How two brothers made $US20 million from one mobile game

Brothers Geremy and Donald Mustard.

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Infinity Blade is my favorite mobile game. I paid about six times more for it than I have any other iPhone or iPad app, and instantly knew it was worth it.

It’s not like Angry Birds, another favorite of mine, which requires a bit of analytical thought to figure out the fewest birds necessary for maximum destruction. Infinity Blade, made by Chair Entertainment, is about action, survival—and a quest.

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It’s the game I play the most on any iOS (Apple) device, so I was thrilled when I got the chance to preview the sequel: Infinity Blade 2. if you read my hands-on report, you know it’s fun and visually stunning. since I already have so much time invested in the game, I wanted to spend some time with the brains behind the blade.

Donald Mustard and his brother Geremy founded Chair Entertainment in 2005. They were busy building console games such as Shadow Complex when Epic, maker of blockbuster games Gears of War and Unreal Tournament snapped them up in 2008.

Clearly, the Mustard boys are onto something, as more than a few people share my addiction to the sword-wielding, armor-wearing, spell-casting heroes. (Epic’s Infinity Blade forum has thousands of posts. I chatted with the Mustard brothers about the game, their relationship with Apple, and what’s next.

Developing for the iPhone 4S and iOS 5

Apple invited the Mustard brothers to its Cupertino campus just two weeks before the iPhone 4S launch in October, though this didn’t seem to bother them. “we try and make good guesses as to where hardware is going. we had our fingers crossed that there would be something like the iPhone 4S where we can push things further. Luckily Apple delivered,” said Donald.

Jeremy said the company understands Apple product timelines pretty well, so they were already developing an app that would work with what they expected to be an iPhone 4 upgrade. Chair’s bet paid off.

The pair are excited about the potential of iOS 5, especially incremental updates. “[It’s] huge,” said Donald, “because we love being able to update our games.”

Chair is constantly refining their games — but with previous iOS versions, Infinity Blade players had to download a huge update for each tweak. With incremental updates, they can download a 50 MB (or smaller) file, as opposed to one hundreds of megabytes in size.

iPhone 5?

So the Mustards were prepared for iPhone 4S, but what about iPhone 5? did they see it? did they ask? Said Geremy: “we certainly asked. we get coy smiles and tight lips … they don’t tell us anything. I’m sure there will be an iPhone 5 at some point, but we don’t know anything about it.” he paused and laughed: “I bet it’s at least as fast as the iPhone 4s.”

What’s Inside

Infinity Blade 2 is a powerful game, but it’s also a scalable one. the Chair teams designed it to scale down so it could run on the iPhone 3GS and iPad 1. on those devices, players simply see less detail. but on the iPhone 4S and iPad 2, Infinity Blade 2 will “use up all the power that is available on these higher-end systems”.

To build Infinity Blade 2, the Mustards eschewed more complex game geometry and focused on character shadows and light rays — effects typically found on console games. Epic added these capabilities to the engine and debuted them in Gears of War 3 on the Xbox 360. that was only a few months ago. “now it’s on the iPhone 4S,” said Geremy. “we made the game, and I still can’t believe it’s running on a phone that I carry in my pocket.”

Where are the Android Apps?

As I was testing Infinity Blade 2, I kept wondering how it would run on an Android “super phone” such as the Motorola Photon 4G, which packs a graphics-friendly NVidia Tegra 2 chip. Unfortunately, Infinity Blade isn’t in the Android Market — and it doesn’t sound like it’s coming any time soon.

There is nothing technically preventing the brothers from bringing Infinity Blade to Android right now. Instead, they’re hesitating because of piracy concerns. According to a number of online reports, there’s enough of a piracy issue in Android marketplace that many developers find it necessary to build in antipiracy measures, which in turn dampens sales.

“We’re confident that will be worked out and it will become a viable place for game developers, but that hasn’t happened yet,” said Donald. “so it’s not the tech, it’s the business platform.”

What Steve said

Donald Mustard met the late Steve Jobs when the Apple founder unveiled Chair and Epic’s game, then called “Project Blade”, at a September 2010 Apple event. Jobs was impressed with the game: “I can’t believe that’s running on an iPhone,” he reportedly said. Jobs also once joked about Donald’s last name, saying “Your name is really ‘Mustard’? I won’t forget that name.”

What’s next

What comes after Infinity Blade 2? the brothers aren’t quite ready to go there yet. “We’ve been working 24 hours a day,” said Donald. “Working like crazy to get this game finished.” They are, however, excited about some of the features that should arrive after the December 1 launch, including “Clash Mob” — which Donald says should change the way we look at “asynchronous social collaboration”.

Building a successful app

There are a lot of successful apps in Apple app store. but with 800,000 of them available, there are also thousands of flops. what does it take to make a game app that can drive $US20 million in sales?

Donald offered this advice to would be app developers: “Create a game that is unique to iOS — something that utilises the touch screen in a cool and innovative new way. Our iOS mantra at Chair is that ‘if the game would be fun with a controller, you are not making the right game.’ Gamers want a fun, original experience on their iOS devices — not a port of their favorite console game.”

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