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After GDC 2018, Thunderballs grew from a little prototype project to something much bigger. We knew that if we were actually going to release it, we would need some help from outside our core team. We kept working with CJ on the designs of the weapons and avatars, while pulling in a few more talented (and very patient) contractors specializing in sound effects, PR/marketing, graphic design and branding.
Meanwhile, the three of us realized that while we had some fun weapon and destruction mechanics, we still didn’t have a real game yet. How should you win a game of Thunderballs? Maybe you pummel the other team’s base and once you reach some threshold of destruction, you win? Or, maybe you need to take out a key part of the base. We started including a power orb - a macguffin, really - that you needed to defend. Win by taking out the other team’s orb.
The single orb win-condition felt like we were on the right track, but it was too simple and games were too quick. We experimented by putting the orb in a destructible shell that would require more time and effort to break through, hiding the orb from the other team in a randomly selected shell to introduce a three-card monte element of luck and discovery, and so on. Ultimately we decided that just having more orbs scattered around made sense. We could control the length of the game with the number of orbs, and distributing the orbs around the bases gave you multiple targets in different places to shoot at and defend.
Still, something was missing. The game felt too flat when it was just about shooting the other team’s orbs faster than they could shoot yours. And you could end up trapped in offense-defense standoffs, with one team shooting cannons and mortars at the pylons, the other team defending, and each one just waiting for the other to make a mistake. We debated how to inject more strategy and tactical dimensions, and pretty quickly came up with a few new ideas. Our past work on Midnight Madness was all about activating physical spaces and getting people running around NYC solving puzzles, so we tried to apply some of that thinking to the virtual playspace of Thunderballs.
First, we rethought the orbs themselves, turning them into energy pylons. We wanted each pylon to give you a different type of ammo for your handgun if you approached and charged off of it for a few seconds. To design the new ammo types, we created a spreadsheet that let us easily experiment with different combinations of projectile physics and damage parameters. We played all types of combinations of gravity, speed, drag, size, lifespan, and damage to players, walls, pylons, pillars, and so on. Most of those early experiments evolved into the six ammos we have in-game now, which we lovingly refer to as the sniper, the shotgun, the lobber, the drill, the middleman, and the basic. (Bonus fact: the only ammo that didn’t make the cut was the negative-gravity reverso)
[Evolution of the pylon design]
Introducing the ammo types completely changed the game. Obviously, you could do a lot more with the new ammos themselves. But now, you also had a reason to move around the entirety of the base. And you had to be more thoughtful and responsive in which enemy pylons you targeted first, since you could selectively cripple the opponents’ abilities by taking out specific pylons.
Then we added yet another dimension - invasion - by creating a bridge between the two bases. You could now blow a hole and sneak into the other team’s base to destroy their pylons by charging off of them. Invasion and overcharging meant you had a whole new tool in the toolkit for winning, and also upped the adrenaline level with some direct ground-level combat.
With all these new mechanics in the mix, we knew we had the ingredients to make Thunderballs a lot of fun, and more than just a plain old shooter. But like any good recipe, it’s all about the proportions. We didn’t want any single weapon or strategy to be too dominant or too weak. So we tweaked the damage parameters of the weapons, and slowed down invasion with barricades on the bridge, requiring players to make an investment up-front in clearing a path to the other side.
With all the new gameplay elements, and the contractors starting to deliver amazing sound effects, promotional artwork, and new models and textures, we could finally see the pieces of the Thunderballs puzzle coming together. But, we knew we still had a lot to do. I’m reminded of a sign on interstate highway 70 as you get close to Denver from the mountains - Truckers, don’t be fooled, you are not down yet! Indeed, the Thunderballs truck still had a long road ahead.