My year as a Totem Pole

It’s been a year since Totem Topple came out, and six months since the patch that fixed it, so feels like a good time to take a step back and analyse what went right and wrong with the game.

The fact that it had to be extensively patched last summer attests to the issues with the original version that launched on PC and Wii U back in November 2015. You can read more about the making of the game, how it faltered, and efforts to rescue it, here.

However, I want to dig into the game design itself. For those unfamiliar with Totem Topple, it’s a tower defence game in which you literally play as a tower, in the form of a Totem Pole. Players select which heads to add to their Totem Pole. Each head on the totem pole has different abilities and stats. Some are turrets, others are heavily armoured or give bonuses to other heads:

I’m a What?

There is an immediate problem even with explaining the game. It’s not obvious who you are actually playing as. Totem Poles are inanimate objects, so it’s difficult to conceptualise being one. Nor do the individual heads have any character or personality or appear to be alive or anthropromorphised in any way. It might make sense if the totem pole was being built by someone, a tribe say, scurrying around at the base. But the game gives no indication that this might be the case.

It’s not clear who or what exactly the enemies are either. Nor what their motivations are for knocking down the Totem Pole. On occasion, some people watching the game’s trailer even thought they would be playing as the enemies, attacking the Totem Pole!

Equally, why do new heads appear from the sky and land on top of the Totem Pole? Usually Totem Poles are made from a single tree trunk, rather than separate blocks.

Furthermore, why do the enemies attack the base? It makes sense from a design point of view as it means enemies have to pass by all the turrets first. Plus the oldest heads are attacked first, meaning players have time to build new complex structures without feeling under attack constantly. Having the top attacked would mean mistakes or choices from early in the game, when the player might not have enough resources for an optimal setup, would linger at the base of the pole.

But having the base attacked instead makes no sense from an outside perspective. Once the head at the base of the Totem Pole is destroyed, players might reasonably expect the tower to tip over as physics (or the game’s name) might suggest. Rather than the whole tower falling down vertically by a single head’s height, as actually happens.

Probably a bit of story and exposition could have helped at least some of these issues. Even then, anyone who skips the story or doesn’t really bother with the narrative would be left somewhat lacking in agency / motivation. (It’s quite common for some players to want to just jump in and get their hands dirty when playing a new game, then worry about the why later).

This is further hindered by the art / theme. Players might be expected to come with a bit of background knowledge from the real world or playing other games. Shields = defence, swords = attack. But in Totem Topple, Bear = ??, Owl = ??. In fact, most of the heads are damage or defence modifiers, with the actual shooting done by the bird beaks attached to the sides.

Say instead, players are building and defending a spaceship, rather than a Totem Pole. Then things are a little easier. A deer becomes a “shield generator” and a bird beak becomes a “plasma turret”. I still stand by the decision to go with the Native American theme. Where the majority of games are set in space or medieval-fantasy land, having something else can help a game really stand out in the market. And I’m glad in the original game-jam where Totem Topple was born, we did manage to find a theme with a strong aesthetic, and that made sense for the core mechanic. In hindsight though, it brought as many problems as it solved.


The genre was another area where Totem Topple eschews tradition. It’s ostensibly a tower defence game, but attaching that label brought with it player expectations that simply weren’t matched by the design.

One case in point is the lack of geography in Totem Topple. There is no decision as to where to place the next Totem head. It will always be on the top of the pole. This simplification I feel works quite nicely, as it lessens the sharpness of the learning curve. In many tower defence games, poor placement in the early game can really harm the player. There’s no map to scroll around either. The whole game fits onto a single screen with ease. And there are simply less turrets to worry about. No complex mental calculations of “I have 6 plasma turrets and 5 railgun turrets and 8 beam turrets, so I need an extra flak turret and maybe 2 more power generators”.

That said, learning the nuances of a particular map can be one of the more fun aspects of some tower defence games. And where Totem Topple falls down in the simple / elegant stakes is with the wing and beak placement. It’s not at all intuitive to have the side-parts placed on the next-highest free slot on that side of the Totem Pole. (Even saying that sentence is a bit of a mouthful).

Another example of moving away from tradition is with combat in the game. In a normal tower defence game, turrets auto-aim, shooting enemies when they come into range, before turning to aim towards them until dead or out of range again. Whereas in Totem Topple, they simply shoot a constant stream of arrows horizontally until pointed by the player at a specific enemy.

I actually quite like this concept. By leaving the turrets to their own devices, they provide a screen against enemies that wears them down as they pass. Rather than having strong enemies suck up all the tower’s firepower whilst smaller enemies can just waltz through, as happens with many tower defence games. (As if whoever is manning the turret is completely unable to prioritise. To make an intelligent decision to just stop shooting that bullet sponge for just a second in order to kill the fast, weak, kamikazi enemy that is about to get through).

In Totem Topple, players can choose to target an enemy if they can see one is nearing the bottom of the tower or is taking more damage than just one side of the tower alone can handle. Then whilst making a decision on what to target next, the turrets all go back to auto-fire, helping take out the enemies that were previously getting away unharmed.

Post-Patch (or what went right!)

A number of other elements of the game were reworked and much improved once the game was patched and expanded in the summer of 2016. The enemies could have had a little more variation, but at least they had a series of different behaviours, stats and special abilities to provide a range of challenges to the player. The fire enemies in particular, cause a degree of panic once players realise they can set their Totem Pole on fire! And even more panic once the fire begins to spread.

The water and ice enemies are a little weaker conceptually. The ice enemy merely freezes the Totem Pole, preventing a few turrets near the base from firing for a short period. Whereas the water enemies simply spawn new miniature enemies every few seconds. This at least gives the player some thinking to do when picking what to shoot next.

The game economy in Classic mode is another part of the game design that worked well on the second iteration / post-patch. The game is quite generous with resources in the earlier part of the game, but those resources can quickly seep away if players spend rashly or fail to defend properly. The downside being, when playing with two players on Wii U, that the playing building the Totem Pole can put themselves out of a job for long periods of the game by being too good.

The tutorial I’ve written at length about in the past, but at least it seems to get the job done for the most part. Whilst the jump-through-hoops style isn’t ideal, it does teach players how to get going, even if it’s not great on many of the details or more subtle elements of the game.


For all it’s flaws, Totem Topple has some interesting design ideas, and still comes out as a fun, if slightly confusing game. In many ways it’s similar to Clash Royale, with that game’s simplified tower defence across two lanes. My hope for Totem Topple is that others will learn the lessons from the game and perhaps open up some new thinking when it comes to tower defence genre.

Quick Reaction: Nintendo Switch

A number of people have chatted to me since the Nintendo Switch was announced a few days ago and been surprised by my ambivalence. This despite me making a big deal of working on Wii U for the last 2+ years.

I’ve never owned a handheld, aside from a brief few months when I had a 3DS. I bought it figuring I could play all those Nintendo and Japanese games I’d missed as a child growing up without a console or handheld in the house. But it wasn’t to be. The games were expensive and I was poor at the time, plus I was too busy with work to sink 30 hours into the epic JRPGs I’d picked up for it.

Since then, I’ve struggled to work out just why 3DS has sold so well, considering the rise of mobile gaming should be eating its lunch! I found this Guardian article very influential in my subsequent thinking about both handhelds and Nintendo.

The basic premise is that the 3DS is cute, both the form factor, and the games on it (like Animal Crossing). Plus in Japan, it’s seen as more younger kid-friendly than a smartphone. Nintendo Switch doesn’t appear to have any of those same qualities. From the marketing material, it seems to be aimed at lapsed Nintendo fans. The same people who remembered Pokemon from their childhood and downloaded Pokemon Go in record numbers when the series arrived on their mobiles.


Bringing those players from mobile across to the new device will be the real test of whether Nintendo Switch can succeed. The AAA gaming world isn’t interested in creating gaming experiences that transect devices. Neither are indies, who largely want to recreate the retro pixel art gaming of their childhood.

Therein lies an opportunity, to create a game that appeals to players beyond the traditional “core” audience, and that works to bridge the gap between mobile gaming and more involved console-like experience of the Switch.

neko-atsume-tips-tricks-01_w720Neko Atsume (pictured above) is a typical mobile type game: Lots of wait timers, micro-transactions, core game loop that can be played in 2 minutes whilst waiting for the bus. However, it’s also mind-bendingly cute. The internet loves cats, and moreover, people generally have a soft spot for pets. If I were going to make a game for Nintendo Switch, it’d basically be all about taking two or three of your cute virtual pets for walks and/or playing with them outside. At least that’d be the mobile version. Buy the Switch version and you can have a whole house full of different pets and a huge array of toys for them, things for them to do. (Maybe you work for a pet rescue centre as normal people don’t have 10 cats and 17 dogs in their house).

Unfortunately, I don’t have the money nor the team to go out and make such a game. I’m currently fully committed to finishing Flight of Light. That will take until February, just a month before Switch comes out. And after that, I’m considering going back to developing strategy games. A genre I have a lot of experience in making and playing. However, without knowing if the Switch has a touchscreen, it makes it hard to add it into development plans.

Also, I was a bit naive before with Wii U, in thinking I could make something innovative and that would really show off the unique capabilities of the GamePad. It’s easier said than done, and even if the motivation is there, the best ideas don’t necessarily come straight away. Plus I was burned with my experience of the OUYA, chasing a new platform and the opportunities inherent within. When in fact, I didn’t really have the resources to take that opportunity. It was just a mirage.

Nintendo Switch remains a big question mark for me. It doesn’t seem like a fit for me, but at the same time, having invested heavily in working with Nintendo on Wii U, seems a shame to let that all slip. Something to think about between now and February.

Wii U has all the toys!

The Wii U is reaching the end of its lifetime, soon we assume to be replaced by the as-still mysterious NX. I’ve spent nearly three years making games for Wii U in one way or another, and I plan to continue that for as long as Nintendo will let me. Why?

The Wii U has all the toys a game designer could want. Both touchscreen and buttons. Motion control as well as more standard console controller setup. This range of choice when it comes to input methods means a much wider variety of genres become possible. I grew up as a PC gamer and I love strategy games like Civilisation and Total War series. It’s just plain hard to do turn based strategy when all you have are buttons and sticks.

My first console game, Executive Star, was a case in-point. A local multiplayer strategy, made for the OUYA. Its design was based off board-games like Settlers of Catan, where trading resource cards between players is as simple as handing them across the table. Whereas for the console/TV experience, Executive Star had a great big grid that players would have to tab through in order to trade with each other – Use the left stick to go down to player 3, then across to the resource they wanted to trade. Press a button to increment the amounts. Then do same all over again for the other player’s half of the trade…

When making tower defence game Totem Topple for Wii U, the touchscreen allowed players to see all build options concurrently and pick which turret to build next with a tap of a finger. Rather than tabbing slowly through each option with buttons and menus. Adding in a Player 2, who could aim the game’s turrets, proved relatively painless with the Wii U’s support for extra controllers: Point the Wii Remote at the enemy you want to target and pull the trigger!

Two Sides

The Wii U’s much-maligned second screen may never have set the world alight, but it’s still by far and away the easiest way to build second screen experiences. Making games with multiple screens teaches a lot about what information to show or hide from players at which times. It also allows for experiments with asymmetry in (local) multiplayer gaming. Simply the fact that just one player has the GamePad, and the rest of the players don’t, has a huge impact on the dynamics of both the game, and the social interactions between players.

There have been a few brave attempts to explore the possibilities of second screen gaming on the Wii U. Affordable Space Adventures and ZombiU being notable examples, along with NintendoLand, which is still regularly discussed at length whenever I talk to Wii U owners about their thoughts on second-screen gaming. But it feels like the industry never really embraced the challenge.

In Motion

Motion control gaming is another area I feel has not been allowed to run its full course. For all the fuss about Star Fox: Zero showing off what could really be done with the GamePad, Splatoon gets far more mentions when talking to regular gaming fans about Wii U. Many fps players really love being able to use the motion controls to spin round quickly when shot in the back.

With my current project, Flight of Light, it’s always fun to hand a skeptical looking “gamer” a Wii Remote at a convention, and see their reactions upon enjoying the game more than they expected. Equally, the sight of a Wii Remote, sat on a table, waiting to be played, still draws in a particular crowd. Especially young kids and their parents (much to my frustration: Flight of Light requires fine motor skills and quick reactions, both of which kids below a certain age really struggle with. Often resulting in disappointment).

That said, it’s taken years and endless iteration cycles to really nail down the controls. And I’ve been lucky in that having designed for Wii Remotes from the ground up, the game translates to other control schemes (mouse for PC, 6-axis motion control for PS4). As motion control has made a bit of a comeback due to VR, it’s been useful to have that experience of what works, and a lot more of what doesn’t.

Plain Sailing

There’s still more toys in the box I’ve yet to play with. Amiibo, and NFC “toys-to-life” in general are one I’d particularly like to have a go with. And something I don’t think has reached its real potential yet.

It’s also worth pointing out that console development is not always plain sailing from a programmers point of view. And as much as it might be fun for game developers to mess around with their hardware, platform holders are running a business – What works from a technical perspective might be a security risk or cause legal issues (no standing on GamePads please!)

We can debate why the Wii U has struggled commercially till the cows come home. It’s certainly however, provided opportunities to do some really interesting things in game design, and hopefully will continue to be a great device in the future!

Flight of Light is currently on kickstarter. You can find out more here.

Kickstarter Launch!

We’re raising funds for Flight of Light’s soundtrack over on Kickstarter! The money will be used to pay a number of different musicians to compose the game’s soundtrack. If all goes to plan, there’ll be four musicians creating two pieces of music each to fit the game’s initial nine levels. (The ninth music track has already been composed by freelance musician Lawrence Shahid, which you can listen to in the trailer above!)

For the next month, we’ll be putting out updates on how the kickstarter is progressing alongside the usual dev diaries and updates on the game’s progress.

Why I’m making a motion control game in 2016

When I first started developing for the Wii U, it had already been struggling for the couple of years since its release. Nintendo were keen for more games to showcase the console’s GamePad, and being the bright-eye’d naive young developer I was, I arrogantly thought I could step up to that challenge!

After spending a bit of time getting the devkit and tools up and running, I realised the Wii U also supported Wii Remotes as well. I wrote out a list of game concepts for both GamePad and Wii Remotes to prototype when my current project was completed. Well that project fell through, and added to that, I’d got the devkit on a deferred payment scheme. So the clock was ticking to get a game finished and released, and make the cash needed to pay for the kit.

I decided to start with Wii Remotes, and an idea I’d had when first exploring the Wii U’s API’s. Wii Remotes at their most basic level output 3 floats to represent x,y,z rotation, and it seemed like most games simply mapped these real-world movement values one-to-one to movement in the game. Swing a tennis racket or aim a gun. Instead, I mapped those values to colour.

Change the hue, saturation and lightness. That was rapidly boiled down to just controlling hue in one dimension, as otherwise people would get lost in an ocean of grey, unable to work out how each movement corresponded to altering the lightness or saturation.

The simplest game I could make from that was matching colours. Players would be given a target colour, and have to rotate their Wii Remote in order to change their own colour to match. Point one end of the Wii Remote up and it outputs a 1. That translates into one end of the colour spectrum – red. Point the other end up, and you get 0, which translates as blue. Rotate between the two in order to cycle through the whole colour spectrum.

Flight of Light has evolved much since then, but in many ways, it is still the same fundamental game, underneath the many layers of visual abstraction that now separate it from those roots. Along that journey, I’ve been advised many times to change the game’s control scheme. Use discreet lanes, or discreet buttons, like guitar hero. Have the colours snap into solid bands. However, I’m glad I resisted those calls, as the game wouldn’t be where it is today otherwise. It’d be just another clone of the many rhythm games that have come before it.

Equally, having that continuous range of input has opened up paths that otherwise wouldn’t be there. Being able to race in-time to the music is now an integral feature, but may never have come about were it not for the way the game is controlled.

More over, it’s allowed the game to spread to multiple different platforms and control schemes. The game can be played with exotic devices like Kinect and Leap Motion, or more traditional mouse or console controller analogue stick. Or even touchscreens on mobile phones.

Why stick with motion control then, if more conventional controls are available? Firstly, motion feels the most natural to play with. That may be a consequence of having spent more time perfecting the control system with Wii Remotes than anything else, but for the most part, it’s intuitive. It’s a lot more approachable to non-gamers. When I take the game to conventions, people still associate the Wii Remote as something that let them be kinda good at games without needing to invest too much time mastering a complex rule set or sequence of actions to perform.

The downside is that Flight of Light isn’t nearly as kid-friendly as I’d hoped. Anyone below a certain age struggles to play, as the game requires fine motor skills and quick reactions. Little kids have neither.

Secondly, and somewhat related to the first point, I feel quite strongly that motion controlled gaming was never given the chance to fully run its course. It feels like most of the industry treated it like something outside of their comfort zone, and something they were all too happy to drop when the chance came. A lot of people bought Kinects and Wii’s, but how many developers stepped up to the plate to serve that audience?

I’m not pretending Flight of Light is anything revelatory or unique, but at least by experimenting with motion controls, I can say I’ve taken a different path to create something people have enjoyed.


Shiny Circles

Upgrading Flight of Light’s graphics had major and unexpected effects on the game’s playability

Previously, most of the game’s art was cobbled together placeholder assets, many of which had gone through multiple iterations of gameplay alterations, to the point where they no longer made sense or didn’t fit with everything else. That was fine for when the game was constantly changing. With the game’s recent change of direction, it also became clear the game’s graphics needed a major overhaul. However, having swapped out the old assets for shiny new ones, it quickly became apparent that the playability of the game had been impacted far beyond what we expected.

The biggest change came from trying to give the player a sense of speed. Pulling back the camera and widening the field of view as the player’s speed was boosted gave a great sense of acceleration. However it left the actual playable area of the game confined to a tiny portion of the screen.

The first instinct was to simply make the notes larger, so they could be seen from a greater distance. This worked, but the extra-large notes would frequently clip through the new scenery. The scenery also needed to be relatively close to the track to help with the sense of speed – trees and rock faces rushing past the player at close quarters.

Reducing the amount of camera shifting,combined with a slight increase in note size made the game much easier to play. No more squinting into the screen to try and make out the tiny notes in the centre. However, that really killed the sense of speed.

Actually increasing the speed (as opposed to simply the illusion of speed) helped, but also brought problems of its own. If corners were too tight, it would cause sudden jarring changes in direction. The notes would travel along the track so fast that the player would barely have any time to react. In the next blog, I’ll detail more about the process of re-making the track and forest level to fix that.

Adding in the new spaceship model also threw up unexpected issues. Being far bigger and, more importantly, wider, than the old placeholder model meant players would often think they had just clipped the edge of a note, only for the game to tell them they had missed. The game doesn’t use physics to calculate the collision of notes with the ship, but rather relies on timings, and on knowing what angle the ship is at versus the angle of the note.If the difference between the two angles is too great, the game will take that as a miss, regardless of what model is being used and how things may appear to the player.

Making the angle range within which the game recognised a hit had the knock-on effect of making the game that much easier. However, we’d noticed already that the effects used to show the player they had missed were already on the extreme side. Violent screenshake and asudden slowdown that really made players feel they were being punished harshly. We’re currently working on a way to make those effects more of a sliding scale, so that a small, occasional miss will still be noticeable to players, but not completely kill the flow of the game.

In the end, it’s been a combination of changes and small compromises in different areas made a huge improvement to the game’s feel and ease of play. And also a lesson learned about just how clousely coupled graphics and gameplay can be.

Change of Direction

Back in May, we pitched Flight of Light to a number of potential investors. However, none of them were particularly interested in the game. A disappointing experience, but on reflection came the realisation the game lacked focus. It felt schizophrenic, two competing personalities and styles, neither of which was really fulfilling its potential.

We decided to redirect attention towards the futuristic neon racer side of the game. The simple reason that it was the closer of the two to being finished. It’s also much more technically within reach to make a really good job of it. I initially spent a number of days trying to improve the algorithm for the unfolding triangles on the Autumn level. So that it could unfold into any given shape, allowing for a whole landscape to unfold in-front of the player. Sadly, it was just beyond my capabilities, and left me banging my head against the wall, going nowhere fast.

Flight_of_Light_byCrystalline_Green_neon_1_720p(from this..)

We’ve also had issues for years with trying to illustrate how Flight of Light is played through video. Incremental changes are slowly making it easier to learn the game without instruction. That’s having a positive knock-on effect that it’s also easier to work out what is going on just from watching the game. However, even if it’s still a little hard to work out precisely what the game is all about, if it looks good, that at least encourages people to want to find out more about it.

Graphics really do matter, especially when selling a game, and it’s easier to create a futuristic racing game than an artsy, low-poly procedural musical experience. Furthermore, the audience for the former is arguably larger and easier to reach with the sorts of tools available to low-budget independent developers like us.


(to this…)

The aim is now to release version one of the the game by end of January 2017 (or thereabouts). That will then provide a platform from which the game can potentially be expanded to include different styles and new modes of play.

Fly Faster – FoL Update

We’ve produced a short teaser trailer for Flight of Light. This shows the latest gameplay and much improved graphics. We’ve also updated the Flight of Light website and presskit with new screenshots and information about the game:

We’ll be going into more detail on how the game has changed in future blogs and videos over the next couple of months.

Elements of Damage

Introducing damage types into Totem Topple proved to be a relatively quick way of creating more variety and dynamism within the game. It allowed for new and interesting enemies to emerge later on in the game, and added an extra dimension to the game without burdening the player with too much extra to learn.

ice arrows 1

Change of Plan

Originally, the plan was that whatever damage type was selected when the player placed a beak (turret) or wing, that would be it’s damage type for life. However, this lead to issues whereby players would be stuck with a lot of ineffectual turrets that didn’t match the damage type of the latest wave of enemies. Or worse, not have enough supplies to build more beaks for the incoming enemy damage type, and be unable to collect any more due to being unable to kill those enemies!

Furthermore, it hugely complicated the tower building elements of the game. Since the game doesn’t have an undo function or any way to adjust the tower once built, having to account for different damage types in different places on the tower just put the game that bit beyond the player’s easy understanding. Placing mismatched wings and beaks on either side of a head because you forgot you’d changed damage types gets old really fast.

As well, firing in Totem Topple is done by simply aiming all the turrets at a single target. It doesn’t make much sense firing every damage type at an enemy when the player knows only a few arrows will have an effect. Especially if there are, say, both fire and ice enemies on screen, the player is better off letting the arrows shoot their respective damage types automatically. Rather than half their effective firepower by targeting a single enemy on which half their arrows will be ineffectual. That takes away the fun and point to being able to target specific enemies in the first place.

ice enemies

Limited Tension

Instead, having a single damage type fired by all beaks made both play and implementation that much easier. However, allowing players to constantly switch damage types made things too easy. It took away the challenge of managing damage types, as the player could just spam the button to change damage type to whatever.

The idea of giving the player a limited number of changes in a given time period came about more by accident than design. Copying the other buttons used to build heads/wings/etc meant the change damage type button inherited a cool-down timer. That on its own was too harsh on the player, as often they needed to cycle between a couple of damage types to get to the one they wanted. Giving them a small number of changes, that would then replenish slowly over time, gave just the right balance. Forcing the player to be conservative with their damage type changes, but not to the point of being punishing.

Ready, Aim, Fire!

Some years ago, I participated in a game jam using Eye Tracking technology. My team’s game was a horrible mess, but the eye tracking technology itself was far more responsive and accurate than I anticipated.  When it came time to port Totem Topple over to PC, I decided to have a go at integrating eye tracking, just for fun.

I used the eye tracking to let the player target enemies and shoot all arrows towards that chosen enemy until it was dead. After which the arrows would revert to their usual patterns until a new enemy was targeted. The result was really fun, to the point that people would forget the actual tower-defence and building aspect of the game, especially in Classic mode, and just have a great time shooting as many enemies as they could.


Later on, when creating the Wii U updates for Totem Topple, Wii Remotes proved a relatively straight forward substitute in for eye tracking (which Wii U doesn’t support). Pointing the Wii Remote at the TV and letting one player direct fire, whilst a friend or family member concentrates on building the tower and controlling damage type dealt, added a surprise extra social dimension to the game. In Off-TV mode, the enemies are seen on the Wii U GamePad, and the player can tap on the GamePad touchscreen to target them. Equally for the non-eye tracker PC version, players click with the mouse on enemies they wish to shoot.


Totem Tutorial the 3rd

(Epilepsy warning: Contains flashing images)

The tutorial system in Totem Topple is something that we’ve wrestled with over a number of iterations. In the launch version of Totem Topple, it worked, in the sense that it gave players enough of an understanding of how the game’s basic mechanics worked to be able to play. Similarly, the complimentary Help system worked well in allowing players to see the underlying stats and numbers for the various heads and enemies.

However, the fact that many players resorted to using the Help showed how much the game was lacking in visual feedback. Many of the minor changes made to Totem Topple for the 2.0 release try to give players a better sense of how their actions affect the game.

Circular Confusion

For example, some heads give a bonus to their neighbours, as indicated by the radius wheel behind them. Unfortunately, the wheel itself, whilst it is clear where it is coming from, it’s not clear what it actually does. There are no visible links or changes on the heads it affects. In fact, some players confused it for some sort of shield or radial attack.


Instead, now indicator arrows point between heads, wings and beaks, allowing players to see when any one element on the totem pole affects another. For health buffs, the affected heads gain a purple glow as a show of high strength, at least give some indication to the player that this head is different to others. However, we’re still looking at ways to make it even more obvious when one head or wing afftects the health of another.

Go Faster

When it comes to rate of fire changes, the differential between the lowest and highest rates was not big enough previously. Whilst the way the game was balanced, a higher rate of fire made a big difference to the player’s ability to kill lots of enemies, unless they looked really closely, players were unlikely to be able to tell that.

To improve this, firstly the balance of the game was changed so that low rate of fire really did mean one measly arrow every couple of seconds, whilst the highest rate creates an almost constant stream. Further to this, a higher rate of fire actually means the arrow physically moves faster. The arrows also gain “go faster stripes” or speed lines as they are called by illustrators. These emphasise the speed, but also give an extra visual pointer to show that things have changed when adding a wing, or that this head-beak combo is better than another.

rof motion stripes 1

Adding in a simple, two step animation of the bird beaks opening and closing every time an arrow fired also helped to give players an extra visual clue that one head/beak is a lot more active than the others. Especially so when arrows are flying in all directions.

beaks open


There were also a few combinations where beaks would have a zero rate of fire or arrows would do negative damage. To represent this, beaks would be closed, or fire broken arrows. Even so, this is probably a bit confusing for the player, so long term, we’re aiming to remove the need for these by rebalancing.

broken arrow 2

Flaming Arrows

For damage, arrows now start off black and then slowly turn more and more brightly coloured depending on the damage type being fired. The highest damage dealing arrows are then given spectacular trails of flame, snowflakes or water jets to really drive home that these arrows were specially powerful.

flame arrows 1


Another problem was simply telling heads apart from each other. It’s not intrinsically clear what a bear or a wolf or an eagle does or represents. Unlike, say, a scifi themed game, where the players can work things out using existing knowledge: That gun-looking structure is probably a turret, and the box that emits a glowing shield is probably a defensive mod.

Previously we’d coloured the heads according to function. Blue for defensive and orange for offensive. However, players didn’t pick up on that, viewing each head individually, and trying to work out what each did one at a time.


So we gave each one a unique colour. We also simplified the designs. A lot of detail was getting lost or creating a pixellated mess on lower resolution screens, which made the heads all blur into one. Simplifying the graphics also helped to make the overall game aesthetic look cleaner. We did the same for the enemies, using the original higher-resolution enemy images for the much larger, newly created boss enemies. This had the added bonus of making them appear more special compared to their smaller, plainer counterparts.


Another complaint from the launch version of the game was that the hitboxes were too small. Players would see their arrows whisk right through enemies, apparently failing to hit them unless the arrow hit dead centre. However, increasing the enemy hitbox size caused a different problem, whereupon enemies would often hit the second bottom totem head as they moved into the base of the tower. The game is programmed as such to ignore these hits (as it massively complicates the game and its coding if non-bottom heads / heads half-way through the stack can be killed). As a result, the new enemies would often completely fail to knock the totem pole down.

The solution was actually to make the arrow hitboxes significantly larger instead. Some re-balancing in other areas made sure that the game didn’t become too easy as a result.


Some aspects of the game didn’t get a mention in the tutorial, yet were not common features to other games in the genre. For these, rather than let the player figure it out for themselves as before, “interrupt” style tutorial messages would pop up informing the user of key bits of information the first time they did something significant but otherwise non-obvious.

For example, the placing of towers and turrets is a key part of most tower defence games, yet Totem Topple eschews this as one of the limiting factors of the game, forcing players to plan ahead a bit more than they might otherwise need to. That’s all very well except that most players didn’t understand that, especially with placing wings.

nextwing indicators_3

So when a wing is first placed, the game now informs the player both about the functions wings perform and where they will be placed by the game on the totem. Small graphical indicators have also been added to help players subsequently quickly see where the next wing will be placed.


The other related issue is with the height warning. Way back when the game was first created, it would let players simply keep building up and up ad-infinitum. However, this meant players could for the most part mash the place head buttons (at least in frantic mode), and it didn’t really matter what heads they placed, just how quickly they could throw them down.

To get around this, a mechanic was added in which players were punished for this mode of behaviour, spawning huge waves of super-hard enemies if they built beyond the red flashing warning line near the top of their screen.

punish spawn

This rightly confused the hell out of most players, who did not make the connection between building “too high” and the game suddenly ramping up to impossible difficulty levels. This threat of “angering the spirits” and super-hard enemies did not raise the tension of the game as hoped. Rather, the seemingly arbitrary nature of the players’ demise just as they seemed to be making progress left many frustrated and feeling cheated.

So we simply placed a hard limit on how high players could build. No more than 10 heads, and then the first time they hit that limit, an interrupt would inform them of the limit. The red warning line was kept in, but now as a reminder of that limit rather than as an easily mis-interpreted signal of impending doom.

Sharpening Edges

The game’s UI was also subject to improvements. On the tutorial, enemies would flash and buttons “ping” and scale to help cement the messages in the tutorial text, and better guide players towards the buttons they needed to press or things they needed to be aware of.

ui flashing enemies

Various factors meant we were stuck with using Unity’s less than perfect legacy GUI. However, even simple changes, like using a font other than default Arial also made a big difference. Or adjusting the UI buttons and panels to have angular corners to fit better with the angular background art style.

Overall, the various systems that help the player learn now feel like they do a much better job, working together and in different ways to convey information. There are still many more improvements to be made, but with the changes made, the game doesn’t leave players so lost and confused as it once did.