Chair Entertainment has been busy since it concluded its 50-million-download Infinity Blade mobile game series in 2014. Chair, a division of Epic Games, has just published Shadow Complex Remastered on the Xbox One and is prepping the title for the PlayStation 4 and Steam. It is also working on its Spyjinx game with Bad Robot Interactive, a company created by Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams.
Chair Entertainment is known for its high-end mobile graphics that make full use of the Unreal Engine. By remastering Shadow Complex, which debuted originally in 2009, the studio was able to add a bunch of graphical enhancements and new kinds of melee play to a fan favorite from the Xbox Live Arcade. Chair was founded by Donald and Geremy Mustard in 2005, and it was acquired by Epic Games in 2008. Its Infinity Blade series was one of the most successful in mobile gaming history, but the team concluded the story in the third version and wanted to move on to new things.
I caught up with Donald Mustard, the creative director and founder of Chair, and Laura Mustard, who handles communications, to talk about those new things. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
Laura Mustard: Back in December we announced that Shadow Complex was being remastered. It originally launched on Xbox Live Arcade, but now we have the ability to publish it across all platforms. Today we launched on Xbox One. It’s launching in May for PS4 and Steam. We want to do more with Shadow Complex in the future, and the ability to bring it to multiple platforms is important to that plan. We’ll see what happens. Someday, when we’re not making three other games, we’ll do more Shadow Complex stuff.
Donald Mustard: When Shadow came out six years ago it was a huge critical success, won all these awards. It did very well commercially on 360, but that was the extent of the audience. It’s amazing to bring it to a wider audience. We’ve had so many more players since it came out on PC through the Epic Games launcher.
A lot of people have never been able to play a Metroid-like game. To me, that’s kind of the pinnacle of 2D game design. For anyone to be exposed to be a Metroid-esque game is a good thing.
GamesBeat: Does that represent what you’d call porting time?
Donald: No. Well, there’s some of that. We took the code base from 2009 and brought it up to the current Unreal engine code. But when we looked at it—Systems are more powerful now. We can do more things. Back then, when we authored all the art, we authored it at a much higher resolution. We were able to go into the original Photoshop files and animation files and remaster everything, bring everything to super-high resolution, improve the audio. It looks like how we authored it now, which couldn’t run on an Xbox 360.
In addition—Here we have this beloved game. Lots of people enjoy it and the last thing they want would be for us to change anything. But between finishing Shadow Complex and having the opportunity with Apple that led us to Infinity Blade, we’d started work on Shadow Complex 2. We had a few systems there that had gotten out of the prototype phase and been pretty well developed.
I don’t know if you played Shadow Complex, but if you got close to guys you could do these cool cinematic melee takedowns. For Shadow Complex 2 we developed this very contextual system. If you were hanging on a ledge and a guy walked under you, you couldn’t do anything in the first game, but in Shadow Complex 2 you could reach your legs down and grab his neck or whatever. That system was finished, and it’s all the same code base. So we took a few features that were made for Shadow Complex 2 and put them into Shadow Complex Remastered.
It’s definitely not a port. This is exactly how we were playing it on our super-fast computers four years ago, with a little bit of Shadow Complex 2 stuff to flesh it out. We’re very happy with it.
GamesBeat: Is there anything about it that makes it easier to bring to new platforms?
Donald: Bringing it to the current Unreal code base, in line with the same code base we have for Infinity Blade and SpyJinx, makes it super quick to move to all platforms. We don’t even need to stop with Steam and PS4. Now any viable platform is a potential target. Mobile is almost to the point where it’s fast enough to run these games.
GamesBeat: How big a project was it? How many people were occupied?
Donald: I don’t know if you’re familiar with the full slate of what’s going on at Epic, but we’re busy. We have a lot of stuff going on. Between Paragon and Fortnite and Spyjinx with JJ Abrams—SpyJinx is very much our main focus, and JJ’s as well. But he had this little side project called Star Wars. We figured that if he could do Star Wars on the side, we could do Shadow Complex on the side.
We partnered with Hardsuit Labs, another developer, and they did the bulk of bringing the code up. Once the code was up, we got our team involved in making sure all the source art was in. It was a decent amount of work for the bulk of the team and the guys at Hardsuit for a few months to bring it back online. We’ve been fortunate to have it go pretty smoothly.
GamesBeat: Now your fans can say, “Do more Infinity Blade!”
Donald: Which is the funny thing. Every time we announce an Infinity Blade game, people say, “Where’s Shadow Complex?” Now we do more Shadow Complex and it’s like, “Where’s Infinity Blade?”
GamesBeat: What kind of schedule is Spyjinx on?
Donald: We’re learning some new things there. We’re not talking much about Spyjinx yet, other than we’re developing it with JJ and it’s going to be awesome. But it’s a different kind of game for us. It has some original ideas, but at the same time, it isn’t like Infinity Blade where we’re inventing a whole new genre. It’s a live service product. We intend for it to run for many years. It needs a beta and things like that. We can’t put a hard date on it. The community and the game will tell us.
The feeling right now, though, is that the early summer is when we’ll be trying to target some sort of closed beta, or at least be able to talk more about the game.
Laura: Every game we’ve done teaches us. We never go and do the easy thing, do the same kind of game twice. We’re always trying to do something new, so we learn a lot from every game. With this game, it’s very new to us. We’ve never had a closed beta. We’ve never had a game that needed one. We’ve gotten very good in the past and saying, “This is the game. These are the features. It’ll take this long. We’ll launch at this time.” SpyJinx is different. We’ll be inviting players to build the world with us, which requires us to be a bit more patient.
We have to let the game tell us when it’s ready for people to get their hands on it. It’ll be interesting for Chair. People tease us all the time, because we tend to be very private about letting people see our games before they’re done. It’s going to be interesting for Chair to let people in before we feel like everything’s perfect.
Donald: I read a lot of game coverage. The industry has shifted so much in the last five years. Not everyone is adapting as quickly as some. We were fortunate, with Shadow Complex, to be at the leading edge of digital games, and then we were lucky with Infinity Blade to hit the leading edge of mobile. With Spyjinx we’re trying to be very thoughtful about what is the next stage of mobile, of games as a service. What will that look like? Not tomorrow, but a few years from now. How can we make a game that will serve today and tomorrow’s audience?
We’ll see whether we get it right, but that’s our crazy ambition. I want to make the next big thing.
Laura: As a company we’re creatively ready. Everything we’ve done before has led to this moment. We have the ideas and we have the partnership. It was interesting to announce that first, but it is an important part of this story. We’re not a company that falls over ourselves to work with Hollywood people. We like creative people. We worked with Peter David and Brandon Sanderson and Imagine Dragons, but only because there was a synergy there.
We happened to be introduced to JJ Abrams. He was a big fan of Infinity Blade. His son loved the game, and he’d go to JJ when he got stuck. So he was very aware of us. Apple has a good relationship with both them and us, and when Apple knew he was a fan, they did this introduction. “Do you want to meet with JJ and the Bad Robot folks?”
Donald: Let me get my notebook full of Lost questions!
Laura: We weren’t necessarily thinking we would work together, but why would we not want to meet them? Then we had this conversation, a two-hour phone call, where we found out that the way Bad Robot is set up and the way Chair is set up is all very similar. We’re much smaller than people think. We’re set up creatively in similar ways. We have a lot of the same creative goals. From the first conversation, it felt more like family.
To co-develop an IP with a new company was new for us, very new for Epic. We had to work on that trust for a while. But the partnership is really interesting. Bad Robot was like, “We had this idea for a game,” and we’d say, “Well, this is what we would do. What do you think of that?” We had this 40-minute brainstorm that stretched out to four hours in JJ’s office.
GamesBeat: Are you guys still pushing toward high-end graphics with this?
Donald: Always. To me, a priority is not just showcasing the Unreal engine, but showcasing the state of the hardware. SpyJinx has a very different tone. It’s light and bright and fun compared to Infinity Blade. It’s more of a Disney, Pixar, cartoon style. But within that we’re pushing some rendering technology to the point where our game looks like a Pixar movie. It’s crazy.
When you see some of the systems—It’s not just the graphics. We’re building a very dynamic world. Imagine playing a game that looks like a Disney film, but it’s all dynamic. You can customize, as the player, to the most extreme level. You can make your characters look however you want, make the world however you want. It’s all 3D, all dynamic. The technology behind what we’re doing is revolutionary, especially for mobile.
GamesBeat: What is the high end for you guys now? Where Infinity Blade was, Unity is now. Has the bar moved quite a bit since those days?
Donald: At least in the west, I don’t feel like a lot of games are achieving the technical artistry and mastery we were able to achieve in Infinity Blade 3. If you look at some of the games coming out of Korea, they’re doing incredible stuff. It seems like a lot of that is on Unreal 4. The tool set, the ease of use, the depth of the tools—Again, even though the style of SpyJinx isn’t gritty and grimy and pushing the photorealistic side, when you see this rendering—There’s crazy technology pushing it. People will be astounded by the level of polish.
It’s important, at least to me, to show that there’s stuff we can push. If you look at all of Epic’s portfolio—We’re not just developing things willy-nilly. We try to have some strategy to the product lineup. It’s good to have a paragon that shows the high end of the spectrum. It’s also good to have something like SpyJinx that shows off along a different vector.
Not only are we interested in making these kinds of games, but all the developers that use the Unreal engine—It’s important for us to show that you can make any type of game you want to make with our technology. We run the gamut from Paragon to Fortnite to Spyjinx.
Laura: When we became part of Epic eight years ago, we were here using Unreal Engine 3 to make Shadow Complex. Nobody had seen it. Publishers at the time were very interested in Xbox Live Arcade games. They had no slates. We were here for a bunch of meetings pitching different publishers. We had a video running on the very first iPhone and we’d park it in Epic’s booth. Mark would take our phone and show everyone in the booth. “Look! This was running on our tech!” We had a couple of acquisition offers, but Mark finally said at GDC, “Why don’t we just buy you?” Four weeks later we were part of Epic.
We’ve always used Unreal tech, but we’ve always made it look a little different from other games with Unreal. He saw that in Shadow Complex and some of our earlier stuff. Part of what we’re tasked with at Chair is to do new things with the engine.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting to me that VR is starting out the way it is, with different things on mobile, console, and PC all at the same time. What do you target?
Donald: It’ll be interesting to see the shakeout of this, the first truly viable round of VR. We’re probably only five or 10 years away from this being the device, instead of needing the headgear and all that stuff. It’s going to be real. When you think about the convergence of VR and live performance capture—A lot of technology on the capture side is getting smaller and faster as well. It could just be part of your little camera. It’s all converging.
I’m glad that there’s an expression on mobile right now, because the ultimate expression of VR is not going to be tethered to a computer. VR ultimately is going to be, “I’m a space, it’s wireless, I can move around.”
You probably know more than me, but it feels like it’ll still be kind of bumpy for the next couple of years. All these people are looking at the blue ocean, but it’s a little further off. The technology is ramping up fast, but there’s still a lot more that’s needed.
GamesBeat: What do you think of things like Clash Royale? It’s a very accessible game, yet it feels like a hardcore game as well. A lot of tech advances seem to make that possible.
Donald: Clash Royale is brilliant. It’s one of the best games I’ve played in the last couple of years. When you think about the core tenets of what we’re doing with Spyjinx, we’re making something simple, but deep. Something that appears very simple, but underneath has a lot of depth to the gameplay and is very complex. Clash Royale is perfect at that. You can understand the fundamentals of the game in five minutes, but there’s a lot of depth and real strategy.
What they’ve done there is much more difficult than just making a game that does a lot of different things. Combine that with a very sophisticated meta-structure – again, it’s only simple on the surface – and a very mature, elegant thought process that led to how they monetize the game—Shifting the monetizing gates from how much you can play the game to how effectively you can play the meta is the future of free-to-play.
If you look at Hearthstone as well as Clash Royale, they put you in a situation where you can very effectively play the game for, say, 20-30 minutes a day. Hearthstone says, “Here’s a daily quest! Beat two people and get 40 gold.” It takes about 20 minutes. You can play Hearthstone as long as you want, but you don’t play it as effectively as you would be if you just do the daily quests. It’s a way of saying, “We won’t gate you out of playing the game, but we’ll give you moments you can play more effectively than others.” It’s brilliant insight.
Clash Royale is amazing. It’s potentially bigger than Clash of Clans. I hope Spyjinx can at least live in the same universe.
GamesBeat: They had to kill something like 14 games to get there.
Laura: We want to do it on our first try. [Laughs] But yeah, our office is full of people captivated by Clash Royale. It’s got the hardcore audience.
Donald: The most important games of the last two years, to me, are Destiny and Clash Royale, as far as showing us the way ahead. Some of the things they did in Clash Royale as far as the meta stuff, it very much validates some of the choices we made in Spyjinx. If you look at what those two games did, those are key indicators as far as what successful products will look like a few years from now.
GamesBeat: Does anything about mobile’s maturation encourage or discourage you? A lot of companies haven’t been able to break in. Small companies are starting to give up.
Donald: We’re at a moment in time where, if you have the desire to make a game and a little bit of knowledge, the barrier to making and launching a game isn’t huge. Technology is readily available, whether it’s Unreal or Unity or anything else. You don’t have to go through Microsoft certification. If you want to make a game, you make a game. The democratization of games has happened.
Ultimately that’s a good thing. But the way we buy games, the way stores are curated, the knowledge of what games are good, none of that’s on the same curve as technology and availability. It’s a problem we have to solve. I’m sure people out there are motivated to solve that problem. But in the interim it’ll be a bloodbath.
GamesBeat: Store designers are the ones you want to see making more advances.
Donald: I’m sure there are other problems, but that seems like the big area that needs help.
Laura: It’s a theme that’s come up a lot over the last couple of days. A lot of people are obviously thinking about it.
Donald: Even when Infinity Blade came out—The cream could rise more easily. I’m one of the judges for the mobile panel at DICE. When we were looking at mobile game of the year stuff, there were a few games on there I had never heard of. There’s just so much noise. And these were amazing games. That’s a travesty. Real diamonds are being lost.
Laura: Infinity Blade had the benefit of being the first gamer’s game for the iPhone. Now I don’t know how we could do something like Infinity Blade again. It came out at the right moment. Unfortunately we won’t have Steve Jobs announcing our next mobile game. But we’ll see what happens.