 14, 2011 — by Vlad Micu and Javier Sancho

05.jpg

Jonathan vd WijngaardenAudio designer and composer Jonathan van den Wijngaarden has had a career where illusions got broken and fairy tales did not really end happily ever after. After working at two of the Netherlands’ most promising studios that failed for aiming too high, he remains optimistic and takes the lessons learned into his own endeavors as a freelance audio designer and composer. Van den Wijngaarden gives us a first quick post mortem look of Fairytale Fights. The final project of the fallen Dutch game studio, Playlogic Game Factory.

Long Distance Mentor

Klepacki visited the Netherlands to perform at the Games In Concert 3 concert in 2008, where gave quite the show performing the revised version of the Hell March on his custom guitar to an audience of gamers.
Klepacki visited the Netherlands to perform at the Games In Concert 3 concert in 2008, where he gave quite the show performing the revised version of the Hell March on his custom guitar to an audience of gamers.

In the era where the highest tech in the house was probably the VCR, Van den Wijngaarden was one of the first few privileged kids to have an expensive PC in his household. His dad worked in IT, which made him and his family one of the early adopters in the Netherlands. “He used to bring me floppies with games like Pac Man and Dig Dug but soon enough I got my own PC to mess around with and play a lot of shareware games”.

”I used to put my taperecorder next to the PC to record the music of Command & Conquer.”

A few PCs later, 14 year-old Van den Wijngaarden found himself making his own scenarios and mods of Command & Conquer. “I used to put my taperecorder next to the PC to record the Command & Conquer music so I could listen to it even when I wasn’t playing,” he recalls. Through the C&C modding community he decided to get in touch through email with the musical genius behind the game, Frank Klepacki . They started exchanging emails for about 4 years in which Klepacki gave feedback on Van den Wijngaarden’s music. He followed keyboard lessons at that time, but that never satisfied his craving to make his own music. “I quit the lessons, so I could pour my heart into tracking (sample based music, red.) and composing music. Frank Klepacki took me under his wing and became my official mentor giving me something close to a full scholarship in game audio design.”

Van den Wijngaarden's old office at Coded Illusions, stacked with cool collectible figures and posters.
Van den Wijngaarden's old office at Coded Illusions, stacked with cool collectible figures and posters.

Van den Wijngaarden’s first professional job in the game industry was at Coded Illusions. He got in touch with the founder, Richard Stitselaar. Stitselaar had just left the upcoming Guerrilla Games to start his own company. They shared the same interests in games, especially Command & Conquer, and when Stitselaar learned about his “scholarship” with Klepacki, he was as good as hired.

”I used to work on the audio with my headphones on while the rest would sit a few meters away listening to Elvis loud through the speakers.”

Their first idea became the illusion they never got to finish, Nomos (in the early days also called ‘Haven’): a sci-fi, Blade Runner-esque game with religious elements. “Huddled together in a small office, I used to work on the audio with my headphones on while the rest would sit a few meters away listening to Elvis loud through the speakers. We didn’t take things very professionally then,” he recalls. When Coded Illusions got its first funding, things started to get more professional with its first official employees, many of them coming from Guerrilla. Van den Wijngaarden remained as an all-rounder in the office not only doing audio design but also being involved in management, level design, pitching game design ideas, story and dialogue writing.

Illusions Breaking the Code

For the occassion of this interview, Vertigo Games allowed us to give a first exclusive glimpse of the Nomos project started by Coded Illusions.
For the occassion of this interview, Vertigo Games allowed us to give a first exclusive glimpse of the Nomos project started by Coded Illusions.

In 2004, the future for Coded Illusions looked bright and for four and a half years the team worked very ambitiously as what Van den Wijngaarden fondly remembers “a group of friends making cool stuff. What we lacked in experience, we definitely made up for in enthusiasm.” Unfortunately the team’s enthusiasm is what may have put an end to the illusion. In the end of 2008, Coded Illusion went bankrupt quite instantly and the close group of friends found themselves on the street before they knew it. What went wrong? “Things started well building our own engine for the game,” Van den Wijngaarden says. “But in summer 2004, some of our managers went to GDC and got their first taste of the Unreal Engine 3. At the same time, the Xbox360 had just been announced and things looked very tempting to start working with a new engine.” His explanation: “the industry was on the front of a major turning point, getting ready to develop for next-gen consoles. “ The new promosing tool in the studio became the Unreal Engine 3. “It was too tempting,” he recalls. “The Unreal Engine 3 made our project grow disproportionately because it enabled us to pour in so many ideas we could not develop. [Nomos] wasn’t a small humble title anymore, but a full blown Unreal Engine 3 title.” The enthusiasm made them want to add an endless list of features that this shooter-oriented engine offered, including RPG-elements, more action, more story. In other words, more illusions than the code could handle.

For this game Jonathan created over 150 minutes of music and nearly 3000 sound effects which was all discarded when the company was closed a year later.
Van den Wijngaarden created over 150 minutes of music and nearly 3000 sound effects for Nomos. All were discarded when Coded Illusions was closed a year later.

“What we had was not bad, but there was no way of getting our project sold to a publisher.” The team’s enthusiasm and creativity ironically started to become a burden. “We couldn’t sell this to publishers, because it was not finished enough and no one was willing to admit that the game needed a lot of cutting.”

“It was such an intense period, it kind of turned into a black hole in my memory”.

Nowadays, smaller games, including bigger projects that got cut down, are easier to market through digital distribution and a broad market of casual gamers, “but in that period the market of digital indie games was not taken seriously yet”, Van den Wijngaarden explains. So he and his teammates got stuck with an overambitious project that had nowhere to go and an economic crisis that did not make things easier. Van den Wijngaarden admits: “it would have been a lot smarter to think and start small. Starting with a lower budget and consequently attempt to take a bigger step. We were not able to build a track record as a company and a lot of good work has gone to waste.”

Fighting for Fairytales

Fairytale Fights
Even after Playlogic declared bankruptcy, Fairytale Fights was launched as a downloadable episodic title on PSN in Asia.

The whole team of Coded Illusions ended up on the street at the beginning in fall 2008. Founder Richard Stitselaar managed to keep the IPs and start another company, Vertigo Games. He was able to hire some of his old team members to start developing Adam’s Venture. Like many of his former team members, Van den Wijngaarden wound up at the Playlogic Game Factory, a studio that was set full sail to release its first next-gen cross-platform title, Fairytale Fights. “I got in there very easily. I had built up a lot of experience with Unreal Engine and audio at Coded Illusion and I hardly had to do a job interview.” Working at Playlogic at that time was not that easy. He started at the company in holiday season and Fairytale Fights had to go gold after the summer. Van den Wijngaarden had his worries. “How was I going to finish this project in eight months with no plan ready yet and no audio design document? What problems am I going to encounter in crunch time in a team I’m not used to work with yet? I decided to get all those thoughts and worries out of my head and go for it.” Van den Wijngaarden has to dig deep into his memories to recall how that process was. “It was such an intense period, it kind of turned into a black hole in my memory”.

“The main thing I had to get used to was that this was not MY project anymore.”

“The main thing I had to get used to was that this was not MY project anymore,” he recalls. “Others already mostly worked the concept of Fairytale Fights out and was long past its prototyping.” With only eight months time to get the game on the shelves, there was no audio yet and Van den Wijngaarden had to dive into the documentation to get submerged in underlying ideas and feeling of the game. “My main focus on this project was to make it feel like my own project and give this game its own identity in audio”. Fairytale Fights already had its unique colorful art style, looking like a plasticine version of Happy Tree Friends. “Psychonauts was the game that inspired me the most. I tried to convey its diversity in settings to give Fairytale Fights its distinct character in sound. Especially giving all the weapons unique firing and handling sounds was a huge workload for me but crucial in giving the game its own identity.” This was one of the many lessons Van den Wijngaarden had learned from his mentor and inspiration, Klepacki: “always try to put your own signature on the music and sound. That’s what I admire about Klepacki, he always knows how to stick to his own style and sound. I can recognize the games he has worked on immediately, even without knowing he worked on it.”

Van den Wijngaarden took this picture on his final day at Playlogic. This office space served 40 people that worked on various products, including Sony's Eyepet.
Van den Wijngaarden took this picture on his final day at Playlogic. This office space served 40 people that worked on various products, including Sony's Eyepet.

So, what went wrong in this process? Again, it was the double-edged sword of ambition that killed the cat in boots. “We were under a lot of time pressure and in the end we had to cut about 25% percent of what we had made. Otherwise we never would have made it. Among the things we cut was a final chapter with four levels. This meant having to come up with a new final boss and invent a new main villain. Originally we also wanted to add some RPG elements and conversations with NPCs. There was absolutely no time for spoken dialogue, since that meant we had to localize it too. All kinds of drastic changes were made in a short time which stripped Fairytale Fights down to a pure brawler game.” At least this time the cuts were made and the game went gold. One of the main forces for getting the title shipped on time was managing director Olivier Lhermite. “He performed miracles. Not only by creating the right workflows but changing the focus on what was needed the most: game design.” Van den Wijngaarden admits that the game design aspect came late, maybe too late. During the process, the main focus and strength of the project had been its art style and setting, but somehow it lost it focus on the kind of game it should be. “Olivier made sure everybody picked up on the gameplay and worked fulltime on making sure everything worked and felt right.”

“As a creative person it can be difficult to balance the fact that on one side you are making an artistic creation and on the other side you are working on an entertainment product.”

Another of Klepacki’s wise lessons that echoed through Van den Wijngaarden’s mind throughout the tough process is one seems applicable for any game development process. “As a creative person it can be difficult to balance the fact that on one side you are making an artistic creation and on the other side you are working on an entertainment product. As an artist you are primarily concerned with creating the best quality, but at the same time you will have to deliver a certain amount of quantity. Therefore you have to find balance between quality and quantity and make sure that each sound is equally great. You can’t make everything as perfect as you want it to be, it is more important that all the components you make work in harmony and offer a complete package. That’s a lesson that I got to experience very closely while working on Fairytale Fights.”

Van den Wijngaarden is currently working as freelance composer and audio designer. He most recently created music and sound design for the official Need For Speed Hot Pursuit webgame and is now wrapping up music and sound design for Adam’s Venture 2 by Vertigo Games.

logo
SUPPORTED BY