When it comes to esports experiences, the mobile game market mostly comes down to two types of games: card battlers and, increasingly, multiplayer online battle arena titles. In the former genre, Blizzard Entertainment blew everything out of the water with Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft last year, delivering a free-to-play card game that anyone could get into. On the MOBA side, Super Evil Megacorp has gained a massive following with Vainglory.
Super Senso is the first announced project from Turbo Studios, a New York-based indie developer founded in 2013. Turbo is hoping that Super Senso will do for turn-based strategy titles what Hearthstone did for collectible card games.
"There's a lot of niche players in that turn-based strategy game genre," said Jon Yao, creative director on Super Senso, during an eyes-on demo with Polygon last week. "But there's also a lot of players that would love it; they're just too afraid to get into it."
Turbo is aiming to draw in fans of strategy games as well as a wider, more casual audience. The studio's primary inspiration was Intelligent Systems' Advance Wars series of handheld strategy titles; that's where "senso" — which means "war" in Japanese — comes from in the game's name. Yao himself came to Turbo in 2013 from another studio that's closely affiliated with Nintendo: Next Level Games, where he worked on titles such as Punch-Out!! and Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon.
Like the Advance Wars games, Super Senso is defined by how well you use your units, rather than the strength or customization of the units themselves. It's about placing your infantry and vehicles smartly, taking the environment into account. Where it differs from Advance Wars is in the eponymous sensos — giant mechs that can turn the tide of battle. Each side has one of these "hero units," and Super Senso offers several different ones with their own unique play styles.
One senso has a cannon for an arm, which is great for taking potshots at the enemy base from afar. There's also a melee-focused mech who carries a sword and shield. A large insect-like senso has a special ability: If it destroys a unit in a single turn, it gets to strike again, making it possible to chain together a string of kills and keep moving. Players who are more crafty may choose the mech that can pick up its team's units and catapult them across the battlefield.
"Super Senso is squarely targeted at competitive PvP play"
With all those options, it doesn't seem like Super Senso will skimp on strategy. But since the game is built for mobile platforms, getting the user interface right is a crucial step of the design process. Yao told Polygon that the latest version of the game contains Turbo's sixth or seventh iteration of the interface.
Super Senso is a grid-based strategy game, just like Advance Wars. But the grid is invisible unless you're moving units; all you see is the battlefield terrain, which, ideally, is designed in a way that visually conveys the grid without the lines actually having to exist. The UI also hides nitty-gritty details like a particular unit's attributes. This clean design philosophy dovetails nicely with Super Senso's blocky, low-poly art style, which works well on mobile because it isn't resource-intensive and because it's simple enough to allow Turbo's animators and modelers to create more units quickly.
"[We] wanted to give the player only the information they need, exactly when they need it," Yao explained. "So there's a lot of the what a player can do which is immediately visible, but the why a player can do something — all that information is hidden." That makes the game less intimidating to strategy newbies because there aren't "just numbers everywhere all the time."
Super Senso does include a single-player campaign with a light story-based motivation, but facing off against the AI is meant to give players the confidence to go online and take on other humans.
"The core of Super Senso, this game, is squarely targeted at competitive PvP play," said Yohei Ishii, Turbo's CEO. "We're very, very much excited about the growing esports scene on mobile."
One-on-one matches in the game are synchronous, a rarity in the mobile space. That means pacing is key, and according to Yao, games of Super Senso can be completed in just five to 10 minutes. Turbo keeps things moving by implementing a time limit on moves — currently, it's two minutes per turn — and through the design of the game. The only objective is to destroy the enemy headquarters, and the developers wanted to ensure that both armies will engage quickly, rather than sitting there building up their bases forever. Plus, an "orbital strike" will charge as long as the teams are fighting, so players can rain down death from above if their opponent tries to turtle for too long.
Like Hearthstone and many other esports-focused games, Super Senso will be a free-to-play game monetized through microtransactions for cosmetic items such as skins for units. All the basic units have the same abilities and stats, but while you start with standard army guys like soldiers and snipers, you'll be able to buy outlandish characters like a team of zombies, dinosaurs or cats.
"Because it's online and PvP, we want to make sure that [we are] emphasizing that whole team aspect of it, that people feel like they're creating an army that belongs to them," said Yao.
Turbo is looking to launch Super Senso in early 2016 on Android and iOS, but that doesn't mean the game will be confined to mobile platforms. The studio was founded to create "cross-screen" games, and Ishii said, "We don't believe that these types of experiences [...] can't lend themselves across different screens." Turbo is now accepting beta sign-ups on the game's website.
"There's no real boundaries from our standpoint that should limit how you experience games from Turbo," Ishii added.