The iOS app market these days is a battlefield. One where companies large and small struggle to create a title with the right magic formula to break it out from the crowd. Tim Harris, Alex Seropian and the rest of their team at Industrial Toys are making two...
With input from American science fiction author John Scalzi and DC and Marvel Comics artist Mike Choi, Industrial Toys' titles are slick shooter Midnight Star and accompanying comic Midnight Rises. The two will work together in both story and action and, from what I've seen, will offer all the depth and action a AAA gamer could wish for.
"Our schtick, if you will, is mobile games for core gamers not core games for mobile," says Harris, as he enthusiastically demonstrates both apps in a busy hotel bar.
GamesIndustry.biz first spoke to Harris and Seropian in 2012 when the studio was first launching and the project was very much under wraps. Now Midnight Star is in the midst of a soft launch in selected territories and the team is sitting on $5 million in funding from Accel Partner's Vas Natarajan.
"He gave probably the first ten minutes of our schtick to us," says Harris of Natarajan.
"He gets games to a level unlike anybody that I've met in the VC community. Not only does he get it he understands the cycles, he understands creative, he understands production and he understands the philosophy long term."
It's easy to see where that money has been spent. The comic book alone is a beautiful product, with layered drawings, schematics, timelines and hidden treats for the sharp-eyed. If you need a better sense of the detail Harris told an anecdote that should provide it - Industrial Toys hired a professional comic book letterer for all the text rather than use the standard fonts. It's all part of being able to tell the story of the game in the right way, something clearly very important to Harris who - funnily enough - owns a comic book store.
"We have this grand story to tell and we have somebody like John Scalzi helping us with that storytelling. Games, particularly mobile games, aren't doing a great job of telling stories. Now the Telltale stuff is amazing but that's about the story, gameplay is there but it's not the same kind of thing. We're making a shooter," he explains.
"Our schtick is mobile games for core gamers not core games for mobile"
"All the lore, all those juicy tidbits that a lot of the time will only partially make it into a shooter, we thought 'what better way than a graphic novel experience to get that stuff across?'"
Harris calls the game "an epic shooter in two apps" and no expense has been spared on Midnight Star's development either. The demo Harris shows me is silky smooth and full of action, with multiple aliens attacking from all sides.
"These guys have the first AI system that's been created for a mobile shooter like this. Paul Bertone, our lead designer, set up the AI system in a way where these guys are making dynamic decisions based on battlefield conditions."
Now, this isn't the first time that someone has tried to make a shooter for touch screen, and I gently mention another recent attempt at nailing the genre on mobile: The Drowning. That failed to capture the wide audience he was hoping for, but Harris is upbeat.
"We talked to Ben [Cousins], because it was philosophically hand-in-hand with what we were trying to do."
To be fair The Drowning didn't have one of the creators of Halo leading development. If anyone can make a touch screen shooter work, surely it's Alex Seropian? I ask Harris about response during the soft launches and he smiles. "We've got good indications so far."
The game is free-to-play, with Harris promising that "you can do a lot if you're smart" without spending a dollar.
"We have guys that are taking the original assault rifle that you get and taking it all the way through the game," he says.
"The hard currency of the game is called catalyst. It can essentially short circuit other forms of currency that you can grind for. So it's up to you. There are certainly places that become more painful if you don't have catalyst, and there are places that are as smooth as butter.
"And we designed it, and we'll be tweaking this throughout soft launch, to make it as satisfying as possible for the player and to make the person that wants to pay and get in and do crazy things, available for that."
"I reject the premise that you need to start talking about your mobile game two days before it comes out"
One of the most interesting areas of added-value for players is the replayability and depth, the achievements and the multiplayer options. Harris describes the latter as "Words With Friends with blood." Together with the visuals and apparently fine-tuned action this does seem like the most wholehearted attempt to romance the hardcore shooter fan so far. It feels more Mass Effect on mobile than Clash Of Clans.
Key will be the marketing; an area that Harris has strong opinions about. A few thousand people are playing the game in soft launch right now - Industrial Toys is expecting to do five or six builds as they optimize the game and they've had no problems with the Apple submissions process. But getting the game in front of gamers? That's trickier.
"I actually really believe in the traditional route because let's face it, the hardcore GameSpots, IGNs, the NeoGafs of the world, you talk about a touch shooter and you know what you're going to read in the comment streams. Without ever having seen it there's just a dogma that exists. And that's fine. It exists on purpose because they have not been served. So we are going to be saying this can serve you, but it's not the same game that they're playing on their console."
The game has appeared at shows like PAX and has a website that's keeping interested parties informed with plenty of behind the scenes information, which is standard for a AAA game perhaps, but less common for a mobile title.
"I reject the premise that you need to start talking about your mobile game two days before it comes out. I think that's foolishness. And yes people say 'an article in the press doesn't drive tonnes of usership' - no, but it provides that ecosystem that it's all part of the same... creating enthusiasm for a game is not just about getting an article, it's also not about running an ad on a network," adds Harris.
"It's about having a really cool product that's being talked about in various venues, regardless of which one it is that you read."
There's no current release date for UK or US territories so for a more in-depth look at the game check out the Midnight Star Twitch channel for regular updates.