Greg Kasavin, creative director of Super Giant Games was a guest on Mash Tactics yesterday. He gave us a great insight into the making of Bastion, and how the team works together. Here is the transcript of that interview by Jon Carnage and guest Max Scoville.
Mash Tactics: How long did it take you to make the game?
Greg Kasavin: A little less than 2 years start to finish. It started development in September 2009. That was around a month after myself and the co-founders Amir Rao and Gavin Simon of the studio all quit from EA together. We dropped everything, moved into a house in San Jose CA, and started working on
M T: Leaving EA, was that something you thought would be risky
or did you just think "I'm going to do this, it's going to be
OK" or "I'm going to do this, and it's all going to fall
G K: I think it was both of those feelings combined. It definitely felt risky and scary to some extent. I did not join the team until some time later. These guys [the co founders] had no income, lived where they worked, put it all on the line for this game. It's definitely a big risk. It was scary for me too. I have a wife and kid and had to convince my wife "How do you feel about me not getting paid anymore, working on this little game with guys based out of a living room of a house". It didn't sound like the best plan on the surface of things, but thankfully my family was very supportive.
M T: How did you come up with the name Super Giant Games?
G K: I would say it was pretty collaborative. It's really hard coming up with a name for a game studio, that doesn't sound like and adjective and an animal. We weighted a lot of options. We thought of it as a big star in the solar system, we like that kind of feel.
M T: When people see your game, what do you want them to think
G K: I think we wanted it to be somewhat open. We wanted the world of the game to have this quality of, one the one hand fantastical and larger than life and on the other hand there's something familiar about it. It has this western feel from the narrator's voice, tumbleweeds, pistols etc. We want that high sense of contrast, where on the one hand it feels like a story book and on the other hand it feels important and serious. Right from the start there are these conflicting and almost contradictory feelings that you're having. We hope it's interesting and atmospheric on the first impression.
M T: Was that something you wanted, having the player feel
like "What? Where am I?" No explanation, we're just there.
G K: That was really important to us. The narration technique of the game is pretty closely tied to that idea. From the start, we wanted to have an action rpg that had a lot of pick up and play appeal. You can just pick it up, start to play and have some fun, as a throwback to the good old days where you could just hit start on the title screen and you got into the game. You didn't have to watch a 20 minutes cut scene. It was important for the game to be immediate, but at the same time we wanted to tell a story, but never interrupt the game for the sake of the story. The narration technique solved a lot of that for us. We could explain things to people as they played, in the order in which they cared about things, as opposed to bombarding them with a wall of text explaining 5000 years of story. Until you start playing, you have no reason to be invested in the game story. We wanted to make you care first and then explained later, rather than the other way around.
M T: Speaking of the narrator, where did find this guy?
G K: The narrator is voiced by Logan Cunningham, an actor in New York. He is childhood friends with Amir Rao our studio director and Darren Korb our audio director. They have been friends since middle school, and if we didn't have that long standing connection, if we didn't know a very talented actor, I don't think we ever would have undertaken this kind of technique to begin with. Being a small team it was all about playing our strength and making the most of what advantages we did have. Knowing this talented actor was one of those things, and because of that we were able to record dozens and dozens of times with Logan. Darren and Logan were actually roommates during much of the project, so they were able to literally record out of Darren's closet whenever they had the time.
M T: After those two years of development, does the game still
look as you envisioned it? Has it completely changed and
warped into something different yet wonderful?
G K: The art style went through a lot of changes. It didn't come together until Jen Zee, our artist director, joined the project in April of 2010. Until that point, the game was in a pretty crude, prototype version, with scanned monsters out of Dungeon and Dragon, with stick figures, just to get the gameplay going. Jen joined when the look was still undefined, but we knew what we wanted from the tone of the story. She was able to take that information and create this art style we fell in love with instantly. She's a very talented artist and struck just the tone that we wanted.
M T: You did a great job with the art style that's for sure.
Are there plans for a future Bastion title? Part 2 maybe?
G K: We don't know what the future holds for us at this point, and a lot of it is going to depend on how Bastion itself pans out. We obviously want to stick together as a team, and keep making games that have some of the characteristics of this one like filling players with a sense of surprise and wonder.
Those qualities are really important to us, but also have this balance of responsive gameplay and interesting narrative. I think both can co exist and you don't have to trade one for the other. We designed Bastion to be a very self contained game. We wanted to make something that felt very complete so
when you got to the end, you felt a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. No crappy cliffhangers, I hate when games do that. It takes time to finish a game and they should have an ending that feels conclusive at the end. We hold nothing back for DLC or extra content similar to that, but at the same time we wanted to make a deep world that could potentially support other stories. Never say never.
Whatever we do next, our priority will be to capture the qualities that this game has, it worked well for us.
Surprising people is really important to us, we would never act like "Well you like Bastion? Here are some more levels of Bastion". I don't think we would go for that.
M T: Like a Bastion kart racing game? With the race tracks
forming as you drive, you don't know where you're going.
G K: Nothing is confirmed yet. [laughs] That's perfect. You can't see the track in front of you.
M T: A lot of people love the music, can you tell us a bit
more about that?
G K: It was all done by Darren Korb, our audio director. He did all of it: all the sound effects, all the music in the game. We had high hopes for what people were going to say about it, but we've been pretty blown away by the response to it. It seems like the one thing about the game that everybody
agrees on. Everyone loves the music of this game. Part of the reason it turned out of the game, without taking away anything from Darren's talent, he started writing the music early. We recognized it as something that would be important early on. Back when all we knew about the game was the tone we wanted, we had this idea of a western fantasy setting, storybook setup. Darren was the first one who started doing something with that, and it helped us really understand exactly the tone we wanted. We worked with him closely on some levels of the game where music is really important. It was a real
inspiration as we made the game content, and it fed back right into it self. It's a major part of the game.
The soundtrack is available for stream for free on Bandcamp, and you can also buy it with some original tracks added on Steam and Bandcamp. The response to the soundtrack has really been outstanding.
M T: When you were making this game, was there a lot of
insecurities about how the public would have received it? In a
day and age where we are FPS crazy, Metal Gear crazy, not
necessarily for me and a lot of the Destructoid staff, but it
could have been a risk.
G K: When comparing the look of the game, some people think of japanese rpg classics, and games like that. That's a style of a game that's not as fashionable as it used to be. I love it personally. We don't really play anything like a lot of those games. They were certainly moments of insecurity as we were making the game, but we passed them on quickly because it felt as if we were driving towards a cohesive whole. We chose the art style in support of the game tone and feel, the story. None of the choices were arbitrary. We felt like it was all going to fit together. As a studio, we had this idea of making games that spark the imagination of players, like the one they used to play as kids. It just felt right to us in that regard. Even if it's not for everybody, there are enough people out there who will appreciate it for what it is. As a small studio, we don't need to sell 5 million copies. We're happy with just making a small amount of people happy, instead of going for universal appeal. I wouldn't even know what that is.
M T: Some people in the chat say it reminds them of Secret of
Mana, and Star Ocean too.
G K: It's cool to hear because none of those games are individually an inspiration, we think of a bunch of stuff. The one thing we all have a common as a team is we've been playing games all our lives. For me personally, the later Super Nintendo era had a big impact, like Metroid and Chrono Trigger. I don't think that those game had a specific impact, but they did act like spiritual influences in various ways.
M T: A chat user heard that it's really hard to get games on
G K: It certainly is hard to make a console game. To make a proper Xbox Arcade game, you need to have a publisher. All XBLA games are either published by Microsoft or some third party, in our case Warner Brothers. Even just signing a publishing deal, it can be very challenging. Consoles also
each have their own standard you need to adhere to, instead of the PC where you can just do whatever you want. There are a whole bunch of weird little technical issues you have to take
care, that most normal people will never encounter. It's all for making the game better in theory, so the spirit behind it is good.
M T: Is there going to be a PSN version?
G K: We get asked that a lot, mostly PSN and Mac/iOS. The simple truth is we have no immediate plans for other versions of the game. Bringing a game to another platform is a big undertaking for us. Each version of the game out there has to feel like the best one. We don't want for anyone to feel like they don't have the best experience with it. We are a team of 7 people. Trying to release on every platform under the sun would have just hurt the quality of the game. Although we don't have any plans for it, we haven't ruled out anything for the future. We're not restricted to anything. I like to joke that I hope there's a Neo Geo revival, I would love to have Bastion for the Neo Geo [laughs]. Nothing is stopping us, but we're focusing on the Steam launch right now. It's too early to tell what we'll be doing next, but we will be busy I can tell you that much.
M T: When you started writing the game, did it come in one
sitting, or did it happen as an evolutionary process?
G K: The writing was a long term process. There was a high level story outline that I created early on. The skeletal structure of the story was made once we had a solid vision of what the game was going to be. The reason not to overwrite the story too soon is that it needs to fit the content of the game. All of the narration writing happened as the levels came alive. We would write the narration to the level very
precisely. From playing you can see a lot of reactivity coming from the level design, but of course some of the details changed along the way. There's room to shit things around as long as the major story points happen. It took about a year to write the story, once that outline was there. There are more than 3000 lines of narration.
M T: How did you come up with the flashback sequences?
G K: There's an interesting story behind those. We were making the game that was pretty heavily story driven. You move through those levels at a rapid rate, and you're driving towards the conclusion of the game, but at the same time we felt that we had this deep and robust combat system. We wanted to have the players experience the game, without pushing towards the main story. The gameplay idea of the "Who Knows Where" sequences came from that, as sort of a combat arena where you can practice. The challenge was have it make sense in the game. Everything had to be motivated by the fiction. A simple combat arena fighting for no reason felt at odd with the rest of the game. The idea of turning them into backstory dream sequences came from the fact that I had already written a lot of background information for all of the characters, but we never intended to include those in the game at all. They were there to motivate the characters in the story, and help me in the writing process. We realized that it was a cool chance to introduce that content into the game in an optional way. We didn't want to bash the players' heads with a bunch of ex-positional content. We figured by the time you got to those sequences, you would actually care about those characters.
M T: It sounds like you really paid attention to old school
games, and what they would have evolved into if they were
G K: That is how we talked about it some of the times, and when we looked back to the games that inspired us we realized people just stopped making those games. 3D revolutionized games with the Playstation and people said 2D was dead, but 3D games still can capture the feel of 2D. We thought what if the people from that era made games today, what would they feel like. Bastion is sort of our response.
M T: The beautiful art, was it hand drawn?
G K: All the environment art, and just about everything in the game is hand painted by Jen Zee our artistic director. Although the entire game is 2D, some 3D models are included, and Jen made the textures for them. We wanted everything to have that 2D feel.
M T: What games are you playing now since it's finally over?
G K: I'm catching up on ton of stuff, more portable games than anything else. On the DS and PSP they still make those JRPG kind of games. I've been playing Trails in the Sky, Valkyria Chronicles 2, Tactics Ogre. Right now I'm playing some of the Phoenix Wright games, LA Noire, Vanquish, and some XBLA titles like From Dust and Twisted Shadow Planet.
M T: What about a Bastion art book?
G K: We don't have plans for it right now, but we will give thoughts into it. We would have to take the time to do it right if we would eventually do it.
M T: Could this game have happened without the digital market
G K: I honestly don't think so. I don't see how we would have done it without the digital marketplace. Digital distribution has brought so many unique and interesting games, and enable small teams like us to concentrate on making something, and not focusing on retail channels. Our objective was to make a digital game. We were really inspired by some of the stuff that we were seeing from Braid and Castle Crashers to Plant versus Zombies. I don't think those could have existed without
M T: Someone from the chat says that a lot of developers are
having mixed feelings about Xbox Live and the Indie place.
What are your thoughts on that?
G K: Our game was in Summer of Arcades. We were pretty motivated by it. It had a real track record, and for me as a player it has brought so many of my favorite games like Super Meat Boy, Limbo, Trenched earlier this year. I think it's been fantastic.About the Indie part, I try to go on an indie binge every month but it's hard for a lot of those get noticed. I think Steam has had a lot of impressive success stories from these indie titles, for example Terraria. Personally, it came out of nowhere and it's really popular. There's also Magicka, Frozen Synaps, and none of these games are on consoles. It can be easier for a small team, they can just focused on getting the game done, and concentrate on updating. Steam seems to be a really good home for a lot of it, as a gamer I really like using it.
M T: It has to feel weird not having the game on the PSN, do
you maybe feel like you're alienating a lot of gamers?
G K: I think by definition we kind of are. We have made a game that only people who have PS3s can't play. Some people take that personally and I get that, but the real truth is that there are technical challenges to bringing the game to both platforms, even tho the end result looks the same. It's not like we're sitting on a PS3 version without releasing it. It would take much of re writing the whole game from scratch. It's really nothing personal from our perspective. We all own PS3s, it just comes down to what makes most sense being a small team, with our resources in mind. Again I reiterate we haven't ruled out anything yet, but we haven't announced another version of the game. I hate to sound so indecisive but that's the reality of it. Studios live and live by those decisions. I would encourage people on the outside to try not to read too much on those decisions because they're complicated. As a game maker, I don't think anyone would not want to have a lot of people playing their game.
M T: Are you happy to move on from the project, or is there a
part of you that thinks "I wish we could have done more"
G K: It's a weird thing for me to hear myself say, but I'm actually very happy with how this game turned out. We left nothing out, I don't have any regrets about the content decisions. From the feedback we're getting, we know that it's had the intended impact so that's really good. We are actively working on the game, we've had 3 updates on Steam already. It's nice to hear direct feedback. Working in bigger companies you can feel removed from the game you're making. Sometimes it can be against the rules "You're a designer, you're not supposed to contact the customer, we have support people to do that" [laughs]. It feels really good to talk to people who liked the game. We are entering into this whole new era of "Now what?". It's interesting and scary and challenging as we start to think of what to do next. Those are tricky problems at the same time. Personally, for the first time in my life I was able to do on Bastion exactly what I want to be doing forever. I can't wait to get back to doing the things I was doing on Bastion, on the next project that we'll do. Creating stories, levels, that type of work is super inspiring and rewarding for me. I can't wait to get back into that mode.
M T: I remember thinking when I first played it at PAX last
year that it could make a great movie. Have you thought about
it at all?
G K: Who knows? From my perspective, in terms of the world building we approached it as creating a deep world that can be used for this game. We joked about making a pen a paper role playing book to go with it, because of a bunch of us are D and D nerds. Who knows, a movie, book or cartoon why not. Our competency as a team is making games. We're going to be very protective of it, it's our own IP but we'll see.
It's a small team, we're 7 including our voice actor, it's
wonderful to look around and know that you trust those people
and respect them. I just like being part of a smaller company.
I worked for a big company for a while and that can be
M T: As a final question, where do you draw the line between
telling your story and giving the players what they want?
G K: I think the game is my answer. I think there's a balancing act, and with Bastion the goal was to prove that games can tell a story. Some people believe that games should not tell authored stories at all, it should all be about the player experience. I don't believe that personally, some of my greatest games of all time have crafted stories, a lot of role playing games for example. The goal with Bastion was to create a deep story but have it feel personal as well. Have the narrator to respond to your actions give it a personal flavor. This is not my story as the writer but your story as the player. That's the feeling we hope players get from it. To some degree we hope that's how people get it. Given the choice to do it again, I would certainly be interested in walking that fine line.
M T: Thank you so much for hanging out with us for over an
hour. I will see you at PAX.
G K: No thank you, see you there.
Note: Greg Kasavin added that the whole Super Giant Games will be at PAX including Logan Cunningham the voice of the narrator. They want to meet everybody and can't wait to meet their fans. The game is available on XBLA and Steam, and the soundtrack is on Steam and Bandcamp. A demo is available on both platforms.