During a pre-E3 tour last week, Epic Games executive producer Rod Fergusson (Gears of War series) spoke with Gamasutra about how an internal studio game jam last summer produced Epicís first in-house mobile game, Infinity Blade: Dungeons.
"We decided that after working on Gears of War for many years that maybe it would be a good idea to do a game jam where we could recharge our team creatively; sort of a palette cleanser," Fergusson said.
In July 2011 Epic had staffed up to over ninety people to finish work on Gears of War 3, but once it hit near-completion, he felt after nearly seven-plus years of working on Gears of War games, his team needed something new to tackle.
"So we took a week and formed into small teams," explained Fergusson. "Basically you had to have enough momentum to convince four others to work on it with you. So everyone went off and created some really imaginative stuff. I donít tend to push or talk about the engine much, but what you can do from nothing to something with the Unreal Engine in a week is crazy. It felt like full games were created in a week."
Several groups created game concepts, while others, including administration and community personnel, chimed in to create power-point presentations on ideas such as new business models, said Fergusson. A few staffers pursued a Diablo-style dungeon crawler.
"This dungeon crawler concept came about as an overall passion project for a few people," he said. "It felt like a natural fit. When you have the kinds of artists and people we have at Epic, fantasy is something people like to work in. I mean, you have seen the kind of art we do, so the more we talked about it, the more we realized, 'Hey, this could fit into the Infinity Blade world.'"
That, according to Fergusson, was when the collective lights turned on to make this into a real game. He pitched the game to the board of directors and, once approved, gave the game a staff of about 20, with Fergusson playing the role of executive producer. The projectís go-ahead had several important implications.
"Another thing we felt was interesting, too, was that Chair is doing such a great job in the mobile space, yet we didnít have that experience with Epic proper at headquarters. We felt that this was another way to explore that space and get that skill-set here. There are a lot of great learnings for us on the UI, business models, and even for our people. The leads on this game werenít leads on Gears, so itís a great way to grow people and get them to show up. And we even changed the way we develop in a sense. Because the teams were small enough, we put everyone into one room. There are a little over 20 people on the project. We are all sitting together. Itís just a different way of working. Itís been fun."
With Epicís small team tasked to create the iOS title, it also had the natural access to work on the latest improvements to the Unreal engine, which gets hundreds of code check-ins every day.
"There are definitely new things we have done to improve the mobile experience in terms of push-process effects, tone mapping, and dynamic gamma, where the game can adjust for your eye, and we have the ability to do depth of field," said Fergusson.
With a portion of the staff transitioning from a triple-A console developer to a small 20-person team, Fergusson has seen the staff evolving different skill-sets and several staffers taking initiative that they couldnít have on a larger project like Gears of War.
"What is really great is that we went from this 90-person team on Gears to a 20-person team where weíll all in the same room," he explained. "You can feel the energy in that room where people are so passionate about making this game; itís really nice to have the collaboration.
"Youíre not living off a spread sheet, youíre living off a white board with all the tasks written on it. Itís got that old school garage gaming feel to it."