Continuing Gamasutra's 'Road To The IGF' feature, we talk to WYRDYSM Games' Sean Chan about his 2008 Independent Games Festival Design Innovation Award finalist Battleships Forever, a tactical real-time strategy title that prioritizes visuals and intuition over stats and spreadsheets.
Chan explains Battleships Forever's board game influence and the other games that influenced its art style, and also discusses why some of his frustrations with existing strategy titles gave rise to this game.
What kind of background do you have in the game industry or in making games?
Sean Chan: I started off making maps for Warcraft III. I made Tank Commanders, a couple of Starship Troopers maps (One of them, named SST: Zulu Angel, had the alien bugs able to climb over the walls of your fortress) and a bunch of other stuff that never got released in WC3's World Editor.
After about a year or so of that, I realized that the WorldEditor couldn't do some of the games I wanted to do (mainly action games), so I moved on to Game Maker, and I've been using that ever since. Battleships Forever is my third Game Maker project that I made available on the web but it's my first really full-scale game. The other two games had only a couple of levels.
What motivated you to create a game like Battleships Forever?
SC: At that point in time, I was playing a whole bunch of other space strategy games. What I found is that those games tend to get bogged down in menus, dropdown boxes, hidden values and other needless complications. Battleships Forever was built on the core design principle of design elegance. Everything in the game had to be tangible.
It's a little odd to describe anything in a virtual world as 'tangible,' but what I mean is that everything in the game actually exists. I threw out the idea of using behind-the-scenes modifiers, multipliers or similar concepts. There are no armor types, damage types or to-hit chances.
For example, some weapons are inaccurate. My way of making inaccurate weapons less effective against certain enemies is by designing the ships to have a slim profile. A ship with a slim profile is harder to hit with a weapon with a wide spread.
This is tangible because you actually see the projectiles going out and missing the target. To encourage flanking and tactical maneuvers, I didn't just apply a damage bonus for attacks from the side/rear -- the ships are really designed to be more vulnerable from the rear. The Hestia has a wing that is connected to the core by a strut. If the Hestia is attacked from the rear and the strut is destroyed, the wing also drops off.
What this adds up to is that there aren't any values that you cannot derive by simple observation. Gameplay is intuitive, and the GUI is unfettered by spreadsheets.
Where did you draw inspiration from in its design and implementation?
SC: I play a lot of board games. Board games have plenty to teach about elegance in game design, because their very format means that they are limited in terms of complexity (you can't expect players to be doing too much arithmetic just to play a game). One of my favorite games was Babylon 5 Wars by Agents of Gaming, and the influence of that game can be clearly seen in Battleships Forever.
It's also pretty obvious that I adapted the art style from Warning Forever. In some ways, Battleships Forever is a tribute to that great game. The truth is that I only went with this because this is the only kind of art that I could pull off on my own. I actually do have a few versions of the game with more realistic graphics, but they look terrible.
What sort of development tools have you been using to make Battleships Forever?
SC: Game Maker for the game itself, Adobe Photoshop for sprites.
What do you think the most interesting element of your game is?
SC: The game comes with a custom Ship Maker program that allows you to create your own completely custom ships for use in the Sandbox play mode in the game. It transforms Battleships Forever from being just another RTS to a platform that allows players to enact space battles that they can only imagine. I've seen players write up and create whole back stories and giant fleets of ships.
What has the development process been like for you?
SC: My objective with Battleships Forever was to have it as a portfolio project. Just a little something I could carry around in my laptop and wow a potential employer with. It's kinda run away from me in that respect and has ballooned into a much larger project.
One of the things I wanted to do with Battleships Forever was to create a full-featured game that has all the features you would expect a commercial game. A tall order for a one man affair, but I did it for the experience.
If you had to rewind to the very start of the project, is there anything that you'd do differently?
Well, I have made many mistakes in the architecture of the project over the course of development. Mistakes that have caused me to rewrite hundreds of lines of code when I realized that they just weren't working out. But as for the project as a whole, no I don't think I would have gone about development in any other way.
What are your thoughts on the state of independent game development, and are any other independent games out now that you admire?
SC: Indie games are definitely the way to go. Game budgets need to shrink, not grow. To me, games are all about gameplay, not the bells and whistles. Somewhere along the line we lost track of that and followed the white rabbit down a hole. It's time to get out of that hole.
You have 30 seconds left to live and you must tell the game business something very important. What is it?
SC: Make games for the sake of games. Games aren't film, games aren't books, they are their own medium and deserve to be treated as such. Stop trying to copy what's been done in other media and just get down to making games.