[In this in-depth postmortem, the Dutch independent developer Ronimo Games discusses what went right -- and wrong -- in creating critically acclaimed WiiWare side-scrolling console RTS Swords & Soldiers.]
A year ago, our big adventure started. As a young studio -- having previously created De Blob as a student game before THQ bought the rights and made a console version -- we began working on our first console title for WiiWare: Swords & Soldiers. It's a streamlined RTS that plays out on a single line with a castle on each end. Though it started out as a Flash game, we quickly saw great potential at an early stage of the prototype process.
We strongly believe that a good game is a fun game. If the core mechanics of your game are enjoyable to play, then the rest should come naturally. In the case of Swords & Soldiers, this turned out to be mostly true.
Of course, that doesn't mean that finishing the game was easy, because we never actually finished a game on a commercial level before. So for various reasons, the development time took about 3 times as long as we first estimated.
We started the project with the core team of seven, and with a varying amount of interns. With help from the Dutch Game Garden, we began working in their office. Simply said, they are a foundation that helps multiple young developers in all kinds of ways, including helping them find an office space.
Their building holds multiple game-related companies, who help each other out on projects, so we had great fun and a whole bunch of play testers just down the corridor. It was only after a few months in development we could move to our own office, just a few streets away.
Testing was super fun. On Saturdays we would arrange open house testing -- gamers could sign in by sending us an email and we would allow them to come and play the game as long as they wanted. After signing NDAs (and eating lots of candy) the gamers would be assigned to a PC, and we'd and observe them while asking them questions on their experience with the game.
In total we had over 60 different gamers test the game, all of them doing it for the fun of it; most of them continue to help us out on our new projects. In the end we feel this helped us greatly in achieving such a positive critical reception.
1. Bloat! Bigger and Better
This point wasn't experienced as a positive by everyone during large parts of the development cycle, but in hindsight, it definitely is. At the start of development, we planned to create a game which would just feature multiplayer gameplay, a split-screen mode, and two factions: the Aztecs and the Vikings.
We made these decisions based on a couple of arguments. First was the fact that we did not know how WiiWare games were doing (having no sales numbers at that time). Second, the project was mostly to prove that we could create a game from A to Z, so priority was to get it through the Nintendo checks as soon as possible and on the market.
Third, the multiplayer game mode was the most fun and essential. Last but not least, making the multiplayer first made it possible to balance the game from the beginning of the project (we could build the AI later on).
But to get players started, we needed some form of a tutorial, so tools were built to create some single player levels which explained the basics of the gameplay. Once the tools for building those levels were in place, and those levels worked pretty well, it seemed like a small step to just design some more single player content. This is especially true because it required a lot more design work, but hardly any coding, which was a precious resource.
Once we decided to go down that road, we went all the way. So we ended up with 30 campaign levels, three unlockable challenge modes, achievements and skirmishes. Or, simply put, a well-rounded single player mode. All in all this added a lot of work to the project. But seeing the reactions by players and critics made it all worth it.
2. Play Testing Gives More than Just Test Results
One of the more important things we took away from our education was a strong emphasis on play testing as a great tool to improve your game, and we applied it to Swords & Soldiers in spades. During a few months at the end of 2008, we invited lots of people on Saturdays to come over and test our game.
We especially wanted them to check out our single player content. This was both make sure we had a proper difficulty curve, and also to verify that they understood the gameplay lessons we tried to convey to them through the game's dialog. It was also a great motivational tool, since as a developer, nothing feels better than seeing other people really enjoying your game.
Later on, we also tried to use play testers to help us balance the game, but this was less successful. It just took them too long to reach the full strategic depth of each of the factions, making them a bit too unreliable to use as an indicator for faction strength.
But play testing gave us such an amount of eye-opening data about how players experienced our game, it wouldn't have been possible to make it this fun without them. A positive side effect was that our play testers started to post their experiences on the web, thus starting a fan community which helped with promoting the game.