My series of browser game reviews continues, this time with the seminal genre of browser games.
Tower Defense games are perhaps more than any other single genre characteristic of browser games – so much so that many of the games reviewed so far in this series of mine actually had clear tower defense logic in them: a passive player against actively attacking enemies that come in waves, with the player improving his defenses as best he can in between. I have no absolutely clear favourite within the genre, but I definitely recommend checking it out – the specific game could be Desktop Tower Defense, Gemcraft or something else entirely.Tower defense is a very stratified genre, comparable to Tetris-like drop puzzles and such in how each game lifts 80% of its logic from the predecessors, only making small improvements or changes. I understand that the genre in its modern form comes from Starcraft or Warcraft 3 or something like that, some game in which people could make mods to turn the game into something where the player would place a variety of defensive structures (“towers”) alongside a fixed path, along which enemy figures would then travel in waves, waiting to be shot before they could finish the gauntlet and score points against the player’s diminishing health supply. That’s the genre in a nutshell, incidentally.
Being critical of the entire genre is possible, but ultimately futile – if you haven’t played this stuff, try one and find out whether it’s your thing or not. If it is, then there are certainly better and worse titles to choose from, but those nuances are likewise highly personal in nature: I definitely like the strategic aspects in Desktop and Whiteboard, which apply the innovation of getting rid of fixed paths in favour of allowing the player to shape the battleground as he would, building his own maze for the enemy creeps (apparently this is a technical term for the enemy figures in this genre) to travel. Players who like to grind and gain complex rewards might like Gemcraft or the Protector series or the Invasion from Hell series (actually, these are almost all serial in nature; the genre is hugely popular, it seems), which all have experience management, a campaign mode and so on. The basic activity is the same, though: in all these games the player has to devise the most efficient protective gauntlet possible with the resources available to him. It is actually a bit difficult for a game in this genre to be “bad”, as your job as the player is to simply figure out the game, break it if you can and play it only as long as it sustains your interest. The worst a game like this can do is to not sustain that interest for very long, but even then the level of the play experience itself wasn’t necessarily that bad – you just stopped playing when it dropped below a threshold, just like you’d have done with a great game in the genre.
I should also note that my own experience indicates that tower defense is something of a stress relief genre most of the time; the games with the highest level of math and options, like Gemcraft, are frustrating and overwhelming because of that. It’s also why I like Paper War, which is simple enough to figure out and easy enough to play with pure strategy; high level play in tower defense games depends on intimate familiarity with the given game’s details and some pretty hard math on the exchange rates of time to money to tower strength to tower numbers and so on.
Why I don’t like this genre much, even if it is important
Most tower defense games fail to engage me because they’re pretty weak on the goal-setting department: the idea is usually to just improve your skills with the particular game to get a better score or make it through even harder levels than the ones you played through last. For example, I got into Desktop Tower Defense for a couple of days last year (or so), long enough to play the normal mode of the game through on moderate difficulty. I rather liked that, and I think that I might have continued playing the game at higher levels of accomplishment, except for the fact that it started to feel too much like work.
Another important factor in why I didn’t hone my skills further in Desktop is that the best parts of the game are rather vulnerable to spoiling: there’s not much for me to do in these games after I read some treatise written by a dedicated player on how the game should be played. The mere knowledge that there are much better players out there than me, while the whole purpose of the game is to get better, but getting better is not a skill issue but a knowledge issue, deterred me for some reason. I guess I’m just not cut for high-level play in this sort of game.
As a more general observation, merely improving on your game (as opposed to other goal systems a game might have) seems to work best when the player manages to get into a mindset where he is competing with himself, his own previous score. Comparisons with others are not very fruitful when those others are anonymous Internet monkeys on a high score list instead of real people. I consider high scores a vulnerable accomplishment mechanism for this reason, and a game with no other arc ultimately frustrating; it’s much better if the game has some sort of real ending that tells me when to stop playing. Not a very deep insight, I suppose – endings are in video games to generate feelings of accomplishment.