Gaming Your Way

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Ionic: Post Mortem

More looking at the past as a filler whilst we wait for the future to become the present.


Ionic, our first ( And quite possibly last ) crack at a Tower Defense game.

What went right:

Visually I think it's very strong. It's a good looking game. That was helped a lot by Lux jumping on board really late in the development and giving everything a lot more love, as well as designing the baddies.

It's not a typical tower defense, which was the objective all along. I played a lot [ Of TD's ] when developing Ionic and I was amazed by the number that allowed you to fast forward during the actual "Combat" part. That to me defeated the object totally. I'm placing my towers so I can see them shoot the crap out of the baddies, it's the money shot and that's what I want to see, the pay off for saving up for a nice new tower.
Any game which allows you to bypass that just strikes me as strange, you may as well just reduce it to a text response, "2 creeps got through, 12 were killed, next wave in 3,2,1...".

The game feels arcadey, which was the one design philosophy that ran through it's dna from the very start. I could see the appeal in TD games, but couldn't really enjoy them. The plan was to make it feel like a strategic R-Type, it needed to feel like a real battle as part of a much bigger on-going war. Every shot, every explosion counts.

Adding in the management and repair aspects, although I see those as a plus, I think we're going to touch on them again in the negative pile.

There's a lot of love in there, I really like the empty shells coming off the cannons or the blue flame in the flame thrower or the 10 or so frames of animation when the coin collecting droid is launched or the wolf growl that's mixed into the cannon shooting sample to create that guttural raw feeling.


The ADD blendmode. It's a thing of beauty and even though it has a performance cost it's worth every cycle it steals. Using pixel bender for the RGB split worked really well too, much quicker than the one in cronusX, allowing us to use it real time rather than just for transitions.
Two pluses for Adobe there then, rather me.

I got the word bitches into the end credits. Rock 'n roll baby.

What went wrong:

The asset management was done early in the development. I got it working, it felt nice, with the idea being that if people wanted more depth they could tweak things to their liking and get more out of the game.
If you just wanted a pick up and play, then you didn't need to touch it and still be able to complete the game.
With doing it early on it was counted as done and dusted. I never touched it once after that. That was quite a mistake as it transpires that just be setting one of the sliders to max straight way ( I can't recall which one, I'm guessing R&D ) you can unlock all the cool weapons really early and basically skew the difficulty level in your favour.


The coin collecting droids. Although I love this feature, it was a headache to code. Every week or so I would notice that the previous fix hadn't fixed it. They were literally the worst bug throughout the entire development.
So I did what all coders should do, I put a nasty kludge in there. If a coin wasn't collected after a certain amount of time I assumed that the droid was going to ignore it, so I just killed the coin and added it to the players credits.
What a mistake. Even though it was explained in the docs, people still noticed it and wouldn't have it that they hadn't lost out. Also people assumed that if a coin went off screen by the player scrolling they would lose it as well.
Players like to see something happening to confirm it's happened, implication doesn't work well in games. Another lesson learned ( cronusX had a similar issue, with baddies teleporting in on the player. Even though a shield appeared and the player was never ever punished for that, as that would just be really poor design, because it wasn't communicated well enough people still thought they were being punished unfairly, i.e. poor design ).

The walkthrough. Our mate RobotJam warned me about doing one, saying they're a waste of time. At the time we weren't getting the interest in selling it that we expected, so producing a walkthrough was a final role of the dice, a way to give extra value to the sponsor.
Rob was totally right. A complete waste of time, and painfully boring to make.

Balancing a TD is a complete bitch. It is so so hard to do. I looked at so many TD's to see how they did it, and very very few do it well. A lot just extend the game by adding far too many levels compared to the actual content. I think we had 25 levels in this as any more would just be grinding and slow the whole progress of the game down.
I think we got the balance quite good in the end ( If you ignore the bug mentioned above ), and it's here in the negatives as it impacted badly on the development time. It's one of those things you know are going to be tricky to do well, but it's far harder when you actually try and do it.


Similar to the balance was the whole GUI. I think we did a good job, but trying to please everyone is impossible. The best example is scrolling the dreadnought. I added 3 methods, arrow keys, clicking the radar and a drag bar. In total there was 7 suggestions on how it should be done, including some borderline venomous comments about it not supported A/D, as if by omitting those I was somehow spitting in the players face.
Getting a large amount of information to the player without forcing them to sit through pages and pages of text is very difficult, and something we spent so much time on.

Crisis of confidence. This is a tricky one for a developer to admit to, you very rarely see it. I have certain comfort zones with development, some genres I can piss all over without a thought Not that I'm especially good, just some genres click better than others. Ionic was well outside my comfort zone, so I found myself taking on board what everyone said which created a lot more work, and the more I listened the more I felt I was missing the mark and going out of my way to compensate.
When you have a lot of peers you really admire giving you suggestions, and your image for the game isn't a 100% clear, then it's very difficult to just shut down and pick the most relevant ones, they all seem relevant.

The attack waves, something I should have been strong at doing, were average. By that point I was getting sick of the whole thing, so I rushed through them to get them done. They're ok, but they should have been a lot better.

We're nearly at the point where I wrap this up with a "I couldn't give a fuck if no one likes it, I still think it's the best thing I've ever done" type comment.
Firstly I want to express how much I dislike devs who feel like they have to defend their games too strongly, you create entertainment and put it out there for people to enjoy. Not everyone will, like not everyone you meet in life will like you, no matter how cheeky your grin or funny your words. It's part and parcel of putting something out for public consumption, if you want the praise you've got to silently and with dignity swallow the crap that comes with it.
All that build up is of course there to explain that I'm going to break that rule, I'm going to be a whingy little bitch. Our blog, our rules. I'll regain my dignity tomorrow.

"we can't imagine why the developers neglected to offer the [A] and [D] keys to pan from left to right—it would have made a substantial difference in accessibility".

"Substantial" ? Really ?

"this is turning into a clickfest"

Yeah, it's murder isn't it, having to click things, in a game of all places!

"flamethrower in space void?!"

Fuck off.

I thought I'd feel better for that, but I don't really.

Let's finish this off now. Never do a game with a complex GUI. Everyone has their own favourite way of interacting with things, as I've mentioned there were in total 7 ideas for something as simple as scrolling the dreadnought. Let me clarify that slightly, do it, but expect people not to be happy so have a thick skin ready.
Conveying lots and lots of information is extremely hard to do in an non-obtrusive way, it has to be filtered out gradually and you've then got to take into account a lot of people will still just ignore it. Nothing can be implied, everything has to be spelt out ( Thanks Nintendo for creating a generation of gamers who don't want to fill the gaps ).
In terms of how the games performed, it's had 944,316
plays, which is poor. It received so-so reviews most places, 3.72 on NG, which isn't great.

Overall I'm disappointed with it's performance, I really do think it's the best thing I've ever done. It has faults, in amongst the feedback which pissed me off there was some really good points which I've taken on board.
Like cronusX I can still enjoy playing it even now, it has an almost emergent game play which as a developer is great, it makes it very hard to get sick of which helps development a lot.
I think it's great, it's fun to play and I learned a lot from it. I think that's as good as it gets.


Comments (5) -

  • Vlad

    7/30/2010 4:50:18 PM |

    Hey mate, first and foremost, thanks for the Post Mortem. If you write them you know how useful they are for other devs.

    About the game, well... maybe I'm being developer friendly, but I feel it is an awesome game and I understand why you feel it is the best thing you've ever made. Don't know if it's true or not :) but I understand why you say it and from where I'm sitting I even agree with you.

    About the A/D keys... it's complicated since the whole A/D keys + the cursor keys is related to left hand people accessibility. I always remember this when speaking with other devs but I admit I always forget about it in our own games.

    And last but not least, if a game is not in your confort zone, let someone else do the game design. Honestly... I'm trying this right now at Vortix and it feels soooooooooooooooooo right. We accepted the fact that I'm a coder and Marco is an artist, all the rest is for grabs. So if we are doing a strategy/tactical thing, I play the designer role. If it's a fighting game, Marco plays the designer role. I can't really express how fantastic this works. All hands-on related jobs are fixed, all others are defined per-project.

    Good luck with your next games! Have fun and be happy!

  • Charlie

    7/30/2010 5:59:53 PM |

    I was interested in reading this, especially as I saw the game develop through a few iterations.

    I do have to say that there's loads to like about about the game, not least the fact it manages to *not* be a TD game (I'm not a huge fan of the genre) and it looks like a game should look. And, there's a level of attention to detail that many games never get to.

    It's interesting to learn what developers have to say about the processes they go through to make a game. And, it's also enlightening to try to pick apart why things didn't quite meet the expectations of developer or audience.

    Basically, I draw two conclusions (which probably says more about me than you).
    Firstly, it's really difficult to come up with an 'original' game concept that you can get to work.
    Secondly, even when you get close to creating a great original game (which I think you do here), it doesn't thrive out in the wild quite in the way you hope it would, perhaps because players don't quite know how to engage with it.

    And as for "flamethrower in space void?!", don't get me started...

  • luxregina

    7/30/2010 6:09:21 PM |

    Thanks for the link!

    The game was a joy to work on, and I believe/hope it was the first staple in a long and fruitful collaboration.

    I think there are several other reasons to the performance being underwhelming

    -1) it arrived at the bottom of the interest curve for TD games: in short, maybe we jumped the bandwagon a little late. People were already getting tired of the genre, and some of the comments we got are inherent to the game type. Doing things differently would have maybe successfully sustained interest from the players that were getting tired, but would have alienated the "hardcore" enthusiasts, leading to 2)

    -2) It somewhat took the veteran players outside of their comfort zone - by re-thinking some processes, and adding complexity, or just difference in some long established mechanisms, people got pissed it wasn't "easy to pick up and play like the cohort of other TD games". I don't think there's anything wrong with our approach to try to do things differently, or re-vitalize the genre. Players might not have gone for it, but it was still a good-faith attempt from us. Maybe next time, for the next game.

    -3) It's weird to say, specially from me, but there might be an aesthetic failure: maybe the game presents as something it is not, hence disappointing people, not matching their expectations. Maybe I took the whole "Shoot'em'up" look a little too far, confusing TD enthusiasts, confusing people that want to control the ship and start to manually blow stuff up. We got nice feedback on the graphics, people generally thought it looked nice, but the question is more "was that very specific look matching what the game is" - there might be a mea-culpa for me here.

    -4) I still think it sold very honestly for a game that arrives at the end of a thousands of "me-too" products. as far as the number of plays, it's closing on the million, and the rest is just the tough laws of exposure: if the game cease to have exposure on the main gaming sites, it will slowly fail gaining new players, mathematically reducing the chances of repeated plays, etc. I think it's more a marketing thing, though, than a real parameter to measure the quality of the game itself to :)

    Thanks for the Post-mortem - for those who want the "genesis", may I recommend

  • bas_alicante

    7/30/2010 7:55:10 PM |

    Maybe you over-did it a bit on the control choices. Often it's easier to just say "press this key to do that" instead of showing three ways of accomplishing the same thing to accommodate everybody. Unconsciously this scares new players away by over complicating the control scheme.

    On the other hand, I guess you'll just never really know what went wrong. You've got a great game with great graphics and great game-play, now go and flip a coin. If it lands on it's side it will be a success.

  • Squize

    8/1/2010 12:53:58 PM |

    Thanks for taking the time to post your insightful comments my beauties, every word just drips perfection.

    @vlad, I'm glad these post mortems are some use. We always try and be as honest as we can on here, and that includes these PM's. Hopefully that shows through and you guys can take something constructive from them.
    I like what you said about getting another designer to make a game that's out of my usual skill set, but I'm of that age where money is secondary, it's all about the creative process now, so I'd rather push myself and fall short than work to someone else's design.
    I hope that doesn't sound too arrogant, it's not meant to, it's just that I've had years of making other peoples designs to come up with an average game, as may as well work to my own spec to make something average :)

    @Charlie. Cheers mate. I'm not terribly original, so mixing and matching genres is a nice solution for me. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
    The game isn't without it's faults, but fuck, it's still pretty damn good ;)

    @Lux. Yeah, we waited until everyone was sick of TD games before making one. Hopefully zombie games will become tired soon so we can finally do one of those.
    As to your comments about the visual aspects possibly causing some confusion, good, I hope it did. I don't subscribe to certain genres being in a certain style. Let's do a survival horror using crayon drawn art.
    Messing with expectations, using visuals, sound or pure gameplay, can be a very good thing, although it is a fine line between good and pretentious.
    For me the look & feel was pretty much what I wanted, it's a mighty pretty looking game.

    @Bas, I think you could be right. When playing other TD's I noticed a lot of other devs only gave one choice for things. By offering up more people expect more [ Of a free game ].

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