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Familiarity, novelty and communication: how Fights in Tight Spaces survived Early Access

There's no formula for indie success, but these core principles may help you get closer.

9 Min Read

Figuring out which game concept to select from the mass of pitches or concepts swimming around these days can be pretty challenging. There's a concept from Derek Thompson's book The Hit Makers which I find helpful: "familiarity and novelty". Briefly, this is the idea that in order for a work to have a chance at attaining the ever-elusive "hit" status, the audience needs to recognise aspects of it which they already enjoy but also be surprised and excited by a twist on the formula.

Obviously, this can be tricky to negotiate: too "familiar" and the game is generic and boring; too novel and it comes across as weird and disorientating.

When James Parker from Ground Shatter first showed me his concept for Fights in Tight Spaces back in 2018, I was drawn to it for a few reasons. Firstly, I had significant experience working on tactical games with Mode 7's Frozen Synapse projects, but perhaps more exciting was the fact that it represented a meaningful twist on a popular formula. There's certainly an over-abundance of deck-building games out there, but none (to my knowledge!) which combine cerebral card-wrangling strategy with over-the-top pugilistic action.

In addition to this, the positional element of the game added some valid mechanical depth. This in itself isn't a totally original proposition, but is something I feel is slightly under-explored in the deck-building arena.

Originality is definitely important but it can take many forms, some of them quite subtle: games don't have to be outrageously different in order to succeed. They do, however, need to attract attention and keep it.

In this article, I'll take you through how we tried to protect the integrity of FITS' familiarity and novelty during its development by listening to our audience. My personal perspective is that of a facilitator and contributor from the publishing side; so James (who acted as the Lead Designer and Game Director) will be adding his comments as we go.

Depth Charge

Great game concepts are critical but obviously, execution is everything. On PC, I believe that the strategy audience is primarily looking for depth, so it was important to prioritise this during development. If the game was too trivial, the audience would get bored instantly. The outcome of a sufficiently deep, complex strategic experience is usually long total playtimes, so this was something we kept in mind from the get-go.

James and I discussed the process of moving forward from the early concepts to an initial working prototype here:

JP: Like most strategy games, the game ultimately comes down to managing a number of resources; in our case, it’s your deck, your momentum, and your health. Then on top of that, your positioning (and that of your assailants) in the space is a constant consideration.

The depth in the game comes primarily from giving the player meaningful choices both on a turn-by-turn scale, and then in the wider meta-game of rewards and card choices, map path selection, etc.

We needed to make sure that every time we added a new feature or mechanic that the relationships between all these factors were considered. Even the awareness of this was hugely important when it came to the ongoing process of fleshing out and balancing the game, as we understood that changes weren’t ever going be in isolation, and equally if they weren’t having an impact across the board they almost certainly weren’t going to be adding to the depth of gameplay experience that we were trying to offer.

Feedback Loops

Once we'd reached a point where we felt that players could put some serious hours into the game, it was time to test our assumptions. It's easy to pay lip service to community feedback but it's vitally important to get players engaged early on to help shape the direction.

In conjunction with the Discord community we'd been building since the game was announced, we used a closed beta, the Steam Demo Festival and a free Prologue release to get different flavours of feedback at every stage. You'll find significant differences in content and tone from people who have sought out a beta to play compared to those who have stumbled across a promoted free demo on Steam. You need both considered, supportive feedback from friends and brutal cursory comments from strangers at different stages.

Where possible, we asked testers to record video, answer survey questions and chat to us directly to convey their thoughts; the main focus was on identifying sources of frustration, content that players thought was "missing" and reasons that they were becoming bored with the game.

This process helps hugely in reducing speculation on the dev side - it's one thing to have an intuition about how the game will play out with its intended audience but it's quite another to be told directly.

As time went on, the community helped us target specific parts of the deckbuilding and game balance which weren't quite right - this hyper-granular feedback is useful for rounding off rough edges and keeping longer-term players engaged. Our players were hugely familiar with other deckbuilding games like Slay the Spire and tactical titles like Into the Breach, and while they respected FITS as an original experience they were keen to help us make useful comparisons. As you can see from Steam reviews, comparison is an important component of how the gaming audience relates to a new experience, and we needed to deliver on these expectations.

Early Access

We launched into Early Access when we were confident that players were having a great time with the early parts of the game, sticking around for a long time and would be happy to keep playing with some more content that was in a slightly early state. It was important that it was possible to play many complete runs and have a good time from the get-go - the comment I wanted to see from users was "this already feels like it could be a finished game". Ground Shatter really took that to heart and worked very hard on creating a solid Early Access build.

Thanks to some excellent advice from Supergiant's Amir Rao, we took some steps that really helped communicate our Early Access trajectory to players:

  • Publish a public roadmap

  • Put information about the next milestone in-game on the menu screen

  • Do a fully feedback pass after every milestone

  • Shout out community members when their suggestions were used or bugs fixed

While we didn't see a huge uptick in sales or player numbers with every update, we did see that players were coming back to the game and the changes were hitting home with our long-term players. We identified some very committed players and gave them advanced access to new beta builds, enabling us to check each release in advance before it was pushed to the public versions.

JP: Between Early Access launch and version 1.0 we revamped the final mission of the game. We introduced brand new characters, levels, and even a couple of mechanics that not only hadn’t been seen in early parts of the game, but that were entirely new to players who had put hundreds of hours into the game already.

From a development standpoint we had a clear direction that we wanted to take, but the reactions from our Beta players were invaluable in understanding how different sorts of players would experience that content and allow us to tweak the game to ensure an appropriate level of challenge for everyone.

This was the largest part of the game that was developed under the full scrutiny of real players, and the one where they had the opportunity to make the biggest input. Ultimately we were able to get a more representative viewpoint from a wider range of players and play styles this way, than we could ever hope to replicate internally, and by iterating regularly we could ensure that the steps we were taking were pushing the game in the right direction.

Feedback collation and community management can be very time consuming, and I'd like to particularly shout out Connie and Sophia from Ground Shatter for their work on those aspects. Getting Steam community, Discord and user review feedback in one place so that it can easily be parsed and discussed by project leaders is completely essential and, again, helps to prevent conflict over development priorities.

JP: This was one area where automation allowed us to gather information in a coherent way. Bug reports and feedback were intelligently collected from Discord posts and put automatically into our bug tracking system, which meant we could prioritise more sensibly see what issues were having the biggest impact on players at any particular time, and avoid things getting lost. By imposing some very straightforward rules on the formatting of bug reports, it also self-selected higher quality feedback and boosted the signal-to-noise ratio on the feedback that we were getting.

With the many interconnected systems in the game, our Early Access players were often the first to identify unusual edge cases and issues caused by changes, by having this direct route from them to us it meant problems were identified and could be addressed much sooner.

Prior to the 1.0 release, we tested again with completely new players. This was to catch any UX issues which had been introduced along with new features, and to make sure that the tutorial was still up to scratch. This proved invaluable: when a game has been in Early Access for a while, the tendency is to focus on long-term players as they are the most vocal and active. Checking in with the new user experience on a quick test with a new cohort is a great way to counteract that.

Fighting On

Thanks to Ground Shatter's diligent work through Early Access, the game made a successful transition into 1.0. We talked about aiming for "Overwhelmingly Positive" reviews on Steam and the game achieved this during the launch period, thanks to careful attention to the sorts of issues that players were having.

Some designers tend to worry that taking on excessive feedback will dilute their vision for a game, and it can be hard at times to maintain the identity of a project in the face of many competing opinions. However, if used correctly, user feedback can provide vital information that feeds into design decisions, offer the occasional opportunity for a sanity check and also spark inspiration: it's not there to replace the designer's creativity but to enable it.

Early Access isn't a solution for every game, but I do believe that every game needs repeated exposure to a representative audience prior to launch in order to achieve a polished end result.

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