Sometimes custom game modes and mods are transient experiences that come and go, flavors of the month. Some stick around though, or break out into their own standalone game or even genre. Games like DayZ, PUBG, or Auto Chess. The best-known example of a custom game becoming a standalone genre is the MOBA, growing as it did from Aeon of Strife for Starcraft, then Defense of the Ancients for Warcraft 3.
But another movement thrived in the era of Warcraft 3 custom games: Tower defense. One of the biggest in the Warcraft 3 days was Element TD, which has survived by jumping and evolving from platform to platform over the last 16 years. From Warcraft 3 custom map to Flash game, to StarCraft 2 arcade, to Dota 2 and mobile. Its most devout fans still love Element TD, having followed it for years—and now, finally, they have a game all their own.
These days tower defense is often a pretty chill affair, as seen in games like Bloons TD, which thrived on mobile and, more recently, on Steam. That's not what Element TD 2, which left Early Access this month, is going for.
Element TD 2 is a deep and complex tower defense game that harkens back to the golden era when there were dozens of popular variants and odd takes on the formula. It's a doozy of a game when you look at the features: A long campaign mode, an endless wave mode, with progression and diverse randomization options for both. Some of those make the game action-oriented, or slower and thinkier, or utterly unpredictable. There are six elements, and 42 unique towers, but the sequence you choose new elements and buy towers in determines what you can get and when.
There's multiplayer too. A lot of multiplayer: Free-for-all, team-based, and ranked competitive with a ladder. There's team-based competitive survival and eight-player co-op. There's a MOBA-like War Mode where your towers compete against another team's, healing your creeps and killing theirs.
Evan Hatampour is the founder and CEO of Element Studios, and he's been working on Element TD since 2006, when he took over development of the Warcraft 3 map from creator Brian Powers.
"I'm the only person to have done every version," Hatampour told me over email. He and lead designer Stuart Hwang are the duo who made Element TD 2, and Hwang has been with the team since the Starcraft 2 version. It's a small team, and people have come and gone over the years, but the Element TD community has stuck by the rotating cast of developers behind it. "We have always had a place where players could interact with the dev team directly. Some of the best ideas have come from the community," said Hatampour. These days, that's Discord and the Steam forums.
After sinking 20 hours into Element TD 2 I felt like I'd barely scratched the surface. Whether I was puzzling out difficult campaign missions or getting trounced in head-to-head matches there was always something new for me to learn about how to do better. Each mode has its own little twists, nuances to learn or micro techniques to master. In most co-op games, for example, you get interest on your gold, and you also get all your money back when you sell towers. The fastest players will sell and rebuild their whole defense setup alongside the timer that shows when interest accrues.
I played Element TD and games like it back in 2006, so some of this is familiar, but it really has come a long way. If you, like me, haven't been keeping up with hardcore tower defense then Element TD 2 is like an artifact from a parallel universe where it stayed a popular genre with dozens of creators iterating on the ideas. Each mode in Element TD 2 feels like it could be the basis for its own game, but as a whole it makes an oddly cohesive, if diverse experience. Hatampour called it "a game for those who like exploration and are curious." I have to agree.
It always felt like a new way of playing was around the corner, despite the smaller community, due to an in-game notification system that tells you when your choice of multiplayer game modes is being hosted and prompts you to join even if you're in singleplayer. I loved it. The bane of many good multiplayer indies is a lack of people to play against.
I asked Hatampour about the idea. "Necessity begets innovation. At the beginning there were not a lot of players online. People would look at the lobby screen, see nothing, and then go on their way," he said, "With the addition of more singleplayer content, it made sense to have a way for players to be updated when people came online."
The community is about evenly divided between team-based or co-operative modes and the head-to-head multiplayer modes, but it's still niche simply because it's hardcore tower defense. "Adding a campaign has helped tremendously with guiding new players," said Hatampour. Singleplayer let me play on my own to get used to the game, and I imagine it gives veterans something to play around with while waiting for others to log on.
Hatampour is clearly still in love with tower defense, and likes what has been done with it recently. "Some hybrid games have brought new energy and ideas to the genre. Those are great to see," he said, "but what you would consider traditional tower defense has not had a solid release in a long time."
He hopes Element TD 2 will fill that niche, and maybe even inspire new creators. "I would like to see a return to having a large diversity of gameplay. Back in the days of WarCraft 3, there were so many unique tower defenses with intricate mechanics," he said. After spending time with Element TD 2, remembering all the diverse and engaging game design that tower defense pioneered, I can't help but agree with him.