Subterfuge co-developer Ron Carmel discusses how to balance commitment and engagement with player freedom in a mobile strategy game
Time. It's what all mobile developers want to dominate.
Across the spectrum of titles for smart devices, one thing is clear: studios want players to spend as much time as possible engaging with their game. The wait for your troops to train in strategy games like Clash of Clans is to ensure you return promptly for more battling. Assigning tasks to characters in titles such as The Simpsons: Tapped Out is to draw you back to collect rewards. Even idle clickers like Nonstop Knight, which continue playing even when the app is closed, send notifications to users, reminding them that their participation is needed.
On a similar note, most play sessions are designed to be short in the hopes that players will feel they accomplish more with each burst. Clash battles last just a couple of minutes – a far cry from the drawn out skirmishes of more traditional strategy titles – while casual hits like Angry Birds and Candy Crush Saga see players rattle through levels rapidly depending on their skill.
Developers Ron Carmel and Noel Llopis had other ideas.
Released last year, Subterfuge is a mobile strategy game where matches can last more than a week. The game puts players in command of an army of submarines and sees them competing to control underwater outposts. They can check in regularly to see how their forces are doing, or schedule orders ahead of time.
We caught up with Carmel – perhaps best known as one of the two devs behind indie hit World of Go – to find out how he and his partner balanced the need to keep people playing Subterfuge while not demanding too much of their audience's time.
Why design a game that’s intended to be played over a specific amount of time, rather than at the player’s discretion?
Games in Subterfuge tend to last between six to nine days on average. We tweaked it this way because any less and we would get the potential for epic plot twists, and any more and the game would get too intense.
I've played a four-week game of Neptune's Pride before and I was exhausted at the end – I didn't want to play again for another year. We wanted to make a game where it's easier to jump into another game right after you finish the previous one.
How does designing a strategy game with longer matches affect how you structure the game, rules and mechanics? How do you ensure there’s always something for the player to be doing, or that the process is not drawn out?
To be honest, we don't ensure any of that. There are two key factors here. First, the game has to be very predictable, or 'deterministic' in computer science speak. This is crucial for players' ability to plan ahead. Without this, players would be required to obsessively check the game every two minutes to play competitively and that's not the kind of game we wanted to make.
We wanted to minimise the number of times a player has to check-in each day. Our goal was to make an engaging game that doesn't take over your life.
At the same time, we did want to offer players who want to play more something to do, and that's where scheduled orders come into play. You can view the game like a chess board and schedule your moves days in advance. It allows players to run a bunch of "what if" scenarios and better think through their tactics. That sort of play can happen whenever the player wants, and is independent of real time developments.
In an age of quick, two-minute battles in titles like Clash of Clans, how difficult has it been to engage players with battles that will last a week?
The game is actually meant to be played two minutes at a time. It's just that it has a week-long story arc to tie all those short play sessions together. Noel and I are both busy parents and most of our gaming – including Subterfuge – happens in short sessions.
Subterfuge developers Llopis (left) and Carmel (right)
The game's website says players can check in a few times a day to assess their situation. What have you done to encourage them to do so? Have push notifications helped in this regard?
We did the opposite, actually. We wanted to minimise the number of times a player has to check-in each day. Our goal was to make an engaging game that doesn't take over your life. Push notifications helped with that, because you know that you get notified if something new happens so you don't need to obsessively check the game every five minutes.
How do you allow players to be flexible with when they check in and update their strategies? Some days might be busier than others for them, so how do you ensure they don’t feel disadvantaged if real-life gets in the way?
Scheduled orders fulfill that role. I usually have 24 hours' worth of orders queued up at any given time, so even if I don't check the game for a whole day, I'm usually fine the next time i log in.
For some games, players are required to obsessively check the game every two minutes to play competitively – that's not the kind of game we wanted to make.
The game’s How To Play section says it will take 15 minutes to learn all the rules. How have you ensured the first-time user experience is engaging for that amount of time, given that most games rush players through the tutorial within a couple of minutes?
That was a hard one for this game. We are currently forcing players to do one of two things before they can jump into a multiplayer game with other humans: they either run though a bunch of single player puzzles that teach them the rules, or they buy L2 security clearance – i.e. "the full game". If they do the former, they prove that they at least know the basics. If they do the latter, they prove that they are sufficiently motivated to learn on the fly.
Our main concern is preventing new players for joining a multiplayer game, being confused and dropping out, thereby ruining the experience for more serious players. We are not as concerned about having a bunch of players give up and drop the game. We know this isn't a game for everyone, so we're aiming to please those who love it, and are okay alienating those who aren't excited about it.
Is there room for mobile games that require more time/commitment? Subterfuge appears to be flying in the face of market trends: longer tutorials, longer matches, regular log-ins required?
There's certainly room. Subterfuge has gotten excellent critical reception and there's a dedicated community of about 4,000 people still playing it. Whether it's a good business choice, that's questionable. Games in this genre don't make a lot of money – at least, I don't know of one that has.
We know this isn't a game for everyone, so we're aiming to please those who love it, and are okay alienating those who aren't excited about it.
Most mobile games focus on retaining players day-by-day. Is it harder or easier to retain them on a weekly basis? How do you ensure that once they’ve finished one battle, they still want to play another?
We don't worry about that too much. Our main objective is to make a good game, and whether we retain a player or not is a very secondary concern. That said, our retention is relatively high: about 20 per cent of all players are still playing after a month.