Exclusive: Jordan Weisman on free-to-play games, working with Bungie, and his new game Strikefleet Omega

It seems slightly disingenuous to simply call Jordan Weisman a “veteran game designer and serial entrepreneur.” Over the course of his 30 year career, Weisman has founded four successful companies and amassed an enviable list of accomplishments, creating everything from the classic pen-and-paper RPG Shadowrun to the collectible combat game Heroclix.

With his newest company Harebrained Schemes, Weisman was able raise one of the biggest kickstarter funds ever — $1.89 million — for his game Shadowrun Returns, a PC and mobile title that will be released in 2013.

However busy Weisman is on that project, he’s not slowing down. On Thursday his team will release its second mobile game, the 6waves published Strikefleet Omega for iOS and Android. The title is a space-based epic that blends sci-fi tropes, real-time strategy elements and tower defense gameplay.

We were able to chat with Weisman last week to discuss Strikefleet Omega, game design challenges, and what it’s like to create free-to-play mobile games after 30 years in the industry.

Inside Mobile Apps: What was the development process like for Strikefleet Omega? You’ve said the game went through many, many versions in order to get it right. 

Jordan Weisman, CEO, Harebrained Schemes (pictured right): We started with the concept of wanting to do something that used the same elegant control mechanism seen in games like Flight Control, where you get to path planes around and it’s really fun. We started with a design document that had one mothership and there would be lots of little ships that would come out of the one mothership and you would have to path around it. We built that and… it wasn’t fun. We discovered that the essence of the fun in Flight Control is avoiding hitting things, not trying to engage with other things like you would be a combat game.

So then what we did is started a process where we’d meet every morning, talk about what was cool from last night’s version and what wasn’t, pick a target for the new version and having it playable by the end of the day. We went through that process 16 times over the next couple of weeks. When we look at where the original design document was, there was probably about a 30 percent course correction.

IMA: So after 16 versions, what did you end up with?

Weisman:  We realized what this was, was a very different take on a tower defense game. Once that clicked in, we had a path and we could figure things out and say “oh, we need this kind of unit and this kind of bad guy.” At its core, it’s a tower defense on this epic scale where you’re moving units rather than only being able to place units. At each level of the game you start with just the mothership showing up and then you harvest crystals that allow you to warp up to six additional ships in around the mothership. With the tower defense understanding it became like a siege game, where the inner castle is the center ship and you’re warping in these other ships like castle walls, and each of those carry with them new capabilities.

IMA: The gathering elements in the game bring to mind Starcraft. There seems to also be a higher level of strategy involved because you can move units around. 

Weisman:  Starcraft is an excellent reference point. Relic’s Homeworld was definitely an inspiration point as well. It does hit the middle ground between a real-time strategy game and tower defense title. It’s very active. It’s a twitch game with a lot of strategy.

IMA: So what kind of market are you pursuing? Are you aiming for mid-core players exclusively or will be for more casual players as well?

Weisman:  We definitely see it as a more kind of mid-core title. It’s not Angry Birds or Draw Something, but it’s also a very accessible game. It’s not like Shadowrun Returns, where there’s tons of statistics and character development and you really have to get into the game system. Here that stuff is all kind of underneath the surface, but it’s there. You definitely see how you use your resources really counts as you play the game.

IMA: You have a long history in game development and making paid titles. Since Strikefleet Omega is free-to-play, did you find it difficult to make a title that monetizes like this? What were you looking for when you designed the game’s monetization?

Weisman:  The first thing for us is that we were looking to monetize a great game rather than “gamify” a great monetization scheme. I think a lot of studios get that backwards. For 30 years we’ve been developing games and that’s what we love. The monetization scheme is really not dissimilar from pen and paper games, where you have a base game system, and if you want an expansion or new ships, then you can buy them. You don’t need those ships to win, but they give you new capabilities and new ways to go boom. We wanted to make sure that a player would be fully capable of getting through the entire game without spending any money. We hope that the cool toys we put in there entice them to spend a little money since that’s how we get to make more games, but it is a fine line.

IMA: The art design for the game seems to be inspired very much by World War II and the 1940s. What kind of look were you going for?

Weisman:  You’re absolutely right. The fiction in the game is very kind of light-hearted. We took every sci-fi trope we could imagine and threw it in a blender — you’re the only ship in the quadrant and the Earth is depending on you… you name it, it’s in there. We thought that kind of propaganda “we’re all in this together” style fit that.

IMA: This is your first game with 6waves. Why did you choose to partner with them?

Weisman:  In our foray into mobile games we’ve teamed up with two companies so far. Last year we teamed up with Bungie to do our game Crimson: Steam Pirates and now 6waves. The reasons we did that was first, this was a bootstrapped effort without external investment. Having some help in the funding of title development for a bootstrapped company is very important. Second, the hidden cost in mobile games is creating awareness. If you’re not fortunate enough to get featured by Apple its a pretty tough slog for people to find you among 600,000 apps.

IMA: Is there any reason you decided not to work with Bungie again?

Weisman:  My relationship with Bungie goes all the way back to Chicago 15 years ago. We love those guys and we’ve worked with them on many things, but the reality is that they’re pretty heads down on their big project. They hoped to be able more active in mobile and social than they have the ability to do right now. The core of the motivation for doing Crimson with us last year was to get some learnings in that space because they haven’t played there before.

IMA: How did Crimson Steam Pirates do overall on iOS? Did you take any lessons from that game into Strikefleet Omega?

Weisman:  Crimson was incredibly successful. It’s still featured as one of Apple’s benchmark games, it was was just featured again a couple of week ago… that said, there were learnings there. The way that we originally envisioned that game was as a premium app that was purchased right off the bat. At the end we switched it to be free-to-play with additional chapters for purchase.

One of the ramifications for that was the initial missions were designed to be tutorials, not marketing. If you’re going free-to-play, you’re carrying the burden of your initial missions both being marketing for the game as well as tutorials about the game. In Strikefleet the very first mission works in all these ships so you can see all these ships and try all these game mechanics. They all go away, but at least now you know what you’re building towards. Especially for a mid-core audience they want to know the game is building towards something that will have the sophistication to hold their attention.