Posts Categorised: Holiday Re-runs

Holiday Re-run: Noel Llopis and Ron Carmel give us the first look at Subterfuge

PT‘s closed down for the Thanksgiving holiday. This feature, which originally ran this past January, gave us a first look at Noel Llopis and Ron Carmel’s forthcoming multiplayer RTS Subterfuge.
It couldn't have been built anyplace else.

It couldn’t have been built anyplace else.

Two of the most respected names in gaming are collaborating on slowplay real-time strategy title called Subterfuge — a multiplayer game of conquest and diplomacy that takes a real-time week (or more) to play. If that sounds a little like Neptune’s Pride 2 (which transfixed PT regulars when it launched last year), devs Ron Carmel (creator of World of Goo) and Noel Llopis (designer of Flower Garden and Rovio’s Amazing Alex) more than acknowledge the debt — they’re big fans of the game. But unlike the web-based Neptune’s Pride, Subterfuge will be a native app for mobile devices and features a number of gameplay twists that Carmel and Llopis have come up with.

After the jump, the very first public screenshot of Subterfuge and an interview with the creators on why you’ll want to play their slow-percollating 4X RTS.

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Holiday re-run: Winning Blimp tell us about Stratolith their unabashedly analog RTS

PT‘s off today for the summer bank holiday in the UK. This feature, which reveals the inner workings of Winning Blimp’s still-forthcoming iPad RTS Stratolith originally ran on March 24th of this year.
The time has come to push the button.

The time has come to push the button.

A couple of weeks ago we saw the trailer for Stratolith for the first time. What grabbed me right away about Winning Blimp’s forthcoming iOS & desktop game was how much effort had obviously gone into the game’s presentation. A third of the screen is taken up by a big skeuomorphic control panel that would feel right at home in the worn-in blue collar sci-fi universe of Alien. You can’t ask for nicer window dressing for a game.

“Actually,” developer Bear Trickey told me, “everything you see there is functional. Every control you see in the screenshots and in the trailer has meaning and utility.” Oh. Oh, wow.

Stratolith is an analog game.

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Holiday Re-run: The Making of Battle of the Bulge

Beating the odds.

“Anything is possible – but when do you want it is the important question.”

Owen’s on holiday this week. This feature is the second-part of a two-part interview with some of the folks from Shenandoah Studio, the makers of Battle of the Bulge — last year’s Wargame of the Year. This feature originally ran on February 8th.

Shenandoah’s Kickstarter for their next project, American Civil War tactical game Gettysburg: The Tide Turns, is fully funded and closing up in just a few hours. You might want to jump in there to nab some of the backer rewards before it’s too late.

Continuing on from yesterday, this is the second part of my interview with three of the men behind Shenandoah Studio‘s justly acclaimed iPad wargame Battle of the Bulge: lead developer David Dunham, producer and studio co-founder Jeff Dougherty, and art director Patrick Ward.

This last segment of our conversation goes behind the scenes on some of the design choices that Shenandoah made that led to their mechanically distinct wargame, as well as how they prepared the business case for it all.

You’ll learn why Battle of the Bulge doesn’t have hexes but does have a historical appendix, how Disney animation and King of Dragon Pass influenced the game’s development, and more – after the jump.

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Holiday Re-run: PlayRaven tells us all about Spymaster



Owen’s on holiday this week. This feature, which details Finnish developer PlayRaven’s plans for “Football Manager for spies” game Spymaster originally ran on May 23rd of this year.

Lasse Seppänen and Thiago Rocha are on Skype with me. They’ve ducked into an empty room at the Slagthuset Conference Center in Malmo, away from the bustle of the 10th Annual Nordic Game Conference. What is the Nordic Game Conference?, I ask them.

“It’s partly a government venture,” Lasse tells me. “You get a chance to meet other developers and the governments of the Nordic countries give grants to help fund game development.”

This is how much more civilized the Nordic countries are than the rest of us. Everybody in Scandinavia speaks three languages, they invented flatpack furniture, their prisons are kitted out like luxury condos (and their crime recidivism rate is basically zero), and their governments just hand out cash to make video games. That’s beautiful, I tell Lasse. “It really is,” he says.

Seppänen and Rocha are co-founders of PlayRaven, a brand-new outfit based in Helsinki that is working on one of the most exciting game ideas I’ve heard in years. They’d just announced the award of a Nordic Game grant to develop it, in fact.

PlayRaven is a 5-man studio in Helsinki led by Seppänen, the CEO of the new studio and ex-Remedy producer, where he lead the Alan Wake team. Design lead Rocha is also formerly of Remedy and had been working on Quantum Break — possibly the only thing that people were universally excited about coming out of this week’s Xbox One announcement.

The game that PlayRaven want to make is Spymaster, a spy network management game for iOS set in 1941 in the cities of Nazi-occupied Europe. “To put it very, very simply: it’s Football Manager for spies,” Rocha said.

I immediately stop thinking about the Scandinavian welfare state. Tell me more, I said.

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Re-run: Ian Gregory on designing Ravenmark

Owen’s off until Tuesday. In place of your usual Weekend Price Drops, here’s a guest post from Witching Hour‘s Ian Gregory giving a behind-the-scenes look at their brilliant iOS strategy game Ravenmark. This piece originally ran in August 2012.

Hi all, Ian here, from Witching Hour Studios. I’m here to tell you that Ravenmark is about 10 years old. No, really, it is. Just not quite what you know it as today. Ravenmark was originally designed as a tabletop game – my ode to (the annoyingly expensive) Warhammer.

We’re surprised this image of the advantage system hasn’t burned into our retinas yet.

We’re surprised this image of the advantage system hasn’t burned into our retinas yet.

One thing I always hated about Warhammer was how difficult it was to explain the rules to friends. I loved the complexity of it, but it really was a pain to digest and share. Ravenmark, as a tabletop game, was designed in the hopes of solving that problem. Commercially, that tabletop game hasn’t seen the light of day, but those same goals of simplification played a big part in the game mechanics of today’s Ravenmark.

A player only really needs to know three things to play Ravenmark – 1) type advantage matters, 2) you only need to get close enough to hit something (be it melee or ranged) and 3) you either hit it… or you don’t. Everything else is fluff, really.

I’m here to take apart those three things, and to explain why we made certain design choices we thought would help with simplifying a genre known for having a high learning curve and confusing menus – while maintaining the depth expected from a strategy game.
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Holiday Re-run: Julian Gollop on today’s iOS tactical games

The Pocket Tactics crew is on holiday until the new year. Before I went on holiday at the end of May, I reached out to a number of folks hoping they would be willing to write guest posts to run in my absence. On an absolute lark, I contacted Julian Gollop, the legendary game designer behind X-Com and Rebelstar. To my delight, Mr Gollop wrote back affirmatively – I still hardly believe it. From its original run on 1 June, here’s Julian Gollop’s take on three contemporary iOS tactical games that have followed in the path of his trailblazing originals. -Owen

X-Com's iconic Skyranger.

X-Com’s iconic Skyranger transport.

I have had a certain passion for making turn-based tactical games going all the way back to 1983 when I made Rebelstar Raiders for the 48k Spectrum. It was a simple two-player game in which players controlled a squad of futuristic soldiers, taking turns to move and shoot at the enemy.

It wasn’t until I created X-Com: UFO Defense (or ‘UFO: Enemy Unknown’ as it was called in Europe) that I added a strong RPG element to the squad-building, plus an interesting real time meta-game involving UFO interceptions, base building, research and manufacturing. Since X-Com I have revisited the genre of Tactical RPGs a couple of times. After playing Advance Wars on the GBA back in 2001, and then Fire Emblem, I was convinced that handheld computing carried the torch for the turn-based strategy games I loved.

I had this opportunity in 2005 when I made Rebelstar: Tactical Command for Namco on the GBA, and then again with Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars, a 3DS launch title made by Ubisoft Sofia. Now it seems that mobile phones and tablets provide the opportunity for such games to find a new home. I am defining ‘tactical turn-based RPGs’ as a genre in which the player controls a group of characters in turn-based combat missions linked by a story with some kind of character improvement system – and where the emphasis is somewhat more on the tactics than the RPG side (as in the numerous fantasy ‘SRPGS’ from Japan). So, armed with my new iPad, and somewhat older iPod touch, I have looked at the most promising entries in this genre and penned a few of my thoughts.

The three games I tried are Tactical Soldier – Undead Rising, Call of Cthulu: The Wasted Land and Hunters 2. Each game has a setting and story played through a sequence of missions. Wasted Land has the most intriguing premise, set during the first world war, where a Cthulu cult is operating on the German side and you have to investigate and fight it. Tactical Soldier pits you against zombies in a military base after an experiment has gone wrong. It’s not the most original idea, but it is quite well told through comic-style cut scenes. The main problem with them is that the style is somewhat in conflict with the moody in-game graphics and looks very low-res on the iPad. Hunters 2 has a sci-fi story line where you are in charge of a group of mercenaries investigating corporate skulduggery. It keeps your interest, but it is not as crucial to the game play compared to the other games.

The anodised world of Hunters 2.

The anodised world of Hunters 2.

The role-playing aspects of these games are also an important factor in the sense that developing your group of characters is part of the longer term strategy in the game play. Wasted Land is based on the classic Cthulu pencil-and-paper RPG from Chaosium. One interesting aspect is the Sanity value of your characters. Attacking the unspeakable horrors reduces a character’s sanity, which can only be cured by using psychoanalysis books. In the early stages of the game you get a barrage of stats without really knowing what effect they have – the type of design decision I no longer like. Tactical Soldier is simpler and more understandable, but not very interesting. Hunters 2 does it better. In addition to a standard set of upgrades for each character, there are a set of special upgrades which depend on two specific skill sets, such as ‘scouting’ and ‘combat.’ Each skill set can unlock special abilities with easily understandable effects, and this allows the player to make interesting decisions. It’s a great system. Hunters 2 also allows you to craft weapons using a simple interface which gives you some more flexibility and interesting decisions when kitting out your characters.

As for the actual combat systems, there are some interesting differences between these games, but with some serious interface problems for two of the games. Wasted Land is a bit of a disaster as far as the interface and controls go. My main problem was selecting characters to attack, which requires a tap and hold. Even more annoying was the endless amount of time I spent scrolling the map to select a target. It’s worse on the iPad, because you can’t zoom out very far. Tactical Soldier works quite well with a reasonable intuitive interface, but the 3D view causes problems. I spent a lot of time just fiddling with the camera and zoom. Hunters 2, with its 2D top down view has an excellent interface and control system compared to the others. It makes the pace of the game faster, allowing you to concentrate on those interesting decisions rather than battling with controls. It shows a real appreciation for good mobile-oriented design.

The Great War trenches of Wasted Land.

The Great War trenches of Wasted Land.

Wasted Land has the most obscure game mechanics. It wasn’t really clear to me whether there were any cover effects from the trenches. The movement system is also a little weird, with characters hopping in and out of trenches with apparently no extra difficulty. It also has the dumbest AI, with enemy characters persistently walking through patches of deadly gas, often killing themselves in the process. Tactical Soldier is much better by comparison, with some interesting weapon differentiations and often some tense moments as the zombies close in. I can’t say much for the AI here either, as the zombies really are pretty dumb. They are not the most interesting opponents to fight against. Hunters 2 has a simple, and easily understandable game system, but the developers have used every possible variable to create something more interesting. You do get a feel for the different weapons and abilities very quickly. But the AI is not brilliant here either, and the game becomes more like a puzzle, where often you have to repeat a mission to ‘get it right’. Still, I found it more of a compelling experience than the other two games.

I think there is still a lot of room for improvement in this genre, and I think it has a potentially bright future on mobile platforms – especially the iPad with its fantastic screen. I would really like to see better AI and good multiplayer options. It is also essential that the pacing of such games is carefully thought out. Strategy games are all about making interesting decisions. With turn-based games, any turn which has no interesting decisions becomes a chore for the player. This problem is compounded if the interface is slow and problematic. It also helps if the underlying mechanics are easily grasped by the player so that those interesting decisions are based on quantifiable choices rather than guesswork. For these reasons, I think Hunters 2 gets it mostly right, but I hope to see even better tactical turn-based RPGs in the future, with more than just a set of loosely linked missions. For example, something involving a larger scale meta-game with base building, research and manufacturing would be cool.

Holiday Re-run: Life After Zynga – Slade Villena and Vigrior

The Pocket Tactics crew is on holiday until the new year. Originally posted in April, this profile of indie developer and persistent gadfly Slade Villena was one of the first features I published on PT – it has been longlisted for the Games Journalism Prize.

The Kickstarter pitch discussed in this article was ultimately successful – but two subsequent crowdfunding pitches were not. Development continues on Vigrior. -Owen

Vigrior’s tech demo in action.

Kickstarter – the crowd-funding platform that has become a gold rush of funding for indie game development – is ultimately a genteel form of pan-handling. There is a light dusting of servility over every pitch, as developers appeal to the egos of their potential funders. At Kickstarter, even industry stars like Tim Schafer do their share of obsequious thanking and self-effacement. But not everyone subscribes to this philosophy.

“We want to change real-time strategy games with Vigrior.” I am talking to Slade Villena, the engineer behind Kickstarter hopeful Mercenary Games, and he is not prone to understatement. “I think I may have to put a patent on the control interface for this game.”

Villena, a former US Marine-turned-game-developer, is excitedly walking me through the prototype for fleetCOMM: Operation Vigrior, the science-fiction fleet combat sim that Mercenary hopes the Kickstarter community will fund. Their Kickstarter pitch shows off their impressive homegrown technology, whilst taking shots at everyone from Namco Bandai to 6wave LOLapps. Villena has an opinion for every topic.

“Strategy games kinda left players behind on interface design,” Villena says. “Most strategy games operate like a fucking web page, not like a weapons interface.”

Slade Villena during his stint in the US Marine Corps.

Slade Villena knows a bit about games that operate like web pages. He’s a former engineer for Zynga, the company that is simultaneously the world’s most-hated and most-loved game developer. Zynga floated an IPO in December of last year on the back of its success with social games like the ubiquitous Farmville, the social agrarian sim that put Facebook gaming on the map. Despite its popularity (at its peak, Farmville was played by as many as 32 million people per day) and hiring of respected industry veterans like Alpha Centauri designer Brian Reynolds, Zynga never fit as comfortably into the game development community as well as it might have liked. Stories about Zynga in the tech press have rarely failed to mention rumours of harsh working conditions and grey-hat business operations.

After their mostly successful IPO in December started to shift the Zynga storyline, the company fell right back into a negative PR tailspin when indie developers Nimblebit and Buffalo Studios accused them in late January of making near-exact copies of the tiny studios’ best-selling games. The criticism was so hot that Zynga’s CEO, Mark Pincus, felt obliged to respond personally. That was when Villena decided to turn up the heat on Zynga himself.

A week after Nimblebit’s accusation, Villena posted a thread titled “IAmA Former FullTime Zynga Engineer” to Reddit’s “I Am A.. Ask Me Anything” subreddit. Many hours and dozens of questions & answers later, Villena had painted a thoroughly unflattering picture of a “nasty” and “creepy” organization that made programs calibrated to keep you addicted, instead of games designed to be fun. The controversial thread garnered over 4,000 upvotes from Redditors – and almost as many downvotes. By the end of the day the story was everywhere: Forbes, Silicon Alley Insider, Mashable. The Reddit thread itself quickly devolved into name-calling and posturing – from which Villena is temperamentally unsuited to simply walk away.

Nimblebit’s now-famous broadside at Zynga.

Infamy suits Slade Villena well. When he gets worked up (which is often) the Californian has the brash demeanor of a James Bond villain, taunting the momentarily disabled hero with his master plan for world domination. The timing of his IAmA – at the very height of Zynga’s public shellacking – suggests a flair for self-promotion.

As his greatest inspiration he (perhaps unsurprisingly) cites John Romero, id software’s flamboyant co-founder who famously promised that first-person-shooter Daikatana would “make you his bitch“.

“Romero was amazing,” Villena says. “He built a multi-talented crew and they worked together. Small squad. We’re a pretty rough crew, and I’m no [John] Carmack.  I still have a lot to learn, but we do have some good talent.”

That crew is Mercenary Games, composed of Villena and five friends. Mercenary is Villena’s attempt to get back into the games business on his own terms, and their game, Vigrior, couldn’t be more different from Zynga’s stock-and-trade. The game bears a superficial resemblance to Positech’s Gratuitious Space Battles, but whilst the meat of that game takes place before the fighting starts, Vigrior is about ordering fleet maneuvers to cope with a chaotic and unpredictable battlefield. Villena describes it as a football playbook for maneuver warfare. “Our fleet creation tool lets you plot movements in real time, drill your units, practice. You can design the maneuvers with very precise actions, so when you’re in combat you’ve got a palette of moves to choose from. We want to allow players who aren’t fast clickers to be able to make complex maneuvers.”

One of the models from Vigrior.

It’s too early to tell if Vigrior is as mechanically revolutionary as Villena thinks it will be – the game is still essentially a proof-of-concept – but the game’s Tron-chic aesthetic is undeniably cool. When I tell him that it resembles what I imagined the battle simulator from Ender’s Game to look like, he responds immediately, “I’m a big Ender’s Game fan. I dreamed of making the Battle School fleet games. This is it. Being a military man helped the design and theory, but that’s definitely where the inspiration came from.” Behind the visual static bursts and dubstep bass drops, the trailer posted on Vigrior’s Kickstarter page has definite echoes of Orson Scott Card’s sci-fi universe – but it’s hard to tell a lot of a story with a tech demo. “We poured about two weeks of effort into the two-minute trailer,” Villena says. “Kickstarter requires us to do double the effort, not just development but talking to gamers, and proving the game, showing prototypes to people.”

“Kickstarter was not our first choice, or even what we would have wanted, but we had to do it. We wanted to just get this project delivered by August and have a public beta by then. But to do that, we had to face the audience and test the concept now.”


After Villena’s IAmA thread started to draw attention from outside the Reddit community, self-appointed internet detectives on Reddit discovered Villena’s real name and LinkedIn profile and posted them in the thread. An anonymous Redditor created a sock puppet account for the sole purpose of bashing Villena in the IAmA thread. “This guy is full of shit,” the post said. “His code was awful, and he was a counterproductive member of the team (and a crude human being to boot). That’s why he was canned, not because of ‘office politics’.”

Villena is almost aggressively unfazed by the characterizations. As a coda to a six-month stint in the games industry, Villena seems comfortable with the fact that his IAmA probably burned many more bridges than it built. “I’m probably the most unemployable programmer in Silicon Valley after that. No lie. I’ll never get hired in another studio.” Villena says the Reddit thread inspired a number of emails telling him that he’d never work in Silicon Valley again.

With 18 days left until its deadline, Mercenary’s Kickstarter is halfway to its target of $12,000. With the money, Mercenary hopes to take its PC proof-of-concept and port it to iPad,  Android tablets, and PlayStation Network. When I ask him what plan B is if Vigrior’s Kickstarter fails, Villena is typically sanguine. “We’ll freeze the project, get day jobs cutting grass. And then most likely, we’ll end up just waiting two years and try again.”

Vigrior’s trailer is after the jump.

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Holiday Re-run: Sebastian Palkowski on the making of iOOTP

The Pocket Tactics crew is on holiday until the new year. This guest post from iOOTP Baseball developer Sebastian Palkowski originally ran in June – it’s a great insight into how one of the world’s deepest PC sports sims made the leap to mobile.

Sport management games like Football Manager and Out of the Park Baseball are my favorite game genre. I’ve played them since my early days using a computer, almost 20 years ago, so it was a no-brainer for me to join OOTP Developments in summer 2010 to port their PC/Mac game to iOS. Until that point, I hadn’t done more than some game programming as a hobby, and I had never undertaken a mobile programming project, so I was a bit nervous, but OOTP Developments made my transition easy.

Tough compromises had to be made to get the enormous PC sim onto iOS.

Tough compromises had to be made to get the enormous PC sim onto iOS.

My job was to make a mobile version of OOTP, a very deep and complex game that has been around for more than 10 years, and I only had about 10 months to finish it. That might sound like a lot of time, but in the end we needed every day to finish the game and learn how to work with Apple. As a fan of the game, I was fully aware of the task I was in for: baseball is a sport with tons of stats and a deep history, and OOTP reflects all of that. Every screen is packed with stats, settings, and options, something that baseball fans everywhere (and especially OOTP fans) love.

After a few days, it was clear that we needed to define a direction for iOOTP before we could even start the design process. At first, iOOTP was planned as “OOTP on a smaller screen,” which meant we were aiming for a more hardcore user base, but we quickly scrapped that idea and decided to target a much more casual group of users.

With limited hardware to run the game on (OOTP is very heavy on memory usage, something that’s in short supply on older iOS devices) and a very small display to work with (every screen in OOTP is packed with information), we had discovered our two biggest obstacles. So we went back to the drawing table and wrote a new design for the mobile version.

The new goal was to make iOOTP a great game on its own: take the things people love from the PC version (a realistic game engine, the famous news and play-by-play text systems, and the robust AI) and use those elements as the basis for a mobile version. We literally went from screen to screen in the PC version and threw out unnecessary stuff so each screen would fit it on a smaller display. It was hard work and took us some time.

iOOTP had to be distilled from the sprawling desktop version.

iOOTP had to be distilled from the sprawling desktop version.

For the interface, we had inspiration from another great sports management text sim I played a lot around that time: Football Manager Handheld. You can still see those roots in our interface, but we took it a few steps further and gave iOOTP its own look.

By early 2011, we had finished the game  and were ready for Beta testing. I remember long nights struggling with Apple’s guidelines to prepare a test version for our team, but the Beta phase was pretty smooth.

By late May 2011, iOOTP Baseball 2011 was available in the App Store; it immediately started racking up good reviews. I had no time to rest, though, because the next six months were filled with work on several updates we released to the 2011 version: we added Game Center support for leaderboards, in-app purchases of additional historical seasons, a few more OOTP-related features, and, finally, in time for the playoffs, a native HD iPad version (we updated iOOTP to become a Universal app). The iPad version was fun to work with as the larger screen size gave us more room to display information, bringing us a little closer to what’s possible with OOTP.

After the playoffs ended and I took a short break from iOOTP, I started working on the 2012 version. Before I wrote the first line of code, I analyzed the 2011 release and identified two main areas I had to work on: stability (we had some memory-related trouble on older devices) and speed. For the first month I focused on those two areas: we redesigned the interface graphics so they were more in line with OOTP 13 and made sure to save memory wherever possible.

Next on my list were the new features we wanted to add. My list of possible things to add is long (actually, it’s very long and grows every day), so I sorted it by demand from our forum users. One thing many people wanted was simple editing options, so we decided to deliver those. However, that was an area where we had to be very careful because in the PC version you can edit everything, but iOOTP is supposed to geared toward more casual users who want to play on the go. We will continue to look into more editing possibilities, but no one should expect too much in that area.

iOOTP's UI was inspired by Football Manager handheld.

iOOTP’s UI was inspired by Football Manager handheld.

The rest of the new features were quickly added, but finding ways for users to transfer in-app purchases from 2011 to the new version took us some time. The Beta test phase was smooth again, and this year we released the game one month earlier, exactly on Major League Baseball Opening Day. As I write this article, it has been out for about six weeks and our two main problems from 2011 (too much memory usage and speed) are gone. The release went much better than last year, most likely due to the experience we had gained with mobile programming. We have not needed to release critical bug-fix patches, so instead we can concentrate on updates to improve the gameplay. As with last year’s version, we want to support iOOTP 2012 with new features until the playoffs; the first update was released a couple of weeks ago and the next one is right around the corner.

So what can you expect in the future from iOOTP? I want to add Twitter support (in fact I have a lot of the coding done but I ran out of time; the same can be said for Achievements with Game Center), and recently we implemented the historical seasons as a database in the game, so historical gameplay will see a lot of nice additions, some of which will happen 2012.

Our new graphic designer wants to redefine the interface, and as always we will improve the baseball part of the game, but next year I want to add a killer mobile feature. Something I’m really interested in is Apple TV support: to sit in front of my big screen TV and play iOOTP on it (using the iPad as a mouse pad) sounds great. And we will definitively look into Retina support, something we often get asked about by our community. iPad support will get much more attention: our numbers show that we have a very large iPad following and the device will give us many more possibilities in the future.

Games like FMH and iOOTP were among the first more complex mobile games available, but now more in-depth games, especially role-playing and strategy titles, can be found for iOS. With my limited time for games, I find myself increasingly using iOS devices – sometimes my iPhone, but, more often, my iPad – to play them. I’m really looking forward to what the mobile market will offer in the future.