Six Epic Games alumni have ditched one of console gaming’s biggest franchises to start all over again, launching a new IP on new platforms with a new mobile start-up.
Risky? Hardly, says BitMonster president Lee Perry. His new mobile studio is made up of former Gears Of War veterans and he wants to bring similar production values to the mobile space with its first title, Lili.
The new iOS adventure is being developed in Unreal Engine 3, of course, and the press release revealing the studio’s formation and its new game project was packed with praise for Perry and co’s former employer.
So while its ties to Epic haven't been cut completely, it’s clear that Perry and his team are looking forward to making a fresh start. We caught up with Perry to get his thoughts on leaving Epic behind for mobile’s new frontier.
First of all, then: why leave Epic? Most of us would agree it’s been the toughest call we’ve ever made. Epic is one of the absolute best places to work, in games or otherwise, and they take very good care of their employees. Each of us have individual motivations, but what we have in common is a desire to shape something of our own and it take advantage of where the industry is right now.
The last few years have offered something that we’ve never seen before. A small group of developers can get together, take some risks, and make it on their own. It’s not a necessity to have backing and huge advertising and distribution channels to be successful. So, after an average of seven years at Epic each, with the Gears trilogy wrapped up, that felt like a significant milestone to have achieved and move on.
Do you see the window of opportunity in mobile closing as more and more studios move into this competitive space? Narrowing, maybe, but not closing. The App Store and Steam let the genie out of the bottle, creating ways to get a game to billions of people with a super low barrier of entry. The platforms of choice for small games may evolve, but the genie isn’t going back in the bottle anytime soon. I’m overly simplifying it, but generally right now the playing field is as level as it’s going to get.
With a couple of exceptions, the games that do really well aren’t hits because of advertising budgets. We don’t think anyone has found the golden ticket to advertising a mobile game into the tops of the charts and muscling out the little guys. There are underhanded techniques of gaming the App Store system to hit the charts, but it’s still more of a meritocracy than we had before.
Lili is quite a change in tone and subject matter compared to the kind of games Epic is known for. Have you wanted to make a more universally appealing game for a long time? It’s a refreshing change of pace, definitely. We think what’s important is that we’re making these choices because we want to, not because we think it’s better for marketing or something. Being cutesy isn’t enough, it has to be authentic.
With Lili we definitely want to get away from 'saving the world' and tell a much more personal story that we think people will relate to, even in a crazy setting. There are moments in games like Catherine, where the player goes into a bathroom stall to check his cell phone; moments like that are amazing to us because it’s so relatable. We just want to connect with people; those are the titles you remember.
Do you feel it's easier to take risks with new IP in the mobile space? It has less to do with the platform, and more to do with budgets. If companies start spending tens of millions on high end mobile games, they’re going to be just as conservative with creative decisions as they are on a $60 console game. We want to make games that take a few months instead of years, so it’s entirely about taking aggressive design risks. We’re not afraid that some will fail, because we’re not going to have our eggs in one basket."
BitMonster president Lee Perry
How different is developing with UDK on iOS compared to consoles? It’s getting to the point where developing content is developing content. Tools like Unreal Engine 3 help of course, because assets work fairly universally. There are constraints on any platform, but thankfully modern mobile devices are powerful enough that it feels like developing on consoles just a few years ago.
From a design standpoint it’s a very different challenge. Controls are a challenge we welcome. The principles of having good feedback to the player are still critical, it has to be fun just to touch, and making controls accessible is still paramount. Luckily those are things we have a lot of experience with and value appropriately.
You have described Lili as 'triple-A' game. Do you think such a thing exists on mobile right now? The term triple-A is pretty nebulous. It could mean grand scope, or licensed property, or expensive, depending on whom you ask. If there’s any metric we would use, it would simply be 'high quality' and anything else is open to interpretation. I think any sane gamer would claim Portal to be triple-A, but it was also shorter and less expensive.I think we just have high internal quality standards, if people want to call it triple-A, cool, but I think it’s a buzzword we might avoid more in the future.
The big smash hits on mobile thus far have mostly been shorter, snack-style gaming experiences, taillored to the platform. Do you think users actually want 'triple-A' on mobile? On mobile, people obviously shy away from anything above a couple [of] bucks, so it’s a big risk for a company to put out a huge traditional campaign. The second barrier is what you mentioned; many people seem to want a quick fix when they have a free moment. It’s ADHD theatre out there, and the worst thing in the world is apparently to not be entertained for 25 seconds when you find yourself alone. But it’s possible to package a series of short encounters into a larger campaign and overcome that.
Regardless, there are still companies putting larger games on mobile platforms, and that’s awesome. I’ve heard so many anecdotes about people on their couch in front of their powered down big-screen, playing on their phone. The greatest thing about the industry right now is that it’s the Wild West again. Anything can and might work. The hardware is so flexible and always networked, there’s whole genres waiting to be discovered.
Isn't there a danger that people simply don't want to play console-style games on mobile devices? It’s entirely possible, but given the install base of mobile phones capable of playing great games, there’s statistically a large group of people who will want just that. For what it’s worth, Lili isn’t actually a huge console game being shoehorned onto a phone in the hopes of reshaping how people play. It’s built with many of the considerations of mobile gaming at its core.
Is Lili a paid App or free-to-play? How did you decide on the pricing model? We never set out to base the company on a particular pricing model or platform. We never said, “Let’s get together and make free-to-play mobile games and we’ll make a fortune”. We’re exploratory. We’ll decide for any given design what income model fits that game. For Lili, we’re a traditional paid-for app with some in-app purchases that are very tastefully done and completely optional.
Do you think the much quicker updates and advances in mobile tech make the market extra seductive for developers? Definitely. The rate at which technology changes is just amazing. Every year devices roll out that are staggering. At Epic every time we would reveal a new tech demo there were people who would scoff at the specs required to run it; a year or two later the hardware to run that demo is in your pocket. It’s definitely exciting to be taking advantage of that. Managing the variety of devices out there is becoming more of an issue, but it’s still manageable for a small group.