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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.
GamesBeat: You make buildings immediately usable, which kind of runs against some traditional monetization thinking. Typically games will make a player wait for their buildings, which drives them to run out of patience and pay.
Castle: You’re highlighting a nuance here. We encourage people to pay to bypass some of the grind that’s natural in any resource-based gameplay like RTS or MOBA. We don’t mind people paying for that because it just accelerates their play. What we don’t want is people thinking, “Well, I guess I’ll turn my game off now and wait a few hours.” We don’t want a situation where the most efficient way to play the game is not to play it. It’s a very different model.
You’re right in that we’re probably leaving some amount of money on the table when it comes to frustrating somebody into paying. But I don’t really feel like we want to make games that monetize because people are frustrated. We want them to monetize because they’re excited and they want to spend into the gameplay experience, not away from it.
GamesBeat: I assume that you’re happy with the results so far?
Castle: Yeah, it works quite well. It’s always hard to read the tea leaves – you have a lot of correlative data, not necessarily causal data – but we’re seeing better engagement levels and better play from payers once they’ve paid. That indicates that they paid to play, not to avoid playing. If we were to go and put all those time mechanics into the game, we might monetize a bit better in the short term, but we’re in it for the long haul. We want people to continue to be happy players, whether they’re highly engaged payers or highly engaged non-payers.
GamesBeat: If you over-monetize, it seems like you run the risk of having players drop the game out of frustration.
Castle: I saw a lot of that when I was at Zynga. There was a time when there was a real press to increase monetization rates. It’s even worse than that, in a way, because when somebody quits a game out of frustration, they go from being a net promoter to a net detractor. That’s bad for your ecosystem in general. You never want someone to quit because they hate your game. [laughs] If they quit because they got tired or they’re a little bored, then shame on you for not giving them enough content or whatever. But to get them to a point where they just get frustrated and quit is a bad outcome.
I think everyone recognizes that. Most companies are trying to avoid it. I just think it’s easier to fall back on known and accepted techniques, even 1.0 web purchasing notions like paywalls. Those are still around because they’re effective. It’s just not the more nuanced move. It doesn’t get you the long-term happy payer. We don’t really distinguish between payers and highly engaged players when it comes to our analysis of how the game is being played. At the end of the day we’d much rather have players that are paying us because they feel like they’re getting a good value for their money and saving some time. It’s not bypassing the game in any way.
GamesBeat: What do you do from here on out to keep people happy? Are there multiplayer features like clan warfare coming?
Castle: Absolutely. There’s a big war zone mode in the game. In the beginning you play PvE, against bases that were created by our designers. We have more than 100 of those in the game right now and we’re constantly adding more. They teach you how to use a certain unit or tactic. Immediately you’re sent into a campaign mode, which has a story and gradually gives you access to units on the PvE side.
Very quickly, almost immediately as well, we also get you into anonymous PvP, where you attack other players. Although you see their name, you don’t really think of them as opponents so much as, “Oh, that’s a cool base. It has some metal. Let me go get that.” Sometimes you’ll get a revenge loop there. The PvP becomes a light personal engagement. But it’s certainly not a social engagement yet.
Once we open up the world maps, we open up the social aspect of the game. Now, when you pick on a base or decide to attack a PvE target, you can use your forward operating bases — game pieces that modify the battles — or your alliance members. Suddenly it’s very important to become a member of an alliance. It’s much more helpful when it comes to taking down big targets. Ultimately you end up using your alliances to take down PvE targets, and then you battle against other alliances to try and take targets or prevent access to certain areas. It slowly but surely grows to be a large group mechanic against another large group mechanic.
Some people in our game are already at the highest level of playing the elder game, but they don’t engage in that at all. They’re having a great time just doing PvE stuff, solo stuff. We try not to judge that. We know that people stick around longer when they’re playing with their friends, but for some people that’s just not their cup of tea, and we don’t want them to feel like we’ve abandoned them.
Taking care of that going forward, we have a whole system set up for regular events and constant releases of new technologies for players to use, new equipment to modify their units. There’s a road map for many years of additions to the game. We don’t start day one wondering what we’re going to do for the next six months. We know what we’re going to do for the next couple of years.
GamesBeat: What was it like to deal with the moving target of having outstanding graphics, but also running on as many devices as possible.
Castle: That’s been a challenge. We still have people out there who give us one-star reviews because they tried to play on their six-year-old phone and it didn’t work. I wish players wouldn’t do that. They don’t realize how devastating that can be to a game. We worked hard to support as many phones and tablets as possible. At the end of the day, the graphics are spectacular, and though we have four different scales on visuals to give you decent performance on lower-tier devices, at some point your device is just too old. We’ve done the best we can.
That’s part of the reason it’s taken quite a bit of time to get this to worldwide release. We wanted to be sure we had a wide representation of market potential, and of course all the other things we talked about. All those large world map features require a lot of iteration to get right. You need good-sized audiences to do that, which all adds up to more time.
Everyone notices the graphics are spectacular. Most companies take—I don’t know if I’d say “safer,” but a less expensive route of simplifying their graphics so they can run on as many devices as possible. But I feel that takes away from a modern war game. If you look at the ads some of these companies run, you think, “Oh, I want to play that game!” Then you download it and it’s text and slide bars. You have to imagine all the rest, like Infocom adventures from the ‘80s. [laughs] I do think it’s important to have a great visual presentation.
GamesBeat: What was the team like in this case? Does it remind you of the scope and scale of the teams you had at Westwood?
Castle: Actually, our team is considerably bigger than the RTS teams we had at Westwood. Back in the day we could bang a game out with 12 or 15 or 20 people. The Rogue Assault team has been at least 50 people most of the way. It’s a big team. That being said, the task they’re taking on involves many times more content than anything we ever put in a C&C.
In a way, if you think about how much is being accomplished, the output per person — it’s certainly more productive now than it’s ever been. You see that in people being able to ship a game with a handful of people and still be competitive. You could never have done that back in the day, especially with the depth of content we have. The speed at which consumers can go through content is shocking nowadays.
It’s a funny thing. With mobile games, and especially these MMO games, the very first day you launch the game is the beginning of the process. It may be the end of our personal navel-gazing as far as whether or not it’s ready, but it’s the beginning of figuring out what the game should be for all the people playing. We look to the community to give us feedback, tell us what they like, tell us what they don’t like. We’ll be listening and adapting as quickly as possible to make sure we’re making a game the community wants to play.
GamesBeat: It seems like that whole process may be painful, but it’s necessary to be competitive in the market today.
Castle: I don’t find it painful, actually. I know a lot of people seem to feel that way. I find it invigorating, though. It may just be my ongoing insecurity about whether I’m really making the best games I can. [laughs] It’s important to hear people say what they like or what they didn’t like, and very important to know why.
Even though I’ve made a lot of games in my life, more than 150, it feels like every time I make another one I learn something new. There’s always a new hill to climb. It’s hard sometimes to hear the criticism, but it helps us make better games. We want to hear the good and the bad.
GamesBeat: There’s also the process of putting a game together over two and a half years, though.
Castle: There is that, yeah. It’s painful because — there’s been a couple of times where we felt like we were close to launch, but then the data told us we needed to work harder and get a little bit better. That’s always a hard decision. I applaud the senior management at Kixeye for having the integrity and the guts to hold it and say, “No, we can do better.” That’s important.
One key to the genius of Blizzard is that they’re willing to wait. They’re willing to kill something. They’re willing to keep working until they feel something’s ready. That’s worked out for them spectacularly. That’s something every company could learn from. It sure would be nice if we didn’t live a world where 4,000 games come out every day and two of them are worth playing.
GamesBeat: Did you have to have a lot of conversations with Will about the big picture?
Castle: Oh, no. Will and Dave Scott and Paul Preece are dedicated gamers. They’re committed to making sure that the brand is protected, that their products are as good as they can be.
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