Taiwanese development studio Rayark brings consoles (and the arcade) to mobile platforms
Something of a rare breed, Rayark is an independent game developer based in Taipei, Taiwan. “Most of the big game companies in Taiwan are publishers, and the majority of popular games in Taiwan are mostly imported from China, Japan, and the US now,” says studio cofounder Ming-Yang Yu. “The development of original titles is seen more with small companies or indie developers; there are a few Facebook groups for discussions and whatnot, but we don’t have a strong community here yet. Most of the resources we use are still from English forums.”
That hasn’t stopped Rayark from achieving impressive levels of success: Its most popular title to date, Cytus, was first released on iOS and Android in 2012, and to great acclaim, doing big numbers across both Asian and Western markets. A port for PlayStation Vita and PlayStation Mobile, titled Cytus: Lambda, came in the following year, and to complete the cycle, an arcade version titled Cytus: Omega, in collaboration with Capcom, was revealed at JAEPO in February 2015, and is set for release in 2015.
Rayark began with a small team of four in its first year, and has grown to a full dozen in-house developers since. Interestingly, Rayark was founded by six developers, all of whom created arcade games prior to forming the company. “Two classmates and I built a studio called HYPAA in 2008,” recalls Yu. HYPAA made two arcade games, Theia and Mozarc; both were music games, in fact, and the former made use of a 22-inch touchscreen. “We learned a lot about making good music games from working on those,” says Yu. “Its gameplay is kind of like Cytus, but the graphics are not good.” He notes that both mobile and arcade games are geared towards shorter play sessions (roughly 5 - 10 minutes), as compared to PC or console games. “To let users get to the fun in 10 minutes is definitely the common goal, both in arcade and mobile games.”
Rayark’s most recent title, Implosion - Never Lose Hope, was released in April of 2015, and explores new territory for the small studio. “We’re all hardcore action-combat gamers—we like to play stuff like Devil May Cry and God of War,” says Yu. Indeed, at first, the team wanted to make a hardcore action-combat game for consoles, taking things in a different direction from the glut of fantasy titles in the genre with a more science fiction-centric theme. Then, those plans changed: “After one-and-a-half years of development, we thought the performance of mobile device had progressed so incredibly very fast that we made the decision to change the primary platform from console to mobile.”
As anyone who has played an action game like Devil May Cry on console can attest, this was a rather bold endeavor. “The D-pad inputs for mobile action games are mostly just complained about by users,” says Yu. “They say that the screen is small, and that there are too many buttons for different actions.” To compensate, the developers have opted for a very simple input system for combat; players can use a single button to perform a variety of combos, by changing the input tempo. “I think what we’ve come up with is a very good method to make input easier on a mobile device, while retaining the complexity of playing skill.” While the game supports physical controllers on mobile—roughly 2% - 3% of users play with them—the core experience is built to stand without them.
The game has been an enormous hit, and in the process has brought its intense brand of action to even the smallest screens. “What we’re very proud of is that Implosion can run smoothly on even an iPhone 4S, which is a four year-old device,” says Yu. “I think bringing a console game like experience to mobile is the point—it simply needs to have good quality graphics and controls. The optimization is definitely the most difficult part, and we did that part very well.”
But Yu says that these pieces fit into a bigger part of the Rayark puzzle. “All of our games are really about the background story,” he says. “We love to tell the story and design the concept for a new world.” Accordingly, the studio also plans to release animations, comics and novels set in these worlds, in the future. “A good story is the core of a good IP. We’ll keep making games with good stories.”
“Rayarkers all have the same DNA,” Yu continues. “They love games, music, art, and they’re not blindly following the mainstream. They unleashed the inner kids in their hearts, and made Cytus, Mandora, DEEMO, and Implosion franchises in order to express these unique universes.” The team often hangs out at the bar in the lobby of their building for cubicle detox, and regular breaks for board games, darts, Pac-Man, and boxing help mix things up. “People here believe inspiration comes from the joyfulness of daily life,” says Yu.
Which isn’t to say that hard work doesn’t get done on the daily. “Rayark’s motto is, “Leave no regret,” says Yu. “This spirit lies in everyone in Rayark—that’s why we don’t follow the flow. No matter how the mainstream changes, we’re focused on doing what really makes us happy.” Yu believes that since the trends are constantly changing, it’s unrealistic to try to catch up with them. “We’d rather keep the pace in doing something fun, rather than rushing a me-too game,” he says. “Since the development process is quite time-consuming and energy-draining, why not do our best? As long as we keep the faith, we’ll create good work that will be everlasting.”
He says the studio’s work on Implosion serves as a perfect example. Initially, they had aimed for Xbox 360 as their platform of choice, as a means of demonstrating their ability to produce a high-end game for consoles. The team spent three and-a-half years on the project and, as mentioned, had something of a standstill halfway through. “In the middle of development, we faced the dilemma: if we continued developing and launch on console, Implosion might not have stood out from countless other AAA games out there. On the other hand, the tech performance of mobile devices was becoming more and more advanced, and if switched to mobile, Implosion may be the AAA mobile game with console game quality everyone has wanted.”
So Rayark went back to the drawing board, and reimagined the game for mobile. It certainly paid off: Implosion was an Editor’s Picks on both the App Store and Google Play; now, the game has been downloaded over five million times worldwide across all platforms. “For us, Implosion wasn’t simply a game, but also an important moment in Rayark’s history—where we went from newborn to grown-up.”
While Yu notes that many players—particularly “enthusiast” gamers—don’t like the freemium model, Implosion has managed to transcend that. “It’s been a long time that players haven’t seen a new, high-quality, premium hack-n-slash game on mobile platforms,” he says. “That's what we wanted to deliver and expect. We’ve learned that quality is everything. We had no budget for marketing and promotion when we released Cytus in 2012. All the players that like Rayark like the high quality of the graphics, gameplay, and music. It has influenced us a lot—we’ll never deliver a game if it’s not yet ready. That’s why Implosion took three and-a-half years to make.”
Yu’s cofounders, Alvin Chung, Shan-Yung Yang, and Holymars studied Electronic Engineering, Computer Science and Information Engineering at National Taiwan University; the latter had intern experience at Google, and turned down a chance to work there to make arcade games. Interestingly, Yu majored in Forestry and Resources Conservation when attending National Taiwan University; it was in the midst of these studies that he discovered his enthusiasm for making games, and then started learning computer science and computer graphics in graduate school.
The studio plans to keep making new content—new modes, characters, and stages—for Implosion, all of which will be free upgrades. “Because Implosion is $9.99, it's hard to get lot of new users without advertising or being featured on the various app stores. So to make Implosion become one of classics is the only way to ensure good sales over the long term.”
2016 promises to be a big year for the studio. “Next year will be a new era for us,” says Yu. “We’re scheduled to release three more new titles in 2016, and some of them will use a freemium model. We see it as a huge challenge to make freemium games with a good balance between the game experience and the IAP model.” As for their future plans? The childhood dream still awaits: “For our long-term plan, we want to make AAA games on console one day. Not for making money—just to fulfill a dream we had when we were very young.”