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Is Our Players Learning?

What's an indie developer to do with new or emergent gameplay if their players don't want to be taught? Here's a series of failed attempts at answering that question from the XBLIG/PC game Cute Things Dying Violently.

Note to Editors: I changed the title back to "Is Our Players Learning?" as it's a reference to a George W. Bush quote.

Mah gaem

I recently released Cute Things Dying Violently on PC, almost a year after it made its successful debut on Xbox Live Indie Games. I spent most of the intervening time fixing bugs, commissioning new art, and streamlining the experience for a keyboard and mouse. However, I also paid careful attention to the various reviews and Let's Plays documenting the Xbox version and realized that I had a problem with my players: they weren't playing the game properly.

CTDV is, at its core, a physics game: throw, bounce, or "flick" the Critters from Point A to Point B. Think "Angry Birds" with a moveable cursor and you've got the idea. Okay okay, the game's far more complicated than that, but that should be your key takeaway for this post.

Many players were quick to grasp the flicking mechanic... and nothing else. I was stumped. CTDV barely qualifies as emergent gameplay, but the players weren't "getting" it and as a result were having an inferior, more obnoxious experience. How was I supposed to turn this around?

What follows is a short list of the ways I attempted to instruct, hand-hold, or scold my players into paying attention, and the various ways they failed.

Fighting short attention spans
Aside from the "flick" mechanic, the most powerful feature in CTDV's control scheme is the ability to hold the hyperactive, mobile Critters in place with the push of a button. That mechanic is introduced in just the second level, but players weren't reading the tool tips.

I realized that many players' willingness to read optional tooltips on how to play the game expired after they "got" the core flicking mechanic. So what'd I do? I moved the "grabbing" mechanic explanation into the first tooltip of the first level. Throw it at the players before ADD kicks in, right?

FAIL! Many players would read the first two thirds of the first tooltip and then stop reading before they got to the explanation of the grabbing mechanic.

Give the player tools to help themselves
Many players also weren't getting the full implications of, um, gravity. They'd aim their shots assuming that flicked objects would travel in a straight line. Those objects would hit lower than they expected, and the player would repeat the process endlessly.

Seeing this, I added two optional aiming tools: the ability to preview where your flicked object would fly, and the ability to see your previous flick's flight path. I explained these mechanics in a tooltip in the fourth and heretofore toughest level of the game.

FAIL! If they weren't going to read about grabbing, they certainly weren't going to read about this.

Passively instruct the players on game mechanics
Seeing as how players often weren't taking the ingame steps to educate themselves on how to better play the game, I decided to help them with tips and instructions lying in plain sight.

For the PC version, I turned the game's loading screen into a series of rotating "Did you know?" prompts, telling the players which keys triggered which crucial functions, e.g. grabbing and previewing. I also added a "View Controls" button to the Pause Screen on both the Xbox and PC version and added key remapping to the PC version's options screens.

FAIL! No meaningful improvement on the previous problems.

Add levels where the player must use advanced game mechanics
The above subtitle is self-explanatory, so howsabout I skip to the part where players would just resort to using the flick mechanic - and only the flick mechanic - to brute force the level and avoid having to learn anything.

Some players seemed more willing to try the same thing over and over and over and over and over again rather than break down and read an ingame tooltip. And because CTDV is a physics game, the only thing required to beat a level is for something to be physically possible. Players would chase possible but improbable opportunities endlessly until they managed to succeed or quit in frustration.

FAIL! It turned out that in most of these levels, "must-use" mechanics were still optional.

CTDV is a physics game with a small-to-modest amount of emergent gameplay that is best enjoyed through the use of its additional helper systems. However, the core mechanic is powerful enough and reliable enough such that players can avoid or ignore the additional mechanics in order to have a gameplay experience reminiscent of hair removal via duct tape. Earnest attempts to coerce or cajole players into the more streamlined experience met with failure.

I may be overstating the results. CTDV has sold enough copies that I know it's been a resounding commercial success, and those playing the game "improperly" are a minority. Also, the response to my game and to me has been overwhelmingly positive and polite. So I'm not dealing with cretins, and I certainly don't mean this post as an insult to my user base.

Still, I've witnessed a stunning amount of impatience and indifference when it comes to learning new gameplay systems and mechanics. I know we've all been guilty of this - sleepwalking our way through the mandatory tutorial levels of the latest and greatest first person shooter and opting for baptism by fire. Inflated budgets and adamant polish of AAA games often seamlessly integrate tutorials into the gameplay experience so that new gameplay mechanics are learned as painlessly as possible.

But what's an indie developer with a scant budget to do? Less money means less resources, and you tend to not see voice-based or video-based tutorials in middle or lower tier indie games. That leaves text and level design for developers to explain new systems. Although I was guilty of occasionally dropping the ball on the latter, players' willigness to ignore the former leaves us with... what, exactly, in our arsenal?

Seeing as how indie developers are most likely to introduce new and exciting gameplay mechanics, how do we best communicate novel features to players who have been trained to tune out that communication?

Parting thoughts

  • Focus on games where brute force is a feature with optimal use, like in tower defense games?
  • Completely halt gameplay until tutorials are presented and absorbed?
  • Weave tutorials into game imagery or storytelling style?
  • Design levels so that improper playstyles are met with obvious failure rather than an invitation to try again?
  • Ignore this entire article and just be glad that your game sold some copies to appreciative customers?

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