One of the reasons I do believe in the auteur in games, even if the concept of that auteur is broken up amongst a collection of people, is because certain game developers seem to follow a consistent philosophy. If we take Nintendo as an example, this philosophy seems inspired by creative minds like Shigeru Miyamoto. While a game like The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds was developed without direct control of Miyamoto or series head Eiji Aonuma, the nature of the game seems to follow a consistent concept of fun, challenge, and accessibility. Even The Legend of Zelda: Triforce Heroes and Mario Kart 8, as different as they are in design and style, carry a few commonalities in their approach to online play.
In many ways you can attribute this to something like a corporate mission statement. Every company I’ve worked for has included keywords or phrases to their employees as guidelines for how to approach business. Often these are vague and amount to little more than buzzwords, and are often designed by committee. Theoretically, Nintendo’s guidelines of design could be viewed in a similar fashion. However, I think rather than being pulled together by a committee interested in profit, the philosophy comes from a small group of thinkers that simply love playing and making games. To compare, view the variety of games Nintendo develops across multiple genres, and then compare to the Triple-A output of Ubisoft, whose Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and Watch_Dogs franchises follow the same general design pattern. Splatoon shares similarities with other Nintendo games, yet it is able to stand out like no other game in Nintendo’s ouvre. Even if it’s a first-person shooter, Far Cry 3 relies on the same open-world time-padding activities as every Assassin’s Creed since the second. The latter is corporate, while the former is auteur.
This is all a roundabout way to bring me to SteamWorld Heist by Image & Form games. When I first discussed SteamWorld Dig, it was during a depressing time of unemployment where I grew concerned over the possibility of escaping too deeply into video games. I asserted that part of what made the game so effective—and so dangerous—was how perfectly the cycle of gameplay functioned. Dig for treasure, sell treasure, purchase upgrades, dig for more treasure more efficiently. The cycle was fine-tuned in such a manner that it gave the game a steady yet swift pacing, rewarding the player every ten or so minutes for their play.
I have already discussed SteamWorld Heist a bit, but the design of its combat was only one factor that kept me returning eagerly to my 3DS every night. The first credit I would give to the game is the once more finely tuned cycle.
The cycle has changed a bit, however. It still follows some of the same concepts and philosophies placed into SteamWorld Heist, but it doesn’t play out precisely the same. After all, the main draw of Heist isn’t digging for treasure. In fact, the emphasis has been completely swapped. Instead of combat being a secondary consideration, a challenge brought in to force a player to think more carefully about digging for treasure, combat is the main point. It’s the treasure that is the secondary consideration.
In either game, the player is rewarded for facing a challenge, and the greatest rewards are yielded by taking greater risks.
“Well, duh, that’s just Game Design 101,” one might say. This is true that challenge should yield rewards, but in most tactical combat games, the rewards are merely distributed in point value. While SteamWorld Heist offers experience points after each level—and increases the bonus incrementally based on the difficulty level chosen—the real reward is in exploring the entire ship in order to obtain every bag and chest of loot. While stealing such treasures risks coming in contact with reinforcements and sentry guns, the rewards are often more cash to purchase more gear with, powerful and rare weaponry, and gadgets and gizmos that provide boosts to movement, health, or even damage.
Combine this in tandem with my earlier discussion on GamersWithJobs on how the player’s odds of striking an opponent are left in their own hands. While the game does have some balance issues towards the final levels—the “random” levels and placement of enemies sometimes working in greater favor of the computer than the player—it largely is as difficult as the player allows it to be. At any time a player can reduce or increase the difficulty. They can choose which treasures to chase in a single level. They can even select optional missions intended to be harder than the average level.
Placed side-by-side with SteamWorld Dig, it starts to become clear what sort of design philosophy Image & Form has. No single level in SteamWorld Heist lasts more than ten or fifteen minutes long, which encourages “the cycle” of fun. Every ten or fifteen minutes yields a completely satisfying and productive experience. The player determines what challenges are worth facing. By facing more challenges and taking greater risks, the player yields greater rewards. These rewards are not only based on experience or cash, but also on weapons and gear that customize a player’s approach to these levels and challenges so they can begin to face harder challenges.
I’m not trying to convince anyone that Image & Form did not follow basic game design philosophies. What I’m saying is that they followed those philosophies exceedingly well. Any designer can provide a reward “incentive” to the player by providing experience and money at the end of the fight. What makes SteamWorld Heist stand out is that the reward incentive is part of the fight. It adds an additional variable to each map, where a player is not merely thinking “how do I complete the objective”, but “how do I obtain all the treasure and complete the objective”. This seemingly small change is enough to add depth to the player experience, forcing them to think about the level in ways they may not otherwise have, to take risks that wouldn’t otherwise be necessary, and to further find satisfaction in their own decisions.
Which leads to the philosophy of Image & Form. Looking at both SteamWorld games that I’ve played, I think it becomes pretty clear that the studio—up to this point, at least—believes in providing a fun and satisfying experience in as small a package as ten or fifteen minutes of play. Given their history in mobile development, they’d kind of have to. I also believe that the studio believes in making the player work for their reward. Both SteamWorld games managed to follow many of the same gameplay elements and styles, but they implemented them in such drastically different but successful ways.
There’s a lot more that can be said of SteamWorld Heist, and perhaps I’ll get the chance to do so later on. I think it is clear that Image & Form is a lot like Nintendo, and it is fitting that they share such a good relationship with the much larger company. They are auteurs, and it encourages me to be excited for the next entry in the SteamWorld series.
I also have a new Video Game Dream That Will Never Happen: that Image & Form gets the rights to Metal Arms: Glitch in the System and continues what Blizzard and Activision have stuffed in a dust-gathering box in the corner of the attic.