Fieldrunners 2 Interview With Subatomic Studios' Chris Canfield

If you're a frequent mobile gamer, and we'll assume you are as you're reading a mobile gaming site, then there's an excellent chance you've played Subatomic Studios' outstanding tower-defense title Fieldrunners, released in 2008.

The sequel was released last month and picked up a well-deserved 4.5 out of 5 Stars in our review. Since then, we've spoken to the studio about the work that went into delivering the sequel, porting the game to the iPad, and what we can expect to see added to the game in the coming months.


The first Fieldrunners came out in 2008. What's the studio been up to since then?

We've been doing a lot, actually. When we first shipped Fieldrunners in 2008 it bore as much resemblance to the Fieldrunners of today as a single strip of bacon resembles a fully grown pig. In 2008 the game had one level, one mode, four towers, and no achievements. We didn't even have sound or music. Our core strip of bacon, if you will, was great artwork and good game play. And we quickly found ourselves with a rabid fan base who loved our work. Over the next two years, we grew Fieldrunners by nearly 800%. For those two years we expanded, enhanced, enlivened, and otherwise tried to please fans of the title. It was our baby, and we wanted to make it the best pig, I mean game, we could. That's a luxury few game studios have.

After a while, we realized we wanted to try things that just weren't possible with the old engine. So we made a few last levels, put a final bit of polish on the classic Fieldrunners, and threw it all out to start fresh. 2010 was an intense period of experimentation where we tried to define what the next Fieldrunners would look and feel like. After that we said goodbye to our loved ones, and committed ourselves to a huge amount of levels, towers, enemies, and features. Unlike Fieldrunners 1, we wanted to launch with a fully realized, highly satisfying title. We wanted our fans to be happy from day one.

During this time, we also worked with Autodesk on a side project known as TinkerBox, a physics puzzler building game. An actually free (not just "free to play") iPad and iPhone engineering toy, TinkerBox is used by quite a few high schools across the country to introduce basic engineering and construction concepts to students. It was the #1 free iPad game for a while. But mainly we're proud that some day, people may drive across bridges built by people inspired by our game. And those bridges might even stay up.

How has the mobile gaming landscape changed for you in the last four years?

Four years? Except for a few pioneers on old handsets, four years is the entire length of the US phone-gaming landscape. Four years ago this was unproven territory, inhabited by risk-taking pioneers. A few people in this country had played "Snake" on their Nokias, but that was about it. It was a secluded hobby of a few New York technophiles sitting in coffee houses with electric bikes.

Now, you can't throw a rock without hitting someone playing a game on their phone (Please don't throw rocks). Even my mother plays phone games. Similarly, there has been a land rush for mobile game developers. Budgets have ballooned to millions of dollars, with every major corporation vying for mind share. Players have more options than ever, but rising above that noise is very difficult for new developers. We're lucky that we have such a strong fan base behind us that has helped push Fieldrunners 2 up the top 25 lists, but a lot of smaller developers (like we once were) don't have that luxury. Support your local indie studios. Well, do that after you've played our game.

Based on the lessons learned from the first game, what were your priorities when you began designing the sequel?

We really really had three goals with Fieldrunners 2:

Pixar level visuals.
A larger world of play
Realistic moment-to-moment movement

Our company was founded by two artists and a programmer who almost became an artist. To the founders, visuals matter. That's not just making sure you're pushing more pixels than everyone else, though. That means fire particles were drawn and re-drawn until they fit in the world just right. That means each character was rendered out dozens of times in dozens of different iterations through the course of development. Notice how the units look a little darker and bluer in night maps, and sandier in the desert? That's not a co-incidence. Our code supports a degree of color correction and tweaking unheard of outside of Photoshop. And the basic fieldrunner unit has more frames of animation than we initially shipped with in all of Fieldrunners 1. We wanted to create a rich visual world that players could flip on at any moment in their day, and just slide into like a warm pool of pretty.

Fieldrunners was satisfying, but there wasn't much drawing players from one session to the next. We wanted to expand the world, and create real reasons to keep coming back. From day one we knew we wanted a world map. We weren't quite sure was it was going to involve, but we knew it had to be there. We also wanted players to unlock towers on later maps, then bring those towers back to earlier maps and have them play in a completely different way. And I personally wanted to help players transition from complete tower defense beginners into strong tower defense strategic generals. To that end we invested a lot in the progression. We frequently iterated upon changing how players interact with the world, earn money and towers, etc. We also added collection mechanics in cards and elites, both to satisfy the completionists in us developers, and to give the players greater goals. We wanted to create a larger overall feeling of a world around the player, and I think we succeeded.

And yes, we updated our moment-to-moment engine to support swarming. Units realistically bump into each other, wander off, and otherwise feel like large crowds of tiny ants. Fast units tend to slow down around corners. Clumping units through slow towers or careful tower placement is even more important. We've already talked a lot about the new swarm engine, so I'll just say "Look at the screenshots. Yes, it is that good."

Can we expect to see a high-resolution version of the game for the iPad in the future?

We're not ready to give details on the iPad version of Fieldrunners. It is coming, it will take a little time, and it will have a few extra touches when it comes out. Oh, and we're as anxious as you are for it to be out. Beyond that, we can't say much. When we can announce something, Modojo will be one of the first places to hear about it!

What updates do you have planned for the game?

Fieldrunners 2 is our baby, and like the original Fieldrunners we want it to grow and be successful. We haven't told anyone this yet, so just between us our next update is a "Balance, Bug, and Bonus!" patch.

Our casual players have complained about the difficulty in certain levels, so we're attacking those with a two pronged approach. 1) We're reducing the necessary complexity of mazes for the casual levels that players failed on most. These are based upon actual layouts for maps that casual players sent in to us. See? We do read it all. 2) We're adding five new explanatory animations, which should help teach new players concepts like making loops. It's also our excuse to blow up a few more fieldrunners, and set others on fire. Yes, many of us in the office are still 15 inside.

Similarly, our hardcore players have uncovered bugs and balance issues with going endless. While not all of our players go endless, that score competition is important to a dedicated population (Do not get between a score hero and their numbers). So we're squashing the bugs, re-balancing a few other maps, and hopefully creating an experience that is a top-of-the-line challenge to our top-of-the-line players. One word of warning: we may need to reset endless scores to make this possible. Sorry! We hope this will be the only time we have to do that.

We're also squishing the bugs that prevented Game Center from working at launch, as well as a few others that players sent in to bugs@subatomicstudios.com, or reported on the Fieldrunners.com forums. Yes, that was a plug. Visit our forums!

As a bonus, I'm happy to say we've added another time trial level to Lavaflow. Players who have already beaten the second Lavaflow map may need to beat it again to open the level. It is a little "thank you" to our players for sticking through the launch period. And it should make acquiring the Nuke tower just a little more forgiving.

Dead Trigger has just been made available for free on the Android marketplace due to the levels of piracy. What's your experience of Android been like?

All markets are different. In 2008 when we created Fieldrunners on iOS, we acquired a passionate, loyal fanbase of players who hadn't really seen tower defense before. We were their gateway into the genre, and it felt good to be at the forefront of a flood of good games. Fast forward to 2011. When we launched on the Android marketplace, there were already a lot of games inspired by Fieldrunners in the market... some very good, some less so. But it was harder for us to establish a fan base, as players already had a lot of good options on the platform. Also, Android users tend to have a stronger attachment to the free-to-play model, which didn't really exist when we released the first Fieldrunners. We like Android users (and many of us would like more titles on our personal Android phones), but the users just can't be approached in the same way. To be successful, you need to tailor to those users.

Piracy is a bad thing that hurts all developers. Within eight minutes of launching Fieldrunners 2 on the iPhone in New Zealand, it was already being illegally downloaded. But piracy isn't just an Android problem. It is something the entire industry has been dealing with. Modojo users seem like nice people. I'm sure they already support independent developers, help promote a healthy field of gaming options, and remember to floss every night before bed. That's where their winning smiles come from.


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