OpenFeint’s creator wants to bridge the core divide
If it’s possible for a wide-eyed dreamer and a logic-minded pragmatist to coexist in the same brain, you can find them in the mind of Jason Citron. You can hear both sides of this seemingly oxymoronic arrangement emerge when listening to him talk about his current company, Hammer & Chisel, and the game he’s hoping will have core gamers logging hours of play on their tablets, Fates Forever.
Citron’s status as a visionary in the mobile gaming space is undeniable. As the founder and CEO of Aurora Feint, he was a bona fide App Store pioneer, getting the game of the same name into the very first wave of apps to hit the storefront. He’s probably even better known as the developer of OpenFeint, the late, mostly lamented social platform that was purchased by GREE in 2011 only to be shut down 20 months later
With time and money to plan his next venture, it wasn’t long before Citron got the itch to dive back into gaming. But as a self-described core gamer, he has a different goal in mind for Hammer & Chisel. He wants to prove that the same kind of experience that people have come to expect from consoles or PCs is possible on tablets.
Yet when it came time to come up with his start-up’s initial product, the logical side of Citron definitely had a role in determining which genre was the right way to go. After killing a multiplayer tower defense game that already had some work put into it because it “wasn’t awesome,” he focused in on a MOBA because it just made the most sense.
“What started it actually was I was trying to figure out how we could design our game in a way that didn’t require a ton of content,” Citron said to Gamezebo in a recent phone interview. “So I was looking at games I love to play in my life like World of Warcraft, Magic: The Gathering and League of Legends as three really good examples. Games that are player versus player have as much variety as games that aren’t, I think, but you get a lot more mileage for the content that you build. So it seemed like, ‘We’ve got to build a PvP game,’ because if we try and build a quest-based game, we’re having to just make too much stuff. And as a start-up, even though we have access to money to build a high quality game, to build a game that’s high quality and has 100 hours of content, that’s even more money, and we don’t have access to that kind of capital. “
Citron also feels that MOBAs are ripe for translation to tablets with some modifications to the controls and UI. As a result, Fates Forever sports a hybrid system that features virtual buttons on the left side but uses gestures to carry out skill-based attacks – things like a shoulder charge that is activated by flicking the warrior across the screen and a wizard’s fireball that follows a line drawn by the player’s finger, regardless of the shape.
While Citron is proud of the innovation his team has made with the gesture-based attacks, the buttons still have their place.
“It turns out that the hybrid approach is actually the best way to do it,” he said. “Initially, when we started, we had no buttons. I was like, ‘Forget buttons, this is a tablet. We’re doing touch, we don’t need buttons.’ But having buttons it turns out is really helpful. It gives you a clear indicator of the cooldowns remaining on your skills. They’re less to teach a person, because they see the icons, so they know if they press it, something happens. And it gives you the ability to spam your buttons. So if you have a move that you want to do right when it’s ready, you can kind of spam the screen and it’ll just trigger. But if you had to do gestures or other things to do everything, it was just like too cumbersome.”
Another area where platform considerations had to be balanced with the expectations of existing MOBA players is in the length of matches. Fates Forever is designed to have average match times of 15 minutes, long enough to have early, middle and endgame strategies come into play but short, enough to avoid making a single game a significant time commitment.
Other MOBAs on tablets, notably Zynga’s Solstice Arena, have opted to go for even shorter matches. Citron thinks that’s too short, but – and here’s his practical side popping up again – he’s willing to admit that he might have to adjust his thinking depending on feedback from players.
“In order to have an interesting enough game experience, specifically in the MOBA genre, the matches have to have a certain length,” Citron said. “Otherwise, you start to lose out on a lot of the strategy.
“I think that if you make the matches too short, like that other game, you lose a lot of that stuff. So the game length that we’re shooting for is 15 minutes for a session, but if you want to sit down and play for four hours, you can play a lot. I think it’s the right decision. I think that five minutes is too short, but 15 minutes feels like a good length for tablets. And maybe we’re wrong, maybe it should be longer, and if it turns out that the length of the matches is wrong, we’ll change it. But so far, it seems like it’s right.”
To ensure that people can, in fact, play for several hours if they want, Fates Forever avoids the route taken by many mobile games to restrict play time with an energy mechanic or something similar. It’s one of the two rules to the game’s monetization that Citron believes will present the free-to-play title in a way that appeals to core gamers, one that League of Legends already has proven to work.
Similarly, the second rule is to avoid anything that smells like pay-to-win. Fates Forever will follow the MOBA convention of having a weekly rotation of free characters supplemented by the option to pay to permanently unlock characters players may really like.
That’s about it as far as monetization goes. It’s important to Citron that the game allows paying for options but not for power, something he’s not shy about expressing that the competition hasn’t got completely right.
“I think that Zynga’s game, Solstice Arena is unfortunately like that,” Citron said. “They claim it’s not, but then you open the game, you go into the match and there’s a giant ‘Buy Potion’ button that gives you a noticeable boost in your stats.”
Hammer & Chisel is bucking another mobile trend by eschewing cross-platform considerations and staying laser focused on tablets. Part of it is Citron’s faith that tablets will continue to explode in popularity over the next few years, bringing more core gamers to the devices simply by default.
Equally important, though, is that designing a game with different platforms in mind means compromise. Even making Fates Forever playable on smartphones would have meant some of the creative things the team has cooked up with the controls would need to be scrapped simply because of the smaller touchscreens involved.
And it’s pretty clear that Citron isn’t keen on compromising, especially when it comes to his company’s first release. The idealist comes to the forefront as he discusses how the name Hammer & Chisel pays homage to the blacksmiths and silversmiths of the Middle Ages, and how he considers everyone in the studio to be a digital craftsman. That’s followed immediately by the detail-oriented perfectionist who says the game will be “ready when it’s ready” and speaks bluntly about how vital it is that game builders put out the best possible games they can make.
“I think that most people don’t get that,” Citron said.” I think it’s something that people pay lip service to, it’s the kind of thing where everyone talks about quality, but what that means is that you can’t ship crap. A lot of people ship crap. I think that it’s one of those things where it sounds great, but do you actually have the courage to kill projects that aren’t awesome? And it’s hard. It was hard for us to do it, I mean we spent all this time working on something, and it just wasn’t good. But I think that’s how you make great stuff is… you have to make great stuff.”
Fates Forever won’t be the first game to try overcoming the stigma that core gamers tend to have about tablet games, and it certainly will face what Citron calls “an education challenge” when it comes to convincing those gamers that a console-quality experience complete with beautiful graphics, legit MOBA strategy and action, and inventive controls awaits them on a seven-to-10-inch touchscreen.
It’s also nearly as certain that succeed or fail, Fates Forever isn’t going to be crap. Neither the dreamer nor the doer in Citron is going to allow that.