Last summer, Los Angeles. Sony’s E3 press conference, with thousands in the auditorium, and many more watching live online. Greg Kasavin, the creative director of tiny San Jose indie studio Supergiant Games, takes to the stage.
“We grew up playing games that transported us to all sorts of amazing places we’ll never forget,” he tells the crowd. “We want to create those types of experiences for more people so with that in mind it’s our pleasure to show you Transistor.”
A trailer plays on the titanic screen above, revealing what the team has been working on next: beautiful, future set action RPG Transistor. The crowd is mesmerised by the sweeping skyscapes, frantic battles and beautiful artwork - Kasavin then proceeds to demo the gameplay: short, kinectic bursts of gorgeous isometric action in a Blade Runner-worthy cityscape set to a rich soundtrack.
Those few short minutes may just have been the most of Kasavin’s life. As a former games journalist, he was more used to covering E3 keynotes, not giving them. Now here he was, unveiling one of the most important titles for Sony’s next console, the PlayStation 4.
“It was pretty surreal. I've been to every E3, watched pretty much every E3 press conference. I never imagined I'd get to see it from that point of view,” he tells Red Bull exclusively. “Sony put a tremendous amount of faith in our team and our game in letting us do a thing like that.”
That faith was well placed though. Supergiant Games’ first title, Bastion, a 2011 action RPG, was a triumph, selling more than 2.5 million virtual copies and garnering more than 100 industry awards. Even today, it remains one of the best Xbox Live Arcade titles on the platform. You play as the Kid, storming through a vivid, floating fantasy world, weapon and shield in hand, in something not unlike an old school Zelda journey.
Kasavin’s own journey to Supergiant was an unusual one: he started out as a critic, editing influential site GameSpot - then gave up everything to move into a house with a small team of friends to make games.
“I wanted to make games since I was a little kid, but around high school I decided I was better at writing about them than trying to code them,” he says. “One thing led to another and suddenly I was writing about games professionally, and I ended up doing that for about 12 years, all through college and beyond.”
But he wanted more from his career - the lawn started to look greener on the developer’s side of the fence.
“Time passed quickly, but I did wake up one day feeling that if I never took a stab at making games, I'd regret it. So I left GameSpot after 10 years back in 2007 to go work at EA,” he says. It was there that he met Amir Rao and Gavin Simon, who would later leave to set up Supergiant. After a stint as a producer at 2K Games working on Spec Ops: The Line, Kasavin soon followed - the team now consists of seven employees.
“I feel like I've seen the game industry from a lot of different angles,” he says. “My past as a critic gives me a broad base of game references to draw upon, and just helped me develop strong convictions about what sorts of qualities are important to a worthwhile game.”
“Bastion started with the idea of an action RPG where you build the world around you,” he explains. As the Kid explores, the floating world drawn by talented artist Jen Zee pops up around you. “It was as simple as that, and everything else about it gave rise from that concept. We love action RPGs and felt the genre was relatively underexplored, both from a gameplay and narrative standpoint.”
Even so, the success of Bastion, richly narrated by Supergiant employee Logan Cunningham, took the team by surprise.
“The staying power of Bastion was quite a shock to us. It's a single-player-only game that an average player can complete in a weekend. We couldn't have expected that people would still care about it months, even years after its summer 2011 launch,” he admits.
Two and a half years on, and it’s available on PC, Mac, Linux, as a touchscreen iPhone game - even inside your web browser.
“We proceeded to bring the game to more platforms on a case-by-case basis. Our iOS version was our biggest undertaking since we rebuilt many aspects of the game from the ground up to feel good on touch devices. We wanted to keep learning and trying stuff, and see how far we could take the game,” Kasavin says. One platform we’re not likely to see Bastion on anytime soon however is Android.
“There came a point where we were anxious to go do something new. We weren't comfortable farming out more versions of Bastion to other teams as it's our baby. We haven't ruled anything out for the future, but as a small team it's crucial that we focus on one thing at a time, and for now that thing is our next game.”
Kasavin also won’t be drawn on potential platforms for Transistor either, other than PC and PS4, which are already confirmed. “The Google Chrome [browser] version of Bastion was a great way for us to make the game accessible to many more people since it ran on Mac and Linux machines in addition to PC. We later created native Mac and Linux versions too. With Transistor we just haven't planned that far ahead.”
At a glance, Transistor shares the same action RPG mechanics - the hit points, the frantic sword swinging - as Bastion, but Kasavin says it’s evolved into something very different.
“Our prototyping process is pretty methodical and we tend not to fully form our game ideas up front, but rather build them out as we go. I do think a couple of key things happened early on. First is that we gravitated toward the idea of creating a science-fiction-themed game as sort of a counterpart to Bastion's weird fantasy setting. Second is we were drawn to making something that felt thoughtful and deliberate in terms of the moment-to-moment play experience, something that had more ebb and flow to the gameplay in comparison to Bastion's arcade-style action. Based on that, Jen our art director quickly visualized some environment concepts that got us all excited, and gameplay-wise we found a way to combine real-time combat with strategic planning in a seamless-feeling way.”
Key to that is the Transistor of the title, a sentient, turbo-charged sword that allows your protagonist, Red to map out moves in advance, providing a dose of tactics and forethought alongside the frantic button mashing-slaying.
“This time around probably the most obvious change apart from the whole setting being different is how strategic planning is woven into the gameplay,” Kasavin says. “At almost any time you can freeze the whole world around you, plan a series of powerful moves, and then execute them in a supercharged fashion.”
Of course, you’ll then have to dodge any surviving enemies until your meter has recharged. “This is a very powerful ability, but in turn, you'll be facing swift and powerful opponents. I really liked the idea of a game in which you get to use the ultimate weapon right from the very beginning, rather than finding it in the last level or whatever. The thought exercise became, if you have the ultimate weapon right from the start, where do you go from there? How do you proceed to make the play experience interesting? We've come up with answers to those questions that we're excited to share soon enough.”
As with Bastion, you’ll piece Transistor’s story together as you go. Your character Red is a rising star in the towering city of Cloudbank, until a pack of assassins set upon her one night. They fail, and Red is left stranded with the mysterious Transistor. You set off in search of answers, and the people who wronged Red, as the assassins' forces try to finish the job.
“The Process is the antagonist faction Red will have to deal with during the course of the game,” Kasavin explains. “They're these strange biomechanical things sent by Red's would-be assassins to recover the Transistor at any cost. They have some unusual properties. For one thing they are basically immortal, and will continue respawning unless Red absorbs them into the Transistor. You'll learn more about them through the course of the game.”
Given Bastion’s success on Xbox Live, we have to ask why Supergiant have defected. Why pick the PS4 as the console of choice for the game, not the Xbox One? The team first met Sony representatives at last year’s PAX East expo in Boston, who invited them to try out the company’s next-gen console ahead of release, and then debut Transistor at E3.
Kasavin says the team actually turned down the offer at first, but were soon won over by Sony’s open stance on self-publishing on PS4 - a vital factor for indie developers, and a policy Microsoft only later adopted for Xbox One. “At first we were like, ‘That's very generous, but no thanks!’ After all, E3 traditionally is a show for bigger studios. But as we learned more about the PS4 we were very impressed by what we saw, and Sony had a very open stance toward smaller teams like ours.”
Kasavin won’t rule out other platforms for Transistor down the line however. “We're coming to PC as well via Steam, so we're not tied down to any one platform. Our only focus is on those versions of the game, but beyond that, we'll see how it goes.”
Will Transistor make use of PS4-exclusive features? “Transistor is designed first and foremost as a solo experience and we have no interest in tacking anything onto it just because the console can do it. Sharing features are standard to all PS4 games, but we did find interesting opportunities for some proprietary stuff that happened to fit with our game. The main example is the DualShock 4 controller's light bar flashes in sync with the in-game Transistor weapon when you hear the voice coming from it. That may not sound like much but in our tests we've found it's made quite an impression on players who notice the detail.”
Right now, Transistor is feature complete - the team are simply ironing out the kinks, says Kasavin. “That means everything from re-recording bits of voiceover to sound just right, to fine-tuning the feel and balance of all the different Transistor abilities you'll find in the game, and just testing it a lot to make sure it's resonating with players in the right way. It's a busy time, but an exciting time, as every day or two some great new detail makes it into the game.”
Kasavin hasn’t got an exact shipping date in mind for now, but says we will be seeing the game land this year. “We haven't announced a release date for Transistor just yet but we should be on track to get the game out there sometime this year for PS4 and PC. We'll announce a date just as soon as we're sure we can hit it.”
And what comes after that? Does Supergiant have plans for any Transistor DLC, or a new game? Bastion 2, perhaps? Kasavin is frank in his response. “Nah, we haven't thought that far ahead. Nothing matters except how Transistor turns out. We want to make a complete-feeling game that lives up to our first game.”
That’s no small task. Without the deep pockets of a big publisher, the team, which self-funded Bastion and are bootstrapping their way through Transistor likewise, needs to keep swinging and hitting every time they’re at bat.
“We'd love to continue to stick together for a long time after that provided people keep liking what we're doing,” Kasavin says. From what we’ve seen so far, we have a feeling they will.