An unlikely journey from edutainment outlet to Steam-powered success
Image & Form’s unlikely journey from edutainment outlet to Steam-powered success
Sweden’s Image & Form makes games with a watchmaker’s precision, so it’s perhaps no surprise that CEO Brjann
Sigurgeirsson can pinpoint the most crucial date in the studio’s history: October 2, 2009. It was on that day that Sigurgeirsson made a decision after receiving an email from his publisher, telling him that the studio’s services were no longer required. Having delivered nearly 50 edutainment titles in eight years, with a team of eight people, Sigurgeirsson had a choice to make: sell up, or stay in the game.
He laughs at the memory. “I remember thinking, ‘Am I going to fire everyone and just live off the bank account for years to come, or is this the point where we actually try to do something ourselves?’ It was a mixture of things [that convinced me], really. First of all, I felt bad for this guy who had just started working for me the day before – I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’d made him quit his previous job only to fire him on the second day.” The new recruit was Olle Håkansson, Image & Form’s current creative lead and lead programmer; the studio may be Sigurgeirsson’s baby, but he acknowledges Håkansson’s importance to its newfound success more than once.
It wasn’t just compassion behind his decision, Sigurgeirsson admits. The thought of returning to a one-man operation was equally unappealing. “I’d have had to go back to being some sort of computer consultant, and it just felt completely lame,” he tells us. “Instead I told everyone that the edutainment-game contract was cancelled and now we had to start making our own games. It was very liberating, because there was a lot of pent-up creativity at work. We had been doing these edutainment games, and towards the end it felt like creative suicide.”
By then, Image & Form had already been in operation for over a decade as a multimedia company. Sigurgeirsson founded the studio in 1997, when the web was in its infancy, having spent six years in Tokyo and two in San Francisco doing multimedia work. “I had a history of making multimedia presentations using Macromedia Director, and they were distributed by CD-ROM,” he recalls. “We made two multimedia projects and then transformed into a web studio making websites and such.”
Sigurgeirsson began tinkering with game development during his free time, but he felt the barriers to earning a reasonable living making games were just too great to be able to do it full-time. It wasn’t until 2001 that edutainment became the company’s main source of income. A Scandinavian publisher got in touch with Sigurgeirsson and begged him to help rescue one of its projects. “It was a kids’ edutainment title, it was almost done, and the developer they’d been working with had gone bankrupt,” Sigurgeirsson says. “There was very little left to do on the game, so I just programmed the last bit of it. It was so gratifying to be working with games and getting paid for it, so I pestered them in the years to come to let us make more and more games for them – and so we did.”
Image & Form had seemingly found its niche, but while it was a solid little earner for Sigurgeirsson and company, by the time the axe fell in 2009, the studio was, in his words, “swimming in backwaters”: its games were still being built in Adobe Director and distributed on CD-ROM. Sigurgeirsson acknowledges that it may even have been Image & Form’s high yield that hastened its exit from the edutainment market, but this eight-year spell had been lucrative enough that it had enough cash in the bank to fund its venture into game development proper. Even so, some downsizing was required in the short term. With too many artists and not enough programmers, the developer had become lopsided. Eight became four, Håkansson was promoted to lead programmer (“Probably the best thing that ever happened to Image & Form,” Sigurgeirsson concedes), and the studio began to forge a new path that would eventually bring it much wider attention.
Not that it was all plain sailing. The rise of the App Store convinced Sigurgeirsson that the mobile market was where his company’s future lay, but its early experiments weren’t cutting the mustard. By early 2010, with the number of iOS games increasing exponentially, he had begun to doubt whether Image & Form could find an audience there. Another option soon presented itself: Nintendo’s recently opened DSiWare store. Its digital shelves were relatively bare, so the studio began making a game in a familiar genre that wasn’t particularly prevalent on the platform. “There weren’t any tower-defence games [on DSi] at that point,” Sigurgeirsson says. “We then spent three or four months making SteamWorld
Tower Defence, and by the time we were done with it there were three other excellent towerdefence games!” While the likes of Fieldrunners and Q-Games’ excellent Starship Patrol gained more critical attention, SteamWorld Tower
Defence earned a handful of positive reviews – enough for the game to break even – and a small audience of fans. Its stern difficulty became a talking point: Håkansson is still the only member of Image & Form to have finished the game.
Buoyed by the response, Sigurgeirsson decided to give the App Store another shot, with another game in the same genre. Anthill was similarly warmly received and managed to turn a profit, but still the CEO had his doubts about the future of paid games on iOS. “Maybe it looks like a strange decision to leave mobile after having a successful game, but in 2012 we were so worried because it was getting incredibly crowded. We didn’t really understand this new entity called free-to-play, and I didn’t feel
“WE’D BEEN DOING THESE EDUTAINMENT GAMES, AND TOWARDS THE END IT FELT LIKE CREATIVE SUICIDE”
confident that we were going to succeed there. It just felt like a lottery: if you get featured [by Apple] it goes well; if you don’t, it doesn’t matter how good your game is, it’s just going to fly under everyone’s radar.”
Though DSiWare had hardly been a huge success, Sigurgeirsson noted that Nintendo seemed more committed towards its digital store for its next portable platform. “We figured we’d made [ SteamWorld Tower Defence] for the DSiWare store, so maybe we could at least sell to those guys who bought that game,” he says. “And this time we’d actually go and talk to Nintendo about the 3DS and how we’d go about getting some sort of feature on the eShop.”
Having established a set of ground rules for the SteamWorld universe, Image & Form opted to return to it with SteamWorld Dig, a platform adventure with influences ranging from
Metroid to Spelunky and Mr Driller. The game took nine months to build, with development concluding in June 2013, after which Sigurgeirsson gave his staff a month off ahead of a planned August release. But with everyone’s nose to the grindstone, the studio had invested very little time in promoting the game. Image & Form now had a dozen staff, and the money left over from the edutainment games was dwindling rapidly. Happily, a slot in Nintendo of Europe’s August Direct advertising Dig’s availability at the end of the presentation attracted plenty of early adopters. Critical praise and positive word of mouth followed, serving as payoff for the effort invested in the game’s creation.
The studio took another gamble with its next release. Towards the end of SteamWorld
Dig’s development, with funds getting short, Sigurgeirsson began to fret that making games like this was simply too risky. “We’d spent so much money that I thought we should start aiming at making smaller games – games that we could complete in a maximum of four or five months.” But the reviews from critics and players convinced him that bigger and better was the way to go. “So many of them ended in [variations on] ‘I can’t wait to see what these guys are up to next’ that I felt this was our one chance to really make a name for ourselves,” he says. “Immediately afterwards we’d started working on two smaller games in parallel. But if we followed
SteamWorld Dig with those, I think it would have made us into a one-hit wonder.”
With SteamWorld now established as a signature brand, Image & Form recognised that
Dig’s success had proved there was nothing stopping it from making a radically different game within the same universe. SteamWorld
Heist, a 2D turn-based strategy game with realtime combat, was the eventual result. Keen not to make the same mistake by ignoring the importance of promotion, Sigurgeirsson announced the game in August 2014, boldly suggesting a release in spring 2015. But by Christmas, it had become clear that while Image & Form could’ve launched the game at that point, it wouldn’t be anywhere close to the studio’s exacting standards. “We’d spent nine months making Dig, and the next game was going to be bigger and better, so I figured we’d spend ten months making Heist,” Sigurgeirsson laughs. “Then it ended up taking 22 months!”
Sigurgeirsson admits he’s only heard the oftquoted Miyamoto maxim about delayed games fairly recently, but it certainly applies to Heist’s lengthy development – the result of a complete rethink after a year. Not that you’d see any evidence in the finished game, which bears the signature of a studio to which polish is vital. “There’s this triangle, right? Where [the points] are quality, money and time, and people say you can only ever get two out of three. Well, at Image & Form it feels like we can never get more than one!” He laughs again. “We take time when we know the game would really benefit from it. Being the guy who runs the company and has to make sure that everyone gets paid every month, it can be nightmarish at times. But every time we’ve made a game, we can look back and say that we never compromised on anything. We’re really proud of that.”
Though Heist and Dig have since been ported to a range of formats – enjoying no little success on PC and PlayStation – Sigurgeirsson admits, “We view ourselves as a ‘Nindie’ and Nintendo treats us as such. Whenever they do something with indie games they’re always asking us if we want to participate. So that’s very nice.” And while Sigurgeirsson isn’t ready to talk about the studio’s current project, we suspect the relationship is likely to bear further fruit. “To say that we never compromise is not 100 per cent true, but that’s the way that we like to perceive ourselves. We deliver high-quality, very polished games.” Little wonder this small team from Gothenburg has received such a warm endorsement from Kyoto’s finest.
“PEOPLE SAY, YOU CAN ONLY EVER GET TWO OUT OF THREE. WELL, IT FEELS LIKE WE CAN NEVER GET MORE THAN ONE!”
Brjann Sigurgeirsson, co-founder and CEO of Image & Form
Image & Form has spent five years at its current home, but it’s been through seven offices since its formation. “We’re comfortable here, which is as good a reason as any not to expand further,” Sigurgeirsson says. Peter Broqvist (above) is a technical artist and I&F’s lead writer