May 27, 2022

8-Bit Interview: Song of Iron Solo Creator Joe Winter

Song of Iron

Welcome to ABG’s 8-Bit interviews, a series of ‘byte’ sized talks with fascinating folk from every inch of the Gaming Industry. From Indie teams daring to dream big, animators with ambitions, dedicated devs or the hottest streamer on the digital block, we’ve got you covered.

This week ABG meets Joe Winter, solo developer behind the sensational Song of Iron. Recently partnered with the fantastic ID@Xbox team who are supporting the upcoming release, we dive into the unfathomable dedication required to singlehandedly take an idea, and turn it into the most anticipated indie release in quite some time.

From inspiration derived from Dungeons and Dragons, battling with legal bureaucracy and how he pushed through his darkest moments, Joe gives us a tantalising taste of how his dream of going it alone became a reality.

Give us a little background

Hello! My name is Joe Winter, the solo developer of Song of Iron. I have been making games for almost 15 years now as an animator. I started at a small arcade studio working on Big Buck Hunter. I then worked at Cryptic studios on a number of their MMO titles and my most recent released game was Halo 5 Guardians.  It’s been an amazing journey in the industry and I’m really excited for what is coming next, Song of Iron!

The gorgeous backgrounds and sumptuous fauna really set the scene in Song of Iron

Song of Iron is a moody side scrolling action adventure, set to release on Xbox One, Xbox series X and PC sometime next year.

What inspired you to create Studio Escape?

It’s a common dream of game developers to one-day strike out on their own and I am no exception. When I started Song of Iron, I was doing it more for my own enjoyment. I love building things and learning more about how things work.  As I started to show some early Song of Iron videos and saw the positive responses I started to think maybe this is my chance to break away and start my own studio and so I did!

The unmistakable viking silhouettes sing loud in the glorious art style of Song of Iron

Where did the idea for Song of Iron come from? What was your eureka moment?

It started as a simple goal for myself to build something really simple that I could finish. I was really just trying to mimic a few other games to help guide me in the early stages while I learned Unreal. As it started to take shape I realized how well a D&D character I had played fit the goals of the game. This was a pretty solid explosion of realization of what the game really could be! Definitely one of the key moments that gave me the confidence to keep pushing forward.

We’ve got some epic D&D players at ABG. Can you give us some details about your character, and the tie in with the protagonist in Song of Iron?

That’s awesome, D&D is serious fun.  I can’t say too much without some major spoilers, but I can say a little.  Wolfric was the name of my character, a barbarian berserker who was an old grizzled warrior. Tired of fighting and trying to live a peaceful life when the inevitable first meeting of the group when whatever place they are in burns down. He is like the hero of Song of Iron in that they had both tried to give up on the violent path but were forced back into it.  Both of their stories follow the same unexpected path with a similar outcome but you’ll have to wait for the game for more.

Joe shares his inspirational D&D character “Wolfric”, and his fingertips

The game our DM ran was much goofier than Song of Iron will be. All sorts of muppet people and dolphin men whose heads faced upward like a standing dolphin… But the core of my character story has really become the foundation of the game.

ps. I really wish I could go more into it but it very quickly will go full spoiler.

Interest peaked, we’ll wait for the release for more. But a number of games have taken the Nordic setting as inspiration (God of War, the upcoming Assassins Creed: Valhalla). Any other reason you chose this setting in particular?

Beyond simply loving the Viking mythos, it was another thing I pulled from my D&D character. The story works really well in the Norse mythology so to me it really just fits.

From fiery caves to icy tundra, Song of Iron promises a slue of scenery to carve your way through

Side-scrolling combat focused games are seeing something of a revival which we couldn’t be happier about. Did the success of games like Hollow Knight, or Salt and Sanctuary influence your direction?

It was actually the game INSIDE that inspired me to take this path. I love when a game can tell so much story with so little. The atmosphere of that game is just amazing and I wanted to try it in the land of Nordic myth.  Other games that come to mind also are Journey and Shadow of the Colossus for the same reasons.

I also think a lot about the much older games. like Ghouls ‘n Goblins, Zelda 2 and many more what could those games be now?

If Song of Iron hits half as hard as 2018’s Inside, colour us excited

Not gonna lie,  you had at us INSIDE. Ever see the studio handling a big IP remake? Ghouls ‘n Goblins in Song of Iron style sounds insane.

If I can do just 10% of what INSIDE achieved I will be happy. What an amazing game. It of course will be different.. Vikings and goblins and all that, but I hope people walk away feeling some of the same things.

As far as remakes go I honestly hadn’t thought about that.  A few friends said I should reach out to Joe Abercormbie, the Author of The First Law books and make a Logan Nine Fingers game. Seriously amazing dark fantasy books if you haven’t read them. If it was the right IP I could imagine doing a remake, but that’s most of what I have done while working in the industry so far and I really love making something new with Song of Iron.

Its hard to read “brutal action adventure” without immediately thinking of From Software. Will Song of Iron feature any Soulsborn mechanics?

Not really, there are always parallels to find, but when I say brutal for Song of Iron, I am thinking about the visceral/grounded feeling I am going for with the combat. As an animator by day I really want to use that skill to its fullest and making sure the way the character reacts to the player is important. A lot of people comment on how heavy the hits feel. That’s what I mean when I say brutal.

Taking on a project as a sole developer must be a momentous task. There are some great examples of success, such as Stardew Valley, and Undertale. Have you ever come close to quitting, and if so, did these stories provide solace in your darkest moments?

David Wehle’s The First Tree is the game that comes to mind. He has a great GDC talk about what it took to do it alone and it really resonated with me. I also took a lot of his advice to heart which has helped me out momentously.

I did almost quit once pretty early on in the project. Life just sorta took over and I stopped working on it for close to a month. Doesn’t sound like much time, but it’s so hard to return to a project like that, I had forgotten so much of what I had built. Stories like David’s were in the back of my mind for sure, but I owe my return to the long years in the industry. I think people often rely on inspiration/motivation too much. I forced myself back into it with discipline. That can sound a bit harsh but its needed sometimes to keep driving forward.

The First Tree was surely one of the most sumptuous, beautiful indie releases of the current generation

Back to sole development, Song of Iron looks fantastic! but it’s hard to imagine taking on graphical, sound and developmental responsibility all at once. What was the steepest learning curve you encountered on your journey?

The not so fun answer is anything outside of making the game. The legal stuff around starting a business, reading and understanding contracts that I have been given. This is the somewhat untold side of indie/solo development. There is so much of it and at the end of any of these forms they always ask something like are you committing fraud? I always hope for a check box with something like “I really hope not” so I can choose that.

From the development side of things. Music and sound design are definitely my weakness. I do plan on bringing in some help in that department. I’m in talks with Will Goss who did the score on the Xbox trailer as we speak.

Will Goss, of Halo fame is supporting music and score design for Song of Iron

Wow, they’re not holding back! That’s some series talent. But have they been equally helpful with the legal and administrative side of things too? This is a much underrepresented, but crucial part to the process, and IP retention. You hear stories…

Not so directly, but the deal like with the music gives me some resources to put toward that type of thing. Something I quickly took advantage of! I do now have a lawyer, which feels like a pretty weird thing to say to be honest. He is very familiar with games and so we are going through all those fun steps now. It is a relief to have him though, stuff is scary and makes my eyes glaze over at the same time.

You certainly get a lot of love on Reddit. Is this what led to the collaboration with Xbox?

It is! The Reddit post that went viral in March is what lead the ID@Xbox team to find me. I owe the good people of Reddit a lot for the positive feedback and support!

Joe’s post on Reddit has received over 140k “likes” since posting

On the partnership, have Microsoft offered any assistance with development or any other aspect of the project?

Yes they have! Because of the partnership I will be able to afford the composer and sound designer I desperately need!

What advice would you give someone looking to undertake such a singular feat of dedication?

It’s a tough one to answer because there really is so much to it and I am still learning, but here are a few things. First step is to just start, Unreal and Unity are free so there isn’t much stopping you. Know you never fail as long as you learn something, it will help you with the next thing you try. And last, try to have fun! You will work 10x faster, have 10x the good ideas and be 10x more likely to keep going if you are enjoying yourself.

Success on Reddit led directly to Xbox contacting Joe, and a partnership with ID@Xbox

Finally, after the inevitable success of Song of Iron, what’s next for studio escape?

While most of my mind is bent on the task at hand, the dream of course is to keep making games. Working on Song of Iron has been one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. It would be hard to go back.

You seem very passionate about making this move work. Is it more about getting away from big industry, or the potential your own studio could deliver?

I love working in the industry. Animation is such a fun job and I get to work with some of my best friends every day, but I have always wondered what I could do on my own. It’s a challenge to myself too, can I walk the walk?

Also now that I’ve been doing it for over a year I also realize how much I love it! I’m still making games, but it feels so fresh now, there is so much to learn so many puzzles to solve. I couldn’t be more happy. [ABG]

Song of Iron is a moody side scrolling action adventure, set to release on Xbox One, Xbox series X and PC sometime next year. If you are interested to know more about the project, check out the official Song of Iron website, here.

Alternatively you can add Song of Iron to your Steam wish-list right now. Go on, you know you want to.

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