As the studio behind Close to the Sun, Storm In A Teacup is well verse in creating games with emotionally engaging storylines. And this trend continues with the Italian indie studio’s forthcoming effort, Steel Seed, a game which (according to studio CEO and creative director Carlo Bianchi) “represents the most challenging project ’til now for Storm in a Teacup, featuring both a varied combat/stealth system and an incredibly deep and emotional storytelling“.

Built using Unreal Engine 5, and coming out later this year on PC, PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, Steel Seed is a single-player stealth action adventure game that’s set in a dystopian future where humanity faces extinction as a result of catastrophic climate change. In the game, you assume the role of Zoe who is accompanied by her flying drone companion, Koby. Together, both of you have to navigate hostile environments in search of answers that will ensure mankind’s survival.

I spoke to Roberto Semprebene (COO, Storm In A Teacup) about his company, and also got to ask him about some of the challenges which the indie studio has faced whilst developing Steel Seed. Enjoy!

Roberto, as the COO of Storm In A Teacup, what is your day-to-day involvement within the company?

I mostly take care of everything happening during the day and during the week and during the year in the studio. So I manage the guys that work in the studio, plan for their work, and let them work without thinking about any other thing. I’m in charge of making sure that everything goes smoothly during the day for all the people that work at Storm In A Teacup. And of course, I’m the right hand of the CEO. So we make all the strategic decisions, all the marketing decisions, have the meetings with publishers, and so on.

How long has Storm In A Teacup been going for?

It’s been 10 years since Carlo Bianchi (CEO, Storm In A Teacup) founded the company.

Have you been with the company for 10 years as well?

No, I arrived a couple of years later, after the first two games were released. I was in charge of production for Close to the Sun, which was our fourth title.

So how many games has Storm In A Teacup released so far?

So far, four. And Steel Seed it is going to be the next game.

How would you describe Steel Seed to people who haven’t heard of the game?

Steel Seed is a third-person stealth action adventure with an important story behind it. Especially since Storm In A Teacup is known as a developer that really takes care of the story in our games, so we didn’t want to lose that aspect. But at the same time, Steel Seed is a huge step forward in terms of gameplay. It’s much richer than our previous games. And it’s an interesting jump in the third-person action adventure genre, with a focus on the environments as the game is set in a dystopian future. And on gameplay side, we wanted to have an experience for the player that involved both the main character and their companion, Koby, which is a drone that has an impact on the gameplay, the combat, the stealth, and the exploration. So it’s almost like you’re dealing with two characters at the same time.

How long has the game been in production for?

A couple of years now… The second half of the 2024 should be the final steps of production for the game.

Storm In A Teacup is an indie studio that’s based in Italy. How many people are in your studio?

We shrink or enlarge depending on the project and the situation that we are dealing with at the time in the project. So at the moment, for Steel Seed, we are around 20 people.

As an indie studio that’s based in Italy, where did you see yourself in the context of the industry as a whole? How much support do you get from the Italian government, and also from the big industry players like Microsoft and Sony, who may decide to overlook your studio because it’s not based in Japan or America or even the UK?

On Microsoft and Sony and so on, we have to admit that they’ve always had a good look at us since the studio was founded by Carlo, who is an industry professional with 20 years of experience, and he’s already worked in some of the most important companies. So he already had connections, and people in the industry already knew that he can do great stuff. So on the business side, we are pretty well positioned. In terms of the Italian game industry however, we are, as an industry, still rising. It’s not a huge sector in Italy, and for a long time, the government didn’t really take too much notice of it. But in the last few years, the government has really started to understand that this is an interesting sector, so they’re starting to invest a bit more into it, especially with tax credits. There aren’t a lot of big companies at the moment. There’s Ubisoft Milan, which is related to Ubisoft. There’s Milestone, which is probably the most famous Italian company in video gaming. But we are probably the most important independent studio at the moment to work for in Italy.

How does that feel?

Tiring… Because in some respects, you’re always dealing with the huge amount of stuff to make your game shine and for it to reach the right market. Knowing that you have to do almost everything by yourself. So it’s a huge task for sure. But at the same time, we are proud of the work that we do, and we are chasing what we really like, so somehow that feels good at the end of the day.

Is Steel Seed the only game that Storm in the Tea Cup is developing at the moment?

Yes, we go step by step.

How does that feel? I mean, as an indie studio with 20 people, you are essentially banking the entire future of the studio on one game…

It’s something that always feels a bit tight, where we’re always hoping that everything is going to go in the right direction. At the same time, it makes you realize that a game could be much better than what would be achieved by a company that doesn’t have to invest everything into it.

I mean, if you were to look at Capcom for example, they have Street Fighter, they have Resident Evil, they have that dinosaur game that came out – Exoprimal. They also have Monster Hunter… So they’ve got all of these franchises that are in entirely different genres. So if the bottom of one game and one genre falls out… For example, let’s just say that tomorrow, nobody likes survival horror games anymore… So even if Resident Evil 15 was a good game, but the genre wasn’t deemed as being commercially viable anymore, then it could be argued that the game wouldn’t sell. But the company could still bank on all their other tent-pole releases, which are in completely different genres than whatever genre Resident Evil happens to operate in. So with this in mind, what sort of pressure does that put on you? I mean, 20 people isn’t anywhere near in the same league as say the thousands of people that are required for a AAA game. But at the same time, and from the perspective of an indie studio, every person on the staff roster means more money is being spent. And this game’s been in development for, as you’ve said, a couple of years now. And I’m not going to ask as to how much money has been spent on Steel Seed, but when you’ve got all these financial pressures, how does it feel to have the entire studio workforce of 20 people work for a number of years in consecutive succession, but only have one game to show for it?

Yeah, it’s a one shot, and you’re investing everything into that one shot. You have to plan everything really well. To know exactly where you want to go, and at the same time, consider as to where the market is going. And these last few years, it hasn’t really been that easy to do.

What we want to achieve is a game that doesn’t really reinvent anything, but sets out to do what it does very well. So let’s talk about this in the context of a wheel. We didn’t set out to invent a new type of wheel, we instead decided to make our wheel really shiny. And I think that when you have a product that is really good, it will sell itself as it will catch the attention of the players.

That’s something that I don’t think a lot of people seem to understand, in that a good product should be able to sell itself. And in a way, a good product also requires less marketing effort. So in this regard, I’m a staunch believer that the Wii U was never a good product. From a marketing perspective, the Wii U could have been a bad name. But from my perspective, Porsche is also a bad name. And so is Lamborghini and Dolce & Gabbana. And so is the Amiga. But the thing is, all of those companies came out with good products that excited the market and which the market wanted. And ultimately they are, or were, a success story, and the success of those names speak for themselves in the market. Schwarzenegger is a bad name, but we got movie hits like The Terminator and Total Recall out of him, and for a time, Arnold Schwarzenegger was the biggest name movie star on the planet. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that irrespective of what people say, the Wii U wasn’t just a bad name, it was also an incredibly bad product. And there’s no amount of marketing that could have saved it. I’ve got my own ideas in terms of how Nintendo could have salvaged their Wii U situation… But going back to Steel Seed, you are definitely correct in stating that a good game should catch the attention of players. So from my perspective, I saw the game, and I liked what I saw. And I don’t know if you can call that “marketing” in the traditional sense, and maybe there’s no real difference. But let’s just say that I saw someone wear a jacket that I liked. If I like that jacket, then I would go up to that person and ask them as to where they got that jacket from. And that person would say that they got it from “blah, blah, blah”… I guess the point is that I don’t need something to be shoved in my face on a 24 hour basis, like Assassin’s Creed. Because in a way, you don’t really want somebody to shove something that you don’t want in your face all the time. And so it could be argued that marketing can never really compensate for a bad product.

I don’t think you can, especially in a market like videogames where the audience is very competent. You can maybe trick them at the very beginning, but it’s not going to last.

Yeah, and I think a game like Steel Seed which reminds me of Devil May Cry and Metal Gear Rising… All of those hack and slash sort of games. If you were going to fool anybody, you should have done that 20-odd years ago, when we had games like Metal Gear Rising. But I guess from that perspective, and I know that Devil May Cry has had a reboot, and Devil May Cry 5 only came out a few years ago, but does that ever make you wonder if maybe the genre isn’t as popular as it once was?

Nowadays, it’s difficult to say…

And as part of that, when we are swamped in an industry where I honestly think that we have too many games, which is great in some ways…

Yeah, but how do you make your game visible to all of those people? What we always wanted to achieve is to create an experience whilst playing the game, where you’re not just doing stuff in a virtual environment, you’re actually living something that remains. It’s something that we’ve always tried to achieve with our games. Close to the Sun wasn’t a huge game, but it was still the most commented on videogame of 2020. It’s completely different in terms of setting, but it still has that Storm In A Teacup DNA. So it goes back to what I was talking about before. The attention to the story and to an aesthetic that catches the eye. It’s not something that you see everywhere. At first, it makes you stop and want to see, but after that, there is something more important that remains. So that emotion, that experience, that’s what we want to leave with players.

Close to the Sun is an entirely different type of game to Steel Seed… Now, a lot of companies, and especially game designers, they like to stick to one genre and perfect that, if that makes sense. So for example, if you did a first-person shooter…

Actually what we want to achieve with Steel Seed is for it to be the next step for the company. So acquiring the knowledge, the technology to actually deal with a different kind of game that’s a bit larger in terms of its audience… So although Close to the Sun was very well appreciated by a specific audience, Steel Seed speaks to many other people. And it also gives us the chance to eventually go back to Close to the Sun with more technical experience and ability, so that we can make a hypothetical sequel in an easier way than the first one. So Steel Seed is both an investment in terms of trying to catch a wider audience with a game that offers much more than Close to the Sun, and at the same time it allows us to have staff that are able to deal with different things. Sticking too close to Close to the Sun in the long term will reduce our chances in a market that is always evolving.

From a management perspective, what challenges did the changing of game genres present to you in terms of trying to find the people that were a right fit for the project?

That’s very related to the fact that, as we were saying, Italy is still a small industry. And since we are a small company, we need to find the diamonds that are, how shall I say it, not yet shining. So we tend to grow our team from inside the studio. And choosing the right person is something that Carlo does more than me actually. So the CEO, with his experience, and his eye, can spot a person that maybe is not yet what we’re looking for, but they have the potential to rise and get there eventually. So probably the most challenging aspect is choosing the right person, especially if we don’t have, as you’ve said, thousands of people working with us. But when you have a small number of people, they have to be very good, and possibly be able to do more than one specific task.

Just out of curiosity, what sort of salaries do programmers earn in Italy?

Definitely less than what they can earn abroad. That is another point which makes it difficult for small companies to rise in Italy, unless you really reach the point at which your game is becoming the next The Witcher. Once a game is completed, it’s difficult to maintain all of those people, as they can be attracted by bigger studios around the world. And that is part of what we were saying before. In Italy, making business can be difficult because of the bureaucracy. It’s part of the struggle, and it makes this job in Italy difficult. But it also makes you feel proud of yourself if you reach success.

Any last words?

I hope that Steel Seed will be recognized for what it is. A game that preserves our interests for narrative which Storm In A Teacup has always had. But at the same time, for it to be a huge step forward for the company. It’s an investment, and we really want to make it worth it for the company and for the future of Storm In A Teacup.

Thank you so much.

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