For Love of Tower Defense

When Skyrim was done sucking down my spare and not-so-spare time, I tried some smaller downloadable games.  First I played "Dungeon Defenders", a tower defense/RPG fusion.  Next (well, at the same time), I played "Orcs Must Die," a case of truth in advertising that was . . . an RPG/Tower Defense Fusion.

Starting to see a trend?

In fact, Microsoft apparently did, they even had a Tower Defense discount/special on XBox.  It appears that Tower Defense has become pretty popular and produced some good games lately, even if the genre has been around for awhile (such as "Trapt/Dark Illusion") 

This made me wonder, just are these games popular?  Why was I enjoying them?  Why did these RPG-style fusions seem especially enjoyable and well-received?  I mean, yes, Tower defense was and is popular, but these games seemed to reach something in me and other gamers that made us play for hours and speculate on new ways to immolate orcs (I recommend a spring trap that throws them back into Brimstone, by the way).

For you current and future game professionals, here's my analysis.

Let's take a look at a Tower Defense/RPG.  My first major experience with this fusion was playing "Lock's Quest" years ago and there was something special to that fusion of A) setting up a  freaking huge amount of traps and walls and such, and B) going in and kicking butt.  Back then there was something visceral about this, and judging by the love for Tower Defense/RPG, it's still reaching people.

What are these visceral elements?

For RPG's the elements are:

  1. An evolving character that's yours – and thus your own game experience.
  2. The ability to get experience, skills, swag – the "collecting" urge.
  3. Some personal identification with the character.
  4. The personal perspective of getting into the fight.

For Tower Defenses:

  1. There's the thrill of the onrushing hordes.
  2. There's the Rube-Goldbergesque please of setting up assorted deathtraps and devices so they destroy the onrushing hordes.
  3. There's working with the environments so the deathtraps more efficiently kill the hordes.
  4. There's the fun of doing this your way.  I still recall the first time in "Orcs Must Die" where I realized I had set up a spring trap so a boss could NEVER get up to me.  Of course the giant line of wall-based arrow traps made sure that his Sisyphean experience didn't last forever, but it was still cool.

Looking at the separate elements of the two fused genres helps reveal what makes them special.

Many RPG's have very static environments and one-on some combats.  The RPG/Tower Defense fusion makes the environment a dynamic part of your adventure – with a lot of enemies.  You, your skills, your traps, your environment come together in a symphony of highly personalized violence and adventure centered around the gut-feel adrenaline rush of "the hordes are coming."  In the RPG/Tower Defense fusion EVERYTHING matters as you face off against your implacable foe.

 If this is making you think of, say, the Battle of Helm's Deep in "Lord of the Rings," or the battle at the end of "Army of Darkness," then you've got  it.  If you haven't read/seen LoTR or seen "Army of Darkness" I am deeply ashamed of you.

Anyway, the RPG/Tower Defense fusion is basically The Big Battle from all your action, fantasy, zombie, and other movies.  Everything is dynamic, everything is used, and you've created your own set piece of unending blood and victory.

Now put that into a game with the right graphics and personality, and you've got a winner.  It speaks to the best elements of two genres developed separately to create something new, powerful, and deeply ingrained in our pop culture (and probably historical/evolutionary) consciousness.

It speaks to us.  I want to boot up my XBox just writing this thing.

 Recognizing this is important to gaming because:

  • It recognizes this fusion is a legitimate, powerful experience that can be developed – and you can make money it.
  • It recognizes that, perhaps, treating RPG and Tower Defense separately was missing a different genre/experience entirely.
  • It gives us ideas of how this genre of "RPG Defense" can be evolved by recognizing its unique traits.
  • It may be a genre that we can map to other concepts not normally associated with these generes – imagine an RPG defense game, say, that focused on Superheroes (Like Mr. Terrific). 

OK gamers.  Go to it.  At SOME point I'll we'll be tired of leveling up our Dungeon Defenders or killing Orcs.  Start programming!

Steven Savage