Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Minimaps and forecasts and…

There are so many flavours of tower defense.

I haven’t seen another TD game with a minimap yet, but I’ve seen them (like Defense grid) with a ‘forecast’  GUI that shows you what is approaching. I quite like the forecast bit, because it creates an emotion of panic or dread, and emotion is vital to games. I haven’t decided to implement a similar feature yet (and anyway it doesn’t matter for attackers), but I am intrigued by it.

Minimaps aren’t normally required because TD maps are often small, but mine are big, and I think a minimap is very handy, especially if you have a big screen and can afford the real estate. Plus, the minimap will toggle on and off anyway, so it would be silly not to put it in, as it’s all coded etc.

GTB has fog of war, so you can only see X pixels radius around your units. I like this, I like it a lot, but again, I don’t see it in other TD games. My variety is a constant FOW, so exposed areas return to shrouded entirely once the unit that illuminated them dies. I like that too, but YMMV. Right now you can toggle it off, but that may change. Maybe I’ll force it on when playing challenge maps.

GTB has instant building, so far…. I may change this. I know that it’s a big part of some TD games that you need to plan ahead and get those towers built before the enemies get close. I’m not sure whether I want to add a construction delay or not. Possibly….

I’m pretty sure there are a thousand other decisions like these, and as with all decent game design, you can never really know what the right decision was until you have implemented both ideas, tried them a lot, and asked a few opinions. Obviously that takes extreme time, and extreme effort. I’m beginning to see that having a nice spangly engine with cool explosions and effects is only a small chunk of making this game…

Gratuitous Parasites

The next expansion pack for GSB is taking a while, because I’m so busym, but I did get time to at least finalise ONE of the ships in the new race. This is the Parasite Anthozoa Cruiser

Some of todays achievements!

An edited list of stuff I checked off my list today:

  1. Added the ‘100,000 copies sold’ text to the GSB website.
  2. Implemented the new menu/GUI (non-battle) music for GTB.
  3. Carried out a major rethink and rebalancing of the way weapons work in GTB, with some research, and a lot of code changes.
  4. Changed the way the AI accrues supplies in ‘classic’ TD mode. It now gets them over time just like the player.
  5. Implemented new green grassy textures.
  6. Checked the performance of the new AI code.
  7. Changed all weapons so there are more shots, doing less damage per shot, and longer durations for beam lasers.
  8. Added a new, obvious drop-unit effect to show when the AI has placed a new turret.
  9. Made fog of war an option, at least for me when I’m debugging, and probably for singleplayer too.
  10. Fixed bug where the AI kept trying to put new troops on top of existing ones in a trench.
  11. Fixed bug where the AI never replaced destroyed turrets.
  12. Managed to not get sidetracked into finishing off the ships for the GSB ‘parasites’ expansion :D

Not bad for the first day back after holidays.  I also riskily (some might say) threw some of my savings at the stock market buying shares in renishaw, a company I’ve bought and sold before, whose profits just jumped, and yet the share price dived 10%. That looked like a buying opportunity to my eyes. Fun fun…



Game design feedback

I’ve been away on holiday!  Whilst sitting in the sun, (in the UK too…woot), I read ‘The Design of everyday things’, which is an old, but great book. It has nothing in it about game design but nevertheless I found it inspirational. Mostly the book complains about doors, phones, windows and other things that often get strangely redesigned to be inferior, and impossible to use. It was fitting, as I stayed in a hotel that had some of the worst usability design imaginable. A computerised fancy-ass lighting system that lets me select ‘relax’ or ‘ambient’ but doesn’t let me have 1 bedside lamp on and 1 off, and isn’t even consistant. The lighting had coding bugs…. Also the phone was unusable, and the idiots running the place tried to overcharge us. Grrrr. At least the food was awesome.


One of the points in the book is that usability is partly tied to giving feedback. A good switch turns on a light when you press it, or at least clicks, so you know something happened, and hopefully, what happened. In reading endless rants about this, I concluded that the lack of feedback is one of the BIG design mistakes in GSB. It’s all very well being the case that experimentation and tweaking is a bit part of GSB, but how clear is it that weapon X does Y damage, and that weapon A is better vs shields than weapon B?

Given this, I think a lot of careful thinking is required to get the design of GTB right. Some things I am considering:

  1. Making shields a Mech-only item. Tanks don’t have them. Nor do turrets. They look best around moving mechs anyway. This keeps things simple.
  2. Weapons do different damage vs unit types in some cases. Specifically, flamethrowers totally massacre infantry, but do little or no damage to anything else. The same is true of machineguns.
  3. You fight shields with lasers and armor with ballistics. Maybe lasers do 10% damage vs everything but shields, and ballistics are the reverse. There are no fancy exceptions. Fight an army with mechs (and shields) and you need lasers. Otherwise, you use ballistic weapons.

This would, I think be easier to remember, and still make quite a lot of sense. I can’t see a problem with it, because many tower defense games have used similar restrictions. Some towers battle flying units, others ground, others both. In any event, I intend to do a lot of thinking and experimenting with these mechanics before I spend any more time worrying about any new features or any graphical fluff.

Double your development time?

A recent conversation with a fellow indie about their first game, and it’s (relatively) low sales led me to think about how best a small games company should break out of a ‘cheap games and low sales’ rut.

GSB took way more effort to make than any of my earlier games. It was a bit of a big gamble for me, but it paid off. I don’t have exact figures to hand, but I’m pretty sure that the return-on-investment per hour of dev time for GSB is higher than for my earlier games. That makes me think if this might generally be a good rule to follow.

It’s easy to get stuck into an assumption that there is simple  linear mapping between effort and reward, but I’m pretty sure that’s not true in game development. Very big smart companies don’t seem that keen to work on lots of small projects. Call of Duty X is always a huge stupidly expensive project, and the profits from it are always staggering. Nobody ever thinks ‘hey maybe spending >$30,000,000 on a game is a bit crazy, why not do two $15,000,000 games?’. I suspect that is because the profit on the one 30mill game is bigger than the profit on two 15mill games.

So for indies, I’m wondering if we should take a leaf out of valves book. Team Fortress 2 took 7 years to make. Half life 2 cost a fortune (at the time) but then sold 12 million copies. Maybe indies should be spending more in time, money and effort and taking much bigger risks in scope if they want to make a decent return.

GTB will definitely have higher production values than GSB. I thought GSB seemed pretty good, but some bits could have been better. I’m aiming for more polish, and a more impressive initial release. If that means it takes an extra 3-6 months, then I’ll do it, but I still hope to release in 2011, if I knuckle down to it :D