Splash Damage, the UK developer known for its big-name first-person shooters such as Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory and Brink, has changed gear, and is about to release a turn-based strategy game for iOS.
The elevator pitch from the studio for upcoming Rad Soldiers, due for release in June and created in Unity, is "Guns With Friends" -- a nod to the fact that Rad Soldiers' asynchronous gameplay works in a similar way to Zynga's With Friends series.
The free-to-play game takes place in central London, although the plan is to expand the story to cover other locations too. A radiological hazard has left London deserted, and now several groups of mercenaries are vying for control over the banks and other important areas.
Splash Damage's veteran game designer Ed Stern is the writer behind it, so we're warned that there's a lot more to the story than first meets they eye, with the storyline due to be expanded in the months after launch.
With gameplay focusing heavily on strategic decisions (it was originally known as Rad Tactics before the final decision on the name was made), players move a band of soldiers around a series of grid-based maps, using cover, line of fire and special equipment and abilities to capture and hold points.
The turn-based play is asynchronous, allowing players to make their moves in multiple online games, exit out of the game, then come back to it later and watch how each of their opponent's responded. There's also a full single-player campaign to work your way through.
Gamasutra visited Splash Damage to check the game out in action, and talk to the developers behind the title about the radical shift from FPS to free-to-play iOS.
Making something Rad
"We just decided we were going to make a hardcore iOS [game] and fuck the casual exploitative games," laughs Paul Wedgwood, CEO at Splash Damage.
"What we've tried to do is take everything we've learned from AAA gaming and apply those lessons to iOS gaming in a way that creates something that is really compelling to play, but is not compulsion, which is really important to us," he continues.
"Highest on our list of values is to never knowingly exploit people with the games that we make. There really is this divergence happening right now where there are games as a science - if you can call them games - and games as an art, and we're definitely aiming for the latter. Games should be made because they are fun and immersive, but what they shouldn't be is addictive or have compulsion loops or exploit people, charging $7000 to an 8-year-old for a fountain or something like that."
The concept for Rad Soldiers was born around a year ago, when the team found itself discussing how it would go about developing a strategy game. Once plans were laid down, the iOS platform became an obvious choice.
"I think the thing about the mobile platforms is that they're so suited to asynchronous play, and it's great to see that style of gameplay come back again," explains CCO Richard Jolly.
Adds Wedgwood, "The most important thing on iOS for us was that it was multiplayer. We loved the idea that you could be on a train or a bus, and you could take a few turns and then just carry on with whatever you were doing before. You wouldn't have this feeling that you could only play it for an hour."
That doesn't mean that the team is putting aside its past knowledge of first-person shooters, however, with a number of concepts from past Splash Damage games making their way into this new title. For example, says Jolly, there are class-based combat mechanics involved.
Making the studio's past experience work with the iOS audience is high on its list of priorities, and creating a deep yet accessible experience was key.
"What we've tried to do with Rad Soldiers is have a nice level of depth, so that when you've been playing for a good few hours, it gets incredibly deep with the different tools and abilities you can use, and that learning curve is quite steep," continues Wedgwood. "But in the beginning it's considerably more accessible, and it's more about collecting new soldiers and weapons."
Also on the list of high priorities is making sure every one of the game's non-vanity in-app purchases are also unlockable -- essentially, you don't need to spend a single dollar to see everything the game has to offer.
"Airstrikes, sentry guns, land mines, rocket launches, crossbows with exploding bolts... you can unlock all this without spending any money at all - that's really critical to us," says Wedgwood. "Everything that's gameplay-affected can be done by anyone."
"I mean, just to put that in context, despite how I live today, I grew up on a South London council estate, so I know full-well what it's like to not have money as a kid," he continues.
"At school, one of the things that frustrated me most was that I couldn't really compete at sport because I didn't have the same level of kit as my opponents. It was just clear that if you had really good running shoes, then you could just run better than me in my charity shop plimsols - there was just nothing I could do against someone who had a really cool pair of Nike trainers."
This, says Wedgwood, sums up why he loves the idea of free games, but hates the idea of pay-to-win games. "It's just absolutely something we're not going to go anywhere near," he adds.
Smaller teams, higher budgets
Currently there are around 90 staff working at Splash Damage, yet less than 10 percent of the workforce is assigned to Rad Soldiers, including Jamie Manson (creator of Team Fortress 2 map cp_steel), Marc Fascia (lead programmer on Ninja Theory's Enslaved) and Dave Johnston (creator of numerous Counter Strike maps including de_dust).
"At times, only three people are working on it, and at its height, 9 or 10 people," says Wedgwood.
Yet he adds, "Our budget for this game is five or six times the budget of any sensible person for any iOS game, but we're just doing it because it's really good fun!"
"It's kind of like returning back to the days of mod making," notes Jolly, "in the sense that the game is never really properly done -- you've still got to iterate on it, and you've got to add new stuff.
If, then, Splash Damage is spending a non-sensible amount of money on development of the game, and aims to allow players to unlock everything gameplay-orientated simply through play, how does it plan to make its money from this free-to-play title?
"What we really like is any monetization model that gives somebody free access to the game, allows them to make their own mind up about whether they want to spend any money, and to choose from various options that allow them to buy convenience goods if that's what they want to do," answers Wedgwood.
"The most important thing for us is that the game is effectively free forever, for people who don't have any money and can't afford to spend money on it. I think where we feel it's OK to exclusively charge is on things that are purely aesthetic. So if we have solid gold helmets, it's OK to make them a money-only item - but if there's anything that's gameplay affecting, then it has to be entirely possible for anybody to gain access to that without spending any money."
I asked Wedgwood what has exactly spurred this shift into strategy games on iOS, given that the studio has a very FPS-centric past. Is it simply because that's where the money appears to be headed at the moment?
"It just happens that, as WarChest's first release, this game happens to be on iOS," he answers. In fact, the studio has a free-to-play PC title on the way later this year, and a free-to-play console game coming next year.
"The reason we chose iOS first for WarChest, and the reason we chose this genre first is that it's the most straightforward way for us to build multiplayer that is asynchronous," he continues.
"So in a first-person shooter, for example, it would be very difficult to create an asynchronous first-person shooter that was compelling, because part of what makes FPS compelling is that they have this very visceral feedback loop that happens - I shoot, I hit or I don't, if I hit you I get immediately rewarded. That's quite important."
He muses, "There's no reason why you couldn't make an asynchronous first-person shooter, but it's not a particularly tactical experience -- it's a twitch-based experience."
"It plays to the strength of the platform," Jolly chimes in. "You're not playing games for hours and hours on end, you literally just want to have a few games of Draw Something and then pick it up again later on. So really, our game is just more suited to iOS."
Wedgwood describes Rad Soldiers as "the meta-game for a first-person shooter," suggesting that if a player were to zoom out from a Team Fortress 2 battlefield and act as a commander over all the characters, this would be an experience similar to Rad Soldiers.
"That kind of idea is what has led us to this position," he says. "We can create that meta-game on iOS, but we couldn't do it as a visceral real-time first-person shooter."
The Inspiration Game
Rad Soldiers appears to be visually inspired by the behemoth Valve multiplayer shooter Team Fortress 2.
Wedgwood says that, when it came to looks, the team set out to make something that was colorful enough that it would capture the iOS audience, yet had a real AAA feel to it.
"We wanted to do an interpretation of London that was fun, and we knew it needed to be saturated with color to make the characters really stand out on an iOS screen," he explains.
"Visually, Rad Soldiers is better than all the other free-to-play games that exist on iOS currently," he boasts, later adding with a laugh, "Imagine Hero Academy but pretty."
Inspiration has also come from gameplay mechanics featured in games from as far back as the 80s.
"We looked back at the real daddies of the genre," explains Jolly. "So like Laser Squad for example - the really hardcore ones. We're trying to stay true to what those kinds of games were like, but obviously bringing a lot more accessibility. So we're not just putting a load of buttons on the bottom of the screen - we've simplified it down a little bit."
"It's absolutely not XCOM dumbed down though," adds Wedgwood. "It's just that the iPhone and the iPad have specific things that play well to their strengths. For example, the reason that we chose the game to be 3D is because you can easily rotate the screen with your fingers, and pitch in and pitch out. It's just such a nice feature of the iOS devices."
Rad Soldiers is aimed as the mid-core, casual gamer, according to the team -- "a casual game for hardcore gamers" -- and will be available sometime in June.