Brothers Donald and Geremy Mustard always knew that they wanted to work together – but they didn’t initially plan on making games for a living. “It was probably when I was about 13 that we started creating a master plan,” recalls Geremy. “We originally thought we were going to make movies in Hollywood. We really wanted to tell stories. When we were at college, though, Final Fantasy VII came out. Up until then, we’d thought games were a two-dimensional medium, and that they weren’t very satisfying.”
Both impoverished students at the time, the Mustards rented a PlayStation and a copy of Square’s RPG, but they couldn’t afford a memory card. “We thought, ‘OK, we’ve got this for the next three days, we’re just going to skip school and play the game straight through.’ We took turns going to sleep, we played in shifts, and we were just enthralled. We realised you could tell complex stories in videogames, and with this visual style that was well beyond anything we’d seen before.” Geremy laughs: “That was our inspiration to shift gears.”
Alongside a change in ambitions, the marathon FF session also provided an initiation into the world of crunch – an experience that would come in handy over a decade later. Fast forward 13 years, and the duo had founded Chair Entertainment. The studio’s second game, XBLA-based Metroidvania title Shadow Complex, earned it a reputation as a smart outfit with a knack for making old ideas seem fresh, and it also landed it a parent company in the shape of Epic Games.
Then in July 2010, Epic approached Chair with a proposal. Epic’s tech team had managed to get the Unreal Engine running on the iPhone, and needed a killer game to show it off. There was a catch, however: the game had to be finished by the end of the year, and it had to be playable on stage at the Apple keynote in just eight weeks’ time.
It was like Final Fantasy VII without the memory card all over again. “What a crazy time,” recalls Donald, who now serves as Chair’s creative director. “It was a week or two before my wife gave birth, and I just sat there and listened to the idea. ‘Wait, so in two months I have to have something that runs and you can show on stage, and then three months after that we have to ship it? And I’m about to have a baby? Fun.’” Donald pauses. “That was on a Friday, and by Monday morning we knew we wanted to make Infinity Blade.”
Working with small teams and tight budgets has made Chair uncommonly decisive. It’s also ensured that the studio has a backlog of ideas to be drawn upon whenever necessary. “After we finished Shadow Complex, we spent time brainstorming Kinect or Wii games, and we basically designed in our heads a game that was very like Infinity Blade,” explains Donald. “When we saw iOS, we knew it would be perfect. Better, even, than with motion controls. On that Monday, we had three hours of pre-production, and then we just went for it. It’s crazy looking back to see how many decisions we made in the first three hours that turned out to be really lucky guesses. The short production definitely forced us to scope the game appropriately. Had it not been for that, I may have fallen into the temptation of trying to make a more traditional game.”
Infinity Blade, it turned out, was not going to be traditional at all. It was to be an on-rails RPG, for starters, and it would see the player tapping hotspots to move around a gigantic castle as they levelled up and acquired gear. At the very heart of the adventure, there would be a series of swipe-based swordfights, which the team hoped would deliver the drama and elegance so often lacking when other games bust out the rapiers.
“My frustration as a gamer was that there were no sword games where the fighting was how I imagined it might be,” says Donald. “The closest I could come was Prince Of Persia, where you actually had to defend a bit, or Ocarina Of Time, where you fight yourself. I’m no swordfighter but, in my head, a real fight would be about nuance: defending, reading your opponent and hitting these offensive windows. I wanted to parry. Games have blocking, but they tend not to take into account the angle of the sword that’s coming at you and then knocking it out of the way. We knew if we could have a game that made parrying fun, we’d have a pretty cool game.”
For the first week of development, the team talked themselves through the evolving design. “Since Shadow Complex, we’d been learning how to refine features when they were pretty much still at the paper stage, before you’ve even started coding anything,” says Geremy, Chair’s technical director. “It’s this funny, Zen-like process of envisioning the entire thing in your head and trying to work out if it’s fun. ‘OK, if I press this button or swipe across the screen now, does that feel fun in my head?’ Those first few days, we designed out this full game. Then we were like, ‘OK, that’s going to take too long,’ so we cut two-thirds of it in the very first days of the project. That never happens! Most games are much more organically made: ‘Yeah, we’ll have a few months to just discover if this is even any fun to play.’”
Complicating matters, of course, was the fact that Epic was still building its engine for iOS. “It was scary when we started, because the tech was very much in development,” admits Geremy. “We were at the forefront of what was going on. Each day it seemed like there were new things that were breaking. So many of the touch features we were trying to add in – the engine just really wasn’t designed with touch interfaces in mind. Even for something like a swipe, we had to determine whether somebody was swiping a finger across the screen, and then work out how to make that fun and responsive. We couldn’t use Apple’s standard libraries, of course, because they aren’t actually responsive enough to run at 30fps. We had to have our own techniques for that too. Take into account the limited memory, and there were days when it just looked impossible. Just making this game work felt like a series of miracles.”
If the technology brought headaches, it also provided an unusual opportunity for the team: a chance to make a game with a new kind of rhythm, one that was built around a mobile gamer’s peculiar attention span. “It’s not just about making a touchscreen game, it’s about looking at how you actually play on these devices,” argues Donald. “Playing stuff like Fieldrunners, I realised that the average session was about two or three minutes. We had to completely restructure the way we looked at pacing. Traditionally, you know the player’s sitting on a couch and you have them locked in for at least half an hour. With iOS you don’t have that at all. A lot of console developers, early on with iOS, were trying to shoehorn in a console experience. We were more like, ‘Let’s bring in the production values and design sensibilities, but then reshape them for this new, amazing device.’
“The opportunity is that you have a game that works its way into people’s lives,” he continues, “a game that’s with you all the time. Instead of having a planned experience, it can be rolled more into the everyday things that happen. Short-session gaming keeps you honest as a designer, too, because something awesome has to happen regularly. It means that gameplay has to remain more pure. A lot of console games can get away with not having core loops that are that good, because there are so many other things they can do. A game that only has your attention for 30 seconds has to be very polished and very tight, and it needs a mechanic that’s easy to learn but difficult to master.”
Driven by such thinking, Infinity Blade started to take shape as a game that moved outwards in a series of concentric circles, with a structure that sees you grinding through the same environment again and again, exploring the castle and being repeatedly killed by the final boss until you’re eventually powerful enough to give him a decent fight. “If you look at Infinity Blade, that’s why we came up with the bloodline concept,” says Donald. “You can play the game for a minute or so, and that’s one fight. Or you can play a 30-minute bloodline, get to the God King at the end, and it’s still not too much of a commitment. Or you can commit to a couple of bloodlines.”
With the design coming together and the keynote looming, Chair should have been working on a slice of it to use as a demo. It wasn’t, though: it was building a rough version of the entire game. “We’re committed to full playable prototypes,” laughs Donald. “We believe very much that the sooner you can play through the game from start to finish, the better the final game will be. It’s like figure drawing. A figure drawing class is like three hours, but they always tell you that you have to nail the gesture early on. If you don’t nail that gesture in 30 seconds, the drawing’s going to be bad three hours later. We always try to nail that gesture early on – we get the whole shape of the game really fast and then try to polish it.
“So Shadow Complex, for example, was an 18-month development, but you could finish the game at five months,” he continues. “It was really ugly, and you were controlling a cylinder, but the jump heights were in, and from there you can refine the experience. For Infinity Blade, that core fighting mechanic – dodge, block, parry – we had in two weeks; you could have a fun sword battle within that time. It was all we worked on at first. Then we made the whole game playable. The keynote deadline put our beliefs in this to the test, but we stuck to our guns. We knew having that prototype would inform so many decisions, and although we had the stage thing looming, we still had to ship a game a few months later.”
Finally, with a complete playable game built of boxes and cubes, and with Shadow Complex characters standing in for enemies, the team finally carved out a vertical slice and got ready for Apple. The build-up had been hectic, but the keynote itself was something of a blur. “It’s just a lot of practice, really. It’s just indicative,” says Donald while recalling the experience. “To me, Steve Jobs was a perfectionist. Everything he did, that mentality percolates through the entire organisation, even when it comes to a stage presentation. It was weeks – weeks! – of rehearsal, making sure everything’s organised and well-run. It’s quite a process Apple puts you through to put you up on stage, and [to] choose who their stage partners will be. It’s a really big deal for them too, see, because this is how they create their brand and that mystique they have about them.”
The 2010 Apple keynote proved to be a significant event for the entire gaming industry. Not only was Apple finally starting to take games seriously, it was leading the way with something unashamedly hardcore. Glinting armour, muscular beasts and steel sparking against steel: Infinity Blade made a startling impression, and the enthusiastic chatter carried the team through the final months of development.
That on-stage presentation all but guaranteed financial success, but the extent of the game’s popularity still took Chair by surprise. Infinity Blade went on to be the fastest-grossing app yet seen on iTunes, earning well over $1 million in its first few days of release, and spawning a sequel; a tie-in novel; and an offshoot, Infinity Blade: Dungeons, though it has been put on hold after the closure of Impossible Studios.
More importantly, the design opportunities offered by working on iOS have left a real impact on both the Mustards and their studio. “It’s amazing how iOS development allows you to experiment,” says Donald. “The day after we shipped Infinity Blade, we came back in and made more Infinity Blade. And we had the radical idea to give it away for free. We loved that! People loved that! It was great to have a game evolving based on the community’s feedback: their tweets, their emails and also our own metrics. That allowed us to shape Infinity Blade 1, and make a much more focused sequel.”
“The lessons we learned both from the quick process and by making good decisions up front and carrying them through have stayed with us, too,” says Geremy. “It makes decision making on new projects a lot easier. It’s amazing to be quick and nimble and agile, and that allows you to innovate a little more. The things we did on Infinity Blade are spreading throughout the rest of Epic now as well, so that’s exciting. By limiting us at an early stage, we got to rethink a lot of the things we do, relearn some really old lessons, and apply those to current-gen games.”
Ultimately, though, the success of iOS gaming reaches far beyond Chair itself. “If you look at the way that we, as a culture, are talking about games, you’d be surprised how much that has changed in four years,” says Donald. “The idea that there could be quality gaming for less than $60? Even on XBLA, the idea of something like Shadow Complex was really out there. iOS [games had] a huge part in breaking conventions of structure and pricing, but they also reintroduced that focus on pure mechanics, too. That was something console games didn’t have to rely on as much – and because of iOS games, they’re going to have to learn to rely on it a lot more.”