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Sunblink has launched today its Heroish castle defense game on Apple Arcade. It’s the latest creation from a veteran team of developers who mostly worked at Backflip Studios in the past.
The exclusive for Apple Arcade on iOS is a hero-based castle-defense battler, which has both single-player and multiplayer combat. You play as one of six epic heroes. Your hero can summon troops, sling spells, and destroy enemy towers to achieve victory.
Players can fight in single-player adventures with three campaigns filled with lighthearted storytelling, sweeping musical scores, and hand-crafted environments. Or they can dive into battles with friends and family in competitive 1v1 or 2v2 matches.
CEO Julian Farrior and Ryan Drag, chief creative officer, came up with the original idea largely based on the work they had done together at their prior game company on Army of Darkness: Defense.
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“We had so much fun making that game that we wanted to bring this concept into the modern era,” Farrior said in an interview with GamesBeat. “We wanted to build a multiplayer castle-defense game that leveraged new mechanics such as card/hero selection, matchmaking and sophisticated AI. In addition, we wanted to upgrade the experience with more humor, better art and best-in-class music.”
I met Farrior about 13 years ago after he started Backflip Studios in Boulder, Colorado, to make games for the iPhone at the dawn of the App Store. The company was a nimble mobile-first studio that came up with hits including Army of Darkness Defense, Dragonvale and Paper Toss Friends.
Hasbro bought a majority stake in Backflip in 2013 for $112 million and Farrior stayed on until 2017. But the business got tougher and Hasbro closed the studio in October 2019, just a little after Farrior decided to dive back in. That was heartbreaking, but it created an opportunity. Farrior found that he was getting antsy and he had to get back into gaming. The creative itch was still there.
“I can’t stay away. I’m back in the salt mines,” Farrior said. “There’s too much going on not to be a part of this. For a couple years, I watched what was going on from the sidelines.”
He added, “I advised a bunch of small companies. I joined a bunch of boards. I did a bunch of different things. But the minute I left Dean, I missed everything about it. I missed the creative zeitgeist, of being able to make product on a medium that I loved. That was absolutely exploding. There has never been a more exciting time in games.”
So he started working on an idea he was obsessed with and he had an early conversation with Apple. Apple liked the idea and helped fund the title.
“I liked the idea of building a product on one of these new subscription platforms. I like the creative freedom that it allowed for,” Farrior said. “The opportunity was born out of that conversation.”
He teamed up with Justin Larrabee, chief technology officer. Ryan Drag joined as chief creative officer and they worked on prototypes. The company also got funding from another partner for a different game, but Farrior has otherwise bootstrapped the studio with the money he made from Backflip.
They formed Sunblink, which is an old Scottish weather term for a ray of sunshine shooting through an otherwise overcast day. And they set up shop in Boulder, Colorado, absorbing some of the Backflip team. The company has 30 people, with about 15 from Backflip. Some members are distributed around the world.
“Suddenly, some of the best people I knew in the industry, and I had had worked with for more than a decade, were available,” Farrior said. “At that point, our ambitions, and what we wanted to create, grew somewhat larger.”
The goal of this new studio was to build an intensely creative shop focused solely on multiplayer games with experienced folks they loved being around, Farrior said.
Phil Boucher, who worked on the music for Fortnite and the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie, signed on early and represented the kind of talent with whom we aspired to partner. Boucher got an orchestra in Vienna to perform the soundtrack.
More gameplay details
Players can build custom decks and upgrade cards to create thoughtful combinations of troops and spells as they aim to defeat their opponents, destroy the Soul Gem that gives them power, and move to the top of the leaderboards.
The card collection and selection element to the game hasn’t been used much in castle defense games.
“It was important for our debut title to showcase what Sunblink is all about and demonstrate our unique strengths and talents as a studio” said Nicky Britt, director of operations at Sunblink, in a statement. “Apple was an exceptional partner on the build and launch of HEROish, they supported us in every possible way over the last two years on this project. We are thrilled that Apple Arcade players will get to experience our game starting today.”
Today’s game market
Farrior said the demand for good gaming content from talented studios is greater than he has ever seen. He said the macro environment, momentum, reach, opportunity and medium itself is more exciting than it has ever been.
“Though the talent pool is tight, the quality of applicants that has emerged has provided us with great optimism,” Farrior said. “There is incredible demand for highly talented, highly capable studios. At least that’s what we’ve seen.”
He noted they have access to capital from giant VC gaming funds and more appetite all around despite the recession.
Later this year, the game is expected to come out the Switch, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, and the PC.
The company is currently working on a larger open world game with partners both in the U.S. and in Japan. It’s also a multiplayer experience and is scheduled to launch sometime in 2023.
Tom Blind, also a previous founder at Backflip, built the prototype and is the game director on this new project.
“I couldn’t be prouder of what we initially created and that the team was very attracted to that vision. But I think what we want to do to the future for the future is even more ambitious,” he said. “We want to reach more players and we want to let more players play together.”
I asked Farrior what he thought about blockchain, and he said the company isn’t working on it now. He is bullish on it for the long term, but it isn’t part of the studio’s early plans.
“I think we’re going to see an evolution in compelling games there,” he said. “I’m hopeful, but I’m not currently developing in that space.”
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