At 9.15 am Thursday morning, Donald Mustard, the creative director at Chair Studios, sits next to me on a couch in a hotel in San Francisco.
He unfurls a laundry list of the features from Infinity Blade II's new multiplayer component, but it becomes clear after a few minutes he is distracted. He's actually nervous. He checks his watch frequently, and at 9.48am he reveals the reason behind the anxiety. "We're rolling out this ClashMob in two minutes, and basically the whole world will be able to play it. When we do something that's never been done before in gaming, I get nervous. I don't know what's going to happen."
The multiplayer mode called ClashMob went live on iOS systems at 10am, Thursday, April 12, without any notable hitches. It fits right in with the critically acclaimed single-player experience Chair released last December. Players engage in a variety of multiplayer fights, earn points, and unlock items, armour and swords.
The "something that's never been done before" part is that it's an asynchronous fight mode with real-time stats and social media mechanics built into the gameplay. Players enter into a series of challenges designed to urge their friends to complete a task — like defeating a one-billion-point titan in less than 24 hours — and if they achieve this challenge, they'll earn, as a group, a cacophony of different rewards.
At 10:00 am, we flip from his iPhone to the retinal iPad to get a better look. There are three challenges available on day one, and the most daunting is "Clash of the Titan". The goal is to face off against one of Infinity Blade II's new giant bosses and to inflict as much damage as possible to it in 30 seconds. This giant beast, called a Lupun, takes one billion points to defeat, and our paltry sum doesn't seem to even move the damage bar at the top of the screen. Mustard admits the low damage result occurred only because he wasn't using his high-level character, using a level 1 test warrior instead. Players who use heavily levelled-up fighters can inflict far more impressive results, cutting the time needed to defeat the titan, he explains.
Still, when our turn is done, the result page reveals the damage exacted; but it also reveals a series of stats that both excites and relieves Mustard. In the first two minutes ClashMob is live, one million points are inflicted. Six minutes later, the total rises to 10 million points. Gamers who had downloaded the mode a week prior, but weren't given the live Challenges to play, were waiting like sprinters at a starting line to tackle the new mode. We watch in real-time as the points spin like a Las Vegas slot machine.
"This is part of the great social experiment," said Mustard. "We live now in an asynchronous world. Here's an example. My wife and I love to play Scrabble, but with our kids and schedules, we don't have enough to play together. So we play it, turn-based, on our phones."
The two other modes are short, but a little less daunting. In "Thirsty for Blood", a horde of Iron Lancers surrounds a village, and players must kill a single one in about one minute to do their part. Mustard hands me the iPad and I defeat an Iron Lancer in about 15 seconds. The third challenge, "Gold in the Sand", is shorter and even less daunting: The goal is to collect as many bags of gold (just like those in the single-player game) in 15 seconds. The overall reward is $US25,000 in virtual currency. I play this Challenge and before I know it, the match is over.
Why would I be interested in such a short, seemingly worthless task as collecting bags of gold?
"Once you're done with your turn, you can then tweet or Facebook it," said Mustard. True enough, the post-game screen shows the Facebook and Twitter logos with buttons to engage. Mustard tweets about his experience, and an automatic sentence appears. "I did 9239 damage to LUPUN! Join the latest ClashMob and help us out! #InfinityBlade" it reads. The playing part of the game is just the start of it. The social interaction, the poking and pushing, and corralling friends to play, is equally important.
ClashMob's "gamification" features don't stop there. Rewards called "Perks" are handed out to those who succeed in how many players they get to to join. According to Mustard, the three reward types, for now, are Point bonuses (earn 1,000 points for getting X amount of players to join); Extra Time (add 5, 10 or 15 seconds to fight times); and Extra Turns (bring in X amount of people earns one bonus play).
By checking back on the completion screen and refreshing MyMob, you can see when the last time your friends have played, a nice feature that unfortunately only goes half way, explains Mustard. "What I would like to see, and what we hope to do in the near future, is to see how many points your friends have scored and to compare your score with theirs directly," Mustard adds.
Another feature, MyMob, engages players on the fence of playing Infinity Blade, or for those who will never ever touch it. MyMob taps into your friends list on Facebook. It's customisable, giving Infinity Blade players the ability to create subsets, like those people actively playing the game versus those who haven't played it, to rally behind the challenges Chair plans to release well into the future.
"My mum, for instance, will never play Infinity Blade II, but she can help me because she is part of MyMob," he said. "If she "likes" one of my posts, she'll actually inflict a little damage to the Lupun. If I get enough players to join me in the fight over the next 24 hours, and enough players to "like" our progress, we're more likely to defeat it. Even re-tweets help."
As I take all this in, I turn to Mustard and say, "Oh, no. Re-tweets? Really?" At this point, I'm feeling conflicted. To think that Infinity Blade II — one of the first game-games designed to take advantage of the iPhone's touch screen, and that plays like a traditional hardcore game — so warmly encourages tweets and Facebook "likes" is almost anathema to its premise. Mustard laughs a little at my response. "These features encourage players and non-players, and they're just incorporating what we're already doing all day, every day."
As we flip through the Challenge screen, it's clear Mustard and team have dozens of challenges lined up. The three we played appear highlighted on-screen, while the upcoming ones are dimmed. One upcoming Challenge is "Swords at Sunset", based on inflicting damage by successfully dodging enemies. It's only available for one hour and the reward is a high-level attack gem. Another is for hardcore gamers only. To participate players need to be level 25 or above. The reward? The "Orchi," a highly prized dual-wielding sword.
"We could, in the future, have ClashMob Challenges during the Super Bowl," he suggests. "Let's say the San Francisco 49ers play the New England Patriots. Our Super Bowl Challenge would take place during the game to see how many gold bags players from the West Coast could gather versus East Coast players."
Another suggested example could be placed in an equally significant cultural event. "Let's say you're waiting in line for The Dark Knight Rises, you can earn certain points specific to that movie, after which you can present your score at the checkout person at the counter and get half price off your soda."
Most challenges only last for about one hour. But because the game is available worldwide, Mustard explains his team needs to consider how to synchronise time-based challenges with the globe's many time zones.
At 10.30am, the demo is over and Mustard has to drive to another appointment. Before he leaves, I flip back to the Clash of the Titan screen. In only 30 minutes, the Lupun has taken an impressive 16,870,794 damage points out of 1 billion.
It appears the experiment is working.
Doug Perry is a freelancer writer for various outlets and based in San Francisco. You can follow him on Twitter here.