For the last 18 months, Finnish game developer Supercell has been testing its next big thing. Last year, the developer behind mobile hits like Clash of Clans and Clash Royale soft-launched a new game called Brawl Stars. It’s very different from anything the studio had done before. It’s a competitive shooter, for one thing, with a variety of modes that call to mind some of the biggest games on the market. There‘s battle royale, where players fight to the death, much as they do in Fortnite, and team modes that require communication and coordination like in League of Legends. There is a range of quirky heroes, each with individual strengths, weaknesses, and colorful skins to unlock, just like in Overwatch.
Not only is Brawl Stars a mashup of all of those experiences, but it’s also a game built specifically for mobile. No wonder it took so long to get right. “Every inch of it has been changed,” community manager Ryan Lighton says of the prolonged beta period.
During the beta, the game was only available in a handful of countries. But today Supercell is announcing that Brawl Stars’ long-gestating global launch is happening soon, on both iOS and Android, with pre-registration starting now. (Unfortunately, the developer doesn’t have a specific release date yet, but it’s expected to launch next month.) And while it may look like a mixture of existing games and genres, the studio says it’s the result of an organic, iterative development process.
“Rather than saying we aimed to build a shooter for mobile,” explains Supercell CEO Ilkka Paananen, “it’s more accurate to say we set out to make a game unlike any other, and it evolved into a fast-paced, multiplayer, cartoony brawler.”
I’ve been playing the game over the past week, and it’s a surprisingly seamless blend of all of those influences, but in a tight, streamlined package that fits comfortably on your phone. What Clash Royale is to complex strategy games, Brawl Stars is to competitive shooters. The main mode is a team-based battle where your squad needs to grab 10 gems, and then protect them before time runs out. Brawl Stars takes place from an overhead perspective, and it has a very loose, cartoony feel; if you step inside a bush you’ll disappear from view, and you attack by pulling back and firing like you had a slingshot.
The combatants include a gunslinger with big sideburns, a sentient cactus, and a girl in a bear suit. Progression is similar to Clash Royale: you earn coins and keys as you play, which provides loot boxes that can unlock new characters, as well as the ability to upgrade your current brawlers. There’s also a premium currency called gems that is primarily used for unlocking cosmetic skins.
“We wanted to launch it very early.”
You’ll also open up new modes the more you play, including battle royale. As you’d expect, things are scaled back quite a bit in that mode compared to the likes of PUBG or Fortnite. Instead of fighting off against 100 other players, each arena is filled with 10 fighters, and the last person standing wins. There’s lots of cover to hide behind, and, yes, a poisonous cloud steadily closes in, shrinking the battlefield. The most surprising thing about Brawl Stars is how good it feels; mobile shooters are notoriously frustrating due to the inaccuracy of touchscreens. Brawl Stars isn’t perfect, but somehow I never found myself fighting with the controls.
The game wasn’t always so smooth. Development on Brawl Stars began around four years ago, and according to Jon Franzas, a designer and programmer who initially served as the project lead, it changed a lot over that time. When the game first hit soft launch, for instance, it was played in portrait mode and used a control scheme where you tapped the screen to move your character around. But once people started playing, the developers realized that movement wasn’t working. Most players wanted to use a virtual joystick, which was difficult to implement in portrait mode due to the limited screen space.
Soon, after switching up the controls, the developers settled on playing in landscape, though Franzas says there were plenty of other changes after that, including multiple ground-up revisions of the user interface. That’s part of the reason Brawl Stars was in beta so early. “As a company we don’t have so much experience with this type of game,” Franzas explains. “So we wanted to launch it very early, in a very raw and unfinished state.”
2018 is turning into the year of battle royale games, with even the biggest franchises around, like Call of Duty and Battlefield, jumping on the trend that’s so closely associated with Fortnite. According to Franzas, though, Brawl Stars isn’t exactly an imitator, despite coming out so long after its competitors. “The very first version was actually more of a battle royale, where you play alone,” he says. “That was before battle royale was a big thing yet.” As the game progressed, it evolved into more of a team-based experience — Franzas is a big fan of League of Legends, and wanted to do something similar on mobile — and eventually the studio decided to offer both styles of play.
Those large-scale changes also apply to the way the game looks. Initially Brawl Stars had a sci-fi style, with astronauts and aliens, which slowly morphed into more of a Western look to better fit the style of game. Characters like Colt and Bull are typical gunslingers, with big guns and bigger hair, but from there things get strange, and move well beyond the Wild West. “That was just our jumping off point,” says artist Paul Chambers. “We never intended to stay there.” Later characters you can unlock include a toxic crow in a leather jacket, a tarot card-wielding fighter, a robotic pirate shaped like a barrel, and an engineer with a cute gun turret.
“It’s not a violent thing.”
Theme aside, Brawl Stars also has a very different look compared to past Supercell games. The likes of Clash Royale or Boom Beach have a style reminiscent of a CG movie, whereas Brawl Stars is cleaner and simpler. “Maybe before we had a Pixar style, but this time we were aiming for Cartoon Network,” Chambers explains. In order to keep the game approachable for a wide audience, the art team also wanted to deemphasize the gun aspect of the experience. Brawl Stars is a shooter, but it’s not especially violent. There are no blood or death animations. In fact, some of the characters don’t have guns at all, like the luchador with a punch so big it’s almost like a shotgun blast. “We’re avoiding the violence as much as we can,” says Chambers. “It’s like a Nerf gun. It’s not a violent thing.”
Like most Supercell games, Brawl Stars was built by a relatively small team. There are around 13 developers working on the game, not including support staff like the community team, though that number fluctuates at times. With the global launch looming, for instance, the group will need all hands on deck. As part of that shift, Franzas, who has been leading the project, is stepping back to a more design-focused role. Frank Keienburg, who has more experience at Supercell with customer support and marketing, has taken over.
It may sound like a demotion, but it’s actually in keeping with Supercell’s structural philosophy, which — similar to game studios like Valve — emphasizes a flatter organizational chart, without managers.. The idea is to keep people focused on what they’re good at. For Franzas, that means developing Brawl Stars, and not dealing with all of the additional complications that come from a big, global release. “It’s a matter of thinking about what makes sense for the game,” he says. “I want the game to succeed and be as great as possible.”
When Brawl Stars does come out, it’ll have a lot of pressure. Currently, Supercell only operates four other games; it kills off titles in beta if they don’t catch on with players, focusing its energy on the more likely hits. After so long in development, Brawl Stars is primed to join that elusive club, but with a completely different style of game that has the potential to reach a whole new audience. And Paananen has high hopes. “This is a huge moment for us.”