January 18, 2014 8:00 PM | Lena LeRay
The library of RTS titles for mobile devices isn't that large. The number available which have multiplayer capability is even smaller. Substantial Games, a game development startup based out of Bejing made up of seven experienced mobile game developers "who wanted to do something more interesting", is looking to step into that gap this fall with a competitive multiplayer RTS designed from the ground up for short matches on tablets. They're calling it The Ember Conflict, and though they're keeping details about the setting they've created locked up pretty tight, developer Pin Wang has been forthcoming with information about the gameplay.
In The Ember Conflict, players will take on the role of company commanders. They'll be able to customize their armies using a system inspired by tabletop war games such as Warhammer, in which each unit has a point cost to use and armies can only include so many points' worth of units. That sort of system allows players to easily customize armies to match their own play style, spending big points on a few heavy-hitters, buying a lot of weak units with which to zerg the enemy, or striking a balance somewhere in between. According to Wang, players "start off with a few basic units, and can recruit more as they play". Once players have armies they are satisfied with, they'll be able to queue up for a 1v1 or 2v2 match using the game's matchmaking system.
Wang tells IndieGames that 1v1 matches currently last about one minute, while 2v2 matches typically last for two to five minutes. When asked about victory conditions, Wang said that right now there are two possibilities. Players can try to control points of capture (PoCs) or eliminate all enemy units. "We have an experimental feature right now where capturing a PoC unlocks a single use of an ability, such as calling a dragon to lay down a wall of fire. (No promises this will stay in.) We've found the PoCs to be a fun game mode in addition to the 'kill all opponents' victory condition." Longer matches won't be an option at launch, but Substantial Games has plans to add more game modes post-launch. "We're still testing game modes, though," he says, "and in the long-term we'd really like to do bigger 20v20 castle siege battles and the like."
They seem to have big plans for expanding the game's capabilities down the line, with continued development supported by a free to play model similar to that of League of Legends. "You will be able to get everything in the game minus skins and utility items (like name changes) without paying real money," says Wang. "We will be watching this very closely, and will always lean in favor of the player. We won't be focused on 'pain points' and progression will never be blocked by payment. We will never sell power. There will be no energy system, reloading, resting, etc. We hate that stuff. Your default set of units will be just as strong as other combos, but adding units to your collection will give you variety and open different strategies."
Being designed for mobile devices, The Ember Conflict features a control system that Wang likens to that of Autumn Dynasty. To move a unit, the player just draws a line from the unit to wherever they want the unit to go. If the player draws a straight line, the unit will move there directly, but more complicated maneuvers can be completed by drawing lines that curve or zigzag or whatever the player wishes. Selecting and moving groups of units as one will be possible, as will moving separate units with separate lines simultaneously. Wang mentioned a couple of other commands such as tapping a unit to stop it, double-tap-dragging to control the camera, and ordering a unit to attack another directly, but also made sure to point out that the AI is programmed so that units will do things like engage enemy units if they get near enough. When asked about communication between teammates, Want commented that there will be voice chat and they are experimenting with the ability to draw planning lines that your teammate can see.
It sounds like a lot of thought has gone into the user interface and game elements, paring it down to create a focused mobile experience. There are no NPC units to distract from human opponents and relegating army construction to the pre-game means that resource collection and research won't come into play at all. With the short match times, we're looking at a game which can be easily played on the go but which will appeal to players who love the depth and customization of more complex games. They're making the game cross-platform, too, set to release first on iOS and shortly after on Android, with the ability to play with and against people on the other operating system. The catch is that playtesting for small touch screens hasn't gone so well, and the game is currently slated for tablets only. "We tried the game on smaller screens," says Wang, "but... the UX was just not up to standard. We will be doing some testing on phablets later to see if we want to make it available on phones too."
The game sounds pretty exciting, something players can sink their perfectionist teeth into while creating an army to use on short bursts of action at home or on the go, though Wang didn't tell IndieGames much about the setting in which all these battles will take place. He did say, however, that they have "have an entire story bible and outline for the game universe/plot."
"Here's an intro to the world, first time sharing it with an outsider:
"Ten thousand years ago a tragedy shook the planet, forgotten because nobody was left to remember. But life, slowly yet inevitably, has nursed itself back to health. Open plains, lush forests and roaring rivers are once again filled with the diversity and beauty of life.
"Human civilization steps, for a second time, towards its renaissance. Warfare is supercharging technological advancement, and the shores of a great, new continent have just been rediscovered. As bloodshed breaks out over virgin territory, will the unlearned lessons of the past stay buried, or rise to the surface once again?
"Welcome to the world of The Ember Conflict, where human, animal, and the monster of history struggle for survival and glory."