The West wasn’t conquered with one wagon train. It took group after group braving the wilderness for years before the land was tamed. In much the same way, the team behind Westward realized they had plenty of reasons to return to their game’s subject matter for a follow-up, the recently released Westward II: Heroes of the Frontier.
Not quite Square One
Thought they were starting from scratch, senior artist and game designer Alex Arnot said there were a few things from the first game the team knew they had to hold on to.
“The combined RTS and Sims-style game play was both something we wanted to hang on to as well as improve,” Arnot said. “Several of the new features added to the game were designed with this in mind, each of them adding to the gameplay that allowed players to complete quests and tasks using different tactics and strategies. Humorous voice acting and quirky dialog was also a must to bring over from the original.
There were, however, some features from the first game that would be left by the wayside, such as irrigation, while others, such as how citizens moved into town, had to be changed.
When it came to finding additions for the sequel, the team didn’t have to look far. Most of the group worked on the original game and had a panful of golden ideas that had to be sifted away while the first title was being made. The movement of citizens was an example of just such a feature.
“There were several features we wanted to add but were unable to because of technology or time restrictions,” Arnot said. “When we were tasked with creating the sequel this feature list become the launching point for the game design document of Westward II. A prime example of this was the change in how housing works.
“Originally new citizens moved into town from the outer edges of the map, this created several design and engineering problems when it come to AI pathing. To circumvent this problem new citizens were spawned in front of their houses.”
The sequel also added some brand new features, like a unique hero character, a measure of collective town happiness, and unlocking buildings through the accruing of experience.
The big change
Besides some of the little features that had to be left on the cutting room floor after WWI, there were also some big changes afoot. Forget adding AI pathing, the Sandlot team was adding a whole new dimension.
“The decision to switch to a full 3D engine resulted in a very different art style from the first,” Arnot said. ” This gave us a great deal of freedom when it came to creating character and building animations, rotating and scaling of objects and the ability to zoom in-and-out.”
But Arnot points out that the decision to go three-dimensional had its price as well, with the team truly having to start from the beginning with all the game’s art assets. It was, to put it mildly, tricky.
“The engine was not intended for the kind of game play we had designed for Westward II and was rather like fitting a square peg in a round hole,” Arnot said. “Instead of starting over with a different engine or writing our own we simple designed a very powerful hammer. It worked but I wouldn’t advise it as a solution.”
Bumps on the western road
Thanks in part to their switch to three dimensions, the development of Westward II (which clocked in at a relatively lengthy 13 to 14 months) had a few bumps along the way.
“Poor performance on low end machines forced us to make some significant cuts to game features and as well as level design,” Arnot said. “We’re not making Half-Life 2 here so expecting our audience to buy a new computer was not an option.”
Other features had to get the ax too, including a fog of war that would have hid undiscovered parts of the map, as well as more larger maps instead of the smaller ones that are in the game.
The team also faced challenges balancing a game with as many different factors as Westward II, but Arnot said the team actually learned quite a bit about what was possible with their game engine through the process.
“More than once I stood there shaking my head as I watched QA complete a series of quests in a completely different order than intended or thought possible,” Arnot said. “The rule became if it didn’t break anything we’ll allow it.”
Once word of the changes to the game began to seep out, the 3D graphics that Arnot and company worked so hard to implement were met with some skepticism from fans of the first game. But over time their love for the western adventure won out over their misgivings.
“As development continued the anticipation and eagerness for a completion date from our fans was unbelievable,” Arnot said. “For a casual game company we have some hardcore devoted fans.”
Their anticipation came to an end in late March when the game was released to the public, where it got a warm reception from the community and reviewer alike. But Arnot admits that, in a way, the most satisfying response came from him and his team.
“The game is fun,” he said. “And that’s coming from someone who spent that last two years working on the first and second game. After such a long time, if its still fun to play you did something right.”