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Small Giant recently launched their first game onto mobile called Empires & Puzzles: RPG Quest, its a game that blends match-three puzzles with hero collecting and base building. Interestingly however, the studio is made up of veterans from the industry including key founders of the teen-focused social platform, Habbo.

We caught up with Timo Soininen, CEO of Small Giant Games to discuss ideas behind Empires & Puzzles, and how previous experience at Habbo helped with development. First of all we were keen to find out about this relatively young studio and how they managed to develop and launch an already pretty successful game after just 11 months.

“Small Giant is just under four years old, we’re a Helsinki-based gaming start up and the unique thing about us is that although the company is relatively young, the team consists of a really interesting mix of us veterans, or dinosaurs if you like, and some top young talent who have joined the company a bit later. The name of the company, Small Giant, is because we do believe that small really focused high-quality teams can do gigantic things,” Soininen said.

“The ambition is to try and keep the bar pretty high so we really try and recruit the best of the best, and we’ve seen from several successful game companies that you don’t need a massive team to do something really big in today’s world but you really need to have people who know what they’re doing. Of course good planning and a degree of luck is also needed as well, but it’s really interesting going forward.”

This core focus on having a small but talented studio helped Small Giant achieve something pretty fantastic: the ability to develop and release a game in just 15 months. Soininen revealed that the game was feature complete by November, and that the studio used the remaining time to make sure everything was working how they wanted.

“We’ve received comments from fellow game development studios asking ‘how the heck did you guys do that?’ and I think it’s a testament to the fact that there’s a lot of experience, we were able to re-purpose a lot of the things we’ve done in the past, but also we were super focused and there was a very clear idea as to what the game should be and what it is, and we didn’t really deviate from that plan too much.

“We’re a really small team, currently 13 people, out of which 10 are developers by large, including graphical designers, and this game is a big game, so we have around 120 monsters and 20 heroes, we also have over 200 levels in the game, multiple game modes and all that stuff”

Small Giant didn’t just develop the game polish it and throw it out to the world however, they spent plenty of time testing the game and its various elements with real players. They used video testing services for all of the key new features to ensure they work well enough and they get a good response from players, they also took several rough prototypes and builds to players to validate concepts.

“Having a match-three mechanic alone is not enough”

One thing that struck me about the game however was how Small Giant opted for a match-three battle system rather than a more traditional RPG-style.

“It all began with the idea of using army shields and using that with the match three mechanic and then one of the developers came up with the idea of actually morphing the match-three shields into mini troopers which you send vertically against the other opponents.

“Having a match-three mechanic alone is not enough, you need to have a little tactical mechanic, so you have to think about how you can do that. One of the things we have are these vertical attack lines that you have to try to aim your match-three, and the second aspect of that is that we had this element colour coding system where players can possibly achieve double damage. Basically for every move your brain hopefully goes through a process of deciding if this is the optimal move now, or whether to look for other options.

“We thought that the match-three base of the game was very interesting because it’s super easy to master and play. Everyone has more or less, once in their lifetime played a match-three game. But with the tactical elements of that, this game can be difficult to master and there’s also a degree of luck involved depending on the deck that’s delivered to you so that combination is a really nice turning point, but we said that it’s important to build more depth around the game, around that clever battle mechanic. So we started adding the hero collection, the base building, and crafting of items. It all blended nicely together.”

As impressive as the journey to release may be, those familiar with match-three battle games are already likely pointing out the similarities between Empires & Puzzles and Puzzle & Dragon, and that’s something that hasn’t gone unnoticed too. however there’s a lot more depth to Empires & Puzzles than you might think.

“[Empires & Puzzles] is about more than just one game. We approached game development from various different angles, it was very clear that the unique thing about this game is the combination of match-three, base building, and hero collection, in one nice cohesive package, and one big innovation we already mentioned is the ascending of the troops, adding a tactical twist to gameplay,” Soininen said.

“Another positive area which we’re proud of is the PvP battles allowing you to claim someones province, or you can challenge them in the duels in the game, and that’s been a very, very popular part of the game because of the pacing of the things, especially the not-so experienced players who may not want to go into PvP first, because the degree of humiliation involved, but this one has a really cool matchmaking system offering similar players and because of the asynchronous battles it gets your competitive juices flowing, but you are so time pressed or so skill oriented as in other games.”

“we wanted to create something that could become a hobby for our players”

With the studios history of working on Habbo, or Habbo Hotel as it was called back when I was playing, we were keen to find out whether this experience helped with the development of Empires & Puzzles, unsurprisingly, coming with the experience of working with a social platform had its benefits, especially on the core social features of the game.

“Yes there are a lot of similarities to [Habbo] and I think what we like is that we wanted to create something that could become a hobby for our players not just a game. I think the social dimension of the game, the multiplayer alliance battles, the PvP, and other things help with that, and they’re the basic steps to making the social aspect of the game a key component.

“If something becomes your hobby there’s almost 100 percent certainty that other people are involved. If you can build a nice community and keep a platform for people to interact, whether that’s through battle or chatting or joining forces, that’s really important. So I think the underlying facts are there but this one is clearly more a goal-oriented game whereas Habbo was a social platform.”

“Our players are anything between 25 and 50 years old, so it’s a completely different set up to start with but the underlying principles are the same, so the community management, interacting with players, and safeguarding things takes a big role,” he continued.

“What’s also interesting is that the world has changed and people, especially in the older age bracket, are also self policing and letting us know in a much more systematic way. If someone’s troubling them they can let us know and we have certain tools in place to do that.”

While the match-three mechanic is one of the core features of the game, Empires & Puzzles also has several other layers away from battles. First, players can summon and collect various different heroes, these heroes can be fused and levelled up and even their troops can be upgraded and replaced.

Another element is the base building, players can place farms, mines, storage, and barracks in amongst their bases to produce resources over time. These then allow players to upgrade their heroes making them stronger in battle.

That certainly sounds like a lot to take in, but interestingly, Small Giant have managed to make it all flow incredibly well.

“[Adding too much into the game] was one of our bigger concerns as you know you can sometimes fail miserably by throwing too many things at a game and it becomes really complicated. But I think the way our team managed to weave everything together and how we were able to somehow put the flow together nicely so that they’re not overwhelmingly complicated while having that depth going forward.

“It’s been a good game design exerciser and UI design, but also what really helped us is that we went live very early with an incomplete product and started testing and saw a lot of the pain points where people didn’t understand what we were doing, so we’d go back to the drawing board, change the tutorial, and do this and that. So it’s been a really interesting process.”

Empires & Puzzles is available for free on both Android and iOS.