At PGC London 2023 Superplus Games Co-founder and COO Aarni Linnakangas gave a talk entitled “From action to RTS – shifting genres while keeping your identity.” During the talke he explained how Superplus went from their side-scrolling tank combat in Hills of Steel 1 & 2, to their newly developed RTS game Hills of Steel: Commander all the while keeping their “identity as a studio" and the brand's reputation as a great game.
As an opener he listed a number of key rules for mobile games: “Focus on key strategy, don’t make a game for yourself, and midcore & hardcore are impossible markets to succeed in.” He then proceeded to talk about how they broke every single one of those rules with Hills of Steel: Commander…
Big Changes, big risks
In fairness, there’s nothing quite as different from Hills of Steel as Hills of Steel: Commander. A side-scroller has turned into a full-blown RTS with an ongoing metagame. However, it’s not necessarily as much of a departure as you might think. Tanks and tank-combat do translate easily to a strategy game, with a clear delineation of units and their capabilities.
Aarni also pointed out some of the key issues with action games that spurred them to try something new, mainly the issues with low retention LTV (lifetime value). As action games are notoriously finite, it makes sense to instead look at something with much more long-term appeal such as strategy.
Not only that, but expanding their brand via stepping into new genres was a key consideration. As was inspiring the team to try something new and develop a game outside their comfort zone. As Aarni put it, “Levelling up company knowhow in key areas” to benefit Superplus immediately as well as down the line.
Similarities & Differences
And Hills of Steel: Commander doesn’t dump all the action elements of its previous titles. By adding in real-time battles as well as a calming metagame, Hills of Steel: Commander is intended to balance the peaks and valleys of excitement to ensure players are never overwhelmed, but never bored either.
There's certainly a risk in making such moves, however. We need only look back to the famous RTS franchise Command & Conquer and their attempt to step into the FPS genre with Command & Conquer: Renegade to see how someone’s “dream game” can fall flat on its face. However, judging by Aarni’s confidence and how Hills of Steel: Commander maintains the design elements of from the earlier HoS games, all the evidence is that returning players haven't been alienated by the shift.
Superplus has also been attempting to strengthen the returning value of their games with elements such as stronger anti-cheat prevention. The company partnered with Denuvo back in 2021 to integrate anti-cheat technology into Hills of Steel 2, to protect players stepping into the game’s new multiplayer mode.