An afternoon with Slitherine, Part One

It works.

The real deal.

JD and Iain McNeil are sipping tea on a Marks & Spencer cafe couch in Epsom while I sit across from them invading Poland. The iPad in my lap is running an honest-to-god development build of Panzer Corps for iOS, a mobile port of their hit WWII hex strategy PC wargame so long in the offing that some cynics had started to suspect that it was a hoax.

“Our revenues were up more than 400% last year,” JD says, eagerly stirring milk into his tea. The elder McNeil is fond of talking numbers. It’s not simply because he’s the director of Slitherine/Matrix Group, the world’s biggest purveyor of digital wargames — it’s also to do with him being a wargamer of the old school. JD was a competitive wargamer and the chairman of the British Historical Games society back when wargames were played on tabletop maps and expected you to do your own maths. Numbers are in his blood.

“The really incredible part of that,” JD continues, “is that 25% of our revenue in 2012 came from iOS games.”

I lift my finger off the iPad, temporarily sparing Katowice from an artillery barrage. “Wait a minute. Your catalog of PC games must number over a hundred games. And you’re telling me that a quarter of your revenue came from 3 iOS games?”

“It’s little more than three.” Iain, JD’s son and Slitherine’s chief producer corrects me in-between bites of a biscuit. “The high-profile stuff like Battle Academy and Legion is probably the first thing you think of but there’s older stuff on there like History Egypt. But yes, it’s a disproportionately significant chunk of our business, and that’s why we’re focusing on it so much going forward.”

Stukas!

A screenshot from Battle Academy 2, due out for iPad and desktops late this year.

“We’ve got 19 iOS games in different stages of development,” JD says. He gestures at the Panzer Corps blitzkrieg over on my couch with the teaspoon. “That one is going to be big.”

It’s hard to disagree. Panzer Corps runs like silk on this iPad, and touch controls suit it down to the ground. This scenario is the first one in the 1939 campaign that I’ve played a dozen times on PC, but directing units around with my finger makes it feel as if I’m finally playing it on the platform it was meant for. One thing that jumps out at me is that most of the UI elements are identical to their PC counterparts. I point this out to Iain. “I had been under the impression that a lot of the delay was down to refining the UI for touch,” I say.

“No, the biggest job so far with Panzer Corps has been the underlying engine,” Iain says. “Remember, Panzer Corps started out as Panzer General Forever, a fan remake of Panzer General. There was a lot of old legacy code at the heart of Panzer Corps that just didn’t play well with iOS. Now that that’s sorted, the interface is next.”

Enormous.

Gary Grigsby’s World at War, a global-scale WWII grand strategy game that Slitherine is bringing to iOS in 2014.

That’s a crucial element that Panzer Corps is still missing, and one that it needs to get right if it’s going to make the kind of splash that the McNeils hope it will. “Now that you’ve put out a few iOS games do you feel like you’re starting to nail down some universal best practices for touch UIs?”

Iain thoughtfully munches on the biscuit for a moment. “No, we’re still learning, to be honest. Nobody else is really making games like this for iPad, so we’re on our own really. Legion was a surprising success for us, but you still see App Store reviews for it that say ‘One star! UI sucks!’. Of course it sucks, it’s a fifteen-year-old game. But we know how important it is to get the UI right on newer stuff like Battle Academy 2 and Panzer Corps. Besides those, we’ve got Gary Grigsby’s World at War coming next year for iPad which will need a very good UI. That will be by far the biggest, most complex strategy game ever offered on a mobile device.”

An M&S cafe employee walks by and casts a disapproving eye on the coffee I’ve brought in from the Costa down the road. JD puts down his teacup. “Should we head back to the office? There’s lots more stuff to show you.”

Part Two tomorrow.