Pocket Gems is known for gentle and casual games like Paradise Cove. But not anymore. The company is releasing its War Dragons, its first hardcore game, for mobile on iOS today.
The real-time strategy title represents a new visual high for mobile games, as it uses gorgeous 3D graphics to depict a dragon’s attack on a medieval fortress. Pocket Gems now has three product categories: casual games, episodic storytelling (with its Episode story app), and now hardcore games. It is expansion strategies like this that will keep the mobile game market, which is expected to hit $30 billion worldwide in 2015, growing.
It debuts today on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch in six countries, and it has Apple Watch integration so that it can notify you when someone attacks your base.
“This has been a voyage for us, said Gustavo Ambrozio, lead engineer on the project, in an interview with GamesBeat. “It’s different from what we have done before, but we want to be a leader in mobile entertainment.”
San Francisco-based Pocket Gems spent more than two years developing the game, which is based on its proprietary Mantis Engine. This tech enables both cool 3D graphics and synchronous multiplayer play on mobile networks.
“We believe that the best games of the future will be high-quality multiplayer experiences that work seamlessly over mobile networks,” said Pocket Gems CEO Ben Liu in a statement. “We’ve built a number of key technologies that will be the foundation of our future projects including a 3D engine, synchronous multiplayer networking, and real-time communications.”
War Dragons has both player-versus-player and team-based multiplayer combat. In it, you build and customize the ultimate dragon army to annihilate the bases of your rivals.
“War Dragons represents the beginning of an entirely new chapter for Pocket Gems, marked by deeper, richer games that will appeal to a new audience,” said Harlan Crystal, Pocket Gems’ chief technology officer and product lead on War Dragons, in a statement. “We’re excited to share what we’ve built and plan to continue active development over the next several months to meaningfully evolve the game.”
You create your own magical kingdom with all sorts of conventional military defenses to protect it against dragon attacks. You can acquire as many as six islands in your quest to expand your base. Meanwhile, it has more than 70 dragons that you can earn, each with its own set of spells. Dragons come in three classes: hunters, warriors, and sorcerers.
“You can breed dragons, train them, and level them up,” said Ambrozio. “The attacks are synchronous, and the game is very strategic. We designed it to work well on mobile networks. We spent a big chunk of time about how to create the best experience on a mobile device.”
The hardcore War Dragons experience
When an attack happens, it is executed on “rails.” That is, it will feel like a battle on a roller coaster, but you don’t have direct control of where it goes. You can direct your dragon to attack specific targets, but it flies at a steady pace across the map.
You can train and breed each dragon. You can also build and customize their island fortresses with lightning towers and ballistae to open up different strategic defense possibilities. Each match lasts up to 15 minutes. I played a couple of matches. The pace is fast and furious, with lots of explosions.
As I discovered, you must have the proper dragon to take on a heavy-duty fortress. You can use consumable heal points to heal your dragons after a battle. Or you can just wait for them to heal themselves.
Players can keep up to six dragons at a time. Sorcerer dragons can heal attacks from poison-laced ballista bolts. As you expand your base to new islands, you clear out the fog that obscures the island. And you can build new defenses on the new island, creating more obstacles that get in the way of attacking dragons. It runs on the iPad 2 and higher.
As with other games like Clash of Clans, War Dragon’s guilds could be a big attraction for the game. Each match can have three attackers and three defenders. That’s not nearly as many as can play together in multiplayer PC games, but it’s a lot for a real-time mobile game.
If you attack another base, you can invite your guild mates to join you in the attack. If you get attacked, you can get a notification. Then you can join the defense and fight off the attack in real-time.
You can form guilds and declare war on others. At any given time, three guild teammates can stage a simultaneous attack on an enemy base. Up to 50 players can be in a guild.
You can chat with your team and engage in private chat with friends. The game matches have replays. So if you get attacked, you can see how the attack unfolded.
Building a big game
“Two years ago, we knew mobile would be the leading platform,” Ambrozio said. “We knew hardcore gamers would want to go to mobile, but they wouldn’t find the games they wanted there.”
The Mantis Engine has full native support for 3D graphics with a small memory footprint optimized for mobile devices. Pocket Gems designed it specifically to handle spotty connectivity that’s generally associated with mobile networks while still having true synchronous multiplayer. The studio has more games that will use it in the works. The engine employs Metal, Apple’s own applications programming interface for taking full advantage of the graphics hardware in a mobile device. The result is cool lighting and shadows in game scenery.
Ambrozio said it was a lot of work to create an engine. He said the company tried out both Unity and Unreal game engines, but neither enabled the team to do what it really wanted, as they weren’t born to run a mobile game.
“We always try to push the envelope on something that has not been done before,” Ambrozio said.
Room to grow
So far, you can’t customize castles or the devices that you use to defend these fortresses. That could change over time.
Pocket Gems is still experimenting with how to monetize War Dragons. It doesn’t have “pay to win,” and it doesn’t force players to spend money in the free-to-play game if they don’t want to. If you buy the in-game currency, rubies, with real money, you can spend the them on upgrading buildings or speeding up constructions. But you can earn rubies in the game over time.
War Dragons has a lot of room for expansion. It doesn’t have a single-player campaign story. And it has no “meta map” yet, so you can’t locate neighbors and attack them. But you can see the names of guild members that you are at war with, and you can target them for attacks.
Ambrozio said that Pocket Gems plans to keep adding to War Dragons as the community grows. I think this marks a new time of growth and expansion for Pocket Gems.
Pocket Gems was founded in 2009, and its free-to-play mobile games have been downloaded more than 200 million times across iOS and Android. The company has more than 200 employees.