For whatever reason I started thinking about a game I used to play long, long ago called Pocket Tanks. As I thought about all the strange and different weapons in the game, I thought I’d make this post a Fun Gun Award and talk about some of the most creative weapons. However, with 400 different guns (30-40 in shareware versions) I realized this would be pointless.
And I as thought about the quantity of different weapons I realized that the majority of them were not balanced and despite this the game was still fun. I realized something about how the quantity and variety of weapons affects the very nature of the game.
So, here we go…
I remember playing Pocket Tanks maybe 15 years ago on my old iBook. It’s been around for a very long time and it’s still alive and kicking. Currently, it has a free “lite” version available on mobile devices and there is still PC/Mac shareware versions available at the website. (Apparently it was programmed by one guy, Michael P. Welch.)
Here’s the low down on the game.
Pocket Tanks is a Scorched Earth style game where you and your opponent have a tank and try to shoot each other. You control the angle and power of your shot, and in Pocket Tanks you can move your tank. There is an option to have wind, which push your shot when it’s in the air.
In most Scorched Earth games the point is to kill your opponent by being the first to make a direct hit. However, in Pocket Tanks each of you gets ten shots, you get points for hitting your enemies, lose points for hitting yourself, and whoever has the most points at the end of ten turns wins.
Okay, so the variety of weapons is astounding. I’d think with 400 weapons that eventually they would start to get redundant and repetitive in their behaviors, but I’ve been consistently surprised so far. Every iteration, variant, and mechanic you could possibly think of for this type of game seems to have been thought of.
You’ve got your standard shots that basically arc through the air and explode when they hit terrain. Then you’ve got shots that bounce, or roll across the ground, or split into multiple shots, or detonate in the air, or detonate in patterns, or detonate with multiple explosions, or have explosions that fill 1/3rd of the screen, or burrow through the ground, or destroy terrain but don’t hurt the player, or hurt the player but don’t affect terrain, or aren’t affected by gravity, or bury your opponent in dirt/sand/snow/tar, or knock your opponent across the screen…
And on and on and on they go.
The variety of weapon behaviors, mechanics, and types seems endless (although it’s not endless; it stops at 400) since every behavior and mechanic seems to be recombined with each other to form nearly every possible iteration you could think of. With this much variety of weapons it is just not possible to balance them all against each other.
So, they’re not balanced.
When you start a game, you and your opponent get to select from 20 random weapons selected from the weapon pool. Now I’m sure there is some algorithm that tries to makes sure the 20 weapons are as balanced as possible, but, again, with the total number of weapons to choose from, “balance” is always going to be a little out of reach.
There’s also the fact that you can turn on wind, and adjust the size and “kick” of all explosions.
At this point it’s also worth noting that a lot of the guns have strange, silly, or mysterious names like Hot Potato, Fizz Bombs, Magic Beans, Magic Forest, Warp Gate, Flea Circus, Crazy Ivan, Mystery Bombs, Mud Pie, Bouncy Dirt, Phantom, Tunnel, Wacky Tank, and so on. Even when you have a rough idea what a weapon will do (Snowballs for example will have something to do with covering your opponent in snow) you might not be sure what combination of mechanics will take place.
The point is, when you consider the weapon names, the number of weapons, their lack of balance, their cartoonish behavior, the unexpected behavior of new weapons, and the bright, cartoonish art style, something starts to become clear. The game isn’t really about winning. The game is just about having fun.
I sincerely think it is best played with friends in the same room with you because the game is about laughing at the ridiculous situations that arise and not about actually trying to beat someone. Sure, you still try to win just as a goal to work towards, but the real point is about the absurdity of close calls and unfair situations and unexpected results.
You shoot your friend with the Sniper Rifle and the kickback knocks him so hard that he bounces off the side of the screen and lands right next to you. And that’s kind of funny. You fire a Skipper (bouncing shot) at your friend, but it lands near him in such a way that it keeps bouncing over him without actually landing on him. You shoot your friend with a Pile Driver, which digs him into a ditch, but now that he’s at the bottom of the ditch you can’t get an angle that’ll actually hit him.
Or, let’s say you have a weapon called “Fire in the hole” and neither of you know what it does. You shoot your friend with it and it blows up, leaves him in a crater, then it rains fire down on him in the crater, and then it drops a mountain of dirt on him so that he’s trapped. I feel like you can’t help but laugh in that situation even if you’re the one taking the damage.
It’s all of this ridiculousness that makes the game fun and genuinely funny.
There are a lot of games out there that make you frustrated when things don’t go the way you want or don’t go the way you expect them to. Those games can easily take a group of friends and make them hate each other, for at least a short while.
With Pocket Tanks, that risk is greatly diminished. I’ve never seen anyone get genuinely frustrated with the game. I think everyone who plays starts to get the sense that, yeah the game isn’t fair or balanced most of the time, but it’s just so ridiculous that you can’t take it seriously either. So, people will get frustrated, but they chuckle in the midst of their frustration. Somehow people intuitively realize that the game is about just laughing and having fun and not about being better than someone else.
It would be nice if that mindset permeated through more multiplayer games out there.