[Chair Entertainment co-founder Donald Mustard speaks about the development of the iOS mega-sequel, the need to stop crunching during development, learning from what fans want, and how Japan is beating the West in design.]
The original Infinity Blade always looked set for success. As the debut title for Unreal Engine on iOS, it was flashy, and it arrived not long after the iPad, too. But news that by this June, six months after it launched, it had already earned Epic Games $10 million (even after Apple's cut) was somewhat surprising. It's a bona fide App Store hit with broad appeal and dedicated fans.
At GDC, Chair Entertainment co-founder Donald Mustard told Gamasutra that initial ideas to add microtransactions to the premium game came from fans. Fan requests led Mustard and Chair to start building regular updates for the game.
"We released Infinity Blade on December 9th. It had no in-app purchases or whatever; just a straight-up game. Interestingly enough, right when we put out the game, we were getting thousands of emails, and they were pretty much split between 'Yay! We love the game. We want more of it,' and 'Why can't we buy gold? Why can't I buy gold to buy more swords and more shields and more stuff? Because I don't want to have to just play the game.'
"That was a foreign concept to me. I didn't understand how prevalent that mindset was in the marketplace," said Mustard of the original game's release.
So the team added microtransactions, and rolled into a schedule of regular updates for the game -- which continued until the team rolled right from those updates into development of Infinity Blade II, this past May. It launches tomorrow on the App Store.
In this interview, Mustard talks about how the team survived that challengingly-short development cycle, why he doesn't know the first thing about building in microtransaction hooks and why that doesn't matter, why he thinks Japanese games have more satisfying core gameplay than Western titles, and the secrets of pacing and catharsis that he thinks are essential to building engaging experience.
You're not a huge team, and you rolled directly from updating the first game into the second game.
Donald Mustard: That's the thing. We're not a huge team, so it's pretty much [that] we can work on one thing at a time. So we just rolled everyone on the update stuff. I guess the difference is earlier, in that we were like, "Yeah, I think we're going to do Infinity Blade II next," and so even though we weren't working on it, we were thinking about what it should be, what it would look like.
I wouldn't even count that as pre-production -- but at least pre-thought of what's going on. And then we hit it hard in the middle of May, and now it's done.
We thought it was really cool doing all that free update stuff, so everyone is taking a little time off now, and then we're just going to roll everyone onto keeping going with Infinity Blade II. And we have cool stuff that we're hoping to do with it.
Beyond content, you also added microtransactions to the original game in updates -- based on user demand.
DM: They want to see all the content; they want to experience the game the way they want to. And so we've left that in for Infinity Blade II but we haven't... I don't know. Maybe I'm just not smart enough to do it, but to me, I'm just like, I've still got to balance the game the same way I always would. So I just pretend it doesn't even exist. I've got to make it a well-paced, well-balanced experience.
And especially for a game like Infinity Blade, with all those RPG elements, and now we've got even more, where we've got weapon crafting and all this stuff, and so there's a lot of stuff to balance to make it feel [good]. Because I really believe that good game balancing, it's the trickiest part of my job, and it's the difference between whether a game is fun or not.
Because you have to have it be just difficult enough that you're still fighting for something, but not so much that it's punishing. So I can't even think about microtransactions when I do that. Because I just have to get it all just right. And then once the game is really super fun, then I'm going to say "It's great," and we ship it. And if someone wants to pay for extra stuff, then it's their game. They can do what they want.
When I spoke to [Valve Software head] Gabe Newell, he said worrying about monetization is secondary to worrying about making a good game.
DM: I couldn't agree with that more. I can certainly see the other side of it. I've never made a free-to-play game, so maybe it's different in that space, but maybe not. I really do think if you make a really, really fun game that people love playing, then they want to be in that space -- and that's all we think about.
Not to be cliché, but it's kind of like the, "if you build it, they will come" type of thing. If you make a really fun game, in a really fun universe that people want to be in, then I think the rest will take care of itself. I think that's kind of what Gabe was saying, too. It's like, make a really fun game and the business model will kind of work itself out.
When you started the first game, I get the sense it was a little bit of an experiment -- but now it's a franchise. Did it go much further than you thought it would when you first started with the idea?
DM: Geremy [Mustard, technical director] and I, and the team, had been thinking of this Infinity Blade franchise for quite a while. Not so much the gameplay itself, but we had this fantasy story that we wanted to tell. And we're like, "You know what? We planned to do this someday, so maybe if we're going to make this, we have this fantasy IP and we have this cool idea for a sword fighting game that we thought about for motion control stuff." And we're like, "Yeah, it could totally work on these handheld devices."
Let's think of as if... The Hobbit is kind of the prelude to The Lord of the Rings. What if Infinity Blade I was like the prelude to The Hobbit to the Lord of the Rings -- a prelude to this much bigger story we wanted to do?
And so we just thought, "Let's imbue it with some of the context of what we think we'd like," and again, it was totally an experiment. "Let's put it out there, let's see what we can do." We had no idea how to make any kind of game in five months. It was very much like running straight at a brick wall a thousand miles an hour, where it's just like, we can't. You've just got to make snap decisions and hope it works out, and amazingly it did.
It was totally an experiment. We had no idea what to expect. We imbued it with some hooks for this larger IP just in case, and it totally took off. I mean, it took off bigger than we could possibly imagine.
A lot of -- at least my -- work for the last year has been, "Oh, wow, this has taken off. Good thing we had some ideas for what this franchise could be!" But we now have millions of people asking, "What the heck is going on?" and "Who are these people?" and, "What does it mean?"
You get a lot of that from the players?
DM: More than anything else. More than [the requests for] microtransactions, more than [requests to fix] dodge button sizes, that's the main thing. People are just like, "Who is this God King? What's going on in the castle? What did that thing mean at the very end of the game?"
Well good thing you know, right?
DM: Yeah. That's a good thing. It's not like we just made that up out of nowhere! So luckily, luckily, we have it actually figured out.
Especially moving into production of the second one -- you had a rolling start.
How much did you have to start over from scratch, though?
DM: A little bit. I don't know if "started over" is the right word as much as we knew going into the first one that we were taking on a very tricky proposition, and that we were saying we were going to make the game in five months. So that's like 20 work weeks, which is crazy. That's almost like the equivalent of a normal two- to two-and-a-half year cycle, but every week is a month of production.
How long was Shadow Complex?
DM: Shadow Complex was almost two years, so it was just massively scaled down, and it was on a platform we'd never delivered stuff on, with tech that had never actually shipped on that platform. So there were a whole lot of unknowns.
So we kind of said, "Here's our idea for a game." Because we thought that this gestural sword fighting concept would be inherently fun, but in designing that, you can't help but have bigger ideas. And so we had these bigger ideas for it, but we said, to almost every idea, "That's so far outside of a five month scope on a platform we've never shipped on. We can't do it."
In that first week or two of preproduction on Infinity Blade, we said, we've got to whittle everything right down to the very core gameplay loop, and just, that's the game. And we forced ourselves to not allow any sort of feature creep at all. We just said it's going to be really small, really tight, because if that's not fun, the game fails. But if it is fun, it's a core we can build on.
And so, luckily, that actually worked, it was actually fun, and it was a good core. It was a really small core. It was just basically one core gameplay concept. So with the sequel we said, "Oh, good! Now, some of these other things that would build up that core can come in."
And that was kind of the main thrust of the sequel. We had a fun core to start with, and that core was really refined. And so with that, we refined that core even more, and then built a much more robust framework around it, with more gameplay styles, and a bigger, more nonlinear world, and a bigger meta-game surrounding it. It really is a bolstered, full-featured game at this point.
To me, the reason to make a sequel to any game should never have anything to do with "we could make more money." From our perspective, it's "do we have more to say in this genre?"
If I felt that Infinity Blade I had already done everything that a gesture-based sword fighting game in that style could do, I wouldn't make a sequel, because it would be done. It'd be like, "That's the entirety of this genre of game." But it's not. We definitely feel like we could push it forward.
And Infinity Blade is different. Because with Shadow Complex, we felt like this was an abandoned genre of game, that was one of our favorite game genres ever, and we felt like it needed to be resurrected, and we had some stuff to say in it. If we ever make a Shadow Complex 2 it's because we do -- having made Shadow Complex 1, we're like, "Oh man, we really think we can push this genre forward."
Do you think that you're evolving quickly because you're shipping quickly? Is the gameplay evolving at the pace of the mobile market?
DM: I don't know. That's a good question. It might be too early to tell. Shipping a game in six months is definitely not my favorite thing. We've definitely done it, and we've now done it twice in a row, and there is something to it. I don't know about this six month thing, but there's definitely something to saying, "We're going to be in production in this game for this long, but we're going to ship it here." [Mustard moves one hand to show the full length of production and then uses the other to mark the mid-point in the cycle.]
We're going to ship it before we've even done our development phase. I think there's something really key. I think that a lot of game developers are starting to think more that way, where shipping the game and finishing development on the game don't happen at the same time.
It's like you're winning your first battle, but the war continues.
DM: Right, the war continues. Because that really does allow you to find the fun of the game. You make sure there's enough meatiness there. That's the way that I think game development needs to move forward, in order to really make more refined games that meet the needs of the audience better.
This isn't like film or books, or set media. I think we need to allow our communities to be more involved in shaping the experience that they want, because it is interactive, right? And the best way to find out what your game needs is to get millions of people using it.
So in that respect it does allow it to accelerate much, much faster. So many of the decisions that went into Infinity Blade II were based on those several months of making DLC content for the first game, because we could react so well. It's why Valve's games are so polished.
The kind of metrics and the data they're able to get from Steam really allows them to look at how people are playing their games. And we were able to do some very similar stuff with the first Infinity Blade, where we got it out there, and we were getting all sorts of data back on where people were doing things, where people were getting stuck, or not stuck.
To the point where Infinity Blade I is now a refined enough experience that over Thanksgiving Geremy gave an iPad 2 to my dad. Now my dad, he probably hasn't played a videogame since Ms. Pac-Man. He's late fifties, hasn't played a game ever.
I handed him an iPad to play Infinity Blade. When we were balancing we're like, "We want a non-gamer who's never played a game to be able to be good enough that on the fourth Bloodline, they kill the God King." To us, that'd be the perfectly-paced experience, because that will give him enough failures at the God King to really feel like it was a payoff when they beat him. And my dad, who, again, hasn't played a game probably in 20 years, beat the God King on the fourth Bloodline.
And I'm like, "Oh my gosh! We did it!" We made it. And I doubt he would have been able to do that on the Infinity Blade that launched on December 9th last year. Maybe, but we were able to balance enough stuff, and tweak enough things, that it became this more refined experience. And so I think that's hugely valuable.
I think in retrospect, having done it twice, that our development cycles are a little too short. Not that the games are less polished because of it, but we're way more burnt out. Because, in order to make II feel the experience it needed to be, it required way more crunching than is effective. It required for us, for the last two or three months, to just death march kill ourselves. I mean guys are just working so many hours, doing so much, and that's not really good, I think, for the longevity of our studio.
I don't think it's Epic's style, either.
DM: It's not Epic's style. It's not, no. We don't look at that like that's a good thing at all. We only did it because we definitely, passionately wanted to get the game done, and we wanted a little more in there... It happens when it's that short of a development cycle. Stuff happens so fast.
And so we definitely won't do that again. It's not worth the cost. I would rather take an extra two or three months than burn the guys out, or burn even me out. It doesn't allow enough time to sit there and let the game breathe.
When using metrics and player feedback, are you looking for consensus? Are you looking for things that please the most people, or are you looking for the best ideas that come out of the noise?
DM: We have a lot of confidence in our ideas at Chair. So it's definitely not about looking for consensus. It's much more about trying to observe, as best as we can, how people are playing the game, and finding ways to better shape their experience.
There are a few things like "I wish my dodge buttons could be bigger," that we're like, "Oh, yeah. Okay, that makes sense to us. Sure." But that's like the edge case. There's way less of that, and more of us just watching and going, "Oh, you know what? People would have more fun if we gave them a little more gold right there," or "You know what? That weapon, based on how people are playing it, it's actually doing too much damage." It's actually detracting from their fun, because it's too easy right there, that it's actually less fun than it should be.
So, it's more just we've put in a lot of metrics to allow us to observe how people are playing, and tweak it based on that. There's much, much more of that than "I wish that this was blue instead of red."
Games are getting more and more polished, and developers are way more worried about getting people to the end safely, and entertained. I ask because I know you like classic games: do you ever worry that the corners are being sanded off a little too much in contemporary games?
DM: Well, that's a tough one.
If a game becomes an escalator -- like you just have to ride it to the end.
DM: Exactly. You don't want that. If your difficulty is just kind of like this the whole time [Mustard traces a long, flat line with his hand] then probably, it won't be fun. It will get boring way faster. I'm not saying in all cases, but I think in many cases, it will get boring. The moment-to-moment will get boring, before they get any sort of payoff from your supposed ending.
I think we inherently want to be challenged, as human beings. Inherently as human beings, we're always trying to progress. If you see a river that's flowing, we think that's beautiful. If you see a river that's totally stagnant, I guess that wouldn't even be a river. It starts to get pond scum, and bacteria, and it's stagnant and disgusting. We want to be progressing. And so I think games have to echo that.
And that's why I love games like Metroid. Because I finish the game as something different than when I started the game. My moment-to-moment gameplay has evolved, and I think that that's something that we try to imbue in our games. And that has to be imbued in the difficulty.
When we were working on Shadow Complex, Ken Lobb at Microsoft -- who worked at Nintendo for a long time, worked on the original Super Metroid -- gave us some really good advice on difficulty balancing. You want to have these spikes in difficulty, where it's ramping up in difficulty -- until they reach the point where they can have kind of this cathartic "I defeated the God King!"
And then the game does need to get easier for a while. You need to almost have it be hard, and then when they get a new weapon or something -- I don't want to give too many tricks of the trade away -- but we even went so far in Shadow Complex to do stuff where, when you beat a boss, or you got a new weapon, we actually purposely made the guys for the next few minutes weaker and easier, so that it was like, this big hard thing, and now it dips down.
And I can just get to know the weapon, or I can plow through bunch of guys and feel like I'm totally awesome, "Yeah! I beat that boss!" I'm still riding that high for a little bit. And then you kind of creep it back up to normal, and start the escalation again. And by doing that, you give people that sense of progression, and that makes for a more fun experience.
But I think on the flipside, it is still good to get people -- again, depending on the game -- but in most games, especially if it's narrative-based, you want them to also have that cathartic narrative moment as well. And so the best games are the ones that make it difficult enough, and give you those waves of difficulty that you want to keep escalating, and you want to keep progressing. And then you can also get that narrative payoff as well.
Most games -- these numbers might have changed -- but when we were really looking at these numbers, like two years ago, it's like most games have a 20 to 30 percent completion rate, of people that actually finish the game that buy it. The really good games have a 30 to 40 percent completion rate. Shadow Complex has a 70-plus percent completion rate, and Infinity Blade has an even higher completion rate.
Well, maybe Infinity Blade is because it's so much shorter, but we tried really hard to make those few times that you died at the God King to feel so brutal and so devastating that you're just like, "I've got to get that guy! I need to overcome that difficulty moment." We made sure that our biggest narrative punch happened at the same time, so that you got the emotional, "Yes, I finally did it!" and slammed that sword into that guy's chest, and then we hit you with our big narrative stinger, our big narrative twist.
There was very little narrative in Infinity Blade I, but when we did it, we did it right. So you would go "Oh... ohhh!" And I think that's a big reason why it's taken off so much, because you're already emotional about this victory you had, and then we go dun dun dun! And then they go, "Oh, I want to know more!"
I want to talk to you about design touchstones. It's usually Japanese games, and classic games, which you refer to.
I'm totally comfortable with that conversation, but it's just funny, because you don't see as much leading coming from Japan these days -- at least not in the general consensus.
DM: I see that, and I think that's actually true, and you certainly see even some of the more outspoken Japanese developers echoing that sentiment. But then I play Super Mario Galaxy or Super Mario Galaxy 2 -- or I haven't played the new Zelda yet but from everything I've seen...
While they're still similar formulas that they're playing with... Like, man, Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2 blew me away! There are some unbelievably amazing designs in those games that are just stomping what we're doing here in America, from a design standpoint.
I think the more Western culture stuff -- we are definitely way far ahead of Japan when it comes to storytelling, I think. Creating an emotive experience. We've done a good job of blockbuster-izing videogames, I think. But as far as just beautiful, elegant design, where controls just feel tight, and it feels like an extension of you, we're not there yet. And I'm trying to make our games be like that. It's a rare American game that I play where I feel like the controls are nearly as tight as some of the stuff Nintendo does.
I don't know, what do you think? I mean, can you think of one?
I think it's a different aesthetic.
DM: It's a different aesthetic. It is, yeah.
And I think that if you start to think of gameplay as an aesthetic -- not just visuals as an aesthetic or storytelling as an aesthetic -- it's a different aesthetic. And I think that I agree with you in broad strokes. If you look at what a game like Skyrim, or something, is trying to portray, it's just not even the same kind of thing, from a gameplay perspective. More open-ended, more about systems design than about that moment-to-moment.
DM: Yeah, exactly, and that is awesome. That's what I'm saying. I mean, if you look at some of the stuff Skyrim is pulling off, it's flabbergastingly amazing. I guess to me, my problem is that I want it all. I want that big, open-ended Skyrim game with the tightness of a Zelda or a Mario, you know? I want it to be that, but also when I swing the sword it just feels smooth, and feels like I hit that guy, and it connected.
And maybe this is too much. I totally get why that's hard to do. I'm playing through Uncharted 3 right now and there's stuff in Uncharted that I am like, "Oh my gosh!" Naughty Dog, and Amy [Hennig], and those guys, they're at least five years ahead of the rest of us from a narrative, storytelling kind of standpoint. At least. And I get because that was so much the focus, that maybe when I'm playing with the gunplay, or going into cover, that's not going to be as tight and polished as in Gears 3. But I wish it was. I wish I could have it all. I want it all, but…
Yeah, I know what you mean.
DM: You know? But yeah, there's a lot of cool stuff happening in games right now. But it's a rare game, at least I haven't quite played the game yet, that brings all of those things I want into one experience.