Matt Shadows on why the band is diving into game development

Rocking up on mobile with Avenged Sevenfold

US rock act Avenged Sevenfold has released its first mobile game, but this is no licensed product – it’s a fully-fledged RPG featuring music and artwork from the band’s albums.

Develop spoke talks to frontman Matt Shadows about the group’s game development debut, its inspiration and future games ambitions.

What was the band’s involvement in Hail to the King: Deathbat’s development?
We came up with the initial concepts: everything from level design to the weapons and powers – even things like what we wanted from the controls and mechanics, making sure that playing as the main character felt good. I also gave my feedback on what needed to be changed. Basically I took a lead on it without any real programming skills.

Where did the idea first come from?
Everyone who grows up as a gamer wants to make a game themselves. Initially, I wrote a triple-A game. I read a bunch of books on how to write game design documents, and wrote one myself.

I’m friends with the guys at Treyarch and they quickly squashed my idea. In terms of the GDD I showed them, they were like ‘this would cost hundreds of millions of dollars – you should try a mobile game first’.

I brought the idea to the rest of the band. Most of our fans have smartphones at this point so we wouldn’t be alienating anybody.

Why write the GDD yourself?
It’s a very sensitive subject: being a band and doing something like this. A lot of people will call you a sell out and want to knock it down as soon as it’s out, and we’ve seen that with a lot of the reviews. They don’t understand where we’re coming from, they have no clue that we’ve made the game ourselves, but a lot of them label us as people that will licence our name out and have nothing else to do with the final game.

We’ve been very clear in the press that we made this game ourselves. Our mascot, our logo and what we do is very important to us, so we want to make sure it comes directly from us, not some developers that know nothing about us.

In terms of the GDD I showed Treyarch, they were like ‘this would cost hundreds of millions of dollars – you should try a mobile game first’.

Matt Shadows, Avenged Sevenfold

How much did you know about game development beforehand?
I’d been to Activision and to Treyarch when they were making Black Ops and other games – but you never really know until you try it yourself. It looks all clean-cut when you’re visiting, but you’re not in the meetings, you’re not among the 200 people caught up in a process where fixing one thing breaks everything else.

So what help did you have development?
I had a buddy who was doing music for mobile games, and Mark Lamia at Treyarch had already suggested we do a mobile game, so I thought I’d talk to those guys. I met a guy named Matt Newman, and he had a programmer named Michael Stragey, who had just come over from consoles to mobile. I took a look at the games they’d already done and we really hit it off.

So I had a programmer, an artist and myself. The three of us worked on the game for two and a half years, until it was done.

How did you fit it in around your activities with the band?
We came up with the idea while we were writing the Hail to the King album, and then we had months off at a time where I could focus on the game. Matt and Michael would work on it six days a week, and I’d come in three days a week. And then when we were on tour, I’d get them to send out builds to me. Then I’d tell them what was wrong, what we needed to fix.

Did anything surprise you about the experience and the development process?
One of the things that I learned was simpler mechanics and a simpler game can sometimes be more fun. Having a lot of cutscenes and the movie-like hand-holding experiences you get from games these days – especially the triple-A – is not really something I personally want.

For me, it’s all about having a great idea first. We were almost playing a game of Jenga at one point, because we started with a simple game but as we kept going, we kept adding and adding – that’s not a good way to design a game. You’re going to cause you a lot of problems, because if you’re changing a year into development, it causes a lot of other problems.

How well has the game performed so far?
The mixed reviews have come from the press, but the fans love it. I was actually really surprised, because the first review I saw was a really snarky one from someone who just wanted to trash it and didn’t understand it. They were acting like it was supposed to be a Diablo-style game, but that’s not what the game is. So I woke up in the morning thinking ‘great, here it starts’.

It still sits as a 4.7/5 on Android, and it’s got over 3,000 reviews. And then on Apple it goes between 5/5 and 4.5/5. So the reception from the fans and the people playing it has been very positive.

It’s kind of like our music, it’s very polarising. You either love it or you hate it, and there’s really not a middle ground – and we wouldn’t expect any less.

Making a really difficult mobile game isn’t necessarily the best business move for us, but it was a cool move and something fun for the fans.

Matt Shadows, Avenged Sevenfold

Most licenced games on mobile seem to be endless runners, Clash of Clans clones and so on. What did you do to make sure you stayed away from that?
I’m just not a fan of those games, so I had no interest in making one. And more importantly we didn’t want to nickel and dime our fans. I just don’t think it’s right – especially coming from a band.

We had to be smart about this. We put all of our own money into this game. We built it ourselves so we charged a premium price that we thought was fair. And we didn’t just pull that price out of our ass: we let Apple and Google play the game, and they thought it was actually underpriced for what it was.

I’m 33 years old, so I come from an old school mentality. I understand going to the arcades and putting quarters over and over again, but that’s different from nowadays when some games constantly ask for money and throw ads at you.

So what games inspired Deathbat?
I personally don’t like the whole Clash of Clans scenario where you have to wait until the morning to take your turn, and stuff happens offline.

I prefer indie games like Super Meat Boy, as well as classics like Contra. That’s a very simple game; you get hit by one bullet and you’re dead. Super simple mechanics but very difficult gameplay that you can get good at. Those are the type of games I was looking at.

I even threw a little Mario in there because his arsenal was really simple: he had a flower, a star or a mushroom. It’s not like there’s a system with more armour, more flowers and so on. I like the old school ethos of ‘you get what you get’ and you just have to get better.

What was the hardest part of development?
Not having exactly what we wanted sussed out from the beginning. We knew we wanted to make a game within the confines of mobile, but we kept making it bigger to the point where we had trouble with optimisation.
We made mistakes. The game was built so organically, and the levels are so big – I now understand why in some games you’re walking into the same room over and over again, because they’re reusing textures.

We had to do so much optimisation at the end that I wasn’t sleeping at night – I didn’t know how the game was going to fit on mobile. We’d been building it for two years and it didn’t look like it would work. And Apple wanted it to run on the 4S otherwise they wouldn’t promote it – there were all these issues we were dealing with. I wish we’d sussed it out a little better at the beginning, and on our next one we will.

Would you encourage other bands and music acts to explore what games can do?
Making a really difficult mobile game isn’t necessarily the best business move for us, but it was a cool move and something fun for the fans. I wouldn’t necessarily dissuade people from doing this, but if you’re passionate about games, it’s awesome.

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