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Building Real-time Strategy Games for Mobile Devices

Real-time strategy (RTS) games have had lasting appeal on PCs, and now the genre is moving to mobile devices. Needless to say, the shift from large displays to much smaller ones creates design challenges for RTS game makers.

By John Moore

Real-time strategy (RTS) games have had lasting appeal on PCs, and now the genre is moving to mobile devices. Needless to say, the shift from large displays to much smaller ones creates design challenges for RTS game makers. Kukouri Mobile Entertainment, however, has soldiered on with Tiny Troopers, available in the App Store and headed for other platforms. Kim Soares, chief executive officer of Finland-based Kukouri, recently discussed the company’s approach to miniaturized RTS.

RTS games originated on PCs with the luxury of full keyboards and large displays. What are the design challenges of building this type of game for a mobile device?

Kim Soares: It’s the same with any platform: You should design your game to take advantage of the platform’s strengths. That’s the reason I do not like virtual control sticks on mobile games. If a game requires control sticks, then it should be played with a controller.

Touch screens are, in many ways, the optimal control mechanism as they are so natural. You just have to work with the strengths. The biggest challenge -- and one you can’t really change -- is the very small screen size of phones. That’s why many games are easier to play on tablets, as you have much more space.

Game control mechanisms seem difficult to design for a mobile device. Did you do formal usability testing to make sure you had the game control mechanics right?

K.S.: We took the controls very seriously in Tiny Troopers, as we knew that less-than-perfect controls would ruin the experience for a user. At the pre-production phase of the development, we spent several weeks trying out different control mechanics and their combinations. 

The original idea was to use line-drawing to move your troopers around. It seemed great on paper but less so in reality. After many iterations, we settled for a one-tap control scheme. It couldn’t be more intuitive to use. It’s case sensitive so you can play the whole game and do all the actions with one finger. Once we got to usability testing, there were no complaints about controls.

Did you use a particular mobile development framework to create Tiny Troopers?

K.S.: We used the Unity3D game engine. It’s comparatively cheap for a small development studio. It’s also easy to use for programmers, level designers and artists alike. Unity allows you to port your game easily to other platforms. Tiny Troopers was originally meant to be released only on iOS, but we quickly decided to do Android, PC and Mac ports, too. Those are coming out in August. PSN PlayStation Network and Xbox LIVE versions are planned.

Were there specific things you learned in designing and developing Tiny Troopers that you can take advantage of in future games?

K.S.: The lessons we have learned and theories shown to hold true have more to with business in the App Store and marketing than technology. 

If you want to have success in mobile space, you have to put enough effort into your game. Sure, there are examples of small games being great hits -- I personally love Illiger’s Tiny Wings, for example -- but realities of the App Store are gruesome. Only a very small fraction of games make their development costs back. You tend to hear all those great success stories like Angry Birds, Tiny Wings, Tiny Tower, etc., but for each of those, there are literally thousands of games that go unnoticed.

I’m very happy to say that it seems we are going to recoup development costs for Tiny Troopers and even make some profit. We have a great game but at least as important is the fact that we had big publisher like Chillingo. Also, out of the eight people in our team, two are doing marketing. Screen shot:

John Moore has written about business and technology for more than 20 years. His articles have appeared in Baseline, CIO Insight, Federal Computer Week, Government Health IT and Tech Target. Areas of focus include cloud computing, health information technology, systems integration and virtualization. He is a frequent contributor to Digital Innovation Gazette.

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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.