[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.