In the early days of mobile gaming there was a deficit of tactical games to play on the go. Final Fantasy Tactics wouldn’t see release for several years and games such as ‘Ancient Empires’, which were fairly standard stripped-down clones of popular titles from major developers (in this case Nintendo’s ‘Advance Wars’ series) ruled the market. Originality was at an all-time low. Now we know from living through the last decade that mobile gaming has picked up significantly and independent developers have found unusual and interesting ways of presenting us with new ideas and concepts. If the mobile scene was a battlefield between shoddy clones and original content, then one of the knights leading the charge for new ideas would have to be Mangobile, a one man team that brought us titles such as the Kingturn series and the more recent Tactics Maiden. My Boxed Universe managed to snag a moment with Niels Baumann, the knight himself, and get him to answer a few questions for us.
Obviously a big thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to chat with us today, especially since a new iOS just dropped and you’re no doubt busy checking any bugs in your new (non-RPG) title Earth vs Balloons and other titles.
It’s my pleasure, Ben, and thanks a lot for your interest in Mangobile’s games, of course.
Once more I seem to have been fortunate enough that my titles are not negatively affected by the latest iOS release, but I think this a topic we will cover in more detail in a later question.
Could you introduce yourself and Mangobile for those readers not already acquainted with your body of work?
Sure. Before founding Mangobile back in 2010, I’ve been working for more than a decade in the non-gaming IT industry, covering pretty much every software engineering role like analayst, designer, programmer and project manager.
Having always been a die-heart RPG and strategy fan, I’ve started developing my first game ‘Swords & Earrings'(Sw&Ear) as a hobbyist project for Java ME phones back in 2009. Sw&Ear was basically a mix of turn-based tactical games combined with elements borrowed from strategy titles like outpost conquering and enemy spawning.
To make a long story short, one year later I found myself being an independent full-time game developer, something I actually had never planned or intended to do. Ever since I’ve been working on improving upon the turn-based strategy formula of Swords & Earrings, resulting in altogether 6 published strategy RPGs by now.
As a one man team are you responsible for all art, music, story and coding assets or do you buy some in to lighten the load?
Besides using a few standard assets for things like cross-platform supported IAPs, I’m usually doing 100% of the coding myself. Firstly, because this is my main area of expertise, and secondly because it’s the most cost efficient solution due to the many design iterations required to get to the final result.
Everything else pretty much depends on the nature of the game project and it’s purpose.
The casual title Earth vs Balloons, for example, was mainly intended as a low-cost project to try out a few things and test the non-RGP market, so most of the graphics I’ve done myself.
The artwork of Tactics Maiden on the other hand was 100% outsourced to professional artists.
So far I’ve written all the stories myself, supported by a native English speaker and professional writer who has done a fair amount of editing. For future projects I would prefer to further outsource story and dialogue writing to a professional writer. This is a little tricky to pull off, though, since level design and story are so heavily intertwined.
Music is 100% outsourced. Sound effects are a mixed bag of bought sound libraries, free sound effects, and manual fine tuning with tools like Audacity.
One of the things you’re probably best known for it your AI, programming competent and powerful enemy behaviours that make your games more of a challenge than the average Tactical RPG. What do you think makes this such a draw for players?
Turn-based games are generally prone to one potential problem, imho: Being somewhat tedious. For instance, units that have to move long distances without anything happening, player turns that take a long time due to complex user interfaces and (too) many units, and finally enemy turns that take forever due to slow AI and time-consuming unit animations.
I wanted to avoid these ‘cardinal TBS sins’ as far as possible, and having a strong AI was basically just one ingredient of the core recipe: ‘Putting permanent pressure on the player in a fast-paced, smaller-sized environment.’
Other than that, I guess with a good AI it’s similar like with a good user interface: It’s most likely well done if a player doesn’t take notice of it (in a negative way).
The Kingsturn series is your most prolific body of work to date. When producing Tactics Maiden were you ever tempted to set it within the same timeline? I’ve heard people refer to it as an unofficial ‘Kingturn 4’ when discussing it.
When I’ve started writing Tactics Maiden’s story, it was in fact settled in Kingturn’s world Andaria at first. My main goal, though, was shifting the focus from the perspective of nobility to the ones of the common folks, and I soon realized it would be easier to get rid of former story constraints by settling the game in a new world.
This is one of the typical compromises you are forced to make as an indie developer, I guess: Knowing and accepting your own shortcomings,and trying to make the best out of it.
You’re a developer who likes to keep his back-catalogue up to date, filtering improvements from newer games into your older ones to make them the best possible experience. This is the reason Kingturn hasn’t appeared on MBU as yet, because the version we played doesn’t match up with the changes made after Tactics Maiden (look out for that review soon!). It’s a noble endeavour that few developers manage. Do you intend to always upgrade your games in this manner?
Updating older games is certainly a double-edged sword. First of all, no matter how much of an improvement a new feature seems to be at first glance, there will be always players who won’t appreciate such a change. In the worst case, you might mess around with something a player considered a core feature and the very reason why he bought the game in the first place. It’s also debatable how much sense it makes from a commercial point of view.
On the other hand, mobile games seem to be longer living than their PC and console counterparts, with many mobile titles still in the top 500 dating back quite some time now already. So I guess it makes sense to consider making improvements to a certain degree.
The thorough overhaul of Kingturn in February this year was nevertheless an exception, though. First of all, I figured Kingturn was somewhat lacking behind in terms of quality compared to other titles on the store. Secondly, I had two completely different versions for iOS (Unity engine) and Android (my own game engine) which turned out to be quite the nightmare in terms of maintenance.
Summarized, I will keep an eye on potential improvements in the future, but I will do so more care- and thoughtfully than I did in the past.
Your games are extremely stable, even on to iStore where updates can break Triple-A developer’s games. Has one ever needed a serious fix?
Scenario and unit balancing for Kingturn and Tactics Maiden has required an insane amount of testing. In addition, I was lucky enough to have some of the best beta testers you could possibly think of.
It also pays off to develop a mindset of constantly and actively looking for potential problems, instead of just waiting for someone to run into them.
Furthermore, my perception of quality is obviously not mainly based on high-end visuals; – a luxury most AAA developers cannot afford for commercial reasons, admittedly. If I think of game quality, I think in terms of screwed up unit stats, game crashes, lost game saves and battery drainage.
To give my fellow AAA developers their well-deserved credit, though, if you have to scratch the limits of what’s possible to accomplish on a particular platform (e.g. using real-time shadows for every single unit on a mobile phone), it’s just a matter of time when you will run into trouble.
To your mind what’s the hardest element of game creation?
Coming initially from the non-gaming IT industry, it keeps baffling me how difficult it is to plan ahead in terms of game design and the features of the final product. You can plan and theorize as much as you want, in the end you can’t be sure whether it will be an enjoyable experience before you’ve tried it out extensively. In the worst case, it turns out to be fun for just about half an hour, and that’s something you might not figure out until you (thought you) have finished the game.
What’s your personal gaming background? Do you have any favourite titles you’d like to share?
I’ve spent more time playing PC and console games than I care to admit. If it’s a well known strategy or RPG title, it’s fairly safe to assume that I’ve played it. Embarassingly enough for a mobile developer who is well aware of the importance of knowing his target market well, I can’t say the same for mobile titles, though. There are probably plenty of good games I’ve been missing out on, yet.
A short list of some of my favorite games would be:
– Grandia (one of the best battle systems, and a lovely, innocent story)
– Dragon Age Origins (most memorable characters of any RPG I know. Any other Flemeth fans out there?)
– XCom 2012 (turn based strategy in perfection, a master piece of game design)
– Disgaea 2 (proves that dialgoues can be childish and funny at the same time, item world, stacking and throwing units, geo panels, how great is that?)
– Final Fantasy VI, VII, IX (story, music)
– Neverwinter Nights 2 (true love cannot be expressed in words, so don’t ask me why)
Does any one title in your catalogue stand out as your personal favourite?
Oh gosh, that’s really difficult to answer. I’ve spent so much time with developing and playing every single one of these titles that I consider all of them as my little ‘babies’.
Trying to put on my player’s hat now, I’d say Kingturn (main) has the best story, Tactics Maiden is the most polished one, and Kingturn Underworld is the most challenging and versatile one. Oh yeah, and then there’s Kingturn Plus, of course, which is pretty much the replacement of my first game Swords & Earrings which brings back a lot of fond memories.
Are there plans for a new Tactical RPG in the future? At the moment you seem to be concentrating on smaller and more diverse titles to build a broader skillset, is it leading into a specific end-goal?
Honestly, I don’t know, yet. I would love to make a comparable turn-based strategy title in the future, maybe with a space travelling or post-nuclear theme instead of a fantasy one.
It gets increasingly difficult to ignore, though, how much chances of commercial success have detoriareted over the past years in the (indie) game market. This is especially problematic in regard of the risk-reward ratio for larger projects like fully fledged SRPGs.
With development tools like Unity3D almost all technical barriers have fallen by now, shifting the market in favor of artists and very creative minds. While this is probably a good thing for the player community, it isn’t necessarily advantageous for IT guys like me.
With ten thousands of game academy absolvents presumably pouring into the market in the next years to come, I doubt the situation will get better any time soon. I also wouldn’t be too surprised if both Google Play and the Apple store will become much more restrictive in terms of developer and game admissions in the future. During the past years Apple, Google and Amazon have been battling over getting the most apps and games into their stores. The future battle will be all about offering the highest quality, imho, which could very well mean that they will try to get rid of some of the developers they’ve been initially fighting over.
That being said, Mangobile’s customer care and product support will always be ongoing, and despite all of that, I have a gut feeling that this isn’t the last thing you’ve heard from Mangobile 😉
What’s been the hardest thing you’ve found making RPGs?
One of the biggest challenges is the vast amount of good RPGs already out there, and with each new (successful) title the bar is raised higher and higher.
Striking a balance between meeting player expectations on the one hand and introducing new and interesting concepts on the other hand is extremely challenging.
If you stray away too far from recent RPG successes, you most likely gonna end up with plenty of disappointed players. If you stick too close to it, well, no one is going to cheer at you for being a ‘copycat’ either.
Especially if a game feature is supposed to feel simple and natural, it’s easy to underestimate how much hard work is actually required to get to this point.
How have your titles performed at retail? Does one stand higher than the others as a break-out hit?
2013 was Mangobile’s ‘golden year’ with Kingturn (main) being the most successful of the games by a far margin. With the rising popularity of ‘free to play’, Kingturn (which is still offered as a paid app on Google Play) was later on surpassed by Kingturn Plus and its shareware model.
To put this into perspective, 2013 was basically the one year where generated game revenue came close to what you would consider a reasonable wage for someone with a university degree.
It’s also noteworthy that my own experience doesn’t comply at all with the general statement that developers are / were making more money on the Apple Store than on Google Play. At least 75% of my monthly revenue always came from Google Play, so in this regard it seems I’ve never really got a foot on the ground on iOS.
Do you have any words of advice for aspiring game creators?
The best advice I can probably give is sharing some of the many mistakes I’ve made myself:
1)’ I’m a seasoned developer who has played dozens of RPGs over the years. That certainly qualifies me for making a good (S)RPG somehow, right?’
Oh boy, was I wrong about this. After publishing 8 games and reading countless of books and articles, I still wonder whether I know the first thing about game design.
Let’s say, for instance, you have read hundreds of fiction novels, and you have developed a strong sense for identifing great stories and even predicting best sellers now and then.
Does this automatically qualify you for being a talented novel writer yourself?
Most likely not. In the same way it takes years of practice to become really good at game design, so there’s a good chance that you run out of money before you even get there.
2) ‘If I make a game that is just good / original enough, it will succeed.’
This assumption is seriously flawed, because it completely ignores the market reality.
If the supply / demand ratio is not in your favor, your chances of success are accordingly low.
No sane businessman would open restaurant number 201 in a 500-people-village, unless he has very good reasons to assume that he can do much better than his competition (quality, cost efficiency). It’s baffling to see how many game developers seem to ignore common economic sense, and I wished I could claim that’s a mistake I’ve never made myself.
3) ‘My game XYZ was a commercial failure, because I’ve made the mistakes A, B, and C.’
This is the most common statement you gonna read in Gamasutra articels and comments. I can’t help but wonder whether many developers mainly try to find an excuse to keep going on where there is actually no hope of success.
By now I firmly believe that a succesful indie developer is first and foremost an entrepeneur, and as such he has to think and act like an econmist. Now what does an econmist do? Does he start with creating the product he’s always been dreaming of and try to find potential buyers afterwards? Certainly not. But it turns out this is precisely what most indie game developers do. Once again, I wished I could claim that’s a mistake I’ve never made myself.
Thanks again for taking the time to speak to us today.
You can learn more about Mangobile and its selection of games at its official website HERE.