10 questions for Jason Citron, the founder of OpenFeint [Interview]

Jason Citron, founder of OpenFeint PGR interviewThis summer, core mobile gamers will get to start enjoying Fates Forever, the first freemium MOBA game made exclusively for tablets. Given that the said tablet game is in development by Hammer & Chisel, an indie studio founded by Jason Citron, the founder of the well-known social gaming platform OpenFeint that was sold to the Japanese Internet media giant GREE Inc. last year for a record sum of $104 million, we couldn’t think of a better person for our next interview. So, here’s what Jason had to say about Fates Forever, Hammer & Chisel, mobile gaming industry, and more:


PGR: Where did the idea for Fates Forever came from?

Jason Citron: Well, the idea started out as just a desire to make a games company. After I left OpenFeint I found myself just sitting around in my living room working on some small game projects. I figured it would be more fun to get some friends together and actually try to build a games company. So I started Hammer & Chisel. We spent a few months working on a bunch of experiments and simultaneously developed a hypothesis for where great games come from.

It turns out to be pretty straightforward (although very difficult to do in practice). It’s this idea that great games are really just reinterpretations of previously great games but just for a new user interface. Nintendo is a great example of this: they took the notion of dodgeball and turned it into mario and then reinvented it with a d-pad, shoulder buttons, an analog stick, a pointer, etc. Halo (and Goldeneye) is another great example. They took the FPS genre and reinterpreted it for a controller and it turned out to be really fun! So we came to realize this and it was immediately obvious what game we genre we’d attempt: MOBA. It is the perfect fit for a tablet and we had all spent way too much time playing LoL :-)

How long has the game been in development?

Fates Forever has been in Development for about 7 months.

Can we get some technical details on the development process? Which engine did you use, are the Android and iOS versions developed simultaneously, etc.?

Sure thing. We are using Unity to build the game. Most of our 3D content is created in Zbrush, Maya, and/or Modo. And of course Photoshop. We’ll be launching the game on iPad first because, while Unity makes it easy to port your code to another platform, you still need to optimize the artwork for the characteristics of the new tablet. We want to makes sure that when someone gets to play FF it’s a really great experience, runs at 30+FPS, etc. So popular Android tablets will come soon after iPad.

Fates Forever concept art by Hammer & ChiselIs there anything specific you can tell us about the business model of Fates Forever?

Yes! Fates will have a respectful f2p monetization scheme. What I mean by that is very much UNLIKE zynga’s games or even Supercell, we have identified two core values that we believe make F2P monetization work for core gamers:

1) the game never forces you to stop playing. This is very much about us knowing who we are making games for as much as who we are not making games for. Fates is made for someone who wants to plop down on their couch and spend hours playing a game. That’s the event of the afternoon/night. The notion that the game would somehow force you to stop playing is just crazy in that context.

2) pay for options, not power. Great core games are about skill. You need to know, without a doubt, that if you are a better player than your opponent you will win. Hands down. Just like in magic the gathering or LoL even, you know that all the options are balanced (or at least, that’s the goal). The notion that you can buy a potion to increase your attack power by 20% is ridiculous.

And FWIW I think F2P is a great business model when done this way: people who find value in the game can pay as much as they find value. Everyone else gets to play a really high quality game for free!

We already know Fates Forever is a tablet exclusive, but what are the chances of it coming to life outside of Android tablets and iPads, and if so – when?

None. We have no intention of bringing the game to any platform other than 7″ and 10″ tablets. If windows 8 or something else happens to show traction, I could imagine going there. But the game just doesn’t work on a phone (the screen is too small to pull off the touch moves) and it won’t work on a PC/Console (you can’t pull off the touch moves there either). And phones are doubly out of the question because Fates is six person real time multiplayer — answering a phone call from your girlfriend in the middle of a skirmish would be the ultimate rage invoker.

Hammer & Chisel indie development studio founded by Jason Citron official company logoGiven you background with OpenFeint, we couldn’t think of a better person to ask: what’s your opinion on the recently revealed Google Play Game Services with whom Google aims to compete with the likes of GREE and similar platforms and provide a counterpart to Apple’s Game Center?

Hehe. Well, thanks for asking. Unfortunately I’m going to be boring on this one. I can’t comment on GREE since they’re a publicly traded company. As far as Google making a play (hah) it is pretty unsurprising. At this point that makes every single platform owner have their own social gaming service. It also probably means it’s up to independent companies to drive innovation in the sector since it’s unlikely Apple/Google/MS will do much.

Why was Phoenix Guild renamed to “Hammer & Chisel”?

After working with my teammates for six months we decided that we wanted to change the name of the company to better reflect our values. I had this vague idea to make our company culture about craftsmanship: everyone’s title actually was and still is craftsman. So the guys really liked it ’cause everyone very much had that intrinsic passion and motivation for the day to day work of their discipline. We do what we do cause it’s a calling, not cause it’s a job. We decided to lean into the idea of craftsmanship and selected the name Hammer & Chisel to pay homage to the craftsman from the metal ages. So if you visit www.hammerandchisel.com you can read about our culture and what we’re about. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of so far.

Fates Forever by Hammer & Chisel first iPad gameplay screenshotIn your opinion, what’s the biggest problem of the mobile gaming industry today?

Lack of great content for core gamers. The people who have the money don’t have the balls to make great games. And the people who have the desire to make great games don’t have access to the money. Somehow, I managed to convince people with money to give it to me so I could make a great game! :-)

I suppose as a developer you could make all sorts of arguments about app discovery, the perceived “unfairness” of the top lists, the rising cost of making games, etc. But ultimately that is just what happens in every market as it matures. Most consumers have more choice than ever.

In the future, do you think that handheld gaming consoles stand a chance against mobile devices?

Making predictions is tough. I don’t honestly think I know what’s going to happen next week let alone in a few years. If you look at the trends: mobile (phone + tablet) devices are growing astronomically fast. The growth rate is even accelerating. Compare that to the growth rate (and even current sell rate) of dedicated handheld gaming devices. I think today, right now, they have already “lost” against mobile in market share. I don’t recall the revenue numbers of dedicated handheld vs. mobile gaming, but I suspect there are not many companies other than Nintendo making bank on DS. That’s not to say there isn’t still an audience that wants to play on them and will pay money.

Last but not least, how much do you game on your smartphone/tablet in you free time? Any favorite mobile games?

I play lots of mobile games in between activities, but the bulk of my gaming time is still spent on my Xbox & PC. On my iPhone I recently played all the way through Ridiculous Fishing… had a blast with that one. Arc Squadron is a lot of fun on iPad. It reminds me in many ways of StarFox 64. My big one recently was playing through Bioshock Infinite… that was awesome. Well, the middle was slow… but the beginning and end were incredible. The whole first 20 minutes was some of the best wandering around in gaming history.

  • Mushroom Mario

    As a huge LOL fan, I’m extremely pumped for this. The business model as he described it sounds truly awesome and if it turns out to be true, I’ll be more than happy to buy some costumes and other useless stuff just to support it.

    • Jason Citron

      Awesome! Any of our initial six Contestants in that painting that you’re most excited about?

  • not-an-addict-i-swear

    it’s a shame the mobile/tablet version of dota2 isn’t going anywhere, but this looks like the next best thing. I still don’t get why he didn’t answer the google play services question – so what if it’s a public company? sure they made him rich but why can’t he comment on it? doesn’t make sense to me.

  • not-an-addict-i-swear

    Oh, I didn’t know about that one, thanks for clearing that up. and I’m already subbed to the game :p

    Good luck with the launch, looking forward to it!

  • NoW

    Jason, it’s been almsot a year – what’s with the Android version? :(