Chillingo, unfortunately, wasn't mentioned at all during EA's press conference last week. I thought the big publisher would at least give a little nod to its extremely successful mobile publishing arm, but no such luck. I did, however, go and see the team gathered in their annual suite near the LA Convention Center, and got a nice look at their upcoming slate for the next few months. Here's a quick title-by-title rundown of what Chillingo and parent company EA were showing off.
Plants vs. Zombies 2
This is technically not a Chillingo title, as it's being developed by Popcap and published by EA. But it was probably what will turn out to be the biggest title in the suite for sure. Plants vs. Zombies was a huge hit on mobile, and so Popcap is bringing it first to iOS later on this month. In addition to new plant types and lots of new stages, the title has a time traveling theme. Crazy Dave will take you and your plants back through time to fight zombies in Ancient Egypt, the Wild West, and the pirate-infested seas, with one more (probably a future) level coming soon after launch.
This time around, the game is based on that series of worlds, so each world will have its own core levels, challenge levels, and then endless levels to play through. Levels are unlocked as you open them up with keys that you collect, and you'll need to earn a certain number of stars to open up "star gates" and move to the next world. Gameplay is as colorful and fun as ever in the very popular Plants vs. Zombies series, though there are a few new elements, like the ability to drag across the screen and pick up sunlight, rather than having to tap on each sun separately.
There are also new touchscreen-based powerups to play with, and this is where the game's biggest issue comes in: It's a freemium title. The original Plants vs. Zombies was very much a premium game, in that you paid once and played forever. But Popcap has elected to go freemium with PvZ2, so it'll be free to download, and then various currencies and items will be available via in-app purchase. Popcap's reps were very clear to say that players would be able to see the whole game for free, and that's true, but even in my short playthrough, I saw no end of reminders that I could spend real money on in-game items. Powerups cost currency to use, which you can earn in-game, or you can spend real money on them if needed. And a special item called plant food provides your plants with a big boost, and can be collected from certain zombies or purchased directly.
The jury's out on this one for now -- we'll have to wait and see if the changes bother Popcap's audience at all. Popcap believes there's more money to be made with a freemium scheme, and that's almost certainly true. But the freemium elements may turn off a sizable part of the audience that doesn't want to be continuously bothered for cash, and could taint the series' otherwise sterling reputation for quality. Plants vs. Zombies 2 is due out very soon.
Fightback is a Chillingo-published title being developed by Ninja Theory, the talented folks behind the great Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and the recent DmC: Devil May Cry, both for traditional consoles. Fightback is a much simpler action game with an '80s feel, as you play a muscle-headed thug fighting through floor after floor of various towers, trying to save his oft-kidnapped sister. The game features a simple control scheme (tap to punch, swipe to kick or duck), and challenges the player to keep an attack combo going and defeat all of the baddies within a certain time limit.
Fightback seems simple but fun -- one level takes place in an arcade, and the neon signage and fictional arcade cabinets add a nice bit of fun to the fisticuffs happening in the foreground. It too is a freemium title, and in addition to upgrading weapons and equipment, the hero can also get tattoos, which provide special buffs and abilities. Fightback should be an excellent but simple action title, and a nice entry into iOS for the veterans at Ninja Theory. It's set to arrive sometime this summer.
Zya is the product of a company called Music Mastermind, and it has already picked up 300,000 users courtesy of a PC-based beta last year. It's a music creation app, though while most music creation tools are buried under complicated UIs and science, Zya instead goes with cute characters and flashy graphics, and turns the process of creating and mixing a song into a game, of sorts. You start by choosing a series of music tracks (including a bass line and a rhythm section), either picking from the original pieces provided, or using licensed music from artists like Kelly Clarkson or Madonna. You can then add a melody, again from a licensed piece, or simply by singing your own into the iPad or iPhone's microphone.
The game will then mix all of your tracks together (courtesy of a cute cartoony dog hitting a big green "Mix" button), and then reward you various points and achievements based on the mix you chose. You can then share that mix via YouTube or other social networks, with friends or online with the public.
Zya seems like a great idea -- it combines some really impressive music creation and mixdown tools with cute characters and a very clear interface. There are only 20 licensed songs to start, but of course the company is ready to add more, if the app sees the popularity it needs. Zya will be out later this year, on iOS first, with an Android version to follow.
Icycle was my favorite game at GDC this year, and we chatted with creator Reece Millidge just a while ago. The good news about Icycle is that it's just as beautiful, charming, and well-made as it was at GDC, and it's even closer to release (though obviously Chillingo is putting the time in to get it right).
The bad news, however, is that some freemium elements are creeping into the gorgeous gameplay. Now, when your character dies, you're presented with a button to retry right from where you started, with a small cost of currency to pay (undoubtedly available via in-app purchase). There are also various boosts and other items buy, and unfortunately the menus for those items just appear garish and commercial when overlaid on the spectacular game itself. Icycle has to make money, of course, but it's a little depressing to see commerce invade what should really be held up as pure art.
We'll have to see how that balance plays out -- it would be a shame for Chillingo to ruin such an excellent experience with a few overly crass sales pitches. Icycle is almost done, I'm told, and we should see it on the App Store soon.
Finally, Ultima Forever was on display yet again. I saw this in action at GDC for the first time, and it was and impressive retake on the old Ultima RPGs, made directly for iPhone. Unfortunately, it too suffers a little bit from the freemium focus that Chillingo has had lately, using a relatively annoying scheme of requiring keys of various qualities to do RPG-standard things like open chests and repair damaged equipment.
Fortunately, senior producer Carrie Gouskos seems particularly sensitive to the freemium concerns, especially after what sounds like a very enlightening Canadian beta. She told me that she's very dedicated to not only making sure there's a free-to-play path through the game that's fun and rewarding, but has also been lowering prices lately, trying to get the in-app purchases to a place where they're both profitable (for Chillingo's sake), and tolerable (for the audience's). We'll be able to see the game soon -- it's set for a worldwide release sometime in July.
Chillingo is one of my favorite publishers on the App Store -- the staff over there has made some terrific decisions in partnering up with quality developers, and all of these titles seem like great, well-polished experiences. Freemium is turning into a bad word with these titles, however, even when it doesn't have to be. We've seen in the past that audiences on iOS are more than willing to pay for high-quality experiences, and while the constant ask may make Chillingo more money in the end, it could sully the company's reputation, especially as there are more and more great experiences on the App Store that don't constantly pester for cash. Hopefully this company can find a good balance between profitable and fun, and keep publishing these great titles without having to cram them full of controversial freemium pitches.