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SteamWorld's Brjánn Sigurgeirsson: "We were terrified of making the same game over and over"

Thunderful’s SteamWorld series continues to leap from genre to genre with each release, and the company’s Brjánn Sigurgeirsson said this stems from a fear of reiterating the same game following the team’s experience as a work-for-hire studio.

Speaking at Hamburg Games Conference yesterday, Sigurgeirsson took attendees through the history of the acclaimed SteamWorld series, as well as the company that makes it, and offered advice on how to build a lasting and adaptable franchise.

Sigurgeirsson is co-founder of both series developer Image & Form, and the Thunderful group that was created when Image & Form merged with fellow Swedish developer Zoink in 2018. He is also SteamWorld Universe Director.

The exec said that the company’s entire future was defined by 2015 release SteamWorld Heist, which was the series’ first entry into turn-based combat. While the franchise had technically started with DSiWare title, SteamWorld Tower Defense, it was best known for 2013 Metroidvania outing SteamWorld Dig.

“As the studio head, I felt this was our chance to create something more than just game after game after game,” Sigurgeirsson told attendees. “If SteamWorld Heist also became a good game, like SteamWorld Dig, then we would be free to make whatever games we wanted to after that.”

Prior to working on SteamWorld, the company spent six years as a work-for-hire studio, primarily on the Josefine Skolehjelp series of edutainment games. In that time, Image & Form developed 60 titles in the publisher-owned series.

“We were very tired of that,” Sigurgeirsson recalled. “We were terrified of making the same type of game over and over again. So we really wanted to have the freedom to make the games we wanted every time.

“Our entire future was riding on SteamWorld Heist. If that game performed, it would mean that we had proved our point and we could actually be free to make any game we wanted from that point on.”

Sigurgeirsson added that after Heist, both critics and fans started following not only the studio but also the franchise.

“It meant that we could continue making games in the SteamWorld universe, and we could go in any direction we wanted – and we’d have a headstart on the announcement of every game because people could at least have an inkling of what to expect. We could make sequels, but we could also make completely different things.”

Today, there are six SteamWorld games across five genres, with SteamWorld Quest adding card-based RPG into the mix and last year’s SteamWorld Build offering a city-building experience. Sigurgeirsson also revealed there are three more SteamWorld titles already in development, with one planned to launch every year until 2026.

“Who knows what the future of SteamWorld looks like? A robot dating sim? Or a racing game, or maybe a first-person shooter? The important thing is we have set ourselves up to be able to lift the curse of making the very same game over and over. All we need to continue to do is to make good games in the series.”

For all Sigurgeirsson’s optimism, Thunderful is likely to be a little more cautious with which genres it brings into the SteamWorld franchise. In the company’s most recent financial results, CEO Martin Walfisz said sales of SteamWorld Build “fell slightly short of expectations.”

“We believe this is because the genre of this game has not really appealed to our most dedicated target audience and it has not been well-suited to the Switch console, which has traditionally been a key platform for SteamWorld games,” Walfisz explained.

Thunderful is currently undergoing a restructure which is expected to result in around 20% of its workforce being laid off. Walfisz said this restructure is “off to a good start.”

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