In January 2010, Donald Mustard was sitting on his couch when he made a decision that would change his life, the course of his company and send him on a collision course with Star Wars: The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams. And it was kind of an accident.
It was born of observation, of the realization that gaming was shifting and that the company he co-founded, Chair Entertainment, could shift with it. He didn't rise to his feet, assume the Superman pose and get to changing, though. Instead, he just kept it in mind and looked for new opportunities as he and his company worked on creating a sequel to their just released game.
A few months later, that opportunity arose. One Friday in the middle of 2010, Chair was working on a sequel to Shadow Complex. The next Monday, it was working on Infinity Blade. The sequel went into hibernation. It would remain there indefinitely while Chair pursued other opportunities, but it would never die.
We spoke to Mustard recently about the last five wildly successful years and about what's to come. As its co-founder sees it, Chair is a company that always wants to try something new. He has plans, but he's also willing to change them as new opportunities arise.
Those ideas have paid dividends in the last few years. Sometimes, they've allowed Chair to capitalize on the unexpected and achieve great success. To do that, though, sometimes it means putting a game it really wants to create on ice. And sometimes, being nimble can can fly you across an ocean to meet your friend and partner, J.J. Abrams, on the set of the new Star Wars movie.
A MOBILE GAME
The co-founder and creative director at Shadow Complex developer Chair Entertainment was watching football in his living room when he realized that he had time to play Mass Effect 2, BioWare's critically acclaimed role-playing game. In 2015, Mustard describes it to Polygon as one of his favorite games of all time. It had just been released that month, but instead of heading upstairs to his Xbox 360, he unlocked his iPhone and launched Fieldrunners, Subatomic Studios' tower defense game.
"I can't believe I just chose to play a game on my phone instead of playing a console game," Mustard remembers nearly six years later.
He knew that smartphones were getting faster, that their games were getting better. But his desire on that Sunday proved just how good smartphone games had gotten, in a way he hadn't quite realized before. Choosing a smartphone over a console felt weird, and it planted a seed in his mind. He ran a company dedicated to making games, after all. Maybe it was time to think about going mobile.
But that was for another time. Chair was already in pre-production for another Shadow Complex game, a sequel to the well-received 2.5D side-scrolling shooter with levels reminiscent of Castlevania and Metroid. Shadow Complex was released exclusively on Xbox 360 a few months earlier, in August 2009. They were proud of their work and ready to do more. At Chair, an ambitious and deliberate game maker by design, developers really only made one game at a time. Now, that was a sequel. A mobile game seemed like a fleeting thought, something he filed away for later.
At about the same time that Mustard was quietly musing about Fieldrunners on his couch in Utah, Apple was in California secretly working on the iPhone 4, which would be a powerful leap forward for the smartphone maker. On the other side of the country in North Carolina, Chair's parent company, Epic Games, was taking note of powerful mobile devices and secretly working to port Unreal Engine to iOS, Apple's operating system for iPhones and iPads. Epic saw the ever-increasing power of mobile devices and wanted to scale UE, the software that powered untold numbers of console and PC games from Unreal Tournament to BioShock, to power games that could fit in pants pockets.
In July 2010, Mustard's musings, Apple's hardware development and Epic's software creation collided.
Mustard says he spoke to representatives at Apple, who told him that the company believed its next iPhone would be powerful enough not just to play sprite-based games like Fieldrunners but to crunch 3D graphics. Chair got an early look at the iPhone 4 and agreed. Apple responded with an offer: If Chair could develop a game for the new hardware, it could show it off at the iPhone 4's debut event.
Chair, fresh off the success of Shadow Complex and already working on its sequel, couldn't resist Apple's offer. There was only one problem: It had five weeks to invent a brand-new game.
When it comes time to make a new game, Donald Mustard and his team at Chair ask a simple question with enormous implications: What can our games do that others can't or won't?
Thinking like that goes a long way toward explaining how the small Salt Lake City-based studio created the enormously popular Infinity Blade series, which brought the power of Unreal Engine to iPhones and iPads at a time when smartphone and tablet gaming were just gaining credibility.
But before Infinity Blade was a hit, it was only a proposition. It had to make a game in just a few weeks to meet Apple's deadline. Doing so meant halting the Shadow Complex sequel, but the opportunity to do something unique and new on a budding platform was too good to pass up. It just had to figure out what to do first.
To Chair, designing for smartphones and tablets meant embracing the medium. Apple's iOS devices sported touchscreens where tapping and swiping were the main modes of interaction. Whatever the game would be should use that, Chair reasoned.
Mustard says that the team also realized that there'd never been a really cool sword fighting game on any system. On consoles, for example, you had to press buttons, which could trigger something that looked like sword fighting didn't really feel like it for the player. On iOS' gesture-filled interface, sword fighting made sense.
Chair also wanted the game to be a graphical powerhouse. As capable as portable graphics processors were becoming, though, they were still limited. That informed Chair's design, too. Developers limited the game's combat to two characters — the player and a huge enemy — onto which Chair could focus the hardware's processing power.
Four and a half months later, Donald Mustard stood next to Steve Jobs and revealed Infinity Blade to the world.
The game was an enormous success that spawned two numbered sequels over the next few years. Shadow Complex's sequel was never canceled, but Chair just didn't have the bandwidth to focus on both simultaneously. The original plan was to iterate on Shadow Complex, but after Infinity Blade, it decided to focus on evolving that series.
At Chair, sequels aren't just rehashes. They're designed to push a burgeoning idea forward into new territory, to do more than it could have done the first time around. When creating sequels, Chair keeps "inventing lots of stuff," Mustard says, that it believes pushes the initial idea forward.
Chair released Infinity Blade 3 in September 2013. With that game, the developer felt like it had done everything that it needed to do in that genre, that it had "finished the picture," as Mustard says.
Now it was time to move on. But to what? The obvious choice was the Shadow Complex sequel that Chair paused years before. But, in a situation strangely similar to Apple's 2010 intervention, another opportunity presented itself before the could be fully revived.
It was Infinity Blade's fault. And it involved the writer and director of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams.
Infinity Blade 3 was released more than two years ago, but Chair has been mostly silent since then. It seemed odd for a company that had been so successful and steady with releases. But Chair wasn't resting on its success. It was developing a new, secret project.
Thanks to Infinity Blade, Chair's relationship with Apple deepened, and a few years ago, Apple quietly introduced Chair to Bad Robot, J.J. Abrams' production company. According to Laura Mustard, a consultant at Chair and Donald's wife, from their very first meeting, both companies realized that they were effectively mirror images of each other. They shared many of the same goals and the same ideals. A partnership seemed like a natural and obvious fit.
In November 2015, Chair and Abrams revealed the reason for silence: a game called SpyJinx, which the official site describes as "a unique mix of action strategy gameplay, dynamic world building and RPG character development — all set in a thrilling, treacherous world of espionage".
The collaboration between the game maker and a facet of the director's production company, Bad Robot Interactive, is slated for release on PC and mobile devices in 2016. To create SpyJinx, Chair is once again using Unreal Engine, the cross-platform engine that made Infinity Blade and Shadow Complex possible.
Public knowledge of the game is still fresh, but Chair and Abrams — who Mustard says has been very involved, despite his deep commitments to Star Wars — had been collaborating for years before the announcement. For example, the developer picks Abrams' brain to learn about how he creates characters, how he gets people to care about those characters and how to do that quickly and precisely. Then Chair turns those into game systems.
Mustard says that Abrams is a smart and talented gamer, which makes the collaboration easier. And Abrams has also been accommodating to Chair, even inviting the Mustards to the set of Star Wars: The Force Awakens so he could work with them on SpyJinx while he made the just-released movie.
Multiple years of secretive development will first become a public reality when SpyJinx's closed beta launches sometime in 2016.
BACK TO SHADOW COMPLEX
Through Chair's very successful last few years, one question has remained constant: What happened to Shadow Complex?
Fans and publications wondered together. In a 2013 holiday guide to gaming's lost classics, Polygon called Shadow Complex "the answer to what a 16-bit-era platformer would look like on modern hardware." The answer wasn't terribly difficult to speculate about: Sometimes, success on one project comes at the expense of another.
In 2010, Chair made a decision to set the Shadow Complex sequel aside — not to cancel it, but to delay it indefinitely. When the time might've been right to resurrect the game, SpyJinx came calling. But SpyJinx isn't the only thing that Chair Entertainment has been working on in 2015.
During a relative lull in SpyJinx's development, Donald Mustard realized that Chair finally had the bandwidth he'd been waiting for to revisit Shadow Complex, though perhaps not in the way one might expect.
Last month, Chair announced that Shadow Complex Remastered, an updated version of the original, was in development for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One and planned for an early 2016 release. It partnered with a friendly studio, Hardsuit Labs, that helped code the game for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PC. And it was a free download, without restrictions, all through December on PC.
Why free? Chair did it because it could, Laura Mustard says. Chair has the funds to make this possible, and it decided to do so. It's also a lesson that Chair learned with Infinity Blade, applied to an older franchise: Sales and promotions bring more players.
Of course, it's to the company's benefit to get Shadow Complex into as many hands as possible, too. And free games bring enormous goodwill from players. Both could conceivably rekindle interest in the franchise, which the Mustards are certainly interested in pursuing.
Beyond the graphical update, there aren't many changes in Shadow Complex Remastered. Keyboard controls are new for a game that was previously exclusive to Xbox 360, and Donald Mustard is particularly proud of how well they work. But Chair was deliberate about the lack of new features. There are some new animations, but the developer basically wanted to keep the game the same as it had always been, leaving core gameplay "deliberately untouched," as Donald Mustard says, to bring something familiar to old fans like the speedrunning community, too.
There is one notable new feature, though: Shadow Complex Remastered includes a new melee system that includes new animations for things like ledge takedowns. Except that the new system isn't exactly new. What appears to players for the first time is actually a system that Chair created for the game's sequel.
"That system's done," Donald Mustard said, talking about the final feature set of Remastered. "Let's put it in."
THE FUTURE, OLD AND NEW
Here at the beginning of 2016, after a series of strange and successful and often unpredictable years, Chair is celebrating its 10th anniversary hard at work with J.J. Abrams on SpyJinx. But it's also rekindling interest for a game in a series that it never wanted to let go.
The studio that prefers to focus is splitting its time between two games now, optimizing Shadow Complex Remastered for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. But it's not a studio divided, exactly. That second project is a remake, which is far easier than making a brand new game, let alone two simultaneously. It's a diversion from the focus principle, but sometimes competing ideals have to go to war.
"We never do the easy thing," Laura Mustard says with a laugh. That's why the studio is quiet, she says. It's always trying to do new and ambitious projects. It's what imbues development with meaning. Their games are their babies, and they want to do everything they can to help them succeed. And just like real parents, they don't abandon their children.
But why do this? Why forsake possible success? Why let an arguably overambitious sense of opportunity kill games, even temporarily?
It's part of the culture at the studio, Mustard says. Chair is still experimenting, still learning, still trying new things.
"I don't want to sound pompous," he says. Most game developer are like that, he admits. They want new features, to change the way players experience systems, to do new and interesting things. They aren't trying to elevate themselves over other developers. In fact, he says, Chair is very much influenced by those who came before them, particularly Nintendo. Instead, the developers at Chair are trying to evolve the things they love while trying to make the most of the time they have.
"You know what? We live so short, right?" he asks. "We only get not that many years on earth. I think that's kind of our desire: We only get to make so many games with our awesome band of Chair. We want to try and make sure that every endeavor we put our effort into does take a long time. That each thing we put into our portfolio that we make is something that we're proud of, that we think is adamantly something unique and new to the overall language of interactive entertainment."