Wednesday marks the release of Bastion, a very unique RPG, on the Xbox360 Summer of Arcade series. Brutal Gamer chats Greg Kasavin about the challenges and rewards of working as an independent developer, the influences behind Bastion, and more.
Bastion is coming out soon as part of the Summer of Arcade series. Tell gamers, why should we buy it?
I appreciate the question though I feel it’s not for me for me to say why anyone should buy the game I worked on. Those who buy it should buy it for the reasons they buy any game that appeals to them. I hope, though, that Bastion has many appealing qualities, from its style of gameplay to its presentation to its story.
I can tell you about why we made this game and who we imagine it’s suited for. Bastion is the first title from our team at Supergiant Games, and our aim is to create the kinds of games that spark players’ imaginations like they games they played as kids. If you sometimes feel left out in the cold by what’s happening in the game industry these days, and miss the sensation of playing older games you hold as classics, then you should know that Bastion is meant for people like you. But really it’s meant for anyone who knows how to use a game controller and has a basic ability to read, or better yet to listen to a story unfold. We wanted to make a game that felt great to play but that also left a lasting impression through its world and narrative. If you’re not sure if the game is right for you, one of the great things about Xbox LIVE Arcade is that there’s a free trial version available for every game on the service.
If you had only a few words to describe Bastion, what would be the most important features that you want gamers to know about it?
The atmosphere and sum-total experience of the game is the single most important feature, though let me highlight a few of the specific factors that have stood out to be people. First there’s our reactive narration technique, where you’ll immediately discover that your journey through the game is fully narrated, and that our narrator is a multifaceted character who pays close attention to the way you play. This technique allows us to deliver a deep storyline without ever interrupting the gameplay, and we think we got a tremendous voice performance from Logan Cunningham our voice actor.
Next is that our action-oriented gameplay designed to reward finesse and experimentation, so unlike in many action RPGs where you’re only as good as your stats and your equipment, we’re all about player skill. We focused heavily on making the moment-to-moment gameplay feel crisp and responsive, and on providing players with lots of interesting ways with which to customize their playstyle. While story is an important aspect of Bastion, nothing takes priority over the quality and feel of the moment-to-moment gameplay.
Finally, I need to make note of our hand-painted art style, which is so essential to drawing players into the world we’ve created. Along with the music and narration, it’s stood out to many of the players we’ve had play through the game at events like PAX and E3. We see them become immersed in the world in a matter of moments.
What separates Bastion from all the other rpgs on the market today?
I think Bastion is very different from other RPGs on the market today, in part because our influences range from 16-bit classics to modern games, but mainly due to the creative process specific to our team. Since we’re a small group of seven people, each individual contributor to Bastion was able to bring his or her personal influences to bear in the creation of this game, while we also worked to tie together those components into a cohesive whole. Our intent was to make a game that felt complete and fully-formed, which would take players on a grand adventure that also felt very personal in nature. I think everything from our art style, to the feel of our gameplay, to our narration technique, to our story is quite different from other RPGs out there, though hopefully it will remind you of how you felt playing some of the classics in the genre. For me personally I grew up in the late ’80s and ’90s playing both Western RPGs like the Ultima series and Japanese RPGs like Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger, and I think Bastion pulls together some of the best aspects of both those styles, in addition to some of our own touches.
The artwork in Bastion is very vivid and quite detailed. What processes and inspirations were used in developing the visual style of the game?
Since we aimed to create an atmospheric gameworld that players could lose themselves in, we knew our visual style would be an important part of the game, and we have our art director Jen Zee to thank for it. She joined the team early last year at a point when the game’s tone and fiction were pretty well understood but the overall look was still undefined. She was able to take those details and create an art style that we felt was a perfect fit.
Apart from the fiction and tone, Jen’s constraints were that we had already decided to make a 2D isometric game. Fortunately she’s experienced with this perspective, not just from painting in it but also from having played various games that use it, ranging from real-time strategy games like Command & Conquer Generals to strategy RPGs like Final Fantasy Tactics. Jen’s influences range well beyond all the games she played growing up, though, and somewhere between her own background and the backstory of our gameworld, she was able to find a specific look for our game.
Bastion uses a unique, responsive narration system that responds to the choices players make throughout the game. How difficult was this feature to implement?
Our reactive narration technique has emerged as one of the defining aspects of Bastion, and while it isn’t all that difficult to implement in its most basic form, the process of getting it to sound dynamic and natural while delivering a meaningful experience took as long as our production phase – more than a year.
There are several aspects to the process. The first is coming up with the ideas and the writing. We had a high-level story outline for the game but I would hold off on writing the narration until we had built the actual game levels, because the way our narration works is so closely tied to the moment-to-moment experience of the game. We pushed the writing as hard as we could, making sure each and every line of narration in the game contributed something valuable. I was the writer while Amir Rao our lead designer and studio director served as my editor. Once we were happy with it on that level, we’d pitch it over to Darren Korb our audio director to record with Logan Cunningham our voice actor. They’re based in New York while we’re based on the West Coast, but they’re so closely tied to the project that they knew exactly what we wanted. In time, Logan could channel the narrator’s voice like the narrator had a mind of his own.
Once we had the audio, we’d plug it into the game using our custom scripting language. Scripting a given line of narration is relatively quick and easy, though multiply that across thousands of lines and it gets trickier. The other part is finessing all the timing so that it sounds as natural as possible. We were fine-tuning the audio timing, and re-recording, cutting, and adding bits of narration to the game through to the end of development. We wanted there to be enough of it where players could feel like they had a unique and personal experience with the game.
Bastion is coming soon to the XBox360, and plans are in place for a PC version as well. What, if any, kind of release timetable can you give to fans of other platforms?
Apart from confirming we have a PC version of Bastion slated for later this year, we have no announcements or guarantees about any other versions of the game. We’re a small team so we decided to develop Bastion one version at a time to stay focused on the quality of that version. Looking toward the future, we’re not bound to any one platform, we just need to be very smart about which platforms we support and in what order. To that end, if we see that there’s real demand for Bastion on other platforms, it’s not something we’re going to ignore, not as long as we believe we can get the game onto those platforms without compromise.
The SuperGiant Games team is made up largely of former employees of larger gaming companies. What kinds of benefits have you seen in being part of a smaller, independent company?
I think I speak for all of us on the team when I say that working with a small group of talented, trusted people has been very refreshing and creatively fulfilling. Our bootstrapped development style has forced us to get creative and embrace our constraints, while allowing us to move forward quickly, prototyping all sorts of different ideas and keeping only the ones that end up working well. The real reason our studio exists is so that we could have an environment in which we could work this way, and if Bastion is well-received, then it should serve as a testament to the value of this type of teamwork and team chemistry. To put it another way, on this little seven-person team, I was able to do what I feel is the best work of my life, no doubt because I was constantly feeling inspired and motivated by the great work being done around me.
What, if any, difficulties have you faced without that powerful backing?
Being a small team, we had to do everything ourselves, and that meant everyone having to wear multiple hats. For example, Amir was not only building tons of content and tuning all the game systems of Bastion, he was also running the studio, making sure payroll was in order, everyone had healthcare, and so on. We started from almost nothing, an unheard-of studio with an unheard-of game. We had to build our reputation as well as our game pretty much from scratch. We also had to find a publisher to get the game on console. The thing is, all these challenges were important to defining our identity as a studio. We wanted to be independent, and that means taking the responsibility of sweating the gory details as well as doing the fun stuff. We were aware of all the many disadvantages of being small, we just tried to stay focused on the unique advantages we did have, and built both our studio and our game around them.
Bastion is the first game being put out by SuperGiant Games. What kinds of challenges did you face in coming together as a team for the first time?
Amir points out that there’s a saying about how you should never start a company with your friends, yet Supergiant Games flies in the face of that advice. If not for the close personal connections between members of the team, we never could have made this game under these set of circumstances. Forming the team was a gradual process. It started with just Amir and Gavin hunkered down in a house, rapidly prototyping while building tech and tools from scratch. They had no illusions about what it was going to be like living and working together under the same roof. Then they started working with Darren and Logan, who were living in New York, so in addition to the whole situation with being based in the living room of a house, they took on the challenge of distributed development.
The rest of the team gradually joined up: Jen Zee, myself, and Andrew Wang, who joined us from Infinity Ward where he was an engineer on Modern Warfare and its sequel. Communication is one of the key challenges when you don’t have everyone physically collocated, but many of us knew each other prior to joining Supergiant Games, so that helped matters a lot. What’s more, we knew we were willing to give this game our absolute best. Amir, Gavin, and I worked together at EA LA under some tough situations, and Amir’s known Darren and Logan since middle school. Having that kind of trust there, where everyone feels accountable to each other and willing to go out on a limb for one another, got us through all kinds of tough situations.
What games, old and new, inspired you as a team during the development of Bastion?
The one thing all of us at Supergiant Games have in common is that we’ve been playing games all our lives. Since we aimed to create a complete and specific experience in Bastion, there weren’t just one or two “go-to” games we looked at for inspiration.
Personally I’ve been influenced by several different generations of games. When I was a little kid, it was computer role-playing games like Ultima IV that really opened my eyes and my mind to the possibility of games creating these profound experiences. Some folks talk about the idea of games exploring emotions as though it’s something new, but as far as I’m concerned games have been doing it for at least the last 25 years or so. Next, the 16-bit era was very influential for me, from the efficient storytelling and great atmosphere of Super Metroid to the sweeping stories (and soundtracks!) of Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. And then of course there are the modern classics like Portal, with its highly personal and layered narrative, and Ninja Gaiden, with its crisp and extremely precise combat system. These are some of my own favorites but unless I called them out I don’t think you’d see obvious traces of any of them in Bastion. It’s a game that I hope players will find has its own identity.
Bastion will be available for download on the XBox360 on July 20th, 2011, for a pirce of 1200 Microsoft points. A PC versin is planned for later this year.