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Interview: Infinity Blade creative director Donald Mustard on making a gamer’s game

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If testing game ideas in cult hit Game Dev Story is any predictor of success, then Infinity Blade is destined to be a blockbuster.

The title sold a whopping 34 million copies when ChAIR creative director Donald Mustard replicated the game in Kairosoft’s quirky simulation – a sales figure that would make any game developer blush.

Achieving real success is much harder, however, and Mustard – who is at the helm of Epic Games subsidiary ChAIR’s ambitious iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad action-adventure – knows it.

A developer credited with several top-tier console games, he’s using his experience to create an original game on cutting-edge portable devices using brand new technology.

Only on iPhone

Infinity Blade is as much about the rapidly emerging iPhone and iPad gaming scene as it is the game itself – a bold project that has the potential to push iPhone gaming to a new era.

Mustard spoke with us about the challenges of developing for Apple devices, designing compelling portable games, and how ChAIR is tackling sticky issues like performance, file size, and gesture-based controls.

“We wanted to do two things with Infinity Blade,” Mustard says. “First, we really want to show graphically what could be done on these devices. Second, there’s a desire to create an original gameplay experience that can only be done on these devices.”

Much has been made of Infinity Blade as only being possible on iPhone and Mustard argues the point from both a technical and game design standpoint.

Only the hardware behind iPhone and iPod touch makes a glossy, high-definition game like this possible – PSP doesn’t run in high-resolution, Nintendo 3DS isn’t powerful enough, and Android handset configurations vary too much to support high-end games.

Combating scribbling

More importantly, Mustard feels that ChAIR has created a game that can’t be replicated on another device because of the care taken in designing gameplay specific to iPhone and iPad. “Virtual controls weren’t a good fit, so we opted for quick, straight swipes for sword play and more varied gestures when casting magic spells.”

When pressed about the tendency for touch controls to devolve into screen scribbling, Mustard insists that the game has been designed in such a way to avoid it. “Scribbling won’t work because of the pace of combat. Furthermore, casting a lightning spell means drawing a bolt – you can’t scribble something like that.”

Keeping tempo

Establishing the right tempo has been chief among the development team’s concerns, Mustard explains. “The biggest issue is getting the flow right. The goal is to get it so that you can play for a 2-3 minutes at a time and feel satisfied.

“At the same time, you have this meta-game of levelling up your character and acquiring treasure that keeps you coming back time and time again.”

A self-described gamer, Mustard claims that Infinity Blade is the type of game he wants to play his iPhone. “We make games we want to play. It’s definitely a gamer’s game, but it’s intuitive so that anybody can pick it up.”

The jaw-dropping graphics will no doubt be effective in drawing the attention of unlikely gamers, but the straightforward nature of the gameplay is what Mustard thinks will have them stick around.

Nuts and bolts

Technical performance has also been a top priority and Mustard feels confident that there won’t be problems. “Epic Citadel is indicative of what to expect from Infinity Blade in terms of performance.” Support will go back no further than iPhone 3GS and third-generation iPod touch devices.

When it comes to file size, Mustard is familiar with the issue having worked on downloadable console games. “It’s always a challenge. We’re south of 500MB.”

That will put Infinity Blade at approximately half the size of FIFA 11 and twice that of Chaos Rings. When accounting for planned updates, that number increases. “We plan to update constantly: lots of swords, magic spells, new areas, new enemies.”

While you can expect new content for free, the initial download will come at a cost. Mustard wouldn’t be drawn on the game’s price and release date, but he assures us that Infinity Blade will be available for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad this holiday season.

Our thanks to Donald for his time