Supergiant Games' creative director discusses the studio's newest game, why it's not a sequel to their previous game, the reason they haven't chosen a target platform yet, and why they were never worried about making a female lead character.
Three days ago, Supergiant Games announced its next game with a trailer. It featured beautiful, painterly graphics, original music, and an abstracted, isometric world; in other words, it looked a lot like the independent developer's previous game, Bastion. This weekend, a roughly 20-minute demo of Transistor is playable at PAX East in Boston, giving gamers a chance to see what Supergiant's been working on since finishing Bastion.
"We understand that it takes two points to form a line," Supergiant Games creative director Greg Kasavin told Polygon. "And people had one data point around us with Bastion and now they have another one."
This newest point finds its heroine — Red, named for her shock of hair — awake in a mysterious place after being attacked by assassins. She's a singer, or was ... they've taken her voice. She stumbles upon a sword embedded in the body of a dead man; the man's consciousness seemingly inhabits the sword. He calls to her and, once picked up, becomes her weapon and companion, narrating much of the action (this should be familiar to those of you who played Bastion).
Unlike Bastion, the combat in Transistor takes a more turn-based, strategic approach. Pressing right trigger pauses the action, allowing you to map out a sequence of moves for Red to make. Move in front of a row of enemies, hold B to line up an attack and press RT to execute the string of commands. Later enemies required stacked commands — using a dash ability to get behind the enemy before attacking him — hinting at a strategic complexity absent in the studio's earlier game.
While Bastion was completely self-funded, it required a publisher to make the journey to Xbox Live Arcade, per Microsoft's policies. After the success of that title, the seven-person team relocated from a house-cum-office in San Jose to a "more proper" office in San Francisco and brought on three additional developers to help them realize their latest project. But even with that expansion, Transistor, like Bastion, remains self-funded.
That financial independence means Supergiant is free to promote its game how it sees fit and, despite a vague but notably distant "early 2014" release window, the game is at PAX. And it's playable.
"We're showing this thing for the first time and letting people play it," Kasavin said. "Even though it's still early. We know it's still early and it's going to keep getting better. But we feel as though it's at a point that people can take a stab at it and get a sense of what we're going for with it."
Another benefit of being self-funded is that Supergiant is free to create an entirely new intellectual property right after finding success with Bastion.
"We're very, very aware of the unique situation that we're in where we can afford to do something new," Kasavin said. "Many studios are not so lucky. There are enough sequels out there now, we think."
But that doesn't mean Kasavin and company are averse to revisiting Bastion again. "We love the world of Bastion, and I don't know what the future holds. But for right now, we felt that we wanted to explore in these other areas and try something different. Bastion was our approach for doing fantasy; we wanted to see if we could do something in the science fiction genre.
We're showing this thing for the first time and letting people play it
Unique in the larger landscape of independent game development, Bastion was released for a panoply of platforms, beginning with Xbox Live Arcade and eventually making its way the full PC triumvirate of Windows, Mac OS X and Linux as well as iOS, OnLive and even Google Chrome. Though there's no announced platforms for the project — the demo at PAX was being played on PCs with wired Xbox 360 controllers — Kasavin says that with a release window roughly a year away, Supergiant is happy to sit back and see how the changing landscape plays out.
"We don't know what's going to happen with the next generation consoles and stuff like that," he said. "We're open to whatever on this game. It's still early and we're going to keep building it and see what makes the most sense around the time we're starting to wind down and getting ready to release it."
For Bastion, that release strategy meant leading on Xbox Live Arcade before eventually porting the game far and wide. When asked about that strategy, Kasavin explained that there were several reasons why it made sense.
First, "there existed the demand for it," he explained. "People kept asking for the game on different platforms.
"This is a really unusual time in the history of games when a lot of things are evolving and we feel like it's very important to us as a small studio to develop the competency around making games for different platforms and different user interfaces. We see that as a very interesting and important design challenge above all."
That reach meant that it wasn't any one release that resulted in the game's success. "The truth of the matter is that all of [the releases] combined is how we've been able to succeed. It's not any one and we're like, 'Oh sweet, we're done.' We weren't made by any given version. It was the collective."
Kasavin says that with the balkanization of gaming platforms, this strategy is "essential to [their] survival" as an independent studio. "We don't know what people will be playing games on two years or five years from now and we don't want to be left in the dust when everyone is controlling games with their brains or something like that."
When asked if Transistor — with its more strategic combat system — was developed with touch-screen devices in mind, Kasavin replied, "We certainly hope that that style of play will be conducive to different platforms. It wasn't necessarily at the forefront of why we chose to go this gameplay direction, but it's sort of a pleasant side effect hopefully."
With recent reports regarding the viability of female protagonists — the developer behind the upcoming Remember Me said publishers balked at the game's female lead character, leading to a handful of responses from women in the industry — we asked Kasavin if there was any trepidation about creating a female protagonist for Transistor.
"I follow the news, I'm aware of some of the opinions on the subject," Kasavin said. "And I understand that at bigger companies, for all I know if they say it's true, it might be true for them. But it's not true for us, or we don't think it is.
"For us it was the right creative decision for this game. Because our characters are a reflection of the world that they come from and the aesthetic of the world. In Bastion, you get this scrappy hard-living kid who's drinking spirits in the distillery, running around and smashing things with a hammer. It's this hard-living frontier world. And here you have this elegant woman, it's a more romanticized world. It felt like the right thing to do.
"It's not something that we had a lot of trepidation about, certainly not for me. Many of my favorite games growing up had female protagonists and were very successful in their time, from Phantasy Star to Metroid. I don't think this is a controversial thing, but that's just me.
"If this game fails, we're not going to blame the gender of the character," Kasavin said, laughing. "The idea that a game could succeed or fail on the gender of its main character seems a little suspect to me personally. It seems like there would be many factors besides that."