The Big Friendly Supergiant

Steven Balbirnie talks to Greg Kasavin of Supergiant Games about the massive success of their first game Bastion, and their forthcoming title Transistor.

Supergiant Games was founded as an independent game development studio in San Jose in 2009. The developers’ first title, Bastion, was an action RPG developed over the course of two years by a team split between San Jose and New York; the result of their endeavours was a critical and commercial success. Bastion won the Game Critics Award for best downloadable title at E3 2011 and has since its release sold over 1.7million copies. Greg Kasavin, the writer at Supergiant Games, is understandably pleased with what the studio has achieved with their debut title. “We were very happy with the response to Bastion, and taken aback by it,” says Kasavin. “While we were cautiously optimistic about the game’s prospects and felt good about what we’d made in the days leading up to launch, we couldn’t have expected people to still be talking about it and asking for new versions of it more than a year after its release. Considering it was our first game, that’s been a big vote of confidence for our approach to game-making, not to mention it puts us in a position to once again make a game from scratch on our own terms. We very much want to keep making games together as a team, and the response to Bastion means we get to do just that. Bastion’s success also meant we could move to a more central location for our team, and we’ve grown from seven to 10 people, which is around where we expect to stay for the foreseeable future.”

When the developers’ new title, Transistor, was unveiled there was an air of mystery about it, so Kasavin’s answers to questions about the game’s plot and premise are suitably mysterious. “One way of looking at it is, if Bastion and its strange colourful post-apocalyptic frontier world was our team’s take on the fantasy genre, then Transistor is our take on science fiction. It’s a more modern world than Bastion’s, rife with its own mysteries. The protagonist is a young woman called Red, who discovers this object known as the Transistor, a powerful weapon of unknown origin. Strange forces called the Process quickly emerge to try and recover the Transistor by any means necessary, so Red ends up having to battle them through the streets of her city as she searches for answers. We loved creating Bastion’s world and likewise wanted to see if we could create a whole new interesting setting for Transistor,” Kasavin explains.

When asked about the inspiration behind the distinct visual aesthetic of Transistor, Kasavin reveals that while set in the future, the roots of Transistor’s art style are in the past. “It’s difficult to narrow down our inspirations to a small number of sources since they range broadly across different media, and vary from person to person on the team. For the visual design of Transistor’s setting, we wanted to create this grand, romanticized city with what we call a vintage-futuristic feel. We’re going for an anachronistic feel where some of it is very modern but other parts are classical. Jen Zee our art director draws inspiration from many sources here and among them is the Art Nouveau movement that took place at around the turn of the 20th century, with artists such as Gustav Klimt and Alphonse Mucha. Their paintings are lavish and elegant — lots of gold, and elaborate shapes inspired by nature.”

Similarly, Kasavin points out that the game’s audio design draws upon a synthesis of disparate yet complementary elements. “As for the audio, we see music as a key component of creating the kind of atmosphere we want for our games so we spend a lot of time trying to find a distinct musical style. For Darren Korb our audio director, it means combining a variety of musical elements that might not typically go together to create something that, with any luck, sounds distinctive and unique. In keeping with the vintage-futuristic feel of the setting, you’ll hear traces of old-world instrumentation together with more modern sounds.”

While Transistor certainly shares some of the same DNA as its predecessor, Bastion, Kasavin is keen to illustrate how distinct gameplay mechanics set the two games apart from one another. “We see Transistor as part of the action RPG genre, like Bastion before it, though the similarities are mostly superficial. With Transistor one of our goals is to develop a deep-feeling combat system with a lot of built-in drama in how it unfolds. Specifically you will have access to a strategic planning mode you can use to sequence your next set of actions, stringing together a series of powerful attacks or escaping from dangerous situations and so on. This ability opens up a lot of different options, and in turn, it means we can design some interesting and versatile foes for you to take on. When we first unveiled the game at PAX East recently, we were very happy to hear the positive response to this different focus on gameplay. We have a lot of ideas about how we’re going to make it surprising and challenging all through the game.”

One surprising aspect about Transistor was the rumours of a Dark Souls style passive multiplayer being incorporated into the game – is this a route that Supergiant Games wish to take Transistor down? “We don’t want to say too much about our plans here in part because the game is still early and this is an aspect we’re still figuring out. That said, we’re interested in exploring ways that network connectivity could subtly enhance the single-player experience. Transistor is primarily focused on delivering an atmospheric personal story through the moment-to-moment play experience, and we think that’s best served in a single-player setting. At the same time, we like having a sense of a shared experience even when playing single-player games, and are exploring ways we can provide some of that in a way that enhances the game. It won’t be the sort of thing where you pick ‘Multiplayer’ from the main menu and we’ll likely err on the side of keeping it subtle, as a way of adding dimension to the world of the game,” answers Kasavin.

Based on what has been revealed of Transistor so far and the excited response it has evoked among critics, Supergiant Games look set to repeat and perhaps even surpass the success they achieved with Bastion.

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