Chair Entertainment made a name for itself with award-winning downloadable Xbox 360 games like Undertow and Shadow Complex. Last year, the game developer, which is wholly owned by Epic Games, released Infinity Blade, an action-adventure title developed exclusively for iOS that became a blockbuster hit.
The game sold over 5 million copies, generated over $20 million, and impressed Apple execs enough that the company chose to use its iPhone 4S announcement event to publicly announce the December 1 release of the sequel, Infinity Blade II.
On the eve of the game's release, Donald Mustard, creative director and co-founder of Chair Entertainment, spoke with TabTimes about the booming tablet market, the unique challenges of designing for this platform, and the lessons the developer has learned from its first two iOS games.
TabTimes: How far have you seen the Apple tablet technology progress across the first two iterations?
Donald Mustard: If you just look at an iPad to an iPad2 or an iPhone 3GS to an iPhone 4S then we’re talking about a very short number of years. But the leap in technology between these devices is significant and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Things are accelerating quickly, and I would expect within the next few years that the tablets will reach the power of current consoles.
Looking from Infinity Blade to Infinity Blade II just in one year, the hardware has gotten fast enough that we’re able to push a lot more texture resolution, a lot more of the high-end rendering techniques like dynamic character shadows and more particle effects from the screen, whether that’s big magical effects, or particles blowing in the wind.
The tablets typically have even more memory than consoles and that will continue to become even more of a reality as the they get even faster and have more dedicated memory inside of them that we can use.
What are the development costs involved for creating a game like Infinity Blade II?
The majority of costs for game development come from the people that you employ working on it and how long that staff is working on a project. The reason why the development budget for Infinity Blade II is far less than say Gears of War 3 is because we have far less people working on it.
We have about a dozen people working on Infinity Blade, and we do it in less time, six months. Let’s say Gears of War is 68 or 70 people for three years, and Infinity Blade is 12 to 16 people for six months—it just greatly reduces the cost that way. If these tablet games continue to become more complex, which I’m sure they will, they will require more people and more time, and the budgets will increase accordingly.
What are the challenges of creating a game like an Infinity Blade I or II that actually requires an up-front cost to the consumer amidst the flood of free-to-play game experiences?
Consumers are driven to quality, and to really fun, unique game experiences. Whether that’s a $60 game, a $6 game, or a free game, they’re going to gravitate towards quality. With Infinity Blade I, we really felt like we gave you a lot of value for your dollar. Infinity Blade II is four to five times longer and bigger than Infinity Blade I, and it’s the same price as the first game, $6.99. There are lots of free-to-play games that I play and really enjoy. Some I pay micro-transactions for because they are good games that I want to continue playing, and some I don’t. It’s just a different type of game.
What have you learned about the audience that’s playing Infinity Blade on tablets since the original launched?
One of the main things that we think about when we’re designing a game for a tablet is where and how you’re playing these games. This might change in the future, but right now if you’re sitting down to play Gears of War 3 we know that you’re son a couch, probably in a room with the lights turned off and your surround sound on. You’re sitting down for a lengthy gameplay session of at least an hour.
With tablet gaming currently, we think that the average play time is five minutes or less at best. One of the things that we’re always considering in our design of these games is how can we give you a meaningful, progressive gameplay experience every two minutes. We’re balancing it more in two-minute increments than half-an-hour or even two-hour chunks from a pacing standpoint and a reward structure. That’s a big difference.
How has Apple’s iOS 5 impacted Infinity Blade II?
With iOS 5, you can just download the update. If the update is 50 megabytes, that’s it. There’s so much more we can do with that and we can continue to keep the game fresh and exciting for our players. We can have more content, we can continue to tweak the balancing of things and fix bugs, and make it a smoother, more fun experience for everyone involved. As game designers we love the ability to participate and shape the game with the people playing, as opposed to just putting it out there and moving on to the next thing.
What has surprised you about the gaming audience that bought Infinity Blade?
One of the things that surprised me the most is when we put out the first Infinity Blade we thought the average player would play through the game, beat the god king, get that awesome reward of finally killing him, and move on to playing another game. What we didn’t expect was how many people would be playing the game for so long, really getting into the depth of the swordplay and really playing it over and over again to fight these very high-level characters. They spend so much time fighting just like a real sword fight and pulling out these very difficult moves.
We now have hundreds of thousands of gamers who are sword fighting experts who can parry anything from any direction. We have a huge dedicated hardcore Infinity Blade fan base out there and I think they’re going to love some of the stuff that we’ve put into Infinity Blade II just for them.
How do you measure success in this still-new tablet space and what would you consider a success when it comes to this sequel?
When the first Infinity Blade came out we had no idea how you define success in the market. I looked around the office and I knew we’d sell at least a dozen copies because we had a dozen employees. We were surprised and thrilled with what happened. The way we define success is if people genuinely enjoy playing our game. We really are trying to make games that entertain people and make them happy. Success for Infinity Blade II, to me, would mean that we’ve not only made a game that all the people that played Infinity Blade I love playing even more than the first game, but that lots of new people enjoy it as well. Beyond that, we’re happy with whatever success comes from that.
Do you see tablets as a new cost effective way to introduce a brand to that consumer before bringing it to the traditional console gamer?
I think Infinity Blade has proven that to us. Tablets and smartphones are these incredible media devices that open up possibilities like playing Infinity Blade I and II, listening to the soundtrack from iTunes, and even downloading the book by Brandon Sanderson, Infinity Blade: Awakening. That’s a great way to introduce people to the larger brand. It would be very easy for us now to take the success of Infinity Blade to a traditional console or other avenues. For example, we just put out Infinity Blade FX arcade machines in every Dave & Buster’s in the United States. There are going to be over 10,000 of these huge arcade units, where you can play Infinity Blade on big 46-inch touch screens.