Crowntakers is a turn-based strategy game from Bulwark Studios, a small studio based in Angoulême, France.
It's also, perhaps more significantly, the first game to be published by Kalypso Media Mobile, the German PC game publisher's premium-focused mobile division.
But what were the circumstances under which the deal was struck, and how did Crowntakers evolve to become the game we know today?
Project Manager Emmanuel Monnereau says it all began with a rather personal vision.
“[Our first mobile games] were kind of training projects. After their release we felt strong enough to start developing more personal games, and with Crowntakers we had a big ambition,” he said.
“Back in those days we all owned a tablet at the studio, but we didn’t play games on them because the majority of free-to-play experiences just weren't our kind of games - in 2013, at least.”
“We were a bit disappointed by this conclusion. So, we decided to develop a game we would personally play on our tablets.”
Into the deep end
Crowntakers was released on Steam before it arrived on mobile platforms, but Monnereau is keen to emphasise that this was for infrastructural reasons primarily, and that it remains every inch a mobile game by design.
The uncompromising toughness of Crowntakers is, in part, a reaction against mobile tutorials.
“Our strategy was to release it on Steam first because we wanted to evaluate the audience and be able to react quickly to feedback,” he revealed.
“This is easier to achieve on Steam because of their forums, instant-patching system, etc. But we designed it with tablet in mind from the very beginning of the project. If you play it on a computer you should feel this in the UI experience.”
With it being designed as a tablet game first and foremost, Crowntakers had to justify its existence by being notably different to the pre-existing mobile experiences disliked by the team.
Over-emphasis on tutorials and hand-holding was one aspect of mobile game design that particularly irked Monnereau, and the uncompromising toughness of Crowntakers is, in part, a reaction against this.
“We focused on exploration and mastery of mechanics. We wanted you to figure out how to defeat enemies, optimize battles, and not simply give you all the tricks to do so via a tutorial,” he said.
“I spent so much time playing tutorials on my tablet that I just wanted to play and discover things by myself.”
Experiencing and learning firsthand is a core tenet of the Crowntakers experience, as every time your character dies you take control of the next in the family line. So while the paths are well-trodden, there's a unique lesson to each death.
Every time your character dies you take control of the next in the family line.
Rather that putting players off, Monnereau believes that this trial-and-error dynamic actually keeps players coming back for more, as they are continually learning rather than being driven.
“I think this is one of the reasons you keep trying to reach the end of the game. When you find a way to optimize some move, you want to apply it every time you can on your next attempt.”
In terms of development time, an ambitious project like Crowntakers could have proven a big undertaking for a small team. However, helped along by the urgency of its financial situation, Bulwark Studios finished development fairly quickly.
“We spent two months to learn and develop stuff with Unity. Then we worked on Crowntakers for 10 months. It’s not a lot, and it was a financially driven decision because of our low-money indie situation,” said Monnereau.
“But we know that we worked as much as we could on the game before its release to make it as cool as possible to play.”
With the studio's previous games having been single-platform affairs - Ronin and Spin Safari, iOS and Android respectively - Crowntakers was its first foray into Unity development. Monnereau reports a smooth experience with the engine.
“We went with Unity because we wanted to make a bigger game than our previous ones, and we did not want to be locked to a single platform,” he told us.
“Our neighbors were already Unity developers and everyone told us how cool it was. We thought it was the best moment to jump from native development to a third party engine, and it made things easier to port the game from PC to iOS.”
However, Monnereau told us that development, as smooth as it may have been, may not have even seen completion if it weren't for the fortuitous timing of a meeting with Kalypso.
We strongly believe in quality premium games on mobile devices.Emmanuel Monnereau
“We approached them during a B2B event - completely the right place at the right moment. We came with a rough prototype of Crowntakers and the will to release it on PC and tablet,” he explained.
“Fortunately, they were looking for premium titles to publish on mobile. We were in a pretty bad situation at the end of 2013 and meeting them made it possible for us to complete the game’s development.”
To some extent, it's unsurprising that Kalypso decided to sign up Crowntakers. Not only is it a strategy game, in-keeping with the majority of the German firm's output on PC, but the two companies are also aligned in their vision for premium games on mobile.
When we spoke to Marcus Behrens, Publishing Director for Kalypso's mobile division, he told us that “premium is still not dead.”
And indeed, Bulwark Studios is of the same opinion: “we strongly believe in quality premium games on mobile devices,” said Monnereau.
Another company that still hasn't given up on premium games is Apple, as evidenced by the fact that the App Store still gives a significant portion of featured space to paid games - including Crowntakers.
But is an App Store feature all it's cracked up to be?
“If I remember correctly we were featured almost at the same place with Ronin in 2012,” recalled Monnereau.
“It clearly helped to be visible, especially when we come out with no significant buzz. But not as much as you might expect.”
“Today we have to achieve a lot more in PR and communication to spread the word about the game and sell enough copies so we can live off this.”
This is a statement that rings true not just through premium development, but all of mobile. But it is, of course, harder to sustain effectively for a small team like Bulwark Studios.
All we can do, then, is hope that Bulwark and Kalypso's faith in premium is well-placed, so that we can hear more positive stories like this one and see more gems like Crowntakers deservedly find their audience.
Crowntakers is available for iOS, priced $4.99 [iTunes link]