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Cannon Brawl: Some things old, some things new

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As it arced its way toward a floating patch of land where my enemy's rocket tower sat, I realized I was holding my breath. If this worked — and I didn't know if it would — victory was as good as mine. If it didn't, I needed to redraw my battle plan.

Impact.

The earth underneath the tower disintegrated in the yellow-red explosion. The tower fell, hit the ground underneath and crumbled. There was nothing between my enemy's soon-to-be destroyed castle and my next volley. It worked.

In the broadest sense, Cannon Brawl is a mashup of tower defense, real-time strategy and ballistics-based gameplay, set atop destructible environments. In each level, players board a steampunk-inspired airship and wage battle against an enemy ensconced on the opposite side of the 2D battlefield. You mine for money and use your accumulated wealth to build towers, defend yourself and attack the evildoer hellbent on doing the same to you.

Polygon played the Steam Early Access version of the Windows PC game recently and spoke to half of the two-person development team, Pete Angstadt, via email about the game, its influences and how a "little guy" morphed into an airship during development.


Angstadt told Polygon that Cannon Brawl's design was influenced by GunBound, developer Softnyx's turn-based multiplayer game, as well as several other of his favorite game types.

"Would an RTS ballistics game even be fun?"

"I played a lot of GunBound in college, probably too much," Angstadt wrote. "There's something very satisfying about ballistics gameplay and destructible terrain, and me and my friends put countless hours into that game. I've also always been a big fan of RTS games. I got to thinking, 'Why are there no real time strategy games with ballistics and destructible terrain and why do I have to always wait for my turn in GunBound? Would an RTS ballistics game even be fun?'

"I had a lot of free time in college, so I made a little prototype to find out. Turns out the answer is yes!"

Cannon Brawl rearranges and styles the familiar into something with its own character and personality. Tower defense fans will recognize elemental-based weapons that unlock during the campaign, allowing you to beam lasers and drop ice bombs from destructible towers. Real-time strategy fans will recognize the need to think several steps ahead, weigh their options, wait for their items to cool down and react to the enemy's ceaseless barrage.

The spacebar takes center stage.

Cannon Brawl sports a unique and streamlined control scheme. You pilot your airship with the arrow keys, as you might expect, but the spacebar ultimately takes center stage. You've got options when you steer your airship toward your battlefield buildings, and tapping the spacebar invokes a contextual HUD element for each. You can fire your weapons, upgrade your towers and place your armaments all through the portal invoked by a single keystroke. It's unique and a bit difficult to wrap your mind around at first, but its odd simplicity succeeds. It became second nature in short order.

Angstadt told Polygon that these controls were the result of several iterations during development. He cites games like Dota 2 and League of Legends, whose controls are "pretty weird and unique," but also the successful result of years of iteration.

"Eventually, the little guy evolved into an airship."

"Originally [in Cannon Brawl], you used buttons or keyboard keys to cycle through your buildings, but it was easy to lose focus on what you had selected," Angstadt told us. "It was also hard to predict what would be selected next when buildings were above or diagonal to each other. Then we tried replacing that with a little guy you control, but it brought up a lot of questions like, 'How does he get up to the floating islands?' [and] 'How can he get across gaps?' To answer those questions, we'd have to put in a lot of new mechanics like jumping or climbing ladders, and that would just be adding noise to the core design. Eventually, the little guy evolved into an airship which solves the 2D selection issue and is also easy to visually track. From there, it was just simplifying the controls down to as few buttons as possible."

Cannon Brawl also supports gamepad controls. The developers are split. Angstadt prefers a keyboard, while Cannon Brawl's artist, Theresa Duringer, goes with the gamepad.

Cannon Brawl is in a "late alpha" stage, Angstadt told Polygon, and the developers are taking player feedback to expand the game with more maps, pilots and building types. For now, Turtle Sandbox is "tuning the game" based on the data they've collected and balancing the game's multiplayer component, which replaces the campaign's AI component with a real-life foe.

Cannon Brawl has promise. It eases players into its world through a campaign that first demonstrates the possibilities of new buildings and strategies and then adds them to players' arsenals. It's serious work to complete the challenges, but it's funny, too, as the story of a dysfunctional royal family unfolds level by level. And it's built to challenge players on a meta level outside of the battlefield, as each level includes goals for attacks per minute, combat speed and the amount of time it takes you to complete the board. Hitting each goal earns you stars that, like Angry Birds, compel you to do better.

It's familiar and unique. It's still in alpha, but it's polished. Even in its early stages, Cannon Brawl is already deep, and the developers' plans, coupled with the data they've received, seem poised to make it even deeper.

"We'll be analyzing that data soon to start tuning the game and hopefully in addition to bigger content updates we'll be able to do smaller but maybe more regular tuning updates," Angstadt told Polygon.

Cannon Brawl is available now through Steam Early Access for $9.99. There's no definitive release date yet, Angstadt told us, but the two-person team at Turtle Sandbox will know when it's ready.

"We don't have any definite plans on our final release date," he said. "We're spending the time it takes to get it right."