At this time, Auro is the Metacritic's 6th most highly-rated iOS game of 2015. Critics, as well as some of our hard-core fans, really seem to love the game. Of course, we're really happy about that.
On the other hand, sales of Auro have honestly been underwhelming, especially when you consider how beloved it is by critics and its serious players. And I mean we have some serious players(this player from the TA forums promised to gift one copy to a player for every 100 matches he plays). In short,we feel pretty confident that Auro is a good game, but for some reason, it seems to just not be connecting as much as we'd hoped.
So for the last few months, we've been looking into why that might be. In short, I think that the harsh, direct competitive-ness of Play Mode is just really not what people are used to in a single-player game at all, and so we're thinking about how we can bridge that gap.
This is an article about how we're going about attempting to do that. In order to do so, I think I should quickly describe what Auro even is, for people who might not know. It's a single-player turn-based tactical game wherein you use a basic "push" attack (we call it a BUMP), as well as magical spells, to push monsters into the water.
Blake (our team's lead artist) and I both have had our own soul-searching moments throughout the past few months. In Blake's recent "A Pixel Artist Renounces Pixel Art" article, he came to grips with a communication barrier that he was keeping up between himself and people for, really, no good reason. We're going to make great art, whether it's pixel art or anything else.
On my end, I wrote an article called Videogames Are Broken Toys, which really represented a huge realization for me. That huge realization is that people are mostly used to "playing with" videogames - trying out different things, setting their own rules and guidelines, and ultimately never really getting a hard "you won" or "you lost" feedback. Of course there are exceptions to that - things like StarCraft and League of Legends - but there are basically zero exceptions to that with regards to single player games.
In most single player games that are replayable non-puzzles, instead of a win/loss condition, you have a "high score system". Some examples would include Civilization, FTL, Spelunky, Tetris, Pac-Man, Galaga, or even Pinball. More recently, Invisible Inc., would be an example.
Most of these also do have a "beat the game condition", but it's not really expected that you will beat the game until you've played many times. Getting to the end of FTL or most Rogue-likes (including my own 100 Rogues) isn't really a significant event. It doesn't usually change how you play afterwards, it doesn't usually signal an end to your playing-this-game career - it's basically just something that happens at an arbitrary (albeit usually rather deep) point in your playing career.
In other words: the fact that these games have a "beat the game" condition does not take away from their toy-like "playing with" quality. Players are free to entirely ignore the "beat the game" goal and go for some other goal.
What players end up doing is prescribing their own little "mini-goals". "I want to see if I can beat 30,000 points!" "I want to see if I can reach the Caves level!" "I want to see if I can reach the end with the Dwarven Politician!" Etc. These mini goals may involve the score, they may involve the end condition, they may involve other aspects, or the player might just play with any regard for any goal at all.
And if you think about it, this is quite like the way we play with a classical "toy". With a ball, we say, "I wonder if I can make it bounce like THIS!" or "I wonder if I can throw it really high in the air and catch it". With Legos, we say "I wonder if I can make a spaceship!" And just like a system with a "high score", nothing ever tells you "you failed". You always just get a number - maybe it wasn't as high as you were going for, but hey, at least you got more points than Steve got that one time!
It's funny, actually. Once I realized - or perhaps remembered - that this is how players mostly think about videogames, it made so much of my past videogame criticism at least partially invalid. My complaints about asymmetry in Street Fighter aren't really valid, because most people are playing with Street Fighter (although I do think it's still valid for serious players). My complaints about randomness in videogames aren't valid, because most games are designed to be played with as toys, so the severance of the causal chain of events isn't really an issue.
My criticism is only valid for "competitive strategy games built around a single, clear and enforceable goal". Those do exist, but they're very rare, and they're basically non-existent in the single-player world.
Back to Auro
With Auro's Play Mode, I specifically wanted to avoid those player-prescribed goals. I wanted to create a purely competitive thing that didn't force you to make any decisions except the ones you need to make to win.
For those who don't know: Play Mode tells the player, "okay, get 30 points - go!" If you get 30 points before you run out of health, you win. If not, you lose. Very simple. If you win lots of games, the requirement starts getting harder. If you lose lots of games, the requirement starts getting easier. This is Play Mode in a nutshell.
If you start out with the assumption that players will be playing your game competitively and trying to beat a specific, prescribed goal, then a lot of other "play-like" stuff doesn't make sense anymore. It wouldn't really make sense for us to allow players to choose their spells, for instance. Players would just choose the 4 best - or 4 spells they are most comfortable with - and never deviate from that, creating a flatter and less challenging game overall.
Overall, I think we actually did a pretty good job of achieving what we intended with Play Mode. I'm proud of it, and we have numerous players who play it every day, some of whom already have for years (in internal testing) and I expect will continue for years to come. With that said, it definitely still needs improvement and we're working on it all the time.
But no improvement to Play Mode is going to fix our overall connection problem. Play Mode is great, but it doesn't speak the common language.
We actually always intended for another mode that would have bridged the gap, but we just never had the funds to make it happen. We tried to cobble together a weak Story Mode using my barely-a-programmer skills and the free time of friends who were willing to help out, but it really just wasn't enough. Story Mode outright sucked - it wasn't good at delivering a story, it wasn't good at teaching the game (it actually taught false lessons), it was still completely linear - it just was not exciting in any way.
So right before launch, we cut our Story Mode entirely.
(Actually, the truth is even funnier than that. We launched 3 months prior on Google Play, with our awful Story Mode, and then we deleted it in one patch, and no one complained. Keep in mind: people complain when you change just about anything. Sometimes people complain when you fix bugs. But when Story Mode died, no one cried.)
On a Quest
Now that the game is out, and we've put out various fires related to releasing a product, we've had a little time to ask some big questions about our game. We knew that we had a roughly Story Mode-sized hole in the game, but it wasn't until I made this big realization with toys that I knew the exact shape of the new replacement mode.
The concept is this: you start out with a few nodes that you can go to on an overmap. Moving to one costs "a day" or something, and when you reach it, you unlock a few new nodes. Each node contains some kind of encounter. Most of the time, it's a random battle - which basically is a small Auro level. Sometimes it's a story bit, like a cutscene or a story-choice you have to make. Sometimes it's an item shop, and sometimes it's a zany weird level, like all Jellies, or the whole level is frozen and slippery, or squids everywhere - things like that.
Killing monsters gains you gold, which you can spend on buying items at shops. You can upgrade your number of spell/item slots, and you can buy new spells, swap them out, sell off items, and more. Eventually, you'll find Argo's chamber (he's the bad guy), and have a final battle with him - although there's a lot of secret areas too.
At the end of the session, you will get a score, but it won't be a "you won or you lost" score, it will be a more traditional high-score videogame score. You decide what you want to go for! What's the fewest "days" you can beat Argo in? How many points can you get without using any spells?
This new mode, we're calling Quest Mode. We plan to add this to Auro in a larger expansion that adds a lot of other features to the base game as well.
How To Make Game?
Unfortunately, it actually costs a lot of money to "make things". Blake and I are pretty used to making things basically for free - we've been both doing it for... well, forever, really. He's an artist, I'm a game designer and a writer, and we're both composers, but sadly, neither of us are really programmers. Actually, I can do some light programming, but I'm not good at it, and I think the current Auro, while it's mostly stable, still bears some of the scars of relying way too much on my programming.
One of my biggest regrets is my long-past Gamasutra article, "Kickstarter Tips For the Average Indie". I'm so ashamed of it that I feel like I should bring it up and publicly state that it is totally wrong and no one should listen to it.
In that article, I said the following dreadfully wrong thing:
3. Shoot for a smaller amount. First, find a number that you'd consider the absolute bare minimum amount that you'd need to really get this project done. Then, halve that number, and that's the number you should shoot for.
No! That's not the number you should shoot for! The number you should actually shoot for is "the bare minimum amount you'd need to get this project done, PLUS some for Kickstarter fees, PLUS some for covering the costs of rewards".
I am dreadfully ashamed of that horrible advice, but the truth is that at the time, I was just so used to working for nothing and with other people who were working for nothing that I assumed that that's just kinda how things worked. And so wow, if we can actually pay people for a couple of weeks worth of work, that's amazing!
I now realize that not having a realistic budget puts a very hard cap on how quickly you can produce work and on how good that work can even be. We think we owe it to our customers to make sure we're securing the right amount of money to do what we need to do, well. So with that in mind, we've launched a new Kickstarter for the Auro Quest Expansion.
We have so much stuff that we never used from our original Story Mode, plus years of other material that had great potential but was never developed. We're really hoping that with Quest Mode, we can bridge the gap between what players expect from a single player videogame, and what Auro is. Beyond that, I'm also just really pumped to play Quest Mode.
Ultimately, the things we say and do don't matter if they aren't spoken in the common language. This isn't a "selling out" thing. We can, should and will be every bit as radical as we want to be, but if we want it to have any impact - if we want it to connect, which we absolutely do - we need to understand, respect, and embrace the expectation of our players. Whether it comes to the game design, the visual art, or the things we say, without recognition of the framework that everyone's operating in, it's all moot.