Chatty Q&A: Supergiant Games discusses the making of Transistor

By Ozzie Mejia, May 29, 2014 10:00am PDT

It's hard to follow up a truly memorable RPG experience like Bastion. However, Supergiant Games has managed to capably do so with their sophomore effort, Transistor, creating an engaging narrative, standout characters, and a dazzling world.

After playing through Supergiant's latest, Shacknews' enthusiastic community of Chatty posters had some questions for the Transistor creators. Creative director and game writer Greg Kasavin was happy to comply and provide some valuable answers, discussing the making of their game, working as a small developer, new concepts like the Oculus Rift, and whether they'd consider revisiting the worlds of Transistor or Bastion in the future.

Nerdsbeware asks: What or why was the decision made to have a "narrator" tell the story? Was it strictly a story choice or a design choice?

Greg Kasavin: We think narrative can be one of several methods for engaging players quickly and leaving a strong impression once the game is over. We're very interested in exploring different narrative techniques in our games and taking advantage of the properties of the medium. To that end, we've found that voiceover can be good for giving context to the player's actions at the player's own pace, while at the same time making the experience feel personal or even intimate. In that sense, using voiceover extensively in Transistor was both a story choice and a design choice. We wanted players to feel like they were travelling with these characters and looking through a window into this world, rather than being told a story in the traditional sense.

BlackCat9 asks: What were your ideas and influences for creating the world of Transistor, and how did you expect players to feel when they begin to explore it?

Kasavin: It is difficult to pin down a specific set of influences, since there are so many from multiple media, and our influences are specific to each of the disciplines that form the game -- from the art and audio to the gameplay to the writing and so on. When beginning a project we tend to think a lot about the overall tone of the experience, what we want the feel of the game to be. In Transistor, we decided early on to pursue this idea of a vintage-futuristic setting, with what we called an 'operatic' tone for all that implies. I think we wanted players to experience the grandeur of the setting and the intensity of the personal stakes of the characters, while enjoying the mysteries of the gameplay -- having access to this all-powerful weapon with seemingly limitless capability. Broadly speaking, after having made this weird fantasy-frontier world in Bastion, we wanted to see what we could do in the science-fiction genre this time around.

SolrFlare asks: What lessons did you take from Bastion's development and apply to the development of Transistor?

Kasavin: Although I would never downplay the effort that went into making Bastion, we were very fortunate to have a relatively smooth development process on that game, all things considered. Since the game ended up being both critically and commercially successful, it really validated our particular approach to game development, and we wanted to approach our second game from a similar mindset: Make something new that our team was excited about, playing to the strengths of the individuals on the team.

We did not approach Transistor from the perspective of trying to fix anything about Bastion. We were more interested in making a new game with its own distinct identity. As a result, nothing about Transistor was a foregone conclusion, and even when we arrived at similar decisions to ones we made on Bastion (such as the camera angle), it was because we felt it was right for this new game.

brickmatt asks: I'm fascinated that you've used essentially the same crew to make a similar, but also totally different game. Do you try and come up with roles for everyone, and that steers the design? Or do you come up with the design, and see what roles folks could play?

Kasavin: Our goal after finishing Bastion was for the seven members of our team to stick together and make something new, and that's what we ended up doing with Transistor -- adding several key new members to the team along the way, so we're at 12 people now. For sure our games are configured around the strengths of the people we have on the team. A good example in Transistor's case is the significant role of the music in the game. Darren Korb, our audio director, is a musician by background, and having worked together successfully with his friend and vocalist, Ashley Barrett, on our first game, he was interested in doing something more with songs and music for this next project. We took that into account when formulating the fiction, and so forth. While we try to think big, we also try to work within our means, and make games we think we can make well.

pyide asks: How much thought and work went into the ability system? The sheer number of combinations, and how anything can be used as the active skill, modifiers, or passives?

Kasavin: The ability system in Transistor came together after lots of iteration, as we wanted to create an interesting and deep system to extend the moment-to-moment play experience across the full duration of the game. While we tried a lot of things there, the idea we eventually pursued was the one we felt would take the most work to get right -- but it was the most exciting idea to us! A goal of the system was to reward experimentation without forcing it. At the same time, we wanted to deliver on the idea that you've got this mysterious and powerful weapon, and provide an open-ended system that aligned with that. It was a lot of fun creating and playing with all the different permutations of abilities that we could think of, and watching different players use it in some wildly different ways.

pyide asks: Love the kind of combat experimentation the whole system fosters, really want to see more games do that sort of thing. Was it planned from the start? How long did it take to get there? Was there any specific function a team member really wanted that didn't make the final cut?

Kasavin: The specifics of our combat system were not there from the beginning, but for sure the underlying spirit of it was a guiding principle throughout development. We wanted Transistor to be a thoughtful-feeling game that let players dictate the flow of battle, and captured some of the drama and suspense inherent to some of our favorite classic turn-based games and tactical RPGs. It took a good couple of years of iteration and development to arrive at the eventual system. We prototyped dozens of different abilities, many of which were very cool, and I think in the end found their way into the game as part of some of the power combinations.

snot3353 asks: How do you manage to produce such incredible art and audio with such a small team in a respectable amount of time? Do you outsource any of it?

Kasavin: All our visuals are done in-house by Jen Zee our art director, Camilo Vanegas our 3D modeler/animator, and Josh Barnett our UI and visual FX artist. We worked with a team called Earbash to create many of the sound effects in the game, though other than that, all the audio and voice recording was done by Darren Korb. The work these folks produced was tremendously motivating -- I think we all strive to do our part to live up to what everyone else on team is doing. When you're doing what you love, I think you can accomplish a lot with relatively limited means.

SolrFlare asks: Is there anything more you would have liked to add if you had more time?

Kasavin: We built Transistor on our own time and budget, and we would not have released it if we felt it was somehow incomplete. So no, there was nothing that we cut that we didn't think was better off being cut. We cut stuff constantly throughout development in the interest of leaving behind only the best stuff for the finished work.

Wombat Woo asks: Have you looked into new technology like Oculus Rift at all? What's your take on some of the overhead demos of Unreal Engine 4 running on Oculus Rift and do you feel like it could be applied to one of your own games someday?

Kasavin: We have some Oculus fans on team and are excited for how that could open up new types of gaming experiences for people, even if those experiences are quite different from the types of games we've made thus far. I don't have a good impression yet of how that tech could be used for the kinds of games we make today, as we made pure 2D games. But I am all for this kind of tech broadening the definition of what games can be and what they can do! Excited to see where it all goes.

harold.johnson asks: What's the general timeline looking like for getting Transistor onto other platforms?

Kasavin: All our focus was on our PlayStation 4 and PC launch, and beyond that we have no current plans, though nothing is ruled out either. We do intend to make native Mac and Linux versions of the game, though we have no specific timetable for that. One of the nice things about being small is we don't have to plan too far ahead!

kainen1 asks: Are there any other genres you are considering for your next game? Or will you continue with isometric adventures?

Kasavin: It's too early to say what's next for us! I'll be at least as curious as you to find out. I think we like working on stuff that puts us out of our comfort zone in some way, though how exactly that will manifest, I do not know right now. For sure we want to keep working on stuff that is creatively challenging and rewarding, and is respectful of our players' time and intelligence.

snot3353 asks: Along that same line, are you open to making your next project a sequel to Bastion or Transistor? Or do you see those as standalone and you'd rather continue making new IPs instead?

Kasavin: We haven't ruled anything out for the future, though Transistor, much like Bastion before it, was designed to be complete, so that if for some reason it were the last game we ever made, we wouldn't leave anyone hanging. At the same time, we aim to create worlds for our games that could potentially support any number of stories, though that's in the spirit of making interesting and deep-feeling worlds purely for its own sake. We hope to keep going!

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