Making Crow's Nest (part 1 of 4): My "Asteroids meets Total War" Pitch

At work in Unity

At work in Unity

I'll be away over the next few weeks so I've decided to do a four-parter and schedule it to post at my normal times so my one-a-week blog goal remains unbroken. I've been going now for over 6 months now and wanted to at least see out the end of 2015 with an 'undefeated streak'.

To that end, I'll be turning the blog's focus a little more inward and talking about how my game in development (Sons of Sol: Crow's Nest) came to be, what its influences are, the features of the game and certain design challenges that I'm facing. As it's still in development and still just me on the team, this is all still in motion, but there should be good insights and new information for anyone who's interested in reading. It will be interesting to compare these posts with a post-mortem for the game once it's finally out, too.

So, with that out of the way..

What is Crow's Nest?

I won't wax lyrical here, you can check out the game's page yourself, and either play the demo or watch the gameplay footage. Briefly, Sons of Sol: Crow's Nest is an upcoming tactical space shooter with a strategy layer. I've described it as "Asteroids meets Total War".

You can see some gameplay from the playable PC demo below. It's early in development and due out in Q1 2017.

How Does Asteroids meet Total War, exactly?

So my pitch for Sons of Sol: Crow's Nest is that it's "Asteroids meets Total War" and I've found that this can get people interested quite effectively. How does a top-down space shooter from the 1970s tie in with one of the largest, most successful strategy game series in the world; one which, until Total War: Warhammer was announced, was set exclusively in historical Earth periods with swords and spears and massive armies?

To be fair I could also describe the game as "Wing Commander meets Xcom", but a pitch has to be as catchy as possible, n'est pas?

The similarities between Asteroids and Crow's Nest are pretty plain to see. They both have a small, triangular space fighter flying around an asteroid field, and, quite importantly, the ships are driven by Newtonian physics, meaning if you stop accelerating you will keep drifting. There's no drag in space so you can turn on the spot and shoot backwards, and to slow down you have to turn around and thrust in the opposite direction.

The similarities really end there, though. In Crow's Nest the goal is not to kill asteroids for points, the screen isn't locked in position, and both you and the asteroids can take more than one hit.

Then from here I started building up more of a squadron-based thing, adding wing mates, squad orders, and reasonably intelligent enemies, as well as the ability to communicate with your fleet for reinforcements. Here, I was taking inspiration from Star Wars games like Rogue Squadron and X-Wing. I'll talk about games that influenced Crow's Nest in a follow-up part.

The important take-away is that Crow's Nest has an action/combat layer presented in a classic arcade-like style.

The trailer above is for Shogun, the first Total War game in 2000. I haven't played them all, but I beat this one so I know it represents some of the ideas I'm going for. You command your chosen family dynasty in feudal Japan during the Sengoku Jidai period of history. It's a game of two halves. There's the tactical combat side where you command individual army units in a single battle. This half of the game is represented in Crow's Nest as the 'Asteroids' part.

The other side of the game is the strategy layer, where you have a map of all of Japan and time passes months at a time. You move your armies around the country to reinforce or attack territories (Risk style) and then fight the tactical battles for those areas using only the units you brought with you. No Command & Conquer-style building during a battle! But in addition to this, you could send spies, assassins and emissaries around the world. You could negotiate for peace or assassinate an opposing general the night before a battle, weakening his forces when you face them in the tactical layer. 

You could also bring your own character (the Daimyo) into battle for big morale bonuses, but if you died in battle, you were dead. If you didn't have an adult male heir, it was game over! If you did, you basically had an 'extra life'. Similarly, if you won a battle but lost all of your cavalry, they were gone! You no longer had them to move around the strategy layer. This interplay leant real gravitas to every little decision, and to every death. I love these mechanics and knew I wanted them for Crow's Nest.

An early prototype for the strategy map in Crow's Nest.

An early prototype for the strategy map in Crow's Nest.

My original idea was that you would control several fleets (as many as you could build/afford) in Crow's Nest and defend a territory from pirate marauders. You would also send spies on missions to gather intel and attempt assassinations or to sabotage the enemy. When a tactical battle occurred, the losses and gains would persist back to the strategy layer. This is why I chose "Total War" as a suitable descriptor for my pitch.

As development went on, I decided that it might be better for you to control just a single fleet. This would make your flagship all the more precious to you, and prevent you from using steamroll tactics to the same extent. This way, even in the late game, battles would stay tense for the player. It would also limit the amount of pilots you have to dozens, not hundreds, and make their lives and progression matter more to you. This means that Xcom might be a better descriptor than Total War now, but as the strategy side in Crow's Nest is still very early in development and prone to change, I haven't decided whether to change the pitch yet.

Obviously, those four words aren't my whole pitch, but they're the short version.

What do you think of the pitch? Have you any experience pitching? Any advice? Would saying "Xcom" be better than "Total War"? Both franchises are currently doing well and get the point across to anyone who knows games.

Next Sunday, I'll be posting Part 2, where I talk about the other games that have influenced the development of Crow's Nest in a mini-review sort of way.

Until next time..

Links:

Sons of Sol: Crow's Nest page on RetroNeo Games
Development Log
Play the game in web browser (not Chrome)
Download PC version