We spoke with Mimimi Games, the developer behind the likes of Desperados III, Shadow Tactics, and the upcoming Shadow Gambit stealth-strategy games, about the ups and downs of bringing the genre to console.Mimimi Games has a fantastic history of developing stealth-strategy games, creating some of the most outstanding entries the genre has seen in recent years, from the samurai-focused action found in Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun to the gunslingers of the Wild West in Desperados III. The developer is now preparing its latest game, Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew, to launch on Xbox Series X|S later this year. In anticipation of the upcoming magical pirate adventure, we spoke with Mimimi Games' head of design Moritz Wagner about the trials and tribulations of bringing the genre to consoles.
Stealth-strategy, a genre that died after being pushed too farWhen we sat down to speak with Wagner, we had originally planned on focussing on Mimimi Games' upcoming project, but as it does when a conversation is far too good — and no PR representative is present to politely tell you to zip it — we managed to blow through our allotted time and discuss a whole bunch of different topics. A key one, though, was the studio's experience in bringing the stealth-strategy genre to console, and the growing pains it had to go through to achieve the gameplay we enjoy today with the likes of Desperados III and Shadow Tactics on Xbox.
"How far can you push it without breaking what made it great in the beginning?” Wagner asks — a question many developers have more than likely contemplated after spending a significant length of time with a genre or series of games. We're currently seeing a surge in real-time strategy games making their way to consoles, which has generally been a genre almost exclusively available on PC due to the complex nature of each game's systems. This year we've already seen Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition's console release join some of the best games on Game Pass, and Age of Empires IV will follow suit soon, as well as Company of Heroes 3. Much like the real-time strategy games mentioned, stealth-strategy games have also been a prominent feature on PC, with only the odd title receiving a console launch. While you could say that hardware performance is a key factor, it's also a case of developers "pushing" new systems and features to ensure these games can be played on multiple systems — not just require the ease of a mouse and keyboard.
“I mean, the genre died at some point because the devs went too far. It’s funny, because a prime example of this, I think, is the Desperados series. They [Spellbound Entertainment] had Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive launch at the same time as Commandos 2: Men of Courage, and it was sort of a clone basically, but in the Wild West; it was a great game, fun, and people loved it," Wagner said. “And then with Desperados 2: Cooper's Revenge, Helldorado, and stuff like that, they added things like third-person mechanics where you had shooting mechanics and third-person stuff, which when I look at it now in hindsight, I totally get it... I mean, we could have made the same mistake, right? Hindsight is easy, but that killed the genre.
"Commandos also went into the very narrative-focused thing, and they made it a shooter and stuff like that, so they pushed too far out of that zone. And then people were like, this is not what I want to play anymore, and the whole genre collapsed into itself. It has a history of that, so we need to be a little careful again.”
One form of "pushing" the limits of the genre, which has predominantly utilised the ease of access offered by PC users' mouse and keyboard setups, has been the evolution of gameplay mechanics and restructured user interfaces. On PC, developers have been able to display a multitude of buttons and functions directly on-screen or provide ways for players to create macro shortcuts to any of the buttons featured on a keyboard. When it comes to console users, though, juggling the speed of the gameplay unfolding on-screen with the less-than sufficient, and often clunky, use of controller-directed cursors has proven to be a tricky problem to solve, and as such, many developers have simply skipped console ports of their games.
Now we're at a point when the use of pop-up menus and radial dials is common, in PC and console games, across a range of genres. These quick-access menus have given developers a way of snapping commands and prompts on-screen by the press of a single button, and for console users, it's been a game changer. Radial and fast-navigation menus have opened the doors for numerous genres to make the jump, from MMORPGs to real-time strategy games. Mimimi Games has been implementing adaptive systems into its games for years now, and it starts by designing a game to be playable on a controller from the beginning.
“In the beginning, we knew that we wanted to do that [console launch], and we knew that this was the way to go for us," Wagner told us. "Then we started thinking about how we could do the main thing that sucked in Commandos, which was selecting skills and selecting characters because that game was very old, and back then nobody knew about radial menus and things like that. We just hadn't figured that stuff out yet.
“Since we always knew that it was going to be a gamepad game, and this is true for every game we do now as well, we design the skills and the characters with that in mind from the beginning," Wagner continues. "One of the questions we ask during the design process pretty early on, is ‘how is this going to control on a gamepad?’ There are certain skills that just wouldn't work, as they only work with mouse and keyboard because they require a certain type of aiming or skills that just feels bad on a gamepad, so we just don't do them, or we figure a way to change them.”
Pushing Unity to its limitsAs Mimimi Games has attempted to push the stealth-strategy genre in new ways, such as employing direct character-control mechanics over the traditional point-and-click style movements found in earlier games from the genre, it's caused the studio to run into issues with its engine of choice: Unity.
“We had huge problems getting Desperados III to consoles. It cost us about a year of development that was not planned, and that was just getting Unity to work on consoles; it was horrible.”The development issues Mimimi ran into with Desperados III were mostly engine-related, Wagner told us, which didn't allow the team to port the game to Xbox in the way they wanted to. In the end, a new version of Unity was built specifically to handle it because it's not an engine that lets you "just go into the code and see what's happening."
“It’s not an engine that was initially designed for these sorts of things," Wagner told us. "It’s getting there slowly, and we're one of a few games that just pushes and pushes it — sometimes in very weird ways — and getting that translated to the very limited hardware of the consoles back then was very, very hard.”
Wagner told us that Mimimi Games continues to push the Unity Engine to its limits, and while the developer doesn't plan on using any specific features found in the latest generation of consoles for its upcoming game, Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew, the additional power allows the team to focus on the game's performance. Naturally, that will put additional pressure on the engine, but it sounds like Wagner is confident that it'll be able to handle what the team wants to do this time around.
“I mean, you can do more so you do more, and then you come across the same problems again, but I think it's a lot easier for us to get it to run.”
Mimimi Games' upcoming title Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew is expected to launch on Xbox Series X|S later this year. We spoke to Wagner about the pirate-themed game as well, so keep an eye on our front page next week for all the juicy details.
Have you played Desperados III or Shadow Tactics? If so, drop down below and let us know what you think about them!