The Making of Don’t Run with a Plasma Sword
XperimentalZ Games was founded in Montreal, Canada in 2010 by Patrick Jacob. Jacob had formerly worked at Gameloft, where he served as a lead designer on a popular racing game. Having grown up in the Atari 2600 era on games like Pac-Man and Missile Command, Jacob was a big fan of games that were both simple and fun. Looking around at the landscape of the mobile gaming market, Jacob felt that the market was about to make a major shift and go back to the roots of video gaming. He wanted to be a part of that, and decided to strike out on his own in 2010.
He started XperimentalZ Games soon after leaving Gameloft, but at the time it was just a one-person studio. After an initial idea proved to be a bit too complicated to realize, Jacob put together a smaller game in a matter of a few months called Gravitation Defense. While it wasn’t a hit by any means, the game proved to be an excellent learning experience for Jacob. Later in the year, Jacob was joined by a friend named Ghislain Bernier, adding his programming experience and bringing XperimentalZ Games up to two full-time employees.
Jacob wanted to go back to his original idea, and in anticipation of that plan the studio brought in eight part-timers. Since it was the first time the team was working together, however, they opted instead to put together another simple game just to get their feet wet. In 2011, Repulse-O was released. An unusual match-3 puzzle game, Repulse-O secured the developer’s first App Store Feature from Apple. Now sufficiently warmed up, the team was ready to take on something bigger.
The seed of this project was an idea that Jacob simply couldn’t let go of. He wanted to make a game focused on combat where the character wielded a plasma sword. As any fan of Star Wars knows, however, there are quite a few different kinds of games that could contain such gameplay. The team found inspiration in games they themselves were enjoying quite a bit at the time. Monster Dash was an auto-running action-game made by Halfbrick. Jacob felt the idea of a runner was simple and quite enjoyable, suiting the mobile platform particularly well. Another member of the team had been playing a Flash game that featured a progression system wherein the player would unlock new abilities and gear that would help them get a little farther every time they played.
As for the game’s theme, with the center of the game being a plasma sword, science-fiction seemed like the best choice. Jacob had always been a fan of retro-futurism, finding the ideas that classic pulp stories and B-movies had of things like alien invaders and futuristic machinery both fascinating and amusing. The concept seemed ripe for parody, and that set the game towards the humorous tone the finished product would bathe itself in. Keeping the cheeky sense of humor in mind, the team took inspiration from the old adage warning against running with scissors and dubbed the new project Don’t Run With a Plasma Sword.
The scope of the game had grown considerably, and the team had a new goal in mind: to be the very best auto-runner experience on the App Store. To that end, the game was in development for more than two years. Each of the game’s five areas had a different artist assigned to it, lending each of them a distinct feel. The areas were divided into smaller stages so that players with little time could still make progress and have a good time.
Unlike many games of this type, Don’t Run With a Plasma Sword didn’t use procedurally-generated stages for its main story mode. Each level was hand-constructed, something that proved to be quite a challenge given the presence of the progression system. The level designers couldn’t be sure of exactly what moves and abilities the player would have available to them at any given time, so levels had to be built so that any character build would be able to finish them and have fun doing it.
Enthusiasm for the game was starting to build, and a release date was now in sight. Don’t Run With a Plasma Sword would launch in December of 2011. This release date proved to be a double-edged blade. Although interest in games is high in this month due to the holidays, XperimentalZ Games wasn’t the only publisher to schedule its new release for that time. The game ended up hitting on the exact same day as a number of other very high-profile releases, including Infinity Blade II, Tetris, and Zen Pinball. Reviews were strong for Don’t Run With a Plasma Sword and the players who picked up the game loved it, but it ended up being a slow burner in terms of sales.
Further updates and different purchase models helped the game find a wider audience, and it would in the end hit a million users after a couple of years on the market. XperimentalZ Games would move on to many other projects, and after a while earlier titles had to be retired. Don’t Run With a Plasma Sword was one such title, eventually becoming unplayable when 32-bit compatibility was removed from iOS. In 2019, the game was restored as part of the GameClub library, allowing a whole new generation of players to experience the simple pleasure of slicing up aliens with a plasma sword.