Donald Mustard, creative director at Chair Entertainment, gave developers at this week’s Game Developer Conference some insight on how his company made a hit game unlike any other for iOS in about five months. Chair’s game, Infinity Blade, is the first iOS game built using Epic Games Unreal Development Kit (UDK), the same toolset used to create hardcore console titles like Gears of War.
[ad#Google Adsense 300×250 in story]Infinity Blade is a hack-and-slash sword combat game in which you can thrust and swipe a sword, parry to block your opponent’s attacks, and gradually increase in skill and ability by acquiring new items. You assume the role of a warrior tasked with defeating the God King. To reach him you must square off against a progressively more difficult group of heavily armored warriors, with combat reminiscent of the console game “Shadow of the Colossus,” an inspiration Mustard freely admits to.
On the creative process
Mustard started out by explaining Chair’s initial design process. A team of six people had to pitch 100 game designs in two weeks. Parameters were simple – the games had to be ready to go to market in less than one year, and the individuals were responsible for making one-sheets – a short document that summarized the product succinctly.
Out of that, Chair narrowed down the ideas to 20 or 25 games that were viable concepts, according to Mustard. “This has become part of our common vernacular,” he explained. “It allows us to talk about new game ideas that we want to create.”
Infinity Blade was born out of just such an idea. So when Chair’s parent company, Epic Games, approached them with the offer to make the first Unreal-based iOS game, Chair didn’t have to start with a blank piece of paper.
“For a few minutes we didn’t know if we were going to make Infinity Blade,” he added. The company had other concepts like physics based puzzlers, card games and more that they had created concepts around previously, which they thought would scale nicely with the technology.
“We saw lots and lots of clones in these categories but it wouldn’t be a different experience than what you had already,” he explained. “We wanted something that could go away from those exact categories.”
“I take a shower every day,” he said, eliciting laughs from the audience. But Mustard explained that that 15 or 20 minutes is when he clears his head and doesn’t think about anything beyond new game ideas. Mustard said it’s his most creative point. “It’s one of my favorite times of my life.”
The Pocket Ideal
Developing a compelling game for iOS and other mobile platforms requires developers to think differently about how games are played on handheld devices, said Mustard. “People don’t want a cheap version of their favorite retail title, they want a unique game experience.”
One problem that larger development studios and publishers face is that they become risk-averse when big budgets are on the line. Scaling the budget down to mobile devices enables developers to take more chances, but that doesn’t mean they should go crazy, either. “There are certain genres that don’t make sense for [the App Store] price point,” he said.
Understanding how people play
Developers can easily fall into old ways of thinking when creating games for iOS, and Mustard said that it’s important to break out of that rut. You need to more carefully understand how users are actually using their devices. In the case of the iPhone and iPad, for example, your screen is the controller. There are no physical inputs or physical feedback, as there are with a game controller, and fingers can obscure the screen.
In Infinity Blade’s case, Chair decided early on that the entire game should be playable using a single finger. “That was a huge gauntlet to throw down,” said Mustard. “We needed simplified controls that wouldn’t rely on any sort of ported control scheme or simulated joysticks.”
Mustard has a low view of games that require such schemes – and the App Store abounds with them. “If your game would work well with a controller, you’re making the wrong game,” he said.
Another consideration was the amount of time Chair expected people to dedicate to the game. While console developers can count on having the sustained attention of a gamer sometimes lasting hours at a stretch, the use case for iOS devices is very different.
In that case, Mustard said, the focus of Infinity Blade is on “super short session core gameplay” that only lasts a couple of minutes at a stretch, but rewards the player by engaging them in meaningful interactive with fun and progression.
A short ramp up to a working game
Mustard said that Infinity Blade was created in five months, from start to finish – 100 work days. But the company had working material much faster than that.
In fact, artists were able to put up basic 3D movies to show concepts for how gameplay would work within two to three days, and within 10 days Chair had a working prototype.
On the iPhone and iPad
“If you had told me a year ago at GDC that I’d ship a game like Infinity Blade on iOS, I would have told you you were crazy,” said Mustard. He thought it would take five years for iPhone handsets to get powerful enough to handle such a title.
“These devices are very, very powerful,” he added. Mustard’s speech happened before the introduction of the iPad 2, by the way.
That power has led his company to create graphics for their games using the same techniques they’d use to make a AAA console title. “It was a big decision for us,” he said. “We thought we’d have to severely limit the amount of content.”
Some of the devices’ limitations did lead to some design decisions, such as where the game’s camera was placed and how the character was made, to adjust between great looking graphics and playability, and managing the specific capabilities of Apple’s hardware.
Holding an iPhone aloft, Mustard told developers, “You have the opportunity to get in people’s pocket.”
In the end, Mustard suggests that creating a great game for iOS or any other platform is a careful balance of figuring out how users play their devices with understanding the hardware and the user experience, and finding what he calls “the hook. To me, it’s what makes a person looks at your game…twice.”
The stellar graphics in Infinity Blade is what gave his game the hook that was needed – iOS users had never seen such fidelity in a game released for their platform. But Mustard recognizes that it’s different things to different gamers, and while Infinity Blade appeals to a certain segment of the gaming public, clearly very different games have been successful – such as Rovio’s Angry Birds, for example, a cartoonish physics-based puzzler that could not possibly look more different than Infinity Blade.
“I cannot wait to play the games you guys make in the next year or two,” said Mustard.