The rise and fall of tower defense games

Any of you guys remember tower defense games?  A decade ago they were a dominant force in gaming. There were always a plethora of tower defense games being offered, including classics like Plants vs. Zombies  and Iron Brigade. Even some famous franchises – such as Final Fantasydipped their toes into the tower defense genre.

However, that was a decade ago. Fast forward to today and tower defense games are a fraction of the gaming cultural juggernaut they once were. While these games are still being made, they don’t captivate nearly as many players. The Plants vs. Zombies franchise has moved away from tower defense altogether. Most new entries seem unoriginal, with little to set them apart from other games.  So what happened to this once uber-popular genre? We take a look at the history of the genre and what may have caused its decline.

What is tower defense?

In case you didn’t play games the early 2010’s, here’s a primer on what the tower defense genre actually is. They are, fundamentally, games where you must defend a territory against a relentless horde of enemies of some kind. The primary weapon of choice in these types of games are – you guessed it – towers.

These towers are usually stationary. They have different properties that can help  defend your territory against the horde that usually follows a set path. There’s also generally an economy system to these games, as killing the bad guy horde rewards you with currency with which to buy more and better towers. There are variants on this formula, of course. To get an idea of what these variants are, we must delve into the genre’s history.

Rampart tower defense

Arguably the first game to pioneer the genre actually came out in 1990. Rampart was a game by Atari Games that had you  build a fortress. While it didn’t have an economy system, it did have most of the other elements of modern day tower defense games described above. It even had a 1v1 mode where players competed to build the better fortress. While Rampart was innovative for its time, the genre as we know it hadn’t become a household term yet. That had to wait until the era of real time strategy games, in particular Warcraft 3.

Mods make the genre explode

The typical tower defense game we saw a decade ago came about as a result of the ability to modify the game  Warcraft 3  through the World Editor. In particular, the mods known as Element TD and Gem Tower Defense brought economy and role-playing elements into the mix. They solidified the genre in the format we know today. The mod creators probably didn’t anticipate the genre to explode, and eventually become saturated.

One thing that helped the genre’s boom at the time was Adobe Flash. The rise of independent game developers using Flash helped proliferate the tower defense genre. Many Flash game sites ended up accumulating multiple  tower defense games over the years. In fact, browser game powerhouse Kongregate claims to have over a thousand of these  games.

If the amount of tower defense games on Kongregate is any indication, one huge reason for the genre’s fall in popularity was undoubtedly market saturation. Suddenly it seemed the amount of games in this genre was…towering. Both indie and major developers were cranking out tower defense titles at a rapid pace. Major franchises such as South Park even had tower defense tie-ins to capitalize on the super popular genre. Developers tried to innovate the tower defense genre by making them first- or third-person shooters (such as Sanctum and Orcs Must Die) or inverting the formula into tower offense (like Anomaly), but the sheer number of these games did not help their chances. The tower was being built too high, too fast.

Tower defense Sanctum 2

Hope springs eternal

All this said, all is not lost for the genre. Some developers are still trying to find ways to bring fresh ideas to the genre. There’s Siege of Centauri, a tower defense game developed by Stardock, creators of the Ashes of the Singularity RTS franchise. Released in September of 2019,  Siege of Centauri keeps in line with the high unit counts of Ashes of the Singularity, and the hordes you have to defend against are massive.  There’s an unprecedented number of towers and upgrades you can choose from as well. Basically, Siege of Centauri takes what made the tower defense genre good in the first place and multiplies it to really hardcore levels.

Even the developers of the original Element TD mod for Warcraft 3 haven’t given up hope on injecting fresh life into this genre.  The team recently released into Early Access a standalone sequel to their mod, aptly titled Element TD 2. This time they’ve introduced multiplayer, but they’ve taken it further by increasing the number of players. There’s a Duel Mode, as well as a Co-op Mode in which more than two players can work together to survive incoming hordes.

The tower defense genre’s future is uncertain right now, but maybe these fresh takes on the ancient genre can inject some much-needed life into it. At the very least, developers are certainly not averse to experimenting with it. If others can repeat the success of recent hits like Arknights, perhaps we have more tower defending ahead of us.

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Phillip Miner

Phillip has over a decade of experience writing about video games. Yes, over a decade! He's been on publications ranging from the Escapist to local papers and beyond.
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