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Hardcore or bust: New wave of mobile strategy games target the core gamer

Champs: Battlegrounds

Above: In Champs: Battlegrounds, battles take place on tiles, which have different heights and properties.

Image Credit: Quark Games

Shawn Foust doesn’t want to design casual games. As the vice president of game design at Quark Games, he made the upcoming Champs: Battlegrounds specifically for the hardcore gamer, the type of person who prioritizes their games over any other hobby or past time.

“I’m not making this so that every single person who never cared about games can pick up my thing and then all of a sudden understand everything about it,” said Foust. “I want this game to be a thinking game for people who care about games.”

Other developers have a similar mentality. Though mobile phones and tablets are known more for the casual and social games that flood the app stores every day, a growing number of companies are taking advantage of the ever-improving tech behind our indispensable devices to deliver the type of complex games seen on PCs or consoles. While this doesn’t mean we’ll be seeing a Devil May Cry or Fallout on an iPhone anytime soon, they are starting with a genre that mobile gamers are familiar with: strategy.

Here’s a look at the new wave of hardcore real-time strategy games — all of which are free-to-play — for iOS and Android.

Champs: Battlegrounds

Above: Champs: Battlegrounds’ units already come with a set of basic powers and attacks.

Image Credit: Quark Games

Champs: Battlegrounds

Developer: Quark Games
Platforms: iOS, Android
Release date: Late July or early August

If Final Fantasy Tactics, Square Enix’s classic turn-based tactical role-playing game, threw away the turns in favor of a real-time system while borrowing a few elements from League of Legends, you’d have something a lot like Champs: Battlegrounds. Fights take place on grid-like maps with tiles that have different magical properties, and you can upgrade your heroes either by unlocking them through playing or, if you don’t have time, just paying for them with real money. You can get all the units without spending a single cent.

“I talked to Square — some of the senior guys over there — like a year or two ago, and I was like, ‘You guys gotta remake a Tactics game,’” said Foust.“’Do a great Tactics game!’ They were hemming and hawing. [I told them] ‘If you guys don’t do it, I’m going to!’ Fast forward a year, and I showed this to some of those guys over there, and they’re like, ‘Oh this looks really good!'” [Laughs]

It took me a few minutes to wrap my head around the idea that my enemies and I are moving at the same time. The only restriction to this movement are your characters’ energy bars, as actions like moving and attacking will consume portions of it (refilling only after a couple of seconds). Above all else, Champs will favor those who can multitask their six-man squad the best — during a head-to-head multiplayer match, Foust hardly let his energy bars fill up before he gave his troops new orders.

Champs: Battleground

Above: Each unit has multiple upgrade paths, and you must decide which of those options are the best fit for your squad.

Image Credit: Quark Games

Though the battles are intense, they only last around five to seven minutes. Most of your brainstorming occurs outside the fights as you decide which upgrade path you want each unit to specialize in. Quark Games wants you thinking about your army even when you’re not playing.

“If you want to move games forward, you create a game that people want to play instead of whatever they’re playing right now,” said Foust. “And so that’s what we’re trying to do. I want you to put down whatever you’re doing, and I want you to pick up a tablet or your phone and I want you to play this game instead. And if I can’t convince you to do that, I’ve failed as a game designer.”

Foust’s company hasn’t always been making hardcore games. Up until its recent rebranding, Quark was known as PlayMesh, a developer of casual games like iFarm and Link4 Online. But working in in that industry was a matter of business, not passion.

“That was about paying bills, to be honest with you,” he said. “Those games are easy to do, but we [needed] to save up enough to take a shot at what we really wanted to do, right? And that’s what this looks like. … This is why we joined Quark. I didn’t join Quark to work on casual games. In fact, I wouldn’t design them. The CEO [Eric Peng] asked me to design [one], and I said the only way I would do it is if I could make something like this, otherwise I’d prefer to stay in the position I was in before.”

Solstice Arena

Above: Solstice Arena ditches the minion farming and goes straight to player-versus-player fights

Image Credit: Giancarlo Valdes/GamesBeat

Solstice Arena

Developer: Zynga
Platforms: iOS
Release date: Out now

The iOS-exclusive Solstice Arena puts its own spin on the popular multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) genre that’s been proliferating on both PC (with games like League of Legends and Dota 2) and mobile. Frederic Descamps, the general manager of the team behind Solstice Arena, touts it as the “first speed MOBA in the world.” By that he means Solstice breaks down the MOBA formula into short gameplay sessions: Player-versus-player fights (3-on-3) last less than 10 minutes, a huge difference over the half-hour or longer matches usually found in MOBA games.

“It’s a constantly evolving genre,” said Descamps. “It’s a genre that wants to stay. And there will be new innovations [that will define] the way we look at the genre. We want to make a MOBA because we love MOBAs. And how can we innovate? Innovating for us was putting [Solstice] on tablet and mobile first. And second, making a speed MOBA.”

Solstice Arena was already in development at Descamps former studio, A Bit Lucky, when Zynga acquired it last September. Members of its team already had experience working on live titles in the massively multiplayer online (MMO) sector, which Descamps says is similar to the process of creating and shipping a MOBA game.

“There aren’t that many real-time multiplayer games on mobile and tablets,” he said. “And therefore … you could think, ‘Well, hold on. Maybe there aren’t that many players and that many games because maybe there’s no market.’ Or maybe because nobody has done it yet. And I think we’ve proven that we can break new ground there and bring super-high quality, real-time multiplayer games to the phone and tablets knowing that we also payed very, very close attention to single-player mode and our cooperative mode.”

Solstice Arena

Above: The central part of the map is crucial because of the pick-ups it contains, like a giant chest of gold coins.

Image Credit: Zynga

Certain MOBA characteristics are still in the game — buying items to boost your hero’s stats, buying new champions with either in-game cash or real money (as well as vanity items like new skins), destroying A.I.-controlled towers — but Solstice gets rid of the more time-consuming elements (like farming for experience points) to encourage faster, snappier matches. Though MOBA veterans can jump into it with no problem, the streamlined gameplay also reduces the learning curve so that new players can enjoy it, too.

“Hardcore gamers are hardcore gamers,” said Descamps. “Hardcore gamers don’t define themselves by — not anymore, anyway — by ‘Hey, I’m a hardcore, super-high-end PC gamer.’ Sometimes they still do. I would surmise that some of the hardest core gamers are sometimes Farmville or Farmville 2 gamers, because they play a lot. … There’s this whole new generation of younger people who have not played even on a console, and they’ve never played on a PC, except maybe a web game.

“But they are definitely playing: like 12 year-olds are playing Minecraft exclusively on the tablet. We’ve seen that. So [the hardcore audience on mobile is] definitely coming. I think we’re on the forefront of that. … If you look at the success of midcore and hardcore games on tablets, it’s just the question of time. For us, the time is now.”

War of Nations

Above: When you first start the game, you’re immune from other players’ attacks for a few days.

Image Credit: Giancarlo Valdes/GamesBeat

War of Nations

Developer: Gree
Platforms: iOS
Release date: Out now

While War of Nations isn’t a strategy game in the tradition of a Starcraft or Command & Conqueror, building armies, researching new weapons, and fortifying bases are still integral to the gameplay. The main difference lies in the territory: You play in a world inhabited by 30,000 other players, all of whom are trying to destroy each other and take over more land — one way to do this is by spending real money for gold, which can buy things like extra commanders or items that speed up the researching and building process. Dan Chao, director of product at Gree, likes to think of War of Nations as “Civilization, but not turn-based, on a massive MMO scale.”

Everything that occurs in these shared worlds happen in real time, so if you aren’t careful, you could log in one day and find that someone has blown up everything you worked so hard to build. I found this out the hard way after not playing for almost a week — my factories, oil refineries, and other facilities were gone, as well as a secondary base I just started filling out.

“I think [the hardcore audience] was underserved at the time we started development,” said Chao. “But now there’s obviously a lot more hardcore games coming to that platform, and with the introduction of the tablet, it can just in general handle more, like a complicated hardcore game. I think that was a lot of the drive behind [War of Nations]. There’s the ability there now, and the audience is definitely there. …

“But for me, with mobile it’s kind of like — you can always expect them to shut off the device at like any time. The gameplay has to be playable in like very small bite-sized chunks, but it should also be able to scale to sit in bed for an hour or two and like play it at night.”

War of Nations

Above: Aside from the number and type of troops you send out, you have no control over the battles. They happen automatically.

Image Credit: Giancarlo Valdes/GamesBeat

According to Chao, these type of games are also a result of bigger budgets and bigger teams.

“This game, and I’m sure a lot of the other games out there, was not like a simple and quick game to make, at least in terms of normal mobile development cycle,” he said. “So as you see larger companies get into the business, you’ll just see more and more of this style of game come out, like this hardcore — whether it’d be like action or strategy or whatever it happens to be — I feel like as long as it works well on mobile, the players will definitely let the companies know which ones are the successes.”

Chao has watched the hardcore audience on mobile slowly grow since his time at Funzio (which Gree acquired last year), where he was the designer behind Crime City and Modern War. At that time, there was a “large belief” that those gamers hadn’t “quite migrated over to smart phones yet.”

“So [games like Crime City] was like a first attempt to see how much strategy and how much decision-making would be digestible for the players,” he said. “And I feel like over the course of those games being out for so long, we’ve gotten like a lot better grasp on what players will think what works and what won’t.”