Creating an 80s Mix-Tape in Video Game Form
I. The Catalyst
September 2016. I was in Bucharest, Romania. I had left corporate life a few months ago, a pretty cushy gig at Disney as the production head of External Development and Licensing for their interactive division, to join the ranks of the independent developer Amber. I was to be their Head of Product Development, a new role to oversee the strategic development of their games and studios. It was a move both exciting and frightening. However, as these things go I was ready for a risk and a new challenge. Joining up with the gang at Amber was something I had been entertaining for a while. The crew there was very familiar to me having worked with them at Disney and EA before that on many projects. I was extremely close with the key leadership. They were family.
I had been invited to be a speaker at the first year of Dev-Play, a game dev conference, sponsored by the Romanian Game Developers Association, and I was at the speaker dinner with around 30 other people from top game developers and publishers from all over the world.
Highlights from the Dev-Play Conference, Bucharest, Romania, September 2016
There was an awesome spread of food on the table as is the tradition at any social gathering in Romania. Some just-out-of-the-oven bread you can only get in Europe, dips made with eggplant and other vegetables to put on it. A giant pork shoulder with a massive fork and serrated knife imbedded in it for anyone brave enough to carve it up. Tons of sausages, pickled vegetables, dried meats, cheeses, beer and, of course, palinka — a traditional Romanian liquor made from fruit that tastes like a mix of Tequila and moonshine.
I peered around the room and noticed between the networking and palinka shots, Dragos Hancu, GM of Amber, was sneaking in rounds of some game on his Android phone. I grabbed my pint of Ursus, a light Romanian beer, and went to sit next to Dragos to see what was so engaging.
Turns out Dragos was playing Clash Royale — a game by Supercell I had also been addicted to for quite some time. Pretty much since it released into soft launch in Australia in January 2016. Dragos and I began talking about everything we loved about the game. The real-time battles. The short but satisfying session length. The impeccable balancing. The frustrating but rewarding Gacha monetization. The varied units and deck strategy. We both commented it was one of the, if not the, best mobile games we had ever played and we were both hopelessly addicted to it.
Clash Royale released in 2016 and has grossed over $1 billion for Supercell
As we were chatting I explained to him a theory I had about why the gameplay in Clash Royale was so awesome and addicting. It employed the classic rock, paper, scissor mechanics of other strategy games but it did it in a real-time manner that required the player to have quick reflexes as well as solid unit tactics and deck strategies. This really got your mind going and the adrenaline pumping. Plus the fact you were playing another human (or at least thought you were) triggered this caveman fight or flight instinct in our brains like when you play a FPS or RTS competitively. I confided in him that when I was feeling sleepy I would play a round of Clash Royale and my adrenaline would start flowing and I’d all of a sudden feel super alert and awake. It was a 3–4 minute hit of dopamine, and basically a shot of espresso in electronic form, wrapped in the package of an accessible PvP strategy game. I told Dragos the only other game that really made me feel this way and delivered this quick fix of adrenaline in 3–4 minute rounds was Street Fighter II, the seminal fighting game released by Capcom in the early 90s. I remember when I was a kid blowing my weekly allowance taking on random competitors at the local pizza parlor. Street Fighter II owned my life.
Street Fighter II played with the idea of rock, paper, scissor tactics in a real-time mechanic like Clash Royale — but instead of multiple unit types and decks it was the special moves of your fighter and the defensive moves of your opponent you were strategizing with. Street Fighter II was also head-to-head multiplayer but instead of destroying tower health like in Clash Royale you were trying to take out the other player’s health. There weren’t three towers but there were three rounds, if you tied your first two. Street Fighter II was also played in super short sessions and highly addictive. It got your adrenaline pumping. There we’re plenty of similarities if you looked for them and we found a ton of them sitting there chatting.
Street Fighter II released in 1991, has spawned numerous sequels, and is arguably Capcom’s most venerable franchise.
“Man, I wonder what Street Fighter would be like if it was made by Supercell?” I mused out loud.
That equally heady and nerdy question prompted a discussion that lasted the better part of an hour. What would this made-up Street Fighter II / Clash Royale hybrid look like? How would it play? It would definitely be a strategy game, because Supercell was all about strategy, but it would also have characters and tactics more similar to a fighting game. The fighters would all have crazy special moves like the fighters in Street Fighter II. Maybe you’d play one fighter or maybe you’d control a bunch of fighters on a team like in Clash Royale. The perspective/camera would need to be more like a fighting game — or maybe a beat-em-up akin to Double Dragon if multiple units were involved to provide some placement strategy on where you drop them on the canvas. And it would be super over-the-top and retro-feeling. Most definitely a totally rad experience overall.
After the dinner we parted ways and I soon headed back to my home town of El Segundo, California over six-thousand miles away. Though this conversation stuck with me on the long plane flight home and kicked off a quest to create a love letter to Street Fighter II, Clash Royale and everything I adored about my formative years: The 1980s.
The chat I had with Dragos almost two years ago to this day was the catalyst for what would eventually become Rumble Heroes — a game I hope you have downloaded and are enjoying as you read this.
II. The Vision
One conversation in a restaurant/bar does not a great game make. Ideas are a dime a dozen and its execution that matters ultimately. Having a flash of insight into what this game could become, it was now time to get serious, assemble a team and start building it.
I believe the first stage of any game development process is to create a concept. This happens before any iota of code is written. I like to get thoughts on paper so the idea can gestate into a rough blueprint of what the game can become. Basically this document lays out the high-level product requirements and includes the overall vision statement encompassing all the key areas to consider for game dev: game design, story, art direction. I set it upon myself to put together a high-level concept design document and share with the team. I took a couple of weeks to write down everything that was in my head in a presentation that I could share with everyone at Amber and Lorraine.
While doing research on other games in the genre of real-time PvP, I came across a game called Line Rangers, a relatively unknown mobile game to Western audiences but a massive success in Asia through the Japanese game publishing arm of Line. Line Rangers had taken many of the ideas I had about translating Street Fighter II into a strategy game and implemented them in a slightly different way. However, as an analog for a game mechanic that could work well in the West — it was definitely solid and interesting — even if the theme itself might not appeal to our Western sensibilities. Furthermore, the game had earned something crazy like $150 MM just in Asia by 2016 (definitely more now) so it was working well from a free-to-play standpoint and there were established learnings to be had there.
Line Rangers was already doing some of the things I wanted to try with Rumble Heroes, namely the side-scroller camera angle and crazy, over-the-top characters.
The concept now encompassed various learnings from Street Fighter II, ClashRoyale, Line Rangers, other 80s/90s arcade games, and other real-time mobile PvP games. The concept was a true 80s mix-tape in video game form. I shared the concept with the team at Amber / Lorraine and everyone immediately “got it.” Instead of taking time to go into details into what was in that presentation, I am sharing it with you in its entirety here.
Often times when throwing together internal design concepts it helps to leverage existing assets to paint a picture of the product vision — so I made liberal use of existing product images to help illustrate my thoughts. This especially helps when there are no artists on the product to sketch out your ideas. So this document is untouched from where I left it almost 2 years ago. I’m still impressed at how, after over 1.5 years in development, the team was able to adhere to this initial vision. Of course, some of the early thoughts, most notably the idea of “Cars” as the towers (an idea hatched from playing the Street Fighter II bonus stage) and the single-player campaign (a feature we are still developing and want to get in a future update), changed during development of the game. But this is 85% intact in the product you can download and play today.
In addition to the gameplay, the story was extremely important to get right. At the time we started working on Rumble Heroes, Stranger Things Season 1 had just aired and it blew me away. Here was a work that had the trappings of everything I loved as a child of the 80s but felt new and unique. The Duffer brothers and Netflix had succeeded in developing something that both had a retro feel and a modern feel — no small feat. This was what we all wanted to do with Rumble Heroes.
We went quite deep on the story and lore of our world to encompass the themes of the 80s movies and games we all loved in the “urban fighting genre” — a genre of movie that was super popular in 80s video games and movies but hasn’t been tapped into since. In our game we pay homage to classic 80s “urban fighting” entertainment like The Last Dragon, Blood Sport, Double Dragon, Streets of Rage, Final Fight, and, of course, Street Fighter II. Our game takes place in an alternate timeline 1987 where the events of a cataclysmic event change the face of Earth as we know it, allowing for the proliferation of advanced technology much faster than in our timeline. This allowed for some crazy 80s futuristic technology to develop in Rumble Heroes. Therefore, there is also a bunch of retro sci-fi references in our game from movies we loved like Robocop, The Running Man, Runaway and general crazy tech from the 80s like the Nintendo Power Glove. In short, there is a ton of 80s goodness in this game and Easter Eggs for anyone that enjoyed 80s video games, movies, TV shows and music. We feel like we’re in the zeitgeist with this theme and hope that it scratches an itch that no free-to-play games on mobile are right now.
A snippet of the Rumble Heroes story / lore from an internal design presentation.
III. The Development
Once the concept was greenlit by Amber / Lorraine leadership, we entered formal pre-production and started working on a prototype. The goal was to get to something “fun” in roughly 3 months along with all of the other pre-production requirements like schedule, full-budget, locked art direction, and preliminary marketing material like brand look feel, game title, etc. This playable prototype, or “vertical slice” as it is sometimes called, however, was the most important aspect of pre-production and would be necessary for us to continue to fund development into formal production — typically the most expensive portion of game dev. As a team, Amber is quite large at 230 people and we are entirely self-funded. Taking a bet on an original IP comes with a significant amount of risk for a team of 16–22 people ($1–2 MM investment over 1-2 years) and in order for us to move forward with that risk everyone at the leadership level would need to be confident the juice was worth the squeeze, so to speak. Furthermore, while concepts and designs can work nicely on paper the proof is in the pudding when it comes to game dev and you never know until you get a product into software, get it into the hands of players and get the honest feedback on how it plays.
As a team, we began working diligently to figure out how to translate our design into software. We spent a ton of time in these early days figuring out the size of the play area and camera angle. Where Clash Royale was 100% top down we really wanted that old-school fighting/beat-em-up aesthetic to shine through so we knew we wanted a side-scroller look & feel. Easier said than done though as going side-scroller would require the characters to be bigger and therefore change the timing of a unit as it walked towards the enemy tower. We spent a ton of time balancing this to get the right feeling of strategy + action in the side-scroller aesthetic. At the end of the day, we feel Rumble Heroes is a bit more twitchy than other PvP strategy games on mobile but ultimately it works in our favor given the old-school arcade aesthetic.
Early camera angle tests to get the right perspective and best arena size in Rumble Heroes.
The key to creating a fun, real-time PvP game is creating the core components of emergent gameplay. This is true for Clash Royale, Street Fighter II, Fortnite, or Madden. We realized early on that we needed to give users the ability to feel empowered to create their own strategies and gameplay stories through our units and mechanics. We knew we didn’t want to come off as a Clash Royale clone even though we were taking heavy inspiration from their mechanic so we thought it was important to develop units that were unique to our single-lane / side-scroller experience and could stand on their own, creating a unique experience wholly ours.
Two units in particular I am really stoked the design team came up with are Doc Angel and Marty, Power Fist. These characters are units that can change the strategy immensely depending on how you use them. Doc, for instance, is a support unit that will make any unit close to him invulnerable. He will then slowly walk behind the reinforced unit until he is destroyed. Doc is especially powerful on a single-lane because the invulnerable unit will always be in front of him, acting like a shield. So in order to take him out, the opposing player needs to figure out a way to get past the invulnerable unit to destroy him. There are a couple of ways to accomplish this — either with a power card like Ion Cannon or a flying unit (if the unit being controlled is melee) — but this is a unit that I feel is especially unique to a single-lane experience. Similarly, Marty, Power Fist (there’s our Nintendo Power Glove homage) can “hack” enemy fighters and turn them to the player’s side. Similar to Doc, Marty will walk up to the closest enemy unit and “hack” them, essentially possessing them and taking control of them. At that point, the enemy unit will stop walking towards the enemy players tower and turn around and head back towards their own tower (or friendly units) to attempt to take them out. Marty is a really fun character to play and can change the strategy significantly depending on what heroes you combine with him in the deck. These two units were great at creating emergent strategies and gameplay experiences in our play-throughs and we knew they were keepers.
Early concept sketches of Marty, Power Fist “hacker” character for Rumble Heroes
We were able to get our vertical slice done in the predicted 3 months and just in time for the Game Developers Conference (GDC) 2017 in San Francisco. The vertical slice made it through the internal Amber greenlight gate and we were able to show it around to a ton of industry folks in San Francisco to get great, early feedback. Feedback from fresh eyes, early and often, is one of the most overlooked aspects of game production but it is vital. You might believe an aspect of your game is clearly understandable or intuitive but when you hand it to someone that’s never played it before, you’ll be surprised at the valuable feedback you can get. After GDC we were bolstered by the positive responses and valuable feedback we received on the game and headed into production with confidence.
A screenshot of the vertical slice build of Rumble Heroes, with temp art, we demoed at GDC 2017 in San Francisco, CA.
IV. Production Learnings
Production on Rumble Heroes lasted about 1.5 years. This included a 3 month soft launch in Australia and Romania where we learned a ton about our game from real players in the marketplace.
Because of the decision to focus on the arcade / single-lane aesthetic of games like Street Fighter II and Double Dragon, we realized through our soft launch data that we limited player agency by not allowing so much decision making in the spawn position of the units on the battlefield. Since we lost that tactical aspect of placement, we decided instead to focus on other decision / outcome loops in our game like real-time fusion (basically the ability to “buff” your units by fusing them in real-time during play for an advantage) and the risk / reward of the bot/tower powers that were upgradeable. At the end of the day, Rumble Heroes is much more about fighter combos and how those fighters play against your chosen tower skills, than unit positioning, and the game definitely feels unique for it.
Rumble Heroes gameplay as it exists today.
One of the many challenges in creating a real-time unit based PvP game is fighter skills and readability. Clash Royale does a fantastic job of making each unit’s skills really apparent in their archetypes (i.e. archer = ranged, bats = flying) and also their cards (she’s holding a bow = ranged, those bats are flying = flying). In Rumble Heroes we needed to find a way for modern characters to fit into clear, understandable archetypes on the cards. Early feedback was that our cards were a bit confusing on what fighter specialties were. For instance, “that guy’s a street punk but what is his skill?” After this feedback we made sure on every card to represent each character with a pose that showed what their skill was and also allude to it in their names. So we’d have the street punk character holding up his fists on the card so you got he was a boxer/melee character. Or for our character Jane Bow (a play on the words Jane Doe and Rambo) is clearly a ranged character (her name has “Bow” in it) and her card features her holding a bow in a Rambo-like pose to drive that point home.
Some of the hero cards in Rumble Heroes
Finally, finding the right balance in gameplay for a real-time PvP game is extremely important. Players need to feel like they always have a chance to “come back” during a match and that there isn’t an unfair advantage to users that pay (commonly referred to as Pay to Win). Clash Royale makes it seem effortless. In Rumble Heroes, we had to spend a ton of time balancing in order for our game to feel just right and feel competitive no matter what your level. We really didn’t have an analog for balancing given our unique arena size and characters so we created our own solution. We also had to balance our matchmaking algorithm to support fair and even matching between players of different skill levels. Our crack engineering team created a matching system that achieved a 50% win ratio in our Soft Launch, which is a mark of success for us and our balancing scheme giving all users a chance to win some and lose some.
V. The Way Forward
Looking back two years ago, it’s funny to think the game that is shipping this week was based on a nerdy, and somewhat buzzed, conversation about how Street Fighter II and Clash Royale were similar. I’m extremely proud of the team at Amber/Lorraine, and what we were able to create with Rumble Heroes. We’ll be working closely with our publishing partner Rogue and our incubation partner Carbon to bring new content and features to the game in coming months. I hope you enjoy it and find some pleasure kicking-ass in our retro-alternate-80s universe. See you in the arena!
Article by Scott Humphries
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