Cross-platform releases are one thing, but multiplayer across different mediums is quite another much rarer thing. Pitching PC gamers against other systems has typically been controversial because of the huge advantage in controller accuracy – mouse and keyboard gives a performance boost over touch screen and controllers; end of story. So how do you get around that and the other myriad of potential hang ups?
How about you design a game almost entirely around the concept that it can competently pull off cross-platform multiplayer? That's what we have here, Aerena. Creative Director Jan Wagner took a brief break from his wife's birthday, and on a public holiday, (I'm not kidding) to Skype us about what inspired this ambitious undertaking.
Strategy Informer: What were your objectives in making Aerena?
Jan Wagner: The basic outset was that we wanted to do a competitive game – small, quick, but deep enough – and actually see whether we could do a core game which has cross-platform multiplayer matches between PC and mobile. Most of the games on mobile right now are pretty much cash cows. They're kind of like popcorn, you can eat it and you want more, but it's not filling. It's nice for a while, but you get hungry again pretty quick. We wanted a competitive MOBA-inspired game, but also a game you can pick-up and play quickly.
One thing which came out of those decisions was to do a turn-based game. That also fit well with the type of game we, as older gamers, liked ourselves. We wanted a game which didn't give an advantage to PC players. That's also why we wanted to do short sessions so people could play quick matches in mobile situations, which is why the playing area is quite small and there's only three characters per side on the board at any one time.
The absolute longest game we had was close to 20 minutes, but that was actually two masters. They kind of danced around each other. An average game takes between 10 and 12 minutes, we have the statistics for that. It's not quite the typical mobile game that you can play while you wait for your café latte or whatever, the three-minute thing, but we didn't want it to go any faster than that because it would compromise depth.
Strategy Informer: The game will be free-to-play on release, is that right?
Jan Wagner: Yes, will be launching that next week. It's currently early access on steam, and the people who paid for early access will be compensated with characters and unlockables in the game.
Another thing that were trying to do, which might be stupid from an economic perspective, is that we're trying to make a 'fair-to-play' game – you can get anything in the game by just playing. Anything that you can unlock can be bought for hard currency or soft currency which you earn by playing. So it's really just about how much time players have. If you want, you can just play for free forever. We don't believe in free-to-play games which try to milk their player base. Firstly, I have problems with their ethics, and also I don't believe that model is going to last – it's going to be a race to the bottom in terms of quality.
We actually lost publishing contacts for making that decision. They flat out said, "we love the graphics, it's a good concept, we think it's got a long lifetime – great! But it's not pay-to-win so we don't like it. We're not going to take it, we only take pay-to-win games." There were some publishers who said that where we were left thinking, "well, that's not what you say to the public."
Strategy Informer: *laughs* Right! Good advertising! "We only release pay to win games!"
Jan Wagner: Exactly.
Strategy Informer: How long approximately does it take to unlock a new hero?
Jan Wagner: As you probably noticed, after the tutorial we give you enough currency to buy a new hero immediately. The second will properly take about an hour of gameplay. The achievements will give you a boost in getting that, and so after that it may start to take longer to unlock new heroes. If you win a lot of games and jumped through the tears quickly, then you could probably buy your third hero within 2 to 3 hours.
Strategy Informer: Just taking a look at the steam forums and your game, it seems like the devs are quite actively involved with the community. Could you comment on that and say how important that is for your design philosophy?
Jan Wagner: First of all, obviously, it's a matter of principle. These are the people who supported our game and paid for early access and we believe that we owe them at least that level of service. Another thing is that where a small studio and we are self publishing so we're not going to win by having the most money. We don't have marketing clout. So we want to make sure that whoever gets our game is going to get the full dedication of the team.
The other thing I'd say is that we seem to have attracted quite a mature audience. Due to the type of game we've made, the kind of players in our community behave quite reasonably and responsibly. The posts which people make on the forums are often quite insightful. We feel that we give back to the community what they give to us.
Strategy Informer: In trying to achieve your aims, you've made use of Steam's Early Access. What comments would you make about that?
Jan Wagner: Early access for us was an excellent way to test. When we first started using that six months ago, we really were early access. The only thing that we had was the core gameplay and about five heroes. What we needed to know first was, "is the core gameplay solid enough and well balanced?" We got quite lucky with that, we haven't had to change the balancing very much. In fact, a lot of our mechanical testing happens on a tabletop using paper anyway.
A lot of titles try to use early access as a pre-sale, so they're just selling a game which is really buggy. Early access wasn't a revenue stream for us. We were much more interested in engaging the community in the development process. As a bonus we've managed to retain a lot of those early players. Some of our earliest players are still around. That's quite important to us, and if we would have tested that with a full launch and found that it didn't work or that people didn't like it, then obviously that would have been very bad.
Strategy Informer: What kind of additions will you be making in the future?
Jan Wagner: Right now the only form of game we have is multiplayer through the matchmaking process. So one of the first things that were going to add, is the ability to play matches against your friends. We also want to add a relatively challenging single player option, which will give players a bit more of an option to learn how to play the game effectively before jumping into multiplayer. We've also got a lot more heroes in the pipeline, our final goal is to have 40 heroes. We're probably looking at a new hero about once a month.
Strategy Informer: Thanks Jan!
Aerena is currently available on Steam Early access and Android, and is set for free-to-play full release on Steam on the 7th of May. It is coming to iOS soon.