GDC 2012: Trimming down Atom Zombie Smasher's 'tumorous' design

In a recent postmortem session at GDC 2012, Blendo Games' Brendon Chung detailed some of the critical problems -- and lessons learned -- from its hit strategy game Atom Zombie Smasher.
When the indie strategy title Atom Zombie Smasher debuted last year, critics and audiences alike lauded it for its streamlined design and well-realized mechanics. According to creator and Blendo Games head Brendon Chung, however, bloated design almost proved to be the game's greatest shortcoming. In a recent postmortem session at GDC 2012, Chung explained that he hoped to use Atom Zombie Smasher to further explore some ideas introduced in his 2010 space combat game Flotilla -- namely, the semi-random story events that powered the game's campaign. Chung hoped that a similarly dynamic system would make Atom Zombie Smasher more exiting, and would ensure that it remain unpredictable the whole way through. Thus, Chung gave Atom Zombie Smasher a complex over-world system that tasked players with analyzing and managing district populations, building defenses, and more. Even early on, Chung knew it was a lot for players to handle. "A friend described it as 'analysis paralysis,' where you look at it and your mind explodes," he said. But that didn't deter him from his design. Chung was dedicated to his robust (but complex) system, and he felt it would be the fairly easy to execute on his own. "As a one man development team, I know the path of least resistance [it terms of designing and implementing features]," he said. It wasn't until Chung actually put his design into practice that the flaws began to stand out. In the midst of the game's development, he decided to plot out his over-world system as a physical board game in an attempt to figure out how to make it even better. When he did so, he found that the game relied on an extremely convoluted rule set, and "would require like a million monopoly pieces." "It made me question, 'why as I keeping this over-world component on life support?'" he said. "It had a lot of things about it that I didn't like, and it wasn't getting any better." After discovering these flaws, Chung decided to strip down the system to its bare essentials, leaving little more than a simple map that allowed players to manage resources and choose which stage they wanted to tackle next. "It was my ugly, un-fun baby, and I decided to kill half of that baby," he joked. After removing that "tumorous growth," Chung, explained, "the game clicked." "There were fewer moving parts, and those parts that remained worked well," he said. Reflecting on the experience, Chung emphasized the extreme importance of playtesting in indie development. Without it, Atom Zombie Smasher could have suffered a much more unfortunate fate.

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