If you ask Ron Carmel to describe his new iPhone game, Subterfuge, he’ll call it a “glacially slow real-time strategy game with heavy diplomacy.” In more concrete terms: it’s a game about sending a fleet of submarines to mine for resources among the hydrothermal vents, underwater trenches, and craggy calderas of the deep blue, all while scheming, plotting, and brokering with temporary allies and erstwhile enemies.
Oh, and it takes between a week and 10 days to play one match.
The game takes place in a sort of alt-history setting, where deepwater bases with names like “Fallhollow” and “Strongholt” evoke high-fantasy military outposts while slick radar iconography suggests a more modern retro-futurist bent. Portraits of specialist units, meanwhile, hark back to an idealized Victorian era of seafaring: the Helmsman wouldn’t look out of place on Ahab’s Pequod, and the Pirate reminds you of Ching Shih, the Terror of South China.
The goal of Subterfuge is to accrue large amounts of Neptunium, which you can do by drilling your own mines on the seafloor, or by taking others’ mines by force. Meanwhile, an in-app chat room lets you negotiate alliances with the seven other players in your game, which you may choose to honor or break as the race for Neptunium, territory, ships, and resources ramps up.
When I chatted with Carmel, an accomplished indie game developer, over email, he compared Subterfuge to the fable about the tortoise and the hare. The “tortoise approach,” he explains, is to start mining Neptunium right away, which “tends to give you an early lead, which can give you good political influence.” Hares, on the other hand, tend to have a military advantage, “and the trick is switching to Neptunium production before the tortoises win the race.”
Subterfuge was born out of collaboration between Carmel and Noel Llopis. Carmel, famously, was one-half of the team that designed a popular game called World of Goo, while Llopis is best known for games like Flower Garden and Amazing Alex.
In between releasing World of Goo and Subterfuge Carmel prototyped at least fifteen different game ideas. “Most were crap,” he says, “but a few I thought had legs. When Noel and I were talking about collaborating, we just shared our ideas…and Subterfuge was the one we were most excited about.”
TACTICS AND DIPLOMACY
People, of course, lie at the heart Subterfuge. There aren’t any codified rules about how players are allowed to negotiate, interact, or band together, no bonuses or penalties for making and breaking promises. The trailer above, while dramatic, can give you a good idea of how this might play out.
“Social engineering is actually a big part of Subterfuge, and it derives a lot of depth from that,” explains Carmel. “In many political games, social engineering is the only skill that really matters: your ability to persuade others to do the things that will lead to your victory.”
“When that’s the case, the rest of the game can feel shallow,” he continues. “What we’re trying to do with Subterfuge is require the player to be both a good diplomat and a good strategist, to make both of these skills have a meaningful impact on the outcome.”
In most Subterfuge matches, tactics and diplomacy go hand in hand: you may choose to ally with a nearby player to create a territorial buffer or to set up a devastating pincer attack on a rival later on.
Still, the fight for territory and Neptunium mines will take more than a sheer numbers advantage: in addition to basic submarine units, called “drillers,” specialists can engineer swift reversals of fortune. An Infiltrator, for example, will drain an enemy’s shield by 20 points before combat begins, but an Engineer can quickly repair drillers lost after a Pyrrhic victory. In short, sound tactics can shore up a dearth of diplomatic skills—and vice-versa.
“At the highest level, we give players a goal and let them choose the path they take to it,” Carmel says. “Mechanically, the game is made of small and simple systems that interact with each other in very interesting ways.”
To keep a working balance between diplomacy and strategy, Carmel and Llopis hope to address some well-known issues before they become a problem. Take “wolf packing,” for example, a term the team came up with to describe “a group of players that come into a game with an unbreakable pre-established alliance.”
“Instead of adding game rules to try to combat this phenomenon, we’re going to accept that it exists and can not be fully eliminated,” Carmel explains. “Instead, we’ll provide information to all the players indicating who has played with who how many times, and how much they’ve fought on average.”
“The idea is that if everyone sees that three of the players in a game play together a lot and never fight…the politics of the game will compensate for their alliance.” Carmel’s not sure this approach will work when Subterfuge is released, but he hopes that other players will spot wolf packs and naturally band together in response.
AIMING TO PLEASE
Poke around the Subterfuge website long enough and it becomes clear that one of Carmel and Llopis’ chief concerns is quality of life for their players.
The game is heavily inspired by an older strategy title, a browser game called Neptune’s Pride—whose creator, Jay Kyburz, gave Subterfuge his blessing and even participated in play tests. Part of the appeal of Neptune’s Pride is how intense it is, but a lot of that intensity is generated by the amount of time and dedication it takes to win. Veteran grognards can regale you with tales of late-night offensives designed to take advantage of other players’ sleep cycles, but that kind of demand can take its toll on an audience.
With that in mind, the advantages of developing primarily for iOS start to become clear. For starters: it’s portable, and Subterfuge uses push notifications to let players know when something important is happening.
Other mechanics combine to (hopefully) prevent players from obsessively micro-managing their fleet, too: all outposts in the game are at least 10 real-time hours apart, for example. You can schedule complicated series of orders in advance and run simulations to determine the outcome of your moves. In other words: if your bases are safe before you go to sleep, they’ll be safe in the morning.
By automating the low-level math that determines whose shields give out first or which submarine comes out ahead in a dogfight, Subterfuge keeps the focus on strategy, negotiation, and cloak-and-dagger betrayal.
“We want the game to be about making the best of what you have, coming up with good strategies, and communicating with other players, not spending lots of time doing busy work or checking in constantly,” Carmel told Gamasutra in an interview last year.
Developing for iOS devices presents other challenges, however—namely, how to get people to pay for a hardcore undersea strategy game that takes over a week to play.
After tracking player stats during Subterfuge’s private alpha test phase, Carmel and Llopis think they’ve settled on a payment model that weeds out flighty players—having people give up a few days into a game is horrible—but doesn’t rub its devoted users the wrong way.
“Trying to suck a potentially infinite amount of money out of players (one dollar at a time) isn’t something we want to do either, for ideological reasons,” Carmel wrote in a blog post on the subject.
When it releases sometime later this year, Subterfuge will be free to download, including a series of tactical puzzles that will also serve as a tutorial. Free players will be able to join and create public games, but some advanced features—private matches, custom game options—will be behind a paywall. The details haven’t been finalized, but these so-called “convenience features” will “almost certainly” cost between $10 and $20, says Carmel.
“We know it’s a niche game,” says Carmel, “so we don’t aim to please everyone, but we want those are into the game to really love it.”
“We also have a pretty big and exciting list of post-launch design ideas we want to explore, but first we want to get the game out,” he continues. “If it does well enough to pay us modest salaries and we’re not too burnt out, we’ll keep working on it.”
Joseph Leray is a freelance writer from Nashville. He tweets.
This article was updated to reflect changes in the game’s pricing model.
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