Song of Iron developer, Joe Winter, discusses what it's been like making the game solo, the inspiration behind it, working with Xbox, and so much more.
Full Interview: Joe Winter on his upcoming game, Song of Iron
Joe Winter, creator of the upcoming indie Viking side-scroller, Song of Iron, is no stranger to game development, having worked in the games industry for nearly 15 years making arcade games, MMO's and shooters (including a stint on the most recent game in the Halo franchise). Yet despite his many accomplishments within the industry, Song of Iron is easily one of his biggest and most ambitious projects yet.
For those who've been following the upcoming side-scroller, the wait for the game’s full release will soon be over. A recent trailer revealed that the game will drop on August 31st, showcasing some stunning visuals, epic battles, and even a giant dragon. Suffice to say, the project looks to be a must-have for fans of the Viking and Norse genre, promising players a healthy dose of axe-swinging action set across dark forests and frosty mountains.
This is in no small part due to the fact Joe, as the sole developer of the game, is making pretty much every aspect of it entirely from scratch, from the combat to the story – with the exception being the game's sound design and music. This makes Song of Iron very much a passion project for Joe, and one that's been two years in the making.
So, with this new look at the game, I sat down with Joe to talk about his soon to be released indie title and the process of making it a reality.
"I’d been playing games my entire life and at some point, having made them for half of it, I got interested in messing around and trying my own ideas, and so I just cracked open Unreal one day and started messing around for fun," explains Joe, adding that the positive response he received on early builds of the game really took him by surprise:
“I started almost two years ago this month I think, and I started showing it on some Unreal subreddits and stuff like that, and I was getting really good responses. I released a sort of quote on quote ‘trailer’ with clips and stuff by September, so a few months after I started, and I just got a really good response and that made me kind of think ‘maybe there’s actually something cool here, people are responding to this really well every time I post something', even though this was really early, but it was just constantly a positive response and so I started thinking more seriously about it."
Song of Iron only continued to gain popularity from there, as Joe, motivated by the overwhelmingly positive response and feedback, continued to work on and show off early prototypes of the game. It was around this time he decided to set up a Song of Iron Steam page, and, thanks to a small trailer, found himself on the front page of r/gaming on Reddit:
"I went front page of r/gaming and the front page of Reddit with a little trailer thing and it got 132,000 upvotes or something; It was crazy my phone never stopped ringing all day basically. Xbox then found me through that original Reddit post and it’s kinda just been this crazy whirlwind ever since.”
Given how much motivation Joe received from all the positive responses to the game, I asked whether or not he would still be making it had he not received such a positive response. He said that for him, the feedback was great, especially because it was so positive, but that even if it hadn't been, Song of Iron was still something he wanted to make, and something that would've definitely still released, all be it under different circumstances:
"Early on in a project having that response definitely gives you a lot of motivation to keep going it feels great," he said, "but I like to think I would keep going cause I was having a lot of fun. Had the response not been so positive maybe it wouldn’t be coming out so soon, it would be smaller, maybe I’d still be working on 343, you know what I mean? There are all these little things that would maybe be different, but I would’ve definitely kept going.”
Joe has also been very outspoken on the game's development, and has frequently provided some insight into what it's like to develop a game from scratch; offering some tips and advice to those hoping to do the same. Thus I wanted to get a deeper understanding of Joe's approach to bringing Song of Iron to life, especially with regards to how he got started.
Getting started on any new project can be tough, so I was curious about what Joe prioritised at the beginning of the game's development process. As an animator, Joe naturally wanted to focus on getting the feel of the game right first, which resulted in combat being one of the first things he worked on:
“I definitely just wanted to get something cool in the combat space for it. The very beginning was just this little box and a guy that would walk around and swing his axe around, and it was like, if I can make this one button press feel good, then I can now move onto the next button.”
“I just knew from making games that if you can make one button feel good, then you’ve got something, and people skip right away to a full suite of things and none of its fun because they never really took the time to make each thing great, and so I went from there.”
We spoke more about what players can expect from Song of Iron's combat, which from the trailers looks like a ton of fun. It was here that Joe's love for the project really shone through, as he went in-depth about how he wanted combat to feel for the player, and even described the experience as the "John Wick of Vikings":
“I love to compare it to the John Wick of Vikings or something, or just like a barroom brawl. You have a weapon, there’s nothing special about it. I want you to throw it, I want you to dropkick enemies, everything is really visceral."
He elaborated more on this point, adding:
"If you’re in a barroom brawl like in an old western you’d like, break a chair over someones back, grab a bottle throw it across the room and then throw a few punches, and I just want that really fluid kind of feel and that less restrained sort of thing. I didn’t want to do a one-two-three combo that leads into these other combos. It’s great in games but it's a very artificial type of combat.”
While it sounds like players can expect a lot from Song of Iron's combat mechanics, Joe stated that the game is far more than just a beat-em-up brawler and that players will be able to experience a lot more than just chopping through bad guys:
“It has the appearance of a beat-em-up but it's way more experience-driven. It’s not just a big fighter where all you’re doing is brawling; you’re exploring, you’re adventuring, you’re solving puzzles, you’re doing a little bit of platforming, and I as an animator wanted to do something that would be animation centric so combat has a very grounded and sort of realistic speed and style to it.”
One aspect of that experience will be the game's story, which is seemingly going to be a central part of the experience. For many people, storytelling and making a compelling narrative can be tricky, but luckily for Joe, he already had a story waiting to be told, and one he was living out in an entirely different medium:
“I’d been playing D&D at the time and the story we were playing and my character were great and so I just sorta slapped that right into the game and it just works perfectly." He said, "So from day one, I knew what my story was and where it was headed so that made things really easy.”
It's a great way of getting a story that's for sure, and Joe noted that his D&D character's story translated seamlessly into Song of Iron, with only little changes made to it over the course of development. Yet at the same time, it's the part of the game Joe is most nervous about, having never written a story for a game before:
“It’s the thing I’m most afraid of in some ways - my actual writing in the game. I’ve kept it down to a really short script, I’m trying to do as much storytelling with the environment if I can. I think had I been able to I would’ve had no dialogue at all.”
Joe's desire to feature a lot of environmental storytelling in Song of Iron comes directly from many of the game's gaming inspirations, primarily indie sidescrollers that embody the same principles of subtle storytelling:
“If I had to point to one [influence] I think Inside is probably the biggest single inspiration as far as aesthetics; like it’s a fully 3D world but you’re just on one plane, kind of like the art style and the mood, I like how moody Inside is and I really wanted to emulate that in the Nordic way, and really early on I thought ‘this is awesome but what if it was a Viking instead of a kid?’ I thought that could be really cool and so I really honed in on that, and then I tried to stop looking at Inside so much so I didn’t totally copy it, but it was definitely like a massive influence. I love that game and I took a lot of inspiration from it.”
It wasn't just Inside that Joe referenced when discussing where he drew influence, citing games like Journey and Shadow of the Colossus for their minimalistic approach to storytelling, and as prime examples of how games offer unique ways of conveying stories:
“I think that is something that is awesome that games can do much better than a lot of other media, and that’s why you know Inside had no dialogue; Journey was a big inspiration as far as that goes cause that has no dialogue; Shadow of the Colossus also, there was technically a little bit but it's so little that they just push you along every once in a while and that’s it. I just love that stuff to death, that brand of game is just amazing to me, and hopefully, I’m doing it justice a little bit; we’ll have to wait and see.”
With the recent slew of Viking and Norse-themed games, I wondered why Joe had decided to go for that same aesthetic and theme. He responded by saying that the Viking aesthetic was a big part of the game before he even started making it, thanks to his pre-existing love for the setting and also his aforementioned D&D character who inspired the game's story:
“I’ve always been attracted to the lore, I think around that time I was reading Neil Gaiman's mythology book with all that stuff and that’s really cool, and my D&D character was living that Viking mythology world so it was just all these things that came together. I was watching Vikings and thinking 'this is super cool', I’ve always liked it I’ve watched every movie in that realm and it’s always been a thing that I’ve loved. So it was just natural to me I never thought of it being anything else.”
This is when he emphasised the significance of the game's soundtrack and composer, Will, in really bringing Song of Iron's Norse world to life:
“Especially with the music, the thing I talk with Will about a lot is always to choose the traditional feeling over the more mainstream feeling. I think God of War did a good job, the soundtrack for God of War is amazing I reference it a lot when talking about it. They did a really clean approach that almost everybody will like. I think what I’m now saying is if everybody doesn’t like this but, like, a chunk of people really like it because it's so true, then let's go that way as much as we can.”
He also shared a bit on how he imagines the soundtrack feeling and sounding in-game, and provided a charming description of how he and Will approached making it feel as authentic as possible:
“I always tell Will ‘pretend there’s one guy following this hero around off-screen and he’s playing music for the hero’ because that feels so much more visceral, as though they’re at a fire telling the story of this guy. One’s singing, one’s playing the Tagelharpa, and one is on a drum; it’s a little more complicated than that at the end, but that’s the essence I want.”
The more Joe shared about the development process and how he tackled everything, the more fascinated I became with the game. The amount of time and effort Joe has put in the project really shows, and is made that much more impressive by the fact he's doing it all himself. That's no small feat, especially when Joe had primarily been an animator during his time working in multiple game studios. But he feels that his many years within the industry and in larger game studios, in particular, are what set him up for success when making Song of Iron; and why he still loves game development to this day:
“Of course with animation, it's always like 'do I want to be a Pixar animator or do I want to go into games?' and I got a game job first and I loved it and I never looked back to film, and I think games is just so much fun for me to work on and make that I’ve never thought twice about it.”
"I love the creative process and I love the player experience that comes with games. A lot of game animation is not just about making one thing look good, it's about making it look good, making it feel good for the player, and then conveying the right power level if it's an attack or something."
His love for the game development process has maybe even been heightened thanks to Song of Iron, not just because it's his very own game, but also it has allowed him to branch out into different areas of game development that he maybe wouldn't have dabbled in before:
“One of the reasons I even started was that I love the learning process and that discovery and that feeling of accomplishing even just, like, making jump work. But it feels so good to go through those processes so even when it’s a struggle I know there’s this great reward once I figure it out, and so that’s always been fun for me”.
It's not just the experience of making games that made Joe fall in love with game development, as some of his fondest memories working in the games industry came from those he worked with. This made me wonder whether Joe wishes he got a bigger team together for Song of Iron rather than make it himself. But Joe seems more than happy giving his all to the project, and stated that if he was to expand his team, it's important that he keeps it small:
"I don’t think I’d ever want to go beyond five people or something," he said, "There’s something really great about the smallness of the team, just having a few more people so then there’s no 'lost in translation'; so we’re still working, we can be excited about it, and we’re working on what we’re most passionate about."
"Once you start moving past that too much, I think then someone is just doing their job eventually, then I have to become a manager and a boss and then I’m not making the game anymore either, so that was a huge factor to it."
"So yea, best case: three to four people who are all just making the game; Keep it simple and do it well sort of mentality."
It was here that Joe hinted at wanting to make more games in the Song of Iron series, claiming that he can already see himself making Song of Iron a trilogy. This possibility relies heavily on the response he gets to the first game, but it remains something he really wants to do going forward. He made sure not to give too much away about what Song of Iron's sequels will look like though, saying:
“It’s gonna need to be a little secret because it really pins on this thing, but I think to not make mistakes I’d want to make the game very similar."
He did however share that he hopes to continue improving on what makes the first game great, and already has ideas about what systems he'd like to improve upon. At the same time he doesn't want to stray too far from his original vision, and says to expect Song of Iron sequels to preserve the original scope of the first game, while also building upon its foundations:
“I think it would be a major mistake if the next game was 10 hours long or something like that, or became a third-person action game." He notes, adding:
"If people like this game then I want to keep all of the essence of what this game was. I’ll be reading through so many comments and feedback from it that it's hard to understand what people will take from it and what are the most important pieces and what they liked most until I go through this. Those will be the most important things to take into the further games in the series.”
One other thing Joe spoke about was getting Song of Iron on Xbox, and gave praise to the team over at Xbox for getting Song of Iron on their platform, and providing him with constant support over the entire development process:
“They’ve been awesome. Obviously, I’ve never published a game through anybody before, but I can't imagine it being much better than what’s going on there. They respond very quickly to questions, they’re way out of the way in terms of me being creative in what I want to do; they’ve never once said “what if you made it a little more like this?” which is awesome."
He continued to emphasise the amount of creative freedom he was afforded through the ID@Xbox programme, and how thankful he is for it:
"Basically I didn’t need a publisher because of the deal I’ve got with them, but they're not being a publisher that wants control, they just want games to come to their system and so they're encouraging as much of that as they can and I’m happy to benefit from that programme because it [Song of Iron] would’ve only been a Steam game otherwise.”
With all this talk of Xbox, I of course had to ask about Song of Iron and Xbox Game Pass. Sadly, players shouldn't expect Song of Iron to be a day one release on the subscription service, but Joe remains very eager to work with the Game Pass team, meaning that we may yet see Song of Iron come to the service in the near future:
“I think Game Pass is the coolest thing we’ve seen in that part of the industry in a long time," he said, adding that from the business side of things it seems beneficial to developers, and thus, he's "super on-board.”
With the game now only a few weeks away from release, Joe says he's feeling "surprisingly good", adding that the continued positive response to the game, and feedback he's received from early demos and previews, has done a great job of keeping his spirits high and excited for people to get their hands on the full game. Joe's optimism is also grounded in his philosophy on managing expectations, and coming to terms with the fact that not everyone will like what you create:
“There’s always people who don’t like it or hate it even. Who knows? Maybe they’ll totally disagree with decisions I’ve made and that’s totally fine. Honestly, I’d like to know that because that’s the only way to make it better; understanding what people don’t like about the thing. But maybe wait a week so I can relax a little but otherwise let me know.”
He shared this same philosophy when asked about whether or not he is concerned about the fact there's been a rise in Viking themed games:
“It’s going to happen, but for every person who says I’m bored of Viking games, there’s ten people saying ‘Viking sidescroller? Count me in!’ so I think I’ve caught it early enough hopefully.”
At the end of our interview, I felt it would be a wasted opportunity not to ask Joe what advice he'd give to anyone looking to get into game development, or even just make their own project. This is what he had to say:
“I love this question honestly, anything I can do to help creatives. I answer questions and anyone else who sees this feel free to send me messages I love talking about this stuff. It’s sort of the lame answer but you have to do it, you have to start trying stuff and failing at it and understanding why those things failed. Watch media you like and want to emulate and don’t just make a bigger version of it, understand why that media’s good. I think people fall into traps of thinking bigger is better and you can take that in any direction you want, but there are other things that make things good. Understanding that stuff as much as you can will mean that what you’re building is gonna be stronger."
He goes on, adding:
"A lot of times with animators and certain artists or just game developers in general, they think the game they’re making right now is the one and they forget a lot early on that you’ve got to practice how to make things good, and so they should think about taking time to train the skills. If you think of a concept artist they’re going to sketch 100 sketches in a book sitting in meetings, and one out of 100 times they go all-in on something, but it’s the accumulation of these sketches and all this practice that makes that piece good."
"Don't just do the big one first. If you spend one weekend at a time on a game and then throw it away, you’re going to learn a ton and then you get a clean slate to just try again. It’s going to speed up your path a ton, and have fun and do what you like to do, that will help...a lot.”
In my time speaking with Joe, I learned a lot about Song of Iron and what I can expect when it releases on August 31st. But I also learned a lot about the man behind the game, who spoke vividly and joyfully about the journey he's been on to make it a reality and his love for game development; While also showing off his infectiously optimistic personality that's kept him going through even the most frustrating stages in development.
I would like to thank Joe for taking the time to sit down with me and discuss all things Song of Iron, and if you haven't already, be sure to watch our full interview at the top of this article, where you can find more insights into the game, its development, and much more.
Song of Iron will be releasing on Steam and Xbox on August 31st, and I for one can't wait to play it on day one.
On Twitter, you can also follow Joe @SongofIron, and you can follow me @TheeMcGinn.