Supergiant Games: standing apart

Supergiant Games: standing apart

There’s a hidden flip side to Supergiant Games’ name: the independent studio is staffed by a super-tiny team. “In total, there are eight of us,” says Greg Kasavin, the studio’s creative director and the writer behind its 2011 hit debut, Bastion. “But Darren [Korb, audio director] and Logan [Cunningham, voice artist] are based in New York, and then Andrew [Wang, systems engineer] spends part of his time in LA. So here at the studio there are only five of us, technically.”

Still, the studio’s name is anything but an ironic choice, and its approach to development is ambitious, aiming to create polished games that can hold their ground against the industry’s big-budget titles. While it may have only released one to date, Bastion has been a massive success.

The story behind the game’s creation bears some of the hallmarks of an indie darling. For instance, designers and Supergiant co-founders Gavin Simon and Amir Rao were residing in Rao’s father’s house in San Jose throughout its production process. Meanwhile, Cunningham delivered his 3,000-plus lines of dialogue in Korb’s Brooklyn closet-cum-sound room.

Ragtag beginnings, perhaps, but you’d never know it from looking at Bastion. This tiny group of people made a huge game that has now sold in excess of 500,000 copies and won more than 100 awards, most recently garnering Best Debut and Best Downloadable Game at the 2012 Game Developers Choice Awards.

The ability to create such a confident game in these quintessentially indie circumstances is almost certainly down to many of the team’s roots in high-profile game development. Kasavin met Rao and Simon while they all worked together at EA on the Command & Conquer titles; art director Jen Zee (responsible for Bastion’s distinguished painterly direction) originally hails from Gaia Online, which developed a free-to-play MMOG; and Wang worked on both Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare and MW2 before joining the Supergiant team. “Andrew in particular has been to the top of Mount Everest and back as far as triple-A game development goes,” Kasavin jokes. But, on the other hand, neither Korb nor Cunningham had undertaken any game development before Bastion. “It’s a really interesting mix of people, with a [fair amount having] zero experience.”

The one thing the team members all have in common is Amir Rao. He, Korb and Cunningham have all known each other since childhood, while Wang and Rao worked together at EA Redwood Shores years ago. Kasavin and Rao were roommates in LA, and Rao was introduced to Zee through a mutual friend.

“Amir is our Commander Shepard, I would say,” Kasavin laughs. “He goes around and picks people up, and brings them together. Coming in with that built-in, interpersonal experience and trust really allowed us to accomplish a lot with a relatively small number of people.”

A balance of independent spirit and professional experience lies at the heart of Supergiant Games, and as such the studio manages to sidestep easy pigeonholing. “That’s the hybrid, right?” Kasavin observes. “We’re ‘independent’ kind of as a fact. We’re not owned by anyone, and we’re self-funded, but other than that people can call us whatever they want. We are a small, independent games studio.”

But an independent studio anchored to practical, professional experience. “From EA, not only did a lot of us meet, we gained a lot of good production discipline. I think a lot of independent developers have trouble finishing their games, right? But we’d gone through the process several times, knowing what it takes to complete something and to go through certification and all the ugly stuff that comes up at the end, which is kind of unintuitive. 

So those are some of our advantages.”

‘Advantages’ is a recurring theme of our discussion with Kasavin. When starting out, Supergiant’s members focused less on what they would not be able to do as a small team, instead working towards designing a game that would play directly to the group’s strengths.

“For us, it was a bit like, ‘Small new studio, two people based out of a house, unheard of IP, blah blah blah’ – you could fill a whiteboard with the many reasons we would certainly fail because of all the disadvantages we had. So our mindset [was], ‘OK, what advantages do we have? Let’s push on those things as hard as possible.’”

“One of those advantages was, ‘Hey, our audio director, who is a very talented musician, is roommates with a guy who has an amazing voice and is an amazing actor. So, first of all, why don’t we do something with voice, and why don’t we push on that as hard as possible, because they can record whenever? It’s just Logan going into Darren’s closet and recording stuff.’ Whereas even for a triple-A studio, the logistics of setting up a recording session are incredibly difficult. So we realised it was an area in which we could compete against the big studios head-on.”

Starting development on Bastion with a pragmatic acceptance of what the team was and wasn’t capable of enabled Supergiant to produce a rich, cohesive experience. Art, music, voice acting, writing and design were all completed in tandem so that the entire game could be tailored around a consistent thematic tone. “We would iterate fairly heavily. I would write the content to fit the level, not like there was a script, and then we would work on the level more to fit the content. It’s very line by line. So that was a ton of fun, and a lot of work. It was really rewarding when we’d build a level, do the narration immediately and plug it in right away, and it would just come to life. It just added so much to the feel of it.”

The goal was to make Bastion a complete experience thematically and narratively, so that no loose ends would be left dangling. As Kasavin explains: “We knew that the fate of our studio ultimately hinged on Bastion, so we wanted it to be a standalone thing where if we went out of business [then] at least this thing would persist and not leave people with the feeling of, ‘Why didn’t they finish the story?’ We just wanted to make one thing that was whole.”

Despite the freedom to create something really different to mainstream games, the team’s members never lost sight of their determination to craft a game that consumers would want to buy. “When we announced Bastion, it was never from a place like, ‘Well, what are the feature sets of Bastion?’ or whatever. But when it [came] time to announce it, we [did] have to figure out a way to describe it for people.” Knowing that it’s difficult enough to even get an original IP noticed, the team deliberately settled on a game style that resonated with old action-RPGs, such as Diablo. “You can’t convince someone your game is special, right? You can’t just talk about it; they need to try it and feel that. So we wanted Bastion to resemble action-RPGs, but then add something more to it and take it in a different direction from what we’d seen previously in the genre. Thankfully, people came along for the ride.”

It may sound like a safe, level-headed approach when Kasavin explains it, but Bastion still took a risk with its consistent narration. Cunningham’s character, Rucks, talks over the top of events throughout the entire game, weaving the player’s actions and the world around them into a single narrative. It was a bold move, and something the Supergiant team was concerned would not sit well with all players.

“I thought the narration would be more polarising than it turned out to be,” Kasavin admits. But after Bastion’s success, he has now found himself asked several times whether he thinks other games will follow suit and narrate the player’s actions. It’s a question that he ultimately finds uninteresting. “Well, they can if they want. For us, it was such a specific solution based on what we wanted to do with the game, and made possible by our specific circumstances of Logan and Darren.”

The mix of professional foresight with Supergiant’s indie enthusiasm perhaps makes it less than surprising that the team has decided to invest in a centralised studio after only a single game together, when other indies might just have kept working from home. Having moved in only six months ago, Kasavin explains this was more a pragmatic decision than anything else. “Gavin and Amir really didn’t want to work where they lived indefinitely. And for me as well, I worked from home for much of Bastion. And although we handed the telecommuting very well, and our audio guys continue to be very successful in New York, we know that it’s always preferable to be colocated, because it is just easier to collaborate this way.”

Collaborative certainly describes the feel of the open-plan workspace that Supergiant now calls home. Hidden down a small alleyway in San Francisco’s SoMa district, from the outside the studio is a nondescript building that blends into the street. There’s not even a sign to flag up the developer’s presence. But inside, it’s an open, light and sunny space. A broad hallway leads down past a kitchen and a lounge area (complete with giant TV and Korb’s antique videogame consoles lined up like exhibits), opening out into a brightly lit office area. Each local member of the team has their own desk and workspace that slightly faces towards the others, with not a single dividing wall in sight.

Meanwhile, a small staircase – which conceals a modest shelf where Supergiant’s and Bastion’s many awards and trophies sit – leads from the studio entrance to a small mezzanine level and two glass meeting rooms that overlook the downstairs workspace. There’s neither a cubicle nor an opaque wall of above waist height to be found anywhere in the studio.

The open, naturally lit design lends the studio a contented and democratic atmosphere. Kasavin explains that the studio is intended to feel less like a workplace where staff come to do a rigid, nine-to-five job, but rather an exclusive place where the team can work and collaborate as needed. “A lot of the stuff we do, we can do on our own, and we still work from home a couple of days a week. So we’ll show up, we’ll talk about all the stuff we are going to do for the week, and then we’ll go off and do it, and collaborate as often as we need to. There are times when we agree that we all want to be here, but it’s super-flexible.

“It’s really good. My background is in the gaming press; I started writing about games straight out of high school. When I started at Gamespot as an intern, it was also this kind of hole in a wall, too. That was my favourite [time]. It proceeded to get bigger and bigger, and got acquired by different media companies, but I always missed the small, tight-knit group feel, so it feels really good to have that again.”

So despite a successful debut and the opening of its physical studio, Supergiant Games has no intention of ever becoming a supergiant team. “We intend to stay small, yeah, which isn’t to say we don’t intend to grow. We’ve already brought Michael [Ailshie, office manager] on board. We will grow strategically, as it makes sense but, again, this company was founded on the principle of that small team environment. We have no aspirations to be like, ‘Awesome! Now let’s grow to 30 or 60 people!’, because soon enough we’d find ourselves back where we started before [joining] Supergiant, and we don’t want that. We’ve been there before. 

“We like it the way it is right now, and we’re happy with the response that this game got, because for us it is a vote of confidence that people like our approach. Bastion is an expression of our preoccupations and values, so it just means, good, people want us to keep doing [this] kind of stuff.”

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