It’s been ten years since Supergiant Games opened its doors. The team put all of their hopes into the studio’s debut game, Bastion, an action-RPG with a narrator. It succeeded with flying colours. Since then, the studio has released Transistor, Pyre and Hades, every single one receiving critical acclaim and financial success. The team’s big secret? Everybody’s actually happy about working there.
At least, that’s what two of Supergiant’s co-founders insisted in an interview with Kotaku at PAX West. Still, though, the developers’ long string of successes still seems to surprise them, in a good way. Studio director Amir Rao and writer and designer Greg Kasavin said that when fans ask them what’s next, they can’t answer, because they never know. They’re always focussed on their current game.
“Someone can be like ‘Hey what’s next for you after Hades?’ and I can say ‘I don’t know’, and that’s actually just true,” said Rao. “Because our games are reactions to the last game, so I don’t know how we’re gonna feel. We don’t know how Hades is gonna do overall. We don’t know how we’re gonna feel whenever we reach whatever that point is where we have to start thinking about the next one. So it’s like we all get to be surprised along with everyone else.”
“It’s the games industry, man," said Kasavin. “It’s tough out there. You roll dice more times over time, and, you know, you might roll snake eyes one day”.
Miraculously, Supergiant has yet to come even close to rolling snake eyes. Each of the now 17-person studio’s games has been an entirely new series – no sequels – and each has made a splash big enough to keep Supergiant afloat and independent. Most recently, it became one of the first developers to sign an exclusivity deal with the Epic Store in December of last year, providing even more financial stability for early access roguelite Hades while simultaneously dodging the brunt of the anti-Epic Store rage and abuse that followed for other developers who signed exclusivity agreements. Meanwhile, other mid-size development studios like Double Fine, Obsidian, Ninja Theory and inXile have all been purchased in the past couple of years (and all by Microsoft, no less). Rao and Kasavin recognise that they’ve been fortunate, between being in the right time and place with Bastion’s release during the late-2000s indie boom and Supergiant’s subsequent games’ continued ability to find an audience.
“We’ve been remarkably lucky to not have to navigate some of the really extreme pressures that independent game companies find themselves under because a game doesn’t quite pan out how they thought, or development goes a little bit longer, or the market changes,” said Rao. “We still exist in that space, but we’ve been fortunate to have our chemistry and bond get us through. And to have worked on games that we love that have found an audience, which enables us to sustain ourselves. We said our games, the concepts, are a reaction to the previous game, but they also are just funded by the previous game.”
It’s like, if we’re gonna be around for the long haul, we can’t operate the same way we did when we were just getting started.”
The glue that holds the company together, Kasavin thinks, is the collection of personalities on the team and Supergiant’s ability to retain them. That’s the real secret sauce between the buns of Supergiant’s sustained success. Whether due to burnout, layoffs or other equally pernicious factors, many video game studios have high turnover rates. Supergiant does not. Ten years later, all seven people from the company’s Bastion days are still there, alongside ten others that have been hired during other projects. Kasavin chalks that up to a conscious focus on health and personal growth.
“You mention sustainability,” said Kasavin. “That’s a word we use a lot, and it’s something that we really highly prioritise as a team. We’ve been working together for ten years. The percentage of folks on the team that have gotten married or had kids or something is quite a bit higher than when it was just Amir and [co-founder] Gavin Simon in the living room of a house and a kind of startup company lifestyle. It’s like, if we’re gonna be around for the long haul, we can’t operate the same way we did when we were just getting started.”
Image: Supergiant Games
The studio has made changes over time to ensure that everybody takes care of themselves. For example, Supergiant began as a company with unlimited time off. But, Rao explained, this created an “invisible pressure” to never stop working, because developers always had endless vacation time in their back pockets. These days, Supergiant still offers unlimited time off, but employees are required to take at least 20 days off per year. “This is us saving us from ourselves,” Rao said. “That changes our psychology to ‘How do I spend this minimum? Where do I put it? Am I doing a summer break, or am I doing every Friday for a little while?’”
Rao repeatedly emphasised that, when it comes to company culture, little things add up. As another example, he pointed to Supergiant’s approach to emails on the weekend – namely, that there shouldn’t be any after 5 p.m. on Friday, even if somebody’s really excited about a new feature or idea, because that risks roping other people into work on the weekend. “It doesn’t mean someone can’t get really excited about something and do something if they want to,” said Rao. “It means the company is not going to ask you to, and you shouldn’t accidentally pull more people into a process that they didn’t necessarily intend to do.”
Kasavin and Rao started down their path toward long-term sustainability at Electronic Arts Los Angeles, of all places. The two both worked there not long after the notorious “EA spouse” incident in 2004, in which an EA LA developer’s significant other blew the whistle on the poor working conditions at the studio, with the letter largely focusing on severe and continuous crunch. Kasavin and Rao said that in the aftermath of that landmark moment, EA gave the boot to the studio’s whip-cracking management, and EA LA became uncommonly focussed (at least, among big-budget studios) on keeping employees from running themselves so far into the ground that you might as well have put a tombstone on top and called it a day.
“I was 22 when I joined that team, and I didn’t understand why they cared so much,” said Rao. “Then you realise, ‘Oh, this is a team with a bunch of history’, and they kept a lot of the talent that had been through a really, really difficult period – a really, really challenging leadership... Those specific values, how they were going to treat the people involved like they were real human beings with real lives – that was amazing. I didn’t know that wasn’t how every place was, because that was my first game.”
At that point, I had to ask: Does Supergiant crunch? Kasavin admitted that developers do sometimes work long hours, but he also noted that he thinks the term 'crunch' has become too much of a catch-all.
“It’s one of those things where the term itself is flawed,” he said. “I hesitate to even use the term right now, because it means really different things to different people. We want an environment where we can do our best work.” He pointed to Pyre as an example, saying that Supergiant implemented some of the game’s best-received features only because team members “really wanted to” put in the extra work. However, Supergiant avoids development sprints that have “ripple effects”. That might mean, for example, a “wacky design idea” from Rao, which then piles teetering heaps of extra drudgery on the desks of the writing and art teams. But if it’s a more self-contained, individual initiative, Supergiant won’t say no.
“If [composer] Darren [Korb] wants to go nuts on a piece of music and gets super invested in it and wants to make a 10-minute long incredible final boss theme and invest more of himself into that, it’s like, ‘Go for it man. We’re not gonna punch the clock for you'. We’re doing this because we love it,” said Kasavin.
“Not everyone hollers if they’re overburdened by work.”
Even in these moments, however, team members try to temper each others’ more self-destructive impulses. “Not everyone hollers if they’re overburdened by work,” said Kasavin. “We try to look out for each other and say, ‘Hey, is this too much? Can we alleviate some of the burden here?’ Sometimes it’s not even a question, right? It’s like, ‘No, you’re doing too much.’”
It’s been a learning process, Rao and Kasavin agreed – one that’s resulted in a place where people can come into work whenever they want and make time to have friends and families outside it. It might not work for a more literally super-giant 5,000-person company, said Kasavin, but it works for Supergiant.
“It works because it’s a bunch of individuals, so it doesn’t have to scale,” Kasavin said. “We talk about how our games are very much built around the idiosyncrasies of the people on the team. Music is a central point because of Darren, voiceover is there because of Logan [Cunningham], and so on. Instead of trying to force everyone into the same work pattern, it’s recognising that creative people – different stuff makes them tick. The way that Darren does his best work is different from how I might do my best work. Rather than just force us to meet in the middle, just let Darren do his thing because he’s a genius. Let me do my thing because I happen to grind it out late at night sometimes as a writer. You know, I wish I could do my best work within the space of 9 to 5, but unfortunately it doesn’t always happen that way.”
This process, honed over the course of many years and through plenty of ups and downs, has culminated in Hades, an early access roguelite about two universally resonant concepts: Greek mythology and crappy dads. Hades would not be possible, said Rao and Kasavin, without the games that came before it and the specific people who made them. It’s a reaction to Pyre, which was a reaction to Transistor, which was a reaction to Bastion.
“We would talk about how Pyre could have only been our third game,” said Kasavin. “There was no way it could’ve been our first game, because it’s too out there, and there’s no way it could have been our second game either, because with Transistor, it was like ‘Well, can we do it again? Can we like make a whole thing from scratch that is also cool and has its own identity?’ So with Pyre, we felt really emboldened to just keep going and go wherever our imaginations took us, which ended up being in pursuit of this specific feeling of getting to know a good group of friends and then having to say goodbye to them.”
Pyre was also built around the idea that, even if you repeatedly failed, the story would continue to progress. On top of that, it was a dynamic narrative in which– after a certain point – characters could just disappear from the story and, again, Pyre’s story had to keep progressing and not fall apart like a wagon whose wheel waved a tearful farewell to its friends and crossed over into another dimension.
Even though it was inspired by the game that came before it, Pyre had also been a long time coming. Rao and Kasavin had chatted excitedly about telling this kind of story while working together at EA LA, and even before that. Now they’re continuing with that philosophy in Hades. You play as the prince of the underworld, who is trying to escape from hell, but if you die, you just return to hell and your divine dad gives you shit about it.
“There’s no backward progress in Hades because even when you die, the story just kind of moves on with all the characters, who have knowledge of what happened,” said Kasavin. “We’ve been obsessed with that kind of narrative idea. We’ve been obsessed with failure in games as a broad idea, across all our games... In Bastion’s case, you’d die and start again, but there are still little moments of the narration that would at least be different the second time around. And in Transistor, we tried to get you out of your comfort zone by popping out [abilities] when you died and having you scrape by with something different.”
Supergiant’s workflow on Hades, too, is a product of what came before. The team consciously designed the game with early access in mind, which has involved a series of almost episodic content updates, the immediate priorities of which Supergiant has had to shift and reorganise according to player feedback. Where the studio was previously releasing individual games in one big burst every few years, it’s now releasing something new every couple months. If the team hadn’t installed a series of anti-burnout failsafes while creating Bastion, Transistor and Pyre, Hades would’ve been an endless sprint through hell.
“It takes our existing interest in having a production discipline and makes us really refine that even more, because if your milestone schedule involves crunching every milestone, your whole production process is broken,” said Kasavin. “Not only is an individual game development a marathon and not a sprint, but our whole journey is a sort of mega-marathon where our success criteria for a given game is that we get to live another day and make another game after that.”
“Not only is an individual game development a marathon and not a sprint, but our whole journey is a sort of mega-marathon where our success criteria for a given game is that we get to live another day and make another game after that.”
Hades, which launched as an Epic Store exclusive, is set to leave early access and make its Steam debut in December. Kasavin and Rao aren’t counting their chickens before they’ve hatched and escaped from hell, but they think stalwart Supergiant fans’ reaction to Hades has been encouragingly positive so far. The future is wide open, but if they have it their way, they’ll get to keep making games together for another ten years.
“You have these bands where it’s the same people [who] have been together for decades, and it’s incredible,” said Kasavin. “Do you have that with game studios? For us, it’s an aspirational thing. It’s cool we hit our 10-year mark, but could we make it even further? How long can we go while everyone is still doing their thing and wants to keep doing it? It’s exciting to think about because, speaking personally, there isn’t some other type of work that I aspire to do. I get to work on game stories and make these cool video games. It’s the stuff I’ve wanted to do since I was eight years old, and I finally get to do it. Through thick and thin, this is a rollercoaster ride, but I well and truly love it. I would do it again, I would do it again after that, and so on. And I think many of us feel that way.”
Featured image: Hades