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A Dark Room creator brings us a new puzzle with Gridland Exclusive

 A Dark Room  creator brings us a new puzzle with  Gridland
October 7, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander

October 7, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander
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More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Programming, Design, Exclusive



Earlier this year, Doublespeak Games released A Dark Room, an in-browser (and later iOS) experience where a village slowly forms around a single fire, and players forge their way into a haunting, The Road-inspired world. Creator Michael Townsend now has another survival-oriented game sure to keep you dwelling anxiously in an open tab.

Gridland is Townsend's attempt to blend the supply chain games he likes so much with the match-3 puzzle genre: Tiles represent resources you collect by matching -- you know the basics. You swap them idly around, sticks and stones. A slim stick figure gathers and hauls your collections in realtime, and as sticks become bundles, and stone gives way to clay and grains, an elegant, spidery little village slowly grows around him. It's all very peaceful.

Then night falls, a dark twist on your familiar board, sinister music growling out at you. Familiar tiles take on unfamiliar shapes, and matching them suddenly summons pale beasts silhouetted on the black background. You'd better match some sword and shield tiles if you want to live through the night.

Your daytime board doesn't reshuffle, it merely morphs. Over time, this changes the way you look at resource-gathering -- you start wanting to leave behind plenty of the tiles that turn into swords in the dark, even at the expense of your evolving village. And then a mysterious altar grows in town. Just like in A Dark Room, Gridland has a way of constantly surprising you, even once you've become hooked into the mechanics. Repetition, collection, survival.

Townsend, who started out devouring QBasic books and as a child and programming on his family's 386, tells Gamasutra the browser is his "happy little comfort zone" in which to work. "I've got a ton of experience in Javascript/HTML/CSS, and no other technology gives me the same kind of development speed," he reflects. "Ideologically, browser games win my favor, due to their inherently open nature. There are no walled gardens, the browser is innately cross-platform, and anyone can easily get into the code and muck about. Browser-based content is the epitome of the democratic nature of the internet, and I love it."

The style of the game itself is "coincidence" -- "I certainly haven't set a mission statement of building slow, progression-based games or anything. I build games that I want to play, and progression is a mechanic that really appeals to me," he says. "Though I've usually got a project going, it's hard to say that there's a history of my work beyond ADR. Up until then, I'd never finished anything. A problem of ambition and scope, I think. Lately, I've been trying to come up with things that I can realistically finish on my own, and it seems to be working out."

supply chain games have a certain irresistable charm to Townsend: "By their nature [they] have really great progression," he says. "You start by learning the mechanics with just a few resources and, as time marches on, more layers of refining and manufacturing are added on top. It's a nice marriage of mechanics and theme, with the narrative of a growing economy supported by the ever-escalating complexity of the supply chain. As complexity grows, the optimization problem because more and more nuanced. The best supply chain games embrace a little ambiguity, where there is no 'right answer' to the economic balancing act. My brain just latches on to this kind of problem, and I guess other people's do too."

The match-3 genre is well-trod, and is often interpreted in other contexts, or implemented as a support structure for other mechanics. But Gridland's day and night mode is fairly unique -- it eventually wants the player not only to prioritize certain resources depending on the situation, but to actively avoid collecting some types depending on the time of day.

"The concept for Gridland didn't come together nearly as effortlessly as for A Dark Room," Townsend explains. "Originally, I wanted to build a match-3 tower defense game, with creeps attacking the board itself while you matched tiles to construct defenses. I wasn't able to come up with a good way to make that work, though, and eventually decided to split the game into separate day/night phases."

Tiles that serve different purposes for day and night allows for fairly different modes of play with the same resources, says Townsend. "It also lent itself really well to creating a balanced progression curve, and so I focused on that duality as the central mechanic of the game. I love reading that people are choosing certain matches towards the end of the day to optimize their night-time board. That's exactly the kind of thing I was hoping to encourage."

Gridland has been well-enough received that Townsend hopes to work a little more on it: "I'd very much like to get a small team together to iterate on the concept and create a more polished mobile app," he says. "After that, I have another concept that's ready to go. I don't want to say too much about it since it's so far off, but it may or may not be another foray into weird text adventures."


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