It sounds like a bit of an absurd proposition: Take Diablo 2, layer on optional multiplayer in a massive online world and the gotta-catch-‘em-all mentality and variety of Pokemon and wrap in a Pixar-like aesthetic.
Oh, did I mention that this is a mobile free-to-play game designed to make you not hate it?
Spirit Lords has massive ambition not just for a Android and iOS game, but for any game.
Having spent a few days with the game on my iPhone, I found a lot to like and only a little to fret over. After selecting your gender and whether you want to play as a barbarian or sorcerer, you quickly drop into the fantasy world and a game that opens up at a steady pace. Initially, it feels like a solid dungeon crawler. You tap the screen to move and swipe, hold-to-charge, or tap on enemies or yourself to execute special attacks and abilities. Going through most dungeons progresses the story and nets you new gear, gold and spirits.
Spirits are the first twist introduced to the familiar gameplay. Players can assign spirits to one of five spots in their build-out, each correlating to one of the gestures used in the game to activate abilities. The spirits can be combined to be leveled up or transformed; doing so increases the power of the ability they give you. You can use spirits to unlock more than 200 unique combat abilities in the game.
True to a dungeon crawler, the game also has thousands of pieces of gear which customize both the abilities and look of your character.
By the time you hit level 10, you begin to team up more often in the game’s four-player dungeon runs. There are also guilds and plans to release more content for the game in acts.
“There was a decision made quite a bit back at Kabam to get into the role-playing game space,” said Daniel Erickson, the game’s creative director who previously worked at BioWare. “We had to throw everything away about what a mobile RPG should be and start over to make a big classic multiplayer role-playing game on mobile.
“One challenge was getting combat that actually worked for the touchscreen. Being able to make something that didn’t feel like an apology, but like something designed for mobile.”
The goal, Erickson said, was to make an action role-playing game that is as broad in scope as the classics, but with the limitless sightlines of an MMO.
One way they’re doing that is by releasing the game in acts.
Act one hit with the game this week and the team is well into building act two, which they say is bigger than the first.
Free to play or pay?
The game, as with nearly every free-to-play title on mobile, does have an array of ways to spend money. Players can purchase Moonstones which can be converted into different things. They can also buy gear. Both of those seem like relatively harmless ways to pay your way through the game. My big concern is with the game’s use of stamina. Every time a character enters a dungeon, they use stamina. When you run out of stamina, you can’t play anymore. You can either wait to earn more stamina or buy it.
Erickson called the game “white hat free-to-play” when I asked him about in-game spending.
“Nothing anywhere in Spirit’s world has to be purchased,” he said. “No content is out of reach.”
That includes those Moonstones which can be found on quests or by going on treasure digs, he said.
But what about the stamina system, which seems like it turns the game into a free-to-pay title.
“The stamina system is not really built to be a money maker,” he said. “It doesn’t cost much [Moonstone] to refill.”
Erickson said the stamina system is designed to allow most players to play through about four dungeons, roughly 20 to 30 minutes, in one sitting.
“After four dungeons or so, you’ve run 15 to 25 to 30 minutes; it’s probably a pretty good break time,” he said. “We put a small cost on it, so unless you are really, really obsessed it’s a good time to go make a sandwich.
“I usually go take a half hour break and come back and play. What we are hoping for and trying to encourage is several shorter to medium sized sessions throughout the day.”
The Art of Spirit Lords
Spirit Lords is a game two-and-a-half years in the making.
Senior art director Michael Dashow said the game started out as a little dungeon crawler prototype that was used to pitch the concept to Kabam.
Danny Keller, the game’s animation lead, said the game’s art approach was to reference a “Pixar style and quality” within the limitations of the platform.
The game features dozens of unique races, bosses and different settings. All of the dungeons tied to the game’s campaign use original art, but those pieces are then torn apart and reassembled procedurally to create the dungeons can replay over and over again.
Once the publisher greenlit the project, Dashow started pulling together a massive amount of art for the game.
“A year and a half in we were pulling in all of these wonderful artists from inside and outside of Kabam,” Dashow said. “Because we are building a whole new world, everything needed to be visualized.”
As the art team and the content they created continued to grow, Dashow realized he had enough material to make a small art book about the game. Once a week the team would meet to show off their favorite art and Dashow would find pieces there to include in the book.
“I just cherry picked the best ones,” he said. “By the time I was done I had an art book that was the size of Art of Pixar book. I was really excited to show off the work we put into the game.”
The chunky book is a roadmap of the years of artistic effort put into the game.
Inside you’ll find hundreds of spirits, weapons, environments as well as the things that didn’t make the cut.
Dashow says the art that made it into the game has a distinct, almost Diablo look to it.
Dashow and Kabam general manager Phil Shenk worked on Diablo 2 together when they were both at Blizzard.
“We did most of the player character and bosses,” Dashow said. “When we first started working on this he said, ‘Lets do it again, but it will be different, it will be mobile.’ The connection to Diablo is deliberate, it’s in our blood.”