Apr 292011

We recently had the opportunity to speak with Greg Kasavin, the Creative Director of SuperGiant games.  If you haven’t heard of Bastion, then be sure to watch the video (at the bottom of the interview) and prepare yourself.  Our most recent poll indicated that Bastion was one of the most anticipated releases for 2011, which is already an amazing year for major releases.  The game was also a a finalist in the Independent Games Festival 2011 for excellence in Audio and Visual Art.  You can imagine our excitement when we were afforded the opportunity to ask questions.  Without further ado, here we go!

Bastion seems to be something very unique. Were there any specific inspirations that shaped it into what it has become?

There were no one or two inspirations that informed what we wanted to do with Bastion. I think everyone on team brought a lot of their own personalities and influences to bear as we worked to turn it into something that felt cohesive. From a gameplay standpoint, the germ of the idea we started with was around the pleasures of returning to town in action role-playing games, that sense of safety and security you feel in between going out there and fighting for your life. We wanted to expand on that. We also knew we wanted to make a 2D game, to capture that crisp responsive feel of classic games that we think is missing from a lot of today’s games. Lastly, we knew we wanted to make a game that was emotionally resonant, that created feelings beyond just fun. The rest grew out naturally during months of prototyping.

I’m already a huge fan of the narrative voice chosen for the game. How was it that his voice was chosen? Were there many other styles considered?

Our narrator’s voice was chosen very easily, in that our voice actor, Logan Cunningham, is an old friend of our studio director Amir and our audio director Darren. If we didn’t know Logan we probably never would have pursued our narrative technique to begin with.

Logan’s natural speaking voice is quite different from the way our narrator sounds. As we were exploring the game’s tone, we searched to find something that felt right to us. Part of the inspiration there was from the American author Cormac McCarthy, who creates these beautiful and desolate scenes of the American southwest. We thought about riffing on that kind of tone in the context of a fantasy action RPG, and our story and setting evolved from there.

Logan’s first set of voiceover narration for the game was already good but sounded closer to the traditional fantasy narrator you might expect. But from there we quickly found the voice that we stuck with. We took a little from Deadwood and a little from Gangs of New York and some other places, and it all merged nicely with the story tone we were thinking about. As soon as we heard Logan’s take on the character, we loved it and pushed forward with it. We rapidly evolved the narrator into a deep character, as we knew we needed to make sure he was more than just a cool voice.

From what I can tell, the narrative varies given the choices of the player. How many different lines of dialogue were recorded for the same given scenario?

We recorded somewhere around 3,000 lines of dialogue for Bastion, and players will never hear all of it the first time through and probably not the second or third time either. None of the content repeats unless you replay part of the content, and even then, there can be a good amount of variance. We have conditional stuff that’s unique to each of the different areas of the game. For example in one of the early battles the narrator might say three completely different things depending on the way in which you defeat this one enemy that you’re fighting. We wanted to pepper the game with lots of unique little moments that respond back to the player’s choices, deepening those interactions. There was no set quota, we just did as much as we could as long as it felt right. Hopefully the effect it will have is that people will keep finding cool little moments all through the game and on successive play-throughs as well.

Was SuperGiant Games aware of how popular the game would become?

I appreciate the thought but I think it’s too early to say how popular the game has become since it’s not for sale yet. The real test will be when the game ships, seeing what the consensus is about how well we executed on the concept, and seeing if people are willing to spend their time and money on it. Xbox LIVE Arcade is a scary place right now, as a lot of perfectly good games fail from lack of exposure. That said, we are doing everything in our power to make sure Bastion avoids that fate, not the least of which is that we’ve poured every ounce of our strength into the game itself.

We’re very, very happy with the positive response we’ve received thus far. It’s every bit as good as we could have imagined, and more. We couldn’t have expected such a great response to the game, though of course we hoped we’d get a great response. We were careful to not reveal the game before we felt the time was right. Still, if the day ever comes when I feel like I can take people’s enthusiasm for something I’ve worked on for granted, then I hope I fail hard and re-learn an important lesson in humility.

On the topic of the studio itself, what is the origin story? How did everything come together?

Supergiant Games was founded in September 2009 by Amir Rao and Gavin Simon, who I worked with at Electronic Arts in Los Angeles. We’d worked together on a number of Command & Conquer titles and all left in close succession in the summer of that year. The premise of the studio was to make high-quality digitally distributed games, which spark your imagination like the games you played as a kid. We also wanted to make games in a particular way, “without a parent in the room” as Amir would say. We’re very tactical, and only take on work that we know we can achieve with the resources that we have. We avoid overscheduling or designing on paper but we’re serious about deadlines too. It’s a very refreshing work environment for these reasons.

We were inspired by games like Braid and Castle Crashers, not directly but spiritually in terms of their craftsmanship and how great those games turned out in spite of how small the teams were who worked on them. So anyway, Amir and Gavin dropped everything, moved into a house in San Jose, and got to work. The team grew slowly until it reached its full strength of seven, including Logan.

When we spoke before, you mentioned PAX east. What was it like to show your game off there?

PAX East was amazing for us, and the only reason it wasn’t the most amazing such experience I’ve ever had is because of PAX Prime a few months prior, when we first showed the game and got a huge response. At PAX East it felt like we were a legitimate contender for the first time, since we had a dedicated booth and five stations for people to play at, and even some cool swag to give out in the form of custom-printed bandanas. Our strong presence at the show was made possible by the partnership we’d just formed with Warner Bros., who took interest in the game after PAX Prime and proved to us that they just wanted us to make the game we were making – they weren’t going to disrupt our process or hold us to their own schedules, as they saw the potential in what we were doing and wanted to be a part of it.

So yeah, having a presence at the show, with the backing of a respected publisher, and hearing positive remarks from hundreds of people who’d played the game was definitely a good feeling. We were pushing very hard before the show since the show itself took time out of our schedules, but the great response we got made it that much easier to get back and immediately get back to development.

How does it feel to be part of something so unique in a time when originality has nearly become extinct?

I don’t entirely agree that originality has nearly become extinct… it’s just, uh, hibernating! You have to know where to look for it, and the place to look these days evidently is among independent games. Technology and digital distribution have made it possible, for the first time in decades, for small groups of people (or even one very talented person in some cases) to make high-quality games and get them in front of a lot of people willing to pay them money so they can keep doing it. I do agree, though, that it feels like a lot of game players are starving for original content… how many iterations of the same franchise can they take before they want to try something different? But to answer your question directly, it feels absolutely great to be making something we came up with on our own, getting people excited.

For me personally it’s dream-come-true territory, since I’ve wanted to make games and stories for games since I was a little kid, and this story in particular is one I’ve put a lot into.

Everything I’ve seen by searching for a release date has only been speculation. Are we any closer to zeroing in on a date?

We’re definitely closer to zeroing in on a release date but we don’t have one yet. All we can say for now is that the game is on track to debut this summer on Xbox LIVE Arcade, and will be headed to PC later this year. The reason we can’t nail down the release date exactly is because it’s not up to us. Microsoft needs to figure out where we fit into their slate of releases during that season. We definitely know what we want when it comes to release dates, and we’ve made sure the game is ready and in good shape for that time, but the rest is up to them. To the extent that people are excited and talking about the game, it’s hopefully going to help us make sure we get a good release window on XBLA.

Replayability adds a ton of value to a game purchase. Is the random nature of Bastion designed to make the game completely unique each time?

Bastion has this rather distinct world design where you see the terrain forming up around you as you move, but it isn’t random. The content is all hand-crafted, sometimes rather pain-stakingly so. The combat tends to be highly dynamic and there are lot of ways to play through the encounters differently, but the environments are not randomized as is the case in action RPGs like Diablo and Torchlight. That said, we’re confident that we’re delivering an outstanding value, since the core game is quite big – longer than the average AAA first-person shooter, that’s for sure – and there are compelling reasons to come back to it after the first time through, both from a gameplay and a narrative standpoint.

What kinds of games do you typically play? What are you playing right now?

I play just about everything besides sports simulations, and that’s only because I’ve never really followed real-world sports that closely. Now that we’re finished with production, I’m finally getting to catch up on a bunch of games I’ve been meaning to play. I just finished Portal 2′s campaign, which was fantastic. Valve’s games are a big inspiration to me in terms of the quality of their writing and craft. I’m currently playing the new Mortal Kombat, which I’m really enjoying since fighting games are one of my favorite genres, and I’m also playing Swords & Sworcery EP on my annoying little iPod Touch. Plus I’ve been playing Tactics Ogre for my PSP just about every single night since it came out, and I’m playing a lot of The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile too. I think the one thing I want out of my games these days is some narrative depth. Doesn’t matter what kind of game it is as long as there’s some meaning to what’s going on in it, and all these games I’ve been playing lately have that going for them, even Mortal Kombat. Which reminds me, I need to go back and finish Deadly Premonition.

After Bastion is released, what are your next plans? Are there other projects in the works?

After Bastion is released on XBLA we’ll be in the middle of working on the PC version of the game. We’re likely going to be focused on Bastion for the rest of this year, provided it does well enough to let us stay in business. Beyond that, we have a lot of ideas for what we want to do and where we want to go next.

What I can tell you is this: If we get a chance to make another game after Bastion, no matter what that game is, we would do our best to make sure it created in players a sense of wonder like how they felt when they first saw Bastion. We want to make the kinds of games that create a very strong and specific first impression, and then fully deliver on the ideas expressed in those exciting first moments.

Are there any thanks, special mentions, shout-outs or websites you would like to bring attention to?

I’d like to thank the Giant Bomb community for rallying behind us and taking an early interest in the story of our studio. The Giant Bomb guys took a chance on an unheard-of studio and an unheard-of game and started doing these shows with us where we get to show off what the development of Bastion is like. It’s been a lot of fun! The gaming press has been very kind to us all around, so I want to say thank-you to everyone who’s taken the time to write or talk about the game in a public forum to this point. Independent games live or die not just by how good they are but also by how much exposure they get, and the gaming press is always inundated with mainstream releases they’re obligated to cover, so we appreciate that people have seen enough value in what we’re doing to take the time out to tell people.

I also want to thank Amir, Gavin, Darren, Jen, Andrew, and Logan for being such an incredible, inspiring, hard-working team. I get to hog these cool interviews myself but I can’t stress enough that Bastion was in every respect a concerted effort that each of us poured a lot of ourselves into.

We want to thank Greg for taking the time to answer some questions about this amazing title and SuperGiant Games as a whole.  Please take the time to visit SuperGiant Games’ website and take a look around.  As Greg deftly stated, “Independent games live or die not just by how good they are but also by how much exposure they get.”  Be sure to share with your friends!

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