Stu­dio Pro­file

An un­likely jour­ney from edu­tain­ment out­let to Steam-pow­ered suc­cess

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY CHRIS SCHILLING

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

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