An Afternoon with Slitherine, Part Two

By Owen Faraday 22 Jul 2013 0
Part One of this preview of Slitherine's forthcoming iOS & Android games ran on Saturday.

That's not much, mind. Be all that you can be.. in the Imperial Guard.

Given the volume and variety of Slitherine's throughput, I am half-expecting their office to be a historical gaming wonderland. Maybe there will be a zouave to hand you your visitor's pass and Dysons shaped like Sherman Firefly turrets will dry your hands in the men's room.

It's not quite that -- in fact, it's a suite of two rooms tucked into non-descript corporate low-rise. There's a couple of fellows from Smitherine's marketing staff working at a pair of the half-dozen desks when I walk in with father-son directors JD and Iain McNeil. An enormous poster showing the various liveries of Space Marine chapters is tacked to the wall behind Iain's desk, an artifact of Slitherine's Warhammer 40K Armageddon project, but other than that you could easily mistake it for any other mundane office. Boxes are packed up, ready to go with the McNeils to Virginia tomorrow for the company's annual showcase of new products, taking place this year at the Historicon wargaming expo.

The Twins. There's more than one way to the moon, you know.

"We've got over a hundred developers working with us," JD says, "but they're in small teams all over the world. The Panzer Corps guys are out of Luxembourg. The lead developer on Buzz Aldrin's Space Program Manager is in Argentina." I'd never realized how far-flung Slitherine's confederacy of devs was -- their yearly get-togethers are as important for getting face time with their collaborators as they are for generating press coverage.

We shuffle into JD's office, which is decorated with the boxes of PC games from the early 1990s -- back when games came in cartons so big you could deliver a pizza in them. Iain flips the cover off the face of an iPad. "What do you want to see first?"

"Is it too early to see Warhammer 40K?" I'm pretty sure it is -- all of my dealings with Games Workshop-affiliated developers have taught me how tightly GW guards press access to their projects.

"It is too early," Iain says, but he gamely pulls up a promotional shot of units from the game on JD's computer -- the first in-game assets they've shown off. There's Imperial Guard Baneblades and Blood Angels Dreadnaughts and a strapline promising over 300 different units in the game when the sci-fi wargame ships in 2014. The game is running on a modified Panzer Corps engine, Iain says.

"So if Panzer Corps' engine is getting this mature and flexible, how many of the Panzer Corps expansion packs are going to be available with Panzer Corps for iPad at launch?"

"All of them," JD says. There's a huge amount of content in the Panzer Corps expansions that have trickled out since the game was released on PC: Afrika Korps, Allied Corps, and a fistful of year-by-year German campaigns. "Every single one. Expansions for Battle Academy have done really well for us so we want to make sure that players have access to as much of it as they want on day one."

Trench run. Not even sure you needed the smoke for this one, guys. There's like 5 Russians in there.

Battle Academy is famously (or infamously, depending on your point of view) the WWII tactical game that Slitherine has been stubbornly bucking the App Store trend with and selling for twenty dollars. "Tell me about Battle Academy's sales on iOS," I say. "I know you told SimHQ earlier this year that Battle Academy iPad had outsold the PC version by 5 to 1."

"At this point, it's closer to 10 to 1," JD says. "Every time a new expansion comes out or gets announced, we see a sales boost."

"Do you think that offering the free Battle Academy Lite has helped with that increase in sales?"

Iain shakes his head. "Honestly, I don't. There's a difference in mindset between somebody who's just downloaded a free app on their iPad and somebody who's just paid for one. The guy with the free app needs to be hooked in the first thirty seconds -- if he's not, he's going to move on to something else.

"That doesn't really suit the sort of games that we make. We're selling relatively complex games that you need to learn how to play. That 'a-ha' moment doesn't usually happen in the first thirty seconds with games like Battle Academy. So I'm not sure how many more free 'lite' versions we're going to do in the future. Our games need your attention for a little longer than a free player is likely to give."

"You've got another Battle Academy expansion about to roll out -- why are you making Battle Academy 2? To be honest, the screenshots don't look all that different," I say.

"There's actually a lot of new mechanics in BA2," Iain says. "Stuff like entrenchment, functional smoke that provides concealment, random skirmish missions. We're also totally over-hauling the multiplayer system." Iain pulls up a screenshot of Battle Academy 2 with a line of Panzers approaching a Soviet trench from behind a smoke screen. "Battle Academy's actually getting a bit old -- the original PC release was in 2010. We hit the limit of what we could easily cram into it."

I ask to see Buzz Aldrin Space Program Manager, and Iain slides the iPad across. The game puts you in charge of a fictional global space agency ("We wanted you to be able to do Soviet, American, and European space agency missions without making you start a new game as a different country," says Iain) and charges you with getting to the moon. The hub of the game is a beauty shot of your agency's equivalent of Cape Canaveral, which changes visually to indicate your progress as you construct new facilities and launch programs. It's a bit like a more functional throne room from Civ II.

Assigning personnel to mission control in Space Program Manager. Assigning personnel to mission control in Space Program Manager.

Iain coaches me through a mission, and I launch a rocket into orbit carrying a Sputnik-style satellite (no Laika, unfortunately). At each stage in the launch, a short animation plays out. It feels a bit non-interactive, I say.

"This is the cool thing here: you'll never see the same mission video twice. They're dynamically generated based on the decisions you make about crew and hardware and parameters, etc. It's all based on the decisions you've made to get you this far. Thousands and thousands of possible videos."

"Working with Buzz has been amazing," JD says. "The guy's got a brain the size of this room, and just an encyclopedic knowledge of space travel." So he's been pretty hands-on, I say. "Completely. We'll send him art work and he'll send it back corrected, telling us we've used the wrong nozzle on a guidance thruster or something."Buzz is also completely focused on mankind going to Mars. He sees this game as an opportunity to publicize the Mars Cycler, which he thinks is the most logical means of getting there."

"So when you get to the part of the game when you're designing a Mars mission," I ask," is the Mars Cycler the over-powered, clearly superior option?"

Iain grins a little sheepishly. "It's definitely got some advantages."Iain shows a few screenshots from Fields of Glory, a tabletop wargame coming to iPad very soon with ancient, Napoleonic, and medieval modules. I cajole a few details out of him about the new Close Combat due out in 2014, which he assures me plays much like its beloved predecessors despite moving to 3D.

And flexibility. Field of Glory isn't much of a looker, but it's got depth.

Most of the games that Slitherine are showing at Historicon will be coming out for iPad as well as PC. "It's huge part of our business now, and we're taking tablets very, very seriously," JD says.

"If I had walked up to you after the iPad's unveiling in 2010 and told you that this device was going to account for a quarter of your business in two years' time," I ask, "what would you have said?"

"I would have laughed myself hoarse," JD says. "But here it is all the same. I just wonder what's coming next."
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