The Wardens Of Stone Wardens Speak

Earlier this week I spoke to Damon Alberts and David Bowman, the founders of Burst Online Entertainment, and we talked about their first big project, Stone Wardens. It’s a cross-platform multiplayer tower defence game where players take on a series of character classes and persistently develop them to better both themselves and their towers in the forever-war against creeps. With a cute cartoon style and a promising multiplayer feel, it looks like an interesting proposition.

With the game having materialised on Kickstarter after a couple of years of development, I wanted to ask Burst what they were up to.

RPS: What can you tell us about Burst as a company?

Alberts: David and I formed Burst a few years ago and we set out to create high quality cross-platform game experiences. Our goal was that big multiplayer experience, that social connectedness you get from all being able to play together. So we wanted to make multiplayer games, and Stone Wardens is the first of those. Regarding the team specifically, we have a veteran team: we have people here from Bungie, Nintendo, Turbine, and so people have worked on some very successful franchises including Halo and Asheron’s Call. David is our creative director, and he worked on the original Halo, Myth, and a number of multiplayer games on consoles when he was working at another company he formed with a friend from Bungie. So he worked on the console versions of Left 4 Dead, Call Of Duty: World At War, and Age Of Booty.

RPS: Big names indeed! How did all this lead to Stone Wardens?

Bowman: We’re big fans of tower defence games, and well, this started off a while back before people really started doing this, and we were asking ourselves how we would make a tower defence game that people can play together. We also looked at the other thing we really like, which is the sort of MMO role-playing game methodology of having an avatar in the world, and we decided we wanted to make a game where the towers are really just backing you up. We started going through that, and the rest of the game decisions fells out of that idea. How do you keep the tower defence strategic level interesting, and how do you solve the puzzle – because tower defence at its heart is a puzzle! – and how do you keep the stream of interesting decisions there at the combat level too? All those questions. We prototyped and playtested, and began to see other people doing similar stuff, so we knew we were on the right track. Our balancing goal was to make sure that the towers were still relevant. We want to make the split fifty-fifty, where the players have growth and are powerful. Ultimately we’ve come up with a prototype where the moment to moment action is fun and the overall strategic game is interesting.

RPS: Can you go into a bit more detail there? I suppose people will now be familiar with this idea of having an avatar running around in a tower defence game – what are the details that make Stone Wardens interesting?

Bowman: Well – to use some of our game fiction terminology – the towers are “ancestral guardians” and they are statues that you call down. And until you imbue them with spirit, they are just statues. The player’s job is to manage that resource to bring this statues to life. So there’s in-game development in terms of where you have invested your resources, how you have upgraded them and so forth. And then on the other metagame side of it, you get character progression like you might do in any online RPG. At the end of any successful session you get a chance to win enchanted equipment that allows you to change your appearance and stats. You can go to a store to purchase some of this stuff with the gold you earned in your game, too, but the best gear comes from playing of course! We don’t [drop loot] during the battle though, because we find that to be distracting. We like the idea that you are going to get something for your warden at the end of a successful game.

RPS: Just to be clear, that’s persistent as a character?

Bowman: Yes, you are building up a warden over time, building up their abilities to a certain level. We’re shooting for about six abilities, and these level up with you. It’s a shallow level of progression, you aren’t going to be shoot up to level eighty or anything crazy like in a big MMO. But your equipment improves too, so we have two systems working there – a traditional character leveling system, and a gear system. That’s persistent and maintained on our servers. You’re going to be able to access that on whatever system you play on.

RPS: So what’s the deal with being able to play with chums? Is my hardcore mate going to level off over the horizon?

Bowman: Ah, these are big MMORPG challenges, right? I am level 80, you are level 1, how do we play together? Well to start off with have a much shallower level progression, and this is not an effort for you to feel like you can’t play with a noob, it’s an effort to make you feel like customising your character means something. Every ability you have is useful. More powerful characters, though, are not going to be like ten times as poweful, it’s small increments, percentages. In MMOs you get this thing where a level 80 character is a thousand times more powerful than a starter character, and we’re not going that way.

Alberts: There’s something else here that I think we should mention, which are the systems that enable players to play together, because I think that’s important. One is that the players are not competing with each other during a session, not for loot drops, not for anything. It’s all fostering co-operation. There’s a boost system in place which allows players to adjust the difficulty, and that covers a very wide range. The game also responds to the number of people play it: if you’re going to play with a friend and you are level 10 and they are level 5, you can adjust the boost setting so you have a better chance of success together. We want people to play these challenges over and over and beat them on higher difficulty.

Bowman: And there are online leaderboards, so the challenge here is actually co-operative competition. You get to see how you are doing in the game compared to other people.

RPS: That seems like it focuses a lot on individual performance – is there much in the way into team interplay? Can I be a support class? I notice you have support pet classes, too?

Bowman: You can play support, but… well, we have a couple of challenges here. I need to make this game fun for one person to play, and I need to make that fun for two, three, four players. So all the wardens need to be fun to play. So the Vester class is more about manipulating AI, rather than a mage which would be more about damage, and as such is more of a support class. But you can also beat any challenge just with that class, even if it’s a lot more skilful play. If I am playing with other warden types as the vester, I am mostly setting them up to make the most of their abilities against the AI. As for the pets, we call them familiars, you can unlock all of them, and they’re available to each warden. You can choose whichever. They can gather spirit, they can spend that spirit making the guardians more powerful, or you have them back with you where they passively or actively magnify your abilities. They do not level up, so they’re more of a tool that you can use, but they’re not a pet class as such – wardens aren’t levelling up as a pet class. Familiars are a momentary tactical extension if you, you can say “tonight I want to try this”.

RPS: Let’s talk about Kickstarter, then. Why go that route?

Bowman: From the team perspective there’s two things for us: we want to get input from an audience. If we can get a playerbase invested, and they’re interested enough to back us with some money, then we want to be able to listen to those folks. It’s a community-based game, so that’s going to be essential to prioritising content. We have an idea about what’s fun and what works, but players will decide. We want to be able to follow that fun with their guidance. User experience and UI, a lot of games I’ve worked on showed that takes time to get right, so getting a larger scale usergroup in there is really great, and really helpful to getting it working as it should.

Alberts: From a company perspective, the current climate right now with publishers and developers for smaller studios, anything less than $2-$3m, the publishers are not funding people to make content. That means their expectation is that the game be largely finished when it comes to them. For us to make enough content for a product to thrive, we needed to launch a Kickstarter. That gives us a budget to produce and balance that content. We could have a product that is 90% complete. At that point we could have our pick of publishers in terms of marketing and distribution, and so they can do everything that publishers do best.

RPS: What happens if this fails? You seem to have a long way to go…

Alberts: We’re still talking with external investors, angel investors and publishers overseas, so we’ll keep going at that until we get the funding that we need.

RPS: As you mentioned, the avatar in tower defence thing has expanded in the past two years: why do you think people should pay attention to Stone Wardens particularly?

Bowman: This is a relatively new genre, and there are just a few games in this space. They’ve all been fairly successful and have been fun to play. We think we bring some neat twists, but also we think we bring a long-term game. It’s the kind of thing you can get together with friends to play again and again, and get better at. You know it’s an exciting game when the developers want to play one more instead of doing development! Right now we just want to have a bunch more people to play with, and that’s what Kickstarter could bring.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

Stone Wardens is currently on Kickstarter.


  1. Choca says:

    Do you get to play the cylcops guy-thing ? He looks cool.

    As for the game, I must say that tower defense games used to bore me to tears but I actually enjoyed the hell out of Defender’s Quest recently so I might actually be interested in picking that up.

    Strange times.

    • kinetifex says:

      Haha! That’d be cool but no you don’t get play as the cyclops. He’s one of the really tough boss-type enemies we’re going to have. It takes some strong towers and wardens working together to bring him down.

  2. Moraven says:

    I really want a new PixelJunk Monsters. Avatar based TD game where your avatar is simply used to collect resources, place towers, upgrade towers and give them experience.

    I hope this has a good balance of Avatar power vs Tower Power. Dungeon Defender I got to bored of within an hour since it felt more like a Last Stand with towers as an afterthought. Orcs Must Die had a better balance and great trap synergy. It was great to play that where you could watch your towers do the work while you threw out some stun arrows time to time.

    As long as the avatar play is not to twitchy I could see the missus getting into this.

    • mwoody says:

      Did you ever play Iron Brigade? It’s another in that vein, made by Double Fine.

  3. kwyjibo says:

    Their Kickstarter is miles off the goal.

    We’re not short of tower defense games though, and without an established name/IP, another spin on tower defense, the dullest, most casual subset of the strategy genre, is just not enough to capture our attention/wallets.

    The only successful Tower Defense Kickstarter I can think of is Defense Grid 2, and that didn’t actually raise enough money for the full game.

  4. kinetifex says:

    I love PixelJunk Monsters! My brother and unlocked most of the rainbows. It’s a great co-op Avatar-based TD game like you say. I brought it up quite a few times in our design discussions and it definitely has had an influence with our game.

    No, imo our avatars don’t feel twitchy like Dungeon Defenders. Stone Wardens is very much a TD game, with avatars in the mix. While there is some player skill involved, you do have the time and ability to take a step back and plan your approach before using your avatars special moves.

    Here is a link to some early gameplay footage which should give you a better feel for how things work.

    • Moraven says:

      Thanks for the reply and the video link. The game design and art style looks like it would fit something we for both of us.

      Any plans for controller support or is the design around mainly m/k?

      • kinetifex says:

        Hey Moraven, glad you’re liking the art style! Yes our predominate focus as we develop right now is mouse and keyboard. However, we intend support controllers but I can’t say we’ve prototyped controller support yet. We have prototyped touch support and have been playing multiplayer well with PCs and tablets playing together.

  5. realitysconcierge says:

    Man that art style puts me in a wind waker mood. The smoke puffs are what really remind me the most of it.

    • Mad Hamish says:

      it’s just like it, I love it. I’m well surprised others never outright copied it. I’ve wanted to completely rip it off ever since I played Wind Waker. Even just effects in that game were beautiful, all the lovely spirals.

  6. jorygriffis says:

    Is this game being pseudonymously developed by Damon Albarn and David Bowie?

  7. SgtStens says:

    The art style looks very heavily influenced by the later Zelda games, which I personally like. I’d play this, I hope it makes it to the finish line.

    What’s the pay model going to be? Paying subscription for a tower defense seems anathema to my cheap ass, yet F2P would seem at odds with the cooperative nature.

    • David Bowman says:

      If we reach our Kickstarter goal it will be buy it and play it. We’ll release a demo for free, but it’s not a subscription nor a F2P. Future content packs will probably be for sale to help pay for their development.

  8. Tony M says:

    I love the color. Are you listening games industry? We want more color in PC games! Backed it.

  9. kinetifex says:

    Thanks for the supportive comments regarding the art style and effects! Yes, Wind Waker and other recent Zelda games have been a heavy influence on the visuals. We’re trying a blend of the cartoon cut-out type look along with more flares and glows. The idea is for each effect to be able to stand alone as its own art element, not just as “side-effect” of an action or something (think typical muzzle flashes or footstep, etc.)