This week’s updates focused on making the game easier. Since this idea was formed, the most consistent feedback I’ve gotten has been that the game is too hard. The puzzles were too difficult to solve, but the game itself was too hard to play. It was awkward to move around, it was difficult to navigate the map with so little time, and the whole thing was rather unintuitive. Last weekend I put my crisp new beta in the Reddit Feedback Friday forum and… nothing. No responses, at least on the forum itself. I did get one person who came to the site (You rock, andrew) and reminded of the difficulty problem that’s been haunting me since I started this project. I decided to tackle that problem head on.
The first one’s free
The initial puzzle in the game was to figure out how to get the xenobiology upgrade. This is the upgrade that lets you interact with the switches in the game. While not being able to use switches severely limits your ability to get around, it doesn’t completely negate it. The puzzle was hard, but entirely possible, I was able to get to the upgrade within 20 seconds, so even if you made a few mistakes there was a lot of leeway. The problem was that the points to get there were too abstract. You could break out of the starting room by smashing the glass, or cutting the power and prying the door open, then you had to collect various items to set up to be able to cut the power in the hallway and in the lab, and you get the idea. There were a lot of steps in this puzzle, and until you solved it, you didn’t even know what you were looking for. That was not good design. I still think it’s a good puzzle, but as the first puzzle it just asks too much of the player.
I was torn about making it too easy. I didn’t want to just hand the upgrade to the player, but at the same time not having that upgrade meant you had to be really clever, or really persistent just to get out of the starting room. As I thought about ways to make it easier without making it too simple, I started looking to other games for inspiration. Classic games like Metroid, Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda all pretty much hand the player the first upgrade. In Metroid all you have to do is walk left to get the morph ball, Link gets his first sword from a cave on the starting, and the first mushroom is about two seconds into the first Mario level. Most of these “upgrades” are really pretty integral to the way the games are played, so it makes sense that you get them right away. I likened my switch upgrade to the morph ball and set forth to make it easy, but not free. The current layout requires the player to grab the only tool on the way to the vent and use it. You even start facing that direction, so while it isn’t forced on you, it’s pretty obvious where you need to go.
Something to kill the time
After figuring out how to ease the players into the game a little better, I set out to make a decent path to the next upgrade. Originally this was a different upgrade, but since many people found the controls difficult and frequently got hung up on the scenery, I moved the Chronostasis upgrade to the #2 position. This upgrade lets you toggle a time slowing effect so you can navigate while running without getting snagged on the walls. Getting to it is pretty simple, and while it does have a few steps in the process, none of them are all that abstract or difficult to arrive at. Grabbing items and using them, no need to cut power or navigate the map in non-standard ways. It also optionally introduces the player to the concept of stashing items in between runs. The puzzle can be solved without using it, but it requires good timing and precise navigation, so some players will use it and some won’t, but either way it’s a pretty simple path to the upgrade.
For now that’s all there is to do on the map. There is another upgrade available that can be acquired if you really look for it, but getting to it with what the map has on it is harder than any puzzle will likely be in the game. Still, I left it in hoping that somebody would find it. If you know exactly where to go and what to do, it only takes a few minutes to exhaust the content, but trying to figure it out should take longer. This highlights one of the biggest problems I have in designing this game: how long will it take the average player to beat the game? I’m hoping now that it’s easy enough to solve, people will actually find it and I can get an idea of the time people are spending, but that remains to be seen.
Escape from the bad controls
Along with the map redesign, I added another slew of usability updates. The player will now use switches with a more forgiving range, allowing situations like the one pictured above. Before, you would have had to step back a bit and turn and face the switch to use it. That’s not really fun to have to be that precise even when you aren’t timed. Add the time limit back in and it’s just frustrating and annoying. I updated the bounding boxes of several of the objects on the map, fixed a few rendering bugs that were causing confusion, and updated the document positions in the data file so they match the map. Overall it’s a much smoother experience than before, and I think the updates will allow players to focus more on the gameplay and less on the controls.
There is still no sound, no introduction cutscene, and no real ending, but I think I have enough of this aspect of the gameplay that I can move onto those other things and hopefully get real feedback on them. I’m getting close to the point where I will have to stop putting these updates out for free. I am trying to sell this game, after all. My goal is to get the game to a point where the only difference between the free demo and the actual game is the map, so I think this coming week I’m going to start focusing on those other aspects of the game.