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Champs: Battlegrounds hands-on: Quark Games on 'mobile stigmas' and hardcore mobile design

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Champs: Battlegrounds, the next title from Quark Games, is something of a rarity in the free-to-play and mobile spaces: It's played in real time, and it's a proudly hardcore game.

The Cupertino, Calif.-based studio previously developed the popular iOS/Android strategy game Valor as PlayMesh, and rebranded itself earlier this year as Quark Games with a new focus: competitive, hardcore mobile titles. Champs: Battlegrounds follows in that vein, taking the tactics genre — where games are traditionally turn-based affairs — and transforming it into a real-time experience.

Champs: Battlegrounds goes real-time with the traditionally turn-based tactics genre

The setup resembles Hero Academy, the tactics title from Robot Entertainment, in that Champs: Battlegrounds pits two teams of units against each other on a grid. But Quark is attempting to ramp up the strategic depth with elements like a squad customization system inspired by League of Legends: Players put together a team of up to six Champs from various classes, each of which can be upgraded with specializations. Then they take those squads onto the battlefield, either in a solo campaign against variable AI or against other players in head-to-head online games.

We ran through Champs: Battlegrounds' tutorial during a hands-on demo last month guided by Shawn Foust, Quark's vice president of game design. Foust noted that the tutorial is very different from the ones in most mobile games, which typically offer a cursory overview — with a few arrows pointing from text bubbles to the elements they're explaining — and look to get people in and out as quickly as possible.

According to Foust, we were playing the fourth iteration of Quark's tutorial for Champs: Battlegrounds. The fully interactive tutorial runs for seven to eight minutes, starting with a three-character team and gradually introducing strategic complications such as different classes, new types of attacks and high ground. He explained that an in-depth tutorial is necessary because Quark has to ease players in to a game this deep.

We began with the Squire, a melee-focused Champ. He can swing his sword and toss rocks at enemies, and his special ability allows him to push foes backward by one tile. The Squire can be upgraded to either a Knight (a damage-soaking tank) or an Axeman (a formidable attacker). For our next match, we added the Apprentice, a female spellcaster with a fire spell and a heal spell. Moving to an elevated tile means a unit's ranged attacks, like the Archer's arrows, will travel longer distances and hit enemies that are farther away. The objective is to rack up as many kills as there are enemy units.

Moving, attacking and using abilities requires energy, which is automatically replenished as a cooldown timer ticks away. Foust explained that the developers put energy in place as a strategy-oriented gameplay mechanic and as a concession to Champs: Battlegrounds' mobile format. Quark had to keep the game's actions-per-minute number down because players suffer finger fatigue if they have to tap on a screen too often. The energy mechanic also limits matches to an average of five to seven minutes; any longer, and the game wouldn't really work as a real-time experience on mobile devices.

Champs: Battlegrounds is entirely free-to-play. Users can pay for additional Champs, or unlock them by playing the game; no content is locked away behind a paywall, and at least at launch, new units will be the only things players can buy. According to Foust, Quark went with this model because the studio is well aware that it's fighting an uphill battle for an audience when it comes to the game's complexity.

"For a game that's meant to encourage competitiveness, a game that's meant to encourage a large community around strategy, low barrier to entry [...] is essential to that taking off and thriving," said Foust. "We don't really want to exclude anyone inside the audience if they're inclined to play. And from our perspective, one of the most valuable players in our ecosystem is the guy who never pays a dime, but sits inside the player-versus-player queue for four hours a day playing, because it gives us someone to match everyone else against."

It might seem strange for a studio to attempt to deliver a complex strategy game on smartphones and tablets, which aren't seen as hardcore gaming devices by most players or developers. But Foust said he believes that's "a product of the games, not the platform," and added that there are "mobile stigmas" among consumers, game makers and the media. That is, there's a lack of hardcore mobile games simply because developers aren't making them, not because mobile devices aren't conducive to deeper gaming experiences.

As for Quark's decision to make Champs: Battlegrounds on mobile devices as opposed to a platform like Windows PC, Foust said the studio is hoping the game will stand out as one of the few core titles available in the space.

Quark wants to dispel "mobile stigmas"

"I think the [mobile] market's just a bit more open; I don't have to compete against a lot of hardcore games over here. I may have to compete for our hardcore players' time, but I don't have to compete against a lot of games over here," explained Foust. "So when a person picks up their phone, and they go to work and they have a 15-minute break, I can capture that time.

"Now, if they decide to play this game over League of Legends in the evening, fantastic. But that's not actually a battle I have to win in order for us to be successful," he continued. "So it gives us the ability to be very competitive for our hardcore players' time, without having to compete with the thousand-dollar investment they made in their Xbox."

Champs: Battlegrounds is set for release on iOS and Android later this month.