GBR Interview: Blackstorm Labs’ EverWing Creators

Gaming Business Review recently visited Blackstorm Labs’ in-house games studio, Blackstorm Games, to sit down with Head of Studio Jimmy Griffith and Art Director Jeff Himmelman to learn more about their hit game EverWing.

Available on Facebook’s Instant Games, EverWing was one of just a few launch titles on the platform and debuted in late-November 2016. The game has since had multiple updates, including the addition of boss raids and gamebots, and received awards such as a Facebook 2016 Game of the Year Award. In this exclusive interview, Jimmy and Jeff discuss the process and manner in which they’ve created EverWing, pushing the boundaries of how and where people play games.

Creating EverWing: From Concept to Reality

Gaming Business Review: What was your goal and vision in creating EverWing?

Jeff Himmelman: First and foremost, we wanted to make a game that would hook you from the moment you saw it. Opening EverWing, the first thing a player sees is a majestic character flying through the sky, and as soon as they touch the screen, they’re in full control, firing magic bullets at waves of monsters and picking up loot all along the way. Piece by piece, we then add layers of depth to the experience. Players discover an Academy, full of characters to unlock, each with their own distinct personality and powers. Then they unlock the Dragon Roost, where they can hatch and raise dragon sidekicks to fly alongside them as they fight. Soon the players find themselves immersed in an expansive setting, exploring new fantastic locales and teaming up with their friends to defeat more challenging monsters — but it all builds upon that first, deceptively simple mechanic of dodging enemies and collecting coins.

Gaming Business Review: Tell me about the creation of the Guardians. How were they named and given their powers? How about the creation of their dragon sidekicks?

Jeff Himmelman: We began with a number of ideas of the kind of powers we wanted our characters to have, which largely drove the design of the initial group of Guardians. For instance, we knew we wanted a character with a permanent magnet to help collect loot as it fell from the monsters as payers defeated them beat. I would sketch out a ideas and would run them by Jimmy and our lead animator Allan Dye (of Pocket God fame!), who did a lot of the early concept art and handles all the monster and boss design. We wanted to make a roster of characters with their own unique personalities,  identities so strong that players can easily point to one and say “that’s me!” The magnet character ended up being very charismatic — a ‘magnetic’ personality if you will. We named her Aurora, based on the beautiful lighting effect caused by the magnetic poles. Our other characters have similar design stories. For example, the Guardian that has a second life is a mysterious, ghostly character named Lenore, which is a reference to the ghostly presence in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.”

Bringing EverWing to Facebook’s Instant Games Platform

Gaming Business Review: Why did you decide to release EverWing as a game that is only accessible through Instant Games on Facebook, not through the app stores?

Jimmy Griffith: Facebook Messenger connects more than one billion people around the world, and bringing EverWing to Instant Games is an opportunity to build a new, very social gaming experience that’s never before been possible on mobile. The ability to introduce EverWing to a group of friends, and allow them all to  play it instantly, without any download creates a super engaging experience. It’s exciting to discover things together, to celebrate a Legendary dragon you just hatched or to brag about your new personal best score, and to even work together with your friends to defeat super-challenging foes in Boss Raids. We grew up with games that we bought in stores, and when we loved them, we pressured our friends to go and buy them too. Then, if all of us happened to be online at the same time, we could play together. On Instant Games, we can all discover a game together in the same moment, or at any moment, and suddenly our chat group feels a little more like a guild of adventurers.

Gaming Business Review: EverWing was one of just a few launch games on the Instant Games platform. Can you share some of the challenges you faced when designing for a brand new platform?

Jeff Himmelman: The platform has evolved and grown extremely quickly, so it’s been vital that we remained nimble and were able to add or remove features on a dime, based on the way that users responded. Also as this is such a new platform, we’ve been balancing all the lessons the people on our team have learned from developing games for mobile with massive amounts of innovation and and experimentation. When we started out, the games on the platform were very simple, one-on-one high score games. However, due to the intensely social nature of Facebook Messenger, we saw the potential to do so much more. We began adjusting our designs to encourage playing with as many friends as one can,culminating in the launch of our competitive co-op mode, Boss Raids. Since then, we’ve taken full advantage of the rich notifications and gamebot functionality we worked to develop with Facebook, further pushing the boundaries of what is possible on the Instant Games platform. Overall, it’s been tough work but bringing EverWing to Instant Games has been one of the most exciting experiences in my career.

Gaming Business Review: Can you share more about how EverWing is able to utilize the strengths of Facebook, and the Instant Games platform?

Jimmy Griffith: Sure, we designed EverWing to encourage both competition and cooperation within each Messenger group or Facebook post. For example, whenever you open the game, the Instant Games API provides us with a context that allows us to limit the high-score leaderboards to just that group of friends, allowing players to enjoy experiences which are tailored to their particular chat thread. Players can compete one-on-one, or in larger groups, with their roommates or with their parents, allowing them to engage in any way that they like. That context also allows us create shared objectives within groups, like conquering the weekly Boss Raids, that in turn reward the whole group with treasure and new dragons as everyone works together.

Gaming Business Review: What are some key elements that you considered when building EverWing to set it apart from other games on Facebook, and from other mobile games?

Jimmy Griffith: In the early stages of development, one of the most important things we agreed upon was that we wanted to build an entirely new universe, a world onto itself which players could get lost in. We wanted it to have it’s own history, culture, and physical laws. This helped make the game a cohesive whole, and a lot of fun to make. The Start Menu UI is one of my favorite examples: instead of a list of buttons, it became a view into a shattered kingdom, floating in the sky. Of course, we still had to make some nice buttons too, but we integrated them into the universe which we built in a way that makes them a part of the world, not outside of it.

More and More: The Endless Process of Adding New Features to EverWing

Gaming Business Review: You have released a few major updates to EverWing. For example, since launch, you’ve released a number of new Guardians, as well as a number of new dragons sidekicks to help them out. Can you tell us a bit about these new character releases, and how dragon collection and evolution has become a significant part of the EverWing game experience?

Jimmy Griffith: The process of building a team of Guardians and dragons Sidekicks is the core progression in EverWing. The ability to customize your team and assign them to various roles through Quests, Boss Raids, and in  the High Score Competition is a critical part of the experience, allowing players to progress and project themselves into the world. They’re managing a small but tough resistance against an endless horde of monsters, and fighting them with every ounce of life. The rewards from these battles are broad in number and rarity, creating a unique experience, and as a player’s team composition grows in strength, these rewards adapt and can be used in new and exciting ways.

Ultimately, we understand that players earn and level-up their character by spending time in the game, so it’s super important to us that the Guardians and Sidekicks offer rewarding value in return. Whether it’s the unique abilities and evolutions of a Legendary Dragon, or the illustration, design, story, and even the voice acting of a new Guardian, we’re constantly striving to polish and improve not only the quality of these characters, but also the effectiveness of their strategic niche in gameplay and player progression.

Gaming Business Review: You also recently released your “Boss Raids” feature, which allows players to work together to defeat very powerful bosses. Where did you and the team get the idea to build a cooperative multiplayer feature?

Jimmy Griffith: I love that feature, and our CEO Michael Carter initially came up with the idea. At Blackstorm Games, we were already excited to be building a game with brand new IP, its own universe, and RPG elements, but when Michael suggested Boss Raids to the our team, we were blown away. We could hardly let each other finish a sentence as we all imagined the possibilities: creating guilds with friends, the insane bullet-hell style of the fights, the epic loot drops! Creating EverWing’s Boss Raids has been an absolute blast, and needless to say, we have a few more new bosses and special events in the works that should be launching very soon!

Gaming Business Review: Recently, after being featured in an onstage Q+A at Facebook’s F8 conference, Blackstorm released a major update to EverWing that brought an AI chat bot to the game. Can you talk about how you were able to integrate this new technology, and how the chat bot assists EverWing players?

Jimmy Griffith: We’ve worked hard with Facebook to bring EverWing to players through our gamebot on the Messenger platform, without the need to even launch the game! I think our executive chairman Ernestine Fu put it best when she said, “At the end of the day, nobody wants a notification that is designed to drive engagement without delivering clear value to the player.

The gamebot notifications and interactions have turned out to be quite useful to players, and it’s a much needed development. Our “set-it-and-forget-it” style Quests had people scheduling multiple daily alarms just to check in on their Quests and optimally collect their rewards! The EverWing gamebot alleviated that problem by notifying players when a quest completed, informing them of the treasure found, and even allowing them to send the team back out for more without ever opening the game! The ability to interact with in-game experience directly through a chat thread is also quite an accomplishment. We were the first game on the platform to introduce this functionality, and it really does help players to manage their quests, and keep up with all of the their weekly Boss Raids by showcasing active groups, and the current status of each boss.

Gaming Business Review: Game and social mechanics are really only half the story though. What have you done to further captivate fans, bringing them not just to the game, but an entire adventure?

Jeff Himmelman: Last March, we held our first event: The Reckoning. In the storyline, a great rift between the kingdom of EverWing and the Neverend opened up, releasing a second wave of ultra powerful “Super Bosses.” Guardians had no hope of defeating them on their own — they had to team up and take them down together. Thus our co-op Boss Raids feature was born. We’re planning to have a lot more events and adventures outside the game coming soon.

Gaming Business Review: Can you give us any sneak peaks into the future of EverWing?

Jimmy Griffith: First, we have a lot of content in the works for all of our existing game modes. This includes new Guardians, new Sidekicks, new Bosses, new Quests, and more. Jade, the Guardian of Shadows, will be released at the end of May. We also have a mechanical steampunk boss and environment in development, and on the horizon, players will finally learn from whence those pesky, fiery, meteor birds came!

In addition to building on our core features, we’ve designed and started on a few entirely new game modes, and a few meta-game systems that we think will bring a lot more fun to the world of EverWing.

Jeff Himmelman: We also really want to use events to tell stories. Very soon you’ll see events that introduce a new villain along with new places to explore, and with new allies. Each of these will be another chapter in the EverWing saga!

Francis Kong

About Francis Kong

GBR Contributing Editor Francis Kong is a lifelong gaming enthusiast who has served as a writer, and editor for computer and video gaming magazines including PC Gamer, Next Generation, Game Players, and Maximum PC. Francis graduated from UC Berkeley, and holds an MD from the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, Ireland. Merging his interests in gaming and medicine, Francis is also the creator of Healing Blade, a fantasy game that helps aspiring physicians to learn about the relationships between bacteria and antibiotics. In 2012, Francis sought to share his passions for gaming and healthcare by founding Edge Interns, a professional development, mentorship and recruiting firm which helps to place participants in competitive internships in gaming, design, health and biotech companies.