Game Developer Profile: Tyler Fero, PerBlue
Post by Mark Riechers on 7/19/2012 9:30am
In the game development business, the wild frontier–where a quirky location-based fantasy game and a big-name franchise can stand as equals–lies on the open plains of the smartphone app store, where it’s easier than ever for enterprising developers to self-publish original games for iOS and Android.
Right here in Madison developer PerBlue is trying to tame those wilds, building games with the wide appeal that mobile gaming can offer without sacrificing depth for playability.
"People like to play games, they like to have fun,” says Tyler Fero, a “game conductor” for PerBlue that oversees teams working on two of their games, Parallel Kingdom and Parallel Mafia. “With PC gaming, you usually have to have a higher-end computer, but with something like mobile gaming, all you need is your phone. It requires simple touch controls–swipes, taps. It adds a new portal for a casual audience to get into."
PerBlue leverages multiple strengths of mobile platforms in its games. In addition to employing easy-to-understand touch-based controls, each of their free-to-play Parallel games drops players into a massively multiplayer game world layered over real-world locales from their daily lives gleaned from global positioning data fed from their phones to game servers.
Programming for mobile means that PerBlue’s games aren’t graphical powerhouses–visually, the games look more like Google Maps than Diablo 3. But the simple graphics allow Fero and his teams to focus on gameplay systems for combat, player item economy and territory control that support hundreds of thousands of players across the world.
Of course, location-based games like Parallel Kingdom and Parallel Mafia come with their own challenges. “You get the unique emotional attachment to your surroundings–this is my house, this is where I go shopping, this is the movie theater. It instantly builds a connection [to the game world] that you don't get in a lot of other games,” says Fero. “The downside to that is that as areas start to fill up, new players are less sure of their ability to get started in the game."
The studio was founded in 2008–not long after the release of the first iPhone–and quickly grew from a team of five UW-Madison grads to a team of 40 and counting. Their offices, a series of wood-paneled open-air rooms with long tables hastily arranged into blocks of workstations for each team, smacks of a group of people still more comfortable with running out of the CEO’s apartment than a formal work space. In the same vein, teams and job titles have little internal division. Fero himself started as a server programmer, but made the jump to the creative side of development as the PerBlue team expanded. "You could be very creatively-focused, or very technically-focused–whatever fits your role best here," says Fero.
Despite their relatively small size, PerBlue has a huge team dedicated to supporting their games, managing player forums and chats outside of the main game. Fero says that level of support is key to shaping game design. "It's important to get feedback from [players] on what they want, because there are a number of facets to an MMO world like this,” says Fero. “It's important to see which of these areas players feel we are lacking in the most."
Since their games are free-to-play, taking player feedback seriously isn’t just about supporting games post-release–it ensures the continued success of their games, and to a larger extent, the continued growth of their company. "With games as a service, especially as a free service, it's very important to constantly re-engage your players,” says Fero. “If they're not playing, the game's not growing, and chances are the game is not making any kind of revenue."
Fero says that 70% of their players don’t pay anything in actual money in the form of in-game micro-transactions, but the players who are willing to kick in real cash wouldn’t have anyone to interact and trade with if those free players weren’t wandering around the game world. “They're not customers; they're players. By playing the game and leveling their own characters, these players make the game more valuable for everyone."
PerBlue’s commitment to a deep, continually engaging experience for their players places them at odds with the emerging titans in the mobile game world like Rovio and Zynga, whose bird-flinging simulators and simplistic puzzlers tend to favor fleeting fun over player-driven experiences. Fero says that their commitment to having a relationship with their players is what makes PerBlue different, both for the players and the developers. "Hearing appreciation from the community means a lot. For a lot of us, this is a job, yes, but it's also a passion,” says Fero. “We're trying our hardest to really make sure that players are happy."