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[Herald Interview] Bluehole charms global audience with mobile strategy game ‘Castle Burn’

Head of Bluehole’s Delusion Studio discusses unmet needs in the mobile RTS genre, gameplay design that better caters to foreign users

Last year, South Korean game company Bluehole made its mark in the global gaming landscape with its hit survivor shooting game “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds,” now available on PCs, consoles and mobile devices.

With aims to go beyond the success of “PUBG,” the Seoul-based game company is now out to entice gamers in the West with a mobile game in the genre of real-time strategy games: “Castle Burn.”

Developed by Delusion Studio, part of the Bluehole Group, “Castle Burn” is a mobile RTS game in which users battle other players using cards. With different cards, players can upgrade their castles, send out units, stage special attacks and more.

Just weeks into its launch, the game has proven its appeal to global audiences, at a time when many Korean game developers are striving to develop games that can succeed in markets outside Asia.

“Castle Burn” was released as a beta version in Korea last November and became the No. 1 game in the strategy genre. Just 10 days into its worldwide release earlier this month, the game broke the 1-million mark in cumulative downloads.

The game is gaining popularity among Western users in particular. Around 40 percent of its users come from the US, 15 percent from Brazil, 15 percent from China and the remainder from Europe, according to the game’s publisher Bluehole PNIX.

With this type of overseas success being rare, as multiple factors go into play to make a game a global hit, “Castle Burn” fulfilled an unmet need in the mobile RTS genre, while offering a gameplay design that better caters to foreign users, according to Delusion Studio CEO Kang Moon-chul.

“It’s not like ‘Castle Burn’ was the first-ever mobile RTS game to hit the market. Countless RTS games had already existed,” Kang said in a recent interview with The Korea Herald.

“However, none of them succeeded, mostly because they directly adopted many of the complex elements of PC-based RTS games played using a mouse and keyboard. It made the games too hard, and unfit for mobile play.”

Delusion Studio CEO Kang Moon-chul (left) and Bluehole PNIX Development Manager Yoon Joo-hong (Bluehole)
Delusion Studio CEO Kang Moon-chul (left) and Bluehole PNIX Development Manager Yoon Joo-hong (Bluehole)

With aims to fill this gap, Delusion Studio jumped into developing an easy-to-play RTS game for mobile, prioritizing user interface optimization. That included abandoning elements of scrolling and adopting a one-screen-all approach, while retaining the core elements of a traditional RTS.

“The one-screen approach led to the game looking quite similar to ‘Clash Royale’ at first glance. But after playing ‘Castle Burn’ a few times, we saw many users conclude that it’s more comparable to traditional RTS games like ‘Starcraft’ or ‘Age of Empires,’” Kang said.

In addition to design, Delusion Studio also deliberately developed a game in which a player’s active gaming skills play a major role in winning. This stands in contrast to games where a player can trump other players, who may be more skilled, by upgrading their character through cash item purchases.

“I think Western gamers particularly place more importance on actively participating in the game and honing their skills. They expect their skills to be a bigger deciding factor on their performance within a game, than artificial boosters like cash item upgrades,” Kang said.

“This means they strongly resist the ‘pay-to-win’ model, viewing it as a form of ‘cheating.’ This thinking differs from that of users in countries like China, as well as Korea, who are more accepting of the idea that you can pay yourself into winning. They demand results parallel to what they spend.”

This was a lesson that Delusion Studio learned from direct experiences, Kang noted. The last game it launched, “Guardian Stone” (2014), was a strictly pay-to-win game that largely failed to gain traction globally, and eventually had to be abandoned, he recalled.

Bluehole PNIX Development Manager Yoon Joo-hong clarified that this is not a matter of what’s better or worse, but a matter of difference in gaming cultures that must be considered when building games targeting Western users.

Looking ahead, Delusion Studio sees esports as a potential option for “Castle Burn” down the road. But this will only come after its user base grows to a more significant volume, Kang said.

“We don’t know what kind of evaluation ‘Castle Burn’ will receive in the long run, but we hope to be able to contribute to the perception that a game coming from the Bluehole Group is well-made and worth playing.”

By Sohn Ji-young (