Big names make big games for small screens
ChronoBlade by nWay
Published: May 15. 2015
nWay’s action-RPG ChronoBlade comes to mobile in grand fashion
San Francisco-based mobile developer nWay has some legitimate gaming cred. Founded by a handful of industry vets—including one of the key creative’s behind Grand Theft Auto, Dave Jones, as well as one of brains behind Diablo, Stieg Hedlund—the company has been heads-down for the past three years bringing its free-to-play, online multiplayer opus ChronoBlade to life on mobile.
ChronoBlade was originally a web game, built for Facebook; since then, the team has gone back and re-factored much of the experience, making it a content-rich, free-to-play action game on iOS and Android. In essence, the game was designed from the ground up to appeal to console gamers: smooth combat mechanics, various modes—and whole lot of loot to collect (see: Diablo).
“The transition from web to mobile required us to take a hard look at how players experience the game,” says director of design Jordan Patz of the reboot. Not only did the obvious things need to transform—the game’s UI changed to support smaller screens and fingers rather than cursors, for instance—but the game’s core combat also got a complete rethink. “Combat was changed in hundreds of invisible ways to turn an inaccurate touchscreen interface into an intuitive and fluid action combat experience.”
Throughout the development of the game, the team made hard decisions about core RPG systems like inventory management, map navigation, and selecting skill loadouts to improve the experience for the player. “Even the way we teach players needed to change,” says Patz. “Players understand how keyboards and mice work, but without buttons to guide their fingers, we needed to explain every interface through tutorials. It was humbling and exhausting, but also some of the most educational game development any of us have experienced in our careers.”
Another big shift came in the form of playtime. “Since most of our players would be playing on the go, we had to make major changes to the level layout and enemy design to make sure the play sessions were a lot shorter, and more satisfying in shorter bursts,” explains lead designer Steve Kuroki. On Facebook, the game featured challenges that required the player to dig in for more than 15 minutes; after playing through this content on mobile, the developers found this to be a rather stressful, unpleasant experience. “We would much rather have players play five challenges, and get five times the amount of loot in that amount of time,” says Kuroki.
Animation director Tristan Sacramento explains that one of the biggest changes for the art team came in terms of optimization, and the way the team built out its levels. “Our Facebook zones had around 100+ draw calls, and we optimized on mobile to around 10-20,” Sacramento explains of the transition. “The Facebook version also had higher resolution textures and normal maps, and we had dynamic lighting at our highest setting.” That wasn’t in the cards for mobile, however; while animations didn’t change much (thanks to the team starting with a fairly low bone count), many of the game’s texture sizes were reduced. The developers atlased its zone textures, baked in its lighting, and generally kept a tighter eye on anything that would affect performance and memory.
For a bunch of hardcore PC and console game developers moving to a free-to-play mobile game, ChronoBlade represented an opportunity to bring experience from the former into the latter. “We wanted the controls to be familiar, comfortable, and functional,” says Kuroki, who started by mapping out the basic controls on paper, with a joystick on the left and combat buttons on the right. “The challenging part was making sure we found a layout that allowed the player to easily control the combos, while also not getting too much in the way of the main action lane,” he explains. “Thankfully in Unity, we were able to iterate the position of the buttons on the fly. We actually created about five or six different layouts very quickly, and from there we play tested a lot and continued to make small changes until we felt it was in a good place to give players enough control to explore the combo system.”
Later in development, the team decided to implement a control mechanic that, when toggled, allows the player character to navigate and attack on their own. “At first we were against the idea but after seeing it in action, we felt that this was a great way for players to grind levels while also giving them control over when they wanted to press buttons,” says Kuroki. “It was the best of both worlds.”
Interestingly, nWay chose to soft launch ChronoBlade in Korea—one of the most notoriously difficult markets to do so in the world, thanks in large part to its voracious appetite for mobile games. Steve Moy, nWay’s VP of growth and revenue, explains that the decision was made alongside partner Netmarble, which has seen a great deal of success with action RPGs in Korea. “It’s really a win-win situation for both sides,” Moy says. “They get to launch a really quality game that’s been in development for three years, with a budget that’s more typical of what you see on a console or PC title”—he puts that number at over $20 million—“and we get their full support, and access to a lot of their accumulated knowledge.” Both companies believe that action RPGs will eventually be big in Western markets, and that the experience launching in Korea is helping them get out ahead of that curve.
Moy says that Mobile game launches in Korea work a bit differently from what typically happens in Western markets. Since there’s no equivalent of Canada or Australia to soft launch in, instead nWay is doing a short beta test—similar to what a company might attempt with a massively multiplayer game in the US. Both nWay and Netmarble have also done a huge amount of functional, load, and balance testing to make sure the game hits the ground running with as few problems as possible.
In terms of anticipation, Netmarble is working with Naver—the top search engine in Korea, essentially its Google—to promote the game in Korea. There’s a pre-registration site that’s already received 500,000 signups, and the companies will be unleashing a broad marketing campaign when the game launches. “It [something] along the lines of what you’d see for a AAA console release, or even a big summer movie out here,” says Moy. “Both companies really believe in our product, and it’s both flattering and a bit humbling for us.”
Ultimately, ChronoBlade is the result of hard work—and some smart decisions early on. “The goal of ChronoBlade is to be what we call ‘hyper accessible’, meaning that it must be instantly accessible to everyone on all gaming platforms,” says Patz, who believes that the game’s console-minded roots will eventually make it a great fit for home and mobile controller-based platforms as well (not to mention eventual compatibility with Bluetooth controllers for mobile). “There’s no game engine that can build to every platform and provide the console-quality experience we wanted to create for players other than Unity. Chronoblade has been ported to dozens of hardware profiles, both experimental and consumer; our game shines on every platform, because Unity allows us the flexibility to optimize for any [of them].”
The team also knew that as a hybrid action-RPG, its game would require them to develop advanced tools for creating and managing content. “As a small studio, we needed to create our own solutions to those requirements, and Unity’s versatile UI platform gave us that versatility,” says Patz. “Thanks to Unity, we’ve been able to rapidly prototype enemy attacks, create procedural environments, manage massive amounts of content, and optimize for platform constraints. Unity made it possible for ChronoBlade to see its full potential.”