Feral Interactive 2023 Interview: Sid Meier’s Railroads, Choosing Games to Port, Subscription Services, Future Plans, and More

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Sid Meier’s Railroads ($12.99) is out now on iOS and Android. Ahead of the launch, we spoke to Feral Interactive’s Head of Design Edwin Smith about working on the game, the developer’s plans for the rest of the year, subscription services, Switch ports, working with Android, and a lot more. The company has done a lot since 1996 across Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, and even Nintendo Switch, and it is always fun discussing how premium game developers approach ports, the state of the platform, and more. This interview was conducted prior to the game’s launch.

TouchArcade: Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do at Feral Interactive.

Feral Interactive: My name is Edwin, and I manage the Design team at Feral. In the Design team we’re focused on working out what changes and improvements are needed to make a great desktop (or console) game work well on mobile. This means we also spend a lot of time with other teams in Feral, from Development to Marketing. One day we might be discussing how best to implement a new control method, the next we might be talking with the media team about what features or controls exist, so they can make the best trailer possible. Every day is different.

TA: Following the tease for Feral Interactive’s newest project, I saw a lot of speculation, and even started looking into games by Feral Interactive on Steam to try and see what was possible. I didn’t expect Sid Meier’s Railroads. How did you decide on working on this one next rather than tackling another Total War release?

FI: We try to expand our range and avoid making just one type of game. So far we’ve made a racing game, GRID Autosport, a few RTS games with Company of Heroes and the Total War franchise, a turn-based strategy game with XCOM 2, a first-person horror game with Alien: Isolation, and a sim-type game with Tropico.

Sid Meier’s Railroads! is a tycoon game, which is a genre we haven’t brought to mobile before. It’s also a type of game that perhaps isn’t well-catered for on premium mobile. We think it fits well into our portfolio of premium games for mobile gamers.

TA: Having spent some time with Sid Meier’s Railroads on PC and Steam Deck over the last week, I was curious what the biggest challenge was with bringing it to mobile platforms?

FI: Fitting all the information on screen in a clean and simple manner was the toughest problem. However, with Sid Meier’s Railroads! we also optimized the gameplay loops with mobile in mind. For example, we’ve added extra warnings and UI to highlight route congestion, as well as extra summary warnings so players are alerted if something needs attention. They still need to take that information and use it to inform their decisions, but can now see important information at a glance without having to check multiple areas. With mobile players often playing in shorter bursts, facilitating easier access to key information really helps the enjoyment of the game.

TA: Will there be 120hz support on modern iOS and iPadOS devices?

FI: No, but this is a deliberate decision taken after testing the game. Gameplay in this type of game doesn’t benefit much from a 120fps frame rate, unlike a racing game for example, and running at such a high frame rate would significantly impact the battery usage and temperature of the device. By limiting the performance mode to 60fps, users will still get a very smooth gameplay experience with the added benefit of extended battery life while playing.

TA: Will Sid Meier’s Railroads be feature complete on iOS and Android compared to the PC version?

FI: Yes, the game has the same content as the original single player game, though multiplayer is not available.

It’s worth noting that eight of the game’s sixteen scenarios had only a single objective on desktop — ‘Be the last Baron standing’. For mobile, we have given each of these scenarios a full set of new objectives.

TA: Will map editing be included here in any form?

FI: No, Sid Meier’s Railroads! doesn’t come with a map editor. A map editor could be enabled in the desktop version (via manipulating an INI file in the game’s data), but it was a developer tool and came with a warning that no official support was offered for it. We did look at this during mobile development, but for the initial launch we focussed on the core single player experience.

TA: A lot of these classic PC games that Feral Interactive works on have amazing music. When you work on bringing the games to mobile from PC, is there any additional work done on the audio side?

FI: Often, the biggest audio challenge is to update all the sound libraries to versions that work on mobile. In terms of the actual music and sound files – they often use older audio codecs that use up a lot of space, so we’ll always look to re-encode them to use the very latest codecs. As a result of this work, the game audio still sounds amazing but takes up less storage space.

TA: Feral Interactive continues to bring premium games to mobile, and we’ve started seeing recent releases come to iPadOS, iOS, and Android simultaneously compared to launching on just iPadOS before. What changed with the development pipeline in recent years?

FI: You’ve got a good memory! The reason for our staged support was part of a step-by-step plan to make sure we focused on one problem at a time and always offered the best experience to our players. We didn’t want to try to do too much at once.

Our first mobile release, ROME: Total War, targeted the iPad first. The reason was that tablets have bigger screens so we could focus on the problems of converting AAA games to touch controls, without having to worry about smaller screens as well. Once we had released a game on iPad — and it was well received! — we moved onto making the same game work on the smaller iPhone screens.

This was quite a challenge, and took many months of research and design iterations, but the knowledge gained from the initial iPad release made it a much easier task.

With these two challenges met we then focused on Android. On iOS the hardware is limited to a relatively small pool of devices, whereas Android has a much more fragmented installed base. As such, supporting a wide range of Android phones and tablets is a much more involved process, not only due to the variety of hardware, but also the fact that many vendors use customized versions of Android which, in turn, use different graphics drivers and can offer slightly different functionalities. There are also completely different APIs to iOS which needed brand new libraries.

With Android we focused on making sure we could offer a high quality experience on the most popular devices. During development, we relied on our QA team to make sure we tested as many different popular phone types as possible. This ensured that we uncovered as many device-specific issues as possible before the game was released.

As we completed all these stages, and felt confident in being able to offer a great experience, we started combining the multiple platforms on newer releases. This has resulted in all our more recent releases being released simultaneously across iPadOS, iOS and Android.

TA: What do you think of the current state of subscription services on mobile across Netflix Games, Google Play Pass, and Apple Arcade?

FI: Subscription models have their pluses and minuses, both for developers and players. However, it’s not our area — we are very much focused on bringing standalone premium games to mobile.

TA: Will there be more from Feral Interactive on iOS and Android this year?

FI: Yes, but we aren’t giving any clues!

TA: Feral Interactive’s Switch ports have been amazing so far. Are there more Switch game conversions in the works for this year?

FI: See the answer above.

TA: What are your thoughts on Steam Deck? Is it something you test on for Linux releases?

FI: Like most players and developers out there, we’re fans of pretty much all gaming hardware, and the Steam Deck is an interesting device, but not one we support or work with. Our Linux titles are officially supported on Ubuntu only, and we aren’t planning to update them for further compatibility with Steam Deck or its operating system, SteamOS 3.0.

Thanks to Feral Interactive for their time here.

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