Right on target: The making of Dead Trigger
The Unity-focused Czech studio made a splash in 2011 with Shadowgun; a narrative-based third-person shooter that became a poster child for Android gaming, thanks to a marketing hook up with Nvidia.
Extending that brand was one of the company's goals in 2012. But it was also keen to come up with new IP, announcing mission-based FPS Dead Trigger just in time for the E3 trade show.
As well as pushing graphics, the game was designed to enable Madfinger to experiment with shorter play sessions and micro transactions - like killing two zombies with one shot.
In this interview, Madfinger Games' senior programmer Petr Benysek and sales and marketing manager Anna Porizkova discuss how Dead Trigger built on the foundations of Shadowgun, what restrictions had to be overcome, and how they avoided the 'pay-to-win' trap of the free-to-play model.
Pocket Gamer: How long did Dead Trigger take to develop?
It took about five months. At the beginning there was only four of us, but we brought on some extra people towards the end of production.
Where did the concept come from?
We all love zombies, and we coupled that with the idea of a catastrophe in the year 2012. That let us set the storyline in the present day, which gave us a good blend of themes and locations.
What were the biggest takeaways from Shadowgun that helped with the development of Dead Trigger?
Everything was a takeaway, really. We started building Dead Trigger on top of Shadowgun's codebase, which consisted of an AI and player framework, controls, a base GUI, weapons as well as some tools.
Not just that, but we could also draw from the experience we had collected over the past three years as a studio. So when we started Dead Trigger - even though we had several new team members without prior Unity experience - we were able to dive into the game development rather than making the project base and fundamental code.
How have you adapted the first-person controls to work on touchscreen devices?
We actually didn't change all that much. We enhanced and fine-tuned the controls when developing Shadowgun, with the aim of providing easy-to-use gameplay.
We thought it worked pretty well so we used the same system in Dead Trigger.
How have you leveraged current mobile hardware to create such a graphically intensive game?
Generally we have very well optimised scenes and shaders, as well as character and weapon models. This helped given that we were aiming to release on older iOS devices.
The new iOS devices are simply so powerful that we can afford a whole bunch of extra effects including greater level of detail on characters, ragdoll physics, physical water, complex sharers and tons of particles.
Were there any things you couldn't squeeze into the game?
We set reasonable targets from the start of the project, so we didn't have to fight too much with memory or performance.
Originally we wanted to have many more zombies on screen at the same time, but we've found that, for example, with the iPhone 4 we can't have more than six fully animated AI characters. So we had to design the game and the spawning system around this. But game developers are always more limited by low-end devices than the high-end ones.
What's the advantage of using Unity?
I especially appreciate the minimal iteration times. You can add or modify your scripts and all other kinds of assets in runtime, so you can really concentrate on the goals you want to achieve rather than be disturbed by restarting your editor or compilation/build process.
Unity is also very well designed so it is very intuitive. It feels simple and easy to learn, and still offers all the power and functionality of the bigger engines.
Why did you decide to move away from the storytelling elements that featured so prominently in Shadowgun?
The key reason was a decision to make a short project with a small team. Our original goal was to create something we called a 'bus-stop shooter': a game with short levels which you can finish within three or four minutes.
We also wanted to develop several technologies like the ability to utilise a cloud service, social network connections, in-app purchase and try out the free-to-play business model.
We felt that a good story could push it all even further, but we didn't have enough time or people to make huge cutscenes and an epic story. But, at least, we've put our apocalyptic vision of the events of 2012 into the game, presented via mission briefing dialogs - and many players appreciated it.
Have you found the gold/dollars system of monetisation successful?
We wanted to try out something different from the premium model that was used in Shadowgun and the Samurai series. Moreover, thanks to implementation of IAPs it allowed us to distribute Dead Trigger to a much wider audience.
How have you made sure you avoid the 'pay to win' trap?
The game is fully playable without spending a cent. We think that's pretty impressive! We were actually testing it in this way. Members of our team would play the whole game without using any micro-transactions.
We were absolutely mindful of the necessity of making the game playable without IAPs. To us, IAPs in Dead Trigger are only the icing on the cake.
Since taking Dead Trigger free-to-play, how successful has the game been?
Downloads rose rapidly, as well as the feedback from players. We released three more updates to fix bugs and currently the game has a stable daily number of downloads.
We still want to try out different types of monetisation, but F2P has become one of the most popular methods, so we are likely to use it again in the future.
Thanks to Petr Benysek and Anna for their time.
You can get Dead Trigger for iOS devices here, and Android devices here.