One of the protagonists of the industry last year was the independent American studio Supergiant Games. Their latest game, Hades, finally made it out of Early Access in September 2020, competing for Game of the Year with titans like The Last of Us Part II, Final Fantasy VII Remake, and Doom Eternal.
What is surprising is that in its eleven-year history, the studio has not made a single mistake. If in most cases, indie developers shoot with one title, which keeps their success and reputation for a long time, then Supergiant has no weak points at all in its portfolio, which consists of four strong games.
Supergiant Games was founded on September 1, 2009 by ex-Electronic Arts Los Angeles employees Amir Rao and Gavin Simon, who have worked on such a well-known series as Command & Conquer. However, as is the case with indie studios, its founders wanted more creative control and decided to focus on creating something smaller, but their own.
The first office of the studio was an ordinary apartment building owned by Rao’s father, where the first five employees of Supergiant Games constantly gathered. The sixth and seventh, in the person of composer Darren Korb and voice actor Logan Cunningham, operated at that time from New York.
All the developers have already crossed paths with each other in one way or another before the founding of Supergiant. For example, Korb was a childhood friend of Rao’s and had little to no experience in sound design before suddenly becoming solely responsible for creating sounds and music for all of the studio’s projects.
It took the studio about two years to make the debut title, and the first prototype was ready a month after the establishment of the settlement in the “office”. For the first time, the developers announced themselves publicly at GDC 2010, where they showed sketches of Bastion, which ended up on the main page of the Gamasutra portal.
“We wanted to touch the emotions of the players in an unexpected way, as well as provide interesting and experimental gameplay that captivates you from the very first minutes,” said writer and creative director of the studio Greg Kasavin.
The player assumes the role of a silent young man who wakes up to find that his world has been destroyed by a mysterious cataclysm. Under the guidance of a certain Rooks, the hero will have to rebuild the last safe place of the Bastion and find out the cause of the disaster. Among other things, Rooks, voiced by Cunningham, acts as the game’s narrator, commenting on the protagonist’s every move. Cunningham recorded about 3,000 lines to give Rooks enough variety.
In Bastion, the developers offered players an interesting combat system, borrowing elements from various action and RPG subgenres. On the one hand, in an effort to become stronger, the player focuses on the traditional system of levels and experience, but at the same time, he can count on the practical skill of fighting and memorizing the patterns of an enemy.
In terms of visuals, Bastion features eye-catching 2D graphics, hand-drawn by artist Jen Z, responsible for every item, monster, and background that the player sees on screen.
By the end of the year, Bastion entered the top 5 best indie games according to Indie DB, among Fez, Overgrowth, Dustforce, and Monaco. The title participated in the Independent Games Festival 2011, where it became a finalist in the Excellence In Visual Art and Excellence In Audio categories.
Bastion was released in the summer of 2011 on PC and Xbox 360, and later made its way to iOS, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and other platforms. The game has collected more than a hundred different titles given away by game portals, and by the end of 2011 Supergiant managed to sell half a million copies.
The audience was particularly delighted with the music, which was talked about by such mainstream media as CNN and Entertainment Weekly. The soundtrack, which mixed acoustics and trip-hop, turned out to be so popular that a little later the studio even released a collection of notes for free.
In March 2013 Supergiant released their next game, Transistor. At first glance, it may seem that Transistor is a spiritual successor to Bastion with the same isometric look and bright colors, but in reality the title differs from the studio’s debut game in all respects.
When developers came across a design solution used in Bastion, they specifically excluded this option in Transistor. This is also why the game was in pre-production for 19 months, while Bastion avoided this stage altogether. For example, they tried nine different camera angles, but the final version differed from Bastion by only a few degrees.
This time, the futuristic city of Cloudbank was chosen as the setting. The player acts as the singer Red, who gained control over the powerful sword Transistor, with which unknown people wanted to kill her. She will not only find out the motives for the assassination, but also prevent the villains from returning the weapon, which has its own consciousness.
The first ideas for Transistor appeared at the end of the development of Bastion, but the creation of a prototype took place only in the fall of 2011. Full-fledged development began in September 2012, when the studio grew to twelve people. Having made enough money from Bastion, Supergiant decided to finance Transistor on their own without the help of publishers.
Korb took up the music again, and this time he needed to emphasize the darker and more mechanical atmosphere of the game. As with Bastion, the soundtrack included several songs performed by singer Ashley Barrett. After the soundtrack went on sale, fans snapped up 50,000 copies in the first ten days.
Transistor itself broke Bastion’s record and sold a million copies in the first six months and became the second highly acclaimed work of the studio.
The studio’s third project was announced in April 2016. Before creating Pyre, the developers went through a variety of ideas until they settled on one that was difficult to even imagine within a video game. Rao suggested bringing to Pyre the feeling of sweet sadness that comes with parting with a close friend. Kasavin also compared this feeling with the moment when a sports coach lets his star player go free swimming, with whom he went through fire and water.
The most suitable genre for this idea turned out to be a sports simulator, which Supergiant decided to cross with visual novel mechanics. As a result, the decisions that the player makes in the story directly affect the behavior of your team during the competition.
The process of the competition itself is reminiscent of basketball, where the ball is a magical orb, which a team of three characters must throw into the funeral pyre of the opponent. The hero acts as a kind of team coach, managing the participants in real time, and the matches themselves, as a rule, last no more than a few minutes.
Among other things, there are no game overs in the game, and the player will have to continue the path more than once, coping with the consequences of defeats — another Supergiant idea implemented.
Once again, Darren Korb did an excellent job in terms of music and sound design, and Cunningham was joined by other actors to end up voicing several characters. Artist Zee is back in her favorite fantasy theme and this time working hand in hand with new studio employee Camilo Vanegas, who specializes in mixing 3D and 2D.
Notably, for the first time in its history, Supergiant has decided to get involved with local multiplayer. Before embarking on this experiment, the studio made sure that the development of multiplayer would not take away resources from the single, which remains a priority for it in any project.
Hades originally launched in early access on the Epic Games Store back in December 2018, when Supergiant already had twenty people working, and a year later in early access on Steam. The full release took place only in September 2020.
Hades was the studio’s first game where the setting was not developed from scratch, but based on Greek mythology. The developers tried to combine the fast paced action from Bastion, the atmosphere and depth of Transistor, and also mixed in Pyre’s storytelling. If in past projects the studio tried to offer not too long, but a full-fledged adventure, then in Hades the player can find something new even after tens of hours of play.
The starting point of the development was the idea in which Theseus made his way through the Knossos labyrinth, met with the Minotaur, and then went to the Underworld of Hades. Later, however, Kasavin suggested starting from the end, and the main character was the son of Hades, Zagreus, who wants to get out of the underworld and get to Olympus. Theseus and the Minotaur remained in Hades as minor characters.
In general, the development of the title went much faster due to the fact that Supergiant knew what he wanted to achieve from the very beginning. The studio specifically focused on making Hades accessible to different audiences, despite the fact that «bagels» are usually classified as hardcore genres.
During early access, Supergiant sold 700,000 copies of Hades, and by releasing the game in 2020, it quickly reached a million. Hades became the most successful title and received rave reviews from critics, noting the uniqueness of each passage of the game, the sophistication of the loot system and the story.
The developers at Supergiant Games have been asked time and again about the secret to their consistency in terms of the quality, originality, and success of their games. Answering, they, one way or another, came to the conclusion that it was all about the cohesion of the team, because after eleven years the first seven employees still work in the studio.
“One of the strengths of our studio is the creative chemistry between all of us. We believe that the best decisions are made in small teams, where people are not afraid to be sincere, knowing that colleagues will give honest and as objective feedback as possible, ”said Michael Eilshey, project manager at the studio.
It is not yet known what Supergiant will do next. The developers do not mind returning to one of the already created worlds for the release of the sequel, but at the same time they always try to challenge themselves by coming up with something completely new.