Big Huge Games Launches DomiNations on iOS, Android [Interview]

The strategy game challenges players to lead a civilization from the Stone Age to the Space Age through resource collection and combat.

DomiNations

In October 2014, Big Huge Games, in partnership with Nexon M, revealed DomiNations, the developer’s debut mobile title, which allows players to choose one of seven great nations to lead through the Ages, gathering resources, forming an army and taking troops into battle for worldwide supremacy.

Now, the game has officially launched on iOS and Android devices, setting players lose in dawn of civilization. The game starts simply, as users build the Town Center, as well as a few homes, each containing citizens which are then used to complete most other tasks within the game. Gamers advance through the Ages by upgrading this Town Center, with each Age changing the style and look of the buildings within the land, as well as unlocking new buildings for purchase, new upgrades and more. These buildings and upgrades take time to construct, or players can speed their progress along with Crowns, the game’s premium currency.

To begin, players will gather key resources (gold and food) by helping their citizens become hunters and gatherers. They’ll harvest berries from trees, hunt small and large game (including bears, which may drop rare resources), and mine deposits for extra gold. As players advance, they’ll unlock Farms and Caravans for producing food and gold in bulk (respectively), and can turn their attention to increasing their country’s military forces, recruiting soldiers and upgrading their technologies within the Blacksmith’s shop.

Eventually, gamers will construct a Temple and Wonders (like Angkor Wat or the Forbidden City), which each deal with game-changing boosts. The Hanging Gardens, for instance, increases the resources gained from nearby fruit trees and gold mines, and decreases the amount of time those items require to recharge.

Once players advance through a few Ages, they’ll finally choose the nation they’d like to represent, with each having a different effect on the future progression of the game. That is, players can choose to join China, England, France, Germany, Greece, Japan or Rome, each with a different speciality, inspired by the real-world civilizations.

During combat, players can attack other real-world players in asynchronous battles. However, instead of attacking a static, empty base, players’ armies will go to war, with units on both sides engaging in battle. This potentially increases the challenge of each encounter, with players receiving up to five medals per battle, depending on their speed and overall dominance.

We had a chance to chat with Tim Train, DomiNations project lead at Big Huge Games, about the launch of the game, and what has changed since it was first revealed last Fall.

SocialTimes: Last October, you and Brian Reynolds gave us the rundown of what the game was planned to be. What sorts of major changes and updates have taken place since then, or has the game stayed the same as it was planned to be back then?

Tim Train: We’ve done a ton of changes to the game. They’ve mostly been in the balancing area. At the very end of October, the game went live in a few countries, to test out of the gameplay and see how players were liking the game. Our focus since then has shifted to primarily being about “Alright, what’s too easy? What’s too hard? What are players not finding fun about the game? What are all of the technical challenges that we need to fix?”

We’ve done a tone of tweaking. “Oh, these Wonder powers are not cool enough. Let’s add some new ones!” “This tactic type [doesn’t work] – we’re going to take it out and put a fun cool new one in.” That’s a lot of what we’ve been working on – the last tweaks to balance the game.

DomiNations

ST: In my experience, these kinds of games, if we’re generalizing a “base-building combat game” – they sort of have a formula. They start out really fast, and then all of a sudden I have nothing to do.

TT: Part of the goal of the game was to make it so that you could have a lot of different interactions on different levels of the game. That you could just play it in different ways. If you’re in the Bronze Age, you’ve seen the hunting and gathering aspect of the game. That actually feeds into a rare resource economy, that doesn’t ever really slow down.

You can always hunt animals and use your rare resources for blessings and mercenary troops, that always make it useful to login and hunt your animals and clear your gathering opportunities, and see what you get. Did the metal drop this time? Did you get the last fur you needed to purchase the War Elephants?

To us, we hope that’s something that people are always able to play around with, and that it’s always fun, regardless of whatever their timers are set to for their big upgrades.

ST: How difficult is it to balance the in-game economy in a game like this, which relies heavily on a few key resources, so players don’t end up with a million gold and only a little food, and vice versa?

TT: It’s relatively difficult, but it’s actually slightly less difficult than it is balancing head-to-head multiplayer games like the RTS games that we used to work on. In the RTS days, any little, ever-so-slight edge on the part of the Romans, or the British, would mean that everybody always chose the Romans to play in a multiplayer battle. And that was not very fun. But because it was head-to-head, you had to be razor sharp on the balancing, and we would have a whole group of people dedicated to trying to keep those games in balance.

Here, if somebody ends up getting some extra gold, and they can purchase some new upgraded walls, that doesn’t really bother us much. We try to get close to it, but it doesn’t require the laser precision that balancing strategy games did back in the RTS era.

ST: You mentioned in RTS games, people would back one country over another. Have you found that to be the case with the soft launch of DomiNations – that players are gravitating to one nation in particular?

TT: So far, no. I’ve been really happy actually, with how distributed the curve is on the different nations. It looks so far like the only one that’s a little underpowered at the moment are the French. No one seems to want to choose the French for whatever reason.

ST: Maybe I’ll do that. I haven’t made my choice yet.

TT: We might just have to surface their powers better, because we think the French are pretty good.

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ST: Gamers have to play the game for a few hours, perhaps equating to a few real-world days before they move into an Age where they can choose the nation they’d like to represent. What was the reason for that choice, and what are you doing to ensure gamers stick around for that long to see the game fully open up?

TT: That’s a great question, and it’s one we talked a lot about internally. This is one of the big things about the game, so why did we wait so long to surface it?

If the choice is going to be meaningful, if it’s going to actually be a choice that’s going to affect your game in a meaningful way, but you haven’t learned enough about the game to understand the choice you’re making, then you end up in this situation where “I don’t know, I’m just making an arbitrary decision, because I have no idea what +5 percent to my loot is, because I’ve done no attacking, because I haven’t gotten deep into the game yet.” That was entirely what drove that decision. We wanted players to actually understand enough about the game to make an informed choice.

As far as players sticking around until that point, our retention numbers from our soft launch have been such that, it’s not appeared to be a problem. People are having a lot of fun with this game, and they seem to be sticking around, even as far out as our data goes.

ST: In your recent Community Q&A video, you talked about the addition of being able to change the Wonders and nation you back. Can you explain a bit more about how that will work?

TT: We’ve been playing with different flows on it, but the idea is: for your nation, players should be able to change one relatively easily. Meaning, players should be able to flip their nation the first time without there being too much of a penalty – there will probably be some Crown cost to it, but it won’t be a lot – but we do want people to have to really think about it. We want it to be a meaningful decision, so it’s not going to be “Oh, I can willy-nilly flip my nation every hour as it suits me.” As players get deeper into the game, and players change their nation more often, it will be increasingly harder to do so.

Similarly, on the Wonders, we don’t just want players to say “Oh, it’s time to attack. I’m going to flip all three of my Wonders to be the offensive Wonders, and then as soon as I’m done attacking, I’m going to flip all three of them to be the defensive Wonders.” That’s not the intent of the feature. We want it to be a meaningful choice, but if players feel they’ve really screwed up in their choice, they can change relatively easily, but future changes after that we want to feel meaningful and important to the player.

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ST: When playing the game, is it in a user’s best interest to fully upgrade, expand and purchase as much as they can before moving to the next Age, or would a better strategy be to grow the city through time and Ages as quickly as possible?

TT: There are different schools of thought on this. Some people really like to plunge deep into the game so they can get the good troops, so they can go beat up on people in the higher Ages with the additional resources, but I feel it’s probably best to upgrade most things in an Age before you “Age up,” because once you “Age up,” you become subject to more powerful attacks. For instance, if you’re in the Medieval Age, and you advance into Gunpowder, then suddenly the Enlightenment players can attack you, and you probably don’t have the defenses yet to repel them. I’m a fan of especially building up your defenses and your resource gathering buildings before you advance.

ST: On the topic of stealing resources from other players during battle: the last time we spoke, you said the goal was to allow players to feel a bit of a “sting” when being attacked by other players, but never lose so many resources as to not be able to make progress. Has the team been successful in creating that sort of a system, or did you find that to be more challenging than anticipated?

TT: I’d say that it’s relatively straightforward to do that. The formulas for it have remained the same throughout the game’s development. Resources in your resource collectors can be stolen at a rate of 50 percent, but resources in storage buildings – Mills and Markets – can only be stolen to a 15 percent level. If you log in and you harvest your resource collectors regularly, so that it all goes into storage buildings, then only 15 percent of that is available to be stolen, and an attack isn’t really that big of a deal. It’s not that punishing.

So far, we haven’t seen anything that we’d consider an issue with the numbers. Again, we’ve been very happy with the data we have, which obviously is only a couple of month’s worth, but there are sort of industry benchmarks of retention that we can compare to. “Oh, if we’re here, then we have a healthy game economy.” We’re substantially ahead of those benchmarks on every measure that we can know.

Obviously, for these games to be truly successful, you have to have good retention out to 6-months, 12-months, and that’s the thing we don’t have any real data on. But, we’re pretty excited about where we’re at right now, and it validates that players, so far, are feeling like they can make progress. They’re happy with the game; there’s enough “new” and “fresh” about what it’s bringing to the genre that they want to play it. We’re pretty excited with our starting place.