Let’s turn to Image & Form’s swift-approaching iOS title, Anthill. Did your experience with SteamWorld Tower Defense on Nintendo DSi affect the approach to Anthill in any way? For example, did any specific lessons in strategy game design or user interface design carry over into the latter project, despite the difference in platforms?
Yes, most definitely. Of course I think that SteamWorld TD is a great game, but one “mistake” we made was that the game was simply very hard to complete – even for hardcore gamers. The last level is simply a real monster. (It can be completed, in case you wonder!) With Anthill, we therefore put a lot of effort into making a sensible “learning curve,” and I think most players will have a great time. However, the game is still very entertaining for hardcore gamers. The first two campaigns can be completed without people pulling out their hair, but the third campaign is very tough at times.
As for the user interface, I’ve always thought that TD or strategy games have complicated controls. This was the first and most important consideration in the development of Anthill – to make a game where you wouldn’t need to use lots of your fingers for the commands. In that sense, Anthill is a casual title. It’s really simple to use once you’ve learned it, and you quickly pick that up. SteamWorld TD had a side bar with your available towers, which meant that you would have to tap the side of the screen to perform an action for a tower that was, say, in the center. The TD games I’ve seen all have this drawback in one form or another, and I’ve always thought that it’s an unnecessary distraction.
Of the four ant units available to the player, and the various enemy bugs that need to be squashed, have any become particular favorites at the office? Were there any unit or enemy designs that you wanted to implement, but which ultimately didn’t make it in for any reason?
Haha, great question! Personally I love the fully-upgraded bomber ants, the “screeching harbingers of DEATH!” as I call them somewhere in the game text. It’s very gratifying to watch them burn hordes of insects to a cinder.
There are four ant types, and I love them all – who wouldn’t? I like how the worker ants shy away from attackers when they’re still weak – you can almost see them cower – and the way soldiers proudly march into the fangs (or rather mandibles) of extinction.
But I had the most fun providing the personality for the spitters. This was the last ant type to come about – we had an “endless survival mode” prototype ready in April, and they weren’t around at the time. There weren’t that many nasty enemies around either, and the bomber ants ruled the game, as long as you could time your bomb raids right. We needed enemies that could challenge our bombers, shooting ground-to-air missiles. And then we needed our own artillery to counter those types, and a few others that simply proved very hard for our soldiers and bombers to take out.
Spitter ants actually exist in real life, just like workers, soldier ants and drones (whom we’ve turned into bombers). They made our army complete – now we have infantry (soldiers), air force (bombers) and artillery (spitters). It makes the game more chaotic and very, very interesting – our beta testers run the gamut of game strategies, and many have their personal favorites.
Back to the personality issue: I was naming the ants one day, since we needed personality for the different ant types. The worker is called Mike McMinion, and is your regular hard-working guy. I thought the soldier ant looked very tough, so I named him Sergeant Hardass (later to be elevated to General Hardass), in charge of the infantry. He looked American to me, and the taller, more suave bomber ant looked British – so I named him Colonel Swashbuckle. I supposed anything British-ish would have worked, Windsor, Canterborough, etc., but I wanted the name to convey his gallantry.
So I had a British air force and an American infantry, and had to come up with some intelligent scientist. What better than a German for the hi-tech artillery? And so Major Spitz therefore became leader of the spitter ants. Wary of allegations of “racism” or mockery, I took pains to make him inventive rather than pragmatic. The Colonel and General respectively sound British and American, so at first I had Major Spitz talk like a German as well, with “z” sounds at the beginning of soft words, like “ze”, “zis” and “zat”, but steered clear of it in the end. I’ve never intended to make fun of him, he actually made the game greater. Just like his counterparts, he has his German expressions, but he’s a good guy like the rest.
Why is the goal of a 20MB file size imperative for the Anthill development team? How much extra effort did it take to meet that goal, especially considering the high-quality assets and artwork that have obviously gone into the game?
The goal was there from the very start, and the reason was simple: we wanted people to be able to buy it while on the bus. More important is that we’ve made a universal version, since we didn’t want people having to buy separate versions for iPhone and iPad. Firstly, I think it’s a ripoff, but also I didn’t want people to play the iPhone version on their iPads and thus lose out on the magnificent graphics.
Our art director wasn’t too happy at the outset with this limitation, since he worried that the tile maps would be too repetitive. But as usual, limitations breed creativity, and this is pretty much invisible in the end product – at least you don’t notice unless you look hard for it. There are also so many other hand-drawn objects in the environments that it never feels repetitive.
On the other hand, we had to think very hard about our tutorials, menus and so on – we couldn’t use long, pre-recorded sequences to show how the game would be played, and we couldn’t vary the graphic elements in between levels too much. I really wanted two features that didn’t make it into the game: a bestiary and an achievement system. Both of them got canceled due to both time and byte constraints. Still, I think that the decision was a good one – the merits of getting users a universal version under 20 MB outweighed these features. There is a good bestiary at http://www.anthillgame.com/, the official website for the game.
Towards the end we monitored the “megabyte weight” rather closely with each new build, but I feel we never were in any great danger. Anthill is a great piece of programming, and more games out there could squeeze in under 20 MB if developers planned accordingly.