Toronto can stand a little prouder as the release of the homegrown iPad game Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP cements the city’s growing reputation as a hotbed for independent gaming.
Sworcery is a weird, artistic game—described in the App Store as an “exploratory action-adventure with an emphasis on audiovisual style”—with roots in point-and-click adventures. Players are treated to lush pixel art graphics and an emotionally compelling soundtrack while solving puzzles, defeating enemies, and exploring new lands. With its emphasis on mood and atmosphere, this is a fantasy game by way of Wong Kar-wai.
Games on the iPad are rarely ambitious. The majority contain simple puzzle or action mechanics and favour short bursts of engagement rather than inspiring long-term attachment. “You have a beautiful device, a good distribution model, and a large audience. There are infinite possibilities, so why aren’t there more games that take you somewhere different?” wonders artist Craig D. Adams, of Superbrothers.
Adams would get his chance to create something different when he met Nathan Vella and Kris Piotrowski, two co-founders of Toronto-based games studio Capy, by chance at an industry conference party in San Francisco in early 2009. (Full disclosure: the team behind Sworcery has also spoken at Gamercamp, a festival I co-founded, and we are friends.) One of the larger independent studios in Toronto, Capy is best-known for developing critically-acclaimed puzzle games like Critter Crunch and Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes. Although the men had known of each others’ work, they had never crossed paths in Toronto. Find them to be kindred spirits, Vella quickly suggested that Adams and Capy work together on a game. Six months later, the title was officially announced in a haunting, pulsing teaser that intrigued viewers and elicited a response of: What the hell was this?
Adams has a diverse range of influences—he speaks equally passionately about Carl Jung’s Red Book as he does the Kanye West short Runaway. Discussing the media push for Sworcery with us, he opens up about hoping to speak with CBC personality and Q host Jian Ghomeshi, not the typical person game developers might prioritize.
His art has also been inspired by local musician Jim Guthrie, who, in addition to being a solo performer, has worked with Islands and Royal City. Friends with Guthrie for years, Adams had once found himself inspired to create an animated film based on Guthrie’s song “Children Of The Clone.” With the opportunity to make a game with Capy, Adams knew he wanted Guthrie to be involved and create the soundtrack. Guthrie had never worked on a video game before, but excited by the chance to try something new, wholeheartedly agreed. They worked symbiotically, with Adams creating art based on Guthrie’s music, and then Guthrie being influenced by what he saw to write new music. “It’s easy to get inspired to write for [Sworcery], you just need to see one screenshot to get excited by it,” he notes. Similarly, during the development process, Guthrie’s music was key to lifting spirits. “Whenever Jim dropped a song, the morale of the team would raise,” says Piotrowski.
The game’s success stems directly from this diverse collaboration: from Adams’ art, Guthrie’s music, and Capy’s game design meshing—if any one of these pillars was sub-par, the game wouldn’t work.
There were moments in the game’s production when it could have taken a more traditional route, Adams explains, but he credits Vella and Piotrowski for keeping to their ambitions for innovation. “We’re trying to show bigger, crazier, and more interesting games,” says Vella—which meant avoiding a business model that focused on quick-turnaround, basement-level pricing, and competing in a crowded marketplace akin to “pulling on a lever and hoping it pans out.”
While in production, the game began to draw notice from the games industry, especially on the independent side. An early prototype won an award at the Independent Games Festival in 2010 for achievement in art for a mobile game. Major gaming sites fell in love with what they saw at conferences and praised its creativity, artistry, and fun—the game was featured as part of Wired UK’s Top 10 Releases To Watch in 2011 for gaming, alongside the 3DS, Nintendo’s new 3D-enabled portable system, and Uncharted 3 (the latest in a franchise that has sold over eight million copies).
The game benefited from deafening hype within the industry, but critical cheerleading doesn’t always translate into commercial success. The Sworcery team realized this, and as the game approached release, asked themselves, “Who is the audience for this?” Vella wages that owners of iOS devices would be a right fit for Sworcery: “They are used to watching on the device, listening on the device, and playing on the device”—all actions put to good use in the game. In a way, the game is a test shot to find a public wanting such experiences: “We’re trying to find the audience that is excited by this,” says Vella. (iPhone and iPod versions will be released in April, and an LP of Guthrie’s music becomes available in two weeks.)
The broad experiences the team has drawn from—Vella and Piotrowski come from film backgrounds, Adams from visual art, and Guthrie from music—have also worked in favour of the project, which, while unusual, hasn’t proven inaccessible. Sworcery began to appeal to audiences beyond traditional games: articles about Sworcery have shown up on the blog for the Independent Film Channel, the illustration site Drawn, and the music magazine Exclaim.
Piotrowski hopes that the uniqueness of the game acts as a buffer: “I’d be more worried if it was like what’s out there, if we had put something out that was more traditional.” Asked what level of financial success would make him happy, he at first jokes, “Nine million.” More seriously, he says, “No one is expecting [the level of success of] Angry Birds, but it’d be great to make back our budget. We made something very cool with Craig and helped Craig make his first game.”
It’s too early to tell what the long-term response to Sworcery will be, but since it became available late Wednesday, Sworcery has ranked second among paid iPad apps behind the newest iteration of Angry Birds—a remarkable feat, especially when accomplished without any help from Apple’s publicity machine. Furthermore, late yesterday Sworcery was named Apple’s iPad Game of the Week—an occurrence bound to get the game more notice. Journalists already predict Sworcery will end the year as Game of the Year and tech blog Mashable billed Sworcery as the “most anticipated iPad game you’ve never heard of.”
Anticipated? Yes. Unheard of? How quickly that has already begun to change.