Tim Train, founder and CEO of US developer Big Huge Games, took the stage at Pocket Gamer Connects San Francisco 2015 to talk about the success of DomiNations, and how game developers overlook the power of world history as IP.
Before diving into world history, though, Train had some history to offer on DomiNations itself.
With a team of developers whose work has spanned Sid Meier’s Civilization, Rise of Nations, and Frontierville, and a shared passion for the subject, Big Huge set to work brainstorming a free-to-play mobile strategy game with world history at the core.
“We’re best when we actually have a proven model for success, understand that at an atomic level, and then go off and make our own version,” Train said.
Knowing this, and also realizing that some of their best work is rooted in history as a subject matter, they looked to Age of Empires for guidance.
That was bullet point #1 on the list of aspirations for DomiNations.
Big Huge wanted their game to be the Age of Empires of the mobile generation of strategy games, but also to have it to stand out from Clash of Clans about as much as Age of Empires does from Warcraft 2.
Big Huge also wanted DomiNations to be 20% more free than the competition, be a single notch more complex than Clash of Clans, and implement meaningful choices.
Big Huge wanted DomiNations to be 20% more free than the competition.
“We believe in Sid Meier’s famous dictum that a game is a series of interesting decisions,” said Train.
First mover advantage
One of the things Train and his team worried most about in the early stages of development was whether somebody would beat them to the market with a world history game much like the one they were building.
Their worst fear didn’t happen, but the initial worry is a testament to how strongly Big Huge believes in the potential of world history as IP.
“We actually think about world history as being an IP,” said Train. “History has characters, it has epic events, it has a base of knowledge that everybody knows something about.”
Not only is the subject matter a gold mine of interesting, pre-existing stories, according to Train, but it also allows for cool features, like a core progression system that lets players advances through the ages, from early human civilization to the space age and beyond.
You don’t have to explain to players why progressing through new technology is “cool” – it just is. Train referred to this as a “significant aspirational hook.”
It starts here
After a year of prototyping, including several months of private testing and region-locked releases, DomiNations launched worldwide on April 1st.
Train attributes its success to its “laser-sharp product focus,” a smaller team composed entirely of experienced developers, an approach “equally informed by love of good design and a well-integrated business model,” and good old-fashioned luck.
Not everything went smoothly.
Train said they could’ve used more servers, a bigger staff to handle the launch, and better anti-hacking efforts, among other things.
The history of DomiNations is rich, but Train believes the future holds just as much potential as Big Huge Games commits to actively building on DomiNations for months to come.