Six members of Epic Games departed the game company early last year and formed a mobile games start-up called Bitmonster Games. Their first game, Lili, was named by Apple as one of the App Store Best of 2012. The game studio uses Epic’s Unreal Engine 3 game technology to create its mobile games for smartphones and tablets. Co-founder Lee Perry talks about the new studio and what’s next in this exclusive interview.
Why did you decide to leave Epic Games?
I certainly can’t speak for everyone at BitMonster with regards to why we left Epic, everyone had different motivations. For me, I had just finished the Gears of War trilogy and several Unreal games before that, which took several years each…I wanted to explore much shorter development times. When a game has a budget in the many tens of millions of dollars, often it’s difficult to take really big risks. As a designer, doing a bunch of games that take a couple months each means you can explore crazy avenues that wouldn’t have been viable in a AAA game.
What attracted you to the mobile space?
The mobile space is complicated, but it has a lot going for it. There’s the fact that you don’t need a big publisher backing you and taking 40% of your profits, there’s the ease of deployment by simply sending your game off to the App Store, there’s the amazingly large install base… there’s a lot of positives. There are also 300 new games in the App Store every day competing for that market though. It’s scary.
How has the transition been using Unreal Engine 3 for mobile games?
The Unreal Engine is pretty flexible, so a great benefit for us has been that we could use the decade of experience we all carry with us using the tools and transfer them right over. There are some differences, but honestly what you can do on a mobile device today is not much different than what you could do on a dedicated game console just five years ago.
There are some challenges with keeping the overall size of the games down, so they’re easily downloadable or don’t take up too much of the device’s memory, but overall much of what we previously did transfers over really well.
What are your thoughts on the speed at which tablets and smartphones are advancing?
It’s a very mixed blessing. On one hand you could take an iPad and design some truly amazing games for it that might revolutionize different genres, but on the other hand you also have an incredibly limited array of business models to explore. If I really want to make a pure adventure game, even though a tablet could run the game well, I would strongly consider releasing on PC if I expected it to keep a studio running.
If people were willing to outright buy a $40 or $50 game on a tablet, it would be one thing. The reality is that if your game is on a mobile device, most people expect not to pay for it. So, there are whole genres of games on consoles that simply can’t map to those expectations. Those user expectations could ultimately be what keeps platforms like the PC viable in the long term.
How big is your studio today and where are you guys based? What type of growth do you see for the company?
We are six people, all equal partners in BitMonster. We have an office in downtown Raleigh now, over a bunch of amazing restaurants that are sure to make us huge. Aside from that sort of growth, our plans are very much not to grow in terms of personnel.
We created Lili from scratch in about seven months, and consider it to be larger than most titles we would like to create. We don’t see the need for more people to be involved. We love the atmosphere of us all sitting in a room, talking everything out and making something we love. When a game we create takes off and does well, our goals are simple…do it again.
Why is the Triangle a good place for a gaming start-up?
There’s a lot to offer in the Triangle. There’s a large talent pool of course, but also very reasonable cost of living, a great indie community, our own developer convention with the East Coast Games Convention, and several realtors who are very excited about housing tech companies.
What’s the transition been like going from huge teams working on console games to small mobile teams?
It’s been almost therapeutic to be honest. It’s pretty liberating to not have a large group of people involved in most decisions. We feel a massive sense of pride and ownership in every little detail of what we’re working on. It’s harder to feel that sense of investment as teams grow larger.
How have your first game projects done thus far?
So far we’ve done exceedingly well! Our first game, Lili, has provided us with solid salaries and picked up a great deal of attention for our studio. Our goals with Lili were always to create something that was highly polished and wasn’t what was ‘expected’ of six senior Gears of War developers. We were pleasantly surprised to get a great deal of attention from Apple, and numerous large publishers. We wanted to get on the map, and we feel that was accomplished.
As an independent studio, what opportunities do you see Kickstarter opening up for new game ideas?
Kickstarter is an amazing tool for many developers, but it’s a quirky beast. If it was truly a marketplace entirely for new game ideas, it would be fantastic. Kickstarter can’t shape the actual market for a product though. Sadly, in the same way people expect mobile games to be free, they largely dismiss Kickstarter campaigns that target the mobile market…as though those concepts are also without value. Kickstarter, as it stands now, is an excellent way to fund a PC game or board game.
What’s next for your studio?
This year we’re swinging for the fences. Where Lili was created as a sort of showpiece for us, our next designs are targeting the mobile market much more specifically; they’re designed to be successful. We’re striving for gameplay we can be proud of in frameworks that have proven effective for mobile gamers.
What are your thoughts on the key departures that occurred at Epic after you left last year?
It has certainly been a roller coaster, no doubt. I have loads of faith that Epic will continue being insanely successful though. There are smart people and large teams of amazingly talented developers over there. Contrary to public perception, it’s the teams that make a company successful.