In any development studio or startup, communication is key when focusing on a project. Touch Dimensions’ Jeffrey Jiang told e27 that in any small team, communication can mean a difference between shipping a game out and having projects delayed.
Because of communication breakdown between him, Co-founder Travis Ho, and the rest of the team, production in the turn-based strategy game Autumn Dynasty: Warlords stumbled across a number of speed bumps.
“There are things we are trying to understand, particularly between Travis and I, on what to do,” says Jiang. “Things that I thought I wanted to do were not what Travis intended and vice versa. So that cost us a year of time before AD:W was out. So the simplest things like ‘yes’ and ‘no’ have different connotations. So when he says ‘yes’, he means ‘yes I acknowledge the fact’. When I say ‘yes’, I mean ‘I’m gonna do it’. When he says ‘no’, he means ‘I’m not doing it’. When I say ‘no’, it means ‘it won’t work in this instance, but it could work in another capacity’,” he adds.
He shares that both their definitions of a strategy game were different, as they discovered that specific issue halfway. Ho thought that the game was delving deeper into Civilization series territory. It wasn’t necessarily a bad direction, but having two different peas in a pod and changing ideas mid-way is usually bad for game production in the long run.
Luckily, the team was easy-going and laid back, so such a matter wasn’t enough to cause a permanent rift. Besides, he added, with different mindsets working together, creativity usually brimmed from such instances.
The funny thing is, Autumn Dynasty: Warlords was close to not happening.
Autumn Dynasty was supposed to be Ho’s swan song. Planned since 2009, he worked on it while he was under Envisage Reality. Coincidentally, Jiang was his co-worker.
At that time, Jiang was working on Armor Valley under Envisage Reality. He then had trouble from a technical end and asked around for help with the game’s pathfinding and AI, “I needed [Travis’] help with AI, and Travis needed my help with his masterpiece. So we did a barter trade.”
Jiang recalls the fun they had, camping out at the NUS Singapore University as they stayed up late working on each other’s projects and brainstorming. “After that time prepping up the games for IGF, I thought that the whole process was pretty fun. [Envisage Reality] was starting to change its focus. Because of that, I suggested to Travis whether he was up for selling Autumn Dynasty on a commercial basis,” he says.
As you can tell, Ho agreed. This led to Autumn Dynasty being released in 2012, which then brings us to this year’s nod to Romance of the Three Kingdoms historical novel.
Taking a different approach
Jiang considered it a boon that Autumn Dynasty’s engine was flexible enough for a different kind of sequel. “While Autumn Dynasty was a real-time strategy multiplayer title, Autumn Dynasty: Warlords was a 4X game on a mobile device.” For context, a 4X game pits players in an open world and a kingdom as they eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. While it’s a big genre on the PC, there are few such games on mobile devices.
“There isn’t any deep game on iOS in the 4X scale,” says Jiang, “With Autumn Dynasty: Warlords, we filled that niche; something that can make you lose a few train stops while you’re engrossed. Nowadays, I’m lazy to turn on my computer and want to just turn on my phone for something substantial [like a 4X game].”
Yet at the same time, there were previously-scrapped ideas from Autumn Dynasty that the team wanted to do with the next game. One of them was the randomly-generated campaign feature. Jiang said that while the game’s main objectives and general path are planned out, the bases and unit placement on the maps are random.
Furthermore, all of the game’s battles are shortened and tailor-made for portable devices. A player has to use a rocks-paper-scissors mechanic system to combat the AI and command units with swipes on the touchscreen, all displayed in beautiful calligraphy paintbrush artwork to mimic the time period. “We wanted to keep that part of the 4X experience short,” says Jiang, “People had to sit down and play Autumn Dynasty for an hour. That’s taxing for many.”
Such simplicity came at a high price, as the numerous bugs and kinks delayed AD:W’s initial release date of October 2013 to February 2014. “From a technical standpoint, it was crazy,” shares Jiang, “Teaching the computer to paint Chinese art is crazy because it has to look pretty and make sure that the units spawn at the right place. The AI enemy units had to be placed properly, so that it’s fair for the players. Creating an engine to generate a random mission and a different kind of campaign experience is quite different.”
The real-time combat also required players to create multiple choices of attack, something that the Touch Dimensions team wasn’t well-versed in seeing ahead of time. “As a result, the enemy AI has to be balanced so that it can counter-attack and push back the player. We never thought about these possibilities and problems until mid-way through development. It was crazy. It took us months; as we solved one part of it, more issues cropped up,” he adds.
The turn-based diplomacy/province-building bit was not exactly a cakewalk for the team to code. “We had to consider all the different options that players get to do,” says Jiang, “With multiple options, we had to create numerous different branching paths in the behind-the-scenes coding. This took a lot of experimentation before we distilled the options down to a simple bunch of choices for the mobile space.”
What seemed to be a three-month reworking of the original Autumn Dynasty engine ended up being a full-fledged year-long project. In retrospect, having the Autumn Dynasty engine to begin with made the process for a sequel a lot shorter.
Other methods of experimenting also included taking a page from the PC modding community. “We made our engine easily moddable [for our designers to use],” he shares, “One of our game designers is a full-time remisier; he does full-time stock trading. He had no programming background. We learned from other 4X games on PC and made the engine moddable; as long as our devs knew how to use Excel spreadsheet, changing up elements was easy.”
In the end, the game finally pulled through. The reviews on the game were positive. Personally, we were impressed with how most of the genre’s intricacies could be crammed into a 216MB file.
The perils of starting up
When it comes to video games, Southeast Asia is a hotbed for both, the glorification of free-to-play and rampant piracy. Jiang says that these two elements coincide with a retail game’s success in the market. While he agrees that the F2P market still reigns supreme in places such as Vietnam and Indonesia, Singapore uses both models. “We were on the number one spot on the Singapore App Store during launch week. That’s always good, right?” Jiang says candidly.
Majority of AD:W sales is coming from North America and Europe, as these markets are used to the retail model. Jiang says that the game is hitting a good niche in these countries — English-speaking fans of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms historical novel.
Jiang states that he usually plays other Romance of the Three Kingdom games on mobile devices (the Koei Tecmo variety), but all of them do not hold his interest because of their free-to-play nature and design, “After playing for 10 mins, I have to wait [for energy meter cooldowns]. It just stops the engagement.”
“The beauty of these RoTK games back then was that you spent ten to hundred hours playing them. It’s not so fun when you’re in a heat of battle and you run out of gems that halts progress.” Of course, Jiang and his team are based in Southeast Asia and thus very familiar with the ever-growing free-to-play gaming market. Still, he sees value in sticking with the retail and premium model despite the differences in country cultures.
Then there’s the matter of piracy in Southeast Asia that can hamper startups going for the retail games model.
“Twenty years ago in Southeast Asia and China, piracy was rampant. When you asked kids at the time about buying original software, they’ll look at like you’re crazy and just tell you to head off to tech spots like Sim Lim Square. With some people’s income not being the standard, pulling out US$10 for a game would be painful. “For some of us, it’s alright, but for others, it’s a one-week allowance. Fast forward to now, freemium games are giving more casual people a legitimate option to entertain themselves without forking money over. The rich ones can go ahead and contribute to the creators.”
Despite those conundrums, Touch Dimensions is still bullish on the premium model. “We’ve done lots of investigation on F2P, but we’re still on premium model because our existing players usually buy retail games. We like the idea of not paying money in-between experiences.”
While the company has yet to announce new developments right after AD:W’s release, Jiang encourages other would-be developers to start up in Southeast Asia and contribute to the growth of the games industry. “Get a co-founder,” he advises, “Doing it alone is difficult. [As I highlighted earlier] it’s a plus point to have different minds working together because that’s where creativity usually stems from. Just make sure your communication wavelengths are the same.”