3. Focused Development
We've had a very clear vision about what we wanted to make from the first moment we started working on the game in earnest. The visual style and the gameplay mostly fell into place pretty quickly. Most of the time, it felt like we were on a very clear track to a clear goal, which made a lot of things easier.
Every step towards that goal made us that bit more motivated to push onwards. Within a few short months we had a working tool chain and slice of the game which already contained 90 percent of the gameplay functionality.
During development, only two things were a bit unclear. Firstly, we wanted to have a troop manipulation mechanic. Or at least we thought we did, "because the other RTSes were doing it". So we tried a lot of systems, like dragging units backwards or being able to stop units by clicking them.
But in the end, we decided that such a mechanic would pull too much attention away from the tactical choices and put too much emphasis on micromanagement and twitch gameplay. Secondly, adding the menus came pretty late in development, though they turned out fine.
In the end, the game was mostly a very polished version of the vision we had early on.
4. Involved Audio
For the audio of Swords & Soldiers, we collaborated with an external audio studio called Sonic Picnic. Situated in the same city as our studio, they were very accessible, helpful and provided us with exactly the kind of audio experience we wanted for our game.
Since we had very little budget developing this game, we offered them a royalty percentage. Luckily, they saw enough in our prototype to go along with it. And even though it's not really common practice in the games industry, we had a really good experience working this way. It kept everybody motivated in working towards a successful game.
Also, we decided to use our own voices for the characters pretty early on. During the recording day we had a lot of fun, which was also reflected in the end result.
5. Three Distinct Factions
One of the biggest inspirations for building Swords & Soldiers was a little game called StarCraft. And one of the things that distinguished StarCraft from other strategy games was the uniqueness of its factions in style -- visually, as well as gameplay wise. So from very early on we strived to have three factions which played very differently from each other.
Not only did we try to make all units and spells unique, but we tried to add other differences as well. For instance, each faction has their own way to aquire more mana for their army. For the Vikings it's simply an upgrade they can buy, reflecting our desire to make it the most accessible faction. For the Aztecs there's a spell which is called Sacrifice, which kills a unit and turns its health into mana, reflecting the playful cruelty we wanted this faction to embody.
Finally, there's the Buddha statue, which can be built by the Chinese faction, and which generates mana until destroyed, so the player needs to defend these statues, reflecting the more complex synergies envisioned for the Chinese faction.
At one point we also had differences in the miners, making each faction feel very differently in economy as well. But in the end this turned out to be too much for us to balance, so we removed that variable from the equation.
Even so, we're still very happy with the results. Every faction feels distinct and every matchup between factions plays very differently, giving the game a lot of replayability.
1. Schedule, and Underestimating the Amount of Work
As explained earlier, we decided at the start of the project to only build a multiplayer experience; therefore, the first playable version of the game was ready in just two months.
The Vikings were playable in split-screen multiplayer and the basic interface was there. When we played the game it was already great fun and we decided that the game deserved more than only multiplayer. We wanted to give the game a single player experience with three campaigns, one for every faction. At that time we also decided to add another faction, the Chinese.
We made a schedule for the game, and with no experience of building a campaign, we thought we could build the campaigns in three to four weeks. We totally underestimated the amount of work and ended up spending three to four months on building and polishing the campaign. At one point we just hired an extra design intern to help with building and testing all the levels.