XCOM developer Firaxis goes casual, free-to-play, and mobile with upcoming game

XCOM developer Firaxis goes casual, free-to-play, and mobile with upcoming game

Firaxis, developer of the recent XCOM strategy game, is coming to iOS. Their upcoming game, Haunted Hollow, is an asynchronous strategy title that features colorful, cutified versions of classic movie monsters like Frankenstein's monster and The Invisible Man. It is, to put things succinctly, a little different from their previous games.

Hardcore about casual

The first concern for a studio which develops “hardcore” games on PC moving to mobile platforms is one of integrity. When I left the Naga Theater at PAX East following Blizzard's announcement of Hearthstone, I heard much clamor over the company abandoning their roots to chase after what it seen as a more casual market. Sure, there were people excited to play the game and others were curious, but talk of Blizzard losing its soul was hard to ignore. There was also much hand-wringing and worry when it was announced XCOM: Enemy Unknown would be coming to iOS devices.

The Report recently had a chance to talk to Will Miller & David McDonough, two of the designers behind Haunted Hollow, so I asked: where did the game fit, between hardcore and casual? “Haunted Hollow is a game we feel marries the two,” I was told. “We use the phrase 'easy way in, long way up' as a guiding principle.”

“It’s an accessible game with the comfortable, approachable style that casual games have done well. But, it’s also a Firaxis game – rich with all the strategy, depth, and replayability our core fan base has come to expect from our studio,” McDonough and Miller told the Report. “Haunted Hollow is at its heart a Firaxis game – a 'one-more-turn' strategy.” McDonough and Miller explained that moving to iOS was ideal for such designs.

Moving into the mobile market also meant an opportunity to broaden the game's appeal. The two men said they noticed that many people played mobile games not just by themselves, but with children and relatives, so they deliberately made things bright, colorful, and cute to make the game more welcoming. McDonough and Miller explained this aesthetic wasn't a major departure for Firaxis, and they pointed to titles like Pirates! and Railroads! to prove their point.

Haunted Hollow actually achieved its identity almost from the beginning,” McDonough and Miller told the Report. “Long ago, we had an idea for a cute little game about running a monster hotel where players could collect all the great monsters everyone remembers, and take care of them in one big, ridiculous house.”

The two men said that the idea slept for awhile, but came “bubbling up” when Firaxis decided to develop for mobile devices. The game was restructured as a duel between rival monster collectors, and from there, refined into a feud between two haunted houses. “We actually still have the original whiteboard sketch – two absurdly-impossible house silhouettes on either side of a tiny, terrified town – that started the whole thing,” the designers told the Report.

Building the fear factory

I asked McDonough and Miller what it was like moving from one platform to another from a technical standpoint. Fortunately for them – and unfortunately for any readers expecting dramatic stories of broken code or ripped-out hairs – technical problems were limited. For example, the game is turn-based, but rather than coding notifications and other features which benefited turn-based game play from scratch, the team leveraged built-in features of Apple's GameCenter. Haunted Hollow is also built in Unity, which the two said was a “big leg up.”

Instead, the team focused on Haunted Hollow's game play, and drew most of their inspiration from board games like Go. It had to be understood at a glance; it had to be simple to leave a game, come back, and remember your place; it had to be something you could spread virally to your friends. It also had to make money.

I was told Haunted Hollow looks to employ a sensible business perspective. The game will be free to play, but McDonough and Miller said they're going to be careful to keep it from being pay-to-win. Paid content will offer a “richer experience” and room for players to “explore their personalities.” Although they didn't give further details, preview videos have shown new content packs - which contain characters, maps, skins, and items - to cost $4.19. Whether that price will stand when the game releases is an open question.

Still, McDonough and Miller seemed to know that a game that isn't fun isn't going to pull in customers, and when I asked if they could pick a moment where the knew they were onto something, they said it came with simply playing the game. “I can remember the first time we played a complete turn,” the two men said. “Building a room, summoning a monster, sending it into the town, and watching the townspeople run in terror. We were showing it in an open design meeting, and when the townsperson squealed and ran into the church, everyone just burst out laughing.”

“At that moment, we knew we were in the vein.”