The first mobile-exclusive game from Civilization and XCOM: Enemy Unknown developer Firaxis is unlike anything the team has worked on before.
Designed for a cross-demographic of hardcore Firaxis strategy fans -- and there are many -- and their families, Haunted Hollow is an experience drowning in traditional gameplay mechanics, refined for mobile devices.
“It’s light-hearted, but it’s also a deep strategy game with a lot of long-term replayability,” explains lead designer David McDonough.
Unlike the complex and historically-fueled battles of the Civilization series, Haunted Hollow stays grounded in fictional lore of haunted mansions and witchcraft: the game’s “light-hearted whimsical cute style”, as McDonough explains, compliments its deep strategy offerings of long-term replayability and character customisation.
Building a haunted mansion base and an army of terrifying monsters, you’ll seek out to scare the wits out of the unsuspecting sleeping town below, while facing off against an evil rival scientist hellbent on taking over the town.
It’s far removed from anything you might see in Civilization, but Haunted Hollow shares plenty with another Firaxis gem: the charismatic and cheeky Pirates series.
“Firaxis makes strategy games, so there’s the dense experience here that makes all of our strategy games memorable,” McDonough explains. The team behind Haunted Hollow -- and it’s a “small” team of 10 -- took inspiration from Pirates and its “simpler, casual elements”. Ideally, Haunted Hollow will be a game with lengthy and accessible play, as well as deep reward.
There are challenges in making a mobile game of the Haunted Hollow variety. The game is a mobile exclusive, something Firaxis has never done before. “From a production perspective it was exciting but a challenge,” explains McDonough. “The nuts and bolts of mastering a new platform was knowing how its memory performance works, and how Apple works, what we were capable of doing, and what the audience was like.”
The audience is important, because unlike the console or PC markets, expectations are lower and attention spans shorter. The “mass” market appeal means developers need to create software appealing to both the “hardcore” player, and the casual player after a quick gaming fix.
This led Firaxis to choose Apple and its iPad platform as the ideal market for its new mobile strategy game. “Well we’ve created a game that works well on mobile devices and that’s not necessarily Apple alone, but when we were looking at where to publish it, iOS made the most sense across the board,” says McDonough. From both a development and marketing perspective, iOS just seemed like the more logical choice. “It’s cleaner, the market is more established and secure, and there is a better track record across the board.
“The industry of games being successful happens on iOS systems rather than Android systems.”
Haunted Hollow, like many a mobile game these days, includes the controversial business model reshaping the games industry: the microtransaction. Gamer sentiment seems split, though many don’t appear to have issues with it as long as it doesn’t influence any competitive element of an experience. Thankfully, Firaxis is on board with this train of thought.
“We’ve played lots of games on mobile, and lots of games that are free-to-play, and we as designers really took a stand against making the ‘pay to win’ or ‘pay to progress’ type of game,” McDonough says. “We didn’t think of that as the Firaxis way.”
The approach is unlike anything you may have seen from a developer: it’s a “boardgame” strategy, where players upgrade aesthetically rather than competitively.
“When you start a game you start an accumulation of monsters and items to play with, kind of like a deck in card games. So if you want the options, like specialisations, or to express your player personality more, you can buy premium monsters to use.
“The monsters aren’t better than the ones you start with: they just offer a little bit more flavour.”
This mentally certainly seems in line with wanting to create a game firmly embedded in competitive gaming expectations. While the app store has plenty of fantastic strategy games on offer, few have the backbone akin to Firaxis’ experience in the genre, so it’s certainly one iOS game worth keeping an eye out for.
Haunted Hollow will be available for free on the App Store this autumn.