Apple’s release of the iPhone not only sent ripples through the mobile phone market, but also the gaming market. As Apple put power into phones for the first time, developers such as IronMonkey Studios would create console-quality games on phones for the first time. We sat down with former IronMonkey manager 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. With the Xbox 360 and PS3 offering a new generation, EA invested heavily in new franchises, resulting in the creation of Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Dead Space, Army of Two and more.
However, EA wasn’t satisfied with staying stuck to traditional console games. Every one of its new franchises received spin-off movies, comic books, novels and mobile tie-in games that offered new stories. Mostly handled by Australian developer IronMonkey Studios, EA’s mobile push was integral to a short-but-sweet movement of console-quality gaming on phones.
After years of partnerships, EA would acquire IronMonkey, letting them work on franchises such as Mass Effect and Dead Space, the latter becoming one of the most critically acclaimed mobile games of all time. However, what’s even more interesting are the games that never made it to our phones. From small pitches to canned projects, IronMonkey’s mobile games were canon entries in EA’s franchises that were amazing on mobile, but not every game would make it to market.
As BioWare was working on Dragon Age 2, a team at IronMonkey worked on a mobile spin-off alongside the development of Dead Space Mobile. A more action-focused take on the series, the tentatively titled Dragon Age Mobile would take the world of Thedas and turn it into a Diablo-style action-RPG.
Over the course of six months, IronMonkey would work on its mobile game. Set around the same time period as Dragon Age: Origins, you would 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. Oh man, that was heartbreaking,” Tonkin told Stealth Optional. “We worked on that for six months; we had a Diablo-style thing, three-quarter top-down and combat, special moves and spells. EA were very supportive of what we were doing with it. They understood the need to adjust the style of play and had confidence in our ability to deliver a polished and well-executed experience.”
Led by Mass Effect: Infiltrator designer Gil Maclean, Dragon Age Mobile was worked on with frequent feedback from the console team at BioWare. Daniel Tonkin would travel to Edmonton to show the original game’s art director Dean Andersen the vision for mobile with the rest of the team reacting well to the mobile spin-off.
Dragon Age wasn’t the only IronMonkey game that never made it to market. In 2010, EA would release one of its most marketed games ever: Dante’s Inferno. Loosely based on Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, the action-packed God of War competitor launched alongside a comic book and ‘An Animated Epic’, an adaptation that saw seven directors adapt a circle of Hell each for the movie’s short 88-minute runtime.
As EA pushed hard to get Dante’s Inferno on everything from the Xbox 360 to the PlayStation Portable, IronMonkey worked on a mobile adaptation that was too ambitious for its own good. Working with Visceral, the team would adapt the console game into a 2D action-sidescroller making a wholly new take on the game.
Over the course of six months, the studio worked on their version of the action game, adapting its tormented biblical aesthetic from 3D arenas into 2D levels. While its art and level design was going well, a lack of managerial focus led to the gameplay design suffering to the point where it could not be saved in time.
“The truth is, we didn’t give Dante’s Inferno enough attention. We had many projects running simultaneously, and we — as managers — made the mistake of taking our eyes off the project and letting it run for too long without guidance,” Tonkin recalls. “I remember personally getting involved in the game, really late in the day and just looking at it and going off. We had loads of beautiful artwork — great backgrounds, great character models — but it played terribly.”
At the end of IronMonkey’s time on Dante’s Inferno, managers such as Tonkin would give all of their focus to the game. In an effort to salvage six months of work, the gameplay needed to be improved exponentially, but time ran out, and EA pulled the plug.
“In the end EA made the call that it hadn’t progressed far enough and also their release priorities had shifted. Dante’s dropped off as a priority for EA, but we also didn’t deliver a compelling enough demo soon enough. I think had we been more focused on it and got something exciting, polished and tight together sooner, the game might still have managed a release.”
Following the release of Dead Space, IronMonkey Studios worked on another title that would never see the light of day. A huge internal project, this original IP was to be a third-person shooter for mobile that was developed for almost three years. Unfortunately, as the mobile market started to abandon premium experiences for microtransaction-riddled freemiums, IronMonkey’s plans to make console-style games for phones was cut short. EA’s overwhelming financial success with The Simpsons: Tapped Out proved one thing: microtransactions are in, premium games are out.
“I enjoyed a period with EA where they were still more inclined to create traditional, ‘premium’ games, like Dead Space and Mass Effect,” Tonkin reminisces. “Towards the end of my time there, the shift towards free-to-play and all that it entailed was happening… not just EA, but the greater mobile games industry is always looking for IPs that can be leveraged into free-to-play.
I would love to see a return to more ambitious, premium and ‘classic gaming’ experiences on mobile, but sadly the financials don’t add up. People in general just won’t pay on the mobile platform for that sort of game.”
Over a decade later, EA’s mobile output is still focused on free-to-play games, but their approach might be changing. With The Sims 5 and Skate 4 both coming to mobile in some form, there’s a sense that console experiences are coming back to phones. While they may still be free games filled with additional purchases, EA is seemingly aware that mobile is more than a platform for money-hungry gacha games. They’re a console in the palm of your hand.
Despite the fantastic quality that IronMonkey brought to its mobile games, the release of Dragon Age Mobile likely wouldn’t have saved premium mobile games. Dragon Age Mobile could’ve been a groundbreaking release for mobile — one we wouldn’t see again until the release of Divinity: Original Sin on iOS — but the market already changed, and EA’s eyes (and wallet) were already focused on somewhere far more predatory.