Fire Hose Games
Standing out within a well-established genre: How Go Home Dinosaurs does Tower Defense differently
Hi Everyone! I'm Eitan, Fire Chief over at Fire Hose Games. Back in 2011 we launched our first game, Slam Bolt Scrappers. SBS was a real work of passion for us; we spent years working on this crazy mash up puzzle brawler and poured unbelievable effort into the game (well, perhaps not quite so unbelievable as almost every indie I speak to has a similar story). The game had a lot of buzz behind it but ultimately failed to gain traction. Two of the biggest reasons for this was that it was tough to tell what was happening in the game at a glance, and we didn't do a good enough job of teaching how the game works.
Wow, that last sentence was hard to write. It's weird how hard it is to admit mistakes when talking about something you care about so deeply. At least we fixed up most of these issues in the PC port of SBS with new tutorial levels. Lesson learned!
Our team loved SBS's puzzle mechanics, which centered around fitting together puzzle piece shaped bricks into squares to grow weapons. In particular we thought it would be fun to bring those mechanics to tower defense, since they seemed to be nicely matched to the genre. But TD is swamped with titles, and audience expectation for a “good” TD game is especially high. We struggled for a long time to figure out answers to the question: “How can we stand out in such a well-established and crowded genre?” Ben was nice enough to let me do a guest post on how we managed to answer that question, so here goes!
Our sophomore game is Go Home Dinosaurs, which we just launched last week on Steam. It's “the world's most realistic BBQ defense simulator” (read: tower defense) and borrows a modified version of SBS's puzzle mechanic.
Jigsaw puzzle based strategy
Perhaps the most obvious twist in Go Home Dinosaurs is that every tower has its own unique shape, and can only be placed if there is enough room to fit it. For instance, a laser is a 3x1 rectangle, while a DJ is a 2x2 square and a Snowball thrower is a Z made out of 5 squares. This may seem like a small twist to add to a game, but let's take a look at some of the related design changes that follow as a result.
- Some towers have a notion of directionality, only firing in certain directions, and some have restrictions for where they can or can't be placed.
- Available space to place towers is at a premium so we have the player choose a “hand” of tower cards to bring along before each level. Once those towers are placed, they're gone!
- Once placed a tower cannot be removed. I know this seems like blasphemy to most TD gamers, but without consequences the jigsaw mechanic loses its bite. This requires short levels, as restarting a level needs to be painless. Restarting after playing for 10+ minutes sucks.
- Planning becomes a critical part of the game, and before each level players tend to look at the map and think about what they might want to bring based on the level's layout. We love this as it encourages players to experiment with different weapons.
Recovering from mistakes and increasing tension
Generally in tower defense once you start to lose a little the baddies quickly gain the upper hand and overpower you, and the next thing you know you've lost. We wanted to see if we could add in an “over the top” mechanic, to let players come back from almost losing (over the top, of course, referring to the great/terrible 1987 Stallone movie of the same name). Over the top mechanics are useful when designing levels, as you can create moments of tension by making the game momentarily more difficult and then assuming the player has a way to deal with that.
To help manage rising and falling tension we give the player a directly controllable playable gopher character, which functions as a freely moveable tower. The player can choose where to put this character for maximum effect, and can momentarily power up the gopher's attacks with a number of effects. These power ups are a great way to let the player go over the top and apply extra muscle exactly where needed during more tense moments. It also makes mistakes much less damning.
Creating characters that matter
One of our most important goals during development was to make a cast of characters that people like and care about. In practice making characters that players care about is extremely difficult (how many games can you think of where the characters matter to you?) and it's especially hard in a tower defense game as players generally want to jump right into the game instead of being bogged down with exposition.
So what did we do? Anything we could! Our solution to this was to put in small bits of polish wherever we could to help explain the silly world the characters lived in:
- We added in simple cut scenes telling the story of dinosaurs rudely invading a BBQ. This may seem obvious but a lot of TD games don't bother telling a story!
- We took the time to give each dinosaur and gopher/weapon their own personality. This wound up being one of the most expensive parts of the game's development, as it took several iterations and lots of art and animation to get each character right, and on top of that we pumped in lots of voice acting and dialog. But we think it was worth it!
- Colors palettes, silhouettes, and weapon shapes are distinct between all characters to help differentiate
- Personalities only matter if the mechanics support it, so we were sure to make each dinosaur and weapon behave in a markedly different way from all the others.
So did we accomplish our goal? Does Go Home Dinosaurs stand out in the noisy TD genre? We're hoping it does, but ultimately it'll be up to fans like you to decide. Regardless of anything else we're extremely proud of the game and what we've learned along the way making it.
Thanks for reading, and happy gaming!