Sometimes you know you’re onto a good thing when you can’t stop playing. Aussie studio Halfbrick, apparently, went one step too far.
The Brisbane devs are the focus of People Make Games’ latest episode, titled The Game Prototype That Had to Be Banned by Its Own Studio. It’s about a game that fans of Neptune’s Pride will immediately see the appeal of, because it’s full of elaborate planning, espionage and the kind of strategising that leaves people thinking about their moves for hours. Days, even.
Called Tank Tactics or Tank Turn Tactics, the game was played on a whiteboard in the Halfbrick Studios conference room. As told to Chris from People Make Games, Halfbrick recruited 16 people to test out a prototype of the game. People were only required to play for a few minutes a day, but a match would pan out over about a fortnight.
Every player was assigned a tank with three hit points and a certain amount of action points. Those action points could be used to move, shoot at targets in range, or upgrade the range of their tank. Each attack removes one hit point from a tank, and the objective was to be the last tank standing.
OK, you might ask — so what on earth was the problem?
For one, every day Luke Muscat (the designer of Jetpack Joyride and Fruit Ninja) would walk around to every employee and hand them a single action point. Secondly, players could pass on their action points or hearts players within range.
Muscat thought people — especially being a new game — would be cautious for a couple of days. Instead, the Halfbrick devs playing made massive alliances, creating an enormous faction where one player collected 12 actions and took out three players within hours of the game starting.
Michael Szewczyk, one of the players on the game (who now works with Muscat at Snap Studios), explained that the planning and calculating became so great that it started affecting productivity within Halfbrick. People weren’t playing it in their downtime: they were playing all the time, and when they weren’t playing, they were thinking about what to do. It was the kind of game that occupied people’s minds, which had all sorts of damaging ramifications.
Some people’s relationships were impacted — betrayal in Tank Tactics left two people literally unable to speak or properly function as colleagues for months. Amazingly, Halfbrick later found that at least five people in the studio who weren’t playing Tank Tactics had begun feeding information to those who were playing. Bribes — bribes with actual money — were deployed for advance information.
And then there was a Survivor-inspired jury system, where the jury was filled with players who had been eliminated from the game. “Each day they vote and whoever receives most votes will be ‘haunted’, and not receive any AP for that day,” a sheet posted on the boardroom door read.
It’s no surprise that Halfbrick eventually shut down the prototype after eight days. There were email threads within the studio about the game, which had started to get increasingly resentful over certain actions or moves. Tank Tactics obviously had some special charm, and there’s lots of games that exist today (video games or in tabletop form) that use similar mechanics. But once it started to affect the dynamic between individual developers, you can understand why Halfbrick pulled the plug.
And if you’re wondering — would people really get that upset over a video game? Well, yes. That behaviour’s especially prominent in deceptive or social deduction games like Neptune’s Pride and Subterfuge, where everything rides on the trust, or lack thereof, between the player at the table. It’s why games like Diplomacy are infamously known as friendship killers. And, unsurprisingly, that’s what Halfbrick made.
There’s more quotes, photos and quips from the players and developers involved in the video above. Check it out, and some of the other great videos on PMG’s YouTube channel, like their interview with Hong Kong Hearthstone pro Blitzchung, the story about the Queen’s golden Wii, and the great tale about how publishers outsource crunch.