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Orcs Must Die! dev's asynchronous iOS experiment

Robot's Entertainment's lead programmer Marcin Szymanski talks to Gamasutra about the company's latest release Hero Academy, an iOS experiment in turn-based and asynchronous play.
It's a process we see often. A high-profile developer gets shut down, and several smaller developers start up. Robot Entertainment is one such example, forming after the closure of Ensemble Studios (of Age of Empires fame) by several of its founders. After releasing Age of Empires Online and Orcs Must Die!, their first attempt on iOS has hit the ground running, with Hero Academy gaining popularity via word-of-mouth, backed-up by excellent review scores. Despite Hero Academy's foundation in Robot Entertainment's strong strategy pedigree, it was still a departure for the studio, marking its first attempt at turn-based and asynchronous play. As with all strategy titles, walking the balancing tightrope is key, which is where Marcin Szymanski, lead programmer and designer of Hero Academy said his RTS experience came into play. "Balance, as a design goal, is certainly not trivialized ... anytime you have an asymmetric match-up, there's extra risk of having missed some crucial situation that severely tips the scales towards one side or the other," he said. "We thought we would be able to bring over our instincts and various techniques from our RTS games. As we add more teams, we'll continue evaluating and adjusting so that we can still reach that goal." Hero Academy's asynchronous gameplay is a mechanic that largely plays to the strength of iOS devices, and it's one that Robot Entertainment wanted to "fully embrace from the very beginning." Perfecting this took a lot of pre-planning in the design phase, to help ensure that players "never really had to remember the last half dozen turns, or had to plan that many turns ahead," said Szymanski. The developer also added several features to boost accessibility, such as the reset button, which allows the player to try out multiple series of turns each round before committing their turn. This contrasts many turn based games where you commit to a unit's actions as soon as you make your move. "This can be pretty unforgiving and intimidating, especially for new players," he noted. Having had plenty of PC and console development experience, with Age of Empires Online and Orcs Must Die!, Szymanski feels that asynchronous play is something that faces a whole different array of design challenges on that side, praising it as one of the best reasons Hero Academy works on iOS. "[Asynchronous play] allows you to check in various times throughout the day and play in small chunks," he said. "I don't think it maps as well to PC and consoles without changes. In both of those cases, people sit down explicitly to play for longer periods of time. Spending a few seconds on a turn, submitting it, and then waiting for your opponent to get back to the game wouldn't work as well there." Hero Academy has little in the way of explicit tutorials, but gives the player enough of a basic gameplay premise, then lets them explore the game's systems on their own. There is a detailed game guide and video tips from one of the studio's best players, plus help options in-game, but Szymanski says he's always looking into new ways to make the game easier to understand and play. Hero Academy is a multiplayer-only game, and while a single player tutorial was thought about, they decided to leave it to the player to explore the game's systems after a basic rundown of the gameplay premise. Facebook integration was chosen to aid in multiplayer matchmaking, opting to forego the iOS' inbuilt Game Center functionality. This was the case as Robot Entertainment is actively working on an Android version of the game, for release "in the not-too-distant future," according to Szymanski. "When that comes out, we are going to support cross-platform games ... We looked at several options for supporting this, and ultimately determined that the way to give our players on multiple platforms the best experience was to build our own servers and matchmaking system, then allowing them to use the social networks they already use every day - Twitter and Facebook - to connect with their friends." Robot Entertainment had some experience with the free-to-play model after developing Age of Empires Online for PC, and Hero Academy is following suit. But Robot Entertainment has gone to great lengths to ensure that its micro-transactions don't mess with the game's balance. "One of the fundamental goals of Hero Academy was that we wanted it to be a game that anybody could play," said Szymanski. "We didn't want to create a microtransaction 'arms race' where players could essentially pay to win. The focus with the teams is around providing alternative strategies and mechanics. This will become more evident over time as we release more teams. Not every team will play exactly the same, but we do a lot of in-studio play-testing every single day to make sure that they're all well-balanced against one another. We're very committed to making the teams different but equal." Hero Academy offers a wide-range of DLC, from team customization to avatars, to new teams entirely -- of which the Dwarves update has just been released. The dev's fans are giving it a lot of inspiration for new ideas, in addition to the multitude that are already in the developer's collective minds. According to Szymanski, Robot Entertainment is currently working "to nail down a process that will allow us to release a new team every several weeks, while at the same time adding major features to the game." The latest update also added a new game board, Game Center achievements and leaderboards, balance tweaks and bug fixes. Robot will also be making further "quality of life features", which will endeavor to make the app nicer to use, such as a "next game" button in the recent update, allowing players to go from one game to the next without having to back out to the game list. "Naturally, we came up with a mountain of ideas when making the game, and we've crystallized the most promising ones into a rough roadmap for future development," he said. "However, it has been extremely valuable to see player's reactions to our gameplay and our team mechanics, and it has resulted in shifting around our various priorities to address things sooner rather than later. For example, we moved up the Game Center integration to be included in our first major update." Suffice to say, Szymanski and the team at Robot Entertainment are very satisfied with the reception Hero Academy has received since launch, and have been enjoying seeing players dissect the game's mechanics to offer "constructive feedback". "In the end, we made a game that we wanted to play and that we thought others would enjoy as well, so we want to incorporate all of the feedback we possibly can as we shape the game's future."

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