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SteamWorld Build Is the Series’ Most Impressively Wild Experiment Yet

SteamWorld isn’t like other series. Where most game franchises take a single core idea and iterate on it over multiple installments, the creators of SteamWorld decided early on that it could be anything. It’s been a tower defense title, a Metroidvania mining game, a 2D strategy shooter, and a card battling adventure – all set within the same universe of down-home steam-powered robots. For fans of SteamWorld, it’s always a delight to see what it could be next – and now, with SteamWorld Build, it’s a brand new take on the city building genre. It’s a typically unexpected leap.

But, clearly never content with staying the same for too long, Build brings another first for the series – it’s the first SteamWorld game not to be built by its original creators, Image & Form (who have since merged with other studios to become Thunderful Games, and are working on future SteamWorld games). After being acquired by Thunderful, The Station have stepped in to create Build. Oh, and for good measure, they also made it the first SteamWorld game to use a 3D perspective, and the series’ first voice-acted game, too.

It’s a fascinating next step for the franchise – and I caught up with Game Director Andreas Persson, Art Director Sofie Wikström and head of the SteamWorld franchise Brjann Sigurgeirsson to discuss how they sent SteamWorld on what might be its biggest leap yet.

“We knew The Station well,” says Sigurgeirsson of how the collaboration came about. “We knew that they were very solid studio that had done a lot of work on the LittleBigPlanet franchise. We also knew that they had been working on their own things. And then when the opportunity materialised to acquire them, we sort of jumped on it. One of the one of the first things we said was, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you guys could pitch us something that could fit in the SteamWorld universe?’”

“Since this was our first SteamWorld game, we looked at a lot of what [Thunderful] had done previously,” continues Persson. “And what we settled on was that they are really good at taking something familiar, and then mixing it with something else and creating something unique… With that, we then saw that there is a real nice city builder that could be made in this universe by taking the city part and marrying it with mining gameplay. I would say it’s like a city builder meets Dungeon Keeper.”

It’s a unique proposition, and one Sigurgeirsson says proves the point of using a new developer – SteamWorld is a series that never stays still, and it can grow in even less expected directions by employing whole new groups of developers, with fresh perspectives and different expertise.

The Station had worked on ideas for a city builder for some time, but SteamWorld offered them a unique opportunity – to work on two layers. Above ground, you put together a Wild West-inflected railway town, piecing together housing, factories, and amenities for a growing population of Steambots. But below the sand and dirt, the action changes entirely, asking you to dig your own mines to find the resources needed above ground, with dungeon crawling and tower defense elements thrown in. The way these two layers link is the unique selling point, forcing you to manage two types of game at once, and always giving you something meaningful to achieve.

It can sound daunting, but The Station has also taken another key part of SteamWorld into account – the fact that the whole series acts like a smörgåsbord of game genres, and aims to introduce its fans to new ones in accessible ways.

“We then saw that there is a real nice city builder that could be made in this universe by taking the city part and marrying it with mining gameplay. I would say it’s like a city builder meets Dungeon Keeper.”

Andreas Persson, Game Director

“It’s something we’ve worked on from the very start of development,” says Persson, “since we knew we would get a lot of new players that were familiar with the world, but not necessarily with resource management games. So we had to think, ‘How do we communicate information and where do we put the complexity in the game?’ We deliberately decided early on to keep the city pretty streamlined. We didn’t want fires to erupt in the city and destroy everything.”

The idea is that there are demands on the player to build efficiently, but not major punishments if you don’t. Equally, while you’re mining, things will tick along above ground, reducing the need to constantly shift levels and micromanage. But, as Persson says, it’s not that there’s a lack of complexity:

“I remember we had some testers that didn’t realise how complex the game was until they learned everything,” Persson continues. “Because when you get to the first mine floor, there is not a ton of complexity. But as you go deeper, you learn each step, and each step builds on the previous one. So we said we want it to be ‘complex, but not complicated.’”

Another new consideration for both The Station and Thunderful was about transforming a genre best known on PC into a console-friendly experience. SteamWorld has always had a home on console, and it wouldn’t feel right to limit Build.

“We’d played a few [city builder] games [on console] and we really never felt that they worked,” says Wikström. “So we knew that going forward, we would have to adapt the UI and the gameplay with console in mind.” Unlike other games, this wasn’t a case of just working out button inputs – entire features were created with a controller at the forefront. “If we came up with anything, we always had to look at it from a controller perspective… I know that there were features that turned out in specific ways because of this. Rather than, you know, trying to shoehorn everything in on the console.”

The Station put limits on themselves to make sure playing with a controller always felt good – it’s been playable on console since the very first version of the game, and any time an update was prepared, it needed to be tested on console before it was approved.

Again, this feels like very ‘SteamWorld’ thinking – the series has always prized being unique and accessible, and The Station applied that thinking even to elements of game development that Thunderful had never had to think about before.

And, beyond the game itself, that’s the beauty of SteamWorld Build – it’s opening new doors for this already wide-open series. The Station isn’t just introducing SteamWorld fans to new ideas, and new ways of thinking about the series, but even Thunderful.

“I think The Station has proved that we can we can take SteamWorld in in any direction. There’s this internal joke that the next one should be a dating sim. And it’s a joke until we… make that game,” laughs Sigurgeirsson. “I think that The Station really proves that point. They’ve been brave, and very competent – they gathered enough understanding and then they just ran with it. And it’s turned out really, really great.”

SteamWorld Build comes to Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One on December 1. It will be available for Xbox Game Pass on day one.