Making action games that sing: Rocketcat’s Kepa Auwae on Wayward Souls

Let me stand next to your fire.

Let me stand next to your fire.

If Pocket Tactics is the center of the cult slow-playing, stately-paced touchscreen sims and RPGs and strategy games, there’s a secret idol in the basement that we pray to in furtive moments: Rocketcat.

Maybe I’m skeptical about twitch action games on touchscreens because only Rocketcat do them really and truly well. The quintessential Rocketcat iOS games–Hook Champ and Super Quick Hook–deliver a sort of adrenaline-spiking kineticism that is impossible to capture in words and has to be played. Even Rocketcat’s lesser titles like Punch Quest are still better than almost any touchscreen action game that’s ever lit a pixel.

Rocketcat’s obsession with catching that perfect action game wave is evident in the videos they’ve released of Wayward Souls, a Zelda-like semi-sequel to 2011′s Mage Gauntlet that should be submitted to the App Store very soon. I talked to Rocketcat co-founder Kepa Auwae about it this week.

Smooth, console-quality controls are the Rocketcat’s hallmark, and that’s not by coincidence. “I’m very much into kinetic, meaningful combat,” Auwae tells me. “A lot of what we do is taking old games that we enjoyed, but weren’t completely satisfied with. Mage Gauntlet was specifically me taking Secret of Mana, which I loved, but always though the combat was a little clunky.”

Like Super Quick Hook and Hook Worlds were for Hook Champ, Auwae sees Wayward Souls as a refinement on what Rocketcat started with Mage Gauntlet.

“Wayward Souls was originally started because Mage Gauntlet was supposed to be a game with randomly generated levels and permanent death. WS adds those things cut from MG, while also doing a lot of improvements to the engine: adding multiple characters with different gameplay, new and more meaningful character progression, the removal of onscreen buttons, the addition of new smarter enemies, and more. Under all that it’s still like Mage Gauntlet at its heart. The combat is similar, though with most characters having 2 abilities instead of the 1 that [Mage Gauntlet protagonist] Lexi had.”

Despite the often fevered pace of a Rocketcat game, Auwae approaches them from a systems-centric point of view that a board game designer would recognise. You can see that approach in the Wayward Souls gameplay videos, where positioning and clever deployment of abilities trump mindless attacking.

“Systems that encourage mastery, where timing and positioning matter and you’re not just mashing a button,” Auwae says. “Usually you see this in good fighting games, not action-adventure games. We’re also obsessed with making a game like this work on touchscreen controls. You can see us attempt this in all our games, except in the Hook games replace ‘combat’ with ‘bumping into walls’.”

Getting the ‘feel’ of a game can be a long process for Rocketcat, whose multi-year development cycles buck the industry standards for mobile games. “We get an idea, and then we make a really tweakable framework for it and just keep doing little tweaks over development until it works how we want it to. Our engine lets us mess with a lot of values without making a new build. Mage Gauntlet is the exception, in that we actually did do three vastly different prototypes for it. In the first one, it was kind of like a dual stick shooter where you shot magic constantly, but played one-handed. The basic story and characters were even the same, down to the monsters, in a completely different art and gameplay style. Then again, a lot of our released games serve as ‘prototypes’ for future ones. It’s why we like to make games in threes.”

Rocketcat have been working on the game for two years, with Auwae acting as the fulcrum between a team working on Wayward Souls and another on the post-apocalyptic adventure Death Road to Canada. The game was recently re-christened from it’s original moniker, Wayward Saga, to avoid legal entanglements with Candy Crush Saga makers King and their stable of hyperactive litigators.

Dark souls.

Dark souls.

Early Rocketcat games were all premium-priced, but with 2012′s Punch Quest, Auwae and company put a toe in the free-to-play waters. Punch Quest was a free download, with a smattering of mostly unobtrusive consumable in-app purchases. Rocketcat briefly raised the price of the game to dollar, before settling back at free again a month later. Auwae has a lot to say about the experience.

“Once all the dust settled, Punch Quest did pretty well for us,” he says. “Not our most successful game but not our least either, pretty average. We’ll probably experiment again with free+IAP in the future though.”

That experiment won’t be Wayward Souls, though. “WS was going to be free+IAP like Punch Quest, but we changed that idea some months ago when we realized that free games need tons of updates. We’d rather just do a revamped separate game/sequel down the road, so we can play around with big changes to the combat and so on. It also really opened our eyes to the CIVIL WAR between people that blindly hate IAP and those that defend it, so we figure future paid games should be more expensive, but with no IAP at all, not even the fair/cosmetic ones we’ve done in the past.”

Auwae is hopeful that there’s a way to do a free-to-play game in a way that doesn’t alienate core gamers. “I still want to do it right, and by that I mean make a system that doesn’t negatively influence the design/progression and is universally lauded as fair, while still being profitable enough to justify the effort. One reason is that the huge download numbers free games get are really valuable, especially with the discoverability problems on mobile.”

But Auwae is on a mission to prove that free-to-play can work. “I want to prove to people that a balanced approach is possible. The problem with a blind hatred to free+IAP is that it doesn’t leave any incentive for developers to try to do things better. Seems like there’s no room for a reasonable position in the pro-IAP/anti-IAP debate, with a few exceptions like TF2 and League of Legends. I’m going to make a free-to-play game that works out of spite.”

I know free-to-play can work, because I see it work in World of Tanks and Hearthstone and Planetside 2. But I’ve yet to see a game on mobile that offers an F2P value proposition that compares to any of those. F2P seems to work best when it makes a big, interesting world and invites you to live in it — and pay a little more if you want to live better. I love Auwae’s games but I’m not sure that sort of thing plays to his strengths. But I’ll bet me saying so just makes him want to prove me wrong.

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