Interview with Lead Game Designer René Laurent of SuperHippo Games about their latest game Pirate Legends TD

SuperHippo Games, based in Ireland, released Pirate Legends TD late last week in the Play Store. Yes, I know what you are thinking. There are an abundance of tower defense games out there. However, few of them take place on the high seas and are full of such robust action as displayed in Pirate Legends. I was given the opportunity to find out more about the game, the company that produced it and how SuperHippo plans to impact the mobile gaming arena. René Laurent, Lead Game Designer for Pirate Legends TD was gracious enough to answer a few questions for me.

Jaymes Carter:   Based on your website, it says that your team is comprised of 40 or more individuals. How did SuperHippo Games get started and how long have you been in business?  What is the makeup of the team?

René Laurent: The studio was created in August 2012 and at that time most of the production team was based in Dublin. The marketing and business side was run from Montreal. Our team was incredibly strong, especially from an art perspective; we had 8 senior artists, 10 coders, 3 designers, 3 QA and 1 producer working on 2 games.

In late 2013 the company made a call to move some production to two countries with a vibrant emerging gaming culture, Romania and Vietnam. We’re still building these new operations and will soon have the capability to develop 3-4 products simultaneously.

JC: It might be a simple question, but why SuperHippo? Your mascot is quite adorable by the way. Do you have an affinity for hippopotamuses?

RL: That was a nickname one of our coders had for his wife… we really liked it so it just kind of stuck.

JC: Your latest project that was just released is Pirate Legends TD. It looks like an exciting game. Why did you choose to do a Tower Defense game? There are an abundance of them in the Play Store, so we know the genre is popular. Did you have more familiarity with this type of game or was it based on trying to tap into a genre that is often well received by gamers?

RL: True, there are a lot of TD games on mobile but only a handful of real AAA quality titles. We felt that if we created a high quality experience we’d have a decent chance of standing out. That, and we’re huge RTS fans and grew up playing games like Command & Conquer, Warcraft, and Age of Empires, so we really wanted to take some of the depth that you find in that genre and transfer it to mobile without scaring too many of the casual players away. We liked what was happening with games like Fieldrunners, Kingdom Rush, iBomber, Anomaly, and Jelly Defense, but thought that there was room for something that was a little more visually riendly and could hopefully appeal to an audience somewhere between Kingdom Rush and Plants vs. Zombies.

JC:  What makes Pirate Legends TD unique or different from other Tower Defense games that have been released recently? Many people think of Kingdom Rush by Armor Games and the Anomaly Series by 11 Bit Studios as top games in the genre when it comes to tower defense titles. Certainly there is room for Pirate Legends TD, but why?

RL: Here’s a list of interesting items we feel Pirate Legends brings to the table:

Environment: The game is set across 6 very lush environments. Caribbean Tropics, Pirate Towns & Forts, Cannibal Swamps, Undead Lands, and Lost Temples. We added a lot of animated/interactive eye candy to each level. We feel this makes the game a much richer experience than the vast majority of titles in the genre.

Water combat systems: We’ve got certain weapons Sharks, Turtles & Cannon Broadsides that can be used to create powerful shock waves. This looks awesome and it’s great fun to launch a weapon which smashes an enemy off course into the side of the path or send them towards a kill zone.

The Pirate Galleon: The player defends the Main Ship which acts like a long range tower. Player can control its cannon’s line of sight directly which is really cool for taking out specific targets. The ship also fires broad sides and mobile turrets (turtles) to bring the fight to any part of the map.

Relic Powers: The premise of the game is that you’ve stolen a powerful ancient stone relic from the Imperial Navy. That relic has granted you powerful magic attacks that you can deploy during the battle. These include calling a Kraken that swallows everything, Gyroscope controlled Tornadoes, Jagged Rocks from the sea bed that block the enemies path, sea fog, and sunken treasure.

Flying Aces: The player can directly control the waypoints of Hero planes that strafe the battle field and have an upgrade system that unlocks new powers. These are very powerful weapons that pack missile, carpet bombs, sea mines etc., and are mostly unlocked with IAP.

Hiring Allies: Most levels have allied vessels that the player can hire with gold or toes. These natives or friendly pirates will patrol an area of the sea for you and provide a good cheap alternative to towers.

The Towers: This is one of the game’s strongest suits. We’ve invested a lot of resources in the creation of very unique and fun weapons system that is totally over the top and visually rewarding. For example we have huge Great White Sharks that jump from the water and smash everything they land on, explosive nitro-filled Pufferfish, squadrons of Chickens that do bombing runs, Tentacled Towers that ensnare everything, and dozens more insane weapons for our players to use. Visually the towers have great charm and personality with the physical structures and characters evolving a lot as the player discovers new upgrades.

Rivers: This is a neat feature that has a big effect on player strategy. The enemy paths can be intersected by rivers & aqueducts that affect the speed of enemy movement, sometimes helping but mostly speeding the bad guys towards your ship!

Enemies & Bosses: There are over 30 unique enemies and bosses in the game with lots of very rich animation and design. This includes a Giant Angler Fish that spit piranhas, Windmill ships that propel other enemies, Pedalos with cannon ball repellent tarps and even Cannibals in human skin balloons!!

Loot Convoys: In certain levels we have special treasure convoys that the player can hijack (Diamonds, Hooch, Pandas!…). This adds a strong RTS element to the game giving the player different options and risk vs reward choices.

JC:  Can you give us a brief synopsis of the story line?

RL:  You play as a rag-tag Pirate band that stumbles across an ancient stone relic while raiding an Imperial Vessel. You go on the run through a lush Caribbean slash Land of the Dead world trying to bring this relic back to the temple it was removed from. By taking this treasure you gain some pretty interesting magic (Kraken, Hurricanes..etc) but also inadvertently incur the wrath of an Evil Relic that has corrupted the Imperial Admiral and is hell bent on world domination. We wanted the pirate force to feel like their towers are being cobbled together, while you make a hasty retreat. To do this we tried to design the lower level towers to look a bit rickety but as you upgrade them you’ll notice they start to look pretty tasty.

JC: The initial game play trailer shows a lot of action on screen. Did you design this game specifically to be played on a tablet or were you thinking about mobile devices in general?

RL: This was a constant tightrope we had to walk during development, as we wanted to cover the widest device range possible. As I touched on above, we wanted to achieve a level of detail for a TD game (at least in 2D) that wasn’t attempted on mobile in the past. In particular we wanted to give personality to the towers and enemies, so that the player was noticing new details each time they played. Luckily a lot of Android devices have very large screens so we feel the graphical integrity is still great, even if you’re not playing on tablet.

JC: How many levels are in the game and how long would you say the playing time is with the game? Do you expect to expand on it later with more levels or will the journey be fulfilled once the game is released?

RL: After the initial intro levels the game becomes pretty challenging and some maps can take 15-20 minutes to complete. Each one also has a Challenge mode, which adds another nasty twist…if you like a bit more pain.

There are currently 14 levels in the Android launch version (2 more than on iOS). 12 in the main campaign and 2 bonus levels once you’ve complete that. We’re already working on a new level/hero pack that will launch later this year, bringing the level count up to 16 and also adding a Porco Rosso style Flying Ace.

JC: How was the process designing the game for Android devices? Would you say that the development time to design for Android is the same amount of time to design for an iOS game? Does that depend on which comes first?

RL: Most developers will create the iOS version as a template to port from or create the 2 versions simultaneously, depending on the engine they’re using. We chose to rewrite the Android code and focus on high end devices which cut development time as we didn’t have to spend as much time tweaking memory management for older handsets. Of course the Android ecosystem is more fragmented so there is the challenge of covering more varied screen sizes, but that’s balanced out with some crazy powerful hardware at the top end.

JC: The towers look unique in your game. What was the process for designing the towers and how they would impact the action in the game? How much control does the user have over the tower?

RL: The lead designer is obsessed with the natural world, so there was a huge focus on making the towers very organic. We wanted to give the player the feeling that the Pirates pretty much picked up whatever was at hand and turned it into a weapon. Nitro filled Puffer Fish, Electric eels, Great Whites, Chicken Squadron bombers, etc. The player does not need to interact with towers once they’re built and their powers are upgraded. There are lots of other tasks to keep them busy though: controlling the flying aces, aiming the main ships guns, launching bombards & turtles, and of course the relic powers.

JC: Bosses in a tower defense game are definitely exciting. Why did you choose to include this in your game play? On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most difficult, how hard would you say Pirate Legends TD is? How long is the game to play in hours?

RL: We totally agree. You must have some powerful bosses in there to force the player to sweat and come up with some new strategies. As we have a water-based game we were able to do some interesting things with bosses, like have them submerge for a time or transition from airborne to water during the battle. To play the entire game and all modes through probably takes 40-50hrs depending on your skill levels. I’d say that Pirate Legends hovers between an 8-9 on the difficulty scale. Here’s a tip for players that find the going tough in later levels: using the shockwaves generated by player-activated powers (Turtles & Bombards) is a great way to buy more time and push enemies back into range of your towers.

JC: Will the game be a paid title like it is on IOS or will it be free-to-play? If free-to-play, why did you choose this model versus being a paid title?

RL: The game will be free-to-play from launch on Android. We had some time to experiment with the monetization on the iOS version of the game and this method is definitely better for us. It’s a new IP and being free helps get the brand known by getting it in front of as many gamers as possible. That means Pirate Legends was developed as a premium product but now is being released completely free. If the player wants to play it straight through without buying any IAP that’s completely possible, we just hope they drop a buck on a Flying Ace to help towards the sequel.

JC: How long was the development period for this game? Is that a typical length for your titles?

RL: This was the studios first title so it took a little longer as we were trying to build the team at the same time. The iOS version took 11 months to complete, and Android re-code plus new content was an additional 6 months. We’re looking to complete projects much faster in future, somewhere between 3-6 months with multi-platform launches… but with games the “special fun sauce” always seems to take longer to make that you planned!

JC: How many games do you expect to produce a year? Do you have more on the boards and will they be different genres?

RL: With our new Studios up and running we’ll be aiming to produce 2-3 products a year over the next 5 years. We’ve got some very interesting games in development right now, which we’ll be announcing in the next 2-3 months.

JC: Your studio is based in Ireland. What would you tell a visitor to Ireland to see, visit, experience? Does being in Ireland have any impact on your game design?

RL: Being in Ireland makes you appreciate sunshine more so most of our games will have a happy Nintendo-esque vibe, which I guess is a kind of escapism! The people are great fun here so for anyone visiting I’d recommend travelling around the coastline and don’t be afraid to chat to people. Irish people always want to help tourists. Even if they don’t know the answers…. they will still give them to you.

JC: How do you hope SuperHippo will impact the mobile gaming environment in the next few years?

RL: We have to accept that Freemium is here to stay, on mobile at least. I really hope that we can contribute to making that model less Candy Crush and more Team Fortress. We’re trying to give players full game experiences with options rather than limiting/frustrating them while pumping them for money at every turn. We’ll continue to have a big emphasis on making beautiful games, so you can expect even higher levels of art and immersive gameplay in the future. 

We thank Clement at SuperHippos Games for arranging our discussion with René. After having played a few levels of Pirate Legends TD, I can say the game is true to the traditions of tower defense games while adding a whole new level of control and customization to the player. The graphics are full of color and detail. When you zoom into the screen you can see how much care went into the creation of the game. If you are a fan of tower defense games Pirate Legends TD should be an immediate download. If you are new to the genre or it appears intimidating, this game is easily accessible, though the difficulty ramps up pretty quickly.

Pirate Legends TD is available to download for free in the Play Store with in-app purchases. It is integrated with Google Game Play Services, which include cloud saving and thirty-six achievements.

Official Website: SuperHippo Games

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