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Lou Castle has made more than 150 games in his 34-year career as a game developer. But he had a challenge on his hands with his latest project, War Commander: Rogue Assault.
The mobile game is a mobile strategy game that will remind you of Castle’s older real-time strategy games on the PC, such as Command & Conquer. It took more than 2.5 years of prototyping and testing before the company felt confident enough to launch it. It’s as close to a hardcore game that you can get on mobile, with isometric graphics and fast real-time action.
One thing that separates this game from others is the ability to instantly build a building such as a barracks or refinery. If you have the resources, you can just create it. Other games make you wait, and that gets frustrating for players, who then might be willing to spend to cut the time short. Castle thought that it might be better to have happier players, rather than excessive monetization. You can also touch an individual unit and redirect it to another target. That direct control is different from the “plop and pray” games such as Clash of Clans.
These are some of the insights that Castle and his team of 50 people gleaned from their long preparation. We’ll see if it pays off. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
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GamesBeat: Can you start with how you kicked off this project in the first place?
Lou Castle: A couple of years ago I was brought in to look at the game as a consultant, to give feedback on what things I felt were working and what wasn’t. I wrote a report, and after submitting all that, Will Harbin called me in and said, “Can we get you to come in for a few months and implement some of these things?” Most of my feedback was about the visual style, art direction, a few things like that. I had some design feedback, but not in-depth, because it was really just a set of first impressions.
I came in and started working on the product. I gave a lot more feedback, and that led to a re-upping of my contract. Ever since then, I’ve been going from one role to another as we continue to change different members of the team leadership. I keep filling in the gaps that come along. I’ve been the creative director consistently, in addition to some other things, since early 2015. It’s been a long road, but I’m excited by where the product is at, how it’s been received. I’m confident that we have a great platform to build on over the next few years.
GamesBeat: Where do you think this is breaking new ground?
Castle: Some things are subtle, some not so subtle. Immediately, visually, you see something that looks more like the ads you see on television as opposed to the slider bars and text you see with most games. Everybody’s reacting to that first. This looks like a PC game from as recently as a few years ago, which is pretty amazing when you think about the relative processing power of the devices.
The second thing is, for people who play in this mobile strategy genre, they’re delighted by the fact that you can immediately build buildings once you have resources. There isn’t a bunch of timers all over the screen that you’re waiting for. It’s more like a traditional RTS, where resource collection involves things like drilling and mining, but you can also attack other players and get resources. You can lean into the game and get a bunch of resources to accelerate your play. That’s different, and people are seeing that.
The other one — which you’re not seeing yet because it’s later in the game — is the massively multiplayer aspect of the game. We know statistically that a bunch of people play the campaign modes. I haven’t seen people start talking about those specifically, but I know that they’re playing them and enjoying them. From the data we can tell that all these things make this game unique in its space. It’s a nice blend of traditional RTS, MMO, and some of the tower defense aspects that are legacy issues from the Clash of Clans and Backyard Monsters games.
GamesBeat: It’s a lot closer to what you used to do on the PC, back in the Westwood days.
Castle: A lot of people are saying it feels like Command & Conquer. That might be my influence on the art direction and unit selection and things like that. One thing I’ve been proud of is our attention to authenticity. As with C&C, we’ve opted to take units from real battlefields right now, or ones that are coming soon. The original C&C had that flavor to it. If you bought a military magazine, you’d see something about new tanks coming out, and we’d have that in the game. It has that near-future feel to it. I think people are reacting to that. The art direction is meant to be more realistic.
From a gameplay point of view, though, what I’m happiest to hear from people is that it feels like C&C. The problem with games is that tech is always changing and the art form is always changing. When people say, “I want a game like C&C,” they probably don’t really mean that. What they mean is that they want to feel the same way they did when they played those games. We’ve done a lot of innovations. There are lots of changes here — not just demands from the platform, but creative changes we’ve made that blend features from all kinds of genres. All those things contribute to that sense of discovery and joy that you had when you played the original C&C, but it’s not really “like C&C.” The emotion we create is similar to that emotion, which in my opinion is the most successful state you can have.
GamesBeat: How hard do you feel it is to get this right on mobile? I’m curious as to how much testing you did in different markets to see if you were on the right track. Did you have to go back to iterate on it quite a bit?
Castle: It took two and a half years in test markets and constant releases with user acquisition and analysis to make sure we’re getting it right. We also did a lot of non-traditional, for mobile games at least — we did a lot of user testing, focus testing. It’s extremely hard to get this right.
It’s funny. When people think of a tablet, they think it’s just like a mouse, but it’s really not at all. Getting the touch to feel right, being able to distinguish between taps and swipes and pinches, is really challenging, getting the proper feel. In games, because of the high degree of interactivity, the UX is very different in our game. You can move the individual units around during combat. That’s one of the biggest differences between this and the rest of the genre. In most games you just plop your units down and pray that they do what you want.
Getting that to feel right — being able to tap on a unit, having it respond, having the elements of the GUI respond as well — things like multitap. A lot of people don’t realize that you can tap two unit cards at once and do group selections. All those little things combine to make a great experience. That takes a lot of iteration.
GamesBeat: In that respect, does it seem harder than what you used to do in the PC days?
Castle: The UI and UX is much more difficult to get correct than traditional PC games, even today’s PC games. Not that there isn’t great work on the PC, with UI evolving dramatically, but there’s a great degree of prior art there. There’s a lot you can lean back into. “Other games have done this, so we should do this too.” Every now and then you’ll play a new PC shooter where they didn’t get it right and you can feel it right away, but there’s so many articles out there, so many things you can look at, that it’s not typical to see that problem. On mobile I constantly see games where the basic UI and UX are pretty poor. Hats off to the companies that are successful because it’s very hard.
GamesBeat: Is it still a challenge to get monetization right as well?
Castle: It’s an interesting question. A lot of people ask me about that, how I feel about free-to-play. I love Kixeye as a company, because their philosophy around free-to-play — you make a game that’s well-balanced, that has a lot of player investment and requires a lot of engagement to get through the progression. Once you create that kind of product, you have all the right game mechanics in there to interleave an economy.
To answer the question more directly, yes, it’s very important. I used to say, going back 30 years or so, that game development is a three-legged stool. You have science and technology as one leg, art and spectacle as the second leg, and systems and design for the third leg. Now, if you’re a free-to-play game, you have a fourth leg, which is economy and product management. If one of those legs isn’t strong, it’s easy to tip over. You have to get everything right. None of them can be wrong.
That’s the challenge of mobile. It’s both exciting and very rewarding when you get it right. Kixeye is certainly the best I’ve seen when it comes to getting players excited about paying and feeling like they’re getting good value for the money, but at the same time not ruining the game for players who aren’t paying.
GamesBeat: How does the game monetize? What do players buy?
Castle: There’s a collection mechanic in the game, just like all modern RTS games since Dune II. You can accelerate that collection mechanic or top off your collection costs with hard currency. You get some of that in the game for doing upgrades and missions and things like that, so you can choose to use just that free hard currency in the game. But if you want to accelerate your play a bit you can buy that currency as well.
In addition we have the sort of crate mechanics you see in a lot of game. After each battle you open a crate and get some random components that are good for different things. If you play enough you’ll eventually get all the components you need, but you can also, at any time, go in and buy crates like booster packs of Magic cards. You get extra components and units through those.
Really, all the things you’re buying are only useful if you go to play the game with them. The power involved in purchasing is just accelerating your play. It’s a pay-to-play model versus a pay-to-win model. We definitely prefer that at Kixeye. Our best payers tend to be some of our best players as well. They don’t want to just buy their way to success. They want to buy their way to offsetting their time investment, but they don’t want to buy a win condition. That robs them of their ability to build their skills and win battles fair and square.