What makes a good tower defence game?

///////
8 mins read

It’s a reasonably new genre, but tower defence games have experienced a surge of popularity, thanks in no small part to the iPhone, XBLA Indie Games, PSN Minis and DSiWare/ WiiWare.

See, they’re cheap to make. Meaning small teams and indie developers can reasonably quickly turn one over. While we’re now seeing attempts to bring substantial production values into the genre, tower defence games have remained popular as cheap disposable little strategy games.
But with that comes vast disparities in the quality of tower defence games. This is not just restricted to the cheap “$0.99” or free games – some much more expensive tower defence games are terrible, while some of the cheaper ones are awesome experiences. So, the question is: what makes a good tower defence game? Below are five traits that we thing separates the must haves from the leave well alones.

5) Interface
The aesthetics of a tower defence game don’t matter as much as (most) other genres – people are willing to deal with simple, underdone or slightly ugly visuals when the game comes cheap, and music is not an integral part of the tower defence experience, so it’s easy enough to turn off.

However, interface is critical. Nothing is worse than trying to scroll around the map only to find you’ve done something you didn’t mean to, or struggling to pick out the tower you wanted to place on the battlefield amongst a mass of cluttered icons.
We give props to Crystal Defenders in this regard. Units are nice and easy to select and place on the battle field, buttons are of a nice size, and overall it’s a nice, clutter-free interface. You’d expect nothing less from Square Enix, but it’s a good standard for other tower defence developers to emulate.
4) Simplicity
People don’t buy tower defence games for epic stories, sweeping orchestral scores, and thousands of units requiring micromanagement. They’re looking for a basic, no-frills bit of strategy to amuse themselves on the bus or train.

With that in mind, a good tower defence game has a limited range of units, with basic and obvious advantages and disadvantages. Enemy waves shouldn’t have too many different special considerations.
Look at Fieldrunners. It’s a seminal tower defence game, but it only has a handful of towers, a handful of different enemies, and some very basic level designs (in fact you’re essentially building your own level as you go). And for that it’s easy to pick up and play for short bursts, and addictive enough to keep you coming back for more.

3) Difficulty
This is a difficult one for tower defence developers. Tower defence games need to be accessible for the casual audience, but offer enough challenge to stave off boredom from being too simple (see above).

In theory, then, a good tower defence game has an exponentially-increasing difficulty level. Without spiking too dramatically, the early enemy waves should be a cake walk. The later waves should require some serious skill to defeat. The high score leader boards are there to encourage people to try again and beat one more wave.
At the same time, each tower defence “game” should not take too long to complete. 100 levels of steadily-increasing difficulty might sound good, but almost no one is going to play that long.
Taito’s Mikado Defenders balances difficulty better than most. It leans on the side of “difficult” from the outset, but a typical level features fewer waves to deal with, and you’re always going to be competitive with intelligent placement of units.
2) Level variety
Another balancing act, this. For obvious reasons, a good tower defence game features a range of levels to play. The balance comes in offering just enough content to give the impression of variety, while not becoming intimidating with too many options.

Within that level selection needs to be a wide range of different designs and quirks. At no stage should two tower defence levels feel the same to players – that’s just wasted real estate and won’t encourage people to keep playing.

Vector TD does this pretty well. It splits its levels across three difficulty levels, with a small handful of levels in each. Each of those levels are greatly different from others, leading to a varied, interesting experience.

1) Originality
This one is easy, and in fairness to tower defence developers, they generally ‘get’ this. A good tower defence game can’t be generic. It can be simple, but it can’t do something that someone else has already done, because it’ll get ignored pretty quickly.

There are a host of ways to do this – all the games mentioned above offer very different tower defence experiences, even if the underlying mechanics to the games is fundamentally the same.
Whether you go for a crazy science fiction setting, a gritty wild west setting, or abstract art, and whether you go for humour or deadly serious, make your game look and feel different and you should find some kind of audience for your game.

Look at Plants Vs Zombies – such a simple concept, and the game does very little that you can’t find in other tower defence games, but with such a fresh presentation and unique concept, it was always going to be a hit for PopCap.

Of course most of these points above apply to just about every genre, and with good reason – they’re fundamental principles of game design. But as something of an apprenticeship for future A-list games designers, tower defence games are prone to occasionally get these basics wrong.

This is the bio under which all legacy DigitallyDownloaded.net articles are published (as in the 12,000-odd, before we moved to the new Website and platform). This is not a member of the DDNet Team. Please see the article's text for byline attribution.

  • My favourite Tower Defence game is FF:CC:My Life as a Darklord.

    The fact that you have to consider what enemies you're facing, how many levels to build, what type of level, what monsters to spawn, whether to use spells and a lot more adds a lot of strategy. It also helps that the game is gorgeous and features FF monsters! Plus Kain and Palom have cameos!

    I'd love a 3DS version(If I didn't have to rebuy the DLC).

  • My favourite Tower Defence game is FF:CC:My Life as a Darklord.

    The fact that you have to consider what enemies you're facing, how many levels to build, what type of level, what monsters to spawn, whether to use spells and a lot more adds a lot of strategy. It also helps that the game is gorgeous and features FF monsters! Plus Kain and Palom have cameos!

    I'd love a 3DS version(If I didn't have to rebuy the DLC).

  • Yeah, my life as dark lord was well worth playing, and I too would like to see a 3DS sequel.

    That said, I must admit it's Crystal Chronicles that has eaten the most time for me, out of TD games Ive played. There's something charming about that game, and it is so challenging that making progress is a real achievement,

    IPad version is the best of the ones ive played, although the Wiiware version is good, if only because it's a completely different set of maps, and actually offers something of a story!

  • Yeah, my life as dark lord was well worth playing, and I too would like to see a 3DS sequel.

    That said, I must admit it's Crystal Chronicles that has eaten the most time for me, out of TD games Ive played. There's something charming about that game, and it is so challenging that making progress is a real achievement,

    IPad version is the best of the ones ive played, although the Wiiware version is good, if only because it's a completely different set of maps, and actually offers something of a story!

  • You mean Crystal Defenders.;)

    I think if they make a new Tactics Advance game for 3DS they should put in in a Crystal Defenders mode as well! Especially if they make brand new assets.

    This reminds I downloaded Glory Days from DSiware and haven't played it yet(not played Advance Wars: DS either yet!)

  • You mean Crystal Defenders.;)

    I think if they make a new Tactics Advance game for 3DS they should put in in a Crystal Defenders mode as well! Especially if they make brand new assets.

    This reminds I downloaded Glory Days from DSiware and haven't played it yet(not played Advance Wars: DS either yet!)

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    What makes a good tower defence game?

    ///////
    8 mins read

    It’s a reasonably new genre, but tower defence games have experienced a surge of popularity, thanks in no small part to the iPhone, XBLA Indie Games, PSN Minis and DSiWare/ WiiWare.

    See, they’re cheap to make. Meaning small teams and indie developers can reasonably quickly turn one over. While we’re now seeing attempts to bring substantial production values into the genre, tower defence games have remained popular as cheap disposable little strategy games.
    But with that comes vast disparities in the quality of tower defence games. This is not just restricted to the cheap “$0.99” or free games – some much more expensive tower defence games are terrible, while some of the cheaper ones are awesome experiences. So, the question is: what makes a good tower defence game? Below are five traits that we thing separates the must haves from the leave well alones.

    5) Interface
    The aesthetics of a tower defence game don’t matter as much as (most) other genres – people are willing to deal with simple, underdone or slightly ugly visuals when the game comes cheap, and music is not an integral part of the tower defence experience, so it’s easy enough to turn off.

    However, interface is critical. Nothing is worse than trying to scroll around the map only to find you’ve done something you didn’t mean to, or struggling to pick out the tower you wanted to place on the battlefield amongst a mass of cluttered icons.
    We give props to Crystal Defenders in this regard. Units are nice and easy to select and place on the battle field, buttons are of a nice size, and overall it’s a nice, clutter-free interface. You’d expect nothing less from Square Enix, but it’s a good standard for other tower defence developers to emulate.
    4) Simplicity
    People don’t buy tower defence games for epic stories, sweeping orchestral scores, and thousands of units requiring micromanagement. They’re looking for a basic, no-frills bit of strategy to amuse themselves on the bus or train.

    With that in mind, a good tower defence game has a limited range of units, with basic and obvious advantages and disadvantages. Enemy waves shouldn’t have too many different special considerations.
    Look at Fieldrunners. It’s a seminal tower defence game, but it only has a handful of towers, a handful of different enemies, and some very basic level designs (in fact you’re essentially building your own level as you go). And for that it’s easy to pick up and play for short bursts, and addictive enough to keep you coming back for more.

    3) Difficulty
    This is a difficult one for tower defence developers. Tower defence games need to be accessible for the casual audience, but offer enough challenge to stave off boredom from being too simple (see above).

    In theory, then, a good tower defence game has an exponentially-increasing difficulty level. Without spiking too dramatically, the early enemy waves should be a cake walk. The later waves should require some serious skill to defeat. The high score leader boards are there to encourage people to try again and beat one more wave.
    At the same time, each tower defence “game” should not take too long to complete. 100 levels of steadily-increasing difficulty might sound good, but almost no one is going to play that long.
    Taito’s Mikado Defenders balances difficulty better than most. It leans on the side of “difficult” from the outset, but a typical level features fewer waves to deal with, and you’re always going to be competitive with intelligent placement of units.
    2) Level variety
    Another balancing act, this. For obvious reasons, a good tower defence game features a range of levels to play. The balance comes in offering just enough content to give the impression of variety, while not becoming intimidating with too many options.

    Within that level selection needs to be a wide range of different designs and quirks. At no stage should two tower defence levels feel the same to players – that’s just wasted real estate and won’t encourage people to keep playing.

    Vector TD does this pretty well. It splits its levels across three difficulty levels, with a small handful of levels in each. Each of those levels are greatly different from others, leading to a varied, interesting experience.

    1) Originality
    This one is easy, and in fairness to tower defence developers, they generally ‘get’ this. A good tower defence game can’t be generic. It can be simple, but it can’t do something that someone else has already done, because it’ll get ignored pretty quickly.

    There are a host of ways to do this – all the games mentioned above offer very different tower defence experiences, even if the underlying mechanics to the games is fundamentally the same.
    Whether you go for a crazy science fiction setting, a gritty wild west setting, or abstract art, and whether you go for humour or deadly serious, make your game look and feel different and you should find some kind of audience for your game.

    Look at Plants Vs Zombies – such a simple concept, and the game does very little that you can’t find in other tower defence games, but with such a fresh presentation and unique concept, it was always going to be a hit for PopCap.

    Of course most of these points above apply to just about every genre, and with good reason – they’re fundamental principles of game design. But as something of an apprenticeship for future A-list games designers, tower defence games are prone to occasionally get these basics wrong.

    This is the bio under which all legacy DigitallyDownloaded.net articles are published (as in the 12,000-odd, before we moved to the new Website and platform). This is not a member of the DDNet Team. Please see the article's text for byline attribution.

    Previous Story

    Retro Review: King’s Field; the genesis of Demon’s Souls (Japanese PSOne Classic download)

    Next Story

    Moo! Noisy Badger launches MooJooce on iPhone

    Latest Articles

    Goodbye, Stadia

    I’m quite sure this news surprises nobody: Google is shutting down its gaming platform, Stadia, in…

    >