Chair Entertainment’s Donald Mustard Discusses the Future of Multiscreen Gaming

Chair Entertainment -- based in Salt Lake City, Utah -- has catapulted to the top of the mobile game development business thanks to the success of its Infinity Blade franchise. In a little more than a year’s time, they’ve spawned a full sequel, a new iPad prequel (Infinity Blade: Dungeons), a digital book from bestselling author Brandon Sanderson, a hit soundtrack and a stand-up arcade game (Infinity Blade FX). The mobile franchise has also generated more than $30 million for Chair and its parent company, Epic Games.

Epic Games -- based in Cary, N.C. -- is working with Chair on a brand-new prequel, Infinity Blade: Dungeons, which has been designed to take advantage of the new iPad. That game, just like Infinity Blade II at the iPhone 4S press conference, was featured during Apple’s recent new iPad launch event. Chair continues to expand its Infinity Blade II experience with new gameplay through regular updates. Donald Mustard, creative director and co-founder of Chair Entertainment, talks about the multiscreen future of gaming and how mobile, PC and console experiences will interconnect in this exclusive interview.

How has Infinity Blade evolved beyond just a gaming experience?

One of the unique things about tablets and mobile devices is that not only can they be with you on different screens, but they can be with you in different ways. The first step in what we’re thinking about: How can we make the Infinity Blade franchise more than just an interactive experience? Where you can literally be playing Infinity Blade and be experiencing the universe and the story, then you can shut the game application, open the digital book that’s written by Brandon Sanderson, start reading about the universe and continue the story on the same device, but in a totally different medium. Then you finish the book and start playing Infinity Blade II, and the story continues. It’s a way that we can start to have these more unified media experiences on one central device or multiple screens, but that it expands the story and the universe -- all in the palm of your hand.

How has Unreal Engine 3 technology opened the door for your cross-screen approach?

Using Unreal Engine 3 to develop this game is a huge advantage because of just that: the ability to have an engine that is not only super-cutting-edge, but also able to be cutting-edge on all the big platforms. It allows us to still create very cutting-edge gameplay that can translate across devices.

If you look at some of the people that license the Unreal Engine -- from BioWare with Mass Effect to Rocksteady Studios with Arkham City -- they’ve made these console games and have all these assets that now, if they choose to, could be pretty easily translated to other devices and experiences.

Infinity Blade II’s latest update, Clash Mobs, connects mobile devices to Facebook social networks. What are your thoughts on the future of multiscreen gaming?

This is something that we’re starting to think about a lot. I think Clash Mob is a good first step in showing that that’s what we’re starting to consider.

I’m very interested in the idea of being screen-agnostic. I want you to be able to experience Infinity Blade on different screens and to have them be shared experiences across multiple screens -- not limited to whatever screen you happen to be in front of at the moment. Infinity Blade can be with you wherever you are. Not just Infinity Blade, but games in general can be with you.

How have you seen the mobile gaming space evolve since the introduction of tablets?

This market is changing, evolving and growing at what seems like a crazily rapid rate. When I think back on the types of mobile games I was playing on my phone a year and a half ago when we first started thinking about Infinity Blade, I was playing games that I thought were amazing, but they were games like Angry Birds, Texas Hold’em, or simple tower defense games. Once these devices really started to get powerful and we were able to make a game like Infinity Blade, I think that it just skyrocketed. Since the first Infinity Blade came out in December 2010, we’ve had three very major hardware updates from Apple alone with the iPad 2, the iPhone 4S and the new iPad.

How are the regular releases of these more powerful devices impacting games?

Basically, each one of these Apple products almost doubled the graphical and processing capability of the previous device. Now with the new iPad, it’s just amazingly powerful, and that’s just allowed games to offer even bigger, more immersive and more entertaining experiences. It’s allowed us to make games like Infinity Blade, and even more recently Infinity Blade II, that really just set the new benchmark for what a mobile game can be.

How have you seen the audience for the Infinity Blade games evolve since launch?

What’s really exciting is that Infinity Blade is appealing to not just the more traditional gamers, but also to this new crop of gamers that maybe don’t identify themselves as gamers, but actually are because they’re playing all these games on their tablets. When I think of more traditional or hardcore gamers, they really like seeing a game like Infinity Blade, but it’s offering a different, unique experience on a touch-screen device that’s different from what they can get on their console or PC. I think that’s helping people see the potential of what these devices can be.

Photo: @iStockphoto.com/hanibaram

11 Tips for Mobile Software Development

More than 99 million smartphones shipped in just the first quarter of this year, says analyst firm IDC. Many of them are winding up in the hands of business users, including your employees and business partners. That trend means, sooner or later, you’ll have to develop smartphone apps. Here are 11 tips:

1. Track market shares.
It’s critical to keep up with trends in smartphone platforms, where the only constant is change. Sure, BlackBerry has long been synonymous with business, but it now lags both Android and Apple’s iOS in the race for market share, which affects what your company uses. In fact, Android is a case study in how quickly a platform’s fortunes can change: Between late 2009 and late 2010, Android’s market share grew 615 percent -- enough to leapfrog into first place, says analyst firm Canalys.

MeeGo and Windows Mobile are two other platforms to monitor. And don’t overlook Symbian, especially if your company has a lot of employees based outside of North America.

2. Learn the language.
Platform companies try to build market share by using programming languages and equipment that developers already know. For example, Windows Mobile lets developers reuse their existing Visual Studio and .NET development skills and server infrastructure to extend their applications to mobile devices. Meanwhile, iOS requires Objective-C development. Partnerships and outsourcing are two ways to develop for platforms that use unfamiliar languages.

3. Develop for multiple platforms.
Cross-platforming requires time and resources, but it ensures that your app’s fate isn’t tied to a single platform. One obvious way is by creating a separate app for each platform. But some developers say it can be cheaper, easier and faster to use CSS to recode Web apps to fit small screens, and then use JavaScript to control the events. The downside is that you might lose access to some of the device’s features, such as an accelerometer.

4. Look beyond smartphones.
Android and iOS now run on tablets too. The good news is that apps originally developed for smartphones can typically run on tablets without modification. But be aware that tablet users increasingly expect developers to create versions that take advantage of their devices’ larger screens and often faster processors. So identify tablet-specific features and leverage those when developing a tablet-only version of your app.

5. Strive for consistency.
It can be challenging to develop an app so it has the same look and feel across all Android or BlackBerry devices, let alone across multiple platforms or across both smartphones and tablets. But it’s still a goal worth pursuing, because most enterprises have a mix of devices. For starters, create a database of all of your company’s approved devices and their features -- particularly screen size, resolution and aspect ratio -- and whether they have a physical or virtual keyboard. Then, design your app to ensure that every function provides at least a basic, user-friendly experience for each device’s user group.

6. Identify integration needs.
If your app needs to tap into another system, such as your company’s CRM and other back-office systems, it’s never too early to figure out how your app will get that access. Just as important, ensure that it gets access in a way that doesn’t leave data in the open and doesn’t create back doors for hackers. Once you’ve got a beta app, test it to verify that the integration works.

7. Don’t hog the CPU and memory.
Sure, many of today’s smartphones have 1 GHz or faster processors and are connected to networks with speeds north of 1 Mbps. But many don’t, so it’s important to develop apps that provide a good user experience even on midrange handsets and older, slower networks. Most of today’s mobile platforms now support some level of multitasking, meaning your app will likely compete with several others for processing, memory and battery power. But be aware that no two platforms support multitasking quite the same way. For example, check whether a platform allows your app to do everything you need it to when it’s running in the background.

8. Be aware of carrier restrictions.
Wireless carriers have the power to block apps, such as those that compete with their fee-based services, or use what they deem as excessive amounts of bandwidth. Learn about these concerns and respect them rather than trying to do an end run. Be aware that even low-bandwidth apps can clog up cellular networks -- and sap batteries -- by constantly generating unnecessary signaling traffic. For example, an overly chatty IM app almost single-handedly crashed T-Mobile’s network in 2009.

9. Respect enterprise concerns.
Design apps so they use bandwidth sparingly, which helps users stay under their rate plan’s monthly usage cap and avoids the need for putting all mobile employees on a pricey unlimited-use plan. Bandwidth efficiency also helps extend battery life. Ideally, your app should not be the reason why a tablet or smartphone can’t go an entire workday before it needs charging.

10. Register with app stores and developer networks.
Registering with developer networks gets you access to their SDKs, while registering as a publisher ensures you get paid. Even if you’re outsourcing development, you can still register as the publisher so you can manage the sales revenue.

11. Certify.
Some app stores require certification, a process that includes vetting at both the platform and network usage levels. Certification often takes longer than developers expect, so don’t build your business model around the assumption that your app will be ready for employees the day after it’s finished.

Tapping Into the Power: Graphics Performance Analyzers

Creative enthusiasts working with entertainment media such as HD video need highly responsive tools that sustain the creative flow. After all, waiting for an effect to render or suffering through herky-jerky video playback are sure ways to squelch inspiration.

So tapping into the full performance potential of today’s desktops, laptops, tablet PCs and mobile computing architectures -- and eliminating latency-inducing bottlenecks -- is essential for media application developers. These are typically daunting time- and resource-intensive tasks.

Fortunately, a number of powerful developer tools can help streamline the process of analyzing and optimizing media and other graphics-intensive applications. For example, Graphics Performance Analyzers (GPA) allow developers to increase the parallelization of their code, readily identify and eliminate hotspots and bottlenecks and accelerate media encoding, decoding, preprocessing and transcoding operations across a variety of platforms, including legacy and the current second-generation processor family.

Making an Impact With Performance
Optimization is a critical part of the product development workflow, especially for media application developers. For example, ArcSoft -- a leading developer of video editing, conversion and application sharing -- devotes 50 percent of its development cycle to the optimization process. Why is optimization so important? It all boils down to performance.

“Today’s users don’t want to wait for effects to render or videos to load,” says Yanlong Sun, ArcSoft’s deputy general manager of video and home entertainment. “Tapping into the performance of processor architecture through fine-tuning and optimization means that users don’t need to wait.”

Optimization is also a top priority for Corel, one of the world’s top software companies. “Platform optimization is fundamental to our development,” explains Jan Piros, senior strategic product manager at Corel. “A significant amount of our effort goes into this because the gains made can be felt throughout many of our features. It’s an effort whose impact is multiplied throughout the software and is of great benefit to the user.”

With each new generation of processor, more cores are added to a single piece of silicon. To make use of all that processing power, software developers tune and optimize their code for multicore, multithreaded operations. This allows the software to utilize all available cores and threads on a system, helping boost performance in the process.

Getting the Numbers
Zeroing in on the exact cause of any particular latency -- when hundreds of modules and millions of lines of code are involved -- is like trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack. Discovering bottlenecks and analyzing CPU and graphics workloads at the system, task and intra-frame levels can help save developers a significant amount of time during optimization and development of their application.

GPA provides developers with a suite of analysis tools for visualizing and optimizing applications efficiently from the system level all the way down to individual elements, such as draw calls within a single video frame. In addition, GPA lets developers experiment and actually see performance opportunities from optimizations without making source code changes with a standalone GPA Frame Analyzer tool.

Case Study: ArcSoft
ArcSoft -- a leading developer of multimedia imaging technologies and applications for desktop and embedded platforms -- creates software for smartphones, feature phones, tablets, PCs, smart TVs and cameras. They know that optimization is a crucial portion of their development cycle.

GPA was instrumental in allowing ArcSoft to parallelize the core engine used in both ShowBiz and MediaConverter. “Parallel tasking gives our users the ability to simultaneously output finished content to, say, YouTube and a handheld device format,” says Sun. “GPA gave us a frame-by-frame GPU analysis to help us improve our decode and encode pipelines. Multicore, multithreaded processor technology significantly reduces the conversion time. The user can now convert four or more files concurrently while leaving the processor free for other tasks.”

Case Study: Corel
Corel, one of the world’s top software companies with more than 100 million active users in more than 75 countries, develops innovative products that are easy to learn and use. Corel VideoStudio Pro X4, its flagship video-editing software, offers video makers of all skill levels a comprehensive set of video-editing tools, along with plug-ins for rock-steady video stabilization and broadcast-quality titles, animations and graphics.

In developing VideoStudio Pro X4, Corel engineers used GPA to achieve optimal load balancing between CPU and GPU media-processing pipelines. “The decode/encode functions allowed us to achieve very fast transcoding speed, as well as fast read-back between video and system memory,” says Chung-Tao Chu, director of development at Corel.

GPA helped Corel engineers identify bottlenecks and hot spots by analyzing modules related to a single feature or feature set instead of having to look at the entire VideoStudio Pro code base. Once identified, bottlenecks were eliminated, resulting in code optimized for performance and multicore scalability. “It lets us deliver a video editor with a smooth and responsive creative experience that really wasn’t possible with previous-generation chips,” says Piros.

Corel’s new MotionStudio 3D is an easy-to-use 3D and motion-graphics application that makes titles and graphics for video. “MotionStudio is very graphics-intensive,” says Chung-Tao. “Looking ahead to future releases, we can absolutely see where GPA will help optimize our very complex and computing-intensive graphics.”

Image: corel.com

The New Mobile Landscape

The word “convergence” won’t mean quite the same thing to the next generation as it does to us. That’s because kids today will come of age in a time when phones were used to play video games, computers could double as a private movie house, and televisions were flipped on to browse the Web. Unlike us, they’ll be living in a world where “ubiquity” is the word -- surrounded by devices.

Paring Down
The most interesting development of the ubiquity age isn’t that we’re surrounded by screens and able to connect to the Internet in myriad ways, from smartphones to televisions to tablets. Most fascinating is that no one device serves as the ultimate Swiss Army Knife, acting as a substitute for all the rest.

Rather, we collect these devices the way golfers keep clubs. On the go, we check movie times on mobile phones. On the couch, we research that movie on a laptop PC or tablet, or we play a game of “Words With Friends” while our significant other watches the big game. Rather than seek a one-size-fits-all solution for computing, consumer behavior indicates that there’s a time and a place for every kind of screen.

All these screens mean that portability and power are both becoming major considerations. Laptop shipments exceeded that of desktops in 2008, and high-end “desktop replacements” -- notebooks with large screens and enough horsepower to handle any computing task -- became the primary computers for many consumers. And a new designation, the netbook, sought to lower the barrier of entry to mobile computing by offering compact laptop PCs at a fraction of the price.

New Device: Ultrabooks
Now, there’s a new category of portable PC to compete with the upstart tablet PC and other flavors of laptop. The ultrabook format is light, thin, fast and portable -- an antidote to the traditional laptop PC. Ultrabook PCs are less than .08 inch thick, weigh around 3.1 pounds and have a battery life of five to eight hours.

“The ultrabook is much more than just a product segment,” says Jim Wong, president of Acer Inc. “It’s a new trend that will become the mainstream for mobile PCs.”

The model for this new kind of laptop is Apple’s MacBook Air, which was introduced in 2008. Apple sold 1.1 million units of their super-thin laptop, and they managed this feat at premium pricing. The next phase of the ultrabook device is to build major appeal by offering similar benefits to Apple’s machine at a consumer-friendly price.

Toshiba’s Portege Z835, which debuted in November of last year, dipped in price to $699 (after a $200 rebate) at Best Buy. Competing ultrabooks include the Hewlett-Packard Folio 13 and the Acer Aspire S3, which both run for about $900. The entry-level MacBook Air is $999.

Early Buzz

Initial reception to the new ultrabooks is positive. Rob Beschizza of Boing Boing called the new ASUS ZENBOOK “very good,” but he cautions against laptops that try to adopt the ultrabook moniker but stray from the design specs that make the new class of computers so attractive in the first place.

Dilip Bhatia, vice president of Lenovo’s ThinkPad business unit, is excited about his company’s contribution to the field. “The ThinkPad X1 Hybrid and T430u ultrabooks represent the next generation in thin and light computing,” he says. “From small businesses that literally live on the road to corporate professionals working in a managed environment, these new crossover laptops fundamentally change the way people think about mobile computing technology.”

Matt McRae, Vizio’s chief technology officer, recently told Business Week that his company’s entry in the ultrabook game was meant to shake things up: “It’s very similar to TV -- we want to get in there and disrupt it,” says McRae. “We think most PCs have been designed for the small-business users, that others have not done a very good job of making them entertainment devices.

With all the new ultrabook models that appeared at CES last week, it’s now just a matter of discovering just how the ultrabook will find its place in our lives next to the televisions, tablets, smartphones and desktops many consumers already have. Nobody could have predicted this 10 years ago, but it seems pretty clear: There’s still plenty of room for this light, new computing upstart.

Photo: @iStockphoto.com/jibilein