Apple’s release of the iPhone made waves not only in the mobile phone market, but also in the gaming market. Since Apple first harnessed the power to phones, developers like IronMonkey Studios will be making console-quality games on phones for the first time. We sat down with former IronMonkey executive and art director Daniel Tonkin, who revealed the studio’s games that weren’t.
In the early 2000s, Electronic Arts was known for three things: The Sims, sports games, and Need for Speed. The Xbox 360 and PS3 offer the next generation, and EA has invested heavily in new franchises, resulting in Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Dead Space, Army of Two, and more.
But EA wasn’t content to stick with traditional console games. Each new franchise received separate films, comics, novels and mobile games, offering new stories. EA’s mobile push, largely handled by Australian developer IronMonkey Studios, was integral to the short-lived but sweet console quality of gaming on phones.
After years of partnership, EA acquired IronMonkey, allowing them to work on franchises like Mass Effect and Dead Space, the latter of which became one of the most critically acclaimed mobile games of all time. But even more interesting are the games that never made it to our phones. From small pitches to canned projects, IronMonkey’s mobile games have been major entries in EA’s franchise that have been great on mobile, but not every game would make it to market.
While BioWare was working on Dragon Age 2, the IronMonkey team was working on a mobile spin-off alongside the development of Dead Space Mobile. The more action-oriented series, tentatively titled Dragon Age Mobile, would take the world of Thedas and turn it into a Diablo-style action RPG.
Within six months, IronMonkey will be working on its own mobile game. Set around the same time period as Dragon Age: Origins, you’d create a new character, explore new areas of Thedas not seen in the console games, and meet new characters in the world.
“Dragon Age was a big project. And man, it was heartbreaking,” Tonkin told Stealth Optional. “We worked on it for six months; we had a Diablo style thing, three quarters top down and combat, special moves and spells. EA was very supportive of what we were doing with it. They understood the need to adjust the gameplay style and trusted our ability to deliver a perfect and well-executed experience.
Led by Mass Effect: Infiltrator designer Gil Maclean, Dragon Age Mobile was worked on with frequent feedback from BioWare’s console team. Daniel Tonkin will be traveling to Edmonton to show the original game’s art director Dean Andersen the mobile vision while the rest of the team responds well to mobile.
Dragon Age wasn’t the only IronMonkey game that never made it to market. in 2010 EA will release one of its best-selling games: Dante’s Inferno. Loosely based on Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, the action-packed God of War rival was released alongside a comic book and an Animated Epic, a film adaptation in which seven directors adapted the circle of hell for a short 88-minute movie time.
While EA was pushing hard to make Dante’s Inferno available for everything from the Xbox 360 to the PlayStation Portable, IronMonkey was working on a mobile adaptation that was far too ambitious. Working with Visceral, the team will adapt the console game into a 2D action side-scroller, creating a completely new take on the game.
Over the course of six months, the studio worked on its version of the action game, adapting its tortured biblical aesthetic from 3D arenas to 2D levels. While its art and level design were going well, a lack of management attention meant that the game’s design suffered to the point where it couldn’t be saved in time.
“The truth is that we didn’t pay enough attention to Dante’s Inferno. We had a lot of projects going at once, and as managers we made the mistake of taking our eyes off the project and letting it go too long without direction,” Tonkin recalls. “Personally, I remember getting into the game very late, just looking at it and leaving. We had a lot of beautiful artwork – great backgrounds, great character models – but they played horribly.
By the end of IronMonkey’s Dante’s Inferno, managers like Tonkin had turned their full attention to the game. In order to save six months of work, the gameplay needed to be improved exponentially, but time ran out and EA pulled the plug.
“Eventually EA said it wasn’t advanced enough and their release priorities changed.” Dante’s declined as a priority for EA, but we also didn’t deliver a compelling enough demo soon enough. I think if we had focused more on that and put together something interesting, polished and solid earlier, the game would still have made it to release.
After the release of Dead Space, IronMonkey Studios worked on another title that would never see the light of day. A massive in-house project, this original IP was supposed to be a mobile third-person shooter that was almost three years in the making. Unfortunately, IronMonkey’s plans to develop console games for phones were put on hold as the mobile market began to move away from premium free-to-play games filled with microtransactions. EA’s massive financial success with The Simpsons: Tapped Out has proven one thing: microtransactions are happening, and games of the highest quality are being released.
“I loved the period with EA when they were still more into traditional, premium games like Dead Space and Mass Effect,” recalls Tonkin. “At the end of my time there, the transition to free-to-play and everything that comes with that…not just EA, but the larger mobile gaming industry is always looking for IPs that can be used for free-to-play. .
I’d love to get back to more ambitious, premium, “classic gaming” experiences on mobile, but unfortunately the financials don’t match up. People in general just won’t pay on a mobile platform for a game like this.
More than a decade later, EA’s mobile output is still focused on free-to-play games, but their approach may be changing. With The Sims 5 and Skate 4 coming to mobile in some form, it looks like consoles are making a comeback on phones. While these may still be free-to-play games with in-app purchases, EA seems to be making mobile more than just a platform for money-hungry gacha games. They are a console in the palm of your hand.
Despite the fantastic quality that IronMonkey has brought to their mobile games, the release of Dragon Age Mobile probably wouldn’t have preserved the highest quality of mobile gaming. Dragon Age Mobile may have been a ground-breaking mobile release, one we won’t see until Divinity: Original Sin comes to iOS, but the market has already changed and EA’s eyes (and wallet) have already turned to somewhere far away. more predatory.