Arash Keshmirian on combining the desire to feed core gamers' appetites with Limbic's burning need to explore new worlds
So-called 'core' gaming remains a growing if still small part of the mobile market, but 2011 saw the release of a few titles that have established a beachhead on iOS and Android devices.
Limbic Software's Zombie Gunship took the AC-130 gunship featured in games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, married it to the zombie craze that's been infecting game design for the past few years, and became a massive hit.
We spoke with Limbic co-founder and CEO Arash Keshmirian about the origins of the company, its part in the push to bring core gaming to mobile, and how the success of Zombie Gunship will help steer the future course of the studio.
Pocket Gamer: Limbic Software was founded by you, Iman Mostafavi and Volker Schönefeld. What were your prior experiences?
Arash Keshmirian: My experience was limited to a few computer animation and rendering courses I took as a computer science BS/MS student at UC San Diego, and some Quake levels I casually designed in high school.
I also had an internship at a company designing one of the first multiplayer virtual worlds, called There. I met a lot of artists and engineers at There, and it certainly gave me a lot of vision for what starting a game company might be like, along with an opportunity to polish my 3D modeling and texturing skills, which came very handy later on when we built TowerMadness.
On the player side, I'd definitely consider myself an avid gamer across many genres.
As a colleague in the same graduate program, Iman had focused on developing 3D scientific visualisation applications and interactive art exhibits for virtual reality environments - two areas requiring skill sets which overlap significantly with game development.
Through previous projects and his research, Volker had acquired an expert level understanding of computer graphics, networking and server-side development, all of which proved to be essential in developing the technology and bespoke engines that would ultimately power all of Limbic's games.
What made you decide to pursue the mobile gaming market versus other markets?
When the iOS SDK was opened to the public in mid-2008, it brought along with it a vast opportunity for serious entrepreneurship that wasn't really there before. Prior to mobile devices and the proliferation of digital distribution, competing in the PC and console game space as a small indie team involved going head-to-head with juggernauts like EA.
In a retail box-copy distribution model, that was far from an even battle, and many great efforts by indie developers were still sidelined as artistic projects and not serious businesses with great financial upside.
In 2008 we saw a shift in the distribution model, and also a curated App Store that brought a sense of meritocracy to software promotion. It was anybody's game at that point with no established players and an extremely low barrier to entry.
You didn't need significant sums of capital to play, just the right skills and a vision for a great game. The three of us saw this as an enormous opportunity, and dove in.
Limbic's first big hit, TowerMadness, was released into a crowded tower defence market but stood out from the crowd. Zombie Gunship was released into a crowded zombie game market and quickly recognised as 'not just another iPhone zombie game'.
What does this pattern suggest about your studio's creative ethos?
When we began development on TowerMadness, the iOS platform had only two tower defence games, neither of which were particularly good, nor took advantage of the power of the devices. We knew that we could stand apart from those games and many others by falling back on what we were all good at: writing 3D engines.
There were almost no other games doing 3D, largely because no pre-made engines like Unity existed at the time, and being able to write one from scratch that could perform well on the limited processing power of the first generation iPhone was no small feat.
After our engine was up and running, our focus was on fanatically tuning the gameplay in all the areas that preceding games had failed. It took six months to release TowerMadness, and by the time it came out of our garage, the market was already quite crowded with worthy competitors like Fieldrunners and Star Defense.
Our efforts paid off, though, and our gameplay, graphics, and highly extendable platform (we have several dozen unique maps now) allowed us to remain unique.
Zombie Gunship was largely the same story for us. We knew that zombies were a popular genre, but we also knew that any successful bet would have to be completely different in concept from the dozens of zombie-killing games on the store.
We spent considerable time writing custom GPU shaders to painstakingly simulate the lo-fi look of the FLIR cameras used in aircraft weapon systems, but were also truly careful in crafting a gameplay experience that would be deeply satisfying on a carnal guts-and-explosions level.
Again, a two-hit combo of gameplay and graphics won the day there. With Zombie Gunship, we also had the added opportunity of the resources we had at our disposal, namely, a highly talented art team and sound designer.
How did it feel to see Zombie Gunship grab the number two sales slot, right below Angry Birds three days after release?
We never expected Zombie Gunship to have the mass appeal that it did. I believe one of the reasons it did well is because it had the sort of simple, quick-round gameplay that has been successful on iOS, but combined it with a dark-and-serious atmosphere that we don't see much among the cartoony and cutesy themes so prevalent in the top 100.
We hit an under served market of gamers that were hoping for a more console-style, Call of Duty/Gears of War experience, and those gamers who enjoyed it told their friends, who told their friends, and we quickly found ourselves at the top of the charts.
We didn't spend any money on advertising for the launch, and so the whole team found the grassroots growth and widespread genuine love of the title especially rewarding on a personal level.
Is the game still selling strong?
Zombie Gunship is certainly our stickiest game yet in the charts, and last week we started a limited-time free sale of the game.
We were in the top 10 free apps after a single day, and now with more new people playing it everyday than ever before, there's certainly no end in sight.
Kill Screen Daily wrote an intense critique of Zombie Gunship. How do you react to the suggestion that it could be interpreted as "a commentary on the ambiguities and cruelties of modern warfare?"
When we conceived Zombie Gunship as a mash up of zombie-killing meets infrared death from above, we never completely made the connection between the experience of high-tech warfare portrayed in Call of Duty, and previous flight simulators such as Lock On: Modern Air Combat and the real events of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It wasn't until we started to review reference material, the vast amount of video footage of real [and potentially innocent] people being killed in a horrible, desensitized, and disconnected way that a chilling feeling set in. We were right to have made the game about killing zombies, because I don't think any of us would have wanted to continue building a game where the goal was to kill humans.
Games such as Zombie Gunship spell out precisely why Nintendo and Sony should be afraid of the rise of iPhone gaming. Do you see Limbic as gunning for a crossover audience, drawing traditional core platform gamers onto iOS devices?
Absolutely. As I alluded to before, I feel there are a large group of gamers that want to have console-style games, specifically with regard to theme and visuals, and that aren't being served by the cute and bubbly concepts proliferated largely by social game companies with hopes for broad market appeal.
Furthermore, the ability with AirPlay on Apple's newest devices to play games on your home theater is quickly bridging that gap. In the latest version of Zombie Gunship, we present the game and game audio on the larger screen, and give the player a tactical radar view on their device.
I think there are a lot of opportunities out there in designing games for this sort of interaction, and we're just seeing the beginning. As the graphics power of these devices quickly converges and surpasses that of consoles, there may soon be little reason to choose an Xbox or PlayStation over a powerful mobile system.
You just released a major update for Zombie Gunship (version 1.3), which adds an entirely new level and AirPlay functionality for Apple TV. In the traditional games market, this would probably have been paid DLC.
Do you think mobile game players expect this sort of free content?
The expectations of additional free content on the App Store, especially for hit games, appears to be higher than on the consoles. The trend may have been started with Doodle Jump and Pocket God, but was inevitably the key to the success of many games which followed.
With that said, mobile gamers are (at least on iOS) definitely willing to pay for DLC as long as it adds sufficient value to the games they enjoy.
Where is the line drawn between substantive content you can offer for free, and when a mobile developer has to start charging?
Virtual currency has allowed us to choose a path which offers all of the new content in our games essentially for free. Players can choose to unlock the extras through a fair amount of gameplay, or purchase virtual currency for instant gratification.
While we could force all users to pay for the additional content, we hope that our decision to go with a less aggressive monetisation strategy earns us goodwill with our fans.
You gave a presentation at GDC Online called 'Squirrels and gunships climbing the App Store: A double postmortem of Nuts! and Zombie Gunship,' which was billed in part as teaching attendees "new ways to launch" titles.
For those who couldn't attend the event, can you summarise what was "new" about the way you launched this pair of games?
There are a few core principles to our game launches, and those build off of our principles in designing our games. I'll start with the latter, which, simply put, is to build games we ourselves want to play. Designing a game for yourself is easy, because your test audience is right inside your own head.
The hope, then, is that there are [a lot of] other people like you that share your taste. This all leads to a process where the absolute first priority is on building a game that is fun to simply play, and not centered around metrics, analytics, ARPUs, DAUs, MAUs, viralities, and all that other stuff. Finding the fun is the most important piece.
The second part, which is just as important, is promotion, and having a game that is actually good makes the marketing side a lot easier. Most of our marketing comes from word of mouth, and we seed it from a few places.
The largest driver is our own games. The huge audience of folks that have been playing TowerMadness for months on end, beating every map, are going to be the first people to download 'The next Limbic game'. We gently refer them to our new release, they then play and love it, tell their friends, and so on.
The other piece is our partner network of indie developers, with whom we cross-promote in a sort of free-love-and-clicks arrangement. The sum total of all of this is that we spend almost zero money on launch promotion, yet compete quite well with larger companies that do.
Moving forward, do you see Limbic concentrating more on core-type titles, especially that games such as Infinity Blade have opened the door so wide?
The wonderful reception received by Zombie Gunship is certainly not something we can turn a blind eye to, and you will see us heavily investing in developing that world over the year to come. That said I don't see Limbic moving in the same direction as Rovio, for example, where we'd find our magic product and camp down on it.
As a highly creative team driven by challenges in game design, we have a burning need to explore new worlds, new ideas and new directions, and that is what we'll continue to do.
On the specifics of core vs. casual, I believe that while core games such as Infinity Blade, Contract Killer, Modern Combat, Shadowgun etc. are important in bridging the console-mobile gap for many players, they still face difficult challenges with the overwhelmingly large chunk of users for whom violent games are unappealing or inappropriate.
This is less the case on consoles where a big percentage of owners enjoy these sorts of games, but on mobile devices - which know no demographic boundaries - this becomes an important barrier to overall market share.
Dennis Scimeca is a freelance game journalist and critic from Boston. You can reach him through his blog, follow him on Google+, or drop him a line via Twitter.