A few Uruguayan friends made an indie game. It sold 17m copies and powered an entire studio

From Facebook and flash games, Ironhide Game Studio has grown into the steward of one of the most popular tower defence game series of all time

Sajid Khan
Published : 19 Nov 2023, 02:13 PM
Updated : 19 Nov 2023, 02:13 PM

For most of gaming’s history, the tower defence genre was largely a minor blip on the landscape of strategy games.

Arcade classics like 1978’s Space Invaders laid the foundation for the basic premise – the player defends their territory from attack by enemies. The 1990 release of Rampart solidified the key ideas – using defensive structures and tactics to build, defend, and repair a fortification against an oncoming hoard of foes.

But it wasn’t until 2007 and 2008 that the tower defence genre became one of the biggest in the world. The turning point? The emergence of independent developers who used Adobe Flash to create simple games that could be played on browsers and on apps on Apple and Google smartphones.

Flash Element Tower Defense, released in January 2007, became massive. Plants vs Zombies popularised the genre on mobile developers. Soon, the genre had adapted to touchscreen interfaces and became some of the most popular apps on the platform.

This is what led to the 2011 release of Kingdom Rush, one of the cornerstones of the tower defence genre. With over 17 million downloads on the App Store and the Play Store, it is a massive success.

But it all began with a dream.

In 2010, all Álvaro Azofra, Pablo Realini, and Gonzalo Sande - three friends from Uruguay – had was that dream. They dreamt of harnessing their energy, creativity and eagerness to create outstanding games, though they had no idea how or what they needed to do so. But they created Ironhide Game Studio anyway.

Their first project was Soccer Challenge – World Cup Edition. It proved to be a learning experience. The lesson? It’s not that easy to make a popular Facebook game.

They gave it another go that same year, taking a simple concept and trying to make the best game they could. The result was Clash of the Olympians. Even now, the studio admits the game was a bit ‘rough around the edges’. Still, it allowed them to start making a living in the world of video games. 

By 2011, they were itching to try their hand at something bigger and better. Something that would prove to players and themselves that they were capable of something great. As fans of the tower defence genre, they chose to innovate on it by giving players the impression of being embroiled in actual combat.

As the highest-rated game across the major browser game sites, Kingdom Rush enjoyed tremendous success on online game portals. The Flash version has been played over 300 million times around the world. They ported the game to iPad and, with a bit of ingenuity, to the iPhone. And they haven’t looked back since.

Kingdom Rush achieves the golden rule of game challenge – it’s easy to learn, but difficult to master. In many ways, the strategy framework is simple, but it’s effortlessly effective, making use of the simple foundation of towers that must be defended and heroes that attack the enemy.

The game uses four kinds of towers that need to be defended - artillery towers that deal damage to large groups of foes, ground forces towers that slow down enemies and deal minor damage, a tower that deals magical damage, and a tower that allows long-range attacks. Knowing where to place a tower on the field might mean the difference between winning and losing.

All four towers have two distinct specialisations that are crucial for harder stages. Utilising these limited resources in a clever way is part of the fun. The character and environment design are also a step up from many competitors, with elements even reminiscent of Blizzard’s epoch-defining work on Warcraft.  

Like any good phone game, it’s also extremely replayable. After you complete the campaign, harder stages become available. Completing these missions requires skill and finesse to receive the highest rankings. It almost becomes a puzzle. But also one that can be approached in a number of interesting ways because you can reset your skill tree without any major penalties. 

If you know how to use them, playable heroes can be more potent than towers. Each hero has unique strengths and limitations, and many characters necessitate some degree of micromanagement.

And, to maintain interest during the melee of each match, there are hidden objects and Easter Eggs scattered throughout. Some are easy to spot, while others take a bit of work to find, keeping players on their toes.

Kingdom Rush is an exceptionally balanced game. The challenge scales properly without feeling insurmountable, making it great for beginners and enthusiasts alike. Though developed in 2011 and with an eye to mobile devices, the gorgeous clarity and intricacy of the images remains great. The fantastic background music and amusing one-liners keep players motivated too.

In 2013, Ironhide developed and released the sequel, Kingdom Rush Frontiers about a year and a half after production began. It was an immediate hit, debuting at #1 in sales in more than 40 countries. Kingdom Rush was also finally made available on Steam in 2014 with full HD visuals, all heroes unlocked, plus a few extra surprises. The third prequel to the original title, Kingdom Rush Origins, was published in 2014. It was also a huge hit.

Since then, Ironhide has continued to publish new entries in the series, such as Kingdom Rush Vengeance – focused on the villains – and Legends of Kingdom Rush, an RPG. They even managed to release a tabletop board game in 2019 called Kingdom Rush Rift in Time.

In the 10 years since striking gold with Kingdom Rush, Ironhide has continued to produce amazing games with big fanbases. They have also cultivated a growing community that helps provide positive feedback and improve their output.

The studio has contributed enormously to the development and popularization of the tower defence genre. Here’s hoping they will continue to do so in the future.

This article is part of Stripe, bdnews24.com's special publication focusing on culture and society from a youth perspective.