Michael Bayne is the Project Leader for Three Rings Design’s new game, Bang! Howdy, currently in its beta stage. After entering the casual games market nearly a decade ago as the founder of PlaySite.com, Bayne worked with Hasboro to build Games.com, and went on to form Three Rings with co-founder Daniel James. He also led the engineering on Three Rings’ last hit, Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates.
Gamasutra: Where did the idea for Bang! Howdy come from? What inspired you to combine real-time strategy and the Wild West?
Michael Bayne: I was taking a sabbatical after our three and a half year push to get Puzzle Pirates out the door and was thinking about new gameplay ideas. One day, on a hike in the forest, I had the idea to make a strategy game where the units were different kinds of bugs. It seemed to me that people had an intuitive idea of bugs' capabilities and they'd make a natural mapping between their idea of a bug and the unit it represented.
For example, an ant could be a basic soldier unit, a wasp a powerful air unit, a spider a ground unit and so on. Further, I wanted to work in their natural special abilities. An ant could carry leaves and use them to build bridges over small gaps. A caterpillar could eat through grass creating blades to be carried by the ants. Spiders could spin webs to lay traps for other insects. A stink bug could... well you get the idea.
At the same time I was thinking about a way to get around the problems I saw with both real-time strategy and turn-based strategy mechanics. I felt that RTS’s had become overly complex and too fast-paced and had lost the approachability of turn-based strategy games where things were discrete and easier to understand. On the other hand, turn-based strategy games tend to suffer from the problem of being no fun when it's not your turn.
With both these ideas in mind, I started working on a prototype that involved these insect units and the discrete cool-down timer-based mechanic that we're using. The game mechanic was working great but I was getting bogged down in the details of turning the insect world into a balanced set of strategy units. So I decided to give the bugs a rest for a bit so that I could explore the game mechanic and rewrote the prototype using a standard set of war game strategy units: soldier, tank, helicopter, artillery, which I called "Bang!" because of all the shooting. The first prototype was called "Bugs!" I guess I had a thing for punchy names with exclamation marks at the time.
We played the prototype at the office a fair bit and it was a heck of a lot of fun. There were a lot of things we wanted to experiment with in our next game after Puzzle Pirates, and trying them in the context of a casual strategy game that would hopefully not take too long to bring to market seemed like a good idea, so we decided to move ahead and turn the prototype into a real game.
None of us were particularly interested in propagating the same
tired strategy game themes: war and men-in-tights fantasy. So we
brainstormed for a while on what sort of theme would provide a
rich source of inspiration. After thankfully rejecting ideas involving
Atlanteans versus mermaids and Santa's Elves versus the Easter
Bunny, one of our artists, Jon, suggested combining cowboys and
steam-punk robots in a sort of
fantastical Wild West. This immediately made me think "Bang! Howdy Pardner," a line from a hilarious Peter Sellers movie called “The Party”. We later shortened the name to "Bang! Howdy" after deciding to go with the theme.
GS: Would you say the premise for Puzzle Pirates was thought up in a similar way--i.e. mechanics first, theme second?
MB: Not entirely. Daniel first had the idea of combining casual puzzle games with a massively-multiplayer virtual world and the pirate theme followed soon after. But everything else was designed with those two ideas already firmly in mind.
GS: The "cool-down" mechanic is one of Bang! Howdy's most unique features. Can you talk a bit more about how it helped reconcile the problems you were seeing in RTS's and turn-based strategy games?
MB: In a turn based game, one generally either has to wait for the other player to complete their turn entirely before you get to make any of your moves, or some games use a simultaneous turn based structure where each players makes their moves at the same time without precise knowledge of their opponents' actions, then some sort of conflict resolution mechanism is used when players give conflicting orders.
Real-time strategy games generally allow a player to order their units at any time and assign a certain amount of real time to the completion of any action, be that moving across the board or attacking.
Bang! takes an approach somewhat closer to the real-time strategy approach in that there is no fixed turn during which all units can move and attack once, instead there is a global game "clock" which is ticking forward about every three or four seconds (the speed of the clock is varied a little during the course of the game). Once a unit has executed a move (or move and attack) they cannot execute another until four ticks of the clock have elapsed.
The thing that gives Bang! a different feel from a normal RTS is that this post-action delay is very much tactical information that one makes use of in the course of a game. We visually communicate the state of every unit on the board and you frequently find yourself making decisions based on the number of ticks remaining before your and your opponents' units can move.
By discretizing this information and presenting it to the player, we create an experience that feels like a fast moving turn-based game rather than a slow moving real-time strategy game.
GS: Are you at all worried that turn-based play will discourage more casual players?
MB: I think turn-based mechanics are more accessible to casual gamers than real-time strategy mechanics. That said, Bang! is pretty fast paced and we recognize that this is likely to be a bit more than many match-three gamers are looking for…
GS: What is your intended audience for the game?
MB: We're aiming for what I've heard called "broad core" gamers: people who have played video games in some form, but are not hardcore players. This means they don't have the latest hardware and they don't necessarily have deep experience with the any particular genre. They want a fun, console-like experience on the PC with more depth than your average casual game, but not something that requires hours of investment in learning how to play nor a two or three hour minimum gameplay session.
With Bang! we've provided a core experience that can be as short as ten minutes. Then we're building on top of that to create half hour and longer experiences for situations where players have more time on their hands and want to really immerse themselves in the game.
At the same time, we've been careful not to neglect the longer term accomplishments that are frequently absent from casual games. If a player spends ten minutes playing Bang!, we want them to feel like they've taken one step toward a larger goal, be that leveling up a Big Shot unit, or earning enough scrip for that fancy cowboy hat or raising their ranking in a particular game type. If they have time to play longer, they can take more steps toward those goals, but we don't want even the shortest play session to feel meaningless.
GS: Bang! Howdy's quick-to-access setup and relatively short learning curve certainly make it accessible for a player without much time to spare. But how do you think this semi-casual approach will impact the development of online communities?
MB: No doubt players that are looking for a casual, low-time-investment experience are less likely to expend effort to form and participate in communities relating to the game. However, we don't believe this attitude is incompatible with the formation and preservation of community, just a challenge to be overcome. To do so, we provide a number of systems that help players to maintain and create communities on various levels.
At the most intimate level, we want players who come to the game with an existing group of friends to be easily able to coordinate and play with them. To that end, we've developed a "Pardner" system which is basically an in-game buddy list. It tells you which of your friends are online, where they are, and makes it very easy to get together with them to chat and play games.
Next, we want to foster the development of new friendships even if only in the context of playing the game, which we're doing with a "Friendly Folks" system. It is sort of like bookmarks for people. Using this system, a player can give a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" to any player they play with and any time they are in the Saloon (where games are match-made) we will let them know when any of their Friendly Folks are also there and make it easy for them to chat and play together. Even if the player takes no action to communicate with people they've tagged, we automatically favor matching players up with other players they've marked as friendly and we avoid matching players up with other players they've marked as unfriendly.
To foster more structured communities we are implementing a Posse system where players can band together into a formal organization. Like the Pardners and Friendly Folks systems, this helps bring players together for games, but the Posse system also provides meta-gameplay with intra- and inter-Posse rankings. We emphasize players rank among their Posse members rather than their rank in the overall game, which is a very big pond and a much tougher competition. Further, players collaborate to raise their Posse's rank among the other Posses by playing "feud" games against members of other Posses. We also have plans for Posse-sponsored tournaments to allow civic-minded Posses to offer prizes to their own members or to anyone in game-wide tournaments.
Beyond the in-game systems for supporting community, we also host message boards and a wiki which is maintained collaboratively by us and the players. Both are integrated with the game in that the same account is used to log into them all and we make it easy to use ones in-game avatar as a forum avatar.
GS: Thanks to the game's cool aesthetic, customizing your Bang! Howdy avatar is really fun. But, in the game's current state, it seems you never get to show off your creation. Are there any other plans for stronger avatar presence in the official release?
MB: We are working on a few avatar related additions, primary among them being a Wanted Poster for each player which displays their avatar along with their ranking in the various game modes and a selection of their favorite badges. We're also adding the ability to assign different avatar "poses" to different circumstances in the game. So you can choose a different expression and outfit for your victory pose, your wanted pose, your saloon pose and for various other situations in the game where your avatar is shown.
GS: In general, Bang! Howdy has a very sleek, stylized look. What influenced your design team?
MB: We experimented with a number of visual styles at the start of the project, with the aim of creating something that would appeal to both Western and Asian audiences. That meant some anime influence, but also influence from various western, as in Wild West, comics, both recent and older. We are also fans of “Cowboy Bebop” which no doubt had some impact.
GS: Like Puzzle Pirates, Bang! Howdy will be free to play--with the potential for in-game purchases. How does this system work as a feasible business model?
MB: We've found it to be very feasible in Puzzle Pirates. Revenues from our microcurrency based servers are substantially more than those from our subscription servers and we're firmly of the opinion that the rest of the industry will soon be following suite.
With Bang! revenue is derived from the sale of various in-game items. Those include special units, packs of cards, avatar looks and outfits, special items and train tickets to new towns. By spreading out the cost of the game using microcurrency, players invest as little or as much money into they game as they want, based on their own level of interest. Many players will spend just a little, but very enthusiastic players can spend a lot. With a fixed price, you lose customers on the low end and you cap your potential revenue at the high end.
GS: Will purchased items be exchangeable between players?
They will not. We're doing as much as we can to prevent fraud and abuse between players and arbitrary trade is the biggest abuse vector. At the same time, we don't want to prevent players from helping one another out and contributing to collective enterprise.
While it will not be possible to arbitrarily trade, we will be allowing players to sponsor tournaments and give out prizes of in-game money or items. We are also working ways for players to "redistribute" wealth through membership fees for Posses that go toward buying special Posse avatar accessories and outfits for all members and for Posse sponsored events and tournaments.
GS: Granted, of course, that Bang! Howdy is still in its beta stage, but the options for actual gameplay do seem a bit limited. Do you have plans to expand the play modes before the official release?
MB: We're taking a sort of episodic approach to the development of Bang!. Having established the basic mechanics and elements of the game and come up with a bunch of interesting variations on those elements, we divided them into five sections that we call Towns. In each town, we introduce a new set of units, gameplay modes, items, avatars and other elements all based around the theme of the town. It is essentially a horizontal slice of the entire game.
In the beta, we have Frontier Town which serves to introduce the basic game mechanics and unit types but isn't too wild and crazy thematically. Before we launch, we will add Indian Trading Post which adds new gameplay modes, units and other game elements with Native American themes and pushes the boundaries of what's possible with the basic game mechanics a bit more. Following launch, we plan to release Boom Town, which fleshes out the steam-powered robot theme that we touched on in Frontier Town, then Ghost Town, which expands on the Spirit units that we introduced in Indian Trading Post, and finally City of Gold which we'll leave up to your imagination.
This staged approach is something we decided to do after our experience on Puzzle Pirates, where we worked for three years on the game and still felt like there were loose ends that we weren't able to tie up by launch. With Bang! we wanted to create a coherent core experience in a short period of time, and get that out to the users. Then we will expand on that core with additions that fall in between the "one feature at a time" approach we had been taking with Puzzle Pirates and the "buy a new box, $50 expansion" approach used by most of the rest of the industry.
Based on our progress with Indian Trading Post, we anticipate being able to introduce new towns every three or four months, following launch.