For its latest "Road to the IGF Mobile" feature, GamesOnDeck talked with Ryan Ho, producer of Mikoishi's IGF Mobile Best Game and Technical Achievement finalist Steam Iron: The Fallen, a cellphone-based real-time multiplayer RTS "designed to deliver the best elements of the RTS genre into the small mobile form factor."
What kind of background do you have in the game industry or in making games?
Ryan Ho: Based in Singapore, Mikoishi has been making connected mobile games since the days when SMS was the only way of providing a connected experience for the user. Over the years, as phones became more capable and connected, we continued to push the envelope in connected mobile gaming, and picked up some awards in the process of doing so.
Connected mobile games we have developed previously include Star Wars Battlefront Mobile, and the mobile versions of Super Puzzle Fighter II and Phoenix Wright. We have now expanded to the Nintendo DS and PC online platforms.
The Mikoishi team is made up of experts from all fields, with diverse backgrounds, but we all have a common passion for making great games. Mikoishi employees stem from traditional interactive entertainment companies (Vivendi, Electronic Arts, Atari, Eidos, RockStar) to new media (MTV, STAR TV).
What motivated you to make your game?
RH: Networked games have always been our forte, and we were waiting for the right opportunity to make a next-generation mobile game to leverage on the capabilities of the 3G mobile network. As soon as it became commercially feasible to do so, we jumped at the opportunity.
Where did you draw inspiration from in its design and implementation?
RH: We studied many RTS (Real Time Strategy) games intensely, and drew inspiration from some of the market leaders in this genre. But ultimately we had to go through a lot of deep thinking to come up with an adaptation of the RTS genre that is playable on the mobile form factor and yet retains all the core essence of what makes an RTS game fun.
What sort of development tools have you been using in the production of your game?
RH: Both client and server components are in Java, so a great Java IDE is a must. For that, we used Eclipse. The Sun Java WTK (Wireless ToolKit) and the various emulators are also essential for developing mobile games.
And like all our previous connected mobile titles we also depended heavily on Theatre, Mikoishi's proprietary online platform. Theatre makes it possible to develop connected games easily. Other than providing online services such as player matching and ladder ranking, it also has a network middleware SDK (i.e. CentreStage). One of its key features is replicating the game state on the server to multiple clients and in real-time. This is how both game clients can have the exact same real-time view of the game world in a multiplayer session.
What do you think the most interesting element of the game is?
RH: The most interesting element of the game is the multiplayer element. The controls are easy to pick up but yet provide the power and flexibility for a seasoned player to micro-manage his units expertly.
On the other hand, the asymmetric factions and unit attributes provide many strategic options. In our many hours of testing, we have seen the game played in ways never before thought possible. In a way, what we have done is to give players a tool with which they can express themselves and showcase their skills.
We have even created a TV broadcasting application so that the skills of expert players can be showcased on air. As part of the Korean roll-out, we will be working with a major broadcaster to facilitate televised tournaments.
How long have you been developing your game, and what has the process been like?
RH: The conceptualization and pre-production phase took us 5 months, after-which it took us another 4 months to build the game. As you can see a lot of time was invested up-front to work out the design. We also did a fair amount of prototyping. In addition to testing out the game design ideas, we also had to be sure that mobile phones were ready for a game like this.
After that, it was a crazy race against time to get the game done on time. It is a very big game to get into a very small device in a very short time. I always say that if you work on the cutting-edge, you have to be prepared to bleed. There was a lot of blood on the floor for this one.
If you had to rewind to the start of the project, is there anything that you'd do differently?
RH: In an undertaking as technically challenging and ground-breaking as this, many things can be done better and in a much shorter time with the benefit of hindsight. The good news is that we have adopted the franchise approach to the Steam Iron line of mobile RTS games.
We have plans for expansions and sequels in 2008, so there is no need to "hit the rewind button" to "relive the past". Instead, we can march on bravely into the future and apply what we have learned to develop even better versions of the game in the future!
Our first expansion will feature a third faction, and is scheduled for commercial launch in Q2 2008. The sequel is scheduled for the end of 2008.
What are your thoughts on the state of independent game development in the mobile industry, and are any other independent mobile games out now that you admire?
RH: I must confess that I don't follow the independent games scene closely. Maybe attending the IGF will change that, but at this point what I can only share is from my personal experience as a gamer. I don't like shopping at the malls much so I do end up playing downloadable and browser games mainly.
Among the downloadable games, the Galactic Civilizations series from Stardock has impressed me the most. Their convenient, user-oriented distribution model has been a joy to use. I also found very amazing what some developers have been able to do with the web browser as a gaming platform. For example, Pardus was able to create a very immersive user experience with merely the web browser as the user interface.
I have a Linux machine at home and there are a number of great open source games out there. Among them, Battle for Wesnoth is an example of how a simple battle-mechanic can be used to create so much depth.
You have 30 seconds left to live and you must tell the mobile game business something very important. What is it?
RH: The mobile phone is a gaming device with immense potential. Let's work together to convince users that they don't have to look far for great entertainment experiences. It's in their pocket.