Earlier this year, Supergiant Games made its indie debut with the XBLA and PC hit Bastion, which received warm reception from critics and players alike. Now that the team has its first title under its belt, studio director Amir Rao says the team’s “initial fears have subsided.”
Rao notes that while several key members of Supergiant left traditional development at EA to move away from the risks and restrictions of big-budget development, going indie came with its own set of worries.
At next month’s GDC China, Rao will outline the benefits and hardships of indie development in a session titled “Maximizing Risk: The Building of Bastion.” During this lecture, he will detail the origins and development of the studio’s debut game, and offer advice to other developers looking to pursue their independence.
In anticipation of his talk, Rao reflects on the driving forces behind Supergiant’s inception, and points out some tips for making it in the indie space.
How and why did you and the team of other EA vets decide to go indie and make Supergiant Games?
Supergiant Games was started by Gavin Simon and me — both of us worked at EALA on Command & Conquer 3 and Red Alert 3. We were inspired by the success stories of people like The Behemoth, 2D Boy and Jonathon Blow. We left EA to create games that were more personal to us. It was a decision born out of ambition and passion to try to make the kind of game we could never have made on a large team at a big company.
What was it like to adjust to indie development considering your previous job at a traditional game studio?
We are significantly faster and more nimble than we ever were at EA because we have no production or management overhead. A large team has to manage a complex schedule and deal with lot of risk; they need to plan on paper months ahead. We never do anything on paper. Good ideas get into the game in hours and are iterated on immediately.
What was the hardest part about going indie?
There is a lot of worry in being independent. First, you worry if the game is going to be good, then you worry if anyone will like it, then you worry if it will ever come out, then you worry if something bigger will come out right on top of it, then when it’s finally out, you worry if it will sell well enough to let you do a second one. Thankfully, Bastion has done that for us and lot of the initial fears have subsided. I’m looking forward to worrying about something new.
You worked on Bastion without any external funding, correct? Were you ever worried about what would happen if the project were a flop?
Yes, we fully self-funded Bastion and own the IP, and Warner Bros. is the distribution partner for it. We weren’t really that concerned about a flop, since the consequences of a flop were well understood: our savings would be wiped out, all the good will we spent with our friends and family would’ve evaporated and after two years of the most intense work of our lives we would have been left with nothing to show for it. We wondered more just how successful it might be, but always kept our expectations low.
What would you say were the biggest factors that led to Bastion’s success?
The team was the biggest factor. We started with two people and grew to seven. Gavin did all the gameplay, Greg Kasavin did all 3,000 lines of narration and half the levels, Jen Zee did all the 2D art, Darren Korb did all the sound and music, Logan Cunningham did the voice and Andrew Wang got us onto the console. If you take away even one of those things, we have no game and no success.
The other major factor in any success we’ve had were the platforms that we released on. Without digital channels like XBLA and Steam, I am not sure how we would have found an audience for a game like ours.
What advice would you give to a developer thinking of getting into independent development?
Find the right people and the right platforms and just do it. You don’t have to quit your day jobs immediately. You’ll know when it’s time to switch over to spending all your energies on your own work. We quit before even starting the game, but that’s not always necessary.
How will your GDC China talk address your experience working on Bastion, and what do you hope attendees will take away from it?
The talk will cover the inception of the company, display early prototypes of Bastion and discuss our methodology for developing, publishing and marketing the game. We’ll talk about some of the unforeseen challenges and hopefully help other people out there who are looking to start their own companies or optimize them for even more independence.
As GDC China draws ever closer, show organizers will continue to debut new interviews with some of the event’s most notable speakers, in addition to new lectures and panels from the event’s numerous tracks and Summits.
Taking place Saturday, November 12 through Monday, November 14, 2011 at the Shanghai Exhibition Center in Shanghai, China, GDC China will return to bring together influential developers from around the world to share ideas, network, and inspire each other to further the game industry in this region.
For more information on GDC China as the event takes shape, please visit the show’s official website, or subscribe to updates from the new GDC China-specific news page via Twitter, Facebook, or RSS. GDC China is owned and operated by UBM TechWeb.