TinyWarz and Browser Game Design

TinyWarz 2.0 has launched, and I took a spin in this turn-based strategy browser game to see what it is all about. What I brought back are first impressions of the game, along with thoughts on the design and the browser games industry.

TinyWarz Game Overview

TinyWarz is billed as being massively multiplayer, but it wears that label in a rather innovative way. Players have their resources and stock of units, which persist across sessions, but the game is centered around deployment of those units to planets, which are available only for limited durations (often an hour or less). Each planetside deployment is like its own game, as a result of which your resources and units can progress (the persistence aspect) in strength for the next engagement.

Planetside is where most of the action happens, harvesting resources and doing battle, but there’s also a black market where anything and everything can be traded (provided you purchase or earn “paid days”, which is like a sort of premium upgrade to your account).

Another important concept in TinyWarz is command points (CP). Your account accumulates 50 every night at midnight (100 if you have paid days), and you use CP, in varying amounts, for most of the game’s actions. Those familiar with old BBS-style games like Legend of the Red Dragon or more current examples like Urban Dead will feel right at home earning and spending action points each day.

There’s also an incentive to complete your turns quickly; turns are limited to one minute, and finishing a turn early will refund a fraction of your CP. This reward mechanism helps maintain a fast-paced feel within the turn-based structure.

Meanwhile trading on the market does not require expending CP and gives players an outlet to continue playing and improving their forces even after their allotment of CP for the day runs dry.

What TinyWarz Gets Right

Through a clever combination of daily command point allowance, limited and continually refreshing planet instances, and the ability to play for free while offering advanced players options to earn or pay for unlocking additional features, TinyWarz hits a lot of the right notes on the chart where game design bullet points are written in large font.

TinyWarz also makes good use of graphics for units. Each has a unique representation, and closer views reveal 3d rendered icons which would look right at home in one of the pre-realtime-3d Command & Conquer games.

The game also offers a downloadable image pack, as a means to locally cache graphics instead of feeding off the browser requests and cache. This is a smart move from a web developer’s standpoint as it reduces server load, and the players probably get a slight improvement in response time, not to mention the possibility of offering higher quality art (though without it I had no problems with speed, and found the art for the units to be great).

What TinyWarz Should Improve

From here on out we’re going into territory that is going to be of more interest to web game designers than players – if you’re one of the latter, go try out the game already! It is free, after all.

I feel that TinyWarz is failing to properly address one of their most important audience segments: new users.

Starting from their homepage, they do the right thing by having a couple of paragraphs at the top talking to new users. Then they give a call to action that’s a little weak by directing the user to create and account and click the button “in the upper left corner of this page.” Instead they should just put a button, right there, nice and big and attention-grabbing, something that says “Play Now!” or “Play Free!” (exclamation marks optional).

After account creation there’s another low point in the experience for new users. The game has a learning curve. Maybe not incredibly steep, but not what I would call instant gratification. Now this is the web we’re talking about here, where other entertainment is a click away, so any friction or roadblocks in the way of a new user and their first moment of joy with your game is risking that they’ll leave (and never come back).

Lots of games have learning curves, and varying methods have been developed to get players over them. TinyWarz offers how-to information in its wiki, which is a smart move by the developer in the sense of alleviating content-generation bottleneck by allowing the players to write documentation, but none of what I saw was as immediate and up-to-the-task as it should be.

Ideally what would happen is that new players would be taken on a guided tour through the interface, one step at a time, with an in-game tutorial system, while veterans would have the option to skip the tour. If you think about it even Halo does this, and it’s only got a handful of buttons to master.

Next best would be help which closely follows the interface features and functions, using screenshots and tight narrative. Since we’re talking about a web game, I’d be fine with something opening in a new window, even a page from the wiki, just so long as it is easy enough for someone with zero experience to setup and succeed in their first battle.

The same would go for all actions needed to get up and running in the game, so that new players would be lead through learning the meanings of the required commands one step at a time. Those who figure it out quickly could skip ahead or go off on their own altogether, but new players who want to learn would be given an easy way to absorb the basics, without undue research, effort, or (the worst) trial and error, on their part.

Basically the more smoothly your game introduces its fundamentals, the game atoms which make up its design, the more likely new players will be to stick with it.

Vying for Attention in Cyberspace

Web games exist in a unique context which places them immediately alongside billions of other avenues of entertainment that’s immediately available to the user. When a player fails and experiences frustration with your game, there’s virtually no friction in them moving on to another site, especially if they’re early in the player-lifecycle of your game and not yet invested in it.

That’s also why, in the “casual games” space (a label which all web games tend to be struck with) the most successful games tend to be those which require no skill for the player to succeed.

I’m not advocating the proliferation of skill-less games (nor could I stop it from happening if I wanted to), but rather suggesting that any game, anywhere, is probably best served by making the new player experience as smooth a transition as possible. Then hit them with more advanced strategies and options. Okay… slowly.

TinyWarz Bottom Line

Clearly MobRule Studios is doing enough things right with TinyWarz to keep it going. It’s been around for a few years, boasts tens of thousands of signups, and this is not the first time I’ve seen the game advertised on PA (which apparently isn’t cheap). I wish them success, and it’s certainly possible that the points for improvement I raised are things they may already be working to address. After all, there’s a lot of work in designing, developing, and maintaining a massively multiplayer game, and for all I know MobRule Studios is one (very busy) person.

Have you played TinyWarz? Or have something to add about game design or the browser games industry? Let me know in the comments!

    Scott Says:

    I think the verification code was pretty much their equivalent of sending your initial password to your email. I can understand the distraction, but it’s basically standard for most online account signups these days. The advantage I see here is that the first password you set is one of your own choosing instead of having them email you a random password you have to remember to change.

    I think you’re spot on, however, regarding the prevailing attitude of people surfing the web (potential players). No matter how cool the game gets in the advanced stages, if it doesn’t grab people at the start it stands to turn away a lot of users.

    TinyWarz seems to me like an interesting model (hint), both for what it does right and areas it should improve. That’s what inspired me to write this, and I hope I remember and can look back at these observations down the road…


    When it comes to things on the computer I am Mr. Instant Gratification. While I am willing to spend several days reading the rules for a new board game (and usually enjoying myself quite a bit) when it comes to the internet things seem to change.

    I haven’t play Tinywarz yet but I didn’t really like the distraction of needing a verification code. I’m a WoW player and a Magic Online player so they need to pull me away from those activities long enough to try their game.

    Battalia Says:

    I’m a three year veteran from Tinywarz, and would like to just bring up a few more points.

    One of the best features of Tinywarz is the simple fact that it is not a finished product. Every week or so we see a new update to the games mechanics, like for example, just the other day laser weaponry received some cool bonuses. Now there is a greater pull to use laser units which were looked over before.

    Every year, Tinywarz also seems to see an “expansion” where new units, mods, buildings, and game mechanics are introduced. The newest introducing stealth technology. This is one of my favorite times in the game as it means I get to mess around with some new toys.

    Another one of my favorite features is the planet system, like you said, everything happens here. That means that you don’t go to sleep wondering if all your hard earned work will make it through the night. If your a casual gamer, then you can play on and off and not get penalized. If your a more avid player, you can drop massive bases that give huge bonuses to your faction and yourself, but at a risk.

    Now about the new player learning curve, this is a known problem, but believe it or not, Tinywarz has one developer. Just one person is responsible for the entire game, and where it is now. So he is frequently juggling updates and new features as he sees fit. So right now, players themselves are going out, making video tutorials and posting them to places like youtube. I myself am learning how to do flash and will soon start work on flash version of a tutorial of Tinywarz which will guide the player through their first “day” in the game.

    Lastly, about the post of the validation code, Tinywarz is very much an economic game, with command points (you refered to them as CP but in game they are just called “cmd”) being the MOST valuable commodity, and the only way to earn them is through trade, or every night at midnight. So multi-accounts is a very big problem. The validation codes cut down on players trying to abuse this feature and in reality cheating through cash cow accounts. If that stops a player from joining, then it is a necessary evil we have to pay to cut down on cheaters.

    Thanks for the review of our game!


    Thanks for the comments Batt!

    You mention an important point that I feel is one of the greatest strengths of a web-based game, continual improvement. By running the game off a web server (or several, as the case may be) the game can receive updates, new features, and bug fixes that are all pretty much transparent to the player, nothing new to install etc.

    I had wondered if TinyWarz was basically the work of one person. Even talking just about the development effort required, it’s no doubt very significant (I’m a programmer by day so it’s certainly something I can appreciate). Allowing the documentation and tutorial efforts to be picked up by the community is probably a necessary and smart move, even if it leaves some gaps for new players.

    I do hope very much that TinyWarz, and similar web games, are met with continued success – it’s a category in which I’m quite interested, and one in which TinyWarz seems a good example.