Some of the developers that made Halo — a game that people said couldn’t be done on a home console, but which went on to be one of the biggest console games of all time — bet that hardcore gaming fans will enjoy shooters on mobile tablets and smartphones.
And create another multimillion dollar market in the process.
Alex Seropian, the co-founder of Bungie and a former Disney game executive, is revealing his mobile gaming startup Industrial Toys and its first efforts: Midnight Star, a first-person shooter for iOS, and Midnight Rises, an accompanying digital comic.
Seropian and cofounder Tim Harris showed me a demo of both the digital comic app and free-to-play game yesterday. We’ll find out soon whether this bold bet — that a good story and hardcore action can hold the attention of mobile gamers — will pay off. Seropian said the game is debuting soon, and it will be preceded by Midnight Rises, a graphical novel/digital comic written John Scalzi (whose 2013 novel Redshirts won a Hugo award, the highest honor for science-fiction and fantasy books) that lays the backstory for a new sci-fi epic.
“In a shooter, we provide the context for everything you do,” Seropian said. “You can get immersed. And the game is more meaningful when it is surrounded by context. The story provides that context. The characters make it interesting.”
In Midnight Rises, the story begins 120 years in the future in 2134 with the activation of the Morningstar Protocol. That is a directive that goes into effect when aliens make contact with Earth. The governments of the world rally together to deal with the threat and figure out if the aliens are good or evil. Humans have barely started traveling among the stars.
They send out a modified mining spaceship, the Joplin, to investigate the signal. We meet the hero, Charlie Campbell, who is the communications director on the mission. The user can make choices, like who to visit on the ship, and which details to read about the various characters. There’s an illustrated timeline that bridges story from the present day to the comic’s events and the events of the game. You can unlock information in the comic that will be useful to you in the game.
The novel is beautifully drawn by artist Mike Choi, a former X-Men comic artist who serves as the concept artist for Industrial Toys for the shooter as well. That provides for a consistent art style across both the comic and the game, Seropian said. This is a true transmedia effort, designed specifically for the Apple iPad and iOS devices.
“We have a new approach to telling a story,” Seropian said. “We are building a big universe.”
The graphic novel is cool. But the project will live or die on the game’s quality. The team working on it includes cofounder Brent Pease, Harris, and console game veteran Mike Dekoekkoek.
The name comes from the nature of the alien communication. The term “morning” is used to describe it if the communication is peaceful, while the word “midnight” is used if it turns hostile. The game begins as the mining ship nears the alien communication site on another planet. The comic doesn’t have animations, but it creates the illusion of motion through parallaxing, or moving an image sideways across the tablet screen.
The story begins with a cinematic trailer that is similar to the animated sequences that precede the action in console video games. There are dozens of such cinematics in Midnight Star, which takes the player through a full story told in four major chapters. The whole game is expected to last four or five hours, with plenty of replayability as well as multiplayer combat.
Seropian said he pulled the team at Los Angeles-based Industrial Toys together to build hardcore games for the new world of tablets.
“This whole thing started for us because we were playing games in bed,” Seropian said. “I realized my own gaming patterns were changing, and no one was making games that were great for the tablets. That’s how we got started.”
Seropian heard a lot of critics claim that mobile games could never live up to the console experience.
“When Bungie got bought by Microsoft, we got similar vitriol about making a shooter game on the console,” he said. “They said it wasn’t possible. Why would anybody want to play that? We said we know the kinds of games we want to play and that tablets are becoming fantastic pieces of hardware.”
“We wanted to focus on the strengths of the platform, to release ourselves from the tropes or rules of what it takes to make a traditional shooter great,” Harris said. “We started with the device.”
But the team had to do a lot of work, because “we weren’t happy with the virtual controls on tablets,” Seropian said.
In the game, you find yourself in the cockpit of the larger ship.You can move around from the bridge of the Joplin to the armory or other sections. In the armory, you can talk with the weapons officer and upgrade your gear.
When you make contact with the aliens, the fighting starts. To shoot an alien, you touch it on the screen. Your character aims, and a reticule appears on the creature. You hold it down to fire and use your finger to follow the alien as it tries to dodge or hide. If you hit the alien enough times, you kill it. You do this over and over until you clear a section in about two minutes. A short firefight enables you to set it aside and go on with your life, in case you don’t want to spend hours playing a single game session.
You use some of the 14 guns in different ways. You can pinch the screen, as if you were viewing a photo, to zoom in on a target with a sniper rifle. You tap the head to try to get a headshot. The more headshots you get, the greater the points you rack up. If you press two fingers on the screen, you lay down a shield to protect your character.
The action is fast. But you don’t move your character, as you do in other tablet shooting games like The Drowning. Instead, you stay put until you shoot all of the aliens in front of you, and then you move to another location. You do control the direction the camera faces, but you’re immobile while you’re shooting.
But it’s not a turkey shoot like in the old House of the Dead games from Sega. The enemies move when you target them. But you can try to follow the character by moving your finger to match where the character runs. Some of the alien bosses take a lot of damage, leaving you exposed to attacks from other aliens.
“This is where we chose to focus on what touchscreens do well,” Harris said.
You can pull out tricks like a levitation power that makes the aliens float in the air. You can pick them off until the power wears off. The mechanics are simple, and they don’t require you to do things that are just too hard to do on a touchscreen.
The game will debut with a large chunk of the story, but Industrial Toys will keep coming up with content over time. The game’s modes make the title replayable, too. In hardcore mode, you have to get more than 30 headshots in a round. In psychotic mode, you have to play flawlessly.
In multiplayer mode, you can send challenges to friends and share your results of missions. You can modify a level and issue a challenge for a friend to play it at your direction. For instance, you may have to play with no shields. In one kind of challenge, you may get three chances to clear a level. If there are four people in a challenge, the winner takes all. If you win, you nab the jackpot of resources that are at stake.
You can use your reward currency from playing to upgrade your gear. You can also purchase a different kind of currency to buy premium gear. You aren’t required to pay real money to win or beat friends. Industrial Toys has invested heavily in the communications features, like chat, so that it can build a community worthy of a major shooter game.
Midnight Star offers all sorts of rewards that are meant to give you a smile and keep you engaged. You unlock features on guns and level them up, just like a character. You can eventually get goodies like a shotgun that can chain lightning bolts together.
Seropian said he is about 25 hours into playing the game. If people keep playing and buy stuff, Industrial Toys will have a hit on its hands. The odds are tough, but if the game gets a lot of engaged fans, those fans will eventually lead to monetization. And once that happens, Industrial Toys will have a long-term sustainable game on its hands. The company will be able to continuously invest in it.
That’s Seropian’s plan, anyway.
It’s been a lot of work so far. The team has grown to 18 full-time employees and is working with the console-born Unreal Engine 3 game engine. Seropian has raised money from angels.
Midnight Star is in beta testing now and it will launch “soon.” I’m looking forward to whether Seropian, whose Halo games have sold more than 50 million copies worldwide and created a multibillion-dollar entertainment franchise from Microsoft, can do it again on mobile.
“It’s a free-to-play game and our value proposition is different from a paid download,” Seropian said. “We have to build a place for people to hang out. The challenge is getting them to stay.”