In an interview I did with Rebuild developer Sarah Northway the other day, one thing that kept coming up was the power of relatively simple games to become something bigger by sheer force of personality. No game embodies that better than Tilt to Live, the first game from two-man Alabama studio OneManLeft. Tilt to Live couldn’t be simpler: don’t touch the bad guys. Red dots spawn in increasingly intricate formations in the play area, and you use the iPhone’s tilt controls to steer yourself away from them. It’s like a bullet hell shooter without the shooting – it’s good little game.
But Tilt to Live is a little game with an outsized personality. Loading screens in the game are like a slightly boozed-up uncle, telling you obvious but hilarious lies (“Hide from your iPhone for several seconds to advance”). The game never misses an opportunity to be self-effacing about the lack of menace generated by its dot antagonists. Tilt to Live is the perfect casual game – it’s pure fun, distilled into one- or two-minute doses. You’re left with the impression that the guys behind Tilt to Live would just be awesome to hang out with.
Alex Okafor (the code) and Adam Stewart (the art) of OneManLeft have moved in a very different direction (“I was sick to death of dots,” Adam told me) with their new game Outwitters, a multiplayer strategy game. Outwitters is a head-to-head asynchronous board game – a hex strategy Words with Friends.
After the jump, my interview with Alex and Adam: how Outwitters was born from an Adobe Illustrator document, their reaction to the release of Hero Academy, and when we can expect to see Outwitters on the App Store.
Owen Faraday: So what made you guys decide to branch out into something so different?
Adam Stewart: Alex was busy working on Tilt to Live update stuff, so I started doing the closest thing I could to prototyping a new game. Which was pen and paper, so strategy just made sense.
Alex Okafor: One of us usually comes up with the idea in our own ‘domain’, be it a mock-up or animation from Adam, or a coded prototype from me, and we just come together and go back and forth on it.
Adam: Yeah, my Outwitters prototype was an Adobe Illustrator document. To spawn characters you’d copy/paste. It was pretty bootlegged.
Alex: So Outwitters was Adam’s brainchild, ultimately I think he wanted something with a bit more ‘character’ art-wise, and I was on board as I liked the prospect of designing and balancing a bit more of a complex game.
Adam: Alex is a multiplayer junkie, so he had the idea of adding in a league system and making this robust community thing. So we both found a side of it that we could get excited about.
OF: Outwitters seems to have a Words With Friends-sort of accessibility. Was the decision to go with that cute sort of aesthetic part of making it more accessible? Making a less intimidating strategy game?
Adam: The aesthetic was intentionally wide-appeal, to match the gameplay. Because if you’re going to have a strategy game to play with your friends, it has to be something your friends can get into regardless of their feelings about strategy games. I really loved Banjo-Kazooie growing up, so the themes and stuff from this game draw a lot on that kind of aesthetic.
Alex: A lot of the strategy games I’ve seen lately just have a strong sci-fi, military or historical aesthetic, so in a somewhat crowded market looking different can sometimes be helpful.
Adam: Mostly I just really got excited about designing characters and these were what came out. It wasn’t like an advertising design [to fit a spec]. And we’re self funded. So we pay attention to what’s going to make money, but MOSTLY we just follow our passions.
OF: So what’s been inspiring you lately?
Adam: Super old comics. Lately I was on a Hellboy kick, really wanting to do something dark and stylish. It’s probably reactionary to drawing the Adorables stuff.
Alex: Frozen Synapse was quite inspirational, I thought they did an awesome job of bringing a fun twist to asynchronous strategy games. So since then it’s always had my head churning for new ideas to bring to the standard tactics genre.We’ve recently been playing a fair share of boardgames in our circle of friends, and I’m hopelessly addicted to Starcraft 2, so a lot of my design decisions try to pull from those experiences in working on Outwitters.
OF: Starcraft is such a different experience from a turn-based game, what have you pulled out of that kind of game and taken into Outwitters?
Alex: Our league and ladders system is heavily inspired by Starcraft 2’s version. From a game design standpoint, the really fun asymmetric gameplay of sc2 is what I wanted to capture. Each team has 1 unique unit that gives that team an edge in a particular way. Different teams have different strengths, and once you pit them against other teams’ abilities it becomes quite the interesting set of choices and gameplay decisions.
Adam: It’s sort of Alex’s enthusiasm for Starcraft meets my disdain for complexity.
Adam: Alex and a few of our friends were crazy into Starcraft, so they sat me down to play. And I was like…. I’m never going to even attempt to learn this. Why do I need to take a semester of courses just to play with you? So I came up with something simple, Alex told me why a lot of it didn’t work, and we tweaked back and forth.
OF: Did you guys play Hero Academy? I imagine you were well into development when that came out. Was your first thought to send the devs anthrax in the mail or something?
Adam: I was super face palm at first. Not because their game was our exact idea or anything, but just because they had our same design goal: wide-appeal strategy multiplayer, and they executed it really well.
OF: But you feel that, mechanically, Outwitters is something distinct?
Adam: I was thinking: thank god I didn’t use knights.
OF: That’s hilarious. Lucky escape.
Alex: Yeah, but gameplay-wise, Outwitters plays very differently. If you like the turn-based strategy game genre I think Hero Academy and Outwitters offer something different so it’s well worth playing both.
Adam: I didn’t play a ton of Hero Academy, but Outwitters is more like chess with spawn points. One move per character, you invest resources to build your army, there are control points to add to your resources. We took some tropes and tried to think of the most elegant way to include them.
OF: I assume that – like Hero Academy and Words with Friends – there’s some kind of IAP mechanic built into Outwitters. What’s that going to look like?
Adam: In the interest of getting a big community (it’s multiplayer-only so community is everything), we decided early on that the game had to be free-to-play. The IAP is pretty straightforward. You get one team for free, and could play into eternity with that if you like. We have the other 2 locked up for purchase. There’s a third option to get both those teams, and any teams we release as updates in the future. The three are balanced against each other, so there is no known advantage to having a purchase. And we plan to continue balancing them against each other if need be, post release.
Alex: At the same time we feel we’re making something a bit more ‘involved’ than say, Draw Something, with our game given it’s strategy-based, has awesome characters, amazing music, etc. It’s been an interesting balance to strike because we’re trying to design a game you can be inside for long periods of time, but the asynchronous nature of it promotes quick in-and-out type of usage.
OF: Can we expect more TtL-style comedy loading messages in Outwitters?
Adam: Well, iOS started saving your states, so you hardly see the damn loading screens anymore. A lot of the comedy got to go into the characters this time, they can actually emote a little. Like the Adorables is a race of cutesy creatures, and their medic is this weird little nurse. When she does her health buff, she gives a little MUAH and boosts her allies with love. And we she dies, she explode into the fireworks. The scream is actually quite unsettling.
Alex: You’ll see some of the OML-flavored snarkiness throughout the menus and UI in the game.
OF: So how long until we can play it?
Alex: No concrete date, but we’re close. We’re in a feature-complete beta at this point, so..
Adam: Precisely in approximately a month.