informa
/
8 MIN READ
News

Interview: 5th Cell & The Art Of Tower Defense

How do you innovate in the stalwart Tower Defense genre? 5th Cell co-founder Jeremiah Slaczka looks at the recently released Lock's Quest for DS, explaining how the firm changed the genre up for Nintendo's handheld, and hinting at console plans for
The Tower Defense subgenre of strategy games -- in which players set up a series of armed towers to hold a stream of marching enemies at bay -- exploded in 2008. There were console and PC/online titles like Defense Grid, PixelJunk Monsters, GemCraft, and dozens of similar releases. The Nintendo DS has also seen its share of Tower Defense-inspired games, including Ninjatown, WarCraft: Tower Defense (homebrew), and a port of the popular Flash-based Desktop Tower Defense is on its way later this year. 5th Cell's Lock's Quest, which released for the handheld in September 2008 and has been well-received by critics, tired to set itself apart from the rest, however. It offered an engaging story, touchscreen minigames, resource gathering, traps, turret/wall repair, and action RPG elements that have players on the field fighting enemies directly. Developer 5th Cell, also known for Drawn to Life and the upcoming Scribblenauts, aimed to evolve the Tower Defense formula with the title. Following the game's release, co-founder and creative director Jeremiah Slaczka spoke with Gamasutra about how they did it, also sharing his thoughts about console plans for the firm: You guys went for a cutesy, pixel-y look for Lock's Quest. Can you talk about how that helps draw audiences? Jeremiah Slaczka: Well, we make games that are for the platform -- that's where we target it. Look at Advance Wars; look at Zelda. It's that kind of style -- it's Nintendo-esque, and that's what we go for. Specifically with the gameplay. The game's about 20 hours long. Tower Defense is like a 30 minute game, at its core, and if you're going to spend $30 on a DS game, you expect something more than that. That's why we didn't just do this straight-up Tower Defense, and in fact, the game wasn't really designed as a Tower Defense game in the beginning; it was designed more as a building blocks game. It's like, what can I do with the stylus and the touch end point? What's interesting? We did the drawing thing -- I don't want to do that again; I don't want to be rehashing that stuff. Instead, we were like, "We want to do something with building blocks." It started out as tiny blocks, and you could build anything. And it was really interesting, but it took a long time to build anything worthwhile -- people were building pirate ships and all this cool stuff, but it was like, well, this takes 30 minutes, and that's not what a handheld experience is about. So, we said, "Okay, let's bring this back, and lets make it a little more easy to do." We made big chunky pieces, and we said, "Well what do you do with that? You build castles! Okay, makes sense. And why would you build a castle? What would you do when you've built a castle?" We were like, "You can defend it against from invaders," and that's how it progressed organically. It was never actually meant to be a Tower Defense game; it just organically went that way. Would you say it's more Tower Defense, or more like Rampart? JS: Oh, man. I don't know. I think it's really both, actually. It's strange to me that more people haven't copied Rampart. JS: A lot of people have said that. Even in the beginning, they said, "Yeah, we really like Rampart. This looks really cool; we should look into that and see how it is." I dunno -- we just want to do what we want to do, you know? I think Lock's Quest is different [from other games in the genre] in the sense that the whole thing was never looked at as Tower Defense; the whole mindset behind the game was never Tower Defense. The standard traditional Tower Defense game is guys walking in a line, you build towers, and you kill them. That's it. And you have some floating guy that just walks around and repairs stuff. That's basically it. And they usually don't even attack your towers. We were looking at the game, and we were asked, "How can we make a really fun experience on the DS using the stylus only, making it "gamer-y" but also something that casual people could... pick up if they're interested in it? There were a lot of different iterations we did on the design; when we first did the battle mode where Lock is running around, you have to drag the stylus and tap on the guy, and you just watch them fight. We were like, "This is not interesting enough. This is not fun enough." We had to add this extra level of detail designed to make these touch games -- we call them touch microgames. We wanted to look at it not from a Tower Defense game but just a fun game -- it just happened to be that it's a lot like Tower Defense. But it's a lot different than Drawn to Life; with Drawn to Life, we sat there and said, "We could easily see the hook. You draw the character, and he comes to life -- that's it; it's easy." It's been very hard to explain Lock's Quest because it's so many different things: there's a build mode, there's a battle mode, it's kind of RPG-ish, there are touch minigames, etc. It's not a one-sentence, one-line kind of thing. It's all these different things. Purely from a structural standpoint, were you encouraged by the success of Puzzle Quest? That's another title that incorporates a familiar mechanic, but fleshes out with RPG elements. JS: Sure -- I've never actually thought of it that way, but I could see that for sure. How did you balance the adventure elements with the more traditional ones? JS: They're more separate. In Advance Wars, for example, which I'm a big fan of, I don't think anybody really played it for the story. The story's kind of really cheesy. Bu that's the same mentality we had. Again, with the 30-minute experience, we want to make something that you can be really attached to -- that can be really deep. We really spent a lot of time making sure the story had a lot of plot twists and turns and an interesting story, so you're actually attached to the characters. It's not just like "go from area to area, and lets go fight, and it's fun"; it's going to get old, no matter what gameplay you do. No matter what gameplay you do, you want emotional attachment. That's how you make AAA games -- that's how you make a AAA experience. Games with a high number of finite play hours tend to turn people off, but extensible experiences that happen in bite-sized chunks often tend to create more appeal. Did you consider that? JS: [Lock's Quest]is the exact same way -- that's why we have the time assist. You have like two minutes to build, sometimes three or four, but around there. And then with battle, you have two, three or four minutes again, and you can turn it off. That's it -- it's really bite-sized. That's the thing with Advance Wars; sometimes you're at day 40 or day 50, and you're just like, "Ah, c'mon, just kill this last guy!" But you can't get that in Lock's Quest because time runs out, and the gameplay goes on. You can't continue it. And that was actually a really active and conscious decision on our part because, with Drawn to Life, the levels were pretty long, and some people were saying, for a handheld, they were a little too long. And that makes sense, so with Lock's Quest, we made sure that the gameplay was definitely under 10 minutes -- between 5 to 10 minute chunks of gameplay. How did you plan the player's time balance between the defense and adventure elements? JS: It's definitely more like 50/50. Actually, one of the developers who was working on another project played our game, and he said, "I think the story's as deep as the gameplay. They both go kind of the same depth." You know, the story's not overly, ridiculously... we get into philosophy and all these different things, but the gameplay's not super hardcore that you're managing all these stats and stuff. They're kind of the same level. Are you guys going to be sticking with handheld stuff for the time being? JS: No, no. So you're going to move onto -- JS: Consoles, yeah. Are you going into 3D? Jeremiah: Probably, yeah. We're not abandoning DS. We're just going to simultaneously do consoles. We set up 5th Cell to get into console development; that was our deal. This is actually my second company. My first company, I did an Xbox online RPG, which tanked, and you probably never heard of it. What was it? JS: It was called Fate. Me and Joseph Tringali, our general manager, started that company up, and it didn't work. We kind of went our separate ways for a couple years and then came back to it. Mobile was starting to explode, and everyone was like, "It's gonna be a $2 billion industry" and all this stuff. Joe was like, "Yeah, we gotta do cell phone games. It's a cool idea, they're low-cost." And I'm just like, "No, that's stupid. I hate cell phone games. I don't want to do that." But then he talked me into it -- we could start small and build the company up because we went so big the first time. So, that's kind of why we did it, but the aim has always been console games. It's about the idea: if the idea fits on the DS, if the idea fits on the PSP, if the idea fits on Xbox 360 or Wii -- it doesn't matter. You're not going to see us sit there and pump out sequels and say, "Oh, we did a racing game, so we're gonna do another racing game, but it's slightly different."

Latest Jobs

Cryptic Studios

Remote
1.19.23
Senior Producer

Night School Studio

Los Angeles, CA, USA
1.09.23
Level Designer / Scripter, Games Studio

Fast Travel Games

Hybrid (Stockholm, Sweden)
1.09.23
Social Media / Community Manager
More Jobs   

CONNECT WITH US

Explore the
Subscribe to
Follow us

Game Developer Job Board

Game Developer Newsletter

@gamedevdotcom

Explore the

Game Developer Job Board

Browse open positions across the game industry or recruit new talent for your studio

Browse
Subscribe to

Game Developer Newsletter

Get daily Game Developer top stories every morning straight into your inbox

Subscribe
Follow us

@gamedevdotcom

Follow us @gamedevdotcom to stay up-to-date with the latest news & insider information about events & more