Fieldrunners 2 deconstructs the tower defense genre into an impressive, fun $3 learning experience
One of the more ridiculous parts of my job is staying up all night playing an iOS game to determine whether it’s worth the $3 asking price. I’ve invested around 10 hours of play time in Fieldrunners 2, the sequel to the massively successful four year-old tower defense game, and I’m nowhere near the point of being bored or seeing everything. The value proposition here is hard to quantify, so I’ll just say you’re going to get more than your money’s worth.
The game also plays with the tower defense genre with puzzle-like levels, sections that change up the rules of the game, and a variable difficulty level that allows you to earn more or less stars to buy one-time use items to aid you in combat. The most refreshing thing about the game is that the economy is completely self-sustained, you can only earn stars by playing the game well and mastering strategy, as there are no in-app purchases at the time of launch.
I spoke with Jamie Gotch, CEO of Subatomic Studios, about the challenges and rewards of developing what could be a near-perfect tower defense title.
The first Fieldrunners title was ported to a number of platforms and devices, and I asked Gotch about the lessons learned from this process.
“Did you know that there are over 400 million Android phones in the world today, and each and every one of them has a different screen resolution? It’s true!” he said. “Actually, that’s not true, but it sure felt that way as we had to change Fieldrunners around extensively to make it fit on such a wide variety of phones.” The challenge was making sure the game played well on such a wide array of devices, with sometimes wildly ranging differences in power. “When we started Fieldrunners, there was one phone, one screen, and one CPU. None of this was on our radar. Since then, we’ve learned a lot about how to structure flexibility into your game. Relative UI positioning, scalable visual effects, etc. This isn’t just so you avoid getting squished by prettier games, but so that you can really take advantage of what’s put in front of you.”
He also found that Android and Steam users demand more content and a longer length to the game, something that Fieldrunners 2 delivers with the variety of levels and objectives you find as you play. While the first game was fun but may not have been the best fit for every platform, Fieldrunners 2 was designed from the ground up to deliver what fans want in varying degrees on multiple platforms, and Android and PC ports should be simpler since it sounds like the game was built with scalability in mind.
The different levels and objectives teach players both the basics of tower defense and the higher level strategies. “All of the new modes and levels are there to get our players to look at tower defense in new ways. ‘What happens if you’re being overrun?’ ‘What happens if time is the most important thing?’ ‘How can we get players to focus on slow towers or on single-damage towers?’ For all of these, we are focusing down on individual aspects of gameplay in order to make the player better at tower defense in general,” Gotch said. “They’re levels but they’re also training for the larger battle.” He described the goal as becoming the Yoda of tower defense, training a new generation of Jedi. One clever mechanic asks you to kill a set amount of the bad guys, but gives you a limited amount of time to do so. You can speed up time, but the clock counting down stays constant; if you have a steady hand and fast reflexes you can keep the time extended in order to improve your score. It’s a clever and intense way to up the stakes in the gameplay.
Pushing your score higher means something in this game. “Scores have a higher relevance in Fieldrunners 2. More points earn more coins, which buy items and weapons. Selling towers has a score penalty, so there is a strong incentive to plan a long-term strategy without re-routing units. And beating maps on higher difficulties gives more stars, which earn new towers,” Gotch explained. “In short, you’re going to want to get better than just surviving on easy. Zig zagging is a good starting point, but to get far in Fieldrunners 2 you’re going to need some new tricks.”
Fieldrunners 2 often seems like a crash course in tower defense, and the skills the game teaches you build on each other. There are puzzle levels that give you a certain amount of towers to force the path of the runners into laser beams, and this challenge teaches you the best ways to manipulate their running patterns to get them where you want them. Once you understand those principles, you can tackle Bizarre Bazaar, a level that asks you to use a bridge to create a loop in order to survive. That level is not easy, and I spent hours studying the best ways to move the enemies around the screen with my turrets. Do yourself a favor and use these patterns if you get stuck, Googling the term “Bizarre Bazaar” is no fun if you’re at work.
Balance and fun
The difference between a good game and a great game is often in the details, and Fieldrunners 2 does a strong job of balancing all the different ways the game could be broken with the new item system and turrets. “It takes a lot of effort to get a game like this balanced. There are 40 thousand possible combinations of towers. Add in items, maps, and difficulties, and there are 24 million arrangements to balance,” Gotch said. “And, of course, once you think you’ve got them all playing well with each other, someone will stumble across a combination that overwhelms a level in a way you never expected… In summary, if you compressed all possible tower and item combinations into a tiny dot, you’d create the universe’s first tower defense black hole. And then you’d have to fight it. So… we did.”
While the tower defense genre has seen a number of entries in the past four years, Subatomic games has been able to use its expertise to explode the mechanics of the game in front of players, and teach them how to be a more effective player through cleverly designed levels and challenges . Most people will be able to play much of the game on the “casual” difficulty level and get their money’s worth, but shit gets real once you start cranking up the difficulty and chasing the high scores. It’s a game that seems to be growing with me as I play, and that’s a great feeling. This is a game that everyone needs to try, especially at the $3 price point.
My one disappointment was that the game launched on the iPhone only, even though it looks fine stretched out on an iPad. I asked Gotch if he was tired of answering questions about when the game would be coming to iPad or Android platforms, even though we’re only days past launch.
“I see what you’re doing there,” he answered. “How goes the iPhone port of On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness?” Wiseass…