Not many developers can claim to be credited on a triple-A game and a hit mobile game in the same year.
Chicago-based Phosphor Games are one of those few. Their recent iOS debut, October's Dark Meadow
, has helped evolve a new genre that's only come about since the inception of the iPhone, while their work with the Unreal Engine led to being credited in Gears of War 3
-- a point of pride for the company.
Phosphor, founded after the closure
of Chicago-based Midway Games, has a strong game development background. Founders have worked with studios including Viacom New Media, which worked on SNES games, Valkyrie Studios after creating Septerra Core
and Midway, where projects included Psi-Ops, Stranglehold, NBA Ballers
and Mortal Kombat
After starting Phosphor, console games were the focus, leading to a collaboration with Microsoft on Kinect Adventures
, and working on Unreal Engine tech with Epic.
This wide array of experience has helped Phosphor carry its success into the mobile-game space. "Being a console developer taught us a lot of discipline on how to get a game finished on time," Chip Sineni, director at Phosphor Games told Gamasutra. "It was pretty much three months from game idea to Apple submission -- I don't think an inexperienced developer could have tackled a game like Dark Meadow
in that timeframe."
In Sineni's own words, Dark Meadow
is a "mobile adventure combat" game; a new genre brought about thanks to Epic and Chair's Infinity Blade
. The player is a patient in a mental hospital that's been overrun by monsters (inspired paradoxically by Japanese model makers Takayuki Takeya and Nirasawa, and the high-end fashion industry to land on the theme "beautiful corruption") that appear as you explore. It's a solitary experience, save for the game's narrator: a fellow patient named Finny who speaks to you through an intercom.
Comparisons to Infinity Blade
are not one that Phosphor shies away from, although the developers do claim the notion that Dark Meadow
is an "Infinity Blade rip-off" as a bit unfair.
According to Sineni "Dark Meadow
is about as different from Infinity Blade
as first-person shooters are from each other... Bioshock
and Call of Duty
share a lot of base level core features, but I don't think anyone thinks they are the same. At one point everyone thought Ultima Underworld
were pretty similar because there weren't a lot of other examples."
The studio also believes that at this relatively early stage of life of iOS, it's a good thing to have a game that's easy to describe, even if by comparison, and that soon controls and genres will standardize as a new "language" develops to fit the format.
Phosphor was also happy to grow the foundation set by Infinity Blade
given the short production cycle of Dark Meadow
and it too, is an Unreal Engine-based game, as many in the team already had experience with the engine. Some variations in control scheme such as "tap to shoot" and more free-movement were considered, but too much experimentation would have meant pushing out the schedule and, after all, if it's not broken, why fix it?
"We're not fans of virtual stick games," said Jarod Pranno, studio art director and script writer for Dark Meadow
. "It's kind of an obstacle for less-experienced gamers who are intrigued by gaming on their iOS device. It's trying to force an existing paradigm into a space where that paradigm has no meaning or history. We try not to let ourselves be constrained by assumptions of how a game must control that are based on 30-plus years of button-and-joystick gaming."
Focus on atmosphere was paramount in the development of Dark Meadow
. It started with the basic concept of a "creaky old place with an evil guy running it" but they had problems developing a whole fiction around it.
While Sineni and Pranno always considered Dark Meadow
a "dark fairy tale," it's publicly and critically been thought of as a horror game. That particular response wasn't unwanted, it was just unexpected.
"In Hindsight, knowing that people responded positively to the horror, we wish we could have played it up more," said Sineni.
"I really like the idea of taking a genre trope and turning it on its head," continued Pranno. "It's fun to play with audience expectations like that. The success of this idea hinged on our ability to make an atmospheric and immersive game experience on a mobile device, which was obviously a challenge, but that's why we thought it was worth doing."
In any game that aims to build atmosphere, sound is an integral element, and Dark Meadow is no different.
Holding the belief that sound must be used to the fullest because "we get so few senses to play with," Sineni believes that playing an atmospheric game like Dark Meadow
with the audio off would be akin to watching a Hitchcock movie without the sound. "It just falls flat."
"Mobile devices are, oddly, more limited in their audio than graphical capabilities," said Pranno. "We had to do a lot of juggling and planning to get the right combination of music, ambiance and voice, but there isn't much you can do about people who may not get the whole audio experience. If people want to play on the train with no sound, that's the experience they're going to get."
One thing people will miss by playing with no audio is Dark Meadow
's excellent narrator. The British voice of Finny (acted by Jeffery Gibson) that rambles at you as you make your way through the dilapidated hospital is equal parts insane, funny and foreboding in a way that you wouldn't understand from just reading the subtitles.
's storytelling as inspiration, Sineni noted the irony that some of the most memorable characters in games lately are heard, not seen. "A well-written character and great voice talent can convey so much without interrupting the gameplay," he said.
The character of Finny was written as a story concession because the team didn't want a series of conversations trickling over the combat where it would be difficult to hear. This is what led to the "sunroom" concept, where there are rooms with no combat and players can hear the voice-over or find further story in books.
"We knew we didn't want to force players to just sit in these rooms and wait for the dialogue to end, so we had to make them short enough that players could hear them and move on," said Sineni.
Pranno noted that in some ways, it was easier to write the story in smaller chunks. "It meant the story had to be split up into 'acts' so we could chart what information to reveal and when," he said. "I think it's really powerful that Finny is your only connection to the world, and anything he says takes on a really magnified importance, making it easy to start shifting the player's feelings and expectations about the situation."
Upon release, Phosphor was interested to find criticisms that didn't appear during play-testing, particularly with the combat summary screen that appeared after each battle.
"I think it was a case of us, again, not really seeing it as horror, more as a monster fighting game, and that screen was a classic RPG thing to have," said Sineni. "Other people saw it more as horror, and it totally ruined their mood."
The summary screen has since been removed in a patch, but Sineni believes that it already turned away some players, saying "some of that damage is done."
Despite the occasional bump in the road, Sineni and Phosphor Games have been delighted with the response. "I think the high praise even surprised us, where we are being compared favourably to characters in $60 retail titles. I think in general players and reviewers seemed to really respond to the 'old man' character."
Along with the patch, Phosphor also released a Halloween update for the game which increased the level cap, lowered the creature spawn rate so players can focus on exploration, and added bug-fixes and optimizations for the iPhone 4S.
After the success of Dark Meadow, Phosphor intends to continue with more iOS projects in addition to their console development. The studio will also be making further changes and additions to Dark Meadow
which will include more narration and a new location.