It’s been about six-ish weeks since the last update. Nope, the project is not dead.
My last alpha went out about six weeks ago, and I didn’t like what I got back, which is basically the same thing I’ve been getting back since the start of the project: A polite but unenthusiastic response. (Note to my testers: PLEASE don’t try to be more enthusiastic in order to “help me out”. Your honesty is more valuable than anything else.)
Understand that I’m sick to death of the game. Every change requires a few minutes of playing. Some changes require more. And then about once or twice a week I play through the whole thing, which takes a little over an hour right now. I’ve probably played a hundred hours of the thing. This isn’t a game that wears well, particularly in its unrefined state. I’m so sick of playing it that I can’t objectively judge how fun or interesting it might be. I just have to keep my original design goals in mind and trust in the feedback of my testers.
Judging from that feedback, the average tester spends about one or two hours with the game. After running the test, they generally don’t go back and play again. A couple of people have, but mostly this game seems to wear out its welcome pretty quickly. It burns out quickly, and I don’t know why.
I realize that measuring the interesting-ness of a game is a tough thing. I think if it like a spectrum. On the low end you have ephemeral games like Proteus and The Novelist. These are amusing ideas that are consumed in an an hour or two. At the high end of the scale are the engrossing games: Minecraft, Terraria, or Don’t Starve. You can lose yourself in these games for weeks if they happen to scratch your particular itch. Then somewhere in the middle you have games like Bleed, Ultratron, Pac-Man Championship Edition, or Papers, Please.
I was aiming for somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, but I’ve landed at the bottom. It’s not that what I have is broken or not fun. It’s just not interesting enough to keep people engaged for as long as I’d hoped. It’s a jellybean game: Easily consumed, temporarily pleasant, and quickly forgotten.
Now, if this was a game with a budget and a schedule I wouldn’t have any choice: I’d be obliged to stick to the plan and make the game described in the design document. But we’re all laid back, indie, and irresponsible here at Shamus Games,so it made sense to just step back and think about this for a bit without making any rash decisions.
My first instinct was that I needed more mechanics. Maybe we need traps? Or find-the-key-to-progress diversions? Secrets? More resources to collect?
But I dunno. I’ve got basically just as many systems in my game as (say) Pac-Man or Ultratron, and those games seem to be a lot more engaging. Heck, my game is actually more complicated than Descent, and that game was WAY more interesting to play. (And I don’t think it was because it was 3D.) I don’t know. This is tricky stuff. I’ve basically made the game I planned, and found out it wasn’t as fun as I’d hoped.
After pondering this for a couple of weeks I’m fairly confident that the problem isn’t complexity, it’s pacing. I didn’t want a game with loading screens, so I designed it so you can fly directly from the welcome screen to the final boss fight in a single unbroken trip. It’s nice that we don’t have loading screens breaking the flow, but… maybe the game is just too monotonous? There’s no break. No change of context. No texture. It’s just constant flying and shooting.
There are highs and lows in the action, but maybe that’s not enough? Maybe a brief change in context is what we need. We don’t need to stop play with a loading screen, but maybe we need a brief screen to say, “That level is done. Here’s how you did.”
I need to think about this a bit more.
Even if I can’t resolve this problem, it’s not the end of the world. It just means I’ll have to be a lot less ambitious about how I price it.
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