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Building Fort Stars from the rubble of SimCity

Magic Fuel's midcore mobile debut and how it was shaped by the developers' experience on 2013's always-online city-builder

In 2013, Electronic Arts released an always-online revamp of the classic Maxis city-building simulation game, SimCity, for the PC. As you may recall, there were some issues.

Speaking with recently, the game's senior development director Kevin Shrapnell and senior producer Kip Katsarelis acknowledged it was a difficult time, but they and the rest of the development team continued working on the game for the community it did have, spending the next year updating and adding to it, even adding an offline mode.

However, when EA shuttered SimCity developer Maxis Emeryville, Shrapnell and Katseralis saw an opportunity to build their own studio with the help of a lot of very familiar and suddenly available talent. Together with fellow co-founders and Maxis Emeryville veterans Rajan Tande and Chi Chan, they created Magic Fuel Games in 2015.

It would be understandable if that experience soured the developers on games-as-a-service, particularly as SimCity had been their first real taste of it after a lengthy career in AAA boxed product development. Instead, they leaned even harder into games-as-a-service.

Earlier this month, Magic Fuel launched its debut title, Fort Stars, a midcore mobile strategy build-and-battle title. Shrapnell acknowledged that while they were undeterred by their experience with SimCity, that's a very different thing from being unaffected by it.

"It's bound to [have influenced us]," Shrapnell said. "In our DNA, it must have burned something that's going to play out in how we think about things, but not as overtly or directly as you might think. We didn't sit around saying, 'Well, let's never do that again' or 'Let's do that again.' It was just 'What's right for the product we're building at the time?' and 'What's the right technology there?' We looked at our options there."

In some ways, SimCity helped prepare Magic Fuel for Fort Stars

One opportunity they identified was mobile midcore games. The Magic Fuel team believed their background and experience trying to make PC and console games with an eye for accessibility was a nice complementary fit for the challenge, even if there was no shortage of other outfits pursuing the same goal in mobile.

"It's a daunting space, but it's also a huge space," Shrapnell said. "And some of those big players weren't that big two or three years before 2015. Supercell was not huge not that long before, if that makes sense. The space is still growing, and it was certainly growing then. We weren't under any illusion that it was going to be easy. We weren't expecting it to be anything other than challenging, and it certainly is a challenging space to be competitive in. But you've got to go into that to take an opportunity."

As for what they believe will separate Fort Stars from the pack, it's a mix of things that should stand out at a glance (like the side-view perspective on gameplay) and qualities that won't fully reveal themselves until players get their hands on the game.

"It's a battle of inches. It's not 'We'll do this and everything will change!' Actually, you'll do that and almost nothing will change"

Kevin Shrapnell

"There are a lot of action-RPGs or RPG frameworks that have complexity of metagame and progression, but when it comes to the active part, they're very low-touch," Shrapnell said. "We've been trying to find a balance there where the engagement is a little bit higher, to suck you in. Your part in winning is real."

Katseralis added, "I think we took some bits from Maxis as well. On the build side, we wanted to add tactile building, lots of choice, and ways for players to express themselves. On the battle side, we've got a pretty deep combat system that rivals maybe some PC games, but with usability and UX that works on mobile. We wanted to turn the dial up on the activity and the things players could do in the game that they may not be getting from some of the other build/battle games."

Shrapnell credits SimCity for partly preparing the team for the rigors of mobile development. The experience familiarized them with the continuous loop of gathering player feedback, acting on it, gathering more feedback, acting on that, and so on.

"Maybe it's just trying to take that learning into a positive," he said. "With Sim City, of course it was a rocky launch and super painful to be involved in. It was complicated. But for the year following, we had a very direct and organized approach to solve the problems, to make it cost effective, to improve the game, to release new content, and to run a live service."

That said, there's a big difference between "partly prepared" and "fully prepared."

"Nothing can prepare you for a serious mobile launch other than doing it, so we are discovering stuff as we go through that," Shrapnell said. "It's a hard-fought journey from your first release to when you want to go global. It's a battle of inches. It's not 'We'll do this and everything will change!' Actually, you'll do that and almost nothing will change. So you have to really be able to slice and dice and then figure out that journey one step at a time."

For Katseralis, the biggest difference is that when you're making a boxed product, you don't get anywhere near the same opportunity to test your game.

"You're going on internal tests, a lot of feedback from the team," he explained. "We had spun up some servers that we were getting very small numbers of players just so we could get some feedback so we could iterate on the game and find out what the problems are, where there are bugs. But it was all at very small scale."

"With a lot of console boxed products you finish it so much in advance and it's almost that the release date is a bit of a non-event... This felt much more real"

Kevin Shrapnell

With Fort Stars, Magic Fuel has run multiple soft launches for about a year and a half, greatly refining not just the game, but how it tracks and acts on analytics over that span.

"Where we are at a year ago with our telemetry data and reporting and where we're at today is night and day," Katseralis said. "It's just a whole different way you go about making decisions about the game, about improving the product, that's just so much more data driven."

There's also a psychological difference in the way developers treat the idea of launching a game when it's a mobile title that has been soft launched numerous times on its way to a worldwide debut. It's simultaneously a bigger deal, and not a big deal at all.

"With a lot of console boxed products you finish it so much in advance and it's almost that the release date is a bit of a non-event," Shrapnell said. "You don't even notice because you're either working on the next game or an update or whatever. [Fort Stars' launch] felt much more real... It was far more exciting and more direct than many of those prior releases. It was also just another release. We'd done a release the week before and the week before that."

Katseralis leaned more toward the latter interpretation.

"It felt like we released 18 months ago, or whenever we first started soft launching it, in some ways," he said. "We had real players and were talking to them then. This was just another release. In boxed product, before release whenever that thing needs to get done, it feels like a lot more crunching."

That's something Magic Fuel's senior developers have been mindful about as they take their first big step into mobile development. They've been careful not to bring the console crunch mindset with them, and Shrapnell spoke proudly about intervening when he sees the studio's developers pushing themselves too hard.

"This is not a sprint, it's a marathon," he said. "This is a long business. Don't go crazy. Stay super-focused on what you're doing, get the goals right, but don't forget there's another launch next week. There's another launch the week after. We're live over the weekend. It's not like we can stop; this is now a 24/7 business we support. We're here for the long haul, so don't burn yourselves out."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.