The Multitasking Madness of Cannon Brawl

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It was six o'clock in the morning when Peter Angstadt, exhausted after pulling an all-nighter, recorded the voice-over for a demo reel that would change his life entirely. The demo was for Dstroyd, a game he'd been tinkering with since college. It was part of his submission for the 2010 Activision Independent Games Competition, a submission that was coming together on the final day of the contest. With video, paperwork, and some hastily finished concept art completed, Angstadt shipped Dstroyd via FedEx airmail, unsure if he'd meet the deadline.

Roughly half a year passed before he got a reply, and it was good news. His game won the grand prize, including a healthy chunk of prize money--enough to work on the game full-time. Taking this as a sign from the universe, Angstadt turned in his two-week notice and set about molding his hobbyist project into what we now know as Cannon Brawl.

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Cannon Brawl is a real-time, artillery-based strategy game reminiscent of GunBound or the Worms series. However, since Cannon Brawl is played in real time, all those precise shots you'd spend tens of minutes agonizing over in other artillery games must be executed on the fly. Sure, this doesn't seem so hard in the beginning, when you're managing only one or two turrets, but as the battle escalates, your ability to multitask is tested.

Victory is reserved for the player who can, at a glance, size up the battlefield and identify the highest-value target at that moment. This is an ongoing challenge as turrets come and go and the very ground you're fighting upon crumbles beneath you. The ultimate goal is the destruction of the enemy's castle by generating gold--whether by mining gold deposits on the map or by building banks--and constructing turrets. From long-range lasers to tiny bombs that march across the battlefield, turret attacks come in all shapes and sizes and can be upgraded for even more devastation.

Angstadt admitted that the idea for Cannon Brawl came from several long hours spent playing GunBound in college. However, his love of video games is much older and comes from an early childhood spent playing the MS-DOS version of Captain Comic with his father. Angstadt's first taste of game making came when he picked up a copy of C Programming for Dummies and started cranking out "terrible text adventures." In college, when he wasn't playing GunBound, the young developer entered several game-making contests and eventually won two separate internships, one at Heavy Iron Studios, and another at Maxis, which he joined full-time after graduation.

After winning the Activision Independent Games Competition, Angstadt joined up with former Maxis coworker Theresa Duringer to form Turtle Sandbox in August of 2011. Duringer also has a long history with games, dating back to a childhood spent with her Sega Genesis (until her mom made her give it away, that is). Her first foray into development involved tooling around in JavaScript and swapping out the artwork of such games as Insaniquarium with her own custom artwork. After graduating with a degree in psychology, Duringer, admittedly broke, took a job as a game tester at Electronic Arts, where she worked her way up to community manager on Spore, Darkspore, and SimCity.

In addition to turret management, each player also controls an airship with its own special ability.
In addition to turret management, each player also controls an airship with its own special ability.

In the two short years since Turtle Sandbox was formed, a lot has changed in the game and in the lives of its creators. "In the early versions, you used to shoot buildings out of your headquarters, and just hoped they went where you wanted them to go, instead of simply building them on the map," recalled Angstadt. The game also took place on a Super Mario Galaxy-esque world at one stage, but it was too difficult to predict where a shot might land. "I also had a lot of buildings in the game, and each building had many different types of attacks. It just felt bloated." By reducing Cannon Brawl to the trio of gold mine, cannon tower, and shield tower, and then building out from there, the two developers were able to polish Cannon Brawl's core nugget of fun, and then build upon that foundation.

Tinkering with the game's economy was a key part of this process. Originally, you didn't need to capture gold deposits to generate funds; you just had to hold land. The more land you controlled, the more money you made. Gradually, this idea gave way to having individual resource deposits, such as trees. "We had this little woodcutter guy, with a little gnome hat and a little beard, who would go out and chop down trees and bring them back to your base," Duringer said. Eventually, the wood-chopping gnome was repurposed into a miner who could tunnel under your base, but the whole gnome idea was scrapped for the static simplicity of the mine-and-bank solution.

Together, Duringer and Angstadt are working hard to make Cannon Brawl the best it can be, because at the end of the day, if there's a problem with the game, they can point their fingers only at themselves. "When I was at Maxis, as a little worker drone, someone would come up to me and say 'Do this,' and I'd respond with 'Great, I know how to do that. I know how to do it fast. I can do it well, and I know exactly what it is I'm doing.' And maybe it's a bad idea, but it's just [your job] to do it, so your ego is protected," said Angstadt. "Now, if I have a bad idea, it's just my own fault. It's a lot of pressure."

"You can't blame anyone for anything that goes wrong. It's all on you," Duringer added. "But it's also really fun, because at EA, I felt like there was this pressure to compartmentalize and just be a really good artist or just be a really good programmer." In Duringer's case, she was working in several different departments helping with in-game UI, Flash games, community management, and more. "And it was really weird for my career development, because that's just not common there," she said. "That was something that made so much sense going into a small company, because you have to be this jack-of-all-trades. Both Pete and I do everything. Pete does a little art, and I do a little programming…"

"Oh man, don't mention that I do art," Angstadt quickly added with a laugh.

This image from the original Activision pitch illustrates just how far Cannon Brawl has come.
This image from the original Activision pitch illustrates just how far Cannon Brawl has come.

The next step for the two developers is releasing an open beta version of Cannon Brawl through Steam's early access program on July 30. When this happens, the developer will finally be able to collect some hard data from its users. "We're recording what buildings you used, whether you won or lost, and what your player skill level is," explained Angstadt. All this data will be used to help balance the game and ensure every cluster rocket and power drill wreaks the correct amount of havoc. "If we find that all highly skilled players always choose the same set of buildings, we'll know there's some tuning work to be done."

"And we'd love to get ideas from the players," Duringer added. "If this game is successful, we'd love to continue it with DLC by getting new buildings and maps and characters out there, and having the community be part of that process, I think, will be really fun both for them and for us!"

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