Bruce Shelley on putting the players back in control in mobile strategy

Bruce Shelley on putting the players back in control in mobile strategy
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

December 15th 2015 at 2:38PM

The Age of Empires and Civilization designer discusses his plans to shake up the market with The Incorruptibles

Even the most casual glance at any app store game charts will show you that strategy games are among the most popular titles on smart devices, with smash hits like Clash of Clans and Game of War leading the charge.

The dominance of these two titles alone has made it increasingly difficult for any developer to break into the market, with many studios following the formula laid down by Supercell and Machine Zone closely in the hopes of emulating their success.

But this hasn't stopped new and veteran strategy devs alike experimenting with new gameplay mechanics and now a pioneer of the genre believes he has the answer.

Bruce Shelley (pictured) is best known for his work as a designer on various Sid Meier titles, including Civilization, as well as Microsoft's popular Age of Empires franchise. Now he is working with BonusXP on new strategy title The Incorruptibles, which is published by MaxPlay.

We spoke to Shelley to find out more about how his new title puts players back in control.

With strategy games dominating the mobile space, what is the biggest challenge when it comes to standing out with a new title?
Getting people to try your game – or acquiring daily average users as the product managers say – is the biggest hurdle. Few, if any, new games can afford to hire beautiful celebrities appearing in television ads. We have to first make a terrific game that can compete on its own merits, then find clever and cost effective ways to attract players. I believe MaxPlay is being very creative in their plans to encourage people to try The Incorruptibles. 

We don't think real-time strategy has to be any more difficult to access than the big mobile strategy games already out there. The key for us was to be really different in gameplay. We thought there was an opportunity to compete by bringing true RTS to mobile.

We thought it was odd that when playing other mobile strategy games we only set the battles in motion and then watched them unfold. Directing my units and fighting had been a key part of RTS on other platforms. We believe that bringing that element of engagement into mobile strategy will be a significant and attractive difference for The Incorruptibles. 

Free-to-play has brought a new dimension to design. It used to be enough to make a great game. For F2P, we have to do that plus also encourage a player to willingly pay a little bit for something additional.

What lessons can we learn from PC strategy titles, like Age of Empires and Civilization? What mechanics translate well?
The player should have the fun, not the mobile device. I want to be the battlefield general, not just the base architect and weapons manufacturer. The mechanics of base building, research, and army building have come to mobile well.

They remind me of browser-based PC games popular in Europe where players 'labour' over their games. Open the game, work on the base, research, army, and go away for a while. My friends in Europe speak of a class of player they call the 'labourer', who is content to work on building something in a game a few times each day. 

More difficult is controlling armies and engaging in battles. We believe we have found good systems for those and they will make The Incorruptibles a a success. 

As you said, many mobile RTS games limit control for players, often denying direct control over units. How have you remedied this?
We have built a system for this into the Incorruptibles. Basically you directly control up to three units – which we call Heroes – and each has a squad of warriors attached. Your hero doesn't take damage until all the warriors in the squad are lost. So you can have 18 "units" in play but only have to actively control three.

Each hero is a particular type and each type has strengths and weaknesses. Part of the challenge is managing the battle so that your heroes are placed in situations where they have an advantage. We believe it is simple and elegant, and works well.

The player should have the fun, not the mobile device. I want to be the battlefield general, not just the base architect and weapons manufacturer.

How do you balance game design with the need to monetise? How do you enable players to get the most from strategy games and play in their own style without forcing them through too many paywalls?
Free-to-play has brought a new dimension to design. It used to be enough to make a great game. For F2P, we have to do that plus also encourage a player to willingly pay a little bit for something additional.

We don't like paying to win. We are more in the camp of paying to unlock content faster and personalising the experience. So monetisation has not changed our design and we don't present any paywalls. 

How is The Incorruptibles a prime example of new ways to do mobile strategy?
We have put the player back in charge of the battle on mobile by streamlining and simplifying combat. We have managed to include all of the features players have come to expect from true RTS. We have added crafting as an additional experience that helps players want to come back regularly.

How do you expect the mobile strategy genre to change in the coming years?
We are already starting to see live PvP and we expect to see that become more common and more popular. I am not sure we can convert all of the 'labourers' to RTS but we can give fans of RTS a rich, fast, and engaging experience that we expect to see getting even more such in the years ahead.

We have enjoyed building The Incorruptibles and hope gamers enjoy it as much when they try it. Many of the people at MaxPlay worked with the Command and Conquer titles and they understood what we were trying to do from the start. That has made the whole process very smooth, and we all think it shows in the game.