Start with nothing; End with a kingdom.
I didn’t know much about the Kingdom Conquest franchise before a week ago. To tell you the truth, I’m not much of a mobile games player: I’ve played a few here and there, but I’ve usually relied on handhelds for my on-the-go gaming needs. But that might have to change after today.
I didn’t know what to expect when I sat down to demo Kingdom Conquest II with Ethan Einhorn and Elvin Gee, SEGA’s director of online operations and public relations manager, respectively. What I wasn’t expecting was just how impressed I was with a game that doesn’t seem like it should work: a game that seamlessly blends several disparate genres into one, and runs near perfectly on both tablets and phones.
Kingdom Conquest II may be the most ambitious mobile game I’ve seen yet: and it’s this ambition, and SEGA’s drive to make mobile games mechanically as complex as console games, that may change the scope of the mobile industry for the better.
Kingdom Conquest II: How It Works
There’s a lot to take in when dissecting what makes Kingdom Conquest II unique. The game takes place in the land of Magna, where towers have descended from the skies, and where monsters have returned after an era of peace to ravage the lands once again. Like 1,000 years prior, the generals of the lands have taken arms again to vie for power, and contend for the right to lead the armies of Magna against the towers and monsters threatening their peace.
You are one of those generals.
From here, Kingdom Conquest II introduces players to the several components that make up the game: asynchronous realtime strategy gameplay; co-op third person dungeon crawling and PvP; monster card collecting; and resource management. While it seems like a hodge podge of random game mechanics mashed into one digital shepard’s pie, it surprisingly works, and really well at that.
The realtime strategy and resource management works like many games before it, where you’ll build up your territory, strengthened your armies, level up your buildings, and attack other factions in hopes of winning their resources and their lands. This is a fully realized 3D world; on both an iPad and iPhone I was able to fully rotate and zoom into Einhorn’s lands (and no, I won’t divulge his state secrets to you), and admire the nice visual touches like smoke rising from factories, people and animals strolling about, and an attention to detail that could have easily been ignored in lieu of the other components the game has to offer. Sending troops out to battles enemies is much like any other strategy game before it, although–with mobile in mind–you can set up various tasks to do while you’re not playing, or while you’re playing other modes. This includes resource gathering and sending troops out to conquer enemy lands, and where most games of this type may make players micromanage everything, Kingdom Conquest II‘s style makes you feel like a real general or business person who’s hired other capable people to do the small stuff for them.
With the dungeon battles is a nice fast-paced alternative to building up armies, and allows players to play as one of five classes–the knight, warrior, mage, saint and ninja–and join up to three other players in tackling enemies and bosses that you’d usually take on in a fantasy action title. Like the realtime stragegy, this is a full experience in its own right: players are offered a variety of environments, abilities and bosses that give this mode the right amount of variety and balance to make it stand on its own.
Players are given up to three abilities to use at a time, and move and attack via digital joysticks and a capable lock-on system. Having little time with digital joysticks, I found them satisfactory, if not as perfect as physical sticks, but it gets the job done. I was able to see a very earthy dungeon, one that had poisonous traps on the ground for players to avoid, and “the Frozen Fortress,” where icy columns provided a little cover from rampaging ice golems. Both of these areas had their own enemy types and bosses, which for the latter included the huge Ice Dragon creature. What was awesome was that this wasn’t a hokey and imitation boss: his chest and head took up one corner of the screen, and he did everything your normal boss-type did in console games.
Other enemies include your typical fantasy monsters, plus a few surprises: like a Headless Horseman boss who throws his head as an attack. Special events occasional come around: while we were playing, there was an ongoing event that tasked players to kill 20 golden enemies, who of course were a little harder to defeat than the average enemy. This was where I got to see the four classes work together, proving that the classes were diverse enough to truly feel different: I got to see a well coordinated plan that had one character poison an ice ogre, while another sent elemental flame attacks his way, and then finally get whittled down by the knight’s strong attacks and the ninja’s speedy and agile attacks. Kingdom Conquest II doesn’t reinvent the wheel here, but it works well, and with no lag time on a wi-fi iPad connection that included players from around the globe. And for an experience that was meant to be on-the-go, it gave the right amount of adrenaline and the right amount of timing to not be too lengthy nor too brief.
The monster cards mechanic is as nuanced and complex as most other card collection systems, with the ability to collect, fuse, and level up monsters, send them into battle alongside your armies, and conquer enemy territories with more than just spears and arrows. This aspect of Kingdom Conquest II was largely satisfying not only because we’ve probably been bred to “catch ‘em all” over two decades of monster-collecting franchises, but because it adds a crucial dynamic to the land-conquering facet of the game. Players aren’t card-capturing merely for the sake of having cool and rare cards (although they are included), but because it could give the upper hand in a battle that would otherwise end in a swift and brutal end. Choosing which cards and with abilities to equip the monsters with is crucial is well, with a host of balancing options that makes monster battles even more complex.
Separately, these mechanics all work just fine, even if there’s not much added on to broaden their mechanics. But it’s how they’re put together that makes Kingdom Conquest II such a rewarding game, and one that’s uniquely suited to keeping mobile gamers involved and entertained no matter what gaming experience they’re looking for.
Why It Works: Console Quality Experience At a Mobile Pace
With regards to playing such a intricately crafted experience on a mobile device, Elvin Gee puts it best: “[Kingdom Conquest II] was made specifically for this.”
The minds behind Kingdom Conquest II–especially ex-Dreamcast developer and creative lead Masamitsu Shiino–have built this game from ground up to be an experience players would have while on the go. But they didn’t want the idea that this was yet another simple ported version of a console experience. “[Kingdom Conquest II] is not a washed down port; it’s a full gaming experience,” Gee adds.
“These are not games made by social psychologists and analysts. You know what I mean? These are great games being made by real designers who have been making great games for years. And there’s a difference. You really that this is a crafted experience.”
And so not only did this effect the minor aesthetics of the game, it helped to structure the actually philosophy of how the game works as a console-quality mobile game. All of the game’s various parts make for one larger whole that gives the player choice. If they want to take time to build up their lands, they can; if they want something a little more easy on the mind, they can tackle the action-oriented dungeons, and with friends at that. If they want to work on collection, they can manage their monster cards and send them into battle to help their troops.
Best yet, each of these components compliment each other in a symbiotic way. Players could start off their night just building up their troops; but later find that they want to do some simple hack and slash battles. Instead of turning the game off and booting up the latest Run-n-Jump! slashing and hacking game, they could find some friends to jump into a dungeon with while their troops attack rival players in the background. Since the dungeon battles play at a very fast pace–no more than a few minutes per floor, if that–players can finish a dungeon just in time to see their new buildings fortified, or to find that their troops have conquered foreign soil. Plus, dungeon battles earn players the monster cards that allow them to send creatures into battle, making each dungeon excursion not only a quick distraction from resource management, but a way of gathering a different kind of resource as well. Players can even review monster battles that have happened off-screen with a nifty retro Final Fantasy-like battle sequence summary, and see what skills worked, which should be leveled up, and which should be replaced to make future battles more efficient.
While I demoed Kingdom Conquest II, I got to set up Einhorn’s troops to invade some poor soul’s ravaged territory, jump into two dungeon battles and earn a slew of items and several monster cards (two super rare ones at that), review how his monster dids in a previous battle, fuse two cards together to level up one’s abilities, and then come back in time to find Einhorn’s troops taking swords to heads while they decimated everything in sight. Everything about Kingdom Conquest II is about making your army stronger and making sure you–the player–are entertained.
What’s strongest about Kingdom Conquest II is it’s theme: Power. Balancing it, grabbing it, stealing it: all of the game’s motivations come down to power, and how players use their resources to get it. And it’s through this theme that the community becomes even more important when playing Kingdom Conquest II. This works through a positive approach that builds trust, and a dark side that resonates well with a player’s inner ambitions.
Much of Kingdom Conquest II relies on players forming alliances: this not only comes from playing together and sharing resources, but in fostering teamwork and mentoring. Each alliance has its own forum, which players can refer to for guidance and help, and in turn, learn to trust their allies and build a community.
“It makes you really feel like you’re a part of something,” Einhorn says. ” Here’s a perfect example: this morning–one of the biggest accomplishments of the game is when you have an army that’s powerful enough to take on a tower. And I was finally able to do it (laughs). And what was really cool was that the head of my alliance sends me a note: “I saw on the ticker that you got the tower: congrats man!”
It also touches upon something a little more selfish: the more my allies do well in battle, the more it helps me to have a better chance of winning. But on a lighter note, there seems to be a genuine atmosphere of altruism in Kingdom Conquest II: people want to help other people because it’s a game about fostering improvement. Encouraging achievements. Everything in your alliance is about helping each other get stronger.
On the dark side of that equation is squashing any attempt your enemies make to gain power. Like any other game, competition is the heart of all enemy encounters: but this is something more, something deeper. Players don’t like to see their lands taken or their troops obliterated, especially if they have to see them whittled down over time until there’s no one else to fight. And the ultimate loss in Kingdom Conquest II is also the ultimate shame: subjugation. There is no defeat in Kingdom Conquest II: just Subjugation–or “getting subbed” as Gee called it (I can’t wait until “getting subbed” becomes a mainstream phrase). Einhorn names this as one of the biggest draws to the power of the game, and the drama that comes from it:
“The players that you conquer, you take them out of your alliance and they’re forced to join yours. And so this balance is really cool, because if you’re about to capture someone, you’re put all of your time and energy into making it happen, and the other guy is pushing back trying to keep it from happening, calling his friends in to stop it.”
And this is where the truly epic story blossoms best in Kingdom Conquest II: the narratives players craft for themselves.
“On the forums you’ll hear narratives where a guy will say ‘I just got subbed. Can you guys please help me?’ And then you will have people who have been torn out of their own alliance, saved by their old alliance. Marching in at their own risk to get them back. And so you have this very social game, and what’s great is that you’re carrying it around in your pocket. You don’t have to wait until you get home to check your PC. You can check five times a day, see where your allies are, check your territory, and that’s just really compelling, you don’t have to wait until you get home to check your PC.”
But community isn’t the only thing that makes Kingdom Conquest II attractive to players new and old. Einhorn also attributes the game’s accessibility to the design of the game. Take a look at game reviews on the Apple and Google store and you’ll see how many have cited a more complex set of mechanics but a greater ease at jumping in, especially compared to the first title. Einhorn’s reply:
“We have a really carefully crafted tutorial–that doesn’t take too long–that guides you along the path of what is most important. But even after the ‘proper tutorial’ ends, the quest system is always pushing you in the right direction to learn new things, at your own pace.
Along with constant updates and content from the design teams, Kingdom Conquest II has been structured to keep players involved as much as possible while not weighing them down with lengthy and laborious quests. Still, players may find themselves loving the experience so much, they spend as much time on it as what may be typical of a console experience. “What you’ll find is that you’ll sit down and intend to play for five minutes,” Einhorn says, “and then three hours later… the wife’s telling you to get to bed.”
Not Perfect; But Always Getting Better
Kingdom Conquest II has had a few issues in the past. Between an Apple Store security issue that added charges to gamers’ accounts without permission, occasional errors and crashes during dungeon boss battles, and somewhat lengthy loading times staring at a black screen, Kingdom Conquest II has garnered some negative response from gamers over time. But these things are continually being patched, with a dedicated team of problem solvers on both Western and Eastern shores, and a special set of codemasters and gamemasters that are kept close to lead designer Shiino to keep the game running smoothly. I can say that during my demo time, I only experienced one period of lengthy loading time, something Einhorn attributed to the game keeping players connected through the server. And with no lag or frame rate drops during hectic four-player dungeon battles, and no loading time between advancing the floors, I’d say that ten seconds of loading time was a pretty good exchange.
When asked where he sees the Kingdom Conquest franchise going in the future, Einhorn was optimistic: “It has tremendous legs,” he said, pointing to how far the brand has come in only a few short years. “This is one of those brands that I think you can see still going 20 years down the line.” And while he couldn’t comment on whether the Kingdom Conquest franchise would ever make it to other platforms, he did say that SEGA was always looking at the best way to reach their audiences.
Before seeing Kingdom Conquest II in action, I would never have thought that a game of its type could work, especially on a mobile device. But seeing it in equal detail on both the iPad and iPhone, running smoothly, and being played simultaneously has definitely changed and raised my expectations for what the mobile platform can offer. Angry Birds, this is not.
And while I’ve previously tried to stay out of the “mobile vs console” debate, I can see now why there’s so much concern for where the industry will go, and why there’s so much confusion at what the right business model is. But one thing’s for certain: the Kingdom Conquest franchise knows what it is, knows who it’s audience is, and as SEGA’s most profitable brand between 2011 and 2012, it intends to keep reaching towards the sky.
As a free to play game, Kingdom Conquest II of course has monetized options for speeding up progress, but from everything I’ve seen, it offers more than enough on its free model to warrant a try. Give it a shot (you can check out the Kingdom Conquest II website here for more information) and let us know in the comments below if you’ve tried it before, and how much you like it. It will be interesting to see how much the industry will change when we see the next generation consoles this year (possibly this month), but consoles may have to keep up with the mobile industry if games like Kingdom Conquest II are any signs of what’s to come with the mobile experience.