When Tim Conkling was asked to design something for his new employer Three Rings’ casual MMO Whirled he pitched the basic concept for Corpse Craft, a casual real-time strategy game that combines collapse match-3 gameplay with a real-time combat mechanic. The idea came out of a desire, as Conkling put it during a post-mortem at Casual Connect, to create a RTS that he could “actually beat people at.”
During the six-month development cycle, Conkling identified key elements of real-time strategy games – such as resource gathering, exploration, upgrading units and bases, and micromanaging large-scale combat between large number of units – and narrowed the focus to appeal to a casual audience.
The finished product was something Conkling described as “Harry Potter meets Lord of the Flies meets Frankenstein.” Set at the Weird Academy, a school for aspiring necromancers, players play a puzzle game to collect resources such as blood and flesh to re-animate corpses that fight on their behalf.
“Lack of unit micromanagement is Corpse Craft‘s most important feature, because micromanaging a huge group of units in real-time that all have different powers and formations requires a huge amount of dexterity that most people don’t have,” Conkling said. “It’s what has killed me in every RTS I’ve attempted to play.”
In a traditional RTS, resource gathering is largely automated (players send designated resource gathering units out to harvest materials and bring them back to base, and they do it until either they’re killed or the game is won), and it’s the combat that has to be managed. Conkling decided to invert this model in order to eliminate the need for unit micromanagement. In Corpse Craft, resource gathering is micromanaged through the match-3 game, and new units that are created behave autonomously based on a very simple set of rules.
In other words, players spend resources to create undead creatures but don’t actually control them. There’s no base to manage, and no map to explore; all of the action takes place on a single non-scrolling screen.
According to Conkling, traditional RTS games typically keep combat interesting with a simple unit ecosystem, and battles are most exciting when they’re epic and unpredictable. Corpse Craft maintains that feel through a basic rock, paper, scissors relationship between units, where each unit has an obvious strength and a weakness that can be mitigated by sending the unit onto the battlefield along with other units that offset that weakness.
“Each unit behaves predictably, which is important because they’re not under player control, but when you throw lots of units together into a battle, there are interesting and unpredictable things going on due to the huge variety of interactions between those units,” Conkling said. “Battles are emergent in the sense that there are a few basic rules that drive the combat units, and from that you get chaos, unpredictability and interesting gameplay.”
Conkling also made sure to incorporate built-in breaks into the gameplay so that players would never feel overwhelmed.
“Traditional RTS gameplay is balls to the walls all the time,” Conkling said. “If you’re not moving quickly all the time, you get crushed. It can be exhausting, and it’s not always fun.”
Conkling’s solution was to split the game into day and night cycles. Players can’t create units during the 30-second day cycle, so that time can be used to relax and just focus on resource gathering. Once night falls, anything goes for two minutes. The cycles also force players to strategize attacks accordingly, because if they send their creatures out right before daybreak they’ll all die.
According to Conking, the puzzle game portion of Corpse Craft became a sort of “comfort food.”
“The first thing that anyone who plays the game does is play the puzzle game. There are no consequences for not doing it well. Playing the puzzle is always good for your strategy, and if gets crazy on the battlefield you can always go back to the puzzle game.”