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Blazing trails in cross-platform development with 17-Bit's Skulls of the Shogun

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

The launch of Skulls of the Shogun, the turn-based strategy game steeped in Japanese lore from indie studio 17-Bit, has been pushed back a few times. Studio head Jake Kazdal understands fans' frustration at the delays, since the company wants the game to be released, too. But in his studio's defense, he said, making Skulls of the Shogun has been "a ridiculous amount of work" for his three-man team.

"We're certifying four versions of a game with two engineers," he told Polygon during a recent hands-on session with the title. Skulls of the Shogun will be available on Xbox Live Arcade and Windows Phone, and in the Windows Store on Windows 8 PCs and Microsoft Surface tablets. It's essentially the same game across all four platforms, and 17-Bit considers itself "lucky that [it] works so well as a multiplatform game."

The turn-based experience is equally suited to controllers, touchscreens and keyboard/mouse, and because it supports asynchronous cross-platform play, the developers had to design it to account for "three completely different [user interfaces], and the interactions therein," said Kazdal.

Programmer and engineer Ben Vance showed us Skulls of the Shogun running on Windows RT on a Microsoft Surface. He first pointed out that he could control his units with the keyboard and touchpad built into the tablet's cover. Next, he began to use the device's touchscreen, tapping to select units, dragging to move his infantrymen around and then double-tapping to perform certain actions. Lastly, he plugged an Xbox 360 controller into the Surface's USB port and instantly began using it just like a player of the XBLA version would.

"Microsoft sees this direction as the future — having all of their platforms connected," Kazdal explained. "And being one of the first titles that really is a full-blown, XBLA-quality title across all four platforms is a pretty big deal."

"We're certifying four versions of a game with two engineers"

Getting Skulls of the Shogun running on four related but different platforms was difficult enough, but the new platforms' lack of development tools also hindered the process. With that work, Kazdal said, 17-Bit has "sort of been paving the way" for future cross-platform titles in this vein, and the going has been tough.

"It's been difficult just because this is all brand-new stuff. So a lot of the development pipeline stuff wasn't in place; devkits [development hardware units] are really hard to come by," he explained. 17-Bit is hoping it will all have "a big payoff" once the game launches.

The odds are already stacked against the studio in that respect, since strategy games are a niche genre — something Kazdal said came up repeatedly in 17-Bit's early discussions with publishers. Instead of changing the type of game they were making, the developers focused on making Skulls of the Shogun a more accessible strategy experience, and they believe they've succeeded.

A crucial step in that process was getting rid of the grid layout that's so typical in strategy titles, which, according to Vance, immediately turns off many potential fans. Instead, movement in Skulls of the Shogun is restricted by a circle around each unit. The studio also took cues from action games in designing the game's interface, building it in a way that keeps players out of menus. "We stuff as much information in the world as we can," said Vance. Even on the largest maps in Skulls of the Shogun, players won't have more than 20 or so units to manage, and they're limited to performing five actions per round anyway, which keeps the game moving.

Designing a strategy game to be played with a controller is no easy task, and 17-Bit wrestled with the gamepad interface for a while because one element continued to confound players at trade shows. It was a relatively simple issue: The button for attacking with a unit was the same as the one for waiting, because the developers initially thought players would have an easier time that way.

It was only at the suggestion of a friend that the developers tried moving the attack command to a different button. "We made the change and were like, 'We think it's better, but we play it every day,'" said Vance. Once they took the revised setup to a convention, the vast improvement became clear — nobody struggled with the controls anymore.

"It was kind of one of those last things that clicked," Vance added.

Keeping games competitive is also key to Skulls of the Shogun's allure. Although Kazdal cited the Game Boy Advance title Advance Wars as one of his favorite games, and a major influence on Skulls of the Shogun, he noted a problem with it: Once the tide of battle began to lean toward one player, the opponent's chances of pulling out a victory grew very slim. "When you're on the receiving end of that, it just sucks," said Kazdal, explaining the loser's frustration at having to continue a futile effort.

The turn-based experience is equally suited to controllers, touchscreens and keyboard/mouse

"We looked at basketball," he said, calling out the tense back-and-forth of a close game of hoops. "You don't know who's going to win until the very end."

Victory in Skulls of the Shogun is achieved in only one way: killing the opponent's general. "It doesn't matter if he has an army of a thousand," Kazdal pointed out. "If you can sneak through, pop open a hole in his line and get your guys in there, you can win."

The success of those accessibility considerations, whether in gameplay mechanics or interface design, became obvious once we picked up a controller and began playing. We initially fumbled through the tutorial map because of our unfamiliarity with the controls, but the goofy tutorial text combined with simple visual touches to convey important information in an easy-to-comprehend manner, and we were soon on our way.

Development on Skulls of the Shogun is complete; the game is currently undergoing certification and should be available very soon, although 17-Bit won't announce a release date until it's set in stone.