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Greg Kasavin talks career, Supergiant Games, and Transistor

Supergiant Games
Supergiant Games
Supergiant Games

While most Indies would probably agree that finding monetary success in the video game world isn’t easy, many still prefer the creative freedom of staying "indie" over fast track development. This creative allure is what drew Greg Kasavin, now the Creative Director of Supergiant Games, to leave not one, but multiple jobs in the video game industry throughout his lifetime in order to pursue his dream of making the games he wanted to see.

Kasavin landed his first big spot as an intern at Gamespot in 1996 where he spent the next ten years immersed in video game journalism until he announced his final resignation in 2007 as the Editor-in-Chief. He followed Gamespot by working at Electronics Arts (EA) for a couple of years on the Command and Conquer franchise among other titles. From there Kasavin did a stint at 2K Games until ultimately choosing to gamble a bit by being a member of the Supergiant Games team.

Kasavin sat down with us to talk about his career, Supergiant Games, and the decisions that led him to pursue his dream of complete creative freedom in game development.

Jesse Tannous: Is there one particular moment that might stand out among the rest while working in games journalism for all those years?

Greg Kasavin: There’s a lot for me because I was at Gamespot for more than 10 years. It’s hard for me to single out a particular moment. A lot of it is a blur and a lot of it I do remember rather vividly. For sure one of the amazing things about working in the games industry in any capacity is you can get so close to your heroes in a way. I’ve had an opportunity to meet so many of the people who I really really admired.

One of the first for me was, and this was way back very soon after I started at Gamespot, I got to interview Richard Garriott the creator of Ultima, for like a history of Ultima series. Ultima when I was growing up as a kid was basically my favorite thing period, and Ultima 4 is like, when I was playing that as a little kid was when I knew and felt that I wanted to make games, it was a really profound experience for me. So that was really cool, I kind of couldn’t believe it, I didn’t do a ton of interviews actually while I was at Gamespot, but I was just there a long time and being able to meet folks like that even in passing was just unbelievably cool.

JT: For someone who has been in video game journalism for many years and then transitioned into game development, how was that transition?

GK: It was not so bad, it was relatively smooth, at least professionally. There was a couple of reasons for that. One is that I’ve wanted to work on games since I was a little kid, so the desire was definitely there so I was willing to take a certain amount of punishment and just kind of figured it out. But really one of the main things that helped me transition smoothly, in my role at Gamespot at the time, well I had left back in the beginning of 2007, I was working a lot on the website itself. Sort of the product side of it in addition to working on content and the editorial team, so that gave me a good deal of practical experience working with engineers and graphic designers, and basically those various disciplines.

On a high level something like Gamespot, much like a video game is a piece of software that a lot of people contribute to, so that type of experience I think really helped translate. Where I think if I had been sort of exclusively a game critic, writer, or reviewer I think I would have had a much harder time and been out of my element when I first started.

JT: You had to make several personal sacrifices to join Supergiant Games, can you tell me about some of those?

GK: Getting into game development was at best a sort of lateral career step for me. It was sort of a career reboot in a lot of ways even though I just talked about for sure I didn’t start from nothing, and I felt like I had many advantages in fact going in, from my perspective. But from another point of view I was kind of starting over in a new career path, and I wasn’t even doing that well financially as a result of that. Which was fine, it was a sacrifice I was more than willing to make.

For Supergiant in particular, we started as 2 people working in the living room of a house. I was working at 2K Games at the time, I worked for 2K for a year after EA. So going from a stable and good job at 2K to joining a couple of my friends with almost no money and statistically very poor chances of success that took some convincing with my family because I already had one kid at the time and another one on the way. I was at the point in my personal life where I couldn’t just easily drop everything and pursue my passions because there are other people, including very small people that were depending on me for a certain amount of stability in their lives.

So that was a stark moment of it, but my family was obviously super supportive in the end. My parents were very supportive including monetarily, I’m very very lucky. I was just incredibly fortunate to be in a position where I could mooch of my parents for a while, which was the first time I did that since I was a teenager, but initially they helped me out monetarily just so I could take that job, and go work and make Bastion.

A studio like Supergiant doesn’t get made because peoples priority is the stability in their lives, we were just really interested in making games our own way and seeing where that would take us, and thankfully Bastion was really well received and as a small studio gave us financial stability. Now I’m no longer mooching off my parents (laughs) thankfully. The sustainability of what we do is really important to us long term because we want to keep doing this for as long as we can. But starting up it can be rather scary I guess.

JT: Choosing to go from the stable environment of 2K Games to the sort of dream project like Supergiant and Bastion, one might call that completely irrational. So what was that conversation like when you approached your family with this decision?

GK: To look at it rather objectively, I could give you an answer that makes me sound like I did something noble. Frankly, it was probably a deeply selfish decision on my part. It was not a rational decision. It was something that probably put my family at risk financially and arguably took advantage of my parents and their generosity, all for the sake of what I wanted to do.

That is the not nice way of looking at it, but I think it’s the fair way of looking at it because I couldn’t make any promises. All I could say was ‘I really want to do this, I think it could succeed, and if I don’t do it now I don’t think I’ll have another chance’. But was it a good decision? That is highly debatable, but I tried to kind of do my due diligence in terms of explaining it and saying, ‘Here’s what this will mean in the shorter run, and here’s what will happen in the longer run, here’s what will happen in a year from now one way or another,’ and we just kind of worked it out that way. So we kind of planned out the worst case scenario and decided that the worst case scenario was tolerable and wouldn’t be devastating.

What was a requirement for me, we weren’t going to relocate, I wasn’t going to uproot my family as part of it, so the stability of my families situation was a necessary ingredient which is how I dragged my parents into it. That’s how we were able to minimize the impact on people who were not me. Again this is a selfish way of looking at it, but the part where I can have a creatively more fulfilling job potentially that could, in theory, have benefits to the human beings who have to put up with me day in and day out.

So it was things like that, it wasn’t an easy decision and my wife Jenna has been sort of eternally tolerant of me, we’ve been married for more than ten years now and she’s kind of put up with my crap the entire time. The hours I was working at Gamespot were really quite bad, and when I went to go work for Electronic Arts I was essentially commuting and I wouldn’t see my family for two weeks at a time. So she has always put up with a level of ridiculousness in my professional pursuits and in some respects this was just the latest in a series of those kinds of decisions, but in the long run my track record with my career decisions I think Jenna has a certain amount of faith in my decision making around this stuff based on my track record even though in the moment it can seem as you said very irrational and like ‘oh god why can’t you just be happy and stay put with what you’re doing?’ Unfortunately, I can’t control how I feel when it comes to that stuff, nor can a lot of people I suppose.

JT: I’m interested in your style of developing narrative in your games. Essentially, the game gets created and then you go and write the story after the fact, is that an accurate description?

GK: Not really, but I think aspects of what you’ve heard are true. We develop them in parallel as much as possible. Foremost we are a gameplay driven studio, we don’t start with a script and back fill the gameplay. The narrative aspect is sort of heavily developed by what we do on the gameplay side. I feel like that is part of the challenge but it is part of the pleasure of it as well.

If I just wanted to write a story in some respects it’s much much easier just to do that than make a game. There is a lot of really difficult stuff about making games, there are just purer ways of writing a story than integrating one into a video game, at least with the way we do it. I really enjoy finding the harmony between the gameplay and the narrative, finding opportunities to connect narrative themes with whatever is happening in the gameplay so that it all feels very closely tied together so it’s an iterative process.

I think what you’ve heard is that we don’t do any of the writing until we had playable content, so the writing does occur to fit the playable space that was created, but that’s based on having an outline, we still at that point have a high level outline about what is happening in the story at that given time. So it’s a little of each we have it roughly planned out but then we defer on the real writing and execution until we have what we feel is strong gameplay in that area.

JT: Having worked at a couple of big studios, is this sort of style done frequently or is this more unique?

GK: I don’t know that it is done that frequently, it feels sort of proprietary for us. Logan (Logan Cunningham) is a big part of the reason we’ve been able to do it that way at all. We’ve collaborated with him so closely with voice over recording that we can literally have dozens of voice recording sessions over the course of development. As opposed to even on very big projects that are many orders of magnitude bigger than the kinds we make, those still only get kind of several big recording sessions with their top actors.

Like the new Call of Duty (Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare), they aren’t getting Kevin Spacey in twice a week to record new content. They probably only have a couple of opportunities with Kevin Spacey to get all the stuff that they need, so they gotta have the script all locked down and they’ll record with Kevin Spacey and it’s gonna be expensive and god willing it’s gonna be worth it and it is gonna be awesome. But with Logan we are able to collaborate with him so closely and iterate so often we’re able to take this very tactical approach of just kind of recording a little at a time and re-recording frequently to make sure everything felt right.

We were going for this more reactive style where it’s not just a linear straightforward script, we try to do a lot of reactive stuff in both of our games, so having access to an actor who could record frequently was essential to that process. I think that is less common than the alternative where you have to have your entire script ready by certain deadlines and having massive recording sessions, and then maybe you get a couple of pickup sessions later on, but it is going to be much more concentrated than spread out during production.

JT: Do you think that style limits or increases your scope for creativity?

GK: For sure it’s been essential for what we’ve been able to do thus far. On Transistor actually we had a little of each because Logan doesn’t have the only speaking part in that game, and for a couple of the other speaking parts we recorded those in a more traditional way of having more of the script nailed down by the time we got the actors in because again, we kind of aren’t as close to them as we are with Logan.

That has certain advantages and constraints as well, to put it another way if we didn’t know Logan and didn’t have that personal relationship between him and Amir (Amir Rao), our Studio Director, and Darren (Darren Korb), our Audio Director, the narrative aspect of Bastion wouldn’t have existed. Which is crazy to say because it seems like such a key part of that game, but Logan is very much what made that possible, we wouldn’t have even contemplated that kind of an aspect to the game if we didn’t have a member of the team would could deliver on it.

JT: Some of the differences I’m seeing between Bastion and Transistor is the expectation of the players. Does Supergiant plan on making smarter games like I’d argue Transistor is with these denser stories in the future?

GK: There is a range of reactions to the game. It’s not uncommon even among people who really love Transistor to note that it is a relatively challenging game both narratively and gameplay wise, in the sense that there is not a lot of hand holding there. We wanted to make a thoughtful experience with this game, especially from a gameplay standpoint. No aspect of it was trying to do something better than Bastion since the response to Bastion was so strong we felt that if we could just make something with its own identity we would be in good shape.

We don’t want to fall into the trap of trying to make a bigger better game every single time, I think that’s really asking for trouble. Bastion took Action RPG gameplay into a very action oriented direction, a lot of twitch based mechanics and timings and stuff, so it had almost kind of arcade like gameplay for an action RPG. So we were interested in kind of taking a sharp detour just for creative reasons and seeing if we could make this more strategic feeling, more thoughtful feeling moment to moment play experience.

I think narratively we did not start out with a goal of ‘let’s make it harder for people to understand,’ or anything like that, nor was that a goal from a gameplay standpoint either. It is really important to us that our games be accessible and approachable, easy to pick up and start playing, we want the challenge to be there, we want our games to be interesting, but we don’t want people to struggle to get into them. We try to find a balance there, because it is really important to us that people can just pick it up and go and not get tons of boring preamble and immersion breaking tutorial or even pandering condescending tutorial either.

So on Transistor, we did consciously risk like the game being harder to pick up, in some respects, for the sake of the sensation that you could figure it out on your own and the pleasures that come with that sense of discovery. So many games just kind of spoon feed everything to the player and we definitely did not want to do that while at the same time finding a good balance so that people could figure out. We have no desire to just make our games more elusive or whatever, we want our games to be accessible and interesting and memorable, hopefully, but there is not a goal of like shutting people out from those experiences.

JT: A lot was on the line for Supergiant Games when Bastion released and thankfully it was a big success, is Supergiant still in the same position now with the release of Transistor?

GK: Overall it is very similar to Bastion in the sense that we kind of put it all on the line with each of our games. Each game we work on we give it our all and the success or failure of that game will kind of profoundly influence whatever happens from there. We didn’t have any plans beyond the launch of Transistor for the reasons I just mentioned, we don’t even have to plan far ahead as a small team which is nice. Before our game had come out, it’s like any plans for the future, there was both some superstition like ‘let’s not jinx anything or count our chickens before they hatch,’ and also just a sense that those plans would feel kind of false, because we didn’t know how’d we feel once the game had come out or how it would and so on and so forth. Now that it is out and it’s been out for a couple of weeks were finally starting to take a look around and survey the landscape and see how the dust is settling and see how everyone on the team is feeling and figure out what we’re going to do from here. Thankfully it’s been doing very well so far, the response has been great, people have sort of generously bought it, knock on wood, hopefully we’ll be able to keep on going for a while here. As far as what’s next for us, your guess is as ours.

JT: As the Creative Director I imagine like many writers you have a folder or a notebook stashed somewhere filled with different ideas for stories, games, or even mechanics. Now that Transistor is out, are any of those coming to the forefront of your mind even conceptually about the next project?

GK: For sure I have those kinds of ideas. If those are just things that I’ve been thinking of myself, those are very different from the kinds of ideas we talk about as a team. Despite what my title is our process at Supergiant is super super collaborative. Everyone I work with is both very opinionated and very creative. So the idea of someone bringing like a fully formed game pitch to that team is actually rather deeply frowned upon.

We have to develop those ideas by finding the common ground between what everybody is interested in. As opposed to saying like ‘Oh I really wanna make this game next, what do you guys think?’ that’s not how our conversations are structured. This sounds like this can’t possibly be true, but you’d be surprised that there has been almost no conversation about what we are going to do next among us on the team thus far. Which I actually do think is really weird, and most studios are not like that, but we have our strange idiosyncrasies and superstitions and we have to make sure we put this thing to bed properly before we move onto the next thing. Internally we are talking through our post mortems and just making sure where everybody is at before we can move forward.

JT: Would you mind walking me through that collaborative process?

GK: I’m sure we’ll change things around to a certain extent moving forward, but the way we started on Transistor was having everybody talking together about their preoccupations. That can really mean anything remotely related to a game, whether it’s sort of thematic content, a game mechanic, a piece of technology, a genre, just really anything that anybody is thinking about that is exciting to them at that time.

We get all of that stuff on paper or on a board and start to talk through it and start to look for common ground. The idea that the most of us are excited about, and I feel very strongly about this, the thing that the most of us are the most excited to do is the best game we can make, it doesn’t matter what kind of game that is, what matters the most is our excitement to pursue it.

We’re just trying to immediately find what kind of game that that will be and then just unlock members of the team to start doing work on it, to start exploring it in their own perspective disciplines. Whether that’s Darren pursuing a new musical style that kind of fits a certain tone were interested in, or me starting to outline some kind of story structure or prototype some narrative that seems interesting and worth pursuing, so it starts very broad like that. It doesn’t start with some sort of pitch, we are actually resistant to that. We don’t want a concrete idea for the game at the beginning, we want a context and a general direction to explore and then see where that takes us through constant iteration.

We operate very tactically from there, lots of small tasks that can be done in a day or two, so we can start making rapid progress and just kind of all keep talking about it and moving forward until it starts to turn into a thing. That kind of a development process leads to a lot of stuff that you spend a lot of time working on it, end up not using it, but hopefully you learned something through that and it lead you to an idea that was more fruitful and so on and so forth. But yeah, the pre-production process for us can take a while I guess to figure out what we’re making.

JT: It seems to be working out for you so far.

GK: It’s nice. The world building aspect of Bastion, like the part where we kind of made an original setting and characters, that aspect was well regarded, and we wanted to see if we could make a new world from scratch with our next game, and I think that part has once again been well received with Transistor. The gameplay direction we took has also been well received thus far. It feels very exciting and liberating that we can just kind of make, quite frankly, whatever we want and hopefully if we just do it well people will kind of sign up for it. I think very few studios, including very big studios are in the position to do that these days, cause with bigger studios in the off chance that their game is successful then there is a high chance they’ll be signed up to do the sequel to that as their next project.

The game industry is so, understandably I guess, so risk averse. But for us, I think part of our signature as a studio is a certain amount of novelty to the game were making. Making things that are unexpected in some way, I would much rather our studio be known for that over time. I don’t have a problem with sequels, I mentioned the Ultima series earlier, Ultima 6 was an amazing game, Final Fantasy 6 was an amazing game, and there is nothing wrong with getting up there in sequels if you approach them in a certain way. For us we don’t know what our limits are at the moment so it’s good to keep searching and pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone.

JT: After Bastions success you grew in size as a studio. Do you have any plans to expand Supergiant Games even more, or are you close to reaching a sort of cap of personnel to remain small?

GK: Yeah it is much closer to the latter, we have no plans to grow. Our growth on Transistor has largely been around filling pretty critical gaps on the team. The way Gavin (Gavin Simon) the Co-Founder of the studio put it, we were an incomplete team on Bastion. So the folks we brought on board since then was all about shoring up some pretty glaring weaknesses we had when we were starting up and didn’t have the means to easily resolve those weakness.

To give you an example we had no animator on Bastion. We had Jen Zee who I think is an extraordinary artist who does amazing work, but she is not an animator, but Bastion obviously has animation in it. So anytime we needed animation we had to like call in a favor with one of our friends, who chances are was working somewhere else and so on. It’s not an ideal way to run a studio and it put an intense amount of pressure on those moments, it made us really question, ‘Should we even ask for this animation? Are we sure we really need this?’ and if the answer was yes well then chances are we had one shot to get it right.

So when Bastion was successful, that’s the kind of resource we really ought to have at the studio full time because the kind of collaboration we could have with that person the kind of iteration we could get will lead to a better result, so we hired a guy named Camilo Vanegas whose a 3D Modeler and Animator who we think did a fantastic job on Transistor and I just don’t know what we would have done if not for him given how much animation is in the game. That is just one example, they just provided something essential that we just could not do prior to them joining.

JT: What was the after party like once Transistor was done?

GK: Another shocking and perhaps awful revelation (laughs), we have had no such party as of yet. One of the perhaps negative consequences of being small is we just kept working through the launch. For sure though we all need to get together and sort of raise a glass and just acknowledge and celebrate that we’ve released our second game. Making games, I don’t know that it ever gets easy, for sure it has not even begun to get easy for me personally so each one feels like its own thing and it’s definitely worth acknowledging the accomplishment that we’ve gotten something out there much less thankfully in this case something that lots of people have enjoyed.

Still on a journey of self-discovery as a studio, Supergiant Games seems intent on charging ahead into the unknown in order to find the limits of their creative capacity, which, so far, has been exactly what fans have loved about their work.