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Breaking the Mold: Designing a kung-fu game that's not about fighting - Part 5

This is part five of a series in which I'll blog about the Making of Shuyan the Kung Fu Princes - Designing a kung-fu game that's not about fighting.

By Drew Parker, Mark Animation (Ontario, Canada)

Creative Director, Shuyan the Kung Fu Princess, coming this Fall exclusively to iPad

This is part five (the finale) of a series in which I'll blog about the Making of Shuyan the Kung Fu Princes - Designing a kung-fu game that's not about fighting. Missed Part 4? Read it here.

Part 5:  Your Players Always Know Best  -  Fixing the Punch

The players clearly had a serious problem with our game - their gameplay experience was totally different from our team's experience. When the punch was left out of the playtest build, they were very receptive to learning how to do the soft kung fu.  But when the punch was active and they learned about it, immediately they just wanted to smash everything in the room, and complained our game was broken when it didn't let them!

Another thing was - for a game about kung fu training, meaning you have to be TRAINED by someone constantly, which features a kung fu teacher in almost every level, for some players to completely ignore the teacher... we have serious issues!

But what we had was serious feedback issues. Feedback in game mechanics, and feedback in player instruction. The mechanics themselves felt mostly solid to our team internally. Most players noticed the teacher, but the thing was almost all players did not learn how to play the game the way we intended.  And it all led to them spamming the punch, and getting annoyed by the results.

We identified all the specific areas lacking feedback, and tried to beef those up considerably - by adding more sounds and animations, especially during mechanic state changes.

In terms of helping players to learn our game, we referenced Portal.  Portal also teaches players an unfamiliar game mechanic in a "training" type of atmosphere, and the learning curve is tuned superbly.  Level by level, we analyzed their game and tracked when they introduced new concepts, how often they re-inforced concepts, and when they "gated" concepts (not allowing players to progress unless they definitely could perform the new skill.)

Looking back at our game, we added more stepping-stone levels and tried to prevent having more than one new concept per level, and also tried to reinforce concepts by repeating them in subsequent levels more often.

After all that, players had less questions as to what was going on, and less frustrations, but still spammed the Punch, and would not use the GREET very often. Then someone on the team said, "The punch feels really satisfying.  The idea to fight without fighting - maybe they are not ready to accept it yet."

I just stared at him for moment, while what he said sunk in. He was spot on! We were forcing our concept into players heads. No one likes to be forced. If I had walked into my first kung fu class, and the teacher had said, "You are not allowed to punch here."  I probably would have said, "I came to learn how to fight!  This isn't kung fu!"  And perhaps I would have left.  And that is exactly what our players were doing - leaving our game unsatisfied (when the punch was in).

So we changed it.  We changed the punch mechanic.  We changed our levels.  We even changed our story.  We let the players "button mash" and spam the punch as much as they liked, by removing the recovery time penalty.  They stopped complaining it was broken. Of course it became way too powerful since it was first designed as "Heavy Attack," so we also removed the bonus damage. We adjusted the anger response to be more forgiving - players stopped complaining it was too hard. 

We allowed the player to keep spamming the punch as they learned the GREET.  However, they kept facing off against enemies of higher skill, which matches the fiction - their kung fu level is raising so the player is paired with more highly-skilled opponents.  And those opponents get increasingly better at stopping punches - because they use the GREET on you! 

We came full circle and, after avoiding it at all costs, we let the player start with "button mashing" the punch since its familiar, just how most people start real kung fu training wanting to punch everything. Then over time through Kung Fu training the player learns to give up this behavior since it's not effective, and this turns upside down a common genre-trope and weaves it into our essential experience.

We realized something - the kung fu teacher in the game wasn't just teaching Shuyan.  And he wasn't just teaching the player gameplay concepts.  Along with the game, he was literally teaching the player a genuine real-life principle - you CAN actually fight without fighting - and that principle had to be questioned, tested, then finally accepted by the player before the player's kung fu journey could continue, and time needed to be allowed for that.

In the story, instead of our hero Shuyan being initially welcomed to the temple to learn soft kung fu, the students try to kick her out, and she has to do what she knows best - punching - to prove her worth!

It's not until about 25 minutes into the game that the teacher pulls the player aside and says, "Hey, you know with this punching thing - you are really good at it. Why don't I show you another kung fu trick you might like?  It's also really powerful.  It's called the GREET."

Once we did that, the players stopped complaining about our punch, our story and gameplay experience became more unified, and players finally started to embrace our unique "fight without fighting" gameplay and started to enjoy our new take on kung fu combat.

So what's the big take-away from all of this?  Take the time to find and carefully define your essential experience first, then playtest it through development.  As you define your essential experience, you may discover a whole slew of interesting game ideas that never would've come about if you started with "Let's take game X and add piece Y, or make piece Z better."

And with playtesting your prototype throughout development, you can ensure the player's experience matches your intended essential experience.  You'll know it does, because you playtested it to make sure.

With a clear essential experience, you can take inspiration from anything you love or that impacted you.  You can distill your inspiring experience down into a simplified format suited for games, and allow countless others to enjoy that potentially hard-to-come-by experience.

This is what we sought to do with Shuyan the Kung Fu Princess. And from the response we’re getting so far, it seems we may be on to something.

Shuyan the Kung Fu Princess was featured in the "Best of Canada" showcase at MIP Junior in Cannes, France.  It was also part of Telefilm's "Canada Showcase" held during GDC in March. The game will be available exclusively for iPad in Fall 2013. Website: Twitter: @ShuyanGame.

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