Rush, Boom, Turtle: Swords & Soldiers & Monkeys & Rockets
You'd never know by the name, but Swords & Soldiers is a brilliant real-time strategy game on the Nintendo Wii, available as a 10-dollar download. I wrote about it in an earlier column, but I keep playing it and I can't get it out of my head. Here's an RTS that's simple and smart and maybe even deep. Actually, no "maybe" about it. I'm going to say that, yes, it is deep. Think of it as the RTS equivalent of a 2-D side-scrolling game, with a great campaign, a skirmish mode and split-screen multiplayer support. The more I play it, the more I learn about it, and the more I wonder who made this wonderful thing. So I looked it up. The developer is a tiny Dutch studio called Ronimo. I tracked down Jasper Koning and Fabian Akker, two of the main guys at Romino. They graciously agreed to talk to me.
Tom Chick: Tell me a little about Ronimo. I know you're responsible for the original PC version of de Blob, which you sold to THQ, who then made it into a Wii game. That was your first thing?
This is the game that made Swords & Soldiers possible.
Jasper Koning: That's the first thing we were known for outside of school. Already in our second grade we wanted to make games. De Blob was sort of a test for us, to see if we could do something to get international attention. Or more to see if our team could function to make games. And I guess it did.
Chick: So you guys were students at the time? This wasn't part of a job?
Koning: Yes, we were. It was our third grade. We got the assignment to make a game of how the city would look in the next 20 years.
Chick: Just to clarify for those of us in the United States, when you say third grade, it's obviously not what we call third grade. Was this the equivalent of our college-level education?
Koning: I'm not sure. I just know that our study was four years and it was in our third.
Chick: Okay. So after de Blob, was Swords & Soldiers the next project?
Fabian Akker: There was something else first. After de Blob, we had our fourth year when we did our master's work on game design. During that year, we started work on a full Wii title. It was a little bit big for us. We built this demo to show around to publishers and they really liked it. But unfortunately, we couldn't proceed on the project because it was a little bit big. Although publishers liked it, they were all saying, "Well, you don't have a track record, so we need some proof you can make a game from A to Z". So a few months after that we got the [WiiWare] license from Nintendo and started working on Swords & Soldiers.
Chick: So what led to Swords & Soldiers? I'm wondering if real-time strategy games are a part of your background. Even though it's a really whimsical game, there are lots of elements from hardcore RTSes. It seems to me like a game made by guys who are fans of the more serious games. Is that the case with you guys?
Koning: It was our first RTS, but of course, we're very big fans of the genre. We did quite a lot of research. We played a lot of RTSes in our day. StarCraft was one of our main inspirations, since we're doing a game with three very different factions.
Chick: Did you know all along it was going to be a side-scrolling game? Was it ever played from an overhead view? How did the game evolve based on making it for the Wii?
Koning: Actually it started out as a Flash game. We were still trying to sell the bigger 3-D game and we needed money, so we started prototyping a few Flash games and this one really stood out. It was fun as soon as the first units marched across the screen. And shortly after that, we got an internal license and decided to blow up that game and make it a full WiiWare title. It was side-scrolling all along.
Multiplayer games in under five minutes.
Chick: What was different about the Flash game and the WiiWare game? Would the Flash game have been three races?
Koning: We hadn't even thought of that yet. All you could do in the Flash prototype was build ranged and melee guys. That was basically it, but it was already fun enough to consider it for a bigger game.
Chick: One of the things I like about Swords & Soldiers is the personality among the three factions. And not just in terms of cute graphics. There's certainly that element, but I mean in terms of gameplay. I'm thinking one of the basic units for China, which is a ninja monkey. That in and of itself is a cute and interesting idea. But you guys went one step further and gave it a unique gameplay function that only the China faction gets. He teleports past enemies, which is a huge advantage in a side-scrolling game. There's a lot of creativity that went into this. How did the game evolve in terms of having so much personality in the gameplay?
Akker: We started out making a very long list of possible characters. Actually, the ninja monkey was the last guy to be implemented. He's also a reference to our company.
Chick: How is that a reference to the company?
Akker: Robo ninja monkey.
Chick: Is that a Dutch thing?
Akker: No, Ronimo is robot ninja monkey. Ro for robot, ni for ninja--
Chick: Oh, right, I see. I didn't realize that. Very nice. Ronimo. I get it.
Akker: That's where the ninja monkey comes from. And, yeah, he was a pretty hard guy to balance.
Chick: Would you say he was the most difficult to balance? Was there anyone more problematic?
Akker: Ninja monkey was the hard one.
Koning: Maybe necromancer.
Chick: The necromancer seems tough to me. It seems that if the Aztecs can keep enough necromancers alive long enough, they can shut down an enemy with a huge mob of skeletons. It's one of the things I like about Swords & Soldiers. Being surprised at how the balance can shift. So the necromancer was a tough one?
Akker: Yes, especially because he gets really powerful at the end and he's really weak at the beginning. The length of the map, the amount of health and how quickly he can be killed with a lightning bolt; that sort of thing makes him pretty hard to balance. The balance is really one of the key features in a strategy game, and we only got one chance because we were making it for WiiWare.
Chick: Ah, right, you can't very well patch it after release.
Akker: That's also why it took longer than we thought to build. The balance really had to work.
Chick: So now that the game is out and people are playing it, what are some of the common complaints you hear about balance?
You are not ready to play as China.
Koning: I don't think there's one common one, which means that I guess the balance is pretty good. When people just start out playing, they say things like the berserker is way too strong; and people play a bit longer and then complain the rocketeer is way too strong, and so forth. But there are counters for everything, so it's hard to say. I think most problematic for me is that some experienced players complain about stalemates, which is definitely possible. We tried to undermine those with the ultimate rules and speed-up. But it's still possible to get into a bit of a stalemate, especially on the longer maps where both players just throw everything they have at each other. Because it's so well balanced, and it's a simpler game compared to a full top-down RTS.
Chick: Tell me about some of the units that you started to work on, but that didn't make the cut, either for balance or scheduling reasons.
Koning: We had a condor unit that could pick up an enemy guy and throw him back to his base. But he was removed because of the decision to remove flying units. We also had plans for a samurai for the Chinese, which were then called Asians to make them a bit more broad. The samurai was just an armored guy with ranged deflection and he would do a lot of damage. But he was considered too boring. And also, the core of each faction is built around rock/paper/scissors, with melee/ranged/stunning. So stun counters melee, melee counters ranged, and ranged counters stunning. So the Chinese needed a stun unit, and we wanted it to be really different from the other units, so it became the monkey.
Chick: It seems like you have a lot of love for monkeys.
Koning: We all have a monkey somewhere in our hearts.
Chick: Right now, players have no control over the units. You buy a unit and it automatically does its thing as it marches across the screen. Did you ever consider having controllable units?
Akker: Definitely. Originally the catapult was a unit that was flickable. If you would flick it, the catapult would stop. Then the units that walked past it would be thrown forward by the catapult. That made a faster way of getting troops to the front. But it was really hard work to flick units, and we wanted to keep it consistent with all the units.
Koning: At the very first stages we had a mechanic where you pick up a unit and place it backwards. You couldn't place a unit anywhere on the battlefield, but you could move it back. But as a result, players would try to stack as many units as they could and send them up in a big bunch. It broke the game. It slowed it down a lot. It meant a lot of work for players. It also meant that hardcore players who were better able to move units would always win, instead of using other tactics. We wouldn't want that.
Chick: When I listen to you talk about that tactic being removed, I really like how the ability to bunch up units is unique to the Vikings with their rage spell, which moves a unit forward quickly, and also picks up any units in front of him. At first, I didn't appreciate the value of that. It was part of the learning curve for me to figure out how powerful it is, not necessary to bring units to the front more quickly, but to group them in a bunch. That makes the Vikings feel distinct.
Akker: The Vikings are a pretty simple and easy-to-learn race compared to the other two, where you have to make combinations of units and spells. For instance, with Vikings, you can just build berserkers and maybe win the game. But the other races are more on the higher end of the skill range.
Chick: So where I am right now with the learning curve is that I find China very challenging. They're the race saved for the last campaign. They're the most complex race, with the most nuance. And when I'm playing with my friends, the guy who plays China doesn't always lose, but he has a much harder time of it at first. Do you have any tips for someone playing China?
"We all have a monkey somewhere in our hearts."
Koning: The Chinese are the hardest to play. What I always do is get the terra cotta and the rocketeers really fast. And then try to block the enemy with the terra cottas and let the rocketeers fire at them. And then go for the shield and the Buddha, because you'll need the Buddha really badly for the mana. That's the way I usually play them. But as the Chinese, you really have to pay attention to what the other player is doing. If they're going to do a berserker rush as the Vikings, it can be really effective to build monkeys to counter those. It's even possible against an inexperienced player to build enough monkeys to wreck his base.
Chick: That's a terrible way to win. I would feel so cheesy if I knocked the other guy's base down with monkeys.
Akker: I really like to create a lot of monkeys and then yin-yang them at the enemy base.
Chick: That's something I love about China, Fabian. Units always cost gold and spells always cost mana. But China is the only race that has a mechanic to convert mana into units, by using the yin-yang spell to make a copy of a unit. In a way the yin-yang spell is almost like a resource conversion building, like a marketplace that lets you convert gold into wood, or whatever. China is the only race that can do that in Swords & Soldiers.
Akker: We really tried to think about how to spend the resources. But also with the Aztecs, who can sacrifice a unit for mana, it's more or less converting gold to mana.
Chick: Ah, right, I didn't think of it that way. Good point.
Akker: It's something we really thought about.
Koning: As the Chinese by the way, saving up mana with the yin-yang is a very effective tactic. Save up a lot of mana and then get a unit to the front and yin-yang him 10 times.
Chick: You're making me eager to try playing China again. I also want to ask you -- and please don't take this the wrong way -- but I think Swords & Soldiers is a terrible name.
Akker: [Laughs loudly]
Koning: [Laughs loudly]
Chick: Okay, I don't mean a terrible name. But it's kind of generic and it doesn't capture the depth and charm of what you guys have accomplished. Did you have other ideas for names that you didn't use? Or is it maybe called something different in Dutch that sounds better?
Akker: We're really, really bad at making names. We always have a working title and then we get used to it and can't think of anything better.
Koning: Also, on WiiWare, generic names seem to fare well. That's partly why we decided to keep it.
Chick: Well, you know, that was how I came across the game. I didn't get any press releases about it; I didn't know anything about what you guys were working on after de Blob; I had no idea there was an RTS on the Wii like this. I went to download My Life as a Darklord on WiiWare one night, and as I was looking through the list of titles, I saw the name Swords & Soldiers. I thought, "What the heck is that?" I clicked on it, I read the description, and I thought, "Okay, I've got to get a look at this". So I probably shouldn't be sitting here telling you that you have a terrible title when it worked on me.
Akker: That's nice to hear.
Chick: Can you talk about how well the game has done for you? Has it been as successful as you hoped?
Akker: Well, it's been pretty successful so far. It's still doing pretty well. We're trying to go to other platforms and get a lot more people playing. We're definitely going forward with this game.
Chick: It seems like one of the unique benefits of doing this for the Wii is using the pointer to pick out units on the screen when you're casting spells. You definitely take advantage of how an RTS plays with a mouse. Is that a problem when you think about doing this for another platform?
The legacy of StarCraft: three unique factions.
Koning: We have some idea we still have to prototype. We think in the end a pointer will always be a bit faster, no matter what clever things we might think of. But it will still be very playable. It shouldn't be a problem.
Chick: Many games have achievements. You guys have achievements as well. However, as far as I know, there aren't any games where getting all the achievements can lead to a material reward. So tell me about the secret code and the goodie bags.
Koning: We wanted to reward our most dedicated players. We also thought it would be a nice way to get a little extra attention for our game.
Chick: So the way it works is that when you get all the achievements, Swords & Soldiers generates a code. Then the player emails that code to you guys and they go into a drawing for a goodie bag, right?
Koning: Yes. We sent goodie bags to the first three players to get the code from each region. And now we're doing drawings once in a while. Also, we can check whether the codes are legitimate. Nobody has tried to cheat yet. That was something we were a bit afraid of.
Chick: Is there anything else you guys are working on that you can talk about?
Akker: We're working on a new game. It's completely different from Swords & Soldiers. That's all we can say.
Chick: Fair enough. Jasper, Fabian, thanks for talking to me. I really love the game. I was so delighted to discover it. Being a fan of de Blob, I wasn't surprised to discover it was the same guys. I'm a big fan of the work you've been doing.
Koning: Thanks. We'll continue to make games.
Chick: Perfect. Because I'll continue to play them.