Westward: How a Casual Game Proved the Pioneer Spirit is Alive and Well

There is an Independent Games Developers Association white paper on how to make casual games. Repeatedly in the white paper it emphasizes that a real-time strategy game is a poor fit for the casual space.

Unbeknownst to the IGDA, they had laid down a gauntlet that Andy Megowan, Creative Director of Sandlot Games, found irresistible.

“It says that a real-time strategy game is absolutely the wrong thing to make,” Megowan said. “So, of course, we had to try.”

It’s appropriate then that the product of their defiance, of that willingness to challenge the unknown, would be Westward, the game that proved the pioneering spirit wasn’t too big an idea to be captured in a casual game.

Cowboys, Ninjas, Vampires and Penguins

Luckily for Megowan, who would serve as producer for the product, his team was already full of RTS fans, like the lead artist, who was a hardcore fan of the Age of Empires series. Megowan himself was a fan of games by Blizzard, like the Warcraft series, though he admits that he “stinks” at RTS games.

But it’s a genre that, at least in the mainstream, has gotten increasingly inscrutable and less accessible in recent years, prompting Megowan and crew to forgo trying to compete with modern games and trying to find that nugget of fun they remember from the genre’s past.

Megowan said that it was one of his favorite parts of making casual games, taking a simplified premise of yesteryear and imbuing it with more modern sensibilities.

“You know how everyone has these glamorized memories and nostalgia?” Megowan said. “But you often go back and they’re not as good as you remember. This has been this awesome opportunity to update those games and make them closer to what we think they should have been.”

Although they may have been able to cull some good ideas from older titles, they were still in search of a motif that hadn’t been completely tapped.

“We had tackled pirates [with their hit series of Tradewinds games] and we knew that the other cool things out there were cowboys, ninjas, vampires and penguins,” Megowan said.

Luckily for fans of Westward, they took the first on the list.

How the West was Fun

Also lucky was that Megowan had a modern cultural touchstone to inspire him: Joss Whedon’s ill-fated TV series Firefly. In the space-western, the ship the main characters travel in is very much a character, an idea that inspired the producer.

“That struck a chord with me, and I wanted to see if we could make the town the main character,” Megowan said. “The people are just part of it, but you’re mostly concerned with the prosperity, the health of the town. That was at the center of all the decisions we made.”

Although the team now had the basic idea of what idea they were trying to convey to the player, they were faced with the challenge of exactly how they would be conveying it. Although creating a typical RTS game is well-worn territory, there’s little guidance on how to do that in the casual games space, where many players may not have much experience with the genre.

“Accessibility was the big thing, at every point we wanted to say ‘Can somebody pick this game up and play it,'” Megowan said. “And several times, that answer was ‘no,’ so we had to keep working at it. We were banging our heads on a wall, how can we make this easier?”

Rustling up the problems

Finding the answer to that question ended up being a complicated process, one that took nearly eight months to complete. Another reason for the lengthy development was the games depth, which translated to more testing than Sandlot has ever had to do for one of their titles.

“There are so many possible ways you can play the game,” Megowan said. “We had to try the game, finish it, then try the game again and finish it another way, so we knew that it was always possible to win, that there were no impossible situations.”

Even when Megowan and crew knew the balance they were aiming for, there were still some unforeseen problems that threatened to slow them down.

“Our designer, who was also half of the programming team, decided to go find himself and took off to hitchhike across Europe a few months into the project,” Megowan said. “And there were points where we had to take all engineers off of the project to work on things that were more pressing. So we had to design things really well before we coded them because there was no flex. We had to get this done.”

A lot of the work also went into the games’ tutorial. There were so many ideas that Megowan and team wanted to express that their original tutorial would have extended past the 60-minute length of the game’s demo.

The balance that eventually had to be struck was in making a tutorial that was informative, but also enough fun to actually be considered a game, to make it part of the expansive world that Sandlot was creating.

Who is “The Mad Russian”?

The team was able to entertain themselves a little bit during the process too, by hiding a few hidden references in the game to co-workers or movies they enjoyed.

One of the most prominent nods, and one that actually makes the game more compelling, is the inclusion of a gunfight in the opening minutes, rather than easing players in with some of the town-building functions.

“That’s a nod to the James Bond movies,” Megowan said with a laugh. “Start with the conflict, start with the action, get people’s blood pumping. A lot of the greats have done it.”

Also the character of the villainous “Mad Russian” was a playful dig at Sandlot CEO Dan Bernstein, who is himself Russian.

“To give him a chance to be the bad guy and to kick him around was really fun for all of us,” Megowan admitted with a laugh.

The game even hearkens back to its roots in a way, referencing World of Warcraft’s “Thunder Bluff” with the map called “Lightning Bluff.”

Even further west?

Whether it was the sly in-jokes or the honed gameplay, Westward seemed to strike a chord with gamers and critics, nabbing a four-star review from Gamezebo.

It’s still not been revealed whether or not the journey west will continue with a sequel to Sandlot’s bold experiment with real-time strategy.

But let’s put it this way: Don’t hang up your spurs just yet.

“I can say that there are lots of things that we still wanted to do and it would be silly of us not to make a sequel, but we haven’t officially announced one,” Megowan said. “…But it would be silly of us not to do it.”

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