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The Game Designer’s Blind Spot, Or “How To Shoot A Puck”

In this week's PuckMania developer's blog, we describe a situation where we had to abandon a game design mechanic that we liked very much early on, due to play testing feedback.

Very early on, when fleshing out the initial concepts for PuckMania, there was one and only one aspect that I was 100% certain would never change:  How the player shoots the puck.

It was a natural progression of the kind of game that I wanted to make:  It's a physics game, but also a puzzle solving game.  I want players of all skill levels to be able to finish each level and move on to the next, if they like.  But I also want them to be able to use their skills to meet optional challenges on each level, challenges that will require a bit of extra thinking and precision.

You ever play Angry Birds and get frustrated because you know exactly what shot you want to take, but can't require reproduce the necessary shot strength?  Fun game, but I wanted to reduce that aspect of it in PuckMania.

So the broad goal with puck shooting is to give the player the ability to use precision with their angle and shot strength, if they want to.  But no level would ever require it.

I really patted myself on the back with this one.  I'd come up with the perfect solution!  It would be simple to describe in a tutorial, it would allow a player to have fun and just shoot the puck around if they wanted, and it would allow precision when the player wanted it.  It was so good, I thought, that it was a shame that other games didn't work like this!

With this in mind, I started prototyping PuckMania.  I put it together, and it looked and felt almost exactly how I envisioned it.  It even had a nice graphic and sound effect to go with it.  I was so proud!

Then I watched someone try it out.  How surprised would you be to discover that not long after, I realized that it absolutely had to go?  So much for 100% certainty!

It turns out that the original shooting mechanism was a bit too different from what people expect.  The idea was this:  The player would click on a puck to select it.  Once selected, they would then click and hold on an area of the playing field in the direction they wanted the puck to go.  Holding the mouse down would "charge" up the shot through five discrete power levels, with an accompanying graphic.  Then, they would let go of the mouse to shoot the puck.  With this mechanism, it would be very easy to select the angle (they could position the mouse over their target before committing to the shot), and the power (the powering up would pause at each power level, so reflexes didn't have to be super quick.)

The original, well-intentioned shooting mechanism.
The original, well-intentioned shooting mechanism.

The first level had dialog boxes explaining the steps, but it wasn't enough - my first play tester was aiming the puck backwards.  Remember how I mentioned Angry Birds?   Yup, they were trying to "sling shot" the puck by pulling it backward.

The system I had come up with was simple and obvious to me.  But it was awkward, clunky, and unintuitive to just about anyone else.   I ended up scrapping it and going with a "sling shot" type approach.  And this is just one example of where I've deviated from the design draft, for the better.

What lessons to take away from this, as a new indie developer?

1.  Don't get too attached to your early designs

That game you've had in your head all this time?  Yeah, you're not making that game.  You're making a very similar, but different game.  Let your designs evolve as necessary.  When you're new to game development, let yourself learn along the way what works and what doesn't.  Your instincts are often right, but the result of those instincts might need tweaking.

2.  You will never see your game the way an actual player sees it...  

..and you never will - you're just too close to it.  This is what I mean by the game designer's blind spot.  A lot of your broader design goals won't be apparent to the person playing your game.  To them, something will feel "off" with the control or the pacing.  They're not designing or developing the game, so they're not attached to it.  This is why you must...

3.  Playtest thoroughly

Get your early game into as many hands as you can.  Not just friends and family but let a few acquaintances or strangers play it, if at all possible.  Take plenty of notes, and don't be afraid to rework something in your game if it looks like design or a mechanic is throwing a player off.

Thanks for reading, and keep checking us out at www.puckmania.com!
-Marc


Originally posted at:  http://www.puckmania.com/blog/the-game-designers-blind-spot-or-how-to-shoot-a-puck/

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