Interviews// Haunted Hollow: Firaxis Goes Mobile

Posted 29 Apr 2013 11:27 by
And now for something completely different, from the developers of Civilization and XCOM. Firaxis is dipping its toe into the mobile market, with an interesting new strategy game called Haunted Hollow.

It?s definitely takes a different design approach to the studio?s past projects, gunning for a more family-friendly audience while still attempting to tie down gameplay mechanics that will attract the hardcore gamer.

It?s also the first original IP that Firaxis has created in a number of years, according to co-lead designer David McDonough. Between him and his partner William Miller, the jump to mobile design proved to be a significant challenge, but from my discussion with David it seems to be a sector that he and Miller appear to have a deep understanding of.

Here?s what he had to say on Haunted Hollow, iOS, XCOM and the industry in general.

SPOnG: It seems like a very interesting game - a slightly different departure to what Firaxis is known for. Why did you decide to make a game for iOS? What attracted you to the platform?

David McDonough: Like pretty much everyone else in the industry, we?ve been watching mobile explode over last couple years and become a relevant major alternative platform to make games for. At Firaxis, we?re all about strategy games, and we?ve seen that mobile has strong natural ties to the genre. We?ve seen the platform take on classic board game and card game style experiences, and there has been a couple of pretty interesting games emerge from that.

In watching the sector evolve - and the fact that a lot of us play mobile games too - it seemed inevitable that Firaxis would try to bring the games we make (and the fans we cater to) to the mobile space. Our little team was set up to build an original game specifically for mobile, but one that stays true to Firaxis? pedigree: deep, one-more-turn strategy experiences. This has been an experiment - a bit of a debut - for us, and hopefully it?ll be the first of many.

SPOnG: As you say, there have been other turn-based games on the platform, for example, Total War Battles. In what ways do you feel mobile lends itself well to strategy games?

David McDonough: We?ve seen some games and studios come in [to the strategy genre on mobile] from all sorts of different angles. There have been games which have been a distillation of PC strategy games, like Total War Battles, as well as games that take the approach of a digital board game, like Hero Academy.

When we made this game, we sort of shifted a bit towards the latter format. We think that Haunted Hollow has more design inspirations from board games than other digital games. But the uniqueness of the mobile platform is that, because it exists between a PC and a board game, it really does lend itself to strategy in our opinion, and that can lead to a lot of innovation. In Haunted Hollow, we took a few shots at that, and hopefully we?ll get to take a lot more.

SPOnG: It seems that creatively, you guys are taking a departure from your past games like XCOM (which is geared to a more mature audience) and Civilization (which caters to a more hardcore audience). How have you adapted the design and look of Haunted Hollow to reflect the audience of the iOS platform?

David McDonough: You?ve hit the nail on the head there. Haunted Hollow is a sillier game. It?s cuter. It?s got appeal that we hope will reach multiple generations, so people will play with their children and families. And we think that?s a match for the mobile audience. There?s quite a spectrum of serious and simple (or casual) games on the platform, but a lot of people play these games... with their families, with people of all ages. And we think that with mobile platform we have an opportunity to make a game that?s more cross-demographic.

However, we really value our core audience, and our heavy-duty strategy track record. We want to make sure that Haunted Hollow serves that audience as well. So the game is accessible and approachable, it?s rules are simple and easy to learn, and hopefully it?ll appeal to a lot of people on a casual level. But we took great care to make sure it still has the strategic depth and long-term richness that Firaxis? core audience has come to expect. Hopefully we?ve managed to bridge the gap between the two.

SPOnG: What were the challenges in working on mobile for the first time and creating new IP, especially in this late stage in the console generation where there?s a lot of emphasis on already-existing IPs?

David McDonough: Mobile, of course, is a new platform - which means new sets of hardware and new programming and performance constraints, and all the nuts and bolts of learning to make a piece of software. So that was a big part of it - we took on a challenge in adapting a team for this new space. But we made some smart tech choices - we used Unity so that the game could easily be built for cross-platform play, as well as having one-click deployment to mobile.

Learning the ins and outs of Apple and Game Center, as well as some of the player patterns on mobile, was probably the biggest design challenge. Getting a game that people would play in their pocket, wherever they happened to be... to pick up and put down... fitting in with player patterns that are just starting to be established. All these were learning processes for our team that I?d say were challenging, but also rewarding. We relish the opportunity to take this on.

As for the new IP... as you?re probably aware, Firaxis announced that we?re also translating our recently-released XCOM to the mobile platform. So we?re not just trying any old strategy here. We?re taking our good old games, like Civilization Revolution and XCOM, and trying them on mobile... while also taking a left turn and making a game that isn?t constrained by the gameplay of an established IP.

We felt very privileged that 2K gave us a shot to make a brand new IP in this modern market, where people tend to be shy about that sort of thing. So Haunted Hollow was definitely an experimental project - it was a little bit of a risk to make a new IP, but we gave it the design breathing room to make a game whose mechanics were particularly suited to the mobile experience.

SPOnG: You mentioned XCOM and Civilization Revolution. What can the future hold for you guys on mobile, should Haunted Hollow become a success?

David McDonough: I can?t speak for specific initiatives, other than those that have been announced, but I think they represent the fact that Firaxis is very interested in the mobile space, and we think it?s a good fit for the kind of games we make. Both the serious kind, like Civilization and XCOM, and the whimsical kind like Haunted Hollow.

If these initiatives prove successful, hopefully we can take some of our other games and move them [to mobile]. Maybe we can make some new IPs. There?s no limit to the kind of opportunities on mobile that we would be interested in picking up, if the market is there. So hopefully the future for Firaxis on mobile is bright, and will only get more energetic.
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