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Superhot: "It was about adventure, not just rational choices"

Finding success with limited resources means embracing risk to become "essentially different," says Piotr Iwanicki

Piotr Iwanicki might just be the most popular guy in the room. It is the Brazil Independent Games Festival, the largest gathering of indie developers in Latin America, and for those who have travelled so far to be here Iwanicki represents an ideal. He is the creative director of Superhot, the public face of one of the most original games of the year, and in-the-flesh proof that commercial success doesn't require unattainable marketing resources or a teetering stack of compromises.

When Iwanicki and I meet, however, it's clear that the secret of that success remains mysterious - even to him. "Luck is always part of it," he says, shrugging his shoulders. "It's not like you could have planned Minecraft, right?"

"When we began Superhot as this bigger thing, one of our first decisions was to not play it safe"

The importance of luck in such a crowded marketplace is both undeniably true and - from the perspective of the developers at the BIG Festival - more than a little discouraging. Iwanicki understands that much, but he also understands the role that Superhot Team played in creating its own luck; nurturing the conditions from which good fortune might arise through "classic values" like hard work and perseverance, but also the outright rejection of conservative choices.

In part, that mode of thinking arose from the situation in which the team came together: at a "7 Day First-Person Shooter" game jam, an environment where embracing risk is an essential part of the brief. "You have nothing to lose," Iwanicki says. "So when we began Superhot as this bigger thing, one of our first decisions was to not play it safe. Don't make it like a normal game. Make it like an edgy, strange, game jam project. It was about adventure, not just rational choices."

Collectively, Superhot Team had sufficient experience to know that emulating proven ideas could be just as challenging as experimenting with new concepts. What often dissuaded developers from doing the latter was the belief that an existing idea stands a better chance of finding an audience: if a certain game is already making money, the logic goes, then a similar product could do the same. Iwanicki and his team resolved to head in the opposite direction.

"It wasn't a rational process," he says, explaining that even the name Superhot was the kind of decision that might be reversed if subjected to a certain kind of scrutiny. "It was intuition. When it comes to intuitive choices, you're often a lot smarter than you think. You shouldn't be afraid of that."

The same was true of the decision to launch a Kickstarter campaign in May 2014. Even at that early stage, Superhot had already attracted the interest of several publishers, all of which suggested crowdfunding and (of course) their help in running the campaign. "It would have been a safer choice," Iwanicki admits, "but I knew that going to Kickstarter with a publisher, this would be easy." Superhot Team didn't want to risk being advised to reign in its ideas. Kickstarter wasn't just a way of raising money, but of presenting its underlying philosophy in the court of public opinion.

"The things that work, the decisions you make that are right, they give you a boldness to try even more strange and different ideas"

"We were afraid that what we were doing would be too strange; maybe people wouldn't understand," Iwanicki says. "But it was refreshing to see how it resonated with people, us going in these directions."

Superhot reached its $100,000 funding target within 24 hours, and sailed past four stretch goals on its way to raising $250,000 in 30 days. "It encouraged us," Iwanicki admits, revealing a knack for understatement as well as game design. "The things that work, the decisions you make that are right, they give you a boldness to try even more strange and different ideas. This is important. When we started Superhot we already had this boldness. You should aspire to have that freedom, that boldness, because this will allow you to do your own unique things."

And Superhot is nothing if not bold. Iwanicki started out making Flash games, a world where the notion that developers are really competing for the player's time finds its purest expression. With Flash games, Iwanicki says, a sluggish loading graphic can be enough to drive away your audience. "People often say, 'the first five minutes matter.' No, no, no. In a Flash game five minutes is the whole gameplay, probably. What matters is the first five seconds."

From its brilliantly simple central mechanic to its computer simulation aesthetic to its crisp, striking colour palette, Superhot embodies so much of what indie games should aspire to achieve; standing out through smart, brave choices that don't require vast resources to realise, each one helping to both explain and sell the concept. The ID@Xbox team noticed these qualities early on, leading to my own first encounter with the game: a memorable trailer that gatecrashed a Microsoft Gamescom press conference, which was otherwise weighed down with the usual AAA fare.

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That Superhot Team found its way to such distinctive promotional material is no surprise. The game was built to sell itself in the shortest possible time, and risky choices were, at that point, fundamental to what Iwanicki was trying to accomplish. "When you do things like this, you just don't know [if it will work]," he says. "It's one minute of a deep voice repeating, 'Superhot, Superhot, Superhot,' with glimpses of gameplay. This is a strange decision. It makes it pop out, but at the same time it's a risky decision. That was the natural way for us.

"You're not looking to compete with big marketing budgets. You compete by being essentially different. That was always our target"

"Whenever we were making a thing, we were always considering how could you tell a story about it. For instance, you can slice through bullets with a sword. For many reasons, this is not a practical choice. If you can slice a bullet, most likely you could have just dodged it. It's there because it's something for the player to discover, to tell their friends about... It's not just gameplay. It's a bit beyond that. It's gameplay that has story value, that has memetic value.

"Games can often sell themselves. I'm not diminishing the value of normal marketing. It's done for a reason - because it works. But also, from the indie perspective, you're not looking to compete with big marketing budgets. You compete by being essentially different. That was always our target."

This essential difference is also why Iwanicki turned so quickly to luck when attempting to explain Superhot's success. For indie developers operating in today's marketplace - whether in Britain or Brazil - there is no formula for finding and growing an audience, no received wisdom that can't just as easily seem misleading in retrospect. For Iwanicki and Superhot Team, success came from making one brave decision at the outset, and following wherever it led.

"Some things we know we did right are very hard to pass on as a form of advice," he says. "I'm pretty sure about the choices we're making, but to give advice is a whole other thing. These are like personal stories, and everybody has their own way. It's art, creativity - you have to find your own way." is a media partner for the BIG Business Forum. Our travel and accommodation costs were provided by the organiser.

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Matthew Handrahan avatar
Matthew Handrahan: Matthew Handrahan joined GamesIndustry in 2011, bringing long-form feature-writing experience to the team as well as a deep understanding of the video game development business. He previously spent more than five years at award-winning magazine gamesTM.