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Tank Tactics: The prototype that almost ruined Halfbrick


After Fruit Ninja was finished, the guys at Halfbrick spent almost two years shipping updates. Finally ready to do something new, Halfbrick started doing prototypes. It would be a simple game that everyone at Halfbrick could play competitively.

This is when Tank Tactics was conceived. Halfbrick chief creative officer Luke Muscat showed off the first version, made of graph paper and little paper squares, at GDC. He quietly set up the game in a corner of the Halfbrick offices, gave everyone an action point and went back to his desk. Three hours later, commotion ensued – the entire game board was a graveyard.

The premise of the game was simple: each tank had three hearts and could attack other tanks within range. Each day, every player was given a new action point, which were necessary for firing shots or moving around the game board. Players could also shoot action points over to other players within range. There was a jury, a group of individuals who were eliminated from the game. Every day the jury would vote and grant one player an additional action point.

The trading didn't go the way Muscat had hoped – he assumed trading would be localized to smaller factions, where players in immediate proximity shared with each other. Reality proved otherwise, as several players all filtered their action points – daisy-chain style – to one player. One player ended up having nine action points.

By the third day, the game had started to build momentum in the office. Day five, a cease fire was instituted for the mornings, from 9am until 10am, so that some work would still get done. One slide showed an employee on crutches from the top floor making his way downstairs to play. Tank Tactics had its hooks in.

On day nine, Tank Tactics started to foster animosity between co-workers. "This is the best thing I ever made," Muscat joked at the thought of how rabid the players had become, but at that point he began feeling bad about how the game was affecting his coworkers. His only recourse was to shut the game down. "Productivity in the office had come to a complete halt."

At that point, Muscat tried to dissect this animosity and competition in Tank Tactics. "These guys are taking it way too seriously, it's their own fault." Muscat was happy he made such a game that would ensnare his coworkers so, but he was upset that he brought productivity in the office way down.

He sent out a survey, eventually discovering more than half the players at some point had felt upset by the game, and many more even paranoid about it. In Muscat's mind, the game was both a success and a failure – it hooked people, but it was damaging relationships outside of the game. Why?

Secret plans were one of the first things he discovered – even double secret plans to backstab individuals who were invested in the initial secret plans were uncovered. Spies had begun to form, subterfuge and information dealing became a real thing. Players recruited spies – up to five people who weren't even playing the game acted as eavesdroppers in the office, Muscat revealed. Even double agents emerged.

Those sitting within view of the glass-encased game board in the office would relay information about the board, movements and such during the day. "It's not a game anymore; it's infected the office." Then Muscat discovered something afoul in the jury.

People created anonymous email accounts in an attempt to poison the jury. Muscat said a lot of these people felt ashamed of their actions afterward. "It got very personal."

The lack of randomness was a big factor in the fervor, because players couldn't place any of the blame or burden of unsatisfactory happenings on the game, Muscat said. There's always someone to blame or be pressured by. "You're actually personally attacking people," which Muscat said started to affect relationships outside of the office.

Introspection forced Muscat to look at other notorious games suffering player ire. He found similarities in Neptune's Pride, including a constant influx of actionable points that you can execute at any time, abstract representation and focus on diplomacy.

He played a few games to test out some theories. One theory he had was that if a group of people played assuming an alias, players wouldn't feel so bad when they screwed over or attacked each other. It didn't do much to quell his painful feelings as players started to realize who the others were based on play style alone. Evocative rules facilitated that.

Muscat started thinking about engagement versus fun, finding a correlation between the game being exciting and eliciting negative feelings. Muscat got into touch with the creator of Neptune's Pride, Jay Kyburz. In talking to him, Muscat found that Kyburz never intended for the game to elicit such fervor and backstabbery. It forced Muscat to reflect on that impact and reevaluate why he makes games.

It was a great learning experience for Muscat, even if he single-handedly almost poisoned Halfbrick forever. He learned about game design, player roles and even himself as a game designer. "The pure mechanics of a game have the ability to change people and the way they act. I wanted the game to be as engaging as possible, no matter the cost."

"No matter the cost" is not part of Muscat's mantra any longer. As such, Tank Tactics is back to the drawing board, forcing him to reconsider a lot of his game design tenets. He's currently trying to reshape the game in a way that it won't ruin the office. He's just not sure what to do about it now – well, other than to drop the game off as-is at some rival game studios, he joked.

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