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Interview With Imagine Earth Developer Serious Bros. – Brothers Across The Universe And Platforms

Interview With Imagine Earth Developer Serious Bros. Not all the time, but often enough, the games that are able to garner a solid, committed following and fan base are the games that came from the smallest of beginnings.

Imagine Earth is in may ways a key example of that. It’s a city-builder that has been around for more than a decade, and while during that time it might not have had this big blow-up sales moment, it’s slowly and surely found a community of players that stick with it, who keep coming back with each new update.

It’s the kind of dedication from a fan base that’s enviable in the games industry, and it all stemmed from two people who in the course of this game’s life have become brothers in more than just name.

Developer Serious Bros. consists of two people, German game developers Martin Wahnschaffe and Jens Isensee. They met for the first time all the way back during their school days, and worked on a school project that would eventually become Imagine Earth.

Now, the two have seen the project from its conception, all the way to it being available on all major platforms save mobile, as it has officially arrived on PS5 and PS4 and other platforms.

For PSU, I got to speak to Imagine Earth’s two co-founders to find out more about their origin story, their feelings as we come to an end of a chapter, and what’s coming next.

Interview With Imagine Earth Developer Serious Bros. – Brothers Across The Universe And Platforms

PSU: Firstly, thank you both for taking the time to speak with me. I’d like to go back to the beginning, which I understand is going more than 15 years back. How did you two meet and start working on Imagine Earth?

Martin Wahnschaffe: Yeah, really long ago. So long that it would be difficult to remember if we weren’t telling it to someone who’s asking about it from time to time. So I think we met first in the context of a student project, if I correctly recall.

Jens Isensee: And in the beginning there was another guy, Florian Mätschke who had the idea to start this thing. It was a student project and we were participating in a Microsoft contest for solutions for the climate crisis Рclimate change, as we said back then Рand they had a game development as a category, for the awards, for the first time.

That was the reason we started working on a prototype, that turned out to keep us busy for quite some time now. [Laughs]

MW: Yeah so, Florian brought us together to get this project started, and then the two of us stayed with it for a long time.

JI: I think he went out of the project soon to build some flashy shooting games or something, and then he went into finance anyways, so he didn’t have any interest in this topic that we [Jens and Martin] shared, for all these years. The idealism and the feeling that this topic is important, and this take we have on it with this game is a very compelling thing.

PSU: So it began as a student project – what was the turning point where you both said ‘This started as just a student thing, but we really have something here’?

MW: I felt like there were multiple steps. So in the student project [phase], we made it into, I don’t know, the top six or so. So we went to France for a big meeting and everything. This was really nice and it was a start of like, ‘Okay there seems to be something about it,’ right.

Then it was because we’re still doing our own studies, from time to time we felt like, ‘Okay, let’s go on.’ And then there were other little…how’s it called…

JI: Competitions.

MW: Yes competitions, for example E.I.G.A had one where we participated and there we won, so we got the chance to get into Steam, and back then it was quite a thing because there was no ‘Steam green light,’ that came oh, I don’t know maybe half a year later or something. Still, we [thought] we can get into Steam with this, so let’s go for it. I think that’s where it really started to get on track and became real.

JI: What pulled us into this project even further I think was after we won this Intel award for best build-up, strategy game. We had this chance to go on Steam and two years after they started Early Access, we went in, when we were having the feeling that this was ready to be played by people and checked out, and it was the perfect project for that.

You can build your own little civilization on your own planet. It’s relaxed, laid back, wholesome in a way. Then we had this phase of nine years of Early Access where this project just worked really nicely in Early Access. We were getting constant money from it but not so to stay on this with [more] than two people.

So we couldn’t expand but for me as an artist, I studied Fine Arts, before, and wanted to have some activist like, idealistic project, so the global warming background fit. It was an okay income, and it was just going on for all this time, and it was always nice to have this community around us that helped us play it and gave input on how to balance this giant world simulator we were building.

It also needed this time to evolve, to make it better, to make it more intriguing, to balance out everything and so on and we all got that, so that’s why this went on for such a long time.

MW: Yeah, I mean I always had a bit of a bad feeling that we were taking so long and so on, but then we went to some big conference where one guy was presenting his project and he was a solo developer, and he was quite successful. I don’t know the name of the game anymore, but he talked about slow-cooking your game.

And he had been doing this for 10 years, and it felt like ‘That’s what we are doing. We are slow-cooking our game, it’s taking [some] time [Jens laughs] but it doesn’t mean that it’s bad. It’s a way of doing it, and it’s fine. So for me, at that point I felt a lot better [laughs]. I mean we are putting new stuff in it, people in Early Access are happy and glad to see it’s evolving and growing and it was great.

JI: To step back to the idealistic student phase, when it started out we were to exhibit the prototype in the Lourve in Paris. And that was something that, you can tell, motivated us for the first seven years when there wasn’t any income from it. There was this, like, ‘Oh this means something.’

And we were constantly getting acknowledgment or recognition for the background, for what I would now try to describe as we are trying to make the climate crisis a challenging, compelling and motivating challenge in this game, not [just] with moral storytelling, or something.

But the point I wanted to make was that, Microsoft was giving us Xbox 360 consoles, like over 15 years ago and we tried to bring it on to this console, and this is a connection to PlayStation now. From the very beginning, we had all the controls [work] with radial menus, always in mind that we wanted to [support] game pad control and have it on consoles.

So that’s why maybe, this maybe the most casual build-up simulation game you could get. That’s why we wanted to land on consoles, to really round-up the project in a way.

PSU: How does that feel now then? It’s been such a long journey for both of you, working on the game slowly for more than a decade while you did other things. How does it feel starting from a student project to it now being on pretty much every major platform? Unless there’s also a mobile port coming.

MW: Likely not mobile. [Laughs]

JI: But I have the personal feeling that, optimizing for [Nintendo] Switch was such a job, that it will now run on every modern smartphone as well. [Laughs] But let’s see what comes there.

This is pretty much the end of this decade-time-spanning project. But there will be DLC, ready to release maybe in two months or so. So that’ll be coming but we are mostly done here. I can imagine doing other things now [laughs]. There’s a lot of stuff I also did on the side, maybe going into art games now, is my next interesting project, doing virtual sculptures with XR devices and so on.

MW: That it’s now on these major consoles, I mean – in my personal space I have a lot of people that just never had a connection to the game because they are not PC gamers.

And just this weekend, my niece came to me and she was like, ‘Hey, I looked on the Switch with my Dad and saw your game is coming out.’ So that was like, ‘Okay cool, it’s real.’ And I mean, it was just two days earlier that it was announced and they immediately found it. And other people are playing it without me telling them about it.

So that was quite nice to see that it’s now on these marketplaces, a lot of people that don’t normally go to Steam will see it. That’s cool.

PSU: What’s the thing that kept you with Imagine Earth for so long? I’ve heard stories of developers working on one game for 5, 8 years, and when it’s done they’re ready to move on. But it’s been over a decade for both of you, it’s been a part of your entire adult lives. What’s been the thing about this game that keeps you coming back and iterating on it, and what makes you still enjoy it?

MW: For me, it’s the basic concept that you have this closed-space of one globe, one planet, and it’s not like you have a typical map where it ends somewhere and you don’t know what’s beside that. You just have one planet, and whatever you do there will have consequences, it’s kind of a closed-ecosystem.

This has always felt special to me, and there really isn’t another build-up game that does it to this extreme, at least from my point of view. And it felt like it’s really worth doing it, and maybe I’m also a bit of a completionist, so.

JI: It was definitely this weird combination of idealism for this topic. The climate crisis got more and more relevant each year, so on my end I never lost the feeling that I’m onto something. There was also the self-funding aspect, that we had the chance to go for it for so long.

For me, I never found a better job than this one, and that was all lucky, it was not based on any focused market analysis or something. It just worked out that these colony and space builders got so hyped on Steam.

And now my idea is that it’s the perfect combination of casual building and streamlined, entertaining campaign stuff that we have. There’s free play and all these things that will fill a niche on consoles. You can count on two or maybe four hands, titles like this [on console].

MW: I’m also really looking forward to how the PlayStation audience will like the game. I feel it could be a good fit, but we will see.

PSU: What do you hope players get out of Imagine Earth?

JI: This game always took its time to grab the player, in a way, so you need people that want to spend a half hour with the game before they see how it unfolds. Over all these years we were kind of fascinated [with] how we could put more and more into this game. I felt we needed that to complete it.

And this is a totally open experience, so you can wreck your planet, make a total wasteland out of it, let the polar caps melt and the sea levels rise and it will become a ‘climate crisis survival thriller.’

There’s so many interesting aspects that it comes together quite smoothly, so when people start playing and they don’t have the patience to let the game unfold, we’ve had this feedback for a while that it’s ‘a mobile game,’ because the complexity is so well hidden away.

There are all these systems, crafting, exploitation, diplomacy, you can start having alliances with other factions or sabotage them financially to take them over. Buy up cities, there’s tower defense with shields and lasers against extra-terrestrial threats and space pirates and all this stuff that unfolds when you play. I don’t know how to wrap this up but there’s something in there for everyone.

MW: For it would be the thing I mentioned earlier, this experience that you have this planet and what you do has consequences. So to bring this experience to people in a way that was digestible was one of the things we always wanted but besides that just having a good time [with] whatever kind of play you prefer.

If you enjoy a campaign and narrative, we got you covered. If you just want to play freely and build stuff, that is what you can do as well.

PSU: I want to talk a little more about Serious Bros. You guys are a small team and you’ve been working on Imagine Earth for a while, and now you’re coming to the closing of this chapter, in a way. Before we talk about what comes next, I want to know how you’re both feeling about the games industry and how things have not been great the last couple of years. Are you concerned about the future of Serious Bros.? Do you have concerns about your individual careers?

JI: We started in a small town called Braunschweig, and at some point I had the feeling we have to go to Berlin, to meet the games scene here, the indie scene. I was around many indies for a while, and lots of them, when they were taking their business more seriously, went to publishers and got contracts.

Now in a way that backfired, because they’re all reducing their finances, and we’re still doing this minimalistic approach. I think we have to re-evaluate this question after this is really done, and then check out what we want to do. At last there are good funding possibilities from the German government, they have finally realized maybe 10 or 20 years after everyone else that the games industry is the biggest market and we should fund companies that are doing things here.

But what we will do? I really have to think about it again when we have crossed this line. For me it could be going back to the arts-sphere again and doing little art projects. Because for me, the meaning, the content of this game, the background was the most interesting and motivating part and I would do more stuff in this direction.

MW: So, I think we’ve been really lucky the whole time. I’m also very happy with our decision not to go with a publisher. I mean, we have considered this multiple times, also for the console releases we considered it. But I think for us it’s really the right way to do what we are doing because we’ve never been the people that want to have a super solid timeline.

This was never our style and I think we were super lucky that the whole situation allowed us to do this. For the future I’m wondering how the market will evolve, with Game Pass as the main thing on Xbox, I’m not sure if PlayStation or Switch will go in on this model as well. It’s more ‘Netflix’ style.

I’m not sure how this will work out, but I think it will become much more complicated as an indie studio, in the way that we are doing it, to do our thing. So what’s next for us? As Jens said, no idea yet. It’s not like we have a big concept here in a suitcase.

If we do anything it will probably be a bit smaller, maybe something that doesn’t take 15 years, but definitely something that has an important topic, so the ‘serious’ part definitely has to be there.

But to anyone reading this, there will be no Imagine Earth 2. Imagine Earth 1, that’s the thing.

PSU: What would you say was the most difficult skill to learn that you needed to learn to get the game done, since it was just the two of you?

MW: I think one thing that we definitely learned is that it’s often better to not build something until we feel that it’s really perfect and then check, but instead saying ‘Good enough, let’s see how other people like it.’ Because I mean, for example the user interface, we have evolved it, I don’t know how many times now.

And every step of it, we haven’t built an 80% solution but 90%, which meant we put a lot of effort into it that probably wasn’t necessary at that point. So I would say this is something that we definitely learned, to be a bit more like, ‘more iterations, more feedback loops.’ Making it perfect at the end, but not on the first try. That’s important – at least, to get done with something.

JI: I think there was a time when we were pretty fed up with the fights we had about which direction this should evolve further. So this project told us to develop a culture of consent, and there’s nothing happening anymore without the two of us being convinced that this is a good development, a good feature, and also that the community is interested. This is a kind of learning we had, and this felt like a long-term relationship of friendship, kind of this growing as a being.

There weren’t any tools that I really had to learn that’s worth more than this.

Imagine Earth is now available on PS5 and PS4.

A special thank you to Jens and Martin for spending the time to speak to me, and to Jasmine James for making this interview possible.