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A video game fan brings ‘Star Wars’ to your smartphone

Tim Ernst grew up in Williamsville playing video games like “Mega Man” and “The Legend of Zelda” on his console, and “Ultima” and “Warcraft” on his computer.

“I loved them. They were something I just saw so much potential in,” Ernst said. “It was always heartbreaking to play a game that was terrible. And if you played one that was amazing, it was just an unbelievable experience.”

Today, he gets to play – and design, and develop – video games for a living. Ernst, 34, is general manager of Kabam Games, where he oversees about 100 employees in the company’s San Francisco development studio.

He’s playing a leading role in the company’s latest mobile game, “Star Wars: Uprising,” which came out Thursday and is tied to the eagerly awaited next installment in the “Star Wars” movie franchise, set for release in December.

Kabam has found a niche in making interactive, role-playing games for smartphones and tablets. The games are free to download and play but offer users the chance to pay for additional items within the game.

It’s one segment of the massive, highly competitive video-game market, in which Ernst got his start with an internship at Ubisoft while studying at Yale University. He later worked at Sega of America and Bedlam Games before joining Kabam four years ago.

The Canisius High School graduate spoke to The News during a recent trip to Western New York, where he visited family and tried to squeeze in stops at Duff’s Famous Wings, Gabriel’s Gate, Mighty Taco, Wegmans and other hometown favorites.

Q: Is making video games work?

A: Clearly we’re not just playing games. We, to a certain extent, do rocket science inside of video games. But it’s sure enjoyable – it’s an industry full of passionate people.

Q: Kabam’s niche is in role-playing games, or RPGs, for mobile devices. What are they?

A: A role-playing game is really a video game world. It’s got to be complete, with people you talk to, a story. But your character, your customization, your choices, as well as how you interact with both people in the game, and other people playing the game, is what makes the genre unique.

Q: Are role-playing games a small part of the market compared to console and PC games?

A: No, it is it not a small segment of the overall industry. In fact, multiple games last year made over $1 billion themselves. So, there has been success. And the people that have been successful have stayed at the top for a long period of time. It’s also a growth market because of international – specifically China. China’s a huge market that console games, traditional games, have not been able to break into.

Q: How do you provide the immersed gaming experience you get from playing on a desktop or console to people playing on their phones?

A: That’s one of the things that we’re trying to pioneer. We just released a game seven months ago called “Marvel: Contest of Champions,” which is a fighting game that had some light story elements. And really it’s about making it a game – it’s not a mobile game being an apology. So we’re trying to push more the true, classic video game experiences inside of a phone. And that does mean that if we’re making an RPG (role playing game), we have to tell our story a little differently – our pacing’s very different.

Q: “Star Wars: Uprising” will be free to download and play. How does Kabam make money through the game?

A: The basis of free to play is everybody can download it because we want as many people as possible to start playing it. And, really, the core of free play is being able to offer people what we call “pay against the grind.” So if you want to do something in the game, and it’s going to take you a couple of extra hours – it’s not like a timer, but let’s say I have to run 10 dungeons – there’s a route to kind of make that a lot shorter. It’s optional.

Q: How does the game fit within the “Star Wars” storyline?

A: “Star Wars: Uprising” is set in the Anoat Sector, which you could call the “Empire Strikes Back” sector. So it’s Hoth, Cloud City, the planets around there. And it’s right after “Return of the Jedi.” So this is time that nobody has explored in games. Basically, after the emperor, Death Star II, and the emperor is killed, the governor of the system, Governor Adelhard, basically puts an iron blockade down. Now, he’s an imperialist. He believes that what the Empire’s doing is truly great for the galaxy. And he puts a blockade that prevents trade, that prevents rebel propaganda. But ultimately you’re pushing back against Adelhard’s iron blockade. And there’s five factions. The Rebel Alliance is one of the factions.

Q: Is it completely open-ended, or is there a way to win the game?

A: I don’t know that there’s winning, because it’s a living world. But clearly you want to win, you want to beat the Empire. And we don’t really look at it as just a game or a packaged product. This is a service, and we want to create the Star Wars community, the place for everyone to live their “Star Wars” dream. So how you push back against the Empire is part of the game, and one of the parts that will evolve. And as the community reacts, the story will react. This is just the beginning.

Q: We’ve seen video games evolve from rudimentary “Pong” to “Pac-Man” at the arcade, from “Super Mario Bros.” on the Nintendo Entertainment System to “Grand Theft Auto” online and “Candy Crush” on your smartphone. What’s the future of gaming?

A: The phone is really exciting. We’re just at the precipice of it. You have a computer in your hand that’s probably more powerful than most computers that came out more than three years ago. And we’re just starting to tap into that. And clearly there’s virtual reality and augmented reality on the edge of things. But the idea that everyone can be a gamer, and there’s no console barrier to entry, and no interaction barrier to entry – ’cause mouse and keyboard, while I love it, it’s tough for the broader masses to get into. And we’re just discovering all of these. What about location? What about social? I think this is a very early stage in trying to figure this out.

Q: Why do you think Star Wars retains such a hold on the popular imagination so many years after the original movies came out?

A: It seems like there’s a little bit of magic there. I think George Lucas has spoken frequently about it being very traditional storytelling, a very traditional epic. I also think there’s been so many creative and unbelievably talented people who have touched the franchise. If you can just think of all the ways “Star Wars” has changed the movies – sound, visual effects – and continues to do so. This is something that just ignites the imagination. So there is definitely something special, and it’s special to be part of it.

Q: Do you feel a particular burden when you’re designing a game tied to a beloved movie franchise?

A: Yeah, and it’s a personal burden. We want to do something that’s as great as the movies. So we have a full orchestral score. We licensed the John Williams tracks as well. ... A lot of the studio’s just super passionate about “Star Wars” and super knowledgeable about “Star Wars.” It is a labor of love. (Laughs.) And it is a tough audience. If it makes it through us – the toughest audience we’ll probably have is probably inside the studio.