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Infinity Blade in finite time: How ChAIR made its iOS hit in five months

Released late last year, Infinity Blade ushered in a new era of graphical fidelity in mobile phone games and delivered on Epic's promise to turn its "Epic Citadel" tech demo into an actual game. The Salt Lake City-based team at Chair Entertainment – led by brothers Donald and Geremy Mustard – delivered another hit for Epic on another digitally distributed platform, opening doors for more Unreal Engine licensees all the way. At last year's GDC the brothers Mustard delivered a panel on their XBLA hit Shadow Complex and this year it's Infinity Blade, titled "Infinity Blade: How We Made a Hit, What We Learned, and Why You Can Do it Too!"

"We got a call from Epic saying there's this opportunity," Donald Mustard told a packed GDC auditorium. Epic told him, "Mobile games are really taking off and we've secretly had part of the engine team getting the Unreal Engine to work on mobile devices over the past year and it's ready to go [...] and we really want to get a game out this year that really shows it off. Do you guys want to participate in that?" Mustard replied, "Absolutely." But there was a catch.

Gallery: Infinity Blade: How We Made a Hit, What We Learned, and Why You Can Do it Too! | 8 Photos

That phone call was in late June and this product had to be out by November or December ... for the calendar impaired, that leaves about five months to build a game, from conception to production. Luckily, Chair had a trick up its sleeve.

In the studio's early years, before its Epic acquisition, it was shopping a AAA concept around to publishers. Instead of waiting idly, Chair decided to hold an experiment of sorts: "We got our entire team of, at the time, six people," Mustard said. "Everybody, every day has to pitch 30 different game concepts that they think we can make." Over a two week period, you can imagine how many concepts resulted from this experiment. And there were some stipulations, notably "they have to be able to be built by us, six people in less than a year."

"This proved to be one of the most valuable game exercises we've ever done in the history of Chair," Mustard said. "Over the course of two weeks, we designed every possible game you could design! We had hundreds of ideas." Out of those hundreds, the team at Chair boiled it down to "20 or 25 games that we actually thought would be viable concepts that we could execute in less than a year." Those concepts went from being something they were just talking about to actual "one sheets" that they were ready to develop. When the call came to make Infinity Blade, Chair already had something in mind.

But it wasn't as simple as that. First, they discussed making a game that fit into some of the pre-existing App Store "conventions." Think: physics puzzler or card games. Mustard said that while that backlog of ideas included a "really awesome" physics puzzler and even a card game, and the team was confidant it would bring something new to the genre, they decided to instead "find something that kind of goes away from those exact categories." To do that, they first had to consider the platform.

Chair came up with what it calls its "Pocket Pillars" – a set of rules required to make a solid touchscreen smartphone gaming experience. First: The game needs to be playable with one finger. "Find ways to get input, then get that finger out of the way," the pillar demands. Second, and related to the first, is to have a "device specific design." That means "if your game would be great with a controller, you are making the wrong game." This is also known as the "no virtual analog nubs" rule. And last, for Chair, they needed to make a game that was "truly skill-based." It had to be "easy to grasp and difficult to master."

So they got the call from Epic on a Friday and that next Monday, they knew they wanted to make a game about sword fighting. "What if we made a game that kind of has the structure of Karateka," Mustard revealed, "combined with the level of control of a touchscreen device and then kind of had the somber, big epic feel of Shadow of the Colossus." That Monday, Chair's animator starter creating some animations and, within "two or three days" after the phone call they were working on Infinity Blade. Here's a video showing some of that early video work:

"More than ever before, so many people are carrying these things around in their pocket," Mustard said. "At any time they can pull out their device and experience the world you've created for them. And it can make them happy. And that is why, when Epic called us and said, 'Do you guys want to make a game for iOS?' we said, 'Absolutely.' It gives you the opportunity to do something that hasn't been done. I cannot wait to play the games that you guys make in the next year, in the next two years."

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