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Hothead Games looks for a Big Win on iOS

Hothead Games is actually an old company by most iOS standards: As marketing director Oliver Birch told me at GDC last week, the company is actually turning six years old this week. Previously, they mostly made PC and console games (most notably the Penny Arcade Adventures, and Ron Gilbert's Deathspank), but recently, Hothead has been pushing more and more towards Apple's App Store, and Birch says that while Hothead definitely "supports all of the games we've got out there, really, we're all about mobile now."

Which makes sense -- between the collectible card game Kard Combat, Jetpack Joyride-alike Sea Stars, and the excellent Gem King (formerly known as Kickin' Momma), Hothead already has a nice run of iOS hits. And the company is now looking to follow all of that up with a new game, out now, called Big Win Soccer.

Big Win Soccer is probably unlike any soccer game you've played before -- in fact, it's more of a collectible card game than anything else. The idea is that you have a team of players (represented by cards), and you can activate various stats and abilities on them (also represented by virtual cards). When you play a game against someone else online, you don't directly control the players. Instead, you watch the game play out, and the various abilities and stats you chose to represent your team go into the final outcome. After the game, you can earn coins, which can be used to buy and win even more cards, making your team stronger and better.

It's ... an interesting idea, though if you're turned off by the trappings of freemium games, you will find plenty of them here: You have a certain amount of energy to play with per day, and can't play beyond that point, and of course the collectible card system is also driven by (optional, admittedly) in-app purchases. Hothead wants you to spend money, it's clear. While there is a card game to be had here, the strong suggestion to supplant your normal play with money is always there.

In its short life on the App Store so far, Big Win Soccer has been a huge success, so much so that Birch says the game melted a few of the company's servers (I don't think it literally turned wires to liquid, but Birch wasn't clear). The overwhelming demand for the game on its server software means that Hothead hasn't publicized the game's launch much, but apparently it hasn't had to, given how many players are trying to log in. Reviews for the title are stuck down around two or three stars only, but most of the reviews talk about the servers going down, not the actual gameplay itself.

If the game turns out to be a success, Hothead is all ready to follow up: Birch also showed me Big Win Hockey, and it's probably a safe bet that Hothead will expand the line as much as it can, allowing fans of all sports to play their favorite games through the various card collecting mechanics.

Birch also showed off a few other titles, each at various stages of development (including one which isn't quite ready for the press yet, he says). Zombie Air is Hothead's next release -- it's a freemium title that also plays sort of like Jetpack Joyride, but instead of just an endless run game, it actually consists of quite a few different levels, as zombies take to the air to fly in customizable planes across a post-apocalyptic United States. The game has a fun and cartoony look, but the freemium model is very evident here as well -- Birch said Hothead is using a lot of the "learning from Sea Stars" to put this one together.

So Hothead clearly has a nice slate of titles ready to go. When the company was working on the console, Birch explained, they used to take twelve to eighteen months to put games together, and these days, "we can make a game now in weeks." Is that such a good thing, though? Deathspank and the Penny Arcade Adventures were both interesting, original titles, not bogged down by the trappings of freemium, and Hothead's latest titles, while very well-produced and colorful, don't skimp on the monetization. Birch agrees the concern is there, but says that Hothead needs to be profitable, and wasn't necessarily so back in the console days. He also admits that the company is learning along with its audience just what works best. "We're trying to work it out," he said: How the audience can really enjoy and appreciate Hothead's games, but also make sure that "we get something out of this as well."

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