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Lars Doucet on How Defender’s Quest is Not Final Fantasy: Crystal Defenders

I think I am going to ask developers about how their games differ from a specific title more often. The following words from Lars Doucet, the lead developer of Defender’s Quest, are just too thoughtful not to share, and it all sprung from my wondering what it does differently than a certain Final Fantasy tower defense game.

The developer describes Defender’s Quest as a distilled core experience RPG that focuses on three things: battle system, story, and customization. That means no random encounters, no spikey-haired emo kids, no forced time sinks, and no tedious, repetitive battles. The battle system builds off of tower defense, with individual characters taking the place of towers. Each character levels-up and gains skills individually, allowing the player to customize their battle experience and strategy.

The overall game structure is similar to tactical RPGs but with a real-time battle system. Game speed is adjustable, and commands can even be issued while the game is paused. The story strives to be fast-paced, snappy, and always relevant to gameplay. Events and dialogue explain things as they become relevant to the player, minimizing exposition.

[As humans are oft to do, I associated Defender's Quest with another similar looking game; I chose Final Fantasy: Crystal Defenders. That struck a cord with Lars, and I was able to hear how the two games differ:]

The original idea for Defender’s Quest came from my design partner Anthony Pecorella. He works for Kongregate as his day job, so he knows all the ins-and-outs and best practices of Tower Defense games. Defender’s Quest is pretty much our frustrated response to Crystal Defenders, to fix all the things, that, in our opinion, they got wrong.

Crystal Defenders isn’t really an RPG/TD mashup, but by lifting so many thematic elements from Final Fantasy tactics, really left us longing for that. The below comments address that disappointment, as well as “human” tower defense games in general.

Crystal Defenders, at least the versions I’ve seen, doesn’t seem to have any story. What’s the point of an RPG/TD mash-up without a story? Defender’s Quest features a story, though we try to keep it snappy, to the point, and with as little exposition and boring backstory as possible. You’ll have to be the final judge of whether we pulled it off, of course.

Next, there’s no concept of a “party” in Crystal Defenders. You just have generic defenders of different classes, so they’re identical to towers except they look like people and move around. So, not only do they lose out on the interesting meta-game aspect of an RPG, you’ve got these little dorks running around the map. Most human-based tower defense games go with this trope of giving your characters an effective “range,” but this generally feels a little weird, and it makes it hard to take a glance at the board and know what’s going on. If characters keep their feet firmly planted, it’s easier to estimate the range you’ve got covered.

Also, there’s nothing individual about the characters – it’s not like Final Fantasy tactics at all, where even your generic units have at least some hint of personality and individuality. Also, they keep the standard TD “upgrade” mechanic, but call it “level up.” So, you earn gold in battle and you “level up” your characters, but next battle, you do it all over again. There’s no persistence. The RPG elements are just theme, there’s not real inspiration in terms of mechanics.

Finally, melee units suck. This is a common problem in tower defense games (especially ones with flying units). The balance isn’t finely tuned so that there’s a compelling reason to use melee units and you mostly just spam ranged guys (at least I did).

In Defender’s Quest, we have a real RPG meta-game structure. We think of the game as a tactical RPG, where you have a mostly linear story and a small army of party members, but instead of a turn-based boardgame battle system, we have tower defense. Each of your characters is unique, levels up individually, and can learn new skills which you can customize. Furthermore, you can buy equipment for them which you equip individually (we tried to make the UI for this as easy to deal with as possible). This way, there’s individuality to your characters. You can choose how they look, what their names are, etc, and what abilities they have.

In our game, you have a “boost” system where you can upgrade your characters temporarily in-battle, and a “level up” system where they gain permanent new abilities between battles. Each characters has a skill tree with 5 “techniques” and several passive “traits.” Techniques are attacks your character can perform – but only the first one is available when you summon them. You have to “boost” them to unlock the next ones – so where you put your points depends on your strategy. Do you have lots of cheap-to-summon guys with beefed-up early skills, or a few guys with strong advanced skills that you need to boost several times at high cost?

The same level of customization applies to the meta-game, mostly in the form of the question, “how should I spend my money?” You can recruit new guys, but then you have less money for equipment. And when you buy equipment – do you buy just a few choice pieces for your best troops, or a bunch of cheap stuff so everyone can have some? We kept equipment streamlined for the sake of sanity – weapons and armor only have a single bonus stat to attack/defense, but the choice is still meaningful given the large potential party size.

[So, I hope this has impressed you enough to go try Defender's Quest. There's a free demo right now, and gamers only have to wait until November for a full release. I will try again this week to convince you how cool Defender's Quest is when we find out about its accessibility features!]