Fates Forever, a new multiplayer online battle arena game (MOBA) for tablets, debuted on iOS last week. The title has gotten good reviews and hundreds of thousands of downloads. That makes Jason Citron, the founder of OpenFeint and the chief executive of game studio Hammer & Chisel, quite happy.
The title is the first game from a studio that Citron said would focus on games for the “post-PC era.” That means that he is designing the game to work on the sharp displays and touchscreens of tablets, rather than for a mouse and keyboard.
Some players will turn their noses up at tablet games. Many feel like mobile isn’t quite up to the task yet, but with so many devices selling, Citron feels like it’s an untapped market. And that hardcore gamers will migrate to the tablets. So far, so good. The game has cracked into the top 100 categories in “action” and “strategy,” and it is climbing in the rankings.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: It sounds like your launch has gone pretty well. How has your game been received?
Jason Citron: Better than we thought. We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback and reviews from the press. Pocket Gamer liked it. Penny-Arcade gave us five out of five stars. IGN did a video review and played the game for 30 minutes and really loved it.
The one that we enjoyed the most was Gabe, the artist from Penny-Arcade, he wrote about the game very briefly last Monday in one of his weekly roundups. Then he tweeted about it a couple of times and wrote about it again on Friday in a full-page article. He shared his username, so we looked and saw that he’s already played tens of hours. He’s totally addicted.
We have hundreds of thousands of players who’ve tried the game. Many of them are really into it. Some of them, we’ve heard, have given up Hearthstone and switched to Fates, which is pretty cool.
GamesBeat: That’s some pretty big competition there.
Citron: It is. Hearthstone is an amazing game. I’ve spent a lot of time and money on it myself. They’re doing much better than we are so far.
GamesBeat: You could also think of them as a much different category.
Citron: That’s true. It’s a much easier game to get into, a more laid-back, casual game. Especially compared to a MOBA, where you’re tapping your fingers on the screen for a few moments of intense action. It’s just cool to be even spoken of in the same sentence as them. It means we’re in good company. As a game developer, an entrepreneur, and a fanboy, it’s cool to hear.
GamesBeat: Can you talk about how long ago you guys got started? What was the whole process like for you?
Citron: We started working on Fates Forever specifically in December 2012. It’s been about 18 months. It was not the first project we did as a company. We had another prototype that we worked on for a while, but we canned that, and then we did Fates.
We soft-launched the game last July in eastern Europe to start getting feedback, and since then we’ve rebuilt everything in the game a few times. We’re still doing that.
GamesBeat: That’s a pretty short time by triple-A standards, but it’s a long time by mobile standards. How did you figure out exactly what you needed?
Citron: It’s a good question. We just worked until we thought it was done enough. I can’t say that when we started, I said to myself, “We’re gonna take 18 months to do this.” I very intentionally ran the project in a way where we would be able to get feedback early, so we’d have a good sense of when it was complete enough to launch.
That’s why we soft-launched so early. Every time we released an update in the soft launch, we would see how people responded. We would look at it as artists ourselves and think, “Is this good enough yet?” We’d constantly compare the qualitative feedback from our players to the data on their behavior and our own intuition as artists. “Okay, should we launch? Should we launch?” Eventually we got to a point where we said, “Okay, we can launch now.” That just happened to be about 18 months.
GamesBeat: How large a team did you build?
Citron: We’re pretty small. We’re 14 people – five engineers, seven artists, a designer, and a community manager. But I’m very lucky and very humbled to work with people who are so talented. Our office is located in Burlingame, but we also have an office in Dallas. Our 3D art team is in Dallas and the rest of the company is in Burlingame.
GamesBeat: Was there any sort of model that you could look to and say, “This is what we want to do”? Or do you feel like this was something brand new?
Citron: We definitely looked at PC gaming. The original vision behind Hammer and Chisel was to bring PC gaming to post-PC devices. We think tablets are the right place to start. The model we were looking at were games on computers that people love to play. What makes them work? What ecosystem exists around them? What needs to happen for them to show up on these devices that billions of people are going to have access to, people who might not have access to PCs?
We tried to figure out what kind of games that already work on the PC would also work on tablets. This is a bit of a tangent, but I don’t think you get new game genres very often. Genres are reflections of the way our brains are wired. The human brain doesn’t change that much. As technology changes, it gives us the ability to make new types of game experiences, but rarely do you get a totally new genre. So we didn’t say, “What’s a totally new genre?” We said, “What genre exists on PC that we think we can do well on the tablet?”
We picked MOBA because it’s very popular. It’s culturally in vogue. I thought we could do a good job of it on a tablet, and I guess we did.
GamesBeat: Did you go down any paths that were dead ends? Did anything make you turn around substantially?
Citron: Sure. Originally, we started by working on a tower defense game. I had thought, “Tower defense games are great. People love playing them on tablets. Maybe we can make a tower defense PvP game and capture the spirit of PC games that way, through a genre that’s popular on tablets.” After a few months of experimenting with the genre, though, I concluded that a PvP tower defense game wasn’t going to be very much fun. The things the player has agency over and how much you can pay attention to and how much you can affect in the world and the length of the feedback loops, they just didn’t work to make multiplayer competitive.
After we canned that idea, we moved to a game more like League of Legends, where you have a character in the world that you have agency over. It solved a lot of the problems that we discovered with the tower defense game.
For Fates Forever specifically, we remade a lot of different things. The experience of building a game is very iterative, at least the way that I do it. I feel like I have to rebuild the game before I know if it’s great. You have an idea and you build it, and then you’re 80 percent of the way there. Then you think, “Okay, if we change this, this, and this, then we’ll hit the bullseye.”
I found that we’ve done that with almost every single part of the game. We built five or six different control schemes before we landed on the one we’re using, with the rubber-band skill shot. How the lobby looks, how character selection works. We went through three different technology stacks before we found something that was great. We’ve redone all the character models at least once.
GamesBeat: How did you deal with what might seem like the biggest problems? Mobile devices aren’t as powerful and their network connections can be dodgy.
Citron: We dealt with the power of the devices through clever artwork. The game environment is this lush forest. When you look at it, it looks like you’re in a 3D space. And it is, but it’s sort of fake. If you took the camera and moved it behind the character, you’d see something like a stage set. It only looks real because you look at it from a particular angle. A lot of the trees and the forest are just flat squares with textures, but it looks correct because it’s painted to seem like 3D from your viewing angle. It lets us get that painterly look at a very low CPU and GPU cost. We did a lot of things like that. It’s all creative art direction and art implementation, so we can get a lot of mileage out of the devices.
As far as networking, part of the reason why we chose to make the game for tablets only is because most people use their tablets with wi-fi. That addresses a lot of the issue. But we’ve built a networking stack of our own on top of Unity that’s basically what Valve does inside of DOTA 2. It’s a robust networking layer that works on LTE really well and works on wi-fi really well. You can play on 3G, but the latency there creates some inherent lag. We don’t recommend it. We have some smart engineering that makes it work on internet connections that aren’t amazing, but more important, we designed the game to be played on a device that tends to have a good internet connection.
GamesBeat: Is that something you foresee changing? Could it be extended to 4G devices like phones?
Citron: The game works great on a 4G LTE connection today. If you have an iPad with a Verizon LTE chip in it, you can play Fates Forever and it’ll work great. It’s not quite as good as a broadband connection at home, but unless you’re playing competitively, you’re not going to notice much difference. It works on 3G, but it’s not optimal. You can play it if you really want to play.
That’s one of those things that touches the issue of device power as well. The rate at which GPU and CPU and cell phone technology are improving is so fast that by next year, Apple won’t have any devices that won’t run the game at 50 frames per second. Especially with Metal coming in iOS 8. That’s going to be a huge improvement.
GamesBeat: Did you cut off some of the low-end devices as far as what you were shooting for? You mentioned phones. Did you also deliberately shoot above the original iPad?
Citron: Yeah. Right now Fates Forever works on every iPad except for the original generation. It runs at 50 frames per second on the iPad Air, Mini Retina, and iPad 4. It runs at 30 on the first-gen iPad Mini, iPad 2, and iPad 3.
iPad 3 is actually the worst of all the devices, which is funny. The issue is, it’s the first iPad that added the Retina screen. They quadrupled the number of pixels on the screen, but the GPU and CPU power didn’t scale up to compensate. Basically, if you want to render at Retina resolution on iPad 3, it just uses too much GPU time. A lot of games downscale so it runs at, say, 65 percent of Retina. It’s better than not Retina, but not quite the same. We haven’t done that, because the number of people using iPad 3s is small enough – Apple doesn’t sell them anymore – that it’s not a priority.
GamesBeat: The art style and the character design — who were they designed to appeal to?
Citron: To gamers, to people who like fantasy, in a way that doesn’t exclude kids and women. It’s not that women can’t like fantasy, but a lot of times you get games where the women have their breasts spilling out of their clothes and stuff like that.
We wanted to make the game something where if a parent got the game for a younger kid, they wouldn’t feel like it was inappropriate because of the art style. A lot of kids, especially tweens and teens, are getting tablets now. We wanted to make sure the game was approachable for those kids – 13-year-olds, 14-year-olds – and for women as well. My wife plays a lot of video games, and she always finds it obnoxious that all these women run around with plate armor covering their boobs and nothing else. So we didn’t make it that way.
GamesBeat: Where did the animal side of things come from?
Citron: That was all our art director, Brandon. He’s our concept artist and designs the characters. He came in one day and said, “What do you think of all this?” and I just thought it was awesome. I don’t really know where he got the idea, though. We had conversations about making a sort of Lord of the Rings aesthetic, but he came back and just said, “Well, what if we had this pig warrior?”
He may have been influenced by the kind of art he grew up loving as a kid. He was really into that show Thundercats. Legend of Zelda has all kinds of interesting animal characters. Things like that.
Citron: Yeah, we did. We did a lot of stealth testing early on with character design. Mostly on Reddit. You can probably still find the posts there if you look. I’d post different concept art on Reddit and just try to see which ones got the most upvotes and comments, seeing how people responded to things, and we’d tweak stuff.
We went through probably five different art styles before we landed on this one. Ultimately it was more a qualitative decision. But the differences between the tests we did were not as great as you might expect. We ended up essentially just picking the one we thought that was the coolest, within the goals we were trying to hit as far as product positioning.
GamesBeat: There were some other, shorter mobile MOBA titles that debuted before yours, like Zynga’s. Did you learn anything from the games that went before you?
Citron: There were two MOBA titles that came out before Fates Forever. Zynga had one and Gameoft made one. Zynga’s game was shorter. They changed some of the fundamental pieces of what makes a MOBA. In doing that, I think they made the game not fun. If I learned anything from Zynga’s game, it was that we shouldn’t make the changes they did, and that our direction and instinct were correct.
Gameloft’s game, no disrespect to them, but their strategy is generally to make mediocre clones of popular games. That’s just not what we do. I guess what I learned from there is that a mediocre clone of a MOBA can do decently, so a well-done MOBA should do really well.
GamesBeat: This category is extremely crowded. Were you concerned about that? It’s mostly crowded on the PC side. I don’t know if that meant you had something to worry about on the mobile side.
Citron: We weren’t worried about it. We certainly talked about it and contemplated what it meant. Some people just don’t feel comfortable playing a game like that on their PC. They feel intimidated because there are however many 100-plus heroes to pick from. The cognitive load of those games on PC is very high. They’re designed that way. It’s part of what makes them amazing. But what we were going for was specifically the people who didn’t have the time to sit down and spend an hour playing a MOBA.
A match in Fates Forever takes 14 minutes on average, compared to League of Legends at something like 50 minutes. Our game is simpler to get into. There’s less stuff to choose, less stuff going on, but not to the detriment of making it no longer fun.
Lots of people are growing up with tablets instead of PCs, all over the world. If you look at the next five or 10 years, there’s this opportunity where people will be playing their first games on tablets. League of Legends isn’t there. I think they’re different markets. People who play PC MOBAs will not, en masse, switch to MOBAs on a tablet and play Fates Forever, although we do have a lot of players who play both games.
GamesBeat: People have a lot of time when they’re not at their PC or a laptop.
Citron: Right. The time and convenience factor of a tablet is what makes it work as a device. Why do you check your email on your tablet? You could sit in front of your computer and do that, but not when you’re lying in bed or hanging out somewhere or unwinding at the end of the day. Do you want to relax on the couch and get into a game for a bit? Fates Forever. We find that a lot of people do that.
The tablet use case is just different from the PC. People play games where they are, where they’re spending their time, on the devices that are convenient. People spend a lot of time with just their tablet.
GamesBeat: How much updating are you going to do?
Citron: A lot. We’ve released something like 15 updates since we launched the beta last July. Since we launched for real last week, we had one update that went live two days ago. We added a new feature we call spectating, so that when you’re dead and waiting to come back to life and rejoin the game, you can watch your teammates and see what they’re doing. It’s a small feature, but our players asked for it. We also did a bunch of performance fixes.
We have a lot more stuff coming. We’ll be introducing new characters, improvements to performance, balance changes. It’s typical live ops. We stream on Twitch.tv three days a week as well. Players can come watch and hang out with each other. We have a nice community forum. We’re trying to foster community through new features and engagement. We’ll seriously get into eSports sometime soon.
GamesBeat: It would be very interesting to see it move into eSports. That seems to be one way games come to stick around for year.
Citron: Red Bull did an article this morning on eSports coming to tablets. The first game they listed was Hearthstone. The second one was World of Tanks Blitz. The third one was Fates Forever. I’ll take that.
Right now our players are already running their own tournaments. We haven’t done anything official, but we’re encouraging them. They’ve created guilds on our forums and run their own competitions. They’re doing everything themselves. That’s awesome. When we see our community doing things like that, we want to respond by making it easier for them to do it and supporting it through features in the app.
GamesBeat: I wonder if you could do things like live streaming from the tablet, as opposed to live streaming in front of a camera or what-have-you.
Citron: We’ve been working on something like that with the guys at Twitch.
GamesBeat: When new tablets come out, what sort of graphics upgrades are possible for you? Would you be able to improve the graphics in some way for more powerful tablets?
Citron: Sure. That’s always an option. Our approach is, we don’t really want to alienate people who are playing on iPad 2s, that level of device. They’re still very popular. Our goal is to make sure that iPads that people use support the game. As new iPads come out, depending on how the upgrade cycle plays out, we’ll add higher-end effects – I could see us adding realtime shadows and stuff like that, maybe improving our lighting – but the way these games work is that you want to have a lot of people playing them. Upgrading it can cut off lower-end devices, and if they still have a high usage rate, that’s not something we want to do.
League of Legends is now, what, seven or eight years old? The guys at Riot, they just recently announced that they’re upgrading all the graphics for their environments. They’ve decided to do that now because they feel like enough people have higher-end computers that they can upgrade their graphics and it won’t prevent anybody from playing the game.
GamesBeat: Do you at some point consider making something brand new, a new IP? Or do you think this will keep you busy for a while?
Citron: Our grand vision is to be more than just a single-game studio. We look at companies like Valve and Nintendo, or even Pixar, as far as the kind of company we want to be, the kind of reaction we want to create in our audience.
I expect that we’ll make multiple games. We might even do more than that, if you consider the background I have with OpenFeint and what that was like, although we have nothing to announce at this time. There’s a bigger opportunity to create a company that’s like those I mentioned, beyond just making games.
GamesBeat: Do you have any tips for people who might follow in your footsteps here? The things that you need to do and the things you need to avoid when making a tablet game.
Citron: The thing that gets most people making games is that there’s a lot of pressure to make something that looks a lot like what’s already popular. To some extent that’s what we did, too, but a lot of people make games that look like what’s popular on tablets specifically – Clash of Clans, Puzzle & Dragons. If you’re just copying something, not bringing something new, your chances of genuinely doing well are pretty slim.
A lot of that comes from your personal motivations as a developer. Being able to know when you have something that’s a lot of fun. Maybe that’s a long-winded way of saying that if you don’t think it’s fun yourself, it probably isn’t at all. Work on stuff that you’re passionate about, because it’s hard no matter what you do. If you don’t like what you’re doing, you’re not going to make it.
Sometimes I think I wouldn’t advise anyone to found a game company at all. When we started Hammer and Chisel two years ago, it wasn’t terribly smart, but it was still okay. I was able to pull it off because we could get the money together. But starting a game company today, especially on mobile, is very difficult. There’s so much congestion in the channel. It’s so hard to get your game out there. We were able to do it because we could get a team of people together who could deliver a whole different level of quality. If you’re not going to make something that stands out like that, it’s going to be really hard.
GamesBeat: You funded some of this with your own money, and then you raised some money. How do you feel about that as a way of paying for things?
Citron: It was the best way for me, which was why I did it. But I don’t necessarily know that it’s the best way for everyone. I raised money because I wanted to get smart people to be my mentors. I wanted to be able to ask them questions when I needed help. Building a company is hard. Any time you can convince people who are smarter than you to be on your team, it’s worth it.
I put some of my own money in just because I could. It made people take us more seriously. I had some skin in the game. If you’re in a position to do that, investors will take you more seriously. But there are many different paths. It depends on the entrepreneur.
GamesBeat: You must have enjoyed getting your hands dirty making a game again.
Citron: Yeah, it’s been a lot of fun. When I started Aurora Feint, I wanted to build the kinds of games I wanted to play on iPhone. At the time, with the resources that we had, that was a version of Tetris Attack, which was one of my favorite games on the Super Nintendo. But I always wanted to build a gaming company. OpenFeint was a fantastic experience, but getting to actually do that with Hammer and Chisel and Fates Forever has been a ton of fun.
GamesBeat: I saw the Wall Street Journal about Machine Zone raising money, with their valuation targeted at $3 billion. That’s an eye-opener.
Citron: Yeah. It’s crazy. We’re headed back to a level—What’s perhaps not intuitive is that the gaming industry has gotten so big now. So many people play video games that don’t call themselves gamers. You can have companies doing that kind of stuff with one product, because there are so many people who can play it. With the economics of free-to-play, you get elastic demand. People who want to spend money will spend money, people who don’t want to won’t, and it still works.
It’s an amazing time to engage in video games. It’s just really competitive. So many amazing indie games are coming out, so many amazing game companies are becoming successful, and they’re doing it with so many different kinds of games. I just downloaded Transistor on my PS4. I’m really excited for it, because I loved Bastion. That’s one kind of game. Then you have Game of War and Machine Zone, which is something totally different. You have League of Legends, World of Tanks, Clash of Clans, the Kim Kardashian thing, and so many other different markets of gamers. All together, it’s just so big now.