nWay’s Vision of a Unified Fighting Game Community
The studio seeks balance in a traditionally complex and fragmented game genre.
Headquartered in San Francisco, nWay was founded in 2011 on the thesis that there was a potent market for robust, console-like game experiences on web browsers, connected TVs, and mobile devices. It saw how mainstream audiences connected with simple, accessible, and social game experiences, creating an entirely new community of players.
“Facebook and social games were seeing incredible growth around that time,” nWay cofounder and CEO Taehoon Kim tells us. “All of a sudden, people who typically didn’t play games, including my own mother, were suddenly spending a lot of time doing just that.”
Rather than attempting to capitalize on this phenomenon, nWay saw a void to be filled. What if it could make rich, sophisticated game experiences similar to those found on dedicated game platforms, that also resonated with casual audiences? If successful, it would be a win for the studio, the player community, and possibly the game industry, too.
Almost a decade after its inception, the studio has proven its thesis: nWay’s games have been downloaded over 75 million times to date, and counting.
In the early 2000s, Kim was working in Samsung’s New Business Development division, plotting the South Korean company’s first foray into games. Nokia, its great rival during those years, had recently revealed a gaming phone, the short-lived N-Gage. Samsung began development on its own device, and tasked Kim with persuading developers around the globe to make games for it.
That experience was a turning point for Kim. “I fell in love with the game industry immediately,” he recalls. “Games are this thrilling intersection of technology and art, and I wanted to dive deeper into them.” As luck would have it, one of the companies Kim gave his pitch to, Realtime Worlds, responded with their own: come work for us instead.
Realtime Worlds was founded by industry icon Dave Jones, the creator of such celebrated games as Grand Theft Auto and Lemmings. His cofounder was Tony Harman, another industry veteran who climbed the development ranks at Nintendo before partnering with Jones in the creation of multiple game studios. The two foresaw how online connectivity—then still an emerging technology for games—would reshape the industry, and asked Kim to leave his role at Samsung and set up a Realtime Worlds office in South Korea.
“There was a massive shift in Korea from single-player game experiences to online multiplayer ones around that time,” Kim says. “A lot of the engineering skills we needed, especially those related to the server end of online games, were difficult to find in the West but plentiful in South Korea. Strategically, it made perfect sense to open a studio there.”
The studio’s first game, Crackdown, was a critical and commercial hit. Their follow-up title, APB: All Points Bulletin, a bold, ambitious take on an online Grand Theft Auto-style experience, failed to take off resulting in Realtime Worlds shutting down operations in 2010. The closure didn’t deter Kim, Jones, and Harman from their aspirations, though. With online games having finally become mainstream, the three turned their attention to the next emerging game platforms: browsers, smart TVs, and mobile devices. The following year, nWay was officially born.
ChronoBlade, nWay’s first game, was a deep, snappy, and satisfying action-RPG, which housed an optional competitive multiplayer mode. What made the game special, however, was not just great gameplay and design. Rather, it was what the team was able to accomplish technically: ChronoBlade was the first game to run on Facebook, mobile devices, and smart TVs—and have all of the players networked together for competitive multiplayer matches.
nWay’s achievement in cross-platform game design was a milestone that wasn’t obvious to many. While more common today, games with unified player communities across consoles and PC were the exception, not the rule, in 2012. On emerging platforms, and for the type of competitive games nWay was creating, they were nonexistent. One probable reason for this was the technical challenge posed by such an experience.
Creating a consistent player experience across vastly different hardware devices is not for the faint of heart. “Developing for even a single phone model was enormously challenging, because the phone software would differ depending on which carrier the device was built for,” Kim explains. “We had to build support for just about every protocol that existed at the time, which resulted in a development schedule for ChronoBlade that was much longer and more difficult than we expected.”
Supporting a wide spectrum of hardware and software also had a direct impact on the game’s ability to effectively pair players together (what’s known as “matchmaking” in game parlance). Good matchmaking groups players of equivalent skill together, and does so quickly. The vast range of network protocols, devices, and input methods that ChronoBlade supported made developing a good algorithm extremely complex.
After overcoming the challenges posed by fragmented hardware and software, nWay self-published ChronoBlade in the West. Soon after, the studio partnered with major publishers in South Korea and China to bring the game to new audiences. While the business grew, the global expansion surfaced a different type of fragmentation: game design. What was originally intended to be a consistent game experience regardless of platform slowly started to fork into three different games to meet varying local requirements. “In hindsight, I think trying to expand ChronoBlade the way we did was a mistake,” says Kim. “It strayed too far from our vision of a single, global game experience.”
Kim admits the studio was never fully satisfied with its work on ChronoBlade. nWay was breaking new ground with the game, and with no playbook to follow, it was as much an exploration as it was a creative endeavor. The benefit of being a trailblazer, though, is that your work becomes the first chapter of a new one. nWay leveraged that newfound knowledge and experience in its next game, Power Rangers: Legacy Wars, and forever changed the course of the studio.
Legacy Wars challenges established notions of how fighting games work. Instead of using tricky physical motions to perform moves, players simply tap color-coded cards. And the game’s take on combos, an archetypical gameplay mechanic of the genre, encourages players to experiment and improvise in real time rather than forcing them to memorize a complex sequence of directional moves and button presses.
At first blush, Legacy Wars may seem like a fighting game that’s been watered down for the masses. The genius behind its design, though, is the way it pushes the entire fighting genre forward by separating the essence from the substance. nWay realized that any good fighting game is, at its core, a battle of wits, reaction, and raw psychology. With this understanding as a foundation, the studio knew it could build a compelling, authentic fighting game for touchscreen devices—and it did just that.
Despite the confidence it had around the game’s quality, nWay’s initial expectations for Legacy Wars were relatively modest. Would people give its unorthodox design a chance? Could it stand out in a sea of millions of other mobile apps and games? What would success even look like?
Right before the game launched, Kim and the rest of the team agreed that if the game received five million downloads over its lifetime, they’d consider it a success.
Legacy Wars launched on a Thursday. By the end of the weekend, it had been downloaded six million times.
While Legacy Wars’ quality speaks for itself, nWay is quick to share the game’s success with the passionate Power Rangers community. “The truth is that the fanbase has been greatly underserved over the years in terms of games,” says Kim. “We put everything we had into Legacy Wars with the hope that fans would feel it was a legitimate fighting game, as well as an authentic Power Rangers experience.” Suffice it to say, nWay proved that if you build it (well), the fans will in fact come.
Since launch, Legacy Wars has been dabbling in the esports space, making an appearance at Amazon’s Mobile Masters series in 2017 and 2018, as well as other less formal tournaments. At the latter tournament, nWay invited a trio of veteran fighting-game pros—including the inimitable Justin Wong—to battle against a team composed of several Legacy Wars enthusiasts, including the actor who played Blue Ranger in the TV series Power Rangers Ninja Steel. “The pros got their asses kicked,” Kim says with a laugh.
nWay’s soul peeks through in this tale. As noted by Kim earlier, social games tore down any arbitrary walls around what it means to be a “gamer,” showing that anyone and everyone can play games if the experience is accessible enough. Inversely, ChronoBlade brought a traditional game experience to mainstream audiences through emerging platforms that were not specifically built for playing games on.
Legacy Wars expertly straddles these two ideas. It’s sophisticated enough to not be out of place in an esports tournament, while being accessible enough that everyday fans can play the game and meaningfully compete—and even win—against professional players. All of this speaks loudly to the soundness of the game’s design and the studio’s original vision.
The accomplished execution of Legacy Wars had an unexpected outcome, as Kim explains:
“The Power Rangers community embraced Legacy Wars with open arms. You could feel how much they appreciated having a game that treated the franchise they love with respect. We made sure it had all of the characters, looked amazing, and was authentic to the brand. Of course, we made sure it was a legit fighting game, too. This all made a lot of people who saw ads for it think it was a console game. When they realised it was a mobile game, many of them asked us to make a more traditional fighting game for consoles and PC with the same level of quality. The requests were literally coming in daily!”
Unbeknown to the fans, nWay had already been doing research and development for its follow-up title, Power Rangers: Battle for the Grid. Unlike the mobile-only Legacy Wars, Battle for the Grid was targeted for a wide range of game platforms, and was planned to be just what the fans were asking for: a more traditional fighting-game experience. Given its innovator’s spirit, nWay wasn’t content to simply copy and reskin any number of existing fighting game formats and call it a day. Rather, the studio doubled down on its belief that games can be both broadly accessible, and satisfying experiences for enthusiast players.
For the development of Battle for the Grid, the studio made what might seem like a counterintuitive move given its approach to games: it enlisted two legends from the professional fighting-game scene to work on the game. As combat designers, Long ‘ShadyK’ Tran and Daniel ‘Clockw0rk’ Maniago—most famous for their expertise in the Marvel vs. Capcom fighting-game series—imbued their deep understanding of the genre’s mechanics into Battle for the Grid. The end result, though, was not a traditional, complex fighting game, but something very…nWay.
If Legacy Wars was about distilling a fighting game down to its essence, Battle for the Grid can be seen as pushing the traditional experience to new levels of accessibility. They are, in a sense, two sides of the same coin.
Upon its release, Battle for the Grid was quickly adopted by the fighting game community—not an easy feat by any means. And not an accident either. nWay had dipped its toes in the esports waters with Legacy Wars and saw the potential in opening it up to more people.
The studio formalized its move into the pro-gaming scene this year via the launch of the Power Rangers: Battle For The Grid League. The national tournament was originally set to culminate in a final showdown at the Evolution Championship Series (EVO) in Las Vegas, the largest and most prestigious fighting game tournament in the world. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic ultimately forced it to move entirely online.
With the success nWay has found through creating thoughtful game experiences, being the official custodian for Power Rangers fighting games, and earning credibility with a game community known for its incredibly high standards, it’s easy to forget about one of the biggest challenges the studio faced over the years: building the technology that powers its games.
Battle for the Grid is the first game to use nWayPlay, the studio’s in-house technology platform. It addresses many of the technical challenges associated with making and operating online competitive games. More specifically, it provides balanced matchmaking services, unifies players from different game platforms, facilitates online connections with little to no lag, and more. The $64,000 question is, does it work?
The proof is, as they say, in the pudding. Battle for the Grid has earned the public’s seal of approval, being praised by fans both for the quality of its design and the smoothness of its online gameplay. It is also the first fighting game in history to allow players from five (soon to be six) different game platforms—Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, PC, and Stadia—to seamlessly compete against one another. It’s a remarkable achievement.
Taking a step back, you might notice that nWay has been working on addressing similar technical challenges ever since ChronoBlade. (It’s actually more accurate to say since Kim’s days at Realtime Worlds. Remember the studio Kim started in South Korea to tap into the country’s pool of excellent online game engineers? Today, nWay has a local office in Seoul for the same reason.)
It’s taken the studio nearly a decade—the problems it solved are very hard, and technology has changed quite a bit over the years—but it finally has a robust, scalable solution to power its current and future games. Better yet, nWay just launched a partnership program that allows other game developers to benefit from its years of hard work.
Every major point on nWay’s achievement timeline is rooted in breaking down barriers. ChronoBlade gave casual players and platforms a rich game experience unlike anything else they had access to; Legacy Wars opened up the traditionally complex fighting-game genre to anyone who could tap a screen; Battle for the Grid threw the idea of platform-specific players out the window, letting players with virtually any game hardware be a part of one universal community; and with nWayPlay, the studio is taking the burden of creating and operating a Byzantine live service infrastructure off the shoulders of game developers who don’t have the experience, resources, or desire to do so on their own.
As it looks to the future, nWay believes the game industry is on the cusp of huge, and positive, change. It just needs a nudge forward. “People are finally starting to realize how integral player communities are to the game experience itself, but don’t know exactly what to do about it,” says Kim. “We have a lot of unique thoughts on this given our experience with online games and passionate player communities, and hope to share more soon.”