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Is it really a bad game? A thought on game polishing!

It is common to see around that "polishing won't make a bad game good". But I found this very misleading, as it implies that you should save your efforts. But what if a good game feels bad due to lack of polishing?

Over the last years I have been reading here and there things about game design, game development, marketing, and so on. As it is, I am a "indie developer". Not exactly a full fledged one because I'm not living from my games! After about 6 months of coding and drawing, I released my game on Google Play: Kitten Hopper! During the development, I had contact with one thing that I believe to be very important: game polishing. It is very common to see here and there people saying that "polishing a bad game won't make it good", but I came to believe this can be misleading. I discovered that some "bad" games aren't bad. They only look bad. It was what happened to Kitten Hopper.

The game is inspired on Flappy Bird, and meant to be for mobile touch devices. I tried to make something cute, happy, and easy to play yet challenging. At the same time, I did not want to make another Flappy Bird! The initial idea was a jumping runner, that I threw away since there are too many runners around. I kept the jumping idea and after a few mechanics prototypes, I had found the one I liked.

As the slow developer I am, nearly the entire gameplay was done in the first two months. As usual, I then applied the "friends dinner" test. The aim is to go out with friends who don't know your game yet. While waiting for the food, give the game to them so they can play. Don't watch their playing. Don't comment about the game. Talk about something else as if you expected no response while watching for their facial expressions, and finally, see how long it takes for your device to come back to your hands. As stupid as this can be, this test gives lots of honest wordless feedback to you. In my case, it was that the device would come back to my hands in a couple of minutes. They looked happy when they saw it had cats, but bored afterwards. The game was nearly done... was it such a bad game???

For this project, I had three main testers who gave me important feedback that allowed me to not give up:

  •  A game developer, who said that he liked the simplicity of the challenging gameplay;
  •  A web developer, who said he liked to skip clouds;
  •  A mathematician, who liked the kittens idea and jumping mechanic.

It is important to note that no one said it was fun! However, each liked one aspect of the game. So, for the next 4 months, I started polishing each of these aspects.

I asked my cousin for a nice kitten design and tried to make a fluffy lively little kitten. I tried to make him expressive with "danger" animations (when you almost don't reach the next platform). I redrew the clouds and sun to have a thicker outline to give a cartoonesc feeling. Drew custom font characters and made everything more colourful. Added a "chain" system (the original scoring system was only number of clouds reached). And for those developers without artists out there... SATURATE YOUR COLORS. People liked more the versions with more saturated colors than the ones without. Don't know why we programmers tend to like grayish things...

The list goes on forever, since polishments are a bucket of unperceivable little changes that improves the feeling overall. Eventually, I had a chance to apply the "friends dinner" test again! For my surprise, the very same game mechanic (but now polished) had people laughing about the kitten and commenting about the game. It took more than 10 minutes for the device to come back to me.

So, for now, the lesson I can say that I learned is that it is very hard to say if your game is bad or not without polishments. If it is true that polishing won't make bad games any better, it definitely is also true that good game won't be at their full potential without enough it! In the end, knowing if and how much efforts to dedicate is yet another challenge for the poor game designer.

Eric Naves dos Reis,
Developer at Koffee Bird (I say that, but it is only me and it isn't a company)
Kitten Hopper can be found at

https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.koffeebird.kittenhopper

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