The free-to-play model of games has risen alongside the surge of mobile games and it often (at times, quite rightly) gets a bad name. However, not all free-to-play games are quite so onerous. In some cases, this model provides smaller developers an opportunity to get their title out the door and in the hands of gamers. Immortal Empire is one such title. We chatted with Tactic Studios founder and lead designer Jesse Attard about his first title and why the free-to-play model worked for him.
Co-Optimus: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. First off, could you tell us a bit about yourself and your background developing/working on games?
Jesse Attard: My pleasure! Thanks for putting together these great questions. My name is Jesse Attard, and I designed/wrote/coded Immortal Empire. I worked for about 8 years in the games industry prior to going indie and founding Tactic Studios. I have worked on a bunch of games in those 8 years but probably the most recognizable one that I had a significant role on was Bioshock 2.
Professionally I’m a programmer, but I am involved in many other areas of development, including art, sound design, composing music, and writing the dialog. I even do a bit of voice acting in the game.
Co-Optimus: Your first release, Immortal Empire, was a free-to-play browser based game that combined gameplay elements from titles like X-Com and Diablo. It will be leaving the browser and coming to Steam very soon, still as a free-to-play title. How’s the transition going?
Jesse: It’s going awesome. We’re almost done. Just adding all the Steam-specific features like achievements and such. Wow it is ever nice not to be restricted by the small download sizes of web games. The web game was about 25 megabytes and we had some players still complaining that the download time was too long. Visually it was only 800x600 resolution and we also had complaints that the window was too big. Some things, like the fully voiced characters, were just impossible with the file size limitations, so we’re able to do a lot more now that it’s on Steam.
It’s really nice seeing the game full screen, high resolution, and hearing the characters actually talk. It actually feels like a real game now. It’s definitely not a port - I didn’t just tighten up the graphics on level 3. I actually rewrote the entire script, removed my least favourite levels, added some exciting new ones, tweaked some of the gameplay, wrote a simpler matchmaking interface, and lots of other stuff. Existing players will want to start again from the start, and new players should get a much more streamlined experience.
Co-Optimus: Can you describe for us a little bit about the actual gameplay? What does a typical level/mission entail?
Jesse: It’s a turn-based tactical role playing game. So in the combat sequences you have your units on an isometric field and can move them around the grid attacking enemies. The levels are medium sized and more sprawling, like a Diablo level, so you encounter mobs of enemies, there’s line of sight, things like that. Unlike Final Fantasy Tactics or something where it’s all on a small grid and everyone is visible. You start off controlling one immortal and can add more up to a total of five in a party. Taking a cue from DOTA 2 et al, each immortal has very unique spells and attributes; no two are alike. There are a few different play modes, but the main campaign is story-driven.
You’re typically sent on a quest pertaining to the story that has you fighting through monsters and bosses. There are also special challenges on each level that are orthogonal to the primary objective, like finishing the level in under a certain number of moves, or finding all the secret loot chests. There are also some levels that change up the game mechanics. For example there’s one level that prevents you from regenerating, and that limitation forces you to play differently.
The main fun comes in deciding how to deal with all the different types of enemies. In a game like Diablo, you’re basically reacting the same way to each enemy. Whether it’s a zombie or a skeleton, you’re going to spam them with your weapons and spells indiscriminately until they die.
In Immortal Empire, being a strategy game, blindly using your spells isn’t going to work. Some enemies are hugely resistant to magic, and you need to use skills that deal physical damage to be effective. Others have very powerful spells and you need to silence them or position your units accordingly to minimize damage. Stuns and snares are especially powerful against enemies that sneak in for a few hits then try to run away. You get the idea. So a lot of the fun is encountering new enemy types and figuring out the most effective way to defeat them using the spells at your disposal.
Of course, the meta-game is important too. The item system has a great balance where choosing how to level up and equip your characters isn’t just maxing a certain stat or farming for a specific legendary item. There are lots of effective builds and a lot of customization available through the item enchanting system. Sometimes half the fun is just building this super powerful synergistic party of immortals.