Cutting the Mustards

Chair Entertainment's Donald and Geremy talk Infinity Blade, iPad 2 and the App Store

Chair Entertainment have been quietly raising the bar on different platforms with titles like Shadow Complex for XBLA, but it's iOS poster boy Infinity Blade which has really put it front and centre of high-end development on a mobile format.

That title wowed journalists and the public alike with incredible visuals and a surprisingly deep RPG mechanic, proving that you could still make money with a game that costs more than 59 pence. But how much has the App Store's layout limited that success? Can those luscious visuals ever be bettered?

In this interview from GDC, CEO Donald mustard and CTO Geremy Mustard updated on the company's success and plans for the rest of the year.

Q: So you've just released an update which has pretty much doubled the size of Infinity Blade. You've already got one of the highest quality and best reviewing titles on the App Store, and I imagine that you must be pretty high up in the top-grossing, but I don't often see you on that all important front page. Does the layout of the App Store frustrate you?

Donald Mustard:It certainly affects our visibility to people looking for the game. The first thing that people see is the top apps, and those are all by numbers so, yeah, if you're a 99 cent game then you're going to have a lot more numbers than say a $5.99 game.

That totally affects the charts. I would love for it to not be that way. I would love for it to be something that didn't actively encourage 99 cent applications to be so prevalent. But, that's entirely Apple's call. It's their store.

I wish and long for a day when that would change, because it would help encourage developers to not feel like they had to make their app 99 cents. I think that if we're really going to get applications and games... To create something of the quality of Infinity Blade costs a considerable amount of money. It was almost hard to justify selling it at $5.99, let alone 99 cents.

We want to play more games of the scope and production value of Infinity Blade, and it would be great if the App Store could support that more widely.

We were lucky, right? We broke out. We sold lots and lots of copies, we continue to sell lots and lots of copies. I don't know if that's something every single game would get with the way that the store is currently structured.

Geremy Mustard:Well yeah, I would agree. I think to encourage developers of any sort of app to create something that's of the quality level of Infinity Blade, that's requires them to sell enough to justify that cost. If we want to see that trend continue in that direction, and we want to see more games like Infinity Blade that are high-resolution, fully realised 3D worlds, versus flash-based games like we're used to on the iPhone - that's what you get when you're targeting 99 cents. If you're targeting something higher then you can get something more.

So yeah, I agree, I believe all that Apple has to do is to swap the top paid category with the top grossing tab, make the top grossing tab the first one you see. That would solve that, make it so it's more about how much money you're actually making. So it really would show the quality games, or the quality apps, versus whatever happens to be the current fad of whatever people are into.

Q:Do you think that's something that Apple will start to adopt? Has there been enough of a perception shift towards the iPhone and iPad as gaming devices, rather than devices you can play games on?

Donald Mustard:I think so. I don't know that they intentionally became the handheld device of choice. They certainly made a device capable of it and now that market has emerged. I think if you look at some of the ways in which they've approached other media - renting movies, AppleTV, whatever - they haven't rigidly stuck to that 99 cent price model that they established with iTunes for a song.

I don't think that they are opposed to the concept of a more diversified price range in their market. I hope that, as the breadth of stuff evolves, of what you actually want on these devices, so will the market place.

Their attitude to games has certainly changed. Three years ago, I believe you could find quotes of them saying "the iPhone is not a gaming device", regardless of how many games were on there. But now it's undeniable, their attitudes are definitely changing.

Geremy Mustard:Their last press event, the apps they showed were almost exclusively games. Game Centre is obviously something that they've put together and supporting. The event today [announcing iPad 2], Infinity Blade was a prominent part of that. So their attitudes are changing.

They're coming to us more for advice about changes to hardware, they're looping the games industry into their thoughts. Whether they like it or not is one question, but they obviously see the benefit.

What are the numbers? I believe it's something like over 50 per cent of the revenue that they make on the App Store, is from games. They definitely see that it's a huge, huge market.

Q:Do you feel that's been reflected in any of the changes that they've made in the iPad 2?

Donald Mustard:It feels like it. Yesterday the iPhone 4 was the most powerful Apple device for touch gaming, now it's not, now it's the iPad 2.

The iPad 2 has awesome new stuff. The processing power has significantly improved over the iPhone 4, which is amazing. The memory is now in the right place. There's now 512mb of memory, which is pretty critical for the things we want to be able to do. It's hitting all the right stuff. It's a marked leap from the iPhone 4. I think we can do some pretty impressive stuff on it.

A lot of people are complaining about the iPad's screen resolution not changing with this iteration, not going to the Retina density of resolution, but I actually think that's a good thing, for games especially. To make a high end game like Infinity Blade, the processing power per pixel matters.

So if they had doubled or tripled the density of that screen, it would have crippled our ability to make high-res games. Whereas with the same resolution and, like, nine times the graphical power in the iPad 2, we'll be able to do significantly more high end AAA effects.

Geremy Mustard:Post processing and shadows - there's a lot that we think we'll be able to do.

Donald Mustard:It's a big leap, getting it even closer to the current generation consoles.

Q:Something you mentioned in your presentation was that when you were designing Infinity Blade, the graphics were the hook, nothing of that fidelity had been seen on a screen that size before. Since then we've had id's Rage and EA's Dead Space 2, which certainly approach that level. Will graphics continue to be your hook, or will that standard become expected?

Donald Mustard:Maybe I didn't elaborate enough yesterday. I think that hook is a rare thing. That opportunity to have graphics as the hook is rare, because you're not really going to get that with an Xbox game. I think that was kind of a one-time deal for us.

Also, the thing with Unreal Engine 3 is that, we already know, there are a lot of other people using it. So we'll start to see some really pretty games coming soon.

So like every other game we've made, we'll find different things to become the hook. And when I talk about the hook, it really it just that immediate [clicks fingers] that makes you look at it again, but then you have to impress gamers and press with what the meat is of your game.

But we're not going to get slack on the visuals, the visual bar that we've set, we'll continue to raise it as much as we can.

Q:Was Infinity Blade ever intended as a shop window for Unreal Engine 3 on iOS, was it essentially an advertising medium for the middleware?

Donald Mustard:Well obviously we're owned by Epic, we're part of the Epic family, so I think one of the things that Chair does is work on more strategic sort of things than just making a great game. It definitely made strategic sense.

I'm sure Epic could have put out Unreal Engine 3 for mobile and just said, here's Epic Citadel, an example of what it can do, but it's not an actual game, it's not been through the actual process of what it take to optimise and create a game. That's just not the way that Epic likes to do business.

When Unreal 3 was being developed they created Gears of War to showcase what this stuff could really do. Infinity Blade was really the Gears of War of the mobile space where we could say "here's our technology, but here's a concrete example of what we can do with that technology when you create a game from start to finish."

It's been through the QA process, it's been through optimising, you know that it's a fully featured game. So you know that if you licence the engine you're getting something that's been through the trial of fire. So that was certainly the strategic objective.

But, the main objective was, let's see if we can make a really awesome game that works on these devices. So we worked really hard until we thought we had something that was cool.

Q:Going back to iPad - do you think that tablet gaming will ever take off in the same way that mobile gaming has? You tend to use tablets in situations where you have other options, like a console for example, will they find the same sort of niche as mobile?

Donald Mustard:It will be different. You're tapping into some core things.

There's a lot of power in having that device in your pocket. I don't necessarily think that tablets are going to be carted around everywhere you go. Maybe if they were a little smaller, but I don't know if we want them to be smaller.

I think right now, the tablet market is less than a year old, it's really in its infancy, right? It seems like a lot of the games on tablets are... There's a few unique ones, but it's kind of like a bigger version of my phone that I use in different ways.

So I assume what will happen is that we'll start to see more divergent games, because they really are two completely different kinds of platforms, you use them in completely different ways. So I hope we'll see different kinds of games which are cool for that platform - like the board games where you have phones around a tablet, like using them for your tiles for Scrabble or something like that.

I'm sure there's unique way to use the iPad, but I think you're absolutely right, that widespread adoption is certainly not going to happen tomorrow. Maybe in twenty years, if we're all walking around with these holographic tablets which project out of our fingers. [laughs]

That is the key - Is it with me all the time?

Donald Mustard is CEO of Chair Entertainment, Geremy Mustard is CTO. Interview by Dan Pearson

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