[In this in-depth interview, Chair Entertainment heads Donald and Geremy Mustard discuss the inspiration and success of Infinity Blade, the team's first iOS title, what they've learned from it, and what it means for the future of their development process and even games at large.]
When Donald and Geremy Mustard formed Chair Entertainment, it was with high ideals (the company's official "about" page explains how its mission derives from Plato's concepts) and a deep and abiding love of classic games. Its Shadow Complex broke records on the Xbox Live Arcade service at launch.
The team hit even bigger with the iOS game Infinity Blade, which quickly became the platform's fastest-grossing app. The game was created both with a passion for gameplay -- as creative director Donald Mustard explains below -- and to show off parent company Unreal's UDK for iOS, according to technical director Geremy Mustard.
Judging from the response gamers have had to the title, it does both. In this interview, the Mustards (including Donald's wife Laura, who serves as the company's PR) and senior producer Simon Hurley talk about the creative impetus behind the game, why the team released a free content update, and what they learned from audience reaction, and lessons from the process of developing both Shadow Complex and Infinity Blade.
You recently put out a free update for Infinity Blade, right?
Donald Mustard: A bunch of new enemies, a new area to explore, new story elements, a lot of gameplay refinements. That was something we were experimenting with: what happens if we put out an update for free that literally doubles the size of the game and the amount of content?
The game's on sale for 50 percent off for the next couple of days, and we're back up number one on the iPad charts again... [Note: the interview was conducted shortly after the content update.]
Laura Mustard: And the sale is really a vehicle to promote the new content. We want to make sure everyone knows there's a ton of new content out.
DM: Also, it's just interesting for us, because we've never made a game for this marketplace before, and it's still emerging. We're still trying to see what works and what makes sense -- and hopefully start to figure out this space. But it's been really successful for us, so we're really happy.
When it came to Shadow Complex, you were really inspired by classic games. What inspired you with this game? What was the original genesis? Was it just to make an iOS game?
DM: No. Infinity Blade, in our mind, is a combination of Karateka, Jordan Mechner's kind of --
Simon Hurley: Apparently, we found out, it's "Kara-teka" (laughs)
DM: Kara-teka, right. I've been saying "Karate-ka" since I was little.
Yeah, me too.
LM: You guys are really right, but don't tell the others or they'll get really bummed about it.
DM: There's just something about the purity of the fight; that and the original Prince of Persia. Those are the two games I've ever played where it actually felt like I was actually sword fighting, where I was actually in this pitted battle, where it felt cinematic. It just felt different than any God of War or any of these other games.
And we took that feeling and that shorter loop, and combined it with what we were hoping to capture: some of the lonely epicness of Shadow of the Colossus. We thought if we take that, and then combine that with the more gestural sword fighting system we'd have something pretty unique and pretty cool. Yeah, we always look back at those classic games.
How do you find that people responded to the idea? "Lonely epicness" is not the phrase that I would associate with iOS gameplay. At least, not the epicness -- maybe the lonely.
DM: It's true. That's the thing we were trying to go for visually. It's too bad we don't have a lot more time because we could talk about this for a couple hours.
To me, when we started to analyze some of the games that were out there that were more successful, we found that a lot of the games require a little bit of input and then you watch some stuff that happens. You think of the core game of Angry Birds: I fire, and then I watch the results of my actions for awhile.
The games that didn't do that, that really required you to be like (anxious-sounding breaths) all the time, in our opinion, were not successful and got tiring really fast. What we wanted was this core loop of frenetic sword fighting, but we tried to pace it so that battles would last 30 seconds, to a minute and a half, to two minutes at most -- but then we wanted between the battles to have this cinematic breathe time where you're like (sigh of relief) and there's not a lot going on. There's a moment for me to not do anything but maybe click on a little gold or explore the inventory.
We thought we'd frame this fighting mechanic around this lonely, isolated place with these big titans that I have to fight. It would just feel more unique to the device and be something that'd be kind of cool, and it worked!
Geremy Mustard: We found that people do need those breather moments, even during battle. The reason why we added in those transitions where you beat the boss a third of the way down and then he plays a stumble animation or whatever he does, is that it gives you just enough time to be like (sigh of relief) and be ready to fight again.
DM: I get to reposition my fingers. We try to make these four-to-six second transitions two times in the battle so you can just take a moment.
SH: And it gives you a sense of progression.
GM: But, as far as the world goes, we didn't want to put that pressure on the player to feel like they have to progress. Having a lonely world makes it so there's time to look around and be like, "Oh, this is pretty scenery." Which is one of our goals, too; to show off the technology that we have.
Sure. Why would you have that goal? (Everyone laughs)
But that's one of the reasons I like RPGs so much -- and not even just RPGs, but games that let you create a safe spot. You can just take a break and play at your own pace.
DM: Right. Exactly; it's true.
GM: And one of the interesting things that we found is that, because this is going to a much wider audience than the traditional core console/PC audience, there were a lot of players -- especially females -- that would spend more time looking around.
That was their favorite part of the game: clicking on the gold. They'd be like, "Ooh!" They'd find a thing, and then they'd be like, "Oh, I have to go fight a guy now? Ugh." They'd fight the guy, and then be like, "Oh, now I can find stuff again!" There were different people and different demographics.
DM: Well, and there are just different tasks within [the game], to help it pull you along.
I always imagine a couple playing it and passing the iPad back and forth. I don't know if you've ever seen anything like that happen.
DM: Exactly. That's one of the things that we certainly talked about: "Phew, okay. I beat that guy. You do the next guy."
SH: That's how my wife and I play, actually. She thinks the monsters are too scary, and she likes going and plodding all over...
Ultimately, you can do metrics and surveys and focus testing and playtesting, but there are so many people out there, especially on a device like this, that to capture what the play patterns are -- ultimately, you're only testing the things that you anticipated there would be demand for, anyway.
DM: Exactly. It's always scary, especially something like this, because we made Infinity Blade in five months, from "Hey! We're going to make an iOS game" to "It's on the shelves." Developing that, at least to us, in that short of a time frame, felt like running straight at a brick wall at a hundred miles per hour; any deviation off of that, you were going to fall and die.
We had to make decisions -- and they had to be right -- lightning-quick. It's scary stuff. Really, the metrics we had were: Who plays iOS games in the office? Well, okay. I play them. How do I play them? Well, I play them when I'm in the bathroom. I play them when I'm shopping with Laura, and she's trying on stuff, and I'm like "urgh." That's when I get to play stuff.
LM: That's when I play my games, too; when he's trying on stuff.
DM: Yeah, that's true. (chuckles) But we talked about it a little bit, and our team was like, "That's kind of how it's happening." So we pooled the information we had, and made the best decisions that we could. Luckily, the market seems to be supporting it, but it's really kind of like the Wild, Wild West out there. It's exciting! I love it. It's a creative space to be in right now.
Did your team expand or change between Shadow Complex and Infinity Blade?
DM: We finally found our producer. We've wanted a producer since the inception of Chair, and we knew that was a scary position to hire. We needed to find someone that was amazing, and so we spent many, many years looking for our Simon -- and we found him! So we added a few key personnel.
When we shipped Shadow Complex, we were eight or nine core developers, and now we're up to 12. So it changed a little bit, but we're still in that mentality of, grow slowly but make sure that every person we hire is just an amazing fit with the team and gels well.
GM: One of the advantages we have, though, as being part of Epic is that, even though we're a small team on our own, we have lots of resources we can pull in. If we're running out of time on something, we can pull in a few extra resources for a few days, and then they can go back and work on Gears 3 again.
DM: We did that on Shadow Complex, and we're like "This is actually really nice to have this resource." On Infinity Blade, we really made that part of our core --
SH: We leveraged it from the start.
DM: Yeah, from the very start we were like, "Okay, here's how we can use this, and predict it, and schedule it." So we were able to go, "We have these 10 people in Epic Games China that we could swing in for a month or two and do this," and that's now definitely part of our regular production process.
SH: And working closely with the engine team at Epic was really useful for us -- but also for them, as well, because we were sort of proving out the technology as an actual game for the first time. All the things that we learned, and that they worked with us to incorporate in there, everyone gets with UDK now as well, so that's just benefitting all the licensees, as well.
DM: So I love it. I feel like I have the advantage of a super small team and the advantage of a big team, and I get to use what works best in all of those and -- whoop whoop! Sweet. We can make cool stuff.
SH: We just have to coordinate to get all our hands in the same spot at the same time, so...
DM: That's what we have you do! (Everyone laughs)
Were you surprised at the uptake on this game?
DM: Yeah. I had a...
GM: I wasn't; he was. (Everyone laughs)
DM: Maybe I'm just always scared. I feel like I don't know. The night before our games come out, I'm like, "It could sell a million copies; it could sell zero copies." I don't ever...
LM: And the first time it's like, "Wow! Somebody really bought it!"
DM: The day before Infinity Blade came out, I thought, "We've made a really, really awesome game." I thought, "This is a fun game that I love playing and the team loved playing."
We thought we had something really special, but because of the unknowns of the marketplace... With Shadow Complex, I'm like, "This is a fun game. We're really, really proud of it, and I have zero doubt that it's gonna be a big success," just because it felt like the marketplace was absolutely ready for a title like that.
GM: And we're more familiar with the Xbox/console hardcore gamer market.
DM: Whereas this, I'm like... Who knows
LM: Well, Infinity Blade is the first of its kind, you know? The marketplace is just still developing, so...
DM: And it felt like a new enough genre choice that it felt like there could be literally no market for this, and so I didn't know.
LM: That's all we can do, though, is get it to the point where we feel like it's a good game, and fun to play, and we're proud of it.
SH: We had a moment about four weeks before we shipped where I'd been playing it on the 3GS for a few weeks or whatever, one of the test units that I had on my desk. We got a new build, and I took it on my phone and took it home and played it over the weekend. The first I turned it on, it all just sort of clicked at that point, and was like, "This is gonna be great." It's just doing something that nobody's ever been able to do before.
DM: We knew it was great; it's just great and selling doesn't necessarily [define its greateness]...
SH: That's true; that's true.
DM: But, yeah, within 24 hours it was number one on every chart. It was awesome.
When did Infinity Blade come out in relation to the iPad?
DM: It came out December 9th, so it had already been out for three months.
Oh, God; really? That's all? It feels like it's been out for... It feels like this big, titanic -- oh, that's the wrong word; titanic in the adjective sense, so it's not mean. (Everyone laughs)
LM: We just can't remember life before Infinity Blade!
GM: Because it hit hard and hit big, and you saw it everywhere -- because of Apple. You saw it on every TV commercial during the Super Bowl; you're like "What the heck is this thing?"
Do you have any statistics on whether it's more popular with iPad players? Do you have those kinds of statistics?
DM: We do. It's about 50 to percent are iPhones, so 3GSes and iPhone 4s.
GM: It's around 30 percent iPad and 20 percent iPods.
DM: And then, of the 50 percent that's iPhones, it's like... Is it 40 percent iPhone 4s? Or is it pretty evenly split?
GM: There's a lot more iPhone 4s than other [games] -- just because they're wanting to show it off. And that's shifting over time...
DM: And those numbers pretty much show that that has more to do with the install base of the devices. It's pretty even, if you look at how many iPhone 4s there are, compared to iPads, compared to iTouches. It's pretty even.
GM: The only thing that really surprised us is that, of the iPhones, [relatively] more iPhone 4s than 3GSes got it. But, thinking about it, that makes sense because that's where it really shines. People want to justify their iPhone 4 and say, "See? It's better than all your Android devices." So they wanted it for that reason. But over time that's shifting --
DM: Which is crazy, how many devices there are.
Okay. I want to talk about the update and your philosophy, about what drove you to do a big, free update. In-app purchases are becoming a big deal.
DM: So that was interesting. 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.
So, right when we shipped the game, we started working on a small, free update for Christmas, adding new swords, and a new enemy, and stuff like that. We're like, "Let's put it in. We're experimenting with the marketplace; let's see what happens."
So we put in the ability to purchase gold; that came two weeks after launch. We're like, "No one's gonna buy this," Because we didn't balance the game that way. And, I mean, we didn't change the balancing when we put in the ability to buy gold. Just play the game for a few hours and you'll have more gold than you can spend.
But as soon as we put that out, we started selling thousands and thousands of bags of gold a day! That was really kind of eye-opening to us as to the kind of mentality that's developing and how people want to consume their games on these devices. That was pretty shocking to us.
But, from the free update side, Infinity Blade's popular enough, and selling so consistently, that we thought, "Actually, we could put out an update and sell it for 99 cents or 3 dollars or something; but we're interested in building a community." We thought that, if we support the game for several months with significant, meaningful content, what will happen is people will not only feel good about their initial purchase but will tell more people about it. It seems like this is absolutely a word-of-mouth... We had Apple touting us a lot, which was nice, but we didn't spend any marketing money on this.
LM: We did a little. I think there were a few banners on GameSpot.
DM: But that's... almost no marketing. So we're trying to find strategies that can build. We want to have millions of people invested in Chair and what we're doing. We feel like the goodwill of our users is probably our most valuable commodity, and so we spend a lot of money and a lot of time just building more content -- and it seems to work.
We put out this huge update yesterday, and we're right back up at the top of the charts, meaning we're selling a lot of copies to new people. I have to think that's, in part, because of the goodwill we're building, and we'll continue doing that as long as it's successful.
LM: Ours is more about value. Even at $5.99, Infinity Blade is already the best value on iTunes. We increase that value by giving more content.
DM: No, you're right; and that's part of the philosophy. How do we get the value of the game to the tipping point, where everybody who has one of these devices wants to have this product?
Something I'm picking up on is that the consoles don't support these kinds of fast updates, free updates, and in-app purchases, the kind of things that iOS supports, right? If you had the ability -- and you can't do this for cert reasons, contractual reasons -- if you could add a whole new level to Shadow Complex, I bet you'd want to, but you're constrained.
DM: Absolutely. You're totally hitting it on the head. The ease with which we can do this -- all of the things you just said are totally true. The face that we can put in new content and adjust quickly to what the market's doing is key.
Even in this update, little things, like we've noticed some players on the iPad don't think the dodge buttons are big enough. We're like, "Well, we think they're a good size, but some people don't; so let's put in a little slider where they can just change the size of the button." We put that in, update it, and it's out, quick; people are happy. It'd be very, very challenging to do that on retail, traditional games.
SH: And we've got stuff on the Epic forums. We read through some of the reviews that we see on iTunes, and we get emails all the time from fans saying, "Hey, we really like the game. We'd like to see this in it" kind of stuff. As all that stuff comes in, we consider it, and some of it goes into our task list.
DM: It's empowering to us, and it's empowering to the consumer. The ease with which we can do it is the lessening of the barrier; that means that we can do it frequently.
Do you think that the console makers need to start supporting those kinds of things to stay competitive with changing gamer expectations?
DM: Yeah, this is an eye-opener for me, having not had this kind of experience before. Now, kind of living through it and working through it and seeing a lot of the advantages of it, I think that the things that are happening in the social space and the handheld space are going to completely change the way we look at console games moving forward.
I think in five years the console games will look very, very different than they do now, and it will be because of the work that's happening in these spaces and the agile -- I think "agile" is probably the right word -- just the agile way that the market's developing.
SH: And it's going very fast. Last generation was the first game generation where you could even patch console games on the Xbox. Before that, once it was in the box, it was done. It's just changing very rapidly.
DM: I think that the market will demand it, and that's inevitable at this point.