Dogfights and free-to-play: The making of Sid Meier's Ace Patrol
Meier talks mobile monetisation
As more and more developers opt to go free-to-play, so the mobile user's perception of what a free release should or should not be is being challenged.
Strategy games may have helped lead the charge for free releases on PC, but on smartphones, many consumers deem casual and social releases to be the natural home for F2P.
That's changing, in part thanks to games like Sid Meier's Ace Patrol, launched on iOS in May.
Indeed, the team behind it appear not to have been concerned about breaking the F2P mould on mobile, no doubt thanks to the experience of the man heading up the game's development.
Sid Meier's name on a game title has come to stand as an 'official seal of quality' for many and his latest iOS opus makes no apology for packing in its complex take on strategy into the slender form that is the modern-day smartphone.
In the latest of our making of series, we spoke Meier himself about where the ideas behind Ace Patrol came from, and why there's still a debate about just how to deliver free-to-play in the right way.
The main concept behind Ace Patrol had actually lived within Meier's mind for some time.
Though he'd indulged in some tinkering with various iterations of the game in the past, it was only when Firaxis decided to develop for iOS that it was decided to finally breathe some life into the idea.
"I had been thinking about the idea of a World War I flying game for a while now, And was trying out various ideas to see how they felt," says Meier.
"When we made the decision to develop for mobile, it was fresh in my mind and we gave it a try."
The studio faced two challenges: accurately simulating dogfights - which are usually fast-paced - still exciting in the strategy genre – and reaching out to more casual gamers within a genre usually reserved for the 'hardcore'.
"It's certainly been an interesting exercise in taking something as dynamic as a dogfight and making a turn-based game out of it, but it's been done successfully in the past," he adds.
"Designing a strategy game is always about making sure the player has interesting decisions to make each turn, to understand how these decisions relate to each other, and what the consequences of the decisions are, so that the player can make a plan for the next turn and the turn after that."
That's a vision fans would argue comes across in the final product, with play falling back on intuitive and simple taps to perform manoeuvres. Each move a player makes is also previewed with a 'ghost plane', meaning there's really no room for player error.
Aside from clarity, however, one of the Ace Patrol's other selling point is the cartoony, caricatured feel Firaxis brought to the game's pilots, matching tonally with the flamboyant designs that adorned the aircraft of the era.
"The pilot portraits are actually based on people at Firaxis - including me - and some of our friends," says Meier.
"We needed a system for creating pilots that you could relate to, and so your pilot would look cooler the longer his or her career went on."
Seasons also change within the game as play rolls on, lending it an additional visual charm that sits nicely alongside its colourful cast of pilots and machinery.
"The aircraft themselves are elaborate and colourful in their paint schemes," adds Meier, "which is one of the most fascinating and attractive parts of the era."
Tweaks, both to the visual style and to core elements of the gameplay itself were also easy to implement, thanks largely to the talent Firaxis has on board, Meier claims.
"All in all, development was very smooth. If an issue came up with either the engine or the interface, we had smart people who were able to work through it very quickly," he explains.
"That was great because it let us iterate quickly on the prototype and figure out what was most fun."
What's in a name?
Talent or no talent, however, there's no denying that all of Sid Meier's games benefit – both in terms of exposure and, ultimately, sales - from having his name in the title. But merely being marketable doesn't solve all your problems.
Indeed, the pressure of having a sound reputation is the need to constantly maintain high standards.
"We've always found that we have the most success by making the best game we can and then letting our fans help spread the word about the game," informs Meier.
"We had a limited launch before the global release, and it was exciting to hear people on the Internet saying: 'Have you played this game called Ace Patrol? You need to check it out!'"
Firaxis itself is just as renowned for its catalogue of titles within the strategy genre as the man himself is.
Much of its output has been focused on delivering what some could call a 'traditional experience' on traditional platforms, seemingly making Ace Patrol on iOS something of an ambitious release for the studio.
"There is always some learning to be done when working on a new platform, but it wasn't a huge problem to overcome," contests Meier.
"Turn-based strategy is a natural fit for the kind of gaming people do on mobile platforms and touch controls are easy to design for with these kinds of games."
Indeed, navigating Ace Patrol's hexes in a turn-based battle really lends itself well to smartphone-based play – with no need for fast responses, the player can continue at his or her own pace, dipping in and out when they choose.,
"Discrete movement on a grid is a natural fit for strategy games, it seems," adds Meier.
"Civilization V has been very successful in setting people's comfort level with using them as a movement grid. It just seemed a logical choice, in some ways [to include hexes]."
It's this notion of sticking to what feels right that appears to have defined the development of Ace Patrol. Meier claims the initial ideas behind the game remain largely intact in the final product, with only minor tweaks initiated in order to streamline play.
"I'd say the basic concept has remained constant throughout development," he says, "but we've polished the interface and balanced the game a little more tightly.
"I think if you saw the prototype we started with and the game we have now, you'd find analogies in all the major systems and could play it without any difficulty.
"Compared to a major PC or console title, [development] was relatively short. The game engine was developed specifically for the game, based on the code of the original prototype. I did most of the gameplay code and had systems help from some of the other engineers."
Indeed, the idea of 'getting stuck in' to game development is one of the main reasons many developers branch out onto mobile. Smaller teams equate to more creative control.
"Again, compared to a major PC or console release, the team was relatively small," explains Meier.
"In fact, that was one of my favourite parts of developing this game, because it was like the 'good old days' of small teams, when you stopped work on the game at the point you ran out of memory on the disk.
"Obviously, we didn't run out of memory on the iPad, but it was still about creating a specific, yet complete, experience."
One feature that was added later on, however, was Ace Patrol's asynchronous multiplayer component, which was brought into play once the team was happy with the single-player experience.
"One of the advantages of working with iOS is Game Center compatibility, which allows us to streamline some aspects of multiplayer development," says Meier.
"We made sure that the single-player game is solid, engaging and replayable, and multiplayer was implemented because many people enjoy having a mobile game going on with friends and dogfighting is a natural head to head experience.
"We've also got a local 'hot pad' multiplayer mode if you're stuck in a waiting room with someone and want to get a quick game in."
For those that take on the game in solo mode, however, the development team were keen to ensure Ace Patrol was accessible for casual player, but also had depth for those who care to dig deeper.
"It doesn't take long to figure out the basic rules of the game - including manoeuvre consequences, altitude, clouds, and anti-aircraft fire - even if just at an intuitive level, but there's plenty of depth in there if you want to dig into the systems some more," says Meier.
"I think if someone is motivated to be more successful in the game – and I think the desire to improve is inherent in most people's nature – then a player won't be put off at all. Instead, they'll always be thinking 'next time I'll do better because…'."
The cost of war
But before you can begin to think of encouraging players to have a 'next time', you've got to get them to play for the first time – the motivation behind Firaxis' decision to make the first chapter free-to-play, hooking players in before they decide whether to pay out for the following chapters.
"The mobile gaming space is evolving and I think you're seeing a greater willingness to explore a variety of pricing models," says Meier of free-to-play.
"Ace Patrol's is built on the old 'try the demo, buy the game' model, in that we give you a taste of the game for free, but ask you to pay if you want the full campaign."
And until the perfect structure is found, Meier contests, firms will continue to experiment with the best way to charge for their hard work within the mobile scene.
"Firaxis is also trying other approaches, too," he adds.
"Haunted Hollow was free with in-app purchases, and XCOM: Enemy Unknown's iOS version will be available soon at a premium price, reflecting the value of that game."
With regards to Ace Patrol's future, Meier confirms Firaxis plan to support the title as long people are playing it.
"We'll continue to look at how people are playing the game and we'll continue to make refinements as long as it makes sense to do so," he confirms.
Looking wider, however, the studio's longterm mobile strategy is somewhat less clear.
"This is still new territory for us," he concludes, "but we'd love to continue to make great games for mobile platforms."
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