Interview: Brett Seyler, Co-Founder of Kerosene Games
Popular iOS title Bladeslinger is finally bringing its awesome visuals and console-style gameplay experience to the Play Store. We sat down with Kerosene co-founder Brett Seyler to talk hardware, extra features, and the unique challenges (and benefits) of porting the hit over to Android.
GameWoof: How long from launch to classification did it take you to get the Editor’s Choice on the App Store? Was there a selection process or more of a wake-up-to-an-awesome-news-email type of thing?
Brett: We soft-launched Bladeslinger in Canada for about a month before we were satisfied with the balancing, tuning, and bug-squashing we got from the geo-beta. We flipped the global switch late Nov. 20, and we saw that Apple had us in the Editor’s Choice slot later the next morning. It wasn’t so much serendipity as a lot of hard work. We established a strong and frequent line of communication with the Apple team very early on with Bladeslinger, and this continued right through launch to coordinate optimal timing, prepare assets, and to consider Apple’s feedback regarding the game’s feature highlights and overall readiness for launch. It definitely helped that Bladeslinger was truly on the cutting edge for visual quality and graphics features on the platform, and that we put an incredible amount of effort into the input design leveraging gestures and multi-touch.
GameWoof: How much of the game’s success do you attribute to that ranking? Did things explode once it happened, or were they going pretty well beforehand?
Brett: We released the game for free during the geo-beta in Canada, and it was pretty clear that it couldn’t just be Canadians getting the game to account for the install volume and activity we saw. Sure enough, a very big percentage of our usage during that period was from Russia and China. But we saw the first blip of real demand for the game in the market, and that was exciting.
Having a strong global launch on iOS with the Editor’s Choice feature was an incredible help too, but even moreso that we managed to secure this spot during the long Thanksgiving / Black Friday / Cyber Monday weekend. The App Store in general saw something like twice the usual download volume that weekend, and I think it was probably even stronger than that at the top of the charts and in the big editorial slots like Editor’s Choice. So this feature treatment from Apple was incredibly valuable for our launch, but we followed this up with a number of different very creative marketing activities to win additional users for our (at the time) $2.99 app.
GameWoof: Was the game’s current monetization strategy what you planned from the beginning? Do you have anything different planned for the Android release on the monetization end (free, ad-supported version, etc.)?
Brett: When we partnered up with Luma Arcade (the developers of Bladeslinger), its design trajectory was entirely aimed at being a simple premium download. It’s almost a console-like experience on mobile, and the Luma guys were really designing a game for themselves (gamers who have no issue paying to download a quality game under $10). Somewhat unfortunately, the market was (and still is) in the midst of a dramatic transition in favor of the free-to-play monetization model, which has a number of very important design considerations.
Bladeslinger had a poor foundation for monetizing as a free-to-play game in that it’s a story-driven single player campaign. It’s also very action intensive with a serious learning curve and a deep combat design (again, for console / PC gamers). We spent most of 2012 prior to the game’s launch bolting a meaningful IAP economy onto this experience, and creating more content for improved retention. But the game’s foundation was still suboptimal for the free-to-play model, so in our most recent release, and in our Android debut, we’ve added a new infinitely playable Arena Mode. It’s a lot of fun! We’ve added a number of new virtual items and buffs and the experience is enjoyably replayable. Players can gamble round by round for additional currency, perks, and items, or take their winnings and start again fresh. We have high scores for both modes and a number of other really cool additions.
GameWoof: On the gameplay side, tell me what (if any) extra features Android users can expect from the title — in other words, if I have it on my iPad, what are some reasons for me to get it on the other platform?
Brett: If you have a Nexus 7, or any device with an Nvidia Tegra chipset, we’ve done some pretty optimizations and added additional effects. Primarily, we have a dynamic storm system that builds in intensity throughout the campaign. It consists of rain effects, lightning (which dynamically lights surroundings), reflective puddles, and a full audio pass which adds a darker and more ominous mood to the experience. It’s pretty cool. This was one of the many things we were able to do working closely with Nvidia’s engineers on the game, and we owe them a huge thanks for their support.
GameWoof: How much did building a game for one “set” of hardware (iOS) vs. a large number of different devices (Android) influence your decision to go iOS exclusive at first?
Brett: By the time we shipped Bladeslinger, supported iOS devices numbered 7 (it should have been 8 if it weren’t for Apple’s odd system of filtering devices by hardware which prevented us from supporting the 5th Generation iPod Touch). So this was a good deal of fragmentation to support already. We had 3 aspect ratios to support and roughly 5 different performance profiles for the game.
On the Android front, things are definitely tougher with device fragmentation, but we did the best we could with the devices we could get our hands on. At this point, we have a pretty solid little Android device lab with something like 20 different phones and tablets to test our games on. It’s not *nearly* enough to ensure 100% QA coverage, but we think we’re in pretty good shape on the 10-20 most popular Android devices on the market.
GameWoof: What version of Android and specific phones can we expect to see BladeSlinger run on?
Brett: This is a tricky question to answer because I’m sure we haven’t tested Bladeslinger all the devices that we believe Bladeslinger will be compatible with, but essentially any device out there that has 512MB+ RAM should work. Anything less and Bladeslinger definitely will NOT run without out-of-memory errors, just due the detail and complexity of the game.
GameWoof: Android users are, rightfully, very adamant that they get OS specific features in their product. They want support for the Back button, and the ability to move the game onto memory cards. Did you support these types of features?
Brett: In some cases, yes, but Bladeslinger’s menu heirarchies are not designed with the back button in mind. Like most games, they are designed with the game’s menu system in mind, and that’s all. However, in most cases
where users might be accustomed to expecting the back button to do simply go up a level in the hierarchy, or go to the previous menu context, we support that. Unfortunately, the back button is not uniformly adopted by Android OEMs, so users may see some unexpected behavior in edge cases. We recommend simply using the game’s very simple and intuitive interfaces as presented.
GameWoof: What are some advantages of designing a game for the Android platform?
Brett: The barriers to entry are slightly lower. Much of the platform tooling for publishing an application is a bit slicker and nicer, but some is significantly worse than alternative platforms (like iOS) as well. The primary advantage is simply reach. Android is taking over much of the world, and though it’s less standard and homogenous than iOS, that’s an incredibly compelling opportunity for developers seeking to entertain large audiences.
GameWoof: Do you plan to do stagger future games and updates or will you release them on both platforms at the same time?
Brett: I think our releases will be very near simultaneous from here. Most of the work that delayed our initial Android release consisted of getting our hands on the right hardware, doing thorough enough testing, and really making sure we were ready to deal with developing for releases on two platforms at once.
GameWoof: You’ve got a unique setting to go along with the gameplay here — in your design process, did the gameplay come from the story? If not, how did you bring everything together into a
Brett: Luma Arcade had been working casually on the Bladeslinger IP for a long time prior to it’s first public unveiling, and the development process was the reverse of what’s usually prudent for a studio’s development process. The universe came to life based on rich artwork and narrative inspiration before we knew exactly what kind of game it would be. Everyone had ideas about the combat, and plenty of reference designs from great console games like God of War and Devil May Cry, but it didn’t really come together until the universe was well populated with rich environments, characters, and a deep backstory.
GameWoof: What are some of the big ‘gotchas’ you encountered while porting the game over to Android? Stuff like trouble with specific devices/hardware setups, in specific.
Brett: The 50MB APK limit is a pretty serious logistical annoyance that we encountered. Bladeslinger is built from a custom branch of Unity 3.5, which doesn’t support the build-splitting required to package correctly for Google Play, so we had to write some tools to do that for ourselves. We also have some problems with multi-touch detection being a bit “softer” on Android than iOS. Bladeslinger expert control mode uses a number of multitouch gestures and controls that can be misdetected (Android thinks it’s seeing a one-finger touch when it’s actually two fingers close together when iOS correctly sees two fingers). This is a bit of an edge case, but worth noting for developers. Build iteration / deployment turnaround times are much longer on Android as well, which can be frustrating when trying to debug. As for specific hardware, we haven’t seen anything that has totally thrown us for a loop yet, but it’s pretty Wild West out there.
Brett: Without a doubt, the Nexus 7 tablet. it’s a really great device with an Nvidia Tegra chipset for just $200. Pretty hard to beat. Bladeslinger is also great on the Samsung Galaxy S3 and Galaxy Note tablets. We’ve done some work to optimize for those devices as well.
GameWoof: What made you finally decide to port over to Android? Did the Editor’s Choice tag on the App Store keep you from moving over sooner than you’d like?
We always wanted to reach users and the Android platform. It’s been more basic logistics (QA, publishing, piracy readiness) than anything else. We’re a pretty small team, so it’s not easy to prep for a simultaneous launch. The Editor’s Choice award didn’t really have much to do with our decision to wait on Android, but we were aware that the Android platform is a bit less friendly to paid applications (vs. free or free-to-play) than iOS, and given Bladeslinger design, we knew that our best fit from the get go was probably on iOS. The work we’ve done over the past 4 months has really helped ready us, from a design and live ops perspective, for Android.
GameWoof: For that matter, did the success of the iOS version spur you to move it over faster than you might have otherwise?
Brett: As prepared as we were for the burst of activity, feedback, and support required from the iOS version, our original ambitions to get to Android sooner were slowed a bit by the necessity of supporting the game on iOS. But we always wanted to get to Android as soon as we possibly could.
GameWoof: What separates this game in general from the other third-person beat-em-ups and the like currently populating the Play Store and App Store? Obviously, there’s something — the game wouldn’t have been so successful on the App Store otherwise.
Brett: Bladeslinger’s a rich detailed universe, characters, and combat mechanics are really just a cut above anything else out there on mobile today. Luma Arcade really created something special here. It’s not for everyone. The game is far from casual and it’s not a casual game masquerading as console quality like CSR Racing or even Infinity Blade. It has a truly deep and unique control system and combat design that satisfies core gamers in a way that I don’t think has been really attempted yet in mobile. We offer the player full freedom of movement, basic and expert combat choices, and meaningful resource allocation choices all of which allow the player to develop their own unique style of play.
In addition to the game’s deep action / adventure roots, Bladeslinger’s graphic fidelity is second to none on mobile. Depth of Field, real-time shadows (casting and receiving), dynamic lighting with light probes, top notch animation, texture, shader quality, and overall art direction all combine to deliver an inimitable mobile experience. You really have to see it to believe it.
Finally, I think Bladeslinger is just a world people are really finding a way to connect with. It’s reminiscent of so many fantastic fictional worlds and characters, all of which come together in a very compelling narrative composition. I love it for the beautiful art and the combat that makes me feel like I’m a ninja cyborg cowboy drifter!
GameWoof: How long did it take to decide on the existing control scheme, given the difficulties some third-person brawler-type games have with things like combo ranged/melee attacks and double taps as a type of input?
Brett: A long time!! We toyed with a lot of different movement designs, and in the end, everything that we looked at other than a one-touch movement input with a simple follow camera created unnatural context switching for combat encounters. Or worse…combat that just simply didn’t live up to expectations. The simple fact is that if you allow a player to move and fight at the same time, controls are REALLY tough. We’ve played dozens of games where developers take shortcuts (maybe wisely so) here by creating imprecise virtual buttons and sticks, or forcing the player to be stationary while in combat. Neither of these were satisfying endpoints for us, so we definitely bushwhacked our way into some new territory on the input front. Our design put more pressure on a great follow camera system as well, which no game on any platform has really solved, so we really took on a lot. I don’t think we’ve nailed touch input for the genre yet, but I’m very happy with the work we’ve done to create intuitive depth and precision in a game like this.
GameWoof: In looking at the reviews and comments on iOS forums, it looks like a lot of people wanted a virtual “D-pad” control scheme vs. what you shipped with the game. Are you going to do anything to please those people in this release?
Brett: Yes! We have an alternate control scheme available in our most recent update which is a very familiar virtual stick and buttons. It plays quite well!
GameWoof: The visuals are a big selling point for this title. Were you able to do anything extra with Android that you couldn’t with iOS devices due to hardware/budget/time limitations? If so, what?
Brett: As mentioned, we did some special work with Nvidia for their Tegra platform and were able to add some extra bling there.
Brett: It’s not easy! We have a fantastically talented and hardworking team and we partner with very smart developers (like Luma Arcade) who are eager to learn, quick to act, and efficient addressing requests from our audience. In the end, the balance of our time and attention will tilt in favor of games that appear to have the most traction with gamers, and Bladeslinger certainly appears to have a lot of post-launch life in it. We’re excited to work on continued additions, expansions, and potentially new episodes with Luma Arcade!
GameWoof: What, gameplay-wise, is this game’s “wow” feature? Is it something that you planned from the very beginning or a mid-cycle eureka moment, or something else altogether?
Brett: The moment you defeat the first boss, the Barman, is a big wow factor in the game. You really have to have the combat systems well understood to succeed at this point, and we find that most gamers who make it this far fall in love with the game here. It’s a moment of great drama with beautiful cinematics and a real technical challenge for an action gamer.
GameWoof: Anything you care to share about Episode Two? Can we expect it at the same time as the iOS version or will it be another staggered release?
Brett: It’s too early to say, but I think it’s far more likely that we’ll be looking at something closer to a simultaneous iOS / Android ship date.
GameWoof: What devices do you personally carry?
Brett: I carry an iPhone 5 and an iPad Mini, but I also make regular use of my Nexus 7 for reading and playing games.
Bladeslinger is available now. Thanks to Brett and the Kerosene crew for answering all our (many, many) questions!