Mobile games may be one of the fastest growing parts of the games industry, but they are also the most volatile. In an ever-evolving sector dominated by free-to-play and one-hit wonders, managing to stay in business, let alone produce a decade-long running franchise is no small task. Deep Silver FISHLABS, formerly FISHLABS Entertainment, is a unique case in the mobile gaming market. From their first sci-fi shooter, 2006’s Galaxy on Fire, to their newest title, Galaxy on Fire 3- Manticore, FISHLABS has looked to deliver high-end mobile experiences. And according to Head of Studio Michael Krach, they aren’t stopping any time soon.
Though the third game in the mainline series, Galaxy on Fire 3- Manticore is the fifth game in the Galaxy on Fire franchise (sixth if you count the standalone HD rerelease of Galaxy on Fire 2). Marking the game’s recent launch for iPhone and iPad, Krach was kind enough to answer our questions about the new game and the many trials Deep Silver FISHLABS has encountered over the years.
Established in Hamburg, Germany, FISHLABS Entertainment formed in 2004 as an independent mobile developer. Even in a still relatively young mobile market, Galaxy on Fire managed to turn heads. A 3D space combat and trading sim, the game saw players travel from space station to space station, fighting pirates and collecting bounties, all from the comfort of their flip phones (the first iPhone didn’t release until 2007). Though much has changed in the 10 years since, Galaxy on Fire 3- Manticore still holds true to that intense space combat core.
“In every generation, the Galaxy on Fire games brought forth production values and gaming experiences which were previously unknown on the mobile platform,” Krach explains. “When you played the first GOF game on Java back in the day, you thought ‘I cannot believe that this is running on my phone.’ And when you now enter a rich and deep orbit such as Neo Vegas in GOF3: Manticore on your iPhone 6 Plus, you think ‘Incredible what mobile gaming looks like these days.’”
That desire to push technical boundaries and refine on what came before is clear from the very first moment you jump into Galaxy on Fire 3. Where previous games left space mostly open, save for a few asteroids, the newest title packs its maps with debris and other ships, each area dense enough to take on a feeling distinctly its own. Referencing the improvements he himself is most proud of, Krach points out, “The orbits are much more diverse, the space ships move much faster, the maneuvers are much more dynamic, the enemy AI is much more sophisticated, and the dogfighting is much more intense. Overall, the gameplay is a lot more skill-based.”
In tailoring the experience for a modern mobile market however, there are also a number of changes long-time fans may have a problem with. The trading and larger free-roam aspects of the previous games don’t return. The missions themselves are much shorter. And instead of traveling from station to station, players accept missions from a constant home hub, the mercenary carrier ship Manticore, from which the game takes its name. While these changes are a departure for the series, Krach makes it clear they are all part of adapting to modern needs.
“Besides the flight physics and combat system, the one thing we wanted to redo more than anything else is the underlying structure of the game. GOF2 was conceived, developed and handled like a boxed product,” he says. Galaxy on Fire 2 actually saw two expansions during its life-cycle, something rarely heard of in mobile games. “It was a very stiff and inflexible construct that always required a lot of effort to be updated with new content or features. GOF3, on the other hand, is much more open and adaptive. Here, we can get new stuff into the game easily and regularly – be it new assets such as space ships, new features such as mining (yes, we are working on that!) or new content such as additional areas on the star map.
“Instead of releasing one paid add-on every one or two years, we will grow our new game continually. And we will make sure that all major content we add is available to all players free of charge.”
Krach goes even further, admitting the way FISHLABS handled post-launch content for Galaxy on Fire 2 was a fairly large mistake. “We believe DLCs to be a bad experience for our players, as they tend to split our community. On the one side, there are those who only play the original game and on the other side, there is the small percentage that purchases the DLC. Therefore, our new direction with Galaxy on Fire 3: Manticore is to build towards a true ‘game as a service,’ where we add content seamlessly and without charging extra money for it. By doing so, we make the key experience available to all players.”
These changes in direction are a reaction to the changes FISHLABS itself has gone through in the past few years. In the fall of 2013, shortly before the release of Galaxy on Fire: Alliances, a mobile strategy MMO, FISHLABS Entertainment was forced to file for the German equivalent of bankruptcy, laying off 25 developers, roughly a third of the company’s staff. “The mobile gaming market is incredibly dynamic. To be appreciated by the audience, developers have to innovate and stay ahead of the curve – not just once, but all of the time,” Krach says.
“Over the years, we worked hard to keep pace with the evolution of mobile devices from the first low-res feature phones into today’s pocketable gaming consoles.” But in order to survive any further, the team had to search for a new investment partner, eventually finding Koch Media. Buying FISHLABS, Koch Media rebranded the studio under the already established Deep Silver label. Now Deep Silver FISHLABS (DS FISHLABS for short), the developer has not only survived, but flourished, recently expanding to work as a mobile publisher themselves.
Having worked with companies like EA and Crytek in the past, Krach joined FISHLABS in early 2013, working as an Executive Producer through some of the developer’s most troubled times. A few months after the purchase, he took over as Head of Studio and has been steering the ship ever since. According to Krach, Koch Media was invaluable in keeping the studio afloat, and “played a major role in us making in it in this rough market that long. Without a strong partner, most studios are done after their first non-smash-hit. Because in that case, you will simply not get the money to fund your next game.”
But even with a strong partner, mobile development isn’t getting any easier. “Mobile gaming is an extremely fast-paced industry that is almost impossible to predict. Throughout the past decade, our industry has gone tipsy-turvy more often than we could count. Sometimes, we benefited from the events and other times, they made things a bit more challenging for us. But in the end, we managed to overcome whatever obstacle stood in our way.”
That said, “What has changed, or rather what is an unbroken trend that changes everything, is the ongoing monopolization on the platform. You would think that a pie, which is constantly getting bigger and bigger, would allow for more and more games to ‘live off it.’ But due to the nature of the stores and the perfect market we operate in, the opposite is the case. The threshold in investments, marketing and needed success goes up almost every month.”
Even with these difficulties however, DS FISHLABS is fully committed to making great mobile games. Simply put, “We have mobile gaming in our DNA,” Krach says. And it’s what the team loves. “With mobile technology evolving at lightning speed, our jobs certainly don’t become boring or repetitive. The things that seem impossible for us today, might be industry standards a mere year later.”
Couple this with the rather heavy focus the mobile industry received in 2016 thanks to Pokemon Go, and you end up with an exciting view for the future. “More than anything, it was simply mind-blowing to see that ‘our’ industry was able to create such a buzz… There have been mobile games before that took the world by storm, but Pokemon Go did even go a bit further. It was the media phenomenon of 2016! That’s just… wow!”
Looking to their own future, the team at DS FISHLABS is doubling down on their support for Galaxy on Fire 3 now that it is out of the gate. Release “marked only the first step of our journey. The real fun part begins now, during live operation, as we will constantly enhance and expand our game. Along the way, we will add new challenges, unlock new areas and generally improve the experience on a regular basis.”
Thanks to the team’s experience with the multiplayer-focused Galaxy on Fire: Alliances, regardless of the fact that the company’s financial troubles overshadowed the stategy game’s initial release, it’s a set of support goals Krach is confident they are ready to face. “We really learned a lot from developing, releasing and maintaining Galaxy on Fire: Alliances. It not only showed us that the GOF brand has the potential to go beyond its original space shooter positioning, but it also gave us a ton of insights into fields such as backend development, live operations and community care.”
Taking that, along with the hard-earned lessons of Galaxy on Fire 2, Krach believes Manticore has the opportunity to eventually be “the biggest and best GOF game we ever made… This marks a whole new era for the Galaxy on Fire brand and we are incredibly excited.”
Galaxy on Fire 3- Manticore is currently available for download on the iOS App Store, along with Galaxy on Fire, Galaxy on Fire 2, and Galaxy on Fire: Alliances. A prequel to the third game, called Manticore Rising, is also available on the Apple TV. For more on DS FISHLABS and all the ups and downs of the mobile industry, keep checking back here on Gamespresso.