By Andrew Webster, Ars Technica
The first time we saw Superbrothers: Sword Sworcery EP was just after the 2010 Game Developers Conference, when it was an oddly beautiful iPhone exclusive. Now the game is out for the iPad, with a new iPhone version to follow next month, and the scope of the project has grown fairly significantly. After less than 12 hours of availability, it became the fourth bestselling paid app on iTunes.
Ars recently sat down with some of the minds behind the game at Capy Games’ downtown Toronto studio to discuss how the game came to be, what it was like dealing with the early hype, and why the game just might change the iOS landscape for the better.
Sworcery first came to the attention of the gaming world when it won the Achievement in Art award at the 2010 Independent Games Festival. This helped the game gather some early buzz, but also set expectations for the final release quite high.
“It was obviously a huge positive for us,” Kris Piotrowski, the creative director at Capy Games, said of winning the award. “It was amazing to get that kind of feedback so early in the project. And also, because of that, we had the game on the floor and at the IGF pavilion. It was really amazing to see people digging just the simplest form of the game, which was just going for a walk through Craig’s paintings and Jim’s music, without a heck of a lot of what you’d call traditional gameplay there. Even so, the majority of the people seemed to enjoy that kind of experience.”
“It’s like we climbed the highest high-dive board at the local swimming pool and then said, ‘Hey everybody! Look at this, we’re gonna jump!’” explained artist Craig D. Adams. “And it’s our first high dive ever and it’s going to end badly. And that’s what it felt like: All eyes are on this project to deliver on this crazy promise.”
The game itself is the result of a whole lot of collaboration. While artist/designer Craig “Superbrothers” Adams led the way and provided the look with his distinctly minimalist pixels, Capy handled the programming and much of the design, while musician Jim Guthrie provided the soundtrack. And the music plays an important role. Not just in how the game sounds, but also in how it was designed.
The team initially started with just the faintest idea of what the game was going to be. It would take place in a classic sword-and-sorcery world, it would be on the iPhone, and that’s about it.
“When we started I had pretty much zero firm ideas,” Adams told Ars.
But then Guthrie sent over some songs that he felt would fit a game with that title and Adams’ very specific visual style, and Adams actually crafted areas and scenarios that fit the music. And the game grew organically from there. In addition to the game itself, Guthrie will release an album titled Sword Sworcery: Ballad of the Space Babies LP, which will be available both on iTunes and as a limited-edition vinyl release.
Sworcery has grown quite a bit from its original concept, which was expected to be a 37-minute experience, hence the “EP” in the title. But even as it grew, the team still managed to keep the same feel that they had originally intended.
“Early on, the concept was to create something that was short but really dense,” Piotrowski told Ars. “And I think that even though the game is much longer than what we originally planned, in some ways that still remains true for the project. The space that you explore and the cast of characters that you interact with — it’s really more about this intimate little relationship that you have with the few elements in the game, rather than this sort of giant, crazy adventure.”
Kind of weird
But it is a crazy adventure. Sworcery is, in almost every way, a weird game. The dialog is cryptic and full of internet in-jokes — every bit of text in the game is under 140 characters, so that it’s completely tweetable — and you’ll come across creatures that range from a naked dancing bear to strange, humming space babies.
The game plays sort of like an adventure game crossed with Punch-Out-style combat. And, while this uniqueness is a large part of the game’s appeal, it also scared the team.
“There were many times when I was not necessarily freaking out, but more just reacting to ‘oh my God, this thing is so strange on so many levels,’” said Adams. “We came up with the ideas together and executed on the ideas together, but then when you actually see them in there you’re like, ‘this is … unusual.’
“But then towards the end it kind of felt like, whatever the perceived quality is, I can go with 100 percent confidence to anybody and say there is nothing like this on these devices, and even in the history of games. Even in that context it’s still kind of a weird thing, kind of an unusual thing.”
“A lot of the positive interest in the game is coming from the fact that it seems like something interesting to try,” added Piotrowski. “People seem to be excited about the fact that it looks different, it sounds different, it plays in some way that you might not even understand right now. And it has these components to it that are a mystery.”
And a lot of the strangeness stemmed from the development process. “It was more like we didn’t know what we wanted to do as much as we knew what we didn’t want to do,” Guthrie admitted.
Planting a flag
When it comes to reception, there’s a great deal of early buzz surrounding Sworcery’s release. And while the team isn’t necessarily expecting a tremendous amount of sales — in some ways they’d be happy to simply break even — any amount of success could potentially help inspire developers who may not feel that there is a place for these types of experiences.
“If we can just plant a flag on these devices and on the App Store and just say … ‘interesting things can be made here’ and amongst the millions of people who have these devices there is a fraction of that audience that will notice it and care,” Adams told Ars.
Superbrothers: Sword Sworcery EP is currently available in the App Store, and you can expect to see Ars Technica’s full review very soon.