Kingsbridge is Wooga’s first foray into core gaming. Back when I started on the project as Lead Artist it had a slightly less catchy name: Game X. While we didn’t have a final title for the project then, we still had a definite goal in mind: make deep gameplay accessible to a casual audience.
Games in the social space, like Farmville and Diamond Dash, were teaching people who never really played games before how to play and get into the world of gaming. We believed some of those players would be ready to tackle games that offered more complex gameplay features in the not too distant future.
My role on the project was to create a visual identity that would walk the line between core and casual. Over the course of project three key components emerged that helped us to bridge those two very different worlds.
1) Theme: Making the first impression count
In the first few months on the project we quickly learned that it would be the first impression that would determine our success. With two very different types of player, we knew the theme would be an important part of that first impression.
We had already decided to make an attack and defence game and knew this would be more attractive to male players but also knew that we couldn’t alienate our player base who would likely be the first exposed to the game through cross linking and viral channels.
Working within the genre, we knew we would have staple buildings such as towers and our focus was to avoid injecting too much fantasy into the design. From past experience we were aware that may perturb the more casual player.
One of the many theme concepts for Kingsbridge
We started with anthropomorphised animals, then a micro-sized setting but by far the most popular theme was one that had a more ‘realistic’ slant. It resonated more with the team and also had the benefit of being more familiar to pop culture with mass appeal. We called this our ‘high medieval’ concept and it took inspiration from real world buildings. Did they have to be 100% accurate? No, but it was important that the style was coherent and players wouldn’t be jolted out of the world we were creating.
The visual style was influenced by Age of Empires: Online
2) Visual Progression: Rewarding players through art
One of the main challenges when adapting an art style to a game like Kingsbridge, is visualizing progression. Players leveling up need to be visually rewarded and having found your stylistic foundation your next task is to adapt it so it scales to a very broad leveling system.
Early game village concept
Mid game town concept
Our idea was to create a visual timeline of players’ progression from a rural village to a capital city and make that rewarding for the player. This is something that core players are used to, and expect, but we also hoped that casual players would warm to that feeling of progression.
Another element of core gameplay we implemented was a customisable coat of arms. The choice of your logo would have a noticeable impact on the game; visually affecting the look of your town by changing the banners of your army, the flags on your town hall and many other items. Again, this is commonplace in many core games but something we thought would be important to make those players feel more at home while impressing the casual players who would likely never have seen this before. Early, mid and high level house examples
In recent years a trend has emerged where the supporting cast of characters have become more popular than the protagonist. Take ‘Despicable Me’ and ‘Raving Rabbids’ as good examples of that. We wanted to try and imbue our supporting cast with the same kind of appeal and getting the look of the units right was one of the key visual challenges in Kingsbridge.
With that in mind, we also had to realize what these guys were - cannon fodder. We’re essentially giving these units a death sentence from day one. We had to take the emotional attachment players had for these units into consideration and we quickly realized making them too endearing would have been a mistake - our players would be emotional wrecks after the first big battle and that’s the last thing we wanted.
Stylistically, we had to find a blank slate character and be able to build on that to create future classes while being also being able to communicate which units are more powerful. Avoiding any stylistic bottlenecks, like having to alter this fundamental shape, was really important for us.
Initial Character Iteration
The design of these units had to communicate their role in the game clearly. A shieldman should look strong but not fast with their role in the game clearly understandable by the player.
This is how visuals can support complicated gameplay mechanics, and this doesn’t only apply to characters. You can easily spot when a contract in a lumber mill is running because the design and the animation work in unison to communicate gameplay.
3b) Characters: Creating memorable protagonists
Our initial aim with Kingsbridge was to have a unified style that neatly aligned story characters and the the in-game isometric units. We went through several iterations trying to tie these two together but there came a point where we just had to admit defeat. The units didn’t offer up enough flexibility to show a wide range of different characters.Our mistake was confirming the art direction and creating the characters before work on the story had begun. That means we had started to draft characters with no plot backgrounds, only to find that they didn’t end up working with the characters written into the story.
So: story first, art second.
Like our units, the story characters went through several iterations. With a lot of the team coming from a ‘core gaming’ background we initially over compensated and leant towards a more cutesy look and had ended up creating a cast of characters we weren’t fully behind. They were out of proportion and their look simply didn’t work. But every incremental change we made towards realism made the team happier and we started to create a feeling of ownership that helps to spur a team on to greater things.
No matter how well thought out these characters were, there are always surprises when you get to play testing. Characters that you had intended to clearly represent evil, were identified as good characters by some playtesters. Throughout the process you need to stay detached and open to change.
Finishing The Bridge
Continuity has been at the core of the art direction in Kingsbridge. Understanding your audience and finding a tone that would be relevant for our casual audience and spark the attention of core players was our biggest challenge and we hope we have achieved that.
The role of our art was to support the world the team has built, with every asset playing a role in the visualization of that world while clearly communicating the role of characters, objects and gameplay features.
There were a few key decisions we made to bridge the gap between the casual and core world of gaming. Identifying the theme was important in making a good first impression. Visualizing progression and adding customization elements to the game should help to welcome core players while being an exciting extra for players new to gaming. Lastly, creating loveable, memorable and smartly written characters should help ensure that Kingsbridge is a world players want to return to.
It won’t win everyone over, but what we’ve heard from those core players so far has been positive. We exposed it to those sorts of players from an early stage and that has been incredibly helpful.
Looking at the social games space in a broader sense, I think Kingsbridge stands out in a positive way; it looks casual in that it’s humouress and fun, but also stimulating for experienced gamers. If you hear core gamers say ‘that’s cool’, and casual gamers say ‘that’s cute’ it’s likely that you’ve found a good balance.