June 20, 2007
|A "creep" army masses against a player-made maze in Paul Preece's "Desktop Tower Defense."|
It has also brought in more than $12,000 in ad revenue and donations, he says, even though the hand-sketched game started as a hobby project with few costs.
The Best Defense
The tower-defense game genre3 doesn't involve "playing" in the most obvious sense; there are no button-mashing kills. Instead, the goal is to strategically build a military-defense infrastructure to thwart invaders.
The "Desktop TD" battlefield is, literally, Mr. Preece's home-office workstation -- stray pens and loose currency included. "It took me two evenings to get the mess right," says the 34-year-old resident of Basingstoke, U.K.
The player deploys a series of tower-shaped weapons to halt the advance of "creep" hordes across the messy domain. For each creep that completes its migration, the player loses a life. As a tower-defense general, players are confined to a budget and a limited arsenal. Killing creeps rewards players with more gold that can be spent on additional weapons and upgrades ranging from slow-shooting pellet guns to cannons that emit icy blasts.
|Players can select from five weapons while managing a limited budget.|
Placing the weapons is a point-and-click process. Creeps appear every half minute from the left and top sides of the screen simultaneously. As the game progresses, variations on the standard blob-like enemy appear: some spawn two smaller creeps when shot, others fly over or zip past defenses at high speed.
The "easy" level cuts the number of creeps in half and provides players a fat budget. On "expert," creeps can sustain more damage. At the highest levels, players are asked to survive 100 levels or oppressive time limits, among other tortures.
Choosing the right weapons and upgrades is important, but placing them is vital. Weapons also act as roadblocks, which divert the progress of the mindless creeps or lead them to their demise. There are myriad ways to play, but every successful strategy requires the construction of an elaborate, deadly maze.
"Desktop TD" is Mr. Preece's first game-design effort. He chose to write the game in Flash, which has little in common with the Visual Basic he uses at work. "Programming is programming," he says. "Flash is just one of these technologies that make games look good."
He thought Flash would be easy to learn after a friend in January released a tower-defense game called "Flash Element TD7." But making "Desktop" attractive was a challenge: "I'm not an artist and I can't do much with graphics," Mr. Preece says.
As an alternative to PC graphics, he scanned pencil drawings of creeps and towers, which ultimately gives "Desktop TD" its low-fidelity charm. HandDrawnGames.com, the name of Mr. Preece's Web site, is a nod to his artistic workaround.
A Social Study
Mr. Preece spread the word about "Desktop TD" using a social-Web-browsing tool called StumbleUpon8. From there, avid players took over the promotional duties, posting on Digg9 and game clearinghouses like I-Am-Bored.com10 and Kongregate.com11.
"Desktop Tower Defense Should Be Banned," tech blogger Michael Arrington wrote12 in mid-April on his popular blog, TechCrunch.
In April and May, "Desktop TD" was played more than 12 million times, Mr. Preece says, citing his own statistics. Over that stretch, he found as many as 4,000 people playing at the same time.
Finding gamers was the easy part. Keeping players connected to his Web site was Mr. Preece's real challenge. Flash games are famously easy to reproduce on outside Web sites, often without the game creator's permission. Mr. Preece's solution: include code that launches his Web site at the end of each game, no matter where it is hosted. Players are then given the option to post their final score.
As an added incentive, Mr. Preece made the scoreboard public13 to stoke competition. Co-workers and friends can also set up private group scoreboards14. "The scoreboard is one of the main reasons for the game's appeal," he thinks.
Players can launch a new game from the scoreboard, a sort of magnet that lures players back to his site. The strategy seems to be working: Even though "Desktop TD" has been reposted elsewhere, Mr. Preece estimates a large majority of "Desktop TD" games are played on his site. (He included coding in his game to help him track where completed games are launched.)
Mr. Preece has given up trying to own the top score, and avid competitors have long since surpassed his best score. He's focused on rolling out "Desktop TD" updates that keep obsessive players busy: new weapons, new challenges and, soon, a multiplayer version of the game.
But the biggest change has been in Mr. Preece's professional ambitions. What started out as a hobby bloomed into a career change. Earlier this month, Mr. Preece left his software job to become a self-employed game creator along with Dave Scott, the friend whose game first lured Mr. Preece into the field.
Write to Aaron Rutkoff at firstname.lastname@example.org
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