Interview

Flying into new territory: the making of Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore

Flying into new territory: the making of Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore

Deep Silver Fishlabs launched Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore in December 2016.

A full decade on from the launch of the original Galaxy on Fire back in 2006, comparing the two is perhaps the most stark display of how far mobile gaming has come in a relatively short time.

Indeed, Manticore boasts visuals that would have impressed even on consoles back in 2006, swapping cramped feature phone displays for the high-fidelity screens of modern phones and tablets.

Perhaps the most fundamental change, however, is that Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore is the first in the series with a free-to-play model.

To discuss all this and more, PocketGamer.biz spoke with Deep Silver Fishlabs Head of Studio Michael Krach to go behind the scenes on the game's development.

PocketGamer.biz: With the first entry launching back in 2006, Galaxy on Fire is one of the longest-running mobile game series out there. How did this legacy affect your thinking when developing Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore?

Michael Krach: At its heyday, Galaxy on Fire 2 was really successful - both financially and critically.

If the fans and media had not shown that much love for our game, we would not even have thought about making a third instalment.

Yet, the mobile market changed significantly in the past couple of years and we reached a point where it became obvious that a game like Galaxy on Fire 2 could not be re-created anymore.

The mobile market changed significantly... a game like Galaxy on Fire 2 could not be re-created anymore.
Michael Krach

So we went down a different path, introducing new ideas to Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore while simultaneously keeping the essence of the previous Galaxy on Fire games preserved: intense space fights in stunning sci-fi environments.

Are there team members working on Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore who have been with the series since the very start?

Yes, we still have developers on board who have been with the company for more than 10 years.

Then we got people in our team who joined us over five years ago and worked on the DLC for Galaxy on Fire 2.

And finally, there are new team members that joined us specifically for Galaxy on Fire 3 and brought in fresh ideas.

All in all, the Galaxy on Fire team is one of the biggest standalone teams working on a mobile game these days!

How did you balance appealing to series fans and onboarding new players who may not have played a game like Galaxy on Fire before?

Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore is set in a hitherto uncharted part of the Galaxy on Fire universe.

This allows us to link the game to its predecessors, without requiring people to play the old games first in order to understand what is going on in the new game.

Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore tells a fresh story and introduces novel ideas to the franchise. But at the same time it is also packed with nods and homages to its predecessors.

Narrative plays a bigger part in Galaxy on Fire than in your average free-to-play game, so what was your approach to making this work on mobile?

Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore is not only surprisingly story-driven for a free app with in-app purchases, but it also puts a stronger emphasis on the underlying narrative than its predecessors.

Manticore is not only surprisingly story-driven for a free app, but it also puts a stronger emphasis on narrative than its predecessors.
Michael Krach

There are actually more lines of voiceovers in our new game than in Galaxy on Fire 2 and both add-ons combined.

Also, the story - which tells a gripping tale of danger and deceit in a mysterious fringe world of known space called the Neox Sector - is much deeper and more serious than before.

Yet, everything that happens in Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore is rooted in the rich lore of the Galaxy on Fire saga and veteran players will encounter many familiar faces, situations and Easter eggs along the way.

Generally speaking, we believe that the narrative-led approach of Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore really helps with sustaining the action sequences of our game as well as promoting the immersion of our players.

How much of a technical challenge was it to get such a complex and visually impressive game running on a broad range of mobile devices?

Besides being our biggest and best-looking project to date, Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore is also our most challenging one.

On iOS, it was the introduction of Metal and the next-gen version of our proprietary ABYSS Engine that really enabled us to bring the game such a high visual and technical standard.

While we are really proud of what we have achieved so far, our journey has not ended with Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore’s launch on the App Store.

As we speak, our team is working on the Android porting, which is a lot harder to realise than the iOS version due to the high level of fragmentation on the platform.

There’s just so many different Android devices out there, all of which have alternate chipsets, resolutions and OS versions as well as diverting graphics standards such as OpenGL and Vulkan.

How do all the 3D environments, voice acting etc. affect the frequency with which you're able to deliver content updates and keep the game fresh?

We would be lying if we said that the game’s depth and complexity had no effect on this.

Adding new content is much more challenging if you have to produce everything from scratch - and at top quality.
Michael Krach

Of course, adding new content is much more challenging if you have to produce everything from scratch - and at top quality - instead of merely starting a level editor.

But that is something we knew right from the start and considered when we laid out our content strategy.

Now that we are in live operation, we have several dozen people working on new content for Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore.

Our plan is to release one major new update (i.e. a follow-up story chapter) every few months, plus smaller patches in-between.

Here, we differentiate between varying levels of magnitude.

While a new story chapter should always be fully voiced, we would not mind adding a new side mission without complete VO if this meant our players could enjoy it much sooner.

How big was the team on Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore and how long was the total development time?

Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore is the product of the blood, sweat and tears of a 40-strong core team of dedicated programmers, artists, designers and producers.

The project has been in the works for more than three years with varying team sizes.

The Deep Silver Fishlabs team

Throughout that time, we have not only constantly aligned our game with the ongoing changes in the mobile gaming landscape, but also developed our own engine alongside with the game.

The ABYSS Engine 4.0 is now a bleeding-edge piece of tech without which none of this would be possible.

How long was the game in soft launch? What were the most significant lessons you learned from the process, and what changes did you implement as a result?

Initially, our game soft-launched in the Netherlands in late June 2016. Step by step, more territories followed until we went live globally almost half a year later.

In six months of soft launch, we made a lot of invaluable learnings in all areas.
Michael Krach

In those six months, we made a lot of invaluable learnings in all areas, ranging from backend development and performance optimisation to player behavior and feature requests.

The biggest changes we made during soft launch were the follow-ups to the community poll we ran last September.

Based on the feedback we received from our players, we added an exploration mode, removed the repair timers in the ship hangar, provided bigger mission variety and introduced legacy ships from the previous Galaxy on Fire games.

What was the thinking behind the Apple TV prologue Galaxy on Fire - Manticore RISING and how did players react to it on that platform?

Releasing Manticore RISING on the Apple TV was an opportunity we could not pass by as it allowed us to be first-movers on an all-new platform run by the biggest tech company in the world!

How could you say no to that? Furthermore, it gave us a chance to show the world that Galaxy on Fire was still alive and coming along great.

It had been a while since part two came out and the full iOS version of Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore was simply not ready at that point.

In a mobile market where games are becoming increasingly automated, do you feel there's still a healthy appetite for more intense gaming experiences like Galaxy on Fire on mobile?

Absolutely! Year after year, hundreds of millions of people upgrade their phones and tablets to the newest standards.

As the expectations of the players increased, the time they could spend with games got shorter.
Michael Krach

They now have potent mini-consoles in their pockets and want to experience graphics and gameplay that goes beyond casual play.

At the same time as the expectations of the players increased, the time they could spend with games (and other forms of digital entertainment) got shorter.

So what they ultimately want is this: high-quality experiences that happen right there on their mobile devices and "wow" them in less than five minutes - whenever they feel like it.

This presents high-end skill games such as Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore with a particularly tough game design challenge, namely to balance all the diverse expectations of the players.

What was your thinking in terms of implementing monetisation and how much iteration occurred around this?

Obviously, monetisation is a key factor in the success or failure of a game.

Even the best gameplay and slickest presentation are not worth much if nobody downloads your game because they are not willing to spend any money up-front - which is the sad reality for so-called premium offers on the mobile app stores at the moment - or if you cannot uphold live operation because you make millions of installs but zero money.

For Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore we decided to go with rather unobtrusive monetisation that does not aggressively push players towards payments as a mandatory means of progression.

Purchasable cargo in Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore

Basically, that is what most games have to resort to these days. With the bulk of the entertainment being available for free, real pressure to pay simply drives people away from the product.

Look at Super Mario Run. Only three players out of 100 decided to pay a one-time price tag of $9.99 for one of the biggest IPs on the planet. It says a lot.

Why did you decide to include in-built Replay Kit functionality and how have players interacted with it so far?

Replay Kit is a fantastic feature introduced by Apple that allows our players to record, edit and share their gameplay footage easily.

Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore was probably the best launch we ever had.
Michael Krach

On YouTube and Facebook, you already find a lot of very cool videos that were produced this way, showing intense missions, action-packed challenges and fierce boss battles.

How happy have you been with the global launch? Any surprises?

This was probably the best launch we ever had. When Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore hit the App Store globally, we were very excited, extremely well-prepared and everything went smoothly.

The game performed fine and the servers remained stable, even under high pressure.

On top, Apple gave us a lot of support as well. They bestowed Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore with an Editor’s Choice badge and said that they "love how epic it all feels - and how gorgeous this vast universe is".

Furthermore, we got over 13,000 user ratings on the App Store with solid four stars out of five in almost all markets.

The loyal Galaxy on Fire community has appreciated the game and the media has also been very kind to us, with lots of good reviews!

Are there any early stats/KPIs you're able to share?

I am sorry, but right now, I cannot share any concrete numbers here.

But I can tell you that the stats are looking very promising right now and that quite a lot of players are roaming, shooting and exploring our game world every day.

What's next for Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore?

We have three big points on our agenda right now:

  • The impending Asian launch of the iOS version (including full Japanese voiceovers, which is a first for us).
  • The worldwide launch of the Android version (planned to take place in the first half of this year).
  • The release of our first big content update (unlocking the Rigant Vortex area on the star map).

In-between, we will continue to tweak and improve our game with numerous smaller patches, such as our most recent update introducing accelerometer controls - a feature many fans have requested!

As you see, we have quite a lot of great stuff up our sleeves! 2017 will be a fantastic year, both for our company and for our players.

Features Editor

Matt is really bad at playing games, but hopefully a little better at writing about them. He's Features Editor for PocketGamer.biz, and has also written for lesser publications such as IGN, VICE, and Paste Magazine.

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Jeff Siebert
I realize the development staff is currently very busy regarding the Android Porting as well as Asian Market release..however I would implore Deep Silver Fishlabs to consider even more additional content to GoF2. The existing user base has loved the game for years and as stated in this update, new content for a pre-existing foundation is less costly and less challenging. Financially speaking it seems it would be a win win given the enormous fan base of GoF2. I would also like to suggest the concept of an MMORP style mode that could also be added to GoF2. Would greatly enjoy discussing possible story concepts if interested.