'More tactical than Clash of Clans': How Age of Empires fights back on mobile

'More tactical than Clash of Clans': How Age of Empires fights back on mobile
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

October 8th 2015 at 12:34PM

Smoking Gun tells us how fully controllable armies and proprietary tech helps Castle Siege stand out

Strategy games have been leading the charge on mobile for some time, but the pioneers have been new IP and indepedent games rather than the long-running franchises that have defined it.

Last year, Microsoft released Age of Empires: Castle Siege as an attempt to bring the classic strategy series to mobile platforms and the new audience they have gathered. Developed by Smoking Gun Interactive, it could be deemed as an attempt to cash in on Clash of Clans' success, but the studio tells Develop there are key differences that set it apart from Clash and its army of copycats.

We caught up with CEO John Johnson (pictured) to find out how his team went about bringing a cherished RTS series to mobile, why it was impossible to recreate the original PC gameplay, and how using Smoking Gun's own technology enabled the most intricate battles in the genre.

How did you translate Age of Empires to a mobile-friendly structure? Where did you start?
Our studio really enjoyed the opportunity to translate such an established franchise to a mobile platform. We started by looking at the platforms and what types of features we felt would easily translate to mobile.

To start, we had to consider the framework for a mobile game: touch controls, smaller screens and time spent in play sessions. It was clear to us that mobile play patterns were different from PC/Console and synchronous play, as seen in previous versions, just wouldn’t be an effective feature.

An asynchronous style of combat was essential to align with the play patterns of mobile gamers, and we developed a deep strategic experience around this feature. For the features that wouldn’t translate as easily, we looked at some way to bring cohesion to the features so the essence of the Age of Empires game wasn’t lost in the translation. 

What did you want to keep the same from the previous entries in the series and what did you want to change?As fans of Age of Empires ourselves, we wanted to keep as much of the core elements of the franchise as we could in the translation. This included the civilization choices, units, and age system of advancement for players. It was also important to us to provide the proper historical research, ensuring accuracy in the game.

However, the most important element for us to keep when developing the game was the core elements of RTS combat. In order to do this, it was important to allow for full control of all units at all times, and to provide controllable heroes. These features provide depth to the strategy necessary to do well in the game, and they give players an array of tactical choices you just don’t see in other games in the genre.

Why not port the existing gameplay to mobile?
We wanted to keep the integrity of the franchise as much as we could, but the existing gameplay was simply not mobile-friendly. The previous versions of the game were heavily focused on synchronous multiplayer gameplay, and we knew that would not work on the “pick up and play” style of the mobile gamer.

Successful combat games require good matchmaking, and synchronous gameplay limited these matchmaking options. Streamlining the combat towards asynchronous play made the most sense. We also wanted to reach a broader audience that included new comers to the franchise. In order to do this, we couldn’t just port the existing gameplay to mobile, we had to reimagine it.

How have you differentiated the game from Clash of Clans and its many copycats?
We’ve focused on giving the players a deeper tactical experience, while still making it accessible on a mobile device. We did this though allowing full unit control and adding numerous heroes with powerful special abilities that can turn the tide of the battle. While it isn’t as quite as complex as a traditional PC RTS, it has intricate tactics other games in the genre just don’t match yet.

We couldn’t just port the existing gameplay to mobile. We had to reimagine it.

How did the experience of the team help with this project? Which past titles did you draw from/learn from when building Castle Siege?
The core team at Smoking Gun interactive has worked on RTS games in the past. While at Relic Entertainment, the team worked on Company of Heroes, Dawn of War, Homeworld and Impossible Creatures.

The rich background the team has working on other strategy games together obviously helped, but as a studio we have been looking at developing strategy games on mobile for quite some time. We have experimented with several different ideas in the past, and this proved to be good experience for us as we looked into developing Age of Empires: Castle Siege. 

The game is entirely built with your own technology. Why choose to focus on this rather than other tools already available? What does this enable you to do that established tech doesn’t?
Smoking Gun Interactive was founded with the goal to create innovative games that challenge the convention of traditional gaming. In order to do this, we need full control over the performance of the product.

Investing in our own innovative technology has allowed us to produce a game like Castle Siege, which can have more than 400 AI units moving through the environment in real-time on fairly low-end phones with limited memory. Our engine is fully optimized C++, and this allows us to squeeze out every last drop of performance available.  We are able to give our players an impressive gaming experience despite the challenges of a mobile platform.

Some of the things we do in Age of Empires: Castle Siege just couldn’t be done with what was available. Our propriety technology has given us a strong competitive advantage over using off the shelf technology, and allowed us to continue be a leader in gaming.

What other projects are you working on?
We are still working on the live support for Age of Empires: Castle Siege, ensuring the game remains pertinent to our players. We have also been developing another mobile/PC strategy title that we are planning to ship in the first half of 2016. This title is internally funded, and is a new IP. We should be announcing more on this title later this fall or early in the winter. 

Some of the things we do in Age of Empires: Castle Siege just couldn’t be done with what was available. Our propriety technology has given us a strong competitive advantage.

What is are the advantages and disadvantages of working on a work-for-hire basis?
Work-for-hire can be great with the right partners, and so far we’ve had great experiences working in this area with many different publishers. It’s been an honor to have had the chance to work on Age of Empires: Castle Siege, as we’ve been long time fans of the franchise. A work-for-hire basis has given us the opportunity to branch out in ways that could never happen had we not taken on these projects. 

From a business perspective with work-for-hire you’re obviously taking less risks on the funding side of these titles, as they are usually being covered by the partner. Often times you can work on projects that are quite a bit bigger in budget than a small indie studio could afford to fund on their own. The revenue work-for-hire brings in allows us to fund our own internal products and IP as well as build out our cross platform engine quite extensively.

There can be downsides to this, and there are still risks to this kind of work. Sometimes, even if a project is going really well, things can unexpectedly turn sideways if something happens with that funding partner.  A shift in priorities, change in teams or management, or a collapse in external funding all together can affect the work-for-hire. Quite a few studios didn’t make it through the recession of 08 / 09 as funding partners fell through. Publisher’s priorities quickly shifted from external to internal development, and in some cases all development funding was cut as these partners turned towards publishing and distribution only.

It can also be challenging to find a work-for-hire partner that is willing to fund new IP’s, as many would rather make the bets off existing franchises they may own. Many partners have a slate of ideas/genres already put together that they need to fill, and simply don’t want to take the additional risks of funding new IP.  

Obviously working on your own IP, and funding development yourself will yield much higher royalty rates and returns if the game is commercially successful. For Smoking Gun Interactive, our business model has allowed us to focus on both work for hire projects as well as internally funded products and new IP.  

Would you consider working on your own IP in future?
Of course. That is a key goal for the studio.  We have created three IP’s as a studio to date.  Creating our own IP is something that we have done in the past, prior to Smoking Gun, and it’s something that is in our blood. That said, we really enjoy partnering with others to work on existing IP’s and have no plans to change this aspect of our business.