Infinity Blade completed in five months
GDC 2011: Creative director Donald Mustard reveals the secrets behind Chair's development process for the Unreal Engine-powered iOS hit.
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Who was there: The Infinity Blade: How We Made a Hit, What We Learned, and Why You Can Do It Too! panel featured Chair's creative director, Donald Mustard.
What they talked about: Mustard began his presentation with some background on the name of his company, as it has bearing on the company's design philosophy. He said that it was inspired by Plato's Theory of Forms, in which the philosopher says that everything exists in a perfect metaphysical state and what we experience is an emulation of that. Plato uses the chair (hence, the name) as an example--chairs might all look different, but they all serve the same purpose, and they are striving to be a perfect representation of that. Mustard believes that applies to game design, as people on his team all have a perfect idea of what a game should be in their heads, but once it becomes real, it doesn't necessarily live up to what was mentally concocted. Still, he says this represents a pursuit of perfection at his company.
Mustard said that he didn't know Chair would end up making digital or mobile games when the company was founded six years ago. Their focus was on creating traditional console games, which they pitched to various publishers. Right around this same time, he noticed that there was this other platform called Xbox Live that was starting to take off, so he and his team discussed dabbling in smaller, digital games to see what happened while they awaited a publisher deal. The team of six at Chair locked themselves into a room and tasked each member with pitching 30 game concepts that could be transformed into a full game within a year's worth of development time. Mustard said the team designed just about every kind of game possible, but he added that the final list was eventually boiled down to about 20 to 25 viable concepts. From there, the team created one-sheets for each of the games.
Mustard explained that this process was incredibly important because these concepts became a part of the vernacular at Chair. Team members often made references to their concepts as they saw them in other games that were being released. Mustard added that it kept the team talking about new game ideas, but more importantly, it allowed them to make Infinity Blade because they already had the basic concept ready to go.
Based on their experience of working on smaller games, Chair has devised three ideals or guidelines for working on such projects. The first is that people don't want a cheap version of their favorite retail game. Mustard explained that there's a temptation to just make a Gears of War, but he said that people want a unique experience. The second ideal is to find something a small game can do that a big-budget retail game won't do. Mustard said that there's a bigger risk factor with big-budget games than with smaller games. And the third ideal is to identify or create a hole in the market and then fill it. Mustard brought up the example of Guitar Hero as filling a hole for a genre that had yet to expand, but he also mentioned that with the arrival of touch-screen devices, there's an even greater opportunity to create new market holes and create new genres.
Getting back specifically to Infinity Blade, Mustard said that Epic called on a Friday afternoon in June and informed him that they were working on a version of Unreal Engine for the iOS platform. Epic wanted to get a game out that showed off the tech and asked if Mustard and his team would be willing to take on such a project--the catch being that Chair would have to complete the project within five months. Chair agreed and they began work by gathering the team to discuss what was unique to the device associated with the project. A few key themes and questions came out of these meetings. The first question addressed how people play games on these devices and where they play them. Team members said they play while shopping or while watching TV. Mustard also said that they came to the conclusion (with few seemingly unwilling to admit it) that a lot of people play these devices while using the toilet. He added that Infinity Blade is actually balanced in a way as to take into account the amount of time it takes for a player's legs to go numb while playing the game in the bathroom. The point, Mustard said, was that developers simply don't have the undivided attention of people playing games on these devices.
Even for smaller console games, it's different. With Shadow Complex, Mustard explained, the user has to turn on the TV, turn on the Xbox, and maybe put on some headphones--from that, he said they know they can get at least 30 minutes in which a user's attention is completely focused. But with mobile games, people are distracted, which meant that Chair had to change the way it thought about design. Mustard also emphasized the fact that when people are playing mobile games in public, they often have the sound turned off, meaning that the team would also have to compensate for that.
There is also an issue with how people play with a touch screen. Mustard said there are opportunities to create new control techniques, but developers also run into an issue with fingers blocking the screen. He added that the lack of physical feedback is also a challenge. Mustard concluded this part of the talk by saying that his team also examined what kinds of other games were being made for the platform--games like Angry Birds and numerous others that are what he called, "physics-based puzzlers." They also saw many tower defense games as well as card-based games, all of which were things the company could do thanks to its previous marathon conceptualization session.
But Chair's design choice and ultimate selection for the iOS came down to a few key pillars. The first was that whatever game they made, people had to be able to play the game with one finger. The second pillar was creating a game that delivered a meaningful experience within two minutes--not just fun, Mustard said, but actual progression. Another pillar emphasized that the game had to be original and unique to the device it was being designed for, which--according to Mustard--meant things like, "If your game would be great with a controller, you are making the wrong game." The final pillar was to make a game that was truly skill based, meaning that users could actually get better at the game by playing it more often as opposed to the trial and error techniques found in other mobile games.
With the framework in place, Chair went to work and had just around 100 working days to complete Infinity Blade. Mustard said they knew they had to be careful with how they managed development time. They needed to make the game fun and make it fast. Eventually, the team settled on a swordfighting game and worked around what made swordfighting fun, looking back on games like the original Prince of Persia and Karateka. Through that process, it was determined that parrying is a large part of what makes swordfighting fun in games. Mustard said that the team aimed for a structure that resembled Karateka but, from a visual standpoint, delivered the somber feeling of a game like Shadow of the Colossus.
The team knew that its core fun would be centered on reading sword movements, which meant that the camera position would have to highlight those movements. On the Monday after the Friday phone call from Epic, Chair already had a concept video finished that featured two untextured characters from Shadow Complex, in about the same position as the characters appear now in Infinity Blade. Within 10 days, the team had everything else in place, so the next four and a half months would be spent filling out the rest of the game
. Mustard said that the team knew that graphics would be the initial hook for Infinity Blade, so they built the characters and environment much as they would for a console game, since the iOS platforms offered that level of detail. However, this meant that they could create only about eight to 10 characters, and instead of a sprawling world, they would have to make do with a unified castle.
With the hook and gameplay in place, Chair then moved on to a feature that would ultimately support both aspects of the game. This meant creating the store and all of its items. Interestingly, Mustard said that the intention behind giving players new weapons was to give them the illusion that they were making players better at the game when, in fact, it was just their skills that were getting better. He added that there's no reason players can't beat the God King on their first try but that most people don't, simply because they don't have the skill level needed to do so.
The session concluded with Mustard talking about Infinity Blade representing a fully integrated experience. Everything that exists in the game is there because it complements something else or because it loops into the core fun. Along those lines, he said the reason why they didn't let people manually walk around the environments had nothing to do with technical limitations, but rather, it's because it didn't fit within the design. He mentioned how jarring it would be to integrate traditional controls for movement in such a manner and then force people back into swiping for the sword play. Still, they added features like being able to click on treasure hidden in the environment, because it worked within what the team was trying to accomplish. Mustard finished by saying that Chair is working on a large update for Infinity Blade and that they plan to continue supporting the game in the coming months.
Quote: "I take a shower every day, and there's many benefits to doing that. Every day I'm in the shower, I clear my head. That 10 to 15 minutes is time in my day that I think about new stuff--not think about the game I'm working, not think about what my kids have going on at school. It isn't anything beyond new game ideas and it's one of my favorite times of my life." -- Donald Mustard
Takeaway: Chair's approach to mobile gaming is refreshing and one that other developers and publishers could learn from if the market hopes to not only expand, but also gain respect from traditional gaming consumers who typically look down on its associated platforms.