Everyone likes to hear the tale of the indie developer who bucks the odds and turns into an overnight success.
The story of Sneaky Games and its turn-based MOBA/tactical hybrid Arena of Heroes isn’t one of those. It’s more a saga of mild success followed by more hard work to try to shine a bigger spotlight on a product the studio truly believes in, all while financial uncertainty swirls around in the background. As such, it’s probably a lot more typical of the indie experience than going from rags to riches in one fell swoop.
Sneaky Games was known mainly for social games before it dreamed up Arena of Heroes. The game’s high concept was a good one: take the framework of a MOBA, but make the action turn-based and put it on multiple platforms to expand the potential player base.
Released last summer for iPad, PC and Mac, it attracted enough players to get some traction but didn’t take off the way the studio hoped. Part of it was likely due to a bit of an identity crisis. Was the game a MOBA that just happened to be turn-based? Or was it a tactical game with some MOBA trappings?
The answer is that it’s both, something that Lead Producer Marshall Adair and his team have learned to embrace.
“What we’ve seen in the last year is that the way we have to ensure that people understand our game is that it’s also a squad-based tactics game, so people resonate with both now,” Adair said by phone to Gamezebo. “We don’t exclusively call ourselves a MOBA. We are a MOBA, because that’s how we play, but the rules are a bit faster than what a MOBA is kind of geared toward.”
That’s by design, since Sneaky found that its mobile players preferred shorter play sessions. It also led to some recent changes in the way the game plays due to a desire to speed things up even more, especially in the opening phases of each battle.
Adair is adamant that nothing about the heroes or their abilities is different, but every turn now matters more.
“Every move and action that you take is now significant, whereas before there was a lot of kind of idling and positioning time,” Adair said. “We’ve removed that and replaced it with action. Heroes have more mana, they can cast more things per turn, and everything you do has the potential to damage the enemy’s Power Core. So what we’ve done is taken the exact same rules of the game and added a new victory condition.”
Those modifications were made with the intention of having Arena of Heroes appeal to a wider audience as it continues to add new platforms, including Android and Windows Phone. But they also came with a cost, as some players who supported the game from the beginning left after becoming disenchanted with its new feel.
There’s still a chance that the original game mode could be added back in as an option down the road. For now, even though Sneaky is thankful for the early adopters, it had to make a decision that was in the best long-term interests of the game — the kind of choice that plenty of indie developers are faced with at some point.
“We actually did lose some of our core players, but what we saw was that the players that we did lose were a very small minority by comparison to the people who wanted a faster pace to the game,” Adair said. “The game was simply too long and was too tedious for most people. We needed to make the game bigger, and this was a necessary way to do that.”
While the work was being done on these changes, the studio was going through a whirlwind series of events that included being acquired by Zattikka, buying itself back after Zattikka disintegrated (the result of problems with a larger acquisition, and not directly related to Sneaky Games), and reaching a publishing deal with Perfect World Entertainment.
That’s a lot of potential turmoil for a small team to go through while continuing to hammer away at its core product. Adair feels the fact that Sneaky’s employees really believed in Arena of Heroes was key, as was the division of labor with him running the production side and CEO David Godwin handling business development — though he also admits that not everything remained neatly compartmentalized.
And the uncertainty that came with all of those rapid changes to the status quo? That’s just life for a small indie developer.
“It’s been a really thrilling ride, though not necessarily a ride you want to be on,” Adair said. “You feel like the tracks are set, and you believe in the tracks, but it’s a rickety ride. It is really difficult. Any indie developer would probably give you the same answer. You don’t do it because you’re good at it, you do it because you have to.”
While the partnership has now ended (and did not result in distribution), the deal with Perfect World proved out to be beneficial for adding additional polish to the game. Though several publishers expressed interest in Arena of Heroes, Adair says Perfect World was the one that laid out the best deal and was the most impressed with the team working on the game.
One of the things Sneaky used the Perfect World money for was to change the look of the game’s setting. In Arena of Heroes lore, the battles are a sort of gladiatorial-style entertainment set up by the Halcyon Council and broadcast to the entire galaxy. The arena now looks like something you’d expect to see in that kind of sci-fi setting, as opposed to the “beat up, metallic, war machine tower” from last year’s launch.
“It made the game feel higher class,” Adair said of the visual revamp, which also extended to the UI. “It got us a second feature from Apple. It was something our community has been asking for, and we just feel better, that it’s a lot more marketable now.”
Now the focus is simply getting the game in front of as many people as possible. Even though the studio knows Arena of Heroes is always going to be dealing with a niche audience, it still needs to reach out to make sure players in that audience can play on any device (save consoles, which Adair doesn’t think it will ever be able to crack) they might own.
It also means revisiting the PC crowd via Steam Greenlight. It might seem strange for a game that has already been live since last year to go through the Greenlight process — especially since Valve seems to be planning on ending it in the near future — but there’s some definite logic behind the move.
“It’s an easy channel for us to market to the right group,” Adair said. “What we’ve seen is that there’s a certain core of hardcore indie-lover gamers that is hard to reach, and they’re starting to pool in specific places that are becoming more and more expensive to advertise on. So we wanted to make sure that if we’re on PC, we’re where people are, and that’s Steam.”
This is one particular indie story that continues on. It’s definitely not the feel-good, hit-the-jackpot narrative that dominates gaming journalism most days, but it’s still a compelling one. Even better, it’s one for which Adair and the team that’s been with him the whole time can continue to author new chapters without answering to anyone else.
“We are completely stripped down to our original roots from about a year and a half ago, and we high-five about it every day,” Adair said. “We’re back to completely planning our own destiny, which feels very nice.”