17-Bit's adorably quirky, undead samurai strategy game, Skulls of the Shogun, will be the first game on Xbox Live Arcade to ever feature asynchronous play and also have cross-platform play.
Speaking to Polygon, the team behind Skulls of the Shogun showed off a polished turn-based strategy where players lead a zombie samurai warrior through the underworld. The creative and art director of the game, Jake Kazdal, said that the team of three behind Skulls of the Shogun wanted to bring a meaty strategy game to platforms like Xbox Live, mobile phones and tablets, but in a way that is accessible to all players.
"Most strategy games are a bit dry and very serious," Kazdal told Polygon. "They look very complicated, whereas Skulls of the Shogun is meant to be cute and goofy. They're cool characters, they look like little warriors, but they also have a lot of goofy character and humor.
"I want people to not be afraid of it. Once you jump in and start playing, even people who aren't traditionally strategy gamers can find it fun. It's simple, it's very fast-paced, there's no menu sub-surfing, it's very much focused on the action."
"We don't want to do a Castle Crashers clone. Castle Crashers has already been made. We want to do this."
The entire game, which includes a 15- to 20-hour single-player campaign, 20 in-depth levels and 30 multiplayer maps with dedicated two-, three- and four-player maps, was made by three developers who came from companies like Sega, Boss Studios, and EA. After working together at EA, Jake Kazdal, Ben Vance and Borut Pfeiffer came together to work on an independent project inspired by the shrines and little moss-covered statues found in Japan's countryside.
The team spent three years on the project, optimizing the game for Xbox 360, Windows 8 PC, Windows Phone, and Windows 8 tablets. The game supports multi-touch, gamepads, and keyboard/mouse interfaces. The game will be the first to allow players on different platforms to play with each other wirelessly and over 3G networks. There's a single-player campaign mode, real-time multiplayer, and asynchronous play, which is a first for Xbox Live.
Kazdal says that the asynchronous play means a player can start a game on their Xbox 360 and continue it on their phone or tablet, allowing them to play the game anywhere, any time. The turn-based multiplayer allows for up to four players at a time. The cross-platform play also applies to the single-player campaign where players can begin a game on one platform and continue it on another.
"It's been pretty rewarding," says Borut Pfeifer, an engineer and level designer on Skulls of the Shogun. "When we were at EA we were working on a project we were really excited about, but eventually it got canceled. Both Ben and I stayed there for a while after Jake left and had more projects cancelled on us, and it seemed like it didn't really matter what you did, your fate was totally out of your hands.
"Even if you were trying to do a good a job as possible, whether or not you were successful was totally divorced from that," Pfeifer says. "This has definitely been a lot more rewarding."
Developing Skulls of the Shogun hasn't been without its challenges, though. As a small team working on an indie game, the three have had to take on many more responsibilities. When they were trying to find a publisher, people from outside the team wanted to change the game they'd created.
"There was a lot of pushback," says Kazdal. "A lot of publishers said, 'We love the art, we love the characters; we want you to turn this into a Castle Crashers clone and then we'll sign it,' and we were like, we don't want to do a Castle Crashers clone. Castle Crashers has already been made. We want to do this, we want to do a strategy game for the masses."
Kazdal says many publishers were reluctant to sign them because strategy games do not traditionally sell well on touch and mobile platforms, but he is convinced that the core parts of the game coupled with a happier, fun art style can work.
"I don't know if it will be successful," says Kazdal. "But I guess we'll see."
Skulls of the Shogun's release is planned to coincide with the launch of Windows 8.