Edd made a game and then wrote this feature about it. Part II - Analysis
This is Part II. That means you might want to read Part I before proceeding. It may just help make the whole thing more meaningful. Also you might want to consider playing the game... though you do so at your own peril.
So, here’s the thing. I’m not you. I’m not really anyone, but me. It’s obvious, perhaps, but it is not something that you think about everyday. The thing about game design is that you need to understand everyone else’s opinion, thought patterns and mind sets and that is the basis behind a well made game. The thing about my game is that it was built with one person in mind. Me. And that is not a great building block when it comes to making a good game.
You can write about why a game you have not created succeeds until the cow come home, sleep, and then go back out into the fields, but actually ruminating on all those critical thoughts and then throwing them into your own work is another matter entirely. Suddenly those words of wisdom that you once uttered about someone else’s art become petty noises that bounce around silently in the back of your skull, irrelevant and meaningless. The game you need to create needs everything, it should be bigger, better and more productive than anything to have existed before. Puzzles no-one can possibly solve without tearing their brains out, a gameplay mechanic that changes the perspective on everything that has come before it, and secrets so mystifying that only the most faithful sadist will ever discover them. Only you have a few months to create it, and you have absolutely no idea how to make a game in the first place. If anything that is the biggest flaw in this silly game I made, I tried to do too much, but I had no clue what I was doing in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong. ...As I Drift Away... is not a terrible game. I am proud of it in many ways. If we look at the rankings for the jayisgames casual game design competition somehow this game managed to weasel its way into sixth position. And that’s not bad. It’s not the best either, but for a first time game, made by someone with little to no experience, I guess we could say it’s fairly impressive. Perhaps the most interesting part of the experience is the feedback I’ve received, from players, voters in the competition and even two of the team from Pastel games. That means Mateusz Scutnik, creator of probably my favourite browser game experience, the Submachine series, played my game. That in itself makes the whole thing worthwhile. However looking through their thoughts makes for some interesting reading.
Puzzles are a complex entity. There is a delicate balance between testing the mind of the player and completely bamboozling them. Understanding this is the key to creating the best problems. Sadly this is a technique that is built up through experience, and despite working through similar puzzles on a daily basis, I went into this completely unprepared. ...As I Drift Away... is a game of self discovery, players are meant to be confused, at first, as to the cryptic messages that appear on the screen explaining the powers that they have just collected. I wanted people to experiment and discover things for themselves, sadly most just got confused, bored and frustrated. Perhaps if this had been a retail game then people may have been driven to push further due to their expense, but the problem with browser games is that it is incredibly easy to click that tiny close button and move on. It is a sentiment that is hard to understand from the developer’s perspective, but it really comes down to one simple thought: ‘Why should I bother?’ I think this about far too many games, particularly free browser games, but somehow during development this simple idea escaped me.
I made a mistake in the game design. Something that writers often call the first rule, which makes it all the more baffling that I missed it: consider your audience. I knew from a fairly early stage that this game would be created for the Casual Gameplay Design Competition. You would therefore think it fairly logical that the game submitted should be aimed at the casual audience. ...As I Drift Away... is, arguably, a game for the hardcore gamer. Firstly, it is played from a First-Person perspective, which is rarely, if ever, used and secondly the puzzles are so complex and baffling that they require far more than a casual effort to solve.
I was amazed to discover, for example, that many players had never used a mouse and keyboard to control a game from a FPS perspective. I had not even considered explaining that very basic premise, yet if you think about it for more than a few seconds it becomes obvious. Why would the mouse rotate the view in such a way? Why would WASD control movement? Twenty years ago the idea would have been completely unique, but even today a vast majority of people have not played an FPS using this control method. Furthermore, if you are going to create puzzles for a casual audience, do not unleash complex puzzles right from the beginning.
As Mateusz rightly mentions in his comments: “Good idea would be to just stick to one arbitrary ability”. This was not the first time I heard this: testers had already mentioned that piling on new abilities after the completion of every puzzle was confusing and unnecessary. I should have listened. Sadly, at this point I had already planned out the puzzles (and the layout of the entire game, which was probably the most ingenious part of the game, that few ever saw), and with time running out due to the competition deadline, there was very little I could change. I truly believe that there is a good game hidden in under the horrendously obtuse nature of ...As I Drift Away... but sadly it fails to ever flower.
I probably should have concluded something from that.
There are two lessons to be learnt here: The first is something I have already mentioned: your brain is different to everyone elses. Just because something is simple or apparent to you, to everyone else it may make absolutely no sense. The second is related to to this: Test. Test. Test and test early. Testing gives you the experience of other brains, other players who are not you. Looking back, I cannot stress how important this stage is. If you do not test then you are creating a game that only works for you, and that seems rather pointless.
Testing not only reveals the workings of another soul’s mind, but it also unveils the huge multitude of bugs that, as a developer, you would never uncover. ...As I Drift Away... was so completely riddled with bugs it could have crawled away by itself. This is perhaps understandable from an inexperienced developer, but I was completely unprepared for the crashing wave of bug reports as the game was released. At release the game had no save game, no respawning in case of getting stuck and no recovery if it crashed. I can only imagine how many players have been put off by game breaking bugs that meant they would have to restart. Again, ask yourself: ‘Why bother?’. I wouldn’t, if it were anyone else’s game. The moral of this story then? Find testers from your friends, your colleagues, your enemies and bug them until they give you a report. Furthermore, leave them to it. Do not watch over their shoulder or prod them in the right direction, until it is completely necessary. This effectively ruins the testing. Testing in this strict manner has to be done, even if it is frustrating for everyone involved. Maybe one day there will be a loyal fan base who will willingly devote their time to some testing, but until then my friendly sacrifices will have to do.
Something that I was slightly shocked to discover, given the analysis of the market I had already done, was the limitations of Unity. Unity was the engine used to build the game. It is a superb development kit, fairly easy to understand and has a loyal and helpful community behind it. The general principle behind Unity is to run on virtually all machines from the humble internet browser to mobile to the high powered console. Which it does, if the player puts the effort in. However, Unity is currently not ubiquitous across browsers and machines, which means that to play the game requires a download of the Unity player. I was completely amazed by how few people would even take this step. Unlike the Flash player which comes preinstalled on most standard browsers, ensuring Flash games just work, this extra step required to get Unity to work is often a step too far. Sadly that means that a large number of people eager to play the game never even saw the title screen. Again, ask yourself “Why should I bother?”.
Compounding this issue is the fact that Unity is fairly resource intensive. ...As I Drift Away... is an incredibly simple game with virtually no complex textures, basic lighting and simple routines. Yet on some older machines it still struggled to run. The comments board of the game (as well Karol Konwerski’s own thoughts) is awash with players moaning about the fact that it is a Unity game and therefore will not run on their machine, further limiting the player base. Flash may well be a dying breed, but it will still reach a far greater audience than any other platform at present. If you want to reach the most people, especially for browser games, build it in Flash. Sadly the 3D nature of ...As I Drift Away... means the game could never really exist in Flash without a huge amount of time, effort and skill, if it is even possible. I still see Unity as an up and coming engine, so the experience was not wasted, but there is still a long way for it to go before it can even compete on the same level, particularly in the browser market.
Perhaps the last thought to dwell on is the simple concept of creating a game solo. Some people manage it, some people have developed all the skills required and can do everything themselves. But the simple fact of the matter is that you cannot be great at every aspect. The process of creating a game requires the use of every part of the brain. Logic and mathematics for developing code, Language for writing the plot, Artistic for creating any visual assets, Aural for music and sound design, even Psychology in the understanding of the player’s mind. ...As I Drift Away... was an experiment to see what I personally could create with no external help. I fully admit that my artistic talents are limited, which explains the very sparse environments of the game and apparently I have very little grasp on the mental workings of others. It is a game created to play to my own strengths, which perhaps are slightly unclear at present, but it does go a long way to explain the game’s nature.
A great indie game developer knows their limits and works around it, perhaps bending it to become their strength. Consider Terry Cavanagh’s At A Distance, the genius of this game is that the artistic style, while incredibly limited, actually enhances the atmosphere. Perhaps I tried to achieve a similar thing with the peculiar design of this game, but in the end it resulted in a mess of confusing identical corridors. All that being said, if there is an area that lets you down in designing a game, do not be afraid to ask for help or hire other’s talents. There are plenty of people in the world willing to lend a hand, at surprisingly little expense if they believe in your cause.
In conclusion here are a list of things I have learnt, that if you intend to make your first game (or any game) you really need to consider:
- Everyone is different. Do not make a game that works just for you, make a game that works for your audience as well. This is going to become my mantra, if I create any more games.
- Consider your audience. If you make a game for a casual gaming website, make a casual game. Likewise if you have a hardcore fanbase, do not disappoint them with tepid gameplay.
- Test your game with others. Test it early. Do not be afraid to make dramatic changes.
- Spend some time researching the best tools for the job. Unity, for example, may well be a great engine, that is simple to use, free, and easy to migrate to other platforms, but it is resource intensive, the various plugins are decentralised, and it is not ubiquitous on the browser platform. Sometimes tools, such as Flash, that seem to be on the decline are still the best to use.
- Do not be afraid to ask for help. While ...As I Drift Away... was deliberately a solo effort due to writing these features, in any other project consider messaging people in the know or hiring specialists if you really need to.
So, will I make another game? I want to, but at present I have no goal, no drive and no light bulb ideas. I have been playing around with Escape-The-Room engines in first-person, randomly generated dungeons and all manner of silly little things, but nothing has stood out. The game making process is extremely stressful and tiring, and while I imagine things get easier the more experienced you become, I can still only imagine what it must take to create a full release. However, I have learnt so much from creating just one single game that it seems a shame to stop there. Perhaps that bright spark is just around the corner? Watch this space...