It never hurts to have a little bit of luck in the games business. As it turns out, Chair Entertainment's benefited from quite a lot of luck. Its first Infinity Blade title was one of the few games put in the spotlight by Apple, both on stage at its events and in the App Store. The promotion, combined with the fact that Infinity Blade appealed to core gamers unlike most mobile titles at the time, helped Chair's first mobile effort become enormously successful, and it also caught the eye of JJ Abrams, the massively famous producer, director and screenwriter behind TV shows like Lost and movies like Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
"JJ is a pretty big fan of Apple and had seen us onstage and... was like, 'those guys are doing really cool stuff' and he was thinking about that when his son started playing Infinity Blade. His son started becoming a really good Infinity Blade player but he'd get stuck on some of the hard bosses and he'd go to his dad and say, 'Dad, you have to help me with this.' So JJ is a good father and... he inadvertently had to become really good at Infinity Blade. So that exposed him to the story and some of the stuff we were doing in Infinity Blade and he was like, 'Wow, this is actually really cool,'" Chair founder Donald Mustard explained to me at GDC.
Apple introduced the two, and what was supposed to be a a half-hour meeting turned into a four-hour brainstorming session. Mustard said that he instantly gelled with Abrams and Chair and Bad Robot both felt, "We don't know what we're going to do together, but we just have to work together. We're just too aligned creatively. We're too similar in how we approach our companies. We just have to find something to work on."
That brainstorming ultimately led to the basis for their joint project called Spyjinx, an action-strategy title based in a world of espionage. While working with Abrams and Bad Robot will no doubt give Spyjinx an inherent marketing boost, Chair isn't looking to make a "Hollywood" video game.
"I actually don't ever want to see a world where games try to be more like Hollywood. Games need to be like games. And that's why, once again, I love JJ. He fundamentally understands that. He's like, no, let's not make games like a movie. Let's make games like a game," Mustard said. "Our first rule for Spyjinx that JJ and I both came up with was that there will be no cut scenes in Spyjinx. Ever. That's ever. That's not the right format for a game. Games are about you experiencing a world - there are heavily narrative games like Uncharted and stuff, but that's not the kind of game that we want to make."
Laura Mustard, Donald's wife and Chair's head of communications, added, "We love creative partnerships... [but] we are not a game studio that just falls over itself to work with Hollywood. That's not our thing. We're about the creative but not about the names as much. It was so different talking to JJ of all people, who's the least Hollywood person we've ever met."
"Gamers are not stupid either. You can't just make a game and stick someone's name on it and, on the flip side, JJ has no interest in that. So JJ's in it, like in the trenches and wants it to be an awesome game."
Indeed, quality is paramount, but good gameplay alone no longer keeps studios afloat. "I think at the end of the day you have to make a great game. And I think actually maybe that's different now. You can't just make a great game anymore. You have to make an exceptional game," Donald remarked.
"I'm on the DICE awards judge committee and there were definitely mobile games this year that were great and even maybe exceptional that nobody's heard of and nobody had played... So you have to be exceptional and you have to find a way to cut through the noise. You can go the Kardashian route, you can go the platform route, and there's lots of other ways to do that but I think the idea that you can be like 'we built Shadow Complex, they will come,' that's not the kind of world that we live in anymore. You have to intentionally try and cut through the noise," he continued.
Mustard believes discoverability is a problem that's gotten increasingly hard to solve. It's not like several years ago where you could launch games like Undertow or Shadow Complex on Xbox Live Arcade and gain an instant spotlight. Moreover, the tools for game creation are so easily accessible and the market has become so saturated that the industry is essentially doing a disservice to itself, he argues.
"The tools to make a game are so widely available that there are now millions of developers releasing hundreds of thousands of games a year across all the platforms and that's the thing. There are now very viable platforms. PC is huge and the barrier to a console entry isn't nearly as hard... You don't have to have the publisher, the contacts at Walmart - if you make a game, there will be a platform that you can put it on, whether that's mobile [or anything else] - and this is super new, right? Probably only the last three years... So I think some of the consequence of that that we're seeing now is that discoverability and storefront design across all the platforms - I don't think it's just mobile - but consoles, they're just not equipped for hundreds of thousands of games to be released a year," Mustard said.
"And the truth is, I'm sure that if there's some smoky back room in Hollywood where they're like, If we wanted to release 100 movies a week, we could. But they don't. And maybe they're 100 years ahead of us, but somehow, Hollywood's done [that] - and not comparing us to Hollywood, but I think we're in this unique moment in time where the vectors of availability of games and people who want to make games is escalating and the technology to support it is way ahead of the curve of how to actually find those games. So I hope that there are hordes of smart people at Microsoft and Sony and Apple and Amazon and Google and Steam and all the storefronts trying to solve this problem. To me, that's the core problem."
Having JJ Abrams on its side should help Spyjinx avoid awareness issues; and in fact, it could lead to bigger transmedia opportunities whether in film or other media. But that isn't the goal just yet. Chair doesn't want to get ahead of itself.
"I think where we see real value is when we sit down with JJ, for example, we'll spend a whole day just pulling out of his brain the process for how he casts or how he approaches character development and getting an understanding of that process... If we can take what they do so well and give it to our team and create a game system that can even start to duplicate that, we can make gameplay meaningful in different ways than gamers have experienced," said Laura.
Donald added, "What we want to accomplish more than anything is emotional connection. We want to try to find better ways in an interactive space to make players feel more emotionally connected to the world they're in, the characters they know - something that I feel like is still fairly immature in video game media. And of course, it's impossible for us to be making this awesome JJ Abrams world... and not be like, 'Oh, man, that would be a cool movie. That would be a cool show. That would be a cool this.' So it's certainly designed so that could happen but fundamentally that's not our focus right now."
Speaking of emotional connections, virtual reality could be one technology to truly connect players more fully with in-game characters. Epic (which owns Chair) has its hands full with Unreal Engine providing an in-VR editor for developers, but Chair itself does not foresee VR playing a huge role in its immediate future.
"Obviously at Epic we care a lot about the future of VR. We're heavily investing in VR. I fundamentally believe that VR is going to be a very transformative force in the world. Not just for entertainment. It's the next iPhone, right? It's going to change stuff. That said, if you could chart a path of evolution... [remember] those ugly MP3 players from 2000 that eventually became the iPod that eventually became the iPhone and the iPhone is what really transformed everything? I think we're at the MP3 stage of VR. We're 10 years away," Donald noted.
"It needs to be this," he continued, pointing to his glasses," before everyone will use it. And it needs to be untethered. It needs to not be hooked up to a huge computer... and they have to figure out how do you get a battery in this that will last 10 hours?"
What's more, Mustard seemed genuinely concerned about the fallout the VR industry could see in the near future. That, he said, could push a timeline for mainstream adoption back even further.
"I think when we start to talk more about Spyjinx, there will be some fairly obvious VR applications there, but I do think us doing a VR-only thing is a little ways out just because - I don't know how nice this is going to be - but I worry that the 10 years could actually be 15 years if so much money is being invested right now that a year from now there's a bloodbath because all these people have invested all this money and there's such a small market for it that people are like, 'Oh, my, goodness! Stop investing!' and it actually halts how close we are to it," he warned.
While Chair's focus is on Spyjinx right now, a number of fans have been clamoring for a true sequel to the Metroidvania-style Shadow Complex. Chair did recently release a remastered edition, but that shouldn't be viewed as a primer to renew interest in the franchise.
Mustard only said "that would be an amazing side effect," but his reason for creating the game in the first place is simply that he loves the genre. "I desperately love that genre... That was one of our real insidious side goals of Shadow Complex because no one had made a Metroidvania since the '90s. It would be like if someone hadn't made a first-person shooter for ten years. There's this amazing genre that's been abandoned... Our real hope was that it would spur others to be like, 'Oh, this could be a viable genre' so that I could have more Metroidvanias to play. And now I've got Ori and Guacamelee... and Axiom Verge. There's a lot of them out there," he said with a smile.
"There's still a ton we can do with Shadow Complex," Laura added, "but we don't feel like it's the best time for [a brand-new] Shadow Complex but it will be. Something will happen where it will."
And what of Infinity Blade, the franchise that truly propelled Chair to new heights? Was the third game the final one, as some have speculated?
"I'm super happy with where we left it. I look at that and am like, 'Yup, I could set that down' and be like, 'This is a genre. This is an expression of a very deep, deep experience' and so I could happily not return to Infinity Blade. We're cool with it. There's no plans now," Donald said. "That said, we definitely have cool ideas for stuff we could do with Infinity Blade."
For Laura, though, it's never say never. "When you find a babysitter you like you're happy to leave your daughter with them. It doesn't mean you're going to leave forever," she said, pondering Infinity Blade's future.