[Game]Fortress Legends

This neat thing about this game (which was discontinued in early 2017) is how attacking is nothing like a clash-like, but everything else is.

Attacking is a standard 3D dungeon hacker. You’re a fully controllable character, with several skills to use, a skill tree, equipment, 4 character classes. The whole MMO deal. The rooms are mostly filled with monsters, but there are blob launchers, spinning flame-throwers, traveling floor-saws, pulsing stun fields, attractors, and hidden silence and slow traps. The entire dungeon is maybe 8 large rooms. You have to clear one before moving on (the doors seal.) To make it odder, you queue-up in a group of 4 other live players (the usual Looking For Group queue. You wait while it fills up).

The monsters are: bruisers with an occasional hammer stun, fast wolves with a charging attack, various ranged that can charm, buff monsters or heal them. Or one huge semi-boss monster. The placed devices are easy enough to avoid, but dodging monsters at the same time makes it a challenge. If you like 3rd-person RPGs, it’s a decent game.

The final room is the owner’s actual character — same character class and spells — but computer controlled and massively powered-up. They did a great job, often having a several minutes long battle.

Besides that, it was a normal clash-like. People attack your dungeon, while you attack theirs. You get gold by whacking on their gold vaults. As with every other clash-like, finding the gold is more important than “winning”. You upgrade all of your guns and monsters and monster generators in the usual way, with builders. The room with computer “you” is also your Town Hall, unlocking more stuff as it levels up.

The Clan Castle was very clever. It’s another computer controlled powered-up character, of a guild-mate you choose. But it had a bad kink. To not be overpowering, you could only choose a less-powerful guild-mate. The weakest clan members were out-of-luck. If they were smart, they left for a weaker clan, then you were out-of-luck.

The dungeon-making rules used a point system. Rooms, which are huge, are allowed 20 points of whatever. Some people loved to have a trap gauntlet room, followed by a room with only waves of monsters. It was somewhat popular to choose the room design with obstacles near the doors, then everything concentrated into an entry killing zone. But then players learned to immediately run past into the huge empty room behind them.

I assume a problem leading to the shut down was that matching decent 4-player groups, of similar levels, in a reasonable amount of time, required a big player base. As it was, waits were a few minutes. I’m told some times of day you couldn’t get a team at all.

The thing I mostly remember: your base is built from connected giant stone slabs, flat on top, but ragged on the bottom where they’ve been torn out of the ground and enchanted to float high in the air. You can see other floating bases far off in the distance. It looks nice. And then: gold collectors pump gold out of the floor. It’s like a RoadRunner cartoon.

Builders & Upgrades

As we all know, freemium takes a perfectly good game and throws in arbitrary timers, energy bars and other limits to stretch the game out. People hate them, or, at best, see them as a necessary evil. The brilliant thing about clash-likes is how they do all that and more, and make you like it.

With troop training times, class-likes make you wait between each attack. That’s worse than the games that give you 5 tries a day. But people enjoy playing with it: when you go to bed, start training a bunch of cool, long training-time troops. You get to use them for 1 attack in the morning. Then switch to boring fast-training ones for the rest. It feels as if you have control.

When you finally get the cash to buy an upgrade, another timer makes it takes hours or days to happen. Then finally the limited number of “builders” kicks in. If I want to upgrade my Farm, I have fight a timer to earn the gold, then the game tells me I can’t spend it since the upgrades I started yesterday aren’t done. That’s so mean. But people love builders with their little tricks:

  • Builders prevent you from playing “just one more”. When every builder is put to work, you’re done for the day.
  • Build times, once they’re several days long, form a little rhythm. Some days none have finished, other days 2 builders are ready and you’ve got to hustle to get the gold to put them back to work. That doesn’t seem very exciting, but it’s less monotonous than other “check in once a day” games.
  • Time vs. gold cost can vary. Most notably, gold mines take a long time to upgrade, but don’t cost much. Casual players like the “don’t cost much” part, while aggressive players focus on the “takes a long time” and skip them. It feels like a smart choice, either way.
  • Wall upgrades are like a mini-game. If you have a free builder you can upgrade as many walls as you want. People actually discuss when to put the last builder to work, and when to keep it open in case you have a extra hour for walls.
  • When you start a new clash-like, you know getting more builders is the most important thing. A fun bit of insider knowledge. Even if you’re mostly a free player, you’d be a fool not to buy the $1.99 starter bundle with an extra builder.
  • Defenses don’t work when upgrading, giving you a choice. You can upgrade one defense building at a time, swapping positions so vital spots always have coverage. Or you can upgrade a bunch at once and be helpless, just to get it over with. People love that meta stuff.

A fun thing about builders is how they make sense at first, then make no sense if you actually think about them. Things I enjoy:

  • Buildings start tiny and get small upgrades. Your lvl 8 barracks is a shack with 7 additions. That’s not how buildings work. It’s really, really not how cannons work.
  • You aren’t even allowed to build the good versions. If you know how to build level 5 cannons and a new cannon slot opens, you’re required to make a small cannon and enlarge it 4 times.
  • Real buildings are not out-of-commission while being upgraded. For your defensive buildings, the king should explain to the contractor how keeping it on-line is of paramount importance. It should be shut down for a few hours at most. If the DOT can keep 1 lane open, only shutting completely down on Sunday night, so can my builders.
  • Why can’t 2 builders work on the same thing? WarCraft, which this was copied from, allows it. One builder-per-building isn’t even realistic by game standards.
  • Our base has builders as permanent employees. Why? Buildings aren’t made of gold, so we must be spending it to have iron and concrete brought in. Why not bring in an independent contractor with the lumber delivery?

There are good gameplay reasons for doing things this way, and that’s the point. Builders never had anything to do with realism – they’re just clever ways to justify putting limits on the game.

Looting and Realism

Game genres start out “realistic”, but since that’s not very good gameplay the definition of realistic-enough gradually changes. Today, everyone who plays an MMO knows you keep your stuff when you die. You die a lot and it shouldn’t be a huge penalty. But back when they were first made, passerby could loot everything from your dead body – anything else would have seemed stupidly unrealistic. Modern MMOs give that just a nod – you can loot a few coins from a dead player, but it doesn’t come out of their stash.

Clash-like looting is in a crazy place between realistic and playable. The most common rules are that you instantly steal stuff as you smash the building holding it. Hit a gold vault with a sword, or an arrow, or even a fireball, and a little bit of their gold pops directly into your treasury. Gold teleports instead of needing to be carried out because it’s simpler. Otherwise you’d need troop carrying capacity, pick-up animation, rules for when to run home with a full gold sack … ick.

One game, Batman clash-like Arkham Underworld, actually does realistic gold vaults: a massive vault door needs to be destroyed, then you quickly grab the cash. Trying to break that huge door can run attackers out of time, leaving them with nothing as the cops come. You know – the way actual vault doors work. But the other way you get gold in that game is hilarious. Computer hackers collect gold. To steal it you smash the computers with baseball bats and gold coins fly out.

I enjoy the optional “strongbox” building for how little sense it makes. Normally, attackers leave 1/2 of your gold lying on the ground for you to scrape up later. They just do. But some games have an extra building, with stats like “level 5 strongbox: 5,000 gold plus 57% of the rest is protected from attackers”. How does it work? Beats me. The same as the magical 1/2-gold rule, I guess.

Oddly, they all keep one “realistic” thing which ruins the game: you get gold by stealing from other players. That seems obvious — you can’t get gold out of thin air. But it’s a game, of course you can. It ruins the game since most people are broke, and the few players who have gold — their moms’ called them to dinner midway through playing — is pretty much arbitrary. The games could make enemies worth an “average” amount of gold, plus or minus. But people hate that. They like knowing they’re hurting someone else. For example, many clash-likes use “ghost” bases as filler — an exact copy of someone’s base, not owned by anyone. People hate those when they find out there’s no one on the other end crying over lost gold.

Instead the games bend over backwards to average out loot, while making you still feel you earn it all by stealing. The “Loot cart” makes it so you steal more gold than they actually lose. Bases are always worth a minimum amount, even if they have less. Daily challenges give free gold for a certain amount of victories. There’s an extra-safe area for storing your gold. But despite that it feels “realistic”, like the savage free-for-all gold stealing players think they want.

Walls

Out of all buildings, plain old walls are surprisingly complicated. You get about a hundred of them. 100 walls? What? It turns out a “wall” is just a tiny block. Making what a human would describe as a wall involves dragging dozens of them into a line.

There are short-cuts, glitchy ones. Selecting an entire row might also get you the corners, or not, and probably stops at walls of a different upgrade level. Dragging a whole row into a smaller space won’t work – you’ll need to unselect, trim to the correct length, then reselect. There’s an etch-a-sketch mode — trace on squares to place walls, and/or select the tiny handles and pull out a line of walls. It’s still not easy, but better than dragging 100 of them by hand.

Once you figure out how to place them, where you’re putting your walls is all wrong. Everyone starts with a rectangle around everything. That’s no good — the enemy only needs to poke a single hole. Some people make a double-thick inner keep. Also no good — the game has special rules making it not work: wall-blasters have a radius of 2. It turns out that a series of boxes, with shared off-center corners, is the best. It looks like garbage, but it works great.

If you get really into it, there’s exact math as to how much extra distance a wall counts as. You can fine-tune your base so attacking troops tend to go in odd directions or split up.

Finally, walls are a cash-sink for hard-core players. They’re the only building that takes 0 time to upgrade. If you want to play all day, upgrading walls is the one thing you can do. It’s not cheap, and you have 200 of them, so you’ll always be able to “work on your walls”. It has this funny quirk: even though it takes no time, you still need a free builder. So, regular players can put all 5 builders to work. They can’t upgrade walls while they wait, which is fine. Meanwhile, hard-core players need to leave one free so they have it to wall-upgrade through-out the day. That seems fair, sort of.

The coolest thing about walls is something just for looks. If walls actually filled their squares, they’d look terrible. They look better filling about half — like thick poles. But that means adjacent walls would have spaces between them. They fix that by auto-creating a special wall-connector segment. It doesn’t look great.

History

I didn’t realize Clash of Clans is only from 2012. The first time I played it wasn’t that long after it came out. I also didn’t realize that I’ve seen and played most of the things that inspired it. Some things had to come together for a clash-like: tower defense, the arrangable map-village, and anonymous attacks. Here’s how I see that stuff:

To have a huge number of players, you need the internet. In the ‘70s you could dial-up to GEnie, CompuServe or AOL; in the ’80s anyone in college could get on-line, but that still wasn’t a lot of people. The internet wasn’t public until 1995, and Search (Google) wasn’t until 1998.

The first massive anonymous attacker I know of was free browser game ArchMage, in 2000. Your kingdom was just a few stats – mostly how much land you owned. The interesting thing was there was no world map, so you had no neighbors. You just had a list of people near your power level who you could attack. Most of them will rise or fall off the list by tomorrow. You were allowed to attack someone a few times, until they were knocked off the bottom, but players considered a double-attack as unsportsmanlike (you’d get pounded silly by every other player if you did it.) In practice, you attacked random people, one time each.

When you beat someone, you stole some of their land. That’s a great example of the backwards fake-realism clash-likes have today. Of course in real life, land is the realistic thing you steal — from your neighbors. But it makes 0 sense in a game with no map, attacking random people. ArchMage boldly went with it, and the players accepted it.

FaceBook didn’t add support for large games until 2008, when we got the MobWars, PirateWars and so on. Those games borrowed the anonymous attacking idea, and added endlessness. Normally, games have to have a winner. In ArchMage, the goal was to survive casting a very expensive, days-long “I win” spell with an “everyone is allowed to attack me” side-effect. You can’t have a game without a winner. Or so we thought. Facebook showed that you can. Just play to grow. If you make it to #1, or the top 100 … be proud and see how long you can stay there.

Two more things, tower Defense and an arrangeable village, came from the PC game WarCraft way back in 1995 (not World of – just WarCraft, the solo or 2-player RTS.) The upgradable buildings of clash-likes are copies of the ones in WarCraft. Even the upgradable Town Hall came from there (a building that does mostly nothing except unlock other things.)

Tower Defenses came from WarCraft in a funny way. Most of the single-player missions were about growing quickly, scouting and harassing the enemy to slow them down, building a few defenses only when you needed to. But some missions were just early waves of tough enemies. The only way to win was to build lots of defenses to hold them off. Those were just a fun break from the real missions, but we realized you could make a game with only that.

2009 had a brief craze for browser tower defenses. I didn’t play them, but I remember students going nuts for those sites, with all sorts of rules for tower-types, making paths, flyers… . Plants vs. Zombies is the main survivor of all that.

BackYard Monsters put tower defenses and endless random attacking together in 2010, on FaceBook. You may have heard Backyard Monsters was the inspiration for Clash of Clans and scoffed. I did. But you can look at pictures of bases and read strategies. Clash of Clans is clearly a dumbed-down copy.

In BackYard monsters, defenses were strong enough that you were expected to grind them down over several attacks (with the possibility of someone sniping a 1/2-destroyed base from you.) Attacks had a period at the end only for previously-placed troops to fight. The rules for getting a defensive shield were more complicated. Clash of Clans dumbed it down for the winning formula: quick sessions; simpler in general; freemium; skew younger; an App instead of browser-based. And, I’m not completely sure, but I think they were the first cell=phone game to show television commercials.

Features

Clash-likes are one of those genres that has a lot of room for tweaks, changes or totally new stuff; but you still know one when you see one. Here’s my list of what usually makes one:

  • Solo “opposite tower defense” gameplay. You attack other players, but you’re not playing head-to-head. You only fight their AI-controlled tower defense — not their army. Likewise, when someone attacks you, your offensive army does nothing. They only fight your tower defense.
  • Persistent progress. Once you get something, you can never lose it. Being attacked steals some gold you were saving for the next upgrade, but otherwise your defenses spring fully back after each attack. You can stop playing for a week and not be set back. Your offensive army isn’t even harmed when your village is destroyed.
  • Very dumb, obvious AI. This is considered a feature. Defenses will target the nearest enemy, ignoring a deadly but soft wizard for a slightly closer knight. Your attackers can’t be controlled after placing them. They attack the nearest buildings. The idea is, you know exactly what everything will do, so can make a plan.
  • Short, time-limited, pauseless battles. You can spend a while planning your army, figuring out a strategy, trying to figure out what went wrong … . But the actual attack is 3 minutes at most. Depending on your army and strategy, you may lose by running out of time. After the attack, you’re done with that player.
  • A medium amount of tap-based decisions during an attack. Generally targetable spells and troop power-ups. Sometimes limited control over a leader troop. You’re not tapping as fast as you can, but you do have to concentrate and will forgot things until you make a plan and get practice.
  • The attacks are real games. There’s a skill in picking an army, where and when to place troops, and when to cast spells. A good player can do much better than a beginner.
  • Troop selection is a real choice. You never get a new troop which replaces an old one. In fact, when a new troop is unlocked, you’re supposed to wonder how in the heck you’re going to use it.
  • You can’t pick on a particular person, and they can’t pick on you. Fights are against randomly chosen opponents. The same goes for guilds. A guild war is a 1-time event, against a randomly chosen guild, where the attacks don’t even steal gold.
  • Likewise, other players can’t directly help you. There’s usually a small friendship mechanic. Altogether, it’s a mostly solo game. You don’t need a big guild to do well. This is in contrast to things like Game of War, where a big active guild can carry you, or put a bull’s-eye on you.
  • Gameplay is attacking to gather gold, paying for all the allowed upgrades, then waiting. That may take a while, or may be quick. But starting all allowed upgrades is the goal and the natural stopping time.
  • This is just aesthetics, but it’s a recognizable feature: everything is in an arrangeable village grid. It’s where you arrange your tower defense. But it’s also where your troop upgrade building, spell creation building … are placed. The non-defensive buildings work as damage sponges or distractions from your real defenses.
  • Also just aesthetics: each building and troop gets a little different look as it’s upgraded. When you see someone’s base, or an attack replay, you can mostly figure out everything’s level from the pictures.
  • Planning your defense is also a real game. There are lots of options, no optimal strategy, and a thoughtful defense can matter (but, since you aren’t playing during an attack, you can just copy a base design from the internet.)
  • You have to get better to progress. At various points, people will be stealing gold as fast as you can steal it from others. You’ll have to either get better at attacking, build a better defense, or a combination of both.  In other words, it’s a game – not a fancy Cow Clicker.
  • Very, very simple resource generation. Tap to collect, and nothing else. They could easily make it more complex – like a tiny farmville. But the game is about fighting. The resource generators are just a reason for all the attacking.
  • Freemium, but you can’t buy anything you couldn’t get just by playing a lot (this is sometimes knows as spend-for-time.) But, bizarrely, you can buy everything. For a few thousand dollars, you can buy what a free player could get in a year. No one will know the difference.