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.

Tradition

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.

TL:DR

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.

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