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How Ripstone developed The Queen’s Gambit for Netflix: “Unreal can do mobile and it can do it well”

Ripstone’s head of partnerships Jamie Brayshaw takes us through the journey of working with a big IP and developing a mobile game in Unreal Engine
How Ripstone developed The Queen’s Gambit for Netflix: “Unreal can do mobile and it can do it well”

One of the last talks during yesterday's day one of Develop: Brighton was given by Jamie Brayshaw of Ripstone Games, entitled, 'The Queen’s Gambit: How we developed our first mobile game for Netflix'. 

Ripstone is no stranger to taking classic games and turning them into video games, from Poker Club to Chess Ultra. However, the team is primarily focused on creating for console and PC, so developing a chess game driven by a popular IP for mobile was a journey for the entire team. 

The Queen’s Gambit series was released on Netflix in 2020 to critical acclaim and became somewhat of a cultural hit. Not only did viewers love the characters and story but the show also triggered a massive uptake in people taking up chess, something which Ripstone was already enjoying via its Chess Ultra title.

Netflix IP

The Queen’s Gambit was watched by over 100,000,000 million people, and with a chess game already under the studio's belt, the IP felt like a great fit for the Ripstone team. However, Netflix was still in the early days of “baking its game strategy,” says Brayshaw.

After discussion, Netflix gave the team one week to come up with a pitch that worked, which set in motion the journey to create a mobile Queen's Gambit title. 

“Early on, we knew we wanted to make a love letter to The Queen's Gambit, we couldn’t just make the Gran Turismo of chess, we had to ensure from a design point of view that we could connect with the audience, and we also needed to understand what it meant creating this game in partnership with Netflix.”

One of the first questions the team had to consider was whether they could use Unreal Engine for the project, and if so, how it would run, what they would have to comprise on and how they would consider working with a loved IP.

Early on, the team made creative assumptions about their players, they knew the charming characters of the show needed to be highlighted, particularly Beth Harmon, because fans had fallen in love with her, so they explored how the game would make it feel like you play the way she does, to have her talents and what it would be like to go on a journey like hers.

However, the game needed to do more than just capture the style and essence of the show. It needed to be a complex game that showcased the beauty of chess. Be this for experienced players or beginners. 

Getting the balance right

“Being a mobile game, we wanted to have the right level of complexity, but we also needed to ensure that the game was accessible and bite-sized so it was suited to mobile players who are often on the move. We wanted the game to be accessible to all players regardless of skill level.”

Brayshaw explained that the game underwent extensive user testing, which highlighted the need to optimise the first-time user experience. “You’ve got three minutes to capture the audience,” he noted. This resulted in the game's opening being changed, so longer videos were removed and the sense of the game was portrayed as early as possible.

“I would actually advise against the common idea in the industry that you make the game and figure out how to get players later. Because we made these changes to the game early in really helped us in the long term.”

Another aspect the team had to be conscious of was that the game was going to be part of the Netflix Games catalogue. Those who watched the show, who perhaps had never played a game at all, may be playing a mobile game for the first time, and the experience needed to be seamless and easy to follow for those players.

Making mobile games in Unreal Engine

One of the major considerations in the game development was how Unreal Engine would adapt to mobile. The team pre-rendered all of the characters in Unreal, which allowed them to have access to tools that aren’t always available in mobile development.

However, a hurdle quickly appeared when it came to exporting the videos because of the large file size. “The file size was just too large, but we found a really useful tool that I can recommend called Bink, it’s on Unreal and it helped us massively with saving time and reducing those file sizes," explained  Brayshaw. "Another one I can highly recommend is Oodle. This can compress data, and it helped us to save 25% of the package size; this helped us to raise the quality bar jigger and keep the download size smaller for players, which is always important on mobile.”

Brayshaw also shared that Unreal offered great tools for configuring for a variety of mobile phones and tablet sizes, one tip being rather than designing safe zones on each end of the screen, simply lock it so that this is always on the same side: “Trust me players are smart enough to flip their phone over, it’s fine and saves you trying to figure out where that notch will be on the screen when it won’t be in the same place for every device.”

Another tip is to always design with the lowest-end devices in mind. The team tested the game on iPhone 6, which launched way back in 2015, and if you can run the game well on these older devices, it will run even better on newer tech.

Another hurdle the team had to conquer was heat management.

“This is something we hadn’t really prepared for, being used to PC and console development where these platforms have fans, you don’t have to think too much about heat management, but the mobile doesn’t have this, so we needed to make sure the game wasn’t overheating phones and draining the battery.”

A team member devised a quick and easy solution to the overheating problem, which resulted in a 500% performance boost. 

The teams method to avoid overheating in Unreal Engine
The teams method to avoid overheating in Unreal Engine

“Often when it comes to mobile games development people often look away from Unreal Engine and assume it’s not an engine that works for the platform. In the West, a lot of the top games are made in Unity or their own engines, but if you look outside of the West, some of the biggest mobile games are made with Unreal. So yes, Unreal can do mobile and it can do it well.”

Summing up… Brayshaws tips at a glance:

Unreal can make great mobile games:

  • High fidelity is achievable 

  • Supporting numerous devices isn't so hard, devices and screen size adaptation works well

  • Unreal is a Swiss army knife. Bink and Oodle are great

Making games for mobile:

  • Always put the players first the device doesn't matter

  • Challenge your assumptions with data, user test regularly and adapt quickly 

  • Design from the bottom to the top

  • If it works well on low spec it'll work well on a wide range of devices

  • Optimise, optimise, optimise

  • Find ways to effectively test heat and battery

Partnership and working with IPs:

  • Understand each other

  • Respect the IP

  • Respect the audience, they have shared love with this IP

  • Solve the development together

  • Flow together to maximise success 

  • Default to a good communicator. Be candid, productive and human