Interview: ngmoco aims to create a native mobile RPG with SkyFall

Arguably best known for iOS games like We Rule and the Touch Pets series, ngmoco is going in a different direction with two of its upcoming releases, including the online role playing game SkyFall. Not only is the game debuting on Android before iOS, but it’s also much more in-depth than past games. The developer is hoping to make the first deep RPG experience that feels native to a mobile device. We had a chance to speak with with executive producer Chris Plummer about the game, delving deep into the fictional universe and learning just what makes SkyFall different from other mobile RPGs.

How important is the story and the world building in SkyFall? I know in a lot of these types of games players just kind of click through the text.

For me personally it’s super important, however I know it’s not important to everyone who plays games like this. We’ve sort of developed the story and the fiction so that if you’re just window shopping through the game and are more interested in combat and gear collecting and don’t really care about the story, you don’t have to immerse yourself in it too much. But there’s more there if you choose to dig for it and explore it. There’s points of interest that we’ve put in the game that sort of help provide additional context. Things like item descriptions, even. There’s a lot of things like that where you’ll get a lot more sense of how deep the universe is.

It’s tricky because there’s a couple different schools of thought. There’s people who the last thing they want to do is get immersed in the story or read about stuff or hear dialog going back and forth. And then there’s people who really appreciate that. I think in an RPG there’s an expectation, at least for a lot of people who play them, that there’s a story there and there is a rich universe that you can get into if you want to. And so we’re making sure that that’s there. But some of it is optional.

What would you say sets this apart from your standard fantasy RPG? Obviously there’s a ton of them, so what makes this unique?

I think the biggest thing for us is just designing an experience that’s meant to really work well on mobile smartphones and deliver the compulsions of a legit RPG without, let’s say, the baggage of it being a port from another platform or an emulation of something that you’ve already played before. So there’s a lot of familiar stuff in there. It’s got things that you’ve seen before in other RPGs, but hopefully the way we’re delivering it is something that feels natural in your hands, feels natural to pull out when you’re in line or you’re hanging out on the couch in between shows; the way you interact with mobile games.

And that I think is what we’re trying to do more than anything else. Everyone on the team is [a] big RPG fan, we just feel like we don’t find ourselves playing them on mobile devices. And so a lot of the division has been like “Why haven’t we? Why don’t we play this game or that game?” Some of them are pretty technically impressive but it tends to boil down to them either not feeling right for the device or just kind of missing the things that we like the most about RPGs, like getting stuff and getting loot, that kind of thing, which feels really different compared to other mobile RPGs that we’ve played. That process of getting things and deciding whether you want to keep them or sell them, or gearing up your character, that sort of thing.

So those are the things we’ve kind of leaned into a lot, the gear and items and just trying to make it feel good on a mobile device.



What about in terms of the story and the world. What makes that aspect of SkyFall different than other fantasy games?

Well, it’s a different universe to begin with. Fantasy has been done a million times. There’s dragons and there’s orcs and there’s stuff like that that you would expect to find in a fantasy world. But I’ve always been a fan of a universe that has something sort of at the center of it that’s really simple and straightforward, that if you kind of buy into that one thing then everything else starts to fall into place. So likethe one ring, or the matrix, or the force. Whatever it is, there’s one thing, and if you can believe that the rest of the universe starts to work.

For us it’s really the concept of the source energy and the affect it has on this world to make it magical the way it is. And then when that starts to change, the source starts to seem like it’s disappearing, it affects the entire world. So everything is kind of linked to the source energy in this universe.

I don’t want to go into too many details about what it’s all about, you want players to discover as they go, but when you go into the world it will feel like the source has always been there and people know it’s there and it’s almost like taken for granted. It’s like the sun, you know. The sun’s there, the moon’s there. And in this universe also the source energy is there. And we know that these structures at the base of the source beams were constructed eons ago and every faction in the universe — we have seven different intelligent factions in the world that you’ll encounter, and they’ll have different points of view about the source. And so you’ll kind of learn about the universe that way too.

So a couple different elf factions, for example, see the world completely differently with respect to the source. There’s different human factions, there’s different races you’ll discover as you go through the game. So they all are linked to it and affected by it. So I think having a sense of culture was really important. A good universe always feels like — and this is kind of a funny analogy, but in the original Star Wars movie even Tatooine, the desert planet, you can tell it had a culture to it. You could recognize it and you believed it. You didn’t have to hear any of the technical terms they were throwing around, you didn’t have to know any of that stuff, but you bought into the culture of it. And so that’s something that we’re striving to get into the game.

So as you’re progressing through the different areas and you meet different races and stuff, their culture will be evident, the way they do things will be evident. And they will be also reflected in the gear and stuff too. And so the different gear you’ll find has sort of origins that come from the different races and factions and their culture. So you’ll start to recognize elf armor or weapons. You can tell that comes from one of the different factions. So that was kind of an important factor.

A big one for me is that I want people to feel like there’s a rich universe there the first time they fire up the game, even if that’s the last thing they care about. I want them to know that it’s there and it’s theirs to discover. Some of it will lead you along the way, and some of it you’ll have to go out and discover yourself.

You mentioned how the game has elements players will have seen in other games. So what kind of games, and not just games, what kinds of things influenced the creation of the game and the world of SkyFall?

Certainly Diablo is a big inspiration, even though this doesn’t feel like Diablo at all. A big thing in Diablo was loot and how much stuff you were always finding, which is something that honestly no one has gotten right since then, or at least no one did it so well. We were heavily influenced by that, no question about it. I think for combat it was actually challenging, because it was hard to find any combat system out there that we were super happy with. There were games that were doing combat well but they were so tactile mechanic-based, the ones that we really liked anyways, were so tactile mechanic-based that they made the game feel like an action game in a way that almost took away from the sense of “Oh wait, I can play this for 30 seconds or a half hour.”

So we felt like we had to do something different on the combat, but honestly if you’ve played a golf game or reloaded a weapon in Gears of War it’s kind of a similar sort of mechanic. So it’s a natural mechanic, but we haven’t seen it used this way before. So it’s almost like my card versus your card, but on top of that I can play the tactile mechanic too and get the crit[ical hit].

And so some of the more difficult weapons that can do even more damage, their attack bars will be more challenging. That was one where we just had to go with our gut.

Fictionally we’ve taken inspiration from all great fantasy and sci-fi even. And one of the things I always thought was cool about a game like Halo, is it’s a good example of a universe where the universe is all around you but if you don’t care about it you can just play the game and enjoy the game for what it is. It just turns out that there’s actually a rich universe. But from the first Halo, the first five minutes, you see this halo ring and you know there’s something interesting about the universe. The question is “Why is it there?” Well, it turns out there’s a very interesting “Why it’s there,” but you don’t have to get into that if you don’t want.

I think with the source beams for us there’s definitely a why and there’s definitely a how and a what goes on next, and you can just let it come at you or you can seek it out.

For exploration there was a game called Stoneship by Cyan Worlds that actually had an exploration mechanic that was heavily influential to the exploration mechanic that we developed. So we kind of picked up where they left off and added in the things that make our game work. But that was a big piece of inspiration for us, it was sort of a turn-based exploration pirate game.

A lot of the RPG stuff we kind of took from our yearning days for Diablo and an experience like that on a mobile device. And I’ve played those types of games on mobile devices and I love Diablo and I’ll play that all night when Diablo III comes out, but it’s not the kind of cadence of interaction I want on a mobile device. It’s something that works really well with a mouse and works really well for the format of that game. And I think that’s a challenge for the [World of Warcraft]-type games as well. WoW is so awesome but it’s also designed for always a deep engagement, which makes it difficult to hop in and out of. I feel like we have to make some of our design decisions to really take advantage of the fact that you’re on this mobile device and you’re going to play it a certain way.

The visuals were really trying to be inspired by the device. I mean, this might sound like a weird game to take inspiration from, but the great thing about Angry Birds is that it’s truly a mobile touch screen experience. That game wouldn’t be the cultural phenomenon that it is if it was only only Xbox Live or only on the PC or something like that. It really feels like it was made for the mobile device. And there’s been games like that on other platforms but until that game was done on a mobile device … that was a moment, you know.

For us, there’s been a lot of RPG games, so if we can be one that really feels like it was meant to be on the mobile device and feel good, we take a lot of inspiration from that. So I guess we’re drawing inspiration from a lot of different places it just depends on the feature.



One of the problems with loot-focused games is the loot. There’s a lot of games where you get a lot of junk or you get too much stuff. How are you guys working around that issue?

We have a couple different things. So we have features that are on our roadmap that are not implemented yet — you can see signs of them — that will take advantage of some of the “junk items” in the game. So they all have a purpose. Some of them are more to sell to vendors right now but they have more that you can do with them as we roll out additional features.

But in the launch game we have a stat that we’re tracking behind the scenes that we call the gear ratio, and it’s sort of trying to find that happy balance of if you had every equippable slot totally pimped out versus every equippable slot had nothing in it, those are the two extremes. So there the maximum you can be and the worst case scenario you can be. And so we have that ratio of best item for the slot versus no item for the slot that we’re kind of tuning the game for. And so things like the loot drops will be tuned so that you have enough gear so that if you’re equipping yourself as you go you’ll have fun combat, you won’t have to use too many potions but you’ll still have pressure where you need to use them and it won’t just be a cake walk.

So we’re doing a lot of the tuning around that. And depending on where you are in the game you may find you get more or less of the junk-type-stuff to try and make sure that the gear ratios are right in the game. So that’s one of the ways we’re dealing with it, is we have a target that we think is the fun load-out, and you can always do better than that. You might luck out and have totally kick-ass gear in every single slot. And for people who play the game like crazy there will probably be people like that. So we have to make sure it works for them but also works if, say, only half of your items are really kick-ass stuff and the rest you’re still trying to accumulate level-appropriate gear.

So we’re trying to tune the game around the gear ratio. But I think over time and the game continues to evolve you’ll find more uses for the items you might not be equipping right out the gate.

One of the things I found interesting is that the design of the game seems to be a blend of an MMO and a social game utilizing features from each. Why did you decide to go that route and how do you find the balance between the somewhat disparate styles?

We wanted the game to be free-to-play so that’s maybe the place to start from, how do you make the game work when it’s free-to-play. And so there’s some design decisions we make there so people who … if it’s free-to-play then you need to be able to play it for free. But there’s also ways that, if you choose to engage in a certain way, there’s ways to enhance your experience if you want to spend money.So I think that influences some of the design.

The social pieces for us are just, it’s more fun when we start playing with other players. And that was assumed that we’d have some multiplayer components. And as we were prototyping we tried different things and we started to stick to the stuff that was more fun. The social combat is actually pretty fun and that adds a lot to the game. I think our social exploration right now is sort of like a stepping stone to what will ultimately be even more interactions you can do with people when you visit their areas.

I guess the way to sort of answer that question is that if it seemed like it would be fun we’d try it. And some of the things turned out not to be fun and we stuck with the ones that were, and we’ll build on those and as we keep going we’ll try out other social features.

It has social elements but it feels more like a free-to-play RPG that you can play with other people than it feels like a “social” game. Maybe because it’s not on Facebook and you can play it on your mobile device. If you want you can play it by yourself but you’re definitely going to be challenged in places like dungeons if you try and go solo all the time. It’s possible to play it that way but it’s definitely better to play it with allies and have that friend have your back. And it’s more fun that way.



Why did you decide to lead with Android?

We’ve been making games for iOS for a long time and we’ve built this on Mobage and we’ve built it on ngcore, which are only available on Android right now. And right now that’s where the marketshare is in the world, so it’s exciting to debut on Android and see how that works and it’s sort of new territory for us having come from more of an iOS background. But we’re all playing on Android devices now and they seem like they’re pretty good gaming devices. They’re pretty powerful and people have them all over the world.

So right now it’s more about the market opportunity and also where we are with our platform and the technology we built it on is basically available on Android devices right now.But it’ll be coming to iOS.

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