Jason Citron is a veteran of both the console and gaming space, involved with developing Double Fine’s Brutal Legend in 2006, and then releasing one of the first hit iOS games in the early, heady days of the iOS App store, a match-three puzzle game with a twist, Aurora Feint. Soon after, he created OpenFeint, which was the de facto leaderboard and multiplayer matching system for Apple mobile devices long before Game Center.
After OpenFeint was sold to Japanese social-gaming company, GREE, in April of 2011, Jason headed out to engage his passion for video game development once again with a new company, Hammer & Chisel, and a new game, announced today, called Fates Forever, an iPad-only massively online battle arena (MOBA) game.
Citron took some time out of a busy schedule to talk to Cult of Mac about the new game, it’s mechanics and business strategy, and his own take on what iPad games should be.
Cult of Mac: So tell us about the new game?
Jason Citron: The genesis of the game, then, came from Sega. (laughter) I really wanted to play a great hardcore game on my tablet. At the end of the day, the personal motivation came from being involved with mobile for so long and just being like, “Why the heck don’t I have anything awesome to play on my tablet?”
So I took some time to think about how great games get made and where they come from. And I had an observation, which is that great games tend to be coupled with user interface (UI) changes. Usually, they’re reinterpretations of games from previous platforms for a new user interface, and you get something genuinely not new but different.
Nintendo has been doing this forever. They said, “Forget the Atari stick, let’s make a D-pad,” and they had Mario. And they’re like, “We need more buttons,” so they put shoulder buttons. Now we have Star Fox, and you can lean left and right. Then they’re like, “Screw this, we need MORE MARIO,” and they added an analog stick, and now you’ve got the same game, but in 3D. Then, they made a thing you can shake at the screen, and now Mario can…whatever.
So they keep adding these new UI paradigms, rather than inventing new games. They’re reinventing new games, reinterpreting existing games. So I thought maybe this was an interesting analog for how to bring core gaming to tablets in a meaningful way.
League of Legends is a phenomenal game. I spent way too much time playing it. And I realized you could reinterpret the controls on League of Legends on a tablet really well. It doesn’t work with a smart phone, because the screen is too small, but on a tablet, you have a large touch screen that you can do some really interesting stuff. So that’s what we tried, and it turns out that it’s fun.
CoM: So there’s been a couple of other mobile titles that have tried this. What makes yours work? You’ve talked about control schemes. How does that play into your reinterpretation?
Jason Citron: Sure, I mean, that’s the focus of (our game) right there. We redid all the artwork for it, but we invented our own world, and came up with a cool story, new heroes, and all that stuff.
But the focus of the innovation is really around how you interact with the game. When I look at the other massively online battle arena games (MOBAs) on the tablets and smartphones, the two that really come to mind are Heroes of Order & Chaos from Gameloft and Solstice Arena, from Zynga. The thing with both of them is that they didn’t innovate on the controls at all, they just took the game and put it on tablet.
Gameloft games are a fairly faithful…I would call them copies, not interpretations. In Heroes of Order & Chaos, there’s this girl that has long hair, she looks kind of icy, she has a bow and arrow, and she shoots–it’s literally a copy of Ashe; they didn’t try to do anything interesting. They were like ‘just copy this.’ So okay, fine…
CoM: That’s kind of their schtick, so…
Jason Citron: Exactly! So I’m looking at the space and how we’re different, pointing out the contrast. So in Solstice Arena, Zynga’s new game that just came out, they didn’t innovate on the control scheme at all. What they’ve innovated on, if you want to call it an innovation, is taking Farmville/Clash of Clans-style free-to-play, and they put it in a MOBA. I joke and call it MobaVille. It’s pay to win, it’s all the stuff that people like you and me who play these kinds of games don’t like.
What we’ve done is genuinely innovated on a control scheme, and I’ll tell you about that in a second, and our monetization is what I call respectful. It’s effectively what League of Legends and Team Fortress 2 and what Magic the Gathering does, where it’s based on two key values which we can get into later for the control scheme.
One example of what we’ve done is the warthog character. We’ve effectively reinterpreted the skill shot to use touch gestures. What we said is that on a tablet, you’ve got to replace those mouse-based skill shots with gesture-based skill shots, and it turns out it’s pretty fun.
So the warthog has a move called a shoulder ram, and you get this indicator that pops up. You can actually flick the character into another enemy. And it launches across the screen and hits the character, the camera shakes, and then he does an uppercut. It’s really visceral and feels really nice.
There’s a vole character, too, and he has a gesture-based move where you actually draw a line, like Flight Control. So, you draw this line out and then he shoots this like shockwave of fire that traces your finger and it does this damage over time to enemies that walk over the current ground.
The idea is basically that we’re taking these gestural mini games that people have been creating over the past few years and integrating them in a nice way with our core gaming mechanics. So the flicking of Paper Toss, (the line drawing of) Flight Control, and some Fruit Ninja stuff. And it’s turning out to be pretty fun.
CoM: So instead of sticking a bunch of buttons that create a keyboard or whatever, you went totally with gesture. That’s cool.
Jason Citron: An important thing to note though, if you look at the screenshots, is that there are four buttons on the left side. And you actually use those buttons the same way you would use the Q, W, E, and R keys on a computer keyboard to activate the moves, and then the skill shots are done using gestures. So it turns out that that hybrid approach is best. We’ve actually gone through six iterations of the control scheme, and where we’ve landed is buttons on your left and skill shots are gestural moves.
CoM: Very cool, so you found that sweet spot.
Jason Citron: Yeah, yeah. And then simple moving and stuff. You know, like, you tap to move, you tap and hold and he’ll just keep walking. If you tap an enemy, he’ll automatically approach and start auto-attacking. To stop moving, you just tap two fingers down. If you’re holding the finger to walk, you just add another finger and he stops. If you press and hold two fingers, you’ll start recalling, and if you just stop for a while you’ll just teleport back. So we’ve got some a simple but intuitive control scheme in there. In the Gameloft game, you tap a character, and then to attack enemies, you have to press the auto-attack button on the screen.
So the game is designed so that your left hand is used for the buttons, and your right hand is used to pick targets and walk around. Then, we have a left-handed build where you can swap the buttons to the other side of the screen, so if you want to pick with your left hand and move with your right, you can..