2. Organized Production (No Crunch!)
Knowing from the past that chasing milestones could leave us with heavy crunch time, which was something that no one wanted at all, we made a production plan with solid buffers after each milestone, just in case we would slip. Believe it or not, right up to the moment of release, we ran into only one crunch period, when preparing a master build for Steam; in all of 2011, there were only a few days of crunch time.
However, these buffers were not the only factors that made the plan work. Firstly, we were experienced. If we decided to implement a multi-threaded resource system or local contrast post-processing shader, we didn't have to research the area. We just knew how to do it -- and the same about graphics and design. We knew exactly what assets are needed to make the game look good, and how to proceed with gameplay iterations.
Secondly, the core team had worked together in the past -- some people for more than 10 years. We've already been through good and bad together. We were a real team.
Thirdly, it was the first time we worked without a publisher -- and the first time we didn't have to pretend we created a triple-A title to grab publisher's attention. It brought a lot of positive energy to the team. We felt we created the game we liked, the way we liked.
Fourthly, we were aware that we had no money for delays, or to create a second game. We had just one shot. The game had to be made on time, had to be good, and had to sell -- so we stayed fully focused. No business meetings, no publisher requests, no other options: just the game and the plan. Vertical slices for presentations to possible publishers eat a lot of your time. Think about what you really need, and what kind of development should consume your time in the end.
Fifthly, our plan was a good one. We avoided feature creep, and we scheduled enough iterations. We had a full time pessimist onboard to question every detail of the plan until it was rock solid. If you are planning buffers, double them, and get the worst pessimist to look at the plan and then add more buffers to make that pessimist satisfied.
Despite that, we were not perfect here -- initially the game was supposed to have 21 levels and two additional modes. Eventually, at an early stage, we deleted seven levels, and thanks to this, the work went on quite well. Making games is cool, but not for 15 hours a day!
Anomaly Warzone Earth (prototype, top; final game, bottom)
3. Cooperation with PR
It's obvious that in order to get press attention for an indie production, you need to have a good game on hand. But having the good game, you need to know how to create some buzz around it and present it to people. Word of mouth is one thing, but visibility in game press is the other -- and the second thing can surely enlarge the first one. To this end, we decided to work with Evolve PR, because we're friends with director Tom Ohle; we had a couple of beers together, and we know he's a decent guy and does his work well.
We honestly don't know if using external PR is the right choice for every developer (certainly, some prefer to do PR on their own), but it surely was good for Anomaly Warzone Earth. To a large extent, the solid visibility of the game was achieved thanks to good cooperation between 11 Bit Studios and Evolve PR. We were too novice on the promotional side to do this all on our own.
When journalists saw the game, it caught their attention -- and this is surely due to the game itself. But the fact that it reached gaming press to a wide extent was mostly due to Tom and his people. I guess it's not common to point out a good PR in a postmortem, but, well, here we are.
Thanks to our external PR agency we didn't have to handle communications by ourselves. At the time the team was pretty small, and it actually takes a lot of time to spread the word about the game. Additionally, we didn't have any contacts at major outlets, so our emails would have landed in the spam box. Tom has those contacts, so he helped to reach a lot of outlets, including major media from America and Europe.
The game got a lot of reviews, gaining the coverage necessary to inform the gaming community that Anomaly is out there. If you're a newbie developer producing a hardcore game, I'd recommend a good PR agency to help to spread the word. If you are creating a casual game, this is pretty different, and I do not know a good solution.
4. Gameplay Innovation
Since the beginning, our core idea was to make an original game offering gameplay never seen before. Our design director -- who's pretty much addicted to strategic, tactical, and card games -- came up with the idea of reversing the popular tower defense genre and making out of it not only a strategy game, but one also heavily packed with action.
Development of this concept brought us, finally, to a game with original gameplay based on unique mechanics, which at the same time was a cohesive experience with ample tactical possibilities (as a strategy game) and the dynamic gameplay you see in an action game.
At the very start, we had one goal -- to reverse tower defense. With such a goal, Michal (design director) and Przemek (art director) created a few initial ideas about how the game could look. Those ideas were then presented to the rest of the team and heavily discussed. The team's questions and doubts allowed us to find quickly the holes in design and kill those concepts that did not arouse any enthusiasm. Thanks to this, they were able to create the general game scheme in a fast and efficient way and then quickly go to prototyping.
Before programming took off, we knew that the player would control a squad made of a few units, would have free choice in choosing their path, and move through a maze of streets defended by towers. With these general assumptions and with our base mechanics written down, we started to build the prototype. We wanted to build a dynamic game in which arcade elements would be as important as tactical ones, so testing a playable version was key.
Thanks to this, we could precisely analyze the feel and improve core gameplay ad hoc. We created a few versions with placeholder graphics one by one, modifying each subsequent prototype with new solutions. In the following iterations the Tactical View was added (that's where player sets a path for the troops), and then the on-field Commander (a little dude controlled by a player to run around the battlefield and use area-of-effect abilities), and then the possibility to get the abilities after destroying towers. During this part of the process, we created general rules for map size, level length, and tower density. There's a fact worth mentioning: from the very start, we were testing the game playing with both mouse and gamepad to ensure a proper user experience.
Becuase Anomaly is an inverted tower defense game, we played a lot of the genre -- both classics and twists on it. One major inspiration was surely the amazing Defense Grid. I need to note that we have played some simplified inverted TD games (mostly Flash games available via browsers), however none of them fully utilizes the idea of tower offense gameplay; in Anomaly, we have the hero, his so-called special abilities, and RTS elements -- like resource gathering, and management to buy more troops or upgrade current ones.
Later, in reviews and user feedback, this emerged as one of the key values of the game; the feedback underlined the freshness of the game -- "unlike anything I've ever played before." It's worth noting that the lead designer was determined and consistent in the implementation of his vision. Conclusion: innovation pays off (in this context, gameplay, but I'd suggest that any innovation will).
There's something I was asked at a game dev event in Kraców, Poland: "How would you recommend to work on new gameplay ideas?" What I said was: "Get your favorite game genre and flip it over, or add an unexpected element. Say you love FPS games. Get your hero's weapon and change it into magic wand, so you can cast spells on enemies to make them fly instead of being shot down." For example -- look at one of my favorite games, Puzzle Quest. They took the match-3 idea and added lots of RPG elements. It's an unexpected, weird connection, yet a genius one and brilliantly executed.