I've been trying to think of an accurate comparison for SteamWorld for a while, and I honestly can't come up with anything that ticks all of the same boxes. What other series delivers consistently high-quality releases in totally different genres but within the same universe, let alone in the indie space? It'd be like Monster Train, Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, and Guacamelee belonging to the same studio.
This is largely a function of the structure and now considerable size of SteamWorld shepherd Thunderful, which was forged from the collision of Image & Form with Zoink in 2018. But it's also testament to just how unique and good the Steamworld series really is, which is especially relevant now that it's adding yet another genre to its roster with the impending release of SteamWorld Build, a city builder spliced with a Factorio-esque resource management sim that quickly got its hooks in me. There are three more SteamWorld games in development at Thunderful's various internal studios, too. After a brief hiatus, one of the quieter indie greats out there is back and raring to go, and if it's not on your radar already, it really should be.
What makes a SteamWorld game?
If you're familiar with the series, it's probably through SteamWorld Dig, a delightful Metroidvania and the only current SteamWorld entry to get a direct sequel. But SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech is a lovely card battler, and SteamWorld Heist is a fantastic tactics game. Even SteamWorld Tower Defense reviewed well in its heyday on the Nintendo DSi. SteamWorld is all over the place, and Thunderful also develops and publishes standalone games like Wavetale and The Gunk. With SteamWorld Build set to revive the series in 3D for the first time, this made me wonder how the studio curates this rapidly expanding universe, so I spoke to a few folks from Thunderful about the future of SteamWorld.
"Some ideas are too good to not realize, right?" explains founder Brjann Sigurgeirsson. "That's how we reason about it. And some of them will obviously not fit in the SteamWorld universe. Wavetale wouldn't, and The Gunk wouldn't. If we had stretched it, they could have. At one point I actually thought The Gunk was going to become a SteamWorld game, but when we had the main characters, we decided that their story can be another IP. We're working on things that definitely cannot be SteamWorld games. We still want to make those games; it would be sad if we said we're only going to make SteamWorld games.
"When SteamWorld Dig was a hit, we immediately had a lot of conversations like, should we make SteamWorld Dig 2 immediately? We decided against that since we come from a history of work-for-hire. We thought we're gonna get stuck. After that we'll have to do SteamWorld Dig 3 and 4 and then maybe we're at the end of our rope there. Instead, the discussion we had was that this is a very big chance of creating an IP rather than just a series of games with the same gameplay. If we can make a SteamWorld game that's radically different from SteamWorld Dig and that game is also received very well, then we have all the opportunity in the world to work on this."
That strategy has worked well so far, but SteamWorld Build presented some unique challenges as a series candidate. It would be a new genre, a whole extra dimension, and the work of a new studio, The Station. "When the guys and girls at The Station presented what became SteamWorld Build, it felt [natural] to turn it into a SteamWorld game," Sigurgeirsson recalls. "The only worry was obviously that The Station hadn't worked on the SteamWorld IP before, and neither had anyone. But very quickly, all that nervousness went away. How we curate it is really that someone pitches a game, and if we decide to make that game, we also see pretty much right away if it's a SteamWorld game or not."
Building SteamWorld Build
SteamWorld Build has been in the works for two years, and it emerged as the winner from two potential pitches. As Persson explains, The Station didn't want to make a conventional city builder using SteamWorld as a wrapper, so the team looked to the likes of SimCity, SteamWorld Dig, Dungeon Keeper, and Factorio for inspiration – and, especially with SteamWorld Build also coming to consoles, as a reference for how to streamline complex controls. This eventually led to the split focus of maintaining a city while building out a mine underground, and this allowed for a lot of fascinating industrial stuff connecting the two.
"Since the game takes place in several layers, because it could be a separate city builder or it could be a separate mine game, we purposely made the city a bit simpler," explains game director Andreas Persson. "It's not as complex as competitors just in the city. We wanted to make sure that if you have a functioning city, you can go down in the mine and focus there without being afraid of there being a fire in the city. If everything is functioning in the city when you leave, it should be functioning when you return."
After sampling the first few hours of one scenario – rather, one of the five "destinations" that SteamWorld Build will launch with – I was curious about what the tail end of a session would look like. Persson says each destination will probably take most players 10 to 15 hours to clear, but if you want to keep tinkering after reaching your end goal – collecting a piece of ancient technology and/or going to space, nearest I can tell – you can choose to delay the finale to bask in the beauty of your city. Each destination will roughly double in size as you unlock new land, and some unlocks carry over between destinations to "help you make your city more efficient on later maps."
My initial interest in SteamWorld Build was mostly due to it being a new game in a series I like, and I don't have that kind of loyalty for a lot of games. It's usually reserved for studios; I'll try virtually anything by Supergiant Games or Platinum Games, for instance. I've got nothing against city and base builders, but I haven't played that many of them either. Fortunately, making varying genres approachable for the unfamiliar – in this case, building a city builder for people who don't love city builders – is a hallmark of SteamWorld. In this particular instance, The Station also paid special attention to people looking to play with a gamepad on console (or perhaps Steam Deck).
"This genre is usually a PC and keyboard experience, right, and we wanted to make sure that it will work equally well for those that play on consoles," says producer Adam Vassee. "We had this in mind from the beginning and we're really proud of the result. All the decisions regarding the UI, from the start, have been made with that in mind. This should work great with a gamepad."
"For me, I'm a huge fan of Settlers and those, but I tried to get into Anno and everything but I always felt like those were a bit overwhelming for me, especially from a UI perspective," adds art director Sofie Wikström, closely echoing my experience with the genre. "There was a lot of input I always had to take in, and I've always felt like if we're going to design it, it needs to be easy to pick up. Everything just needs to feel like it flows, it needs to be easy to read, so I think that shapes a lot of why we made the game the way we did."
"This is the third time I'm just enjoying reading comments in forums," Sigurgeirsson says. "With SteamWorld Heist, when we announced that, someone would say, 'well, I'm not a fan of turn-based tactics, but if it's a SteamWorld game I'll try it.' And now, to my delight, I get to read that 'yeah, city building is not my cup of tea, but I'm sure it's gonna be good.' It's a lot of fun to have an IP and a franchise where it's almost our duty to surprise and then deliver on that surprise."