An Early Look At Smash Up Digital16 Nov 2016 1
Mobile gaming was the new golden age of tabletop adaptations. The early years saw a flood of translations from physical to digital. And board game fans lapped up the expensive iOS devices needed to play them. It was a win-win situation. Touchscreens had the tactile thrill of gaming at your fingertips and asynchronous play made it easy to get your strategy fix.
It's still a thing, of course, but that flood has turned into more of a trickle. And there's another curious trend: increasingly developers/publishers are going to PC first. Mobile follows, sometimes quite fast, but it's an interesting choice. It happened with Twilight Struggle earlier this year, now it's happening with Smash Up. The publisher of that latter title, Nomad Games, did the same thing with their adaptation of Talisman.
"We went through Steam's Early Access program with Talisman," Nomad's MD Don Whiteford explained. "It really helped us shape the game. Aside from running beta tests, it's difficult to gather opinions on your game before you release it. So we decided to launch on PC first so that we could utilise Early Access. Google has now introduced their own early access system too, but we haven't investigated that enough to know how useful it would be yet."
Smash Up marks a pretty radical departure for the studio. While it's another table-top adaptation, it's quite different from the fantasy adventures of Talisman. Players make a deck by choosing two factions from a roster of geek royalty including Dinosaurs, Aliens and Zombies. Then they take turns playing minion cards onto bases and action cards to influence the game. Minions have a strength value that accumulates as more get played onto a base. When the bases strength limit gets hit, it scores points for each player depending on the cumulative strength of minions they have there.
The new challenge didn't phase Don at all. "At Nomad Games, we love both card and board games," he told me. "So we wanted to have both types of game in our portfolio. If the rights to a card or board game are available and we think it's a good quality game, then we're interested in developing it."
Although it's still in early access, the game is looking pretty good so far. It's easy to pick up and play with a decent tutorial and an online asynchronous mode. No pass and play, but Don assured me it was coming. Most of the factions seem to work fine, although there are still some bugs in the processing of a few card effects. The interface is also bright and clean but there's potential for confusion when confirming certain card plays. I accidentally skipped my turn a couple of times as a result. A speed-up options on the animations would also be nice.
However, the game style isn't the only big change for Nomad. Its other games are premium titles but Smash Up is free to play. It also seems to run on quite a generous model. New players get three factions of a planned nine in total and unrestricted play time on all game modes. There's no in-game currency, but if you want access to more factions you have to buy them. That still permits plenty of play permutations without paying a penny.
I asked Don if this level of generosity concerned him in terms of the game's profit margin. "It's intentional," he replied. "The majority of people who download the game won't be familiar with the Smash Up card game. So the free element allows them to get a taste before buying into it. Our hope is that players will enjoy it so much that they'll be intrigued by the other factions and purchase those."
Given there are still issues to iron out before cross-platform release, I wondered if these might make the port problematic. Don was confident that the game should have a smooth path to mobile. "The engine we are using is cross-platform," he revealed. "And we have designed the UI from the very start to be touch screen friendly." Their experience of pushing previous games onto mobile must help, too.
It should be coming to both iOS and Android eventually, although Don confided that the sheer diversity of Android devices might be a problem. "There are just so many of them," he said. "The plan is to be on mobile before the end of the year," he continued. "I would say that once we move from Early Access to Final Release on Steam, the first mobile releases will take two to three weeks to release."
Presuming the beta bugs get squashed en route it should be something to look forward to. There's a certain tactile pleasure to playing card games on a touchscreen that you don't get with mouse and keyboard. But if Smash Up is anything to go by, mouse and keys may be the way to go for pre-release in the future. The advantages of Steam Early Access and the improvements in cross-platform development make it an attractive route for any wannabe mobile success story.