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GDC 2011: Chair's Core Tenets For  Infinity Blade  Success

GDC 2011: Chair's Core Tenets For Infinity Blade Success

March 1, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander

March 1, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, GDC

Epic Games and Chair Entertainment's iOS game Infinity Blade became the App Store's fastest-grossing title ever, but the studio never planned on making mobile games.

Chair head Donald Mustard told a packed Game Developers Conference session about the way the studio has always formulated ideas, its unique -- and proven -- approach to the mobile and downloadable markets, and the key tenets that led to Infinity Blade's success.

"I had this little team sitting around waiting for a publisher deal to come through... what if we tried to make one of these smaller, downloadable games and see what happened? What would that mean to make a 'small' game?" Mustard describes.

When Chair began, its entire team -- six people at the time -- went through an intense pitching process that required 30 concepts a day for two weeks, games that could be built by six people in less than a year. "This proved to be one of the most valuable exercises that we'd ever done in the history of Chair," Mustard says, because it allowed the group to talk through and dissect hundreds of ideas.

The studio's now developed a veritable lexicon of concepts that they continue to maintain and add to, so that their design ideas can be discussed within the context of one another and so that strong ideas are always at the ready to produce.

"What it does is allows us as a team to constantly be talking about new game ideas that we want to create," says Mustard. "It's proven to be one of our most effective tools," he says.

Chair's Three Tenets

Since establishing that technique, Chair has developed Undertow, Shadow Complex and Infinity Blade, and from there the studio's developed three ideals: First, nobody wants an inexpensive version of favorite retail titles, Mustard notes.

Just because someone loves a console experience, for example, doesn't mean they're going to want a "lite" or scaled-down version in the mobile or downloadable markets. Consumers want a unique game experience, even if the format is smaller, Mustard emphasizes.

Second, the downloadable format offers many choices that developers in the traditional space don't have, in part because they're lower risk, and certain genres or innovations are more sensible at lower price points than as a component of a larger product.

Instead of look at what console games are doing, "look at what they're not doing," says Mustard -- for example, with Shadow Complex, no one had yet done a high-quality "Metroidvania" type game on the Xbox Live Arcade platform because no one would buy that game at a $60 price point. Thus an opportunity: "Find what a 'small' game can do that a big budget retail game won't do," Mustard advises.

Developers should also identify or create unaddressed holes in the market and then fill them. For example, before Guitar Hero launched, there wasn't a market for those kinds of games -- so the developers "created their own hole, and then they filled that hole and became a huge genre unto itself." In the touch-screen space, "there's a new opportunity for us to create new genres, new market holes, and to fill them with really, really awesome stuff. That's what we tried to do with Infinity Blade."

Pillars For The Mobile Space

With the popular Unreal Engine-powered Infinity Blade, Chair learned some important lessons: Most of all, designers should consider the context in which people actually use mobile devices when creating a game.

When it comes to mobile devices in particular, the device has unique considerations: Where do people play? In line at the store, during a commute, or filling time while doing something else. "We don't necessarily have the undivided attention of the player," says Mustard, which is not only an important design consideration, but one of the many elements that separates mobile games from console titles.

That realization opens up further considerations: Multitasking or commuting portable players are not always likely to have headphones in, so designers can't rely heavily on sound elements and cues the way they might with other genres.

"We had to design a game that you could play and have it be... an exhilarating experience with no sound," he says. "That was terrifying to me, to be missing one of my greatest tools ever, and still have to make a satisfying game."

The "how" of the player is also important -- the screen is the controller, and no other physical inputs can be used. Finally, the rest of the market is an imporant consideration: Infinity Blade launched in an environment where physics puzzles, tower defense games, card and board games and console ports were most popular.

That's why he team saw room for a game like Infinity Blade on the iPhone -- a key example of Chair's philosophy of identifying unaddressed spaces in the market or creating new ones.

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