Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.
This week we’ll be digging into the history of Image and Form’s Steamworld series. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from the Steamworld Wiki.
Brjann Sigurgeirsson founded Sweden’s Image and Form as a multimedia and web company following nearly a decade of working abroad in Japan and the United States. Sigurgeirsson and a colleague produced small games and multimedia projects for the next five years, after which they received a request to “‘save’ a capsizing edutainment game project for a Norwegian publisher.” Their success and subsequent partnership with the publisher proved to be a double-edged sword, however, as they were told in 2007 to increase their rate of game production from one game in 18 months to eight games per year. The unsustainability of this model led Image and Form to strike out on its own in 2009 with an iOS title called Gyro the Sheepdog.
Gyro performed poorly due to the studio’s lack of familiarity with self-promotion and App Store mechanics, but a 2010 grant by the Nordic Game Program brought in more funding to produce a 2011 iOS game called Anthill. While development continued on that project, Image and Form discovered that the Nintendo DS’ DSiWare store represented a less-congested marketplace and a better opportunity to be seen by potential players. Sigurgeirsson and his team quickly developed an entirely new intellectual property (IP) for the platform that would pave the way for international recognition in the decade ahead.
Steamworld Tower Defense (2010)
In the DSiWare’s Steamworld Tower Defense, the protagonist is an unseen robot sheriff who defends his community of Cowbot County from a group of marauding humans called Shiners. Gameplay mechanics are more similar to Q-Games’ PixelJunk Monsters (2008) than other contemporary titles in the burgeoning tower defense genre like Desktop Tower Defense (2007) or Plants vs. Zombies (2009), as enemies move along a winding route to the player character’s home base and defenses can only be erected at predefined portions of the landscape beside the path. These defenses, humanoid robots called Steambots, cannot be used to physically obstruct the forward momentum of Shiners.
After an expository text crawl, the player progresses through discrete stages that teach him or her how to use the game’s five distinctive Steambots. Gunslingers fire bullets slowly but steadily within a medium radius, Repeaters fire bullets more rapidly within a small radius, Bombers inflict heavy damage through explosives but simultaneously damage themselves, wide-range Sharpshooters are manually operated and slow to fire, and Bartenders slow enemies’ movement speed. Individual Steambots are purchased or upgraded using in-game currency received from downed Shiners using a combination of traditional controls and the DS’ touch-screen interface. Upgrading enhances damage output and repairs damage sustained from Shiners with offensive capabilities like explosives or pistols.
In spite of its brevity and minimalist storytelling, Steamworld Tower Defense effectively conveyed a compelling Western steampunk video game setting that made it ripe for expansion in future titles. The frontier aesthetic had initially been a matter of expediency, as gold mines and cowboys slotted easily into a gameplay formula centered on defending central points from invaders, but the novel conflict between heroic robots and depraved humans put enough of a twist on this common setting to make the IP stand out among its contemporaries. Sigurgeirsson’s gamble on the DSiWare storefront had paid off handsomely.
Note: Cover sourced from Image and Form Games.
Steamworld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt (2013)
Steamworld Tower Defense’s most important contribution to Image and Form’s upward mobility may have been its role in establishing a relationship between the small studio and Nintendo of Europe. The latter would soon find itself seeking software to sell the Nintendo 3DS to customers during a relatively challenging time for the company. As the direct successor to Nintendo’s best-selling console, the 3DS had big shoes to fill.
Image and Form took out a $560,000 loan to produce the most ambitious game they could for the new platform and began work on Steamworld Dig in 2012. The studio created its own C++-based game engine from the ground up using art produced in Adobe Illustrator, After Effects, and Flash. While the development team was not wedded to Nintendo hardware, the 3DS’ excellent directional pad set it apart from home consoles and mobile devices. It would be a perfect fit for the studio’s next title: a “platform mining adventure” set in the world of Steamworld Tower Defense.
In Steamworld Dig, players take on the role of Rusty, a Steambot who finds himself in the mining town of Tumbleton following a lightly animated introductory movie. Though he arrives in pursuit of his missing Uncle Joe, Rusty’s quest soon broadens to involve investigating the mysteries of a local mine. This adventure requires him to carve a path through the ground beneath Tumbleton and defeat any number of dangerous foes awaiting him in the dark.
Gameplay fits comfortably into the 2D Metroidvania sub-genre of platformers reinvigorated by indie titles like Cave Story (2004 original, 2011 remake), Shadow Complex (2009), and Toki Tori 2 (2013). Rusty begins his quest with a pickaxe used to shatter earth blocking his progress in the style of Namco’s Dig Dug (1982), but eventually gains access to more efficient means of navigation. Upgrades include the ability to run, jump distantly upwards, rapidly drill through obstacles, use dynamite, punch through otherwise-impassable stones, avoid fall damage, detect valuables, and double-jump. Rusty’s tools and strength can be enhanced by selling gathered ore and gems in Tumbleton.
In contrast to earlier Metroidvania games, Steamworld Dig’s three main underworld locations of Archaea, Old World, and Vectron are procedurally generated outside of brief challenge rooms. This emphasizes emergent adventure and a tight upgrade loop rather than the completion of particularly challenging combat encounters or precision platforming. While Image and Form had intended to expand the world beyond its brief six hours or so of gameplay, time and resource constraints forced the studio to end development and begin selling the game on the 3DS eShop in September 2013.
Steamworld Dig was a commercial and critical success, selling better than anticipated on the back of a promotional campaign by Nintendo of Europe and receiving accolades from all major video game outlets; it was even selected as one of the best games of the year by influential industry publication Gamasutra. Image and Form’s use of vector format graphics made it particularly easy to scale resolutions upwards or downwards for new hardware, leading to visually-enhanced versions of their popular platformer on PC in 2013; PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, and Wii U in 2014; Xbox One in 2015; Nintendo Switch in 2018; and Google Stadia in 2020. In a stunning reversal of fortune, Image and Form had gone from industry outsider to being known for one of the 3DS’ most popular and enduring titles nearly overnight. The studio’s next move would be made under the scrutiny of millions of new fans.
Steamworld Heist (2015)
The third Steamworld game did not begin development as part of Image and Form’s flagship franchise. Instead, it was a turn-based strategy genre experiment inspired by a few staff members’ love of the XCOM (1994-2020) and Worms (1995-2020) series. CEO Sigurgeirsson liked the way it was coming together, though, and insisted that the team “[had] to make it into a SteamWorld game.” The project evolved over the following 22 months under the direction of returning Steamworld Dig project lead Olle Håkansson.
As with Steamworld Dig before it, Steamworld Heist’s development cycle would be shorter than initially intended. A planned release window of February/March 2016 was abandoned when Nintendo offered to highlight the game in one of its Nintendo Direct presentations if the team could have it ready for a Holiday 2015 release. This apparent challenge proved to be serendipitous, as the game was already largely finished and dwindling resources meant that Image and Form needed the income sooner than expected. The game was published on the 3DS eShop to even stronger sales than its predecessor on December 10, 2015.
Steamworld Heist is set in space, centuries after the events of Steamworld Tower Defense and Steamworld Dig. The main character, Captain Piper, commands a small crew as they raid the ships of a hostile Steambot faction known as the Scrappers. Piper can visit friendly space bars to pick up new crew members, shop for weapons and accessories, and discover more about the game world as the story progresses.
Gameplay articulates as a turn-based cover shooter in the style of Steamworld Heist’s aforementioned influences. Exploration is limited by the movement attributes of Piper and up to two allies, forcing the player to carefully plan out his or her characters’ overlapping routes through enemy territory lest they stumble into an ambush without backup. Once combat is engaged, attacks alternate between teammates and foes. Manual real-time aiming of each character’s weapon allows the player to bank bullets off of surfaces to strike enemies in cover or destroy environmental obstacles.
Two surprising design choices set Steamworld Heist apart from other turn-based strategy games. The first is a 2D side-scrolling perspective drawn directly from Steamworld Dig. Most genre predecessors aside from Worms feature either isometric or top-down overhead perspectives in order to give the player a sense of horizontal space; opting for a side view instead emphasizes claustrophobic environments, vertically-layered setpieces, and the exploitation of ceilings and walls. Image and Form’s second design choice that reinforces Steamworld Heist’s uniquely quirky identity is a focus on headgear. Nearly every enemy in the game wears a hat that can be knocked off, collected, and then worn by Piper and her crew. While hats bear no mechanical significance, they serve the purpose of a delightfully silly collectible that encourages replay.
Two paid downloadable content (DLC) packages were published after the game’s initial release. The first of these, The Outsider, offers story missions centered on its eponymous new character while Hatbox simply adds more hats. Graphically-enhanced versions of Steamworld Heist were released on PC, iOS, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, and Wii U in 2016 and followed by an Ultimate Edition that packaged in all DLC on the Nintendo Switch in 2017. The latest version of the game at the time of writing was made available on Google’s cloud-based Stadia platform in March 2020. While all versions sold well and received near-universal critical praise, the game’s especially strong performance on Nintendo platforms ensured that Image and Form would continue cultivating its relationship with that studio in the years ahead.
Steamworld Dig 2 (2017)
Sigurgeirsson’s team expanded from 10 to 22 employees between 2013 and 2017. Among other benefits, the influx of talent resulted in Image and Form gaining two full-time animators and two full-time level designers. Planning their next project for Nintendo’s forthcoming Switch platform likewise convinced the studio to upgrade from Flash to Blender in 2016, materially enhancing the level of detail in its art direction. Image and Form could finally fulfill the promise that had made its first Metroidvania so popular just a few years earlier.
In Steamworld Dig 2, players return to Cowbot County as Steamworld Dig NPC Dorothy rather than former protagonist Rusty. Rusty’s gone missing and Dorothy travels to the up-and-coming town of El Machino to search for him. She is joined by Fen, a mechanical component of Rusty’s erstwhile enemy Vectron, and delves into an expansive new series of mines as she investigates rumors that her old friend has transformed into a subterranean monster. While human Shiners had been present as animalistic enemies in Steamworld Dig, they appear here as conversational NPCs dwelling deep underground following the species’ extinction on Earth’s surface.
Refinements simultaneously make Steamworld Dig 2‘s gameplay simpler to grasp and tougher to master than that of its predecessor. Dorothy fully recovers her health, lamp fuel, and water supply upon returning to the surface rather than needing to spend money to restore these resource pools. Sales of mined ore exclusively support the purchase of attribute and equipment upgrades, allowing these systems to rapidly grow more complex than they had been in Steamworld Dig. Collecting cogs hidden underground and combining them with paid tool upgrades in town produces surprising additional effects, like a water tank that refills health when standing in pools of water or a lamp that helps Dorothy automatically dodge traps.
These traps, like every one of the game’s enemies, are now placed by level designers instead of a procedural algorithm. The environs beneath El Machino are both more expansive and more visibly authored than Tumbleton’s cave system. Given the massive underground landscape, it’s unsurprising that Dorothy’s equipment is likewise more versatile than Rusty’s had been. The player begins with a trusty pickaxe, water tank, and lamp, but eventually gains access to thrown pressure bombs, a jackhammer, a hook shot drawn directly from the Legend of Zelda series, sprint hydraulics, and even a jetpack. Though the early game’s emphasis remains squarely on carving a path through tightly-packed earth, later areas give Dorothy much more open vertical and horizontal spaces to explore.
Steamworld Dig 2 launched to critical acclaim and blockbuster sales on the Switch during that console’s first year on store shelves in 2017. This release window was carefully chosen by Sigurgeirsson based on Image and Form’s experience with Steamworld Dig, as indie games are more successful at capturing audience attention when published early in a new platform’s life cycle. The shrewd business decision paid off: during the first week of its availability on the Switch eShop, Steamworld Dig 2 sold 7.5 times as many copies as Steamworld Dig had sold on the 3DS in 2013. Though the game’s subsequent launches on PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, 3DS, Xbox One, and Stadia have been warmly received, the Switch remains the series’ most commercially successful home.
Steamworld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech (2019)
Due to a sense that not everyone on staff was having their voices heard, Image and Form “had a week during the development of [Steamworld] Dig 2 where people were allowed to take all the time they needed to come up with concepts and pitch their ideas.” Steamworld Dig 2 programming lead Peter Johansson, who would go on to direct Steamworld Quest, successfully made the case for the franchise’s first role-playing game (RPG). Early development hurdles led the team to scrap its original combat system in favor of card battle mechanics inspired by Mega Man Battle Network (2001), Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean (2003 Japan, 2004 North America), and Fate/Stay Grand Order (2015 Japan, 2017 North America). Sigurgeirsson’s love of The Princess Bride (1987) influenced Image and Form’s decision to set the series’ newest title in a high fantasy fairy tale read by Steamworld Heist’s Seabrass to his son Toby.
Steamworld Quest sees the player initially controlling Armilly, a would-be Steambot adventurer, as she sets off with her nerdy friend Copernica in pursuit of bandits who ransacked her village and local Hero’s Guild. They are later joined by the bulky Galleo, samurai Orik, and rogue twins Tarah and Thayne. As in any story-driven RPG, the conflict grows in scope as Armilly and her allies discover new lands and sinister forces throughout the game’s four acts. Though it retains the whimsy for which Image and Form is known, Steamworld Quest’s plot features more dramatic beats and plot twists than any earlier series entry.
Gameplay is likewise more ambitious than any preceding Steamworld title. The game’s vast hand-drawn world is broken down into 2.5D areas freely explored in the style of a brawler, while running into roaming enemies plunges the party into a separate battle screen. Once in battle, characters draw punch cards used to attack and defend. Each character’s customizable deck is composed of punch cards collected throughout the environment or purchased in shops. All punch cards are associated with one of the game’s characters, bear an action point cost, and are designed to take advantage of unique character skills; Galleo’s deck, for example, is oriented around protecting his allies from damage due to his high defense and health points. Cards with higher action point values are more powerful but prevent the user from taking additional actions on his or her turn, forcing a constant evaluation of risk and reward during Steamworld Quest’s turn-based combat.
Critics and fans heaped praise upon Image and Form’s latest Steamworld adventure when it was released for the Nintendo Switch on April 25, 2019. While subsequent ports brought it to PC and Stadia, Steamworld Quest is the series’ first title since Steamworld Tower Defense to remain unavailable on any additional home consoles at the time of writing. It’s hard not to hope this gets remedied in the future, as its complex card battle mechanics would make Steamworld Quest appeal to any RPG fan seeking some of the genre’s most rewarding combat.
In less than a decade, Image and Form transformed from a small edutainment developer-for-hire into one of the world’s most popular independent video game studios. While their commercial success is partially down to smart decisions about where and when to release their games, the consistently high critical response to their software speaks for itself. Brjann Sigurgeirsson has assembled one of the most passionate teams of developers in Europe and has given them the time and resources necessary to bring their visions to life. Whatever genre it inhabits next, Steamworld remains a reliable sign of quality in a golden age of indie games.
What do you think about Steamworld? Which is your favorite or least favorite series entry? What genre has the series not done yet that you’d love to see? Do Steambots dream of steam-powered sheep? Let’s discuss in the comments below.
Here is a tentative list of upcoming Franchise Festival articles:
- #98: Heroes of Might and Magic – August 28
- #99: The Sims – September 11
- #100: Tetris – September 25
- #101: Dead Space – October 2
- #102: F.E.A.R. – October 9