[This blog post is by Pete Casale, designer of the forthcoming real-time strategy game, BattleCruisers, for Android, iOS and Windows.]
“KaBLOOSH!” The man-sized toddler stood on the beach, waving his fingers in front of his face to simulate his explosive phantasia. “BaDaDaDOOMN! BaLAMMO-o-o!”
His vocal effects attracted the attention of other people walking their dogs on Big Manly Beach. Grandparents tutted, mothers shielded their children, and priests called him creepy. But none of that mattered to the world’s smallest giant—whose autistic, stroke-addled brain machinations were manifesting a glorious fireworks display.
Ordinance exploded on the sand, sending up visceral showers of earth.
Secondary MIRV warheads soared out of the ascending smokeball and homed back in on the original impact crater.
The ground was a ruined mess, but that made no difference to the horde of strafe bombers dropping cluster napalm heat ballistics over the scorched gravel pit!
The air shimmered in the intense heat. A trio of slim white missiles darted elegantly into the blackened sand and sat silent. Half the beach was gone in a perfect sphere of plasma. Oh, the humanity!
A small but ominous para-drone floated down through the ash. His chute bucked and rocked from the recoil of his 60mm undercannon.
“BaM BaM BaM PoP PoP KaBLoOOTCH!”
The tiny giant saw another beachgoer adjust their course and realised his verbal sound effects and pincering fingers belied an internal fantasy of flagrant destruction. No matter, he thought, and downregulated his charade so it might come off as a slightly affected walking gait. Did it work? Doubtless, no. But he would never forget the moment because it marked the first brainstorm of the perfect casual RTS game!*
*Perfect according to 100% of subjects interviewed for the purpose of this statistic. Casale, P. (2020). P=<0.001%, CI=0-99, n=1.
Now, obviously, the perfect casual RTS game must feature:
- The ability to create or build a sweet base just the way you like it.
- The ability to defend your base—to the point where the enemy is powerless to penetrate your ridiculous defense battery. I think anyone who was bullied physically can resonate with this feeling. Make something of your own, then keep it safe against overwhelming external pressure and violence.
- Strategic warfare.
- Battles that can be completed entirely in the time it takes to do a poo.
- Creative toys/buildings/units.
- Totally sweet music.
- An interesting story, featuring robots, the future, catastrophe and laughery.
- Fun, probably.
- A beautiful blue sky. A wise man once said: “Game with blue sky are more better than game with grey sky.”
- Shoehorn in some kind of virtuous message, such as “climate change is real”, “vaccines do not cause autism, they save lives”, or “it is considered impolite to eat the entire cake at a child’s birthday party.”
- More, more—always more—explosions.
The earliest concept featured a two-dimensional real-time strategy battle against an enemy base. Picture a large rocky landscape viewed from afar. On the left edge is your base. On the other side of a hill, on the far right of the screen, is the enemy base. You fire artillery at the enemy base, just like that original artillery game, Scorched Earth.
Scorched Earth is an old game where you choose the angle and power at which you take turns to fire shells at each other across a 2D terrain. It was not terribly exciting, and was executed far better by its spiritual descendant, Worms.
Worms gave us an arsenal of sweet weapons, let us move around the map, and have up to eight players. Taking turns to throw things at our friends is one of New Zealand’s favourite childhood pastimes. Worms gave us a chance to do it without the trips to the hospital, nor the expense of costly grenades.
However, Worms was still a largely skill-based game. You had to adjust your aim and projectile velocity every round. A skilled strategist with a mediocre aim would lose to a mediocre strategist with a skilled aim. This made the game less about strategy and more about how accurately you could judge the wind meter.
On higher levels, the fun was overridden by an impossibly accurate AI that could fire a rocket into a perfect wind gust, have it sail over the entire map, and glide precisely down into the hole in which your worm took shelter.
Sorry, Worms. You are an enjoyable game but being really good at letting go of the spacebar at exactly the right moment is not a skill I wish to refine.
I didn’t make this meme; I found it by searching “worms meme.” It seems like others had the same gripe as me.
Perhaps then, to create the perfect game, we should start with a foundation based on the greatest game ever made: Supreme Commander Forged Alliance.
SupCom was created by RTS legend Chris Taylor, famous for Total Annihilation, the previous greatest game ever. Before that, the title belonged to Command and Conquer. These games were not about making high-risk skill shots, but using strategy to defeat an enemy army. You know that feeling of building a sweet base and defending it with turrets, while simultaneously constructing a spider megabot for a cataclysmic counter-push.
But all the strategy games on PC were more complicated than the last. This did nothing to introduce the genre to new players, especially younger players who would benefit most from the early introduction of strategic decision making. So the idea was to create a much simpler RTS.
How do we make our game more accessible than the convolutions of Total War?
We looked at the most popular real-time strategy games on tablets. There were some simple games to be found, but they were isometric and everything looked cartoonish and too kiddified to be appealing for adult players.
I’m looking at you, Bloons Tower Defence. Nobody cares if you’re attacked by a balloon. If anything, you’ll want to be attacked by more balloons.
Bloons TD may be simple to play, but it looks like it was designed to ward off epileptics.
Is it even possible to create a game as simple as the casual tablet strategy games, but as awesome as the AAA monster titles for the mighty PC? The answer to this question is the same answer we gave to our lawyer when they asked us how we intended to pay for their services: yes. Followed by a quick sprint to the door, never to return.
So we set about designing a 2D side-scrolling strategy game with beautiful graphics and compulsive gameplay. Like Worms, but with tactical depth and no timing-centric skillshots. Like Supreme Commander, but without the overwhelming complexity. Something new, something in the center of several different genres. A game you can pick up and play for five minutes and be actually satisfied. A game that could cater for thousands of new, imaginative and exciting units. A game that would not incur any legal difficulties, because lawyers are expensive. That game is called BattleCruisers.
In the next episode: the earliest concept of a different kind of game. Is there such a thing as too stupid an idea? Find out next week! Subscribe to this blog. Join our fan list for updates. Follow us on Instagram @BattleCruisersGame for more mirth.
Battlecruisers is a small 2D RTS game made with Unity that we (Peter and I) hope to release on IPad, Android and PC. We have worked on Battlecruisers part-time for three and a half years, and hope to release it this year. This is the pre-release post mortem about what went well and some of the challenges we faced.
How it all started
Three and a half years ago my mate Peter mentioned this game idea he’d been playing with, but it wasn’t going anywhere because he needed a dev. Like most devs I’d always dreamed about making a game, and so Peter found his dev.
What went well
1. Dev Designer Combo
Like most devs I’m not the best at artwork. Having a designer to fine tune UIs, add effects and provide music is amazing. Having a dev and a designer is infinitely better (fact) than having two devs or two designers. Take an early version of the loadout screen before Peter had any input:
And a more recent version after Peter’s magic:
Yes I would have cleaned up my early version, but there is no way I would have gotten anywhere near to what Peter was able to accomplish.
2. Realistic Expectations
One of the first things I did was look at indie game post mortems to try and learn from others. I looked at 33 post mortems and quickly realised a few things:
Games take a long time to make
13 of the 33 post mortems gave the advice of limiting scope. Some of these devs had been working on games for 5 years full time. For many devs this was the first game they’d managed to complete, with many previous incomplete attempts. So we aimed at making a small game, that would take a year, perhaps two (and here we are, three and a half years later).
Games don’t make money
Or at least, 99% of games aren’t profitable. From the 33 post mortems I read, I think only one was wildly successful (Super Meat Boy). A few sounded like they perhaps broke even or made a bit of money, but the vast majority simply lost money. Putting in up to five years of full time work and having no money to show for it was understandably soul destroying for many of these devs. Hence we decided to not expect to make any money, and not quit our jobs to work on the game full time. This meant there was no pressure to make any money, and we could simply make a game we’re proud of.
3. User testing
The most repeated piece of advice from the aforementioned post mortems (13 of 33) was extensive user testing with real users. So that’s what we did. Grab a friend, force them to play the game and see where they struggle.
Watching a real user test is so much better than having a friend try the game by themselves and give you feedback afterwards. Many opportunities for improvement they don’t even notice! As an example, we used to have this fantastic custom navigation wheel control, that lets you navigate around the screen beautifully. Peter designed it, I spent weeks implementing it, and both Peter and I used it heavily when playing the game. But we noticed that real users never used it, despite it being shoved down their throats in the tutorial. Real users would fall back to pinch zooming and swiping (which we’d added from earlier user feedback), like they’ve been taught by the touchscreen world. So we got rid of our navigation control.
4. Unit testing and test scenes
A challenge of any coding project is ensuring you don’t break things. One way for this is to just play the game, and see if everything works. However, this is time consuming and only checks what you played. Perhaps you’ve introduced a whole heap of bugs that you didn’t cover in your playtest.
Instead we have 1350 unit tests and over 200 test scenes. The unit tests cover code correctness, but don’t cover a lot of Unity related and visual aspects. That’s where the 200 test scenes come in. Each test scene tests one particular thing, be it aircraft patrol movement or the artillery barrel firing. Every so often I go through every single test scene to check if everything still works. This way I cover all aspects of the game, instead of just what my random playtest happens to cover.
1. Working remote and babies
I live in the US whereas Peter lives in New Zealand, so all our communication is online. This makes collaborating a lot harder. It would be so much easier to share ideas and avoid miscommunications if we were working in the same physical place.
Additionally Peter decided to have a baby putting him more or less out of the picture for 6 months. This was hard for me and the game, as design work stalled. (I guess the sleep deprivation was hard for Peter too, but as it was child number two he should have known better.) I ended up working on coding tasks that were insignificant compared to the design tasks that needed to be done, demoralising me. Eventually I stopped working on Battlecruisers altogether for a month or two. But the baby started sleeping, so Peter started sleeping, so Peter could once again do design work, and the game was back on track.
2. Scope and the pain of cutting
We quickly realised that our little game was taking longer than we thought. To have any chance of completing this game before our grandchildren were born we had to cut features. Two of the biggest features we cut early on were multiplayer and a Borderlands style procedurally generated infinite loot system. We knew these were the right logical decisions to make, but it’s still hard to cut your game down from the perfect idealistic dream you have in your head.
3. Feature Creep
This has really been a constant game (struggle) between Peter and myself. On one end of the spectrum is Peter, an endlessly optimistic guy who wants to add every feature under the sun. His advice to me as the dev is to just keep pressing the “Make it work” button until it works, easy. On the other end of the spectrum is the dev, me, who just wants to get the game finished in our lifetimes.
One example of this feature creep happened with our skies. Our skies used to have:
- Single orthographic camera
- Sky background
- Some clouds
And it looked half decent:
But one day Peter tells me:
“I read about this cool parallax thing that we have to add to add to our skies. Here’s an article with the code, it’s really easy and will be really fast.”
So I give it a shot, and 3 months later we have our new skies (which to be fair are way cooler). As well as our original 3 sky features we ended up adding:
- A perspective camera for the parallax effect
- 4 layers of mist
- 1 layer of fog
- A moon
- The ability to change the colour of all clouds, mist and fog
- The ability to change cloud height and orientation
In hindsight I think it was worth it, but it’s feature creep like this has endlessly pushed out our game release date.
I am so happy to be on this game making journey with my mate Peter. Already Battlecruisers is my proudest accomplishment, ahead of my 6 year university degree and my Karate brown belt. If you’ve always dreamed of making a game I would highly recommend you try, it is hugely rewarding. Just keep your scope small and know in advance that you’ll be sacrificing a lot of (all) your free time for a long time.