Time Management, meet Tower Defense

At least six months ago, lured in by the Chocolatier and Tradewinds games, I joined Big Fish Games’ Game Club, and now I get a game credit every month. The last few months, I’ve been at a loss for how to spend it. That’s partly thanks to the relative dearth of material for the Mac, partly to the grinding uninventiveness of some segments of the casual game industry. I don’t like hidden object games or platformers or shooters very much; despise match-3 and mahjong. I enjoyed Diner Dash and the first few of its clones I played, but now there are so many that I wince at the sight of any two-word-title ending in Dash, Frenzy, Fever, Mania, or Madness.

This despite the fact that I’ve played a whole bunch of tower defense games, and enjoyed them all. Some game mechanics are inherently more resilient than others, and the resilience has to do with the strategic richness of play. It’s easy to introduce new strategic problems to tower defense games. You can let the player play on a set map (like Vector Defense and its sequels), or let him design his own pathway for the enemy (as in Desktop Tower Defense). You can force him to place his weapons at fixed points, or give him freedom to put them anywhere (like Bloons Tower Defense). You can make weapons upgradable; you can give them different ranges and effects; you can (as in Gemcraft) even make them portable between multiple points on the map. You could also (though I haven’t seen this yet) let the player have some control over the type or number of incoming enemies — a kind of bidding where the score and payoff are low if you select easy opponents, high if you take on the high risk ones. (I don’t know of a tower defense game that plays that way, but I would be completely unsurprised to discover one.)

Time management games are comparatively rigid. By tradition, the player controls only sequence: one succeeds by optimizing the order of tasks. Chaining similar tasks together gives a bonus (usually). When it comes to upgrades, the player gets to decide which of several improvements (usually to the speed of various component systems in the game screen) she’s going to upgrade first. That’s about all. No room for planning, no way to play the game in a significantly different way than someone else does.

Now, my earlier argument was that some game mechanics are just more open to variation than others, and I think that’s true. Part of the trick is doubtless that flow is critical to a time management game, and that may mean that it feels dangerous to give the player too much control lest she break a carefully tuned system.

But time management games could vary more than they currently do, by adopting a greater element of simulation. As things currently stand, the player usually has no control over the layout of her establishment (which affects things like customer flow and the speed with which the protagonist can follow her most frequent routes); over the types of customers she gets (there are usually idiosyncratic customers that turn up in certain waves, but the management of this is never left to the player); over the promotion of some products in preference to others.

Case in point: last night I played (until I got thoroughly sick of it) a game I’d bought with one of my languishing Game Club credits, not because I liked it so much as because it looked like the least lame option: Fashion Fits! The protagonist works in retail and spends her whole time restocking cargo pants and cleaning up changing rooms. It’s not offensive, mind you (unless you object to its stereotyping of cheerleaders); it’s just not interesting. And I found my mind wandering to all the things I would rather be doing in this game, namely:

— rearranging the store so that stations the protagonist keeps having to visit are placed close together
— controlling an advertising strategy to encourage certain clientele and discourage others
— arranging the layout of clothes and impulse-buy goodies in the store in such a way as to encourage certain buying patterns
— laying down laws for the customers (no changing room service! take your own clothes out of the changing room with you when you’re done!). No doubt I would pay for this option with reduced numbers of certain high-rolling customers, but mightn’t that be worth it?
— choosing new garments to buy for the store to fit the season and/or fashion trends and/or the clientele I was trying to get (and which the customers would simply not buy if I picked wrong)

Of course, that would have taken a lot more work to write than the current version of Fashion Fits!, and it would be a risk, and and and…

But this genre? It’s oversaturated. It’s got to develop in some direction, or there is less and less incentive to buy each new game.

Personally, I’m planning to quit the Game Club when my contracted months are up.

7 thoughts on “Time Management, meet Tower Defense”

  1. Re your suggestion of letting the player trade difficulty for score: It seems to me that this is part of the aim of Gemcraft’s mechanism of allowing the player to send the next wave in early. It doesn’t get you harder individual enemies than you’d otherwise be getting, but increasing the enemy density makes a more challenging experience.

  2. It sounds like we’re in exactly the same boat: signed up for Big Fish’s game club, have Macs, dislike hidden object games. I enjoyed Escape from Paradise, though I admit I haven’t had much interest in finishing (and I think that whoever wrote the game has serious memory management issues). I’ll have to try Tradewinds — are there any others you recommend?

  3. If you like/can stand more time management games at all, Burger Shop is one of the best crafted.

    Chocolatier and Chocolatier 2 are good tycoon-style games.

    Of the marble popper genre, almost all the games are essentially identical, but the Atlantis-sky-patrol themed one has the most inventive gameplay; it introduces just a couple of quirks that make it more interesting than the others, I’d say.

    Professor Fizzwizzle is partly aimed at kids, but the puzzles are reasonably inventive, if you don’t mind the extreme cartooniness of it all.

    Agatha Christie: Peril at End House is the least annoying hidden object mystery I’ve tried, though that is pretty weak praise from me.

    Hot Dish is a variant on the time management concept with a slightly arcadey element: you have to do various mouse gestures in order to perform cooking tasks and get all your food prepared at the right time. This is, at least, a bit of a change.

    But on the whole… disappointing, yeah. I keep hoping they will port more of the installments of Tradewinds, or bring over more of their “large file” adventures for the Macintosh. Inexplicably, they don’t always have Mac ports of their Windows games even when those ports are known to exist elsewhere. (E.g., their “tomorrow’s game today!” feature is showing Build-in-Time for Windows, but not for the Mac, for some inscrutable reason — even though I have played the Mac demo version of it from another site.)

    I’ve been considerably more impressed with the offerings over at http://casualgameplay.com/ — it’s not huge, but it’s a bit more diverse and interesting. Unfortunately, I don’t see anything that offers a discount to repeat customers, and for most of these games $20 is more than I want to pay.

  4. It almost sounds like you want a game with Tycoon at the end. There’s certainly plenty of those; I ran into Prison Tycoon 3 in an Office Depot the other day and wondered “when did Prison Tycoon 1 and 2 come out”?

    Theoretically, adding enough of the elements you’re asking for pulls it out of the casual market altogether, since I see many of the Tycoon games aimed at a slightly different market. I know you’ve had a casual-theme going lately, but is it possible you’re shopping in the wrong place?

  5. It almost sounds like you want a game with Tycoon at the end.

    Well, sort of, but not entirely. Tycoon games (which I do also enjoy) are often about optimizing designs to suit prewritten systems, whereas this would partly involve optimizing the system to fit my own use of it (ie, so that I can most efficiently do the time-managing thing, and so on).

    Anyway, I can see your point that maybe I’m just looking in the wrong places (though the times I’ve gone to stores to look for games I’ve been pretty depressed by the feebleness of the offerings for the Mac). But at the same time, casual gaming of the kind that gets onto sites like Big Fish often seems to be *incredibly* self-similar. This does not seem to me like a viable long-term strategy.

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