Based in Kajaani, Northern Finland, Critical Force Entertainment is the town’s first independent game company. Tim Spaninks was brought in as producer and lead designer to direct a young team in the development of a cross-platform game: Company of Tanks. In this article, Tim shares his experience of working with a fairly inexperienced team resulting in a very successful outcome.
Initial goal: a high-quality tank game for the mobile platform
When I was brought into this project, World of Tanks (which is a massive online game developed by Wargaming.net) had fairly recently become insanely popular and managed to open up a completely new market segment for a new sub-genre called tank games.
Anything put on the Google Play Store featuring the word ‘tanks’ seemed to gather up to hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of downloads, seemingly regardless of the quality of the game. Therefore, the initial goal of Company of Tanks was to “create something like World of Tanks for mobile devices” with a quality that would outmatch the existing competition.
Sampsa, Mikko, and Lassi came to Critical Force Entertainment as interns, and managed to get a simple prototype up and running very quickly.
Right after I joined the team, we brought in our artists Ville and Thanabodi a.k.a. Viola from Thailand, and I knew we needed a change of direction.
Every Game Should Have its Own Identity
Right from the start, I didn’t agree with the mentality or the spirit of the project. Firstly, I believe that every game should have its own identity and bring a new experience to the player. It wouldn’t feel right to try to duplicate a game’s experience, even if it’s on another platform. Secondly, we were mainly developing for the mobile platform, which has a completely different target group and lends itself to different gaming experiences than PC and consoles.
At first, we were going for a more slow-paced, realistic style game, but then decided to adapt the gameplay to the platform: the game would become faster and way more arcade-like to have shorter game sessions with more action. We also decided to change the visual style accordingly. The game was to become stylized to set the right expectations: it’s not a tank simulator and sure as hell isn’t a World of Tanks clone. This way, we would still appeal to a very large market segment aching to play 3D tank games, but at the same time differentiate ourselves from the competition in terms of style and gameplay.
It was now time to prototype, test, reflect, prototype, test, reflect, and so on to find the right way to make the game as fun as possible!
Often in a game’s development, it’s the designer who says “Yes!” and the producer is who says “No!” to gameplay and feature suggestions. One of my toughest personal challenges in this project was to have to take both of these roles at the same time. Many awesome-sounding or even almost crucial features such as an in-game chat, friend lists, clan support, ranking lists, player stats, or simply the ability to completely customize your tank by drawing on it, placing emblems, etc. had to be put on hold or scrapped completely in favor of finishing the game on time. I was only going to be in Finland until mid-December, and the entire team would end up only working part-time on the game shortly after: we had to release a playable Android version before that time.
Prioritizing was essential, and through continuous debate and feedback, we were able to pinpoint what needed to be done to get everything ready on time. This often meant going for the absolute minimum viable options. No fancy customization and putting together your tank of parts collected throughout the game, but simply a very basic upgrade system.
Sometimes, it’s demotivating not to be able to make the game as awesome as you dreamt, but knowing that we could keep adding features and content after release and strive to make the game as perfect as possible is something that made it bearable.
Remember Who the Game is For
When we had our first playable version ready, we got some great opportunities to receive crucial feedback to pinpoint what aspects of the game we needed to work on. Showcasing our game at the Northern Game Summit in Kajaani and DigiExpo in Helsinki turned out an extremely enriching experience. I’ve learned a lot participating in the Northern Game Summit conference’s pitching competition. And winning the €5000 prize for the development of our game allowed us to speed up, acquire some needed licenses, additional testing devices, and invest in a custom-made soundtrack and sound effects.
The most beautiful moment of the entire project for me was at the DigiExpo 2013 event in Helsinki. A young kid picked up our tablet and immediately understood how to play, and got completely immersed in the game. At some point, he glanced over at his friend next to him with a grin and said “hyvää peli!” (meaning “good game!” in Finnish). This nearly broke me. This kid stayed at our booth playing the game for nearly an hour! When getting lost in the development process and reaching your deadlines, it’s easy to forget what you’re actually doing it all for. This was the moment when it became tangible for me that after all of our hard work, we were actually making this for someone. And that someone really loved our game! This is why I love my work, and those tiny moments make it all worthwhile.
The rest of DigiExpo was sort of a blur of wonderful moments with many people (mainly kids) playing the game. Besides providing us with a lot of feedback to pinpoint what aspects of the game needed work, it was a massive motivational boost for the rest of the project.
Player Base in the Beginning: No One to Play With
There was one thing throughout development that I was dreading the most: how are we going to get players? It’s known that it can be hard for smaller online indie games to gather enough people because nobody wants to play a game that doesn’t already have an established player base – which complicates things even more.
Before our Android build was ready, we decided to Beta test and soft launch our game on the web platform using Kongregate and Facebook. This would allow us to build interest and gather some players without any marketing budget and get some valuable feedback at the same time.
Testing the game on Kongregate revealed one massive problem: when a player wants to start an online match, he is thrown into a lobby to wait for enough players to start the game. Because we started out with a non-existent player base, as soon as someone tried to start a game, they found that nobody (or not enough players) was in the lobby, and simply disconnected. This led to a situation where there were continuously one or two players online who didn’t have enough people to play with.
Arguably, the biggest mistake made in the development process was the way we dealt with this. We figured that if we decrease the minimum player requirement to two and interest in the game would pick up later, the problem would vanish. Surely, when the Android downloads would start streaming in, the problem would fix itself? Well, it didn’t.
Shortly after the Android launch, we noticed the problem still existed, and released a patch changing it to a drop-in, drop-out kind of system that would throw the player immediately into an already running game. Thankfully, this worked and we now have an active player base!
We’ve just reached over 240.000 downloads and with around 7000 downloads every day, the project has been a tremendous success for such a young team so far. Based on the numbers and received feedback, it’s safe to say that many people are playing and enjoying our game, which is a fantastic feeling!
In our eyes, the game is far from finished though. It’s lacking end-game content and goals to strive for. There are many features and content to be added and many in-game tweaks to be made. We’re working hard to implement metric systems to collect tons of data using various analytics plug-ins to determine where our focus needs to be. So far, we’ve basically been working in the dark, and shedding some light on the impact of changes we make will allow us to work more efficiently and improve the game where it counts.
In the meantime, we’ve applied for Microsoft & Nokia’s AppCampus program to be funded with €50.000 to create a Windows Phone version of the game with custom content for the platform. We plan to use those funds to further tweak the game and get ready for a later iOS release!