Pioneered in Japan and with long-term popularity in China and South Korea, gacha-infused hero collection RPGs have historically been a niche concern for Western audiences.
But a few have enjoyed success in the US and Europe over the years, such as Gumi's Brave Frontier and Com2uS' Summoners War, and collection-fusion-gacha mechanics are now increasingly featuring in Western-developed mobile games.
A recent example of this is Alliance: Heroes of the Spire, launched by San Mateo, CA-based developer Rumble Entertainment in February.
Alliance sees Rumble take a different approach to its previous game, the 2015 action RPG KingsRoad, with design that's weighted heavily towards metagame and auto-battle implementation to facilitate more hands-off play.
PocketGamer.biz: KingsRoad was very much a Western action RPG, but Alliance: Heroes of the Spire is more of the Asian mould. What inspired this?
Mark Spenner: We don’t really think it terms of West or East in our game designs.
We play a ton of games from all genres: shooters, RPGs, puzzle games, etc. Often, we’ll choose a game to play as a studio to understand new mechanics and approaches to design.
There was a lot of passion in the studio to improve the hero collection genre.Mark Spenner
For a while, we were consistently choosing hero collection games to play and we realised there was a lot of passion in the studio to build one and improve the genre.
Our artists love making kick-ass characters with tons of personality. Our designers and engineers love arguing about stats, buffs and balance. And we were excited to build a community that felt similarly.
KingsRoad launched as a browser game before coming to mobile. How different was it making Alliance from the ground up for mobile?
KingsRoad was the most audacious project imaginable: cross-platform (browser and mobile), persistent, synchronous multiplayer with high-end 3D characters and environments.
We learned a ton from building KingsRoad that helped make Alliance incredibly fun to build. All of the tools and technology and platform infrastructure were already battle-tested by KingsRoad.
We were able to get things like alliances, global chat and matchmaking integrated in a matter of days because we built the studio to support multiple games from the beginning.
How complex an undertaking is it to design and balance interlocking collection-fusion-gacha mechanics, and what was your approach to this?
The interlocking mechanics of Alliance are what we think really make it special.
We wanted every system to be important to the overall player goal of having a bunch of different teams with synergistic skills that help you overcome different content obstacles.
For example, being in an alliance is crucial, because this allows you to unlock additional upgrades for your heroes.
Players collect the materials for these upgrades by competing on leaderboards and contributing to the success of their alliance.
So, all the systems feed into each other like this. We want to give a variety of content that keeps the game fresh, but it must all help the player work toward their overall goal.
But, at the core, it is all about playtesting to make sure this feels right. We started playtesting Alliance the first week we started development.
The biggest fans and critics of the game are still our team. That makes all the difference in terms of quality.
When we release Alliance Wars in the coming weeks, this will be the culmination of our design philosophy of having multiple teams across multiple players in your alliance that all work well together to compete against other alliances.
How did you go about building a diverse and interesting cast of characters?
We have an incredibly creative team at Rumble. We solicit ideas from everyone, whether you work in Customer Service, QA or design.
When a new character goes in the game, there is always a rush to an artist’s desk to see it.Mark Spenner
Everyone in the studio plays games and loves RPGs, so there is no shortage of character ideas.
When a new character goes in the game, there is always a rush to an artist’s desk to see it. Then, the arguments about skills, power and balance start - that is when the real fun begins.
Auto-battle is very common in Asian RPGs, but less so in the West. Why did you decide to include an auto-battle mode, and how did you iterate upon its implementation?
We were playing a lot of hero collection games and many of us had to buy multiple phones to play, because the battle simulation has to be running to make progress, so the game had to be on all the time.
This wasn’t jiving with our lifestyles. And only one team mattered, so it made a lot of characters in these other games feel meaningless.
Our auto-battle modes in Alliance are all about convenience for the player.
The beauty of Alliance is that you can jump into the game, set up multiple teams to go out battling - one in the campaign fighting for XP, one in the temples fighting for Essences, one in the dungeons fighting for Equipment, one in the Gem Mine fighting for Gems - and simultaneously fight PvP in the Arena.
Logging in and collecting all the rewards from these auto-battles feels awesome. And having a broad cast of characters is valuable.
What was your thinking in regards to monetisation design, particularly the use of bundles and annuities?
Our number one priority in monetisation is making sure that people who spend money feel like their money was well spent, while making sure that other players can make comparable progress with time, skill and strategy.
I love purchases that give maximum value to our dedicated players, because a positive and helpful community is the the heart of the game.
So, if you participate every day, you’ll find packages in the shop that give you a lot of value for showing up and playing.
What did you learn from the soft launch period and what were the biggest changes you enacted as a result?
We have been playtesting for over a year in the studio and with friends and family, so the biggest things we learned and adjusted in soft launch had to do with the early game.
It is easy to forget what it is like to be a new player, when you’re so invested in a game.Mark Spenner
It is easy to forget what it is like to be a new player, when you’ve invested so much time into a game.
There were things that we took for granted that new players were not understanding and enjoying, so we started new accounts, looked at the onboarding results and polished that experience.
How big was the team on Alliance: Heroes of the Spire and how long was the total development time?
We are big believers at Rumble in having small teams of dedicated, passionate developers.
The game development team is about a dozen people, but the entire studio is involved in playtesting, creative development and support.
The game was in development for about 18 months until launch, but this is just the beginning. We have tons of cool features and characters on the horizon.
What's the biggest challenge you faced during the development process?
The biggest challenge and benefit is that the game team spends as much time playing the game as building the game.
We’ve had plenty of heated design meetings late at night using the Alliance chat in-game, because that is the best place to find everyone.
So sometimes there is conflict between what we want for our characters and what is best for the balance of the game. There are inevitably collective groans when we have to nerf a specific character that everyone loves.
But honestly, I don’t ever want this “challenge” to change. This passion is what makes Rumble a special place to be every day.
How do you reflect on the game's launch? Are you happy with the reception thus far?
We are really excited about the community that is forming around the game. We want to be patient and maintain this momentum.
The release of Alliance Wars is when we will really see the fulsome design of Alliance come to fruition.Mark Spenner
I think the release of Alliance Wars is when we will really see the fulsome design of Alliance come to fruition. I am very much looking forward to that.
What have been the biggest markets for the game so far?
The US has been our biggest market thus far, but we’ve just started our localisation process.
We recently released French, German and Russian versions. And we’ll add more languages as we see players grow in other countries.
Any early stats/KPIs you're able to share?
Our engagement metrics are hitting exactly where we want. On average, players are playing 10 times a day for 10 minutes per session.
This is exactly what we had hoped in terms of making a game that fits with the mobile lifestyle.