Having recently published post-mortems for Great Little War Game and Great Big War Game, I realised they were reading pretty much like a development diary, but with an important part missing – our next title, Combat Monsters.
You can’t do a post-mortem on something that’s not even out yet, so I’ve been thinking of this as a pre-mortem. A problem with that though is that I really don’t want to describe our next game in a piece called “before death”, so I then thought about the term “pre natal”. But that’s not without problems either. If you pardon the language, I don’t want this piece to be called “before getting screwed” either. So, ahem. Here are some words…
Late summer, 2012. Great Big War Game had launched and done reasonably well, we’d done an update to that and were starting to think “what next?”
After some internal discussions, we decided that we wanted to make something squad-based where you pick a team before play, unlike GBWG where you sort of make it up as you go along. That would lead to players identifying with their pieces more and caring about their future. We also wanted to get more RPG-like and have orcs and elves rather than sticking to the military theme, as fantasy characters have more scope.
The game we designed initially was a little like the fight stages of Pokémon. You’d recruit a team, equip them, then enter a fight in a room. No story, no exploring and grinding, just bish bash bosh, job done.
Player engagement was to be picking a smaller team from a wide variety of collectable monsters and equipment and fighting them against different combinations of bad guys, in ever-increasing difficulty levels. A fairly simple game really, designed for bite-sized gaming on the go.
After one week of development, we had this:
And a week later, this:
After week three, we had this: (yeah, we don’t mess around)
Up until the picture above, the monsters didn’t move about. They might run up to an enemy, hit him and come back, but that was just graphical – there was no tactical movement involved. We figured the game would play much better with that addition, so we put it in. And we were right!
Notice the hex grid circles on the floor and spaced out monsters:
So we then moved on to getting some front end working, allowing the player to properly equip and pick his team, rather than the computer just choosing everything at random.
First pass equip screen:
Which quickly became: (I think I now prefer the previous version)
The only part of this game we weren’t happy with was the monster collecting and deployment aspect. Making and equipping your team in the front end was where most of the later gameplay was coming from, but you didn’t really have that many options in practice - there was always an obvious place to put your best sword, an obvious monster to pick for an opening attack, etc. It all looked great and the potential was there, but it just wasn’t coming off. We had no “X” factor.
At this point we were well into March 2013 when we had an epiphany…
I’ve always been an avid Magic: The Gathering player and I dropped a casual remark about deck construction into a “how do we make this game truly ace” conversation. There was silence for a moment and then everyone started smiling. And then those smiles turned into a flurry of excitement at the white board like nothing I’ve seen before. Nobody even drew a penis on it, which was a first.
Rather than picking a small team at the start, what we planned was instead building a deck at the start, exactly as MTG and other collectable card games. This meant that the player has to have a lot of cards to play and find a balance between them all thanks to the random draw element. It also allows for different styles of deck, “weenie swarm”, “fast attack”, “healer defence” etc. etc. Our game was instantly transformed.
Adding a deck mechanic also meant we could add other types of cards that wouldn’t have made much sense before – instant spells and runes (“permanently on” spells), which all add to the mix and make every battle different.
So, hubris notwithstanding, what we then set out to make was Magic: The Gathering, but with a whole slew of additional tactical gameplay features -- like the enhanced combat aspect and allowing your pieces to move around to gain board advantage. A lofty goal indeed, but one well within our grasp.
(MBA’s please look away now. There is a definite pattern forming here at Rubicon – make good stuff and let the business take care of itself.)
A deck-focussed, collectable card game is a million miles away from the game we had almost finished, and it was a heart-breaking moment throwing away all of that code and assets. For a small company like ours, that’s a real risk indeed from a business point of view.
We talked at one point about finishing off the current game and then doing Combat Monsters afterwards, but our passion got in the way of the sensible business direction once again. We desperately wanted to make this new game, so just dived in with a “devil take the hindmost” mentality.
The entire front-end was rendered inappropriate, so it was binned.
Most of the current gameplay was inappropriate, so it was binned.
Most of the monsters we could save, but we’d need tons more of them and the animation required was about to jump off the chart.
We needed an entirely new and much more complicated front end – a collection view, a decent deck editor, a way to earn and buy cards, etc.
We needed to design and implement a spell-casting system along with all the assets for that.
Same thing for the new runes.
In short, we went from this:
The first thing on the new agenda was to implement the concept of a card, add a simple editor to allow deck building, then add some mechanics for dragging those cards from your hand onto the battlefield.
All of this happens via a secure server, so that side of things had to be pretty much written from scratch. Surprisingly, this all started to work properly after about a month of heavy lifting, and we got our first insight into whether the game we could actually make would match the one in our heads – and the answer was an emphatic yes.
We went through several revisions about what a monster could actually do on the battlefield, trying to find a good balance between variety and complication. What we finally settled on was that each had a basic weapon attack, a special ability and a race bonus. The combination of those three things, and the large number of all of them, allows for a near-infinite future expansion possibility whilst providing a ton of variation right off the bat.
Our first real prototype with everything working looked like this:
This takes us to about April, and from then until now was spent adding features, balancing all the cards, and adding polish to the game. We knew it worked; we just had to finish it off properly and add stacks and stacks of content. And then more content. And then some additional content, followed by some content, rounding out with more content.
Around May we had our first ever multiplayer game in the office and that was an epic moment. Since then our productivity has suffered tremendously because we can’t stop playing it. Er, I mean testing it.
Like all aspects of the game, the multiplayer system has been designed not just to be cross-platform, but to allow all platforms to play together at once. This translated into more server work but with that first game it all became worthwhile. Up to six-player games are supported and play is in near real-time, a single battle taking around 5 to 20 minutes. The game will support the PC, Mac, Android, and iOS.
Making sure that everything is balanced is an important consideration for most titles, but for a game like Combat Monsters it’s absolutely fundamental. To play a monster, you spend mojo points that you earn during the game, and this casting cost has to match the inherent value of the card to ensure everything works properly. However, doing this is more about black magic than science, so it’s something we’ve been tweaking and testing off and on throughout the development process. I see someone just checked in a couple of minor tweaks whilst I’ve been writing.
We have some formulas for deciding what amount of health and power should cost how much mojo etc., but there are too many modifiers to take into consideration for that formula to be more than just a starting point. For example two otherwise similar monsters might have vastly different capabilities through their race bonuses and/or special ability, and it’s mostly situational too. The only way to balance something like this is to play it and play it and play it, making adjustments as you go.
It really is like trying to take an apple, give it a score, and then work out relative scores for an orange, a lemon, the colour purple, Wednesday, and the population of Bermuda.
A Beta version of the game can be downloaded and played right now on PC from www.rubicondev.com/combatmonsters absolutely free of charge. Please go take a look right now. Come back when you’re ready, if you can tear yourself away.
So… We released our first Beta (we’re currently on Beta 4) the very moment we felt everything would stand up to scrutiny, inviting fans to give feedback on balance, gameplay, everything. As mentioned above, card balance is vital and we’ve spent a lot of time on it, but there’s also a danger we’d become blind and/or jaded to any number of issues. Fresh sets of eyes indeed proved to be golden.
One worry we had with the new game was whether people would get it, as this blend of features is ambitious and unique to the best of our knowledge. Had we made it too complicated? Did expectation match reality? All sorts of questions like that. As soon as some brave souls tried the game though, all these fears were allayed.
Despite finding a slew of bugs (the main point of early Beta’s), the best thing we took away from the Beta process was the intelligence and relevance of the questions and suggestions we received via the forum. It was immediately clear that people understood the game and enjoyed it.
Much back-patting was in evidence, but then we sat down with our testers and started working through the bugs and suggestions, of which there were many.
We gave interested press parties an early look at the game and feedback from that was very positive indeed.
Gamezebo did a nice preview and interview which you can read here: http://www.gamezebo.com/games/combat-monsters/preview
And a similar piece from Portable Gaming Region here: http://portablegamingregion.com/features/interview-rubicons-paul-johnson-talks-crashing-tsunami-wave-portable-gaming-combat-monsters/
Many thanks to those guys for giving us some good feedback and a bit of early publicity. Small developers like us can’t exist without it and it’s much appreciated.
Here's the announcement trailer:
Screenshots from the PC version in its current state:
And that brings us right up to date. Combat Monsters will be shipping out on PC, iOS and Android in late October. We hope to see you in there and promise to go gentle on you... Not!