A successful recipe for flash games has been to break off a piece of the real-time strategy genre. Desktop Tower Defense and its ilk focus entirely on the defensive base-building aspect. Games such as Epic War and Age of War are more offensive with the player creating waves of units that march towards the enemy base like lemmings off a cliff. There are plenty of variations on these formulas, and some games incorporate more direct control a la Scorched Earth or Worms. But a new game from Casual Collective (a pair of developers including the creator of DTD) puts a new twist on the micro-RTS.
Minions consists of brief (10-15 minute) multiplayer matches where 2-12 players are split between red and blue teams attempt to destroy the opposing color's base. Control is fundamentally similar to an RTS, except that each player only controls a single tank. The tanks are chosen prior to the match from 8 classes, each of which has 3 unique abilities. As time progresses and damage is done to opposing towers, tanks gain experience that with each level increases health, damage, and lets a point be spent upgrading one of the three abilities. The time between re-spawns increases with the player's level. Assisting each team are 4 defensive towers in addition to their home tower and uncontrollable mini-minions sent out periodically.
If Puzzle Quest has the scope of a hardcore game with casual mechanics, Casual Collective seems to be attempting the opposite with Minions. Given the single map and relatively small variations between classes (at the mechanics level), Minions is very repetitive yet I can't seem to stop playing. The multiplayer competition ensures that matches are always unique. Although the downside of multiplayer-only is that you always have to deal with other players. And as with any multiplayer game, the players can be a mixed bag. You can't damage players on your own team, but I guarantee there will be times when you wish you could. Sure it's disappointing to be teamed with a noob, but the game is easy enough to learn that they're not noobs for long. The real issue is from players who just don't care.
There are no experience points or rankings that continue between matches. You receive some points at the end of match that increase your account's level on the site, but that's a cumulative point total between all games on the site and doesn't impact the games. Not only are there players that wander haphazardly around the map making friends with the walls or taking a 5 minute break, in a majority of matches at least one player will disconnect. And the balance is such that a team with a player-advantage has an almost guaranteed win (assuming they stood a fighting chance previously). Is there a solution to this? A penalty on a player could take away the casually approachable nature of the game. A better method might be to assist the abandoned team. There could be an increase in the power or frequency of mini-minions, or a reduction to that team's re-spawn times.
The site's forums are filled with such suggestions but it remains to be seen if Casual Collective is going to spend the time to update the game. Within the last two weeks a much-needed "switch teams" button was added to the lobby screen. But that's the sort of basic feature that should have been included in the first place. Adjusting any sort of balance within the game would be much riskier. Adding a balancing mechanism for players that leave probably wouldn't increase traffic significantly. It's something everyone's used to in online games. There's plenty of talk in the forums about adjusting the classes because of perceived imbalances, but are people not playing because of that? Doubtful. Any time I conclude a class is too powerful, a few matches later I'm proved wrong. It's just a matter of rock-paper-scissors type match-ups. Yeah, three Cutters seem unbeatable when against a group of Docs and Shoutys. But throw in a Splodge and a Stinger and watch the Cutters get torn to pieces.
As far as class balance, the only thing that desperately needs to be changed is how extra experience is awarded during a match and how points are calculated at the end. Experience gets a boost from damaging towers, but certain tanks are relatively ineffective against them and are better used to fight back opposing tanks. Points at the end are assigned with some arcane formula based on the ratio of kills to deaths and the damage done to towers. First of all, kills are only measured in killing blows; it doesn't matter if you did 75% of the damage to a whole group of enemies, if you don't land the final blow, you get no credit. Haven't we moved past that in games? Almost all MMORPGs now divide experience among group members based on their contributions, however their class might count that. A healer would even get credit for how much they've healed. But in Minions, the Doc is a pretty thankless class. The Doc is unlikely to do much damage, and has to chase after their teammates who ignore any semblance of formation since the healing ability affects a small radius around the Doc. Adjusting the balance and rewards would be nice, but what the game desperately needs (and should help increase traffic) is more maps. One small map is just not enough. Let's see a brutal maze of towers or a lopsided map for uneven teams. At least rearrange the basic map to create some variation. It can't be that difficult to do.
Flash games have the advantage that they can be updated very easily: the webmaster just uploads a new swf file. Being able to instantly release fixes makes full upgrades less important. Why wait for a whole batch of version 1.1 upgrades to release the second map? If there's a fix or a new addition, it can just go straight up. A simple notice on the site about each fix would keep players coming back. I'm no business expert, but when a developer is hosting their own game (or has easy update access), why not avoid "release" versions and just update bit by bit? It seems to work for Google, and they even keep the beta status.