Robot Entertainment’s Hero Academy is my favorite new videogame of 2012, and far and away the best original-to-platform tabletop game I have enjoyed on iOS. I have felt more intense highs and lows playing this strictly player-versus-player game than any other videogame of the last year, to the point where it rekindles my interest in tablet games and their potential for great multiplayer experiences. Beyond that, I admire the publisher’s sales approach, and hope that it becomes a model for other game studios to follow.
On reflection, the fiero that fills me when a Hero Academy sally goes well (and the hunger for same I feel when things go badly) is identical to the thrill of a face-to-face boardgame that’s really engaged my attention. I credit this to Hero Academy’s various smart design nudges that make starting (and, subsequently, managing) games with real-live opponents a pleasure, doing it better than any cardboard-to-digital adaptation I’ve seen so far. It helps remind me why I tend to treasure my experiences with great multiplayer games far more than any solitaire game.
Hero Academy presents a simple two-player wargame with fantasy-RPG trappings. Players alternate turns of five actions apiece, maneuvering pieces on on a shared nine-by-five grid. Each player has a Scrabble-style rack of seven available pieces they can play, hidden from their opponent: some combination of heroes (this game’s equivalent of chessmen), powerups that affect individual heroes, and one-off magic spells. Playing a piece to the board counts as an action, as does moving a hero already on the board. To win, a player must accomplish one of two goals: either eliminate all their opponent’s heroes, or destroy all their opponent’s “victory crystals”, tough but vulnerable targets located on the opposite half of the board. Generally, one accomplishes this with one’s heroes, all of whom have move-and-attack patterns that vary with type, and many of which have extra powers such as healing allies or weakening distant opponent pieces.
While heroes have “hit points” and animatedly bonk each other with swords and lightning bolts and such, the game contains none of an actual RPG’s dice-rolling: the outcome of every move is transparently deterministic, and the game takes pains to make every action’s modifiers (such as a powered-up weapon or an on-board defense-boosting square) clearly labeled, effectively preventing any unwelcome “why did that just happen?” moments. A Knight unit, for example, will always deal base damage of exactly 200 to an enemy hero or crystal. If he’s on an attack-boost square, that will add 100 points, but if the target’s player has equipped it with armor, it’ll reduce that blow’s damage by 60 points.
These sorts of stacked modifiers can get a bit hairy, so the game softens the risk of analysis paralysis by giving the current player a safe transactional space to experiment with their five allotted actions. They can spend, take back, and re-spend them as many times as they like, exploring the full possibility-space of their current position until they settle on a satisfactory outcome, at which point they tap the “Submit Turn” button. I find this an ingenious way to let players feel like they are always in control of their game — not once have I ever felt that I ended a turn too early by accident, the way that I quite often do with other turn-based iPad games.
Taking a cue from tabletop games like Brawl, each player starts play by selecting a “team” that is essentially a bag of pieces (or a deck of cards, if you like) of predefined composition. There are (at present) four available teams, each themed around various western fantasy tropes; everyone starts with the Council, comprising a familiar fighter/wizard/cleric/ranger quartet, along with a selection of healing potions and fireball spells. Other teams, like the steampunky Dwarves or the goblinoid Tribe, feature different loadouts of heroes and equipment, and are acquirable as in-app purchases. Robot clearly cares about keeping all these teams mutually balanced, and very occasionally releases mandatory updates that boost or nerf various units’ capabilities a bit to keep things even.
Players don’t have control over what they draw onto their rack, either at the start of a game or after their turn, when they replace played pieces. These are essentially blind draws from a bag containing their remaining pieces, and this represents the sole purview of luck in Hero Academy. The fixed teams keep this from being an exercise in total randomness, however; wise players will know the composition of both teams, track both contestants’ expenditures, and plan accordingly. To me, this feels just right: play remains satisfyingly strategic, with just enough unpredictability to keep things tense and give weaker players a fighting chance, but not so much that good play ever goes unrewarded. (I think often of Greg Costikyan’s excellent lecture on the role of luck in strategic games, when I think of Hero Academy.)
Hero Academy takes the correct approach among turn-based digital games in welcoming asynchronous (a.k.a. “play-by-mail”) play; players are free to quit the app and attend to other matters at any time, and the game will continue as long as they take their turn within a week or two of their opponent’s last move. (Terminal slowpokes are punished with an automatic loss, though the game is nice enough to pop up an iOS-notification warning about imminent forfeiture.) To mitigate the waiting-time brought about by opponents selfishly having a life, Hero Academy allows one to play many games in parallel, giving you an easy and obvious UI to hop between them. I find my play-style to be rather bursty, taking a bunch of turns across a bunch of games, and then letting the whole thing stew for a few days. I’ve been playing this way for months, and it’s lovely.
The game has no AI players, which I find a bold and interesting move on the part of the designers. There’s no reason inherent to the rules of a turn-based game like this to omit them, and in fact their absence initially seemed quite counterintuitive to me, particularly given the amount of care and polish that went into this work; the conventional wisdom for digital strategy games states that they must always offer a single-player mode. Hero Academy, however, wants you to always play against other people, and if you don’t have a friend to play with, it directs you to start a new game against a random opponent. (Or, indeed, ten new games against random opponents.) Enough people play this game that such requests get filled quickly, and with each instance you’re playing against a wholly unfamiliar mind who might possess any skill level and play style possible. I find the turn latency that human opponents require a price worth paying for the unscripted uncertainty they also bring.
A downside of this, combined with Hero Academy’s pricing structure, means that any random game you start is likely as not to be against a brand-new player, taking the title for a trial spin. In many cases, these players will take between zero and three turns before deciding the game’s not their thing and walking away, handing you a thoroughly unexciting victory when the turn-timer expires several days later. But even though this might happen with as many as half of the random-opponent games I’ve start, I forget them quickly because the other half of the games I start take up all my attention, by virtue of their actually playing out. (And, I have to admit, I can’t complain too loudly about a few low-effort notches on my tally-stick…)
Hero Academy also represents the best, least exploitative implementation of the quote “free-to-play” unquote model I’ve experienced. Downloading the app costs nothing, includes the Council team, and lets you play as many online games with it as you like. This includes games involving one of the three other team flavors — you just can’t use those teams on your own side until you pony up. (Each one costs US$2.) The result feels less like an incomplete demo and more like a fully functional base set with available expansion packs, a strategy from the tabletop world — except, here, much less expensive for the customer, with no initial monetary investment at all. While the app is not shy about its in-app wares, I never felt hassled to buy any. I became a paying customer only after playing several games against a variety of teams with the base set, winning a few and losing a few, and knowing with certainty that I really liked it.
Naturally, I’m curious how well this strategy is working out for Robot Entertainment. I imagine that players who love the game as much as I do join me in buying all the available teams, as well as a couple of additional one-dollar tchotchkes like alternate team colors or player avatars. I don’t know how many players are like me, but I do note that the game’s reviews in the App Store are overwhelmingly positive. I don’t see a single upvoted one-star review inveighing against the outrage of in-app purchases, which seem to haunt so many other games and apps that take this route. I have to guess that’s from a combination of waiving the entrance fee and delivering a polished product that really sweats the details of presenting a great multiplayer experience. I do hope it succeeds and encourages many more works using a similar model: selling in-app purchases not through cynical psychological ploys, but by publishing genuinely fun and rewarding work.