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The engineering wizard who helped make cross-platform multiplayer possible on Skulls of the Shogun runs down some of 17-Bit's big challenges in launching the game across XBL, PSN, Steam and mobile.
November 3, 2014
5 Min Read
Skulls of the Shogun could be a poster child for successful cross-platform game development: 17-Bit launched the game on Xbox Live, Windows and Windows Phone at the start of 2013 and has since spread to platforms like PSN, iOS, Android, Steam, and Ouya. Skulls players can compete in cross-platform multiplayer too, though players on Microsoft platforms can only play within the Microsoft hardware ecosystem. Borut Pfeifer (of Plush Apocalypse Productions) was one of the three core team members who helped build the game, and at GDC Next today he spoke at length about a selection of challenges that 17-Bit overcame to get the game out the door. Pfeifer notes that while multi-platform asynchronous multiplayer sounds neat from a design perspective, "it's usually incredibly expensive to build." Yet they went ahead and pushed Skulls across as many platforms as possible as a way of building awareness among as many people as possible, and minimizing the risk of launching on an underserved platform.
Making things look easy
"We wanted to bring this kind of deep strategy gameplay to more people, without sacrificing depth," said Pfeifer. Figuring out how to develop an approachable strategy game that’s accessible to a wide audience was 17-Bit’s greatest challenge, and Pfeifer says they tackled it by focusing on the concept of intuitive complexity. "If you go play fetch with your dog, you’re managing a lot of complexity — you’re doing physics in real-time, and so is the dog,” joked Pfeifer. “We wanted to emulate that, and make the game less about choosing the exact right square to move to and more about making the choice about whether to flank or charge.” Animation and art design also proved invaluable in making the game more intuitive; 17-Bit was able to minimize the amount of upfront tutorializing in Skulls by using subtle visual cues like sword-baring animations and size-changing units to denote when a player was opening themselves up to reprisal while moving. However, designing the broader Skulls interface proved incredibly challenging, because the game had to remain intuitive to play across tablets, smartphones and consoles with gamepads. Pfeifer says 17-Bit solved the problem by keeping the interface as subtle as possible, embedding as much information as they could directly on the play field — displaying health and unit names on the units themselves, for example, instead of in a separate status window. The team anticipated that touchscreen controls would be less precise than a gamepad, and designed Skulls so that there was very little risk for simple control mistakes like tapping the wrong unit. "Selecting a unit never has a penalty," says Pfeifer. "If someone does it by accident, no big deal; they can just do something else with no penalty."
Practical porting tips
Skulls of the Shogun was built in C# and XNA originally, then ported to Monogame. That let 17-Bit keep roughly 95 percent of its code between versions, which significantly cut down on the time spent porting to new platforms. What added to the port time? In a word: fancy menus. "We had these beautiful handmade menus that looked great, but it took about a month of programming time and a month of animation time to do all that," says Pfeifer, noting that 17-Bit would have saved a lot of time and money by sticking with a simple, clean interface that could be quickly ported and scaled to different platforms. 17-Bit also found its initial save system design — which accounted for players’ progress through multiplayer, single-player, and even individual levels — was way too ambitious, and cost too much development time. "I think it would have been better to just streamline this process so that you just have your saves in the cloud, and your saves on the device," said Pfeifer. "We did also run into big, unexpected issues with four-player matchmaking," he added, noting that 17-Bit had a lot of trouble ironing out problems caused by edge cases like players dropping out of four-player games, failing to take their turns, and the like. "It’s difficult to ensure games are continually being played, and people get frustrated if they can’t consistently find good games," which can cause your otherwise-great game to tank in the marketplace.
How did the game do, on so many platforms?
As far as the business of marketing Skulls goes, Pfeifer says 17-Bit ran into trouble by trying to streamline a hardcore strategy game because "casual" players were still put off by the game’s strategic systems while "hardcore" players were put off by its cartoonish aesthetic. However, the team found unexpected success on platforms with sparse game offerings. "Windows Phone was an underserved market, so we did better than we expected there; with iOS, we ran into overcrowding," said Pfeifer. "The key is to understand where your platform is in its lifecycle." It’s also important to make sure that people know your game is out on a platform they own; you can’t rely on the platform holder to sell your game for you. "After two months, Microsoft lowered the price... but they didn’t really do any promotion," noted Pfeifer. "Lowering the price without any promotion really didn’t have any effect." On the other hand, 17-Bit saw significant returns from doing sales on Steam. "Compared to our experience with Microsoft’s price downgrade, our takeaway on Steam was really that success is not about the actual sale; it’s about the promotion that goes on around the sale," said Pfeifer. You can catch up on Gamasutra's GDC Next coverage all in one location. GDC and Gamasutra are sibling organizations under parent UBM Tech.
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