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Vertical Slice: Supergiant Games

In the second edition of our new series, we focus our attention on the work of acclaimed indie developer Supergiant Games.

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Supergiant Games is a studio with a flawless record to its name. From its action RPG debut Bastion to its most recent Early Access roguelike Hades, each of the studio's projects have been well received by fans and critics and feel interconnected through their design choices. We adore how each entry into its catalogue seems to have an equal focus given to their art, music, and storytelling, and they all embrace a new distinctive gameplay style.

For these reasons, and so much more, we decided to dedicate our second Vertical Slice article to the studio and delve into its four released projects. Luckily, Creative Director Greg Kasavin was able to take some time out of his day to answer our questions.

The Origins

The studio's humble beginnings were in 2009 when two ex EA employees Amir Rao (Design & Studio Operations) and Gavin Simon (Engineering & Design) decided to break off and form their own independent studio. The pair were inspired by the recent boom in indie games that was spearheaded by projects such as Braid, Castle Crashers, and Plants Vs. Zombies. The studio itself was formed in the living room of Amir's dad's house in San Jose, California, and it was here that work started on its debut project Bastion.

Greg, who later joined the pair full-time, told us: "We were working on a team of more than one hundred people and playing these games made by three to ten people or so, and they were just so well made, and you could feel the personal expression through them. We couldn't help but start wondering what could we do if we were to start doing something like this on our own."

Along with the indie games at the time, the team was also inspired by the game's that they grew up with, particularly the Super Nintendo era. Titles like Super Metroid and Final Fantasy VI from the late 16-bit era were especially a big inspiration, Greg told us. The studio's mission statement was and still is to craft gaming experiences that evoke the imagination and magic of picking up a controller and playing for the first time as a child.

Bastion (2011)

Bastion was the studio's first venture into the unknown and was developed by a small team of just seven developers. The goal of the project was to create an action RPG where players had an active role in shaping the world around them. It also looked to explore regret and how different characters dealt with their own painful memories from the past. Despite being the first project from the studio and having obvious limitations when it came to resources, Bastion ended up becoming a thriving success and is still to this day considered as one of the best indie titles.

Although it was proud of its work, the studio was taken back but just how well the project performed on both a critical and commercial level. Greg mentioned: "It turned out to be a bigger hit than we expected." Fortunately, due to this success, it enabled the studio to continue its dream of making games, and work soon started on a follow-up to the project. The income received from the project also enabled the studio to take on more animators and testers, which saw the team's size expand from seven to 12 core members.

Vertical Slice: Supergiant Games

Transistor (2014)

The team wasted no time going back to the drawing board, but they found themselves at a crossroads as to whether to create a Bastion sequel or a new project entirely. Greg told us: "When faced with the decision of what to make next it may have been fiscally responsible even to make another Bastion game because Bastion was so well-liked, but as much as we all loved Bastion, we never saw ourselves as like the Bastion company." The team instead decided to embrace the unknown once more and wanted to push its creative limits.

With Transistor the team wanted to create a sci-fi love story in "an unconventional way." Its plot and setting were certainly very different from Bastion, and its combat took more of a strategic turn-based approach, rather than functioning more like a typical action RPG. Still, Supergiant's DNA was all over it as it featured a rich story, Logan Cunningham returned once more to narrate the project and its artwork featured a gorgeous use of colour.

Despite Transistor going on to be a critical success and being one of the studio's most beloved projects, there was still plenty of pressure building up to its release. Talking about the pressure felt, Greg told us: "It's funny we didn't talk about it explicitly, but I think for sure we all felt it. We had this real dark horse advantage with Bastion and that's something that I was aware of at the time. I was trying to explain away why people like it at the time."

Vertical Slice: Supergiant Games

Pyre (2017)

Work on Pyre began right after Transistor and the team maintained a core staff of 12 members, despite the project being much larger in scope. The catalyst for the project is that the team wanted to experiment with creating a narrative centered around a large ensemble cast of characters, and things grew from there. Greg told us: We love creating these characters and worlds so we were like, can we create a bigger world with more characters in it that you could get closer to over a longer period of time."

Pyre is perhaps the studio's most off-the-wall project to date as it's an entire mixing pot of different gameplay styles that come together in the end surprisingly well."Pyre was the opportunity to stretch even further our creative limits and see what we can come up with," Greg said. It features team-based sports-like mechanics, a huge list of characters that players can mix and match within their teams, and some tough decisions that players will need to make over the course of their journeys. It's an example of the team taking yet more risks and shaking off the fear that it might not resonate with fans of its earlier work.

Vertical Slice: Supergiant Games

Hades (2020)

Hades, the studio's most recent release, again made its full 1.0 release three years after the launch of its predecessor and this one proved to be yet another hit. With this project, the studio was inspired to take the Early Access route after seeing the release of titles such as Slay the Spire, Dead Cells, Darkest Dungeon. With Hades, the studio also did things differently and planned the game from the very start rather than taking a spontaneous approach. This was likely tied to the fact that the project was in Early Access and had to have a guaranteed road map to give users an indication of when content would land.

With the project being in Early Access it meant that the team had to be more strict with the project and ensure that it was always up to scratch for its player base. Greg did note that there was an element of pressure with doing it in this manner as all eyes were on the project from the beginning and they no longer had the quiet bliss of working alone in isolation. The team also liked that the process allowed them to get instant feedback rather than waiting a full three years, as they did previously with Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre.

Inspired by Greek mythology, Hades, unlike any other the studio's previous projects, is a roguelike dungeon crawler where players must escape their home of the underworld. Unlike many other roguelikes where the story often takes a backseat to the action, Hades is fleshed out with many detailed character interactions that players will engage in. Greg said: "We decided we wanted to make a game that did have a story, was highly replayable and did have the values of our previous games and we wanted to see if we could pull that off."

It was an unconventional choice for Supergiant to take the path that it did, that's for sure, but it's one that seemingly paid off, as Hades is currently sitting at 93 on Metacritic for its PC and Switch versions. It's actually the best-received Switch game on the site for 2020 - a pretty respectable feat indeed considering the likes of Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition also released on the platform during the same year.

Vertical Slice: Supergiant Games

The Future

With our interview drawing to a close, we thought we would shift the attention to the future, and we asked Greg what might be next for the studio and whether it would try Early Access again. Greg said: We don't know what the future holds for us right now." He further added: "If and when the time comes that we start planning another game, I can't imagine that we wouldn't at least consider Early Access considering how demonstrably effective it was on this game." So, given the studio's previous track record we should see a new outing in 2023, right?

Hades, the latest project from the studio is out now on Mac, Nintendo Switch, and PC, and you can read our review here. If you'd like, you can check out our previous Vertical Slice article where we got the chance to speak to Soren Johnson here.

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