The small yet powerful BitMonster team talks about unleashing its grittier side
BitMonster Games was born of the desire to create high-quality mobile games across a variety of genres.
Former employees of Epic Games, the modest team of six holds credits in numerous games of the famed Unreal Tournament and Gears of War series. That experience, combined with the need for a powerful engine with an unrivaled toolset and easy mobile deployment, made Unreal Engine 3 the perfect starting point for their technology foundation.
BitMonster made its debut with the award-winning Lili, a rich adventure game with clever touches of humor, and then released the charity-based THRED, developed in one month through an ambitious collaboration with Coca-Cola® and (RED)™.
"One of our big drives is to use the tech to explore making lots of different games quickly," says BitMonster co-founder, Lee Perry. "We have interests in all kinds of genres and styles, and want to explore them with games that take months to make, instead of many years."
Lately, the team has their sights set on growing a new action-oriented free-to-play experience with Gunner Z for iOS devices.
Recently released to audiences worldwide, Gunner Z is a turret-based shooter that merges simple controls with high-end visuals and, naturally, thousands of zombie-esque personalities to obliterate. Players mow down the undead in the game’s urban battlefield – aesthetically trademarked by ghostly white enemy silhouettes – upon bedecking their vehicles with destructive weaponry and equipment.
It's an enticing prospect, but the mobile gaming market moves at an incredible pace, making development speed a vital factor in building and sustaining consumer attention.
Within 60 days of kicking off production, BitMonster says they were almost three quarters of the way to being feature-complete on Gunner Z thanks to the high level of efficiency provided by Unreal Engine tools, leaving ample time for testing and promotion.
Creating a game quickly, however, is only one aspect of mobile development. Driven by a sophisticated economy fueled by vehicle customization and other in-app purchases, BitMonster's ability to constantly build and introduce new content to engage players is crucial to the game’s continued success.
"One major benefit of utilizing the Unreal Engine is how fast features come online. We can have a new weapon up and running in just a matter of days, which is critical in a market that lives and dies based on being able to deliver cool updates every few weeks,” remarks Perry. “The engine makes it simple to introduce that content, especially when the in-game interface is laid out to be expandable."
Without the benefit of larger, specialized departments dedicated to individual fields of development, such as animation or lighting, the need for close collaboration and versatility is vitally important. Quite frequently, this means an individual must be capable of performing in multiple roles.
As Perry describes, "We have, for example, no dedicated animator, particle effects specialist, or cinematic artist, but the engine’s tools to do those tasks are very easy to pick up, so it helps us adapt to creating exactly what we need. So, while we didn’t have an audio engineer for Gunner Z, the Sound Cue Editor enabled us to make excellent effects. That was exactly what we needed."
THE MOBILE BATTLEFIELD
While mobile games and technologies continue to evolve, so do the tools available to developers. But, as Perry summarizes, whether the developer is a well-established company or an emerging enterprise, a large studio or a small team, a major benefit of using Unreal Engine technology is the wealth of talent and knowledge that already exists.
"Another amazing strength of the Unreal Engine is how many people out there are already familiar with it: students, industry veterans, artists, programmers. It’s been a go-to game engine for long enough that the pool of talent you can productively hire is massive."
As for lessons learned about launching a mobile free-to-play product, Perry stresses how important it is to leverage soft launches in emerging markets to quickly work out any kinks prior to large-scale release.
“I can’t recommend that step enough, it’s critical these days. We ended up with about 20,000 users in four smaller countries for our tests. We were able to find critical issues with in-app purchases, gather loads of great actionable data about the difficulty spikes throughout the game, and distill real world objective data for which items in our game appealed to people enough to buy.”