It's too hard, it's too easy, oh I don't bloody know!

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It's too hard, it's too easy, oh I don't bloody know!

Postby Mark » Thu Oct 18, 2007 11:35 am

So it was a few weeks ago that we held our first Multiwinia test at the Omega Sektor in Birmingham. Chris talked about this in his previous blog post, but I have been thinking more about the philosophy of the test and the problems associated with it. Here’s the deal: Video games take a long time to develop and get right and there is no guarantee that you will sell the game at the end (imagine if you had just finished your magnum opus and were unfortunately required to launch it on the 25th September this year). So you have to take steps to ensure that your game appeals to as many people as possible. (It is at this point that the faint tolling of the alarm bell should begin.) Which in turn means that you have to get the players to at least get through the demo and decide to open their dusty wallets and purchase the full version.

Now given that your average gamer is a fully-fledged card carrying member of the MTV generation it goes without saying that his attention span sits around the 30s mark. So what does this mean for the game designer? Well it means that if the player isn’t playing within those first 30s he will not buy your game. If he gets frustrated because he doesn’t understand what to do or how to do it he’ll smack alt-F4 and return to youTube to watch the latest video of a spandex-clad American playing a harp with nothing other than a litter of puppies and a chopstick.

So we designed our usability test. We decided that every player needed to be able to understand what to do and be able to do it after he had played two Multiwinia games. Now being clever scientist chaps we had no problem in developing this test and the implementation was flawless (thanks to Leander and Gary), but it wasn’t until afterwards that I really started to think about the philosophy of what we had done.

Assuming the players needed to understand everything, immediately is exactly what you need if you are writing iTunes or iPhoto or Word or some other software package. Try that with games and you will end up with a very simple, very obvious, very boring, one dimensional game that will only appeal to your four year old.

It is this very problem that Chris and I have been wrestling with during the weeks following the test. Chris will come to the Flying Hamster every Tuesday and show me some of the new usability “solutions” that he has come up with. For the most part these are fantastic and fit really well, but every now and then the desire to make something obvious, to simplify an action or to reduce it to it’s constituent parts just rips the depth from the game and (in my opinion) will reduce it’s longevity.

So what’s to be done? Well I think the solution (unusually) is actually quite simple. As a game designer you need to recognise that the different actions and strategies within the game have different levels of complexity associated with them. It is not necessary to have a total understanding up front, and if you don’t want a feature to kick in until the third game-hour, then test it’s usability after the third hour – simple as ABC. Perhaps.

In fact the more I consider it the Usability test isn’t really about “Usability” in fact it is about managing the complexity within a game. It’s about managing what the player sees and when. It’s about making it easy learn and hard to master. It’s about being engaging and challenging and ultimately (surprise, surprise) it’s about being fun.

Now those words mean different things to different people and it is vitally important to understand what sort of people will play your game. How clever are they? What sort of games do they play? What else are they in to? A failure to consider these issues will result in you desperately trying to be all things to all people and reducing your design to the lowest common denominator.

In the past we haven’t bothered with any kind of usability test (check out the opening level of the original Darwinia if you want a lesson on how to get it wrong ;) and I think that in the future they will become increasingly important to us. That said if we don’t figure out a way to manage that complexity issue we may end up being acquired by these guys.
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Postby Pentadact » Thu Oct 18, 2007 12:04 pm

I don't think the player necessarily needs to understand the whole game and be having great fun in 30 seconds, even if he only has an attention span that long. Just so long as he doesn't encounter anything he needs to understand but doesn't, during that time. Just so long as nothing frustrates him and one thing intrigues or impresses him, he'll keep playing. I think you can preserve complexity by shifting it to stuff that the player can get by without entirely understanding. It's only when he can't get anywhere unless he wraps his head around some strange and abstract notion that it's a really crippling problem.

Of course, with Multiwinia it's probably hard going. Because while the strangeness of the universe fascinates many, I'm sure there's a small-minded majority for whom something they're not familiar with causes them to think "Why should I care? Why should I care? Why should I care?" every second they're playing.
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Postby brog » Thu Oct 18, 2007 12:22 pm

Is this game multiplayer only?
Most multiplayer games seem to have a single player mode that trains players to deal with the multiplayer. Each game element is introduced individually, gradually ramping up the complexity until you're dealing with the full game. After this training players can come into the multiplayer where all the possibilities of the game are open to them and not be overwhelmed.
If your game is getting too complex, a tutorial (disguised as a compelling single-player campaign) might be the way to go.
But from the gameplay video a little while back it didn't look too complex. It looked like chaos arising from simple easily-understood interactions, rather than an overwhelming storm of possibilities to choose from.
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Postby ynbniar » Thu Oct 18, 2007 12:46 pm

Hmm…

Darwinia hooked me immediately…I knew nothing about Darwinia or Introversion having stumbled upon the game on a magazine demo disk.

It was a while ago now but I distinctly remember grasping the basics very quickly and feeling the need to explore the world and the tools at my disposal further. There was a feeling of potential…like I can do this now which opens up exciting possibilities for later.

A phrase often used by game reviewers is “reaching the bottom of the biscuit tin ( aka cookie jar)"…the longer you can delay reaching the bottom, or even better seeing the bottom coming the more chance you will hook the player.

Darwinia and DefCon have very deep biscuit tins… :!:
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Postby jelco » Thu Oct 18, 2007 1:58 pm

I don't know if the first level of Darwinia was so bad. To be honest, it's been a few months since I last played the game at all, let alone the first level, but I am fairly certain that the level did an excellent job in showing me how good the game was (especially the sweetest possible eyecandy :wink:). It really got me from the beginning. I agree with pretty much everything else you say though; a game shouldn't be throwing you in the deep from the start, but should also not be too easy. The usual curve of 'easy to learn, hard to master' is pretty difficult to implement right from the beginning, I think.

The F.E.A.R. demo, for example, contained some of the least scary scenes, but even still it scared the crap out of me. When I started playing the actual game, it still started off with some of these scenes, and only in the later levels - when everything was already getting more and more difficult - the game got even creepier. But it is only afterwards that I could draw this conclusion. I think the same goes for pretty much every game: the initial presentation should show the basics of the game plus a little more, giving the impression that the gamer is already learning some advanced techniques. Only later, when the gamer is ready for it, should the best tricks be pulled off.

The main difficulty lies in deciding when a gamer has to learn which things. From there, you should think of the usual length of a test play (or demo run), and from there lay out all the knowledge the gamer acquires during the game. And although this sounds easy, I'm sure it will take a long time before you're finished with all the fine-tuning. So...good luck!

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Postby blaquenight » Fri Oct 19, 2007 12:48 am

But what is your audience? What market are you gunning for? All of us on the forums would have no problem taking the time to figure out the controls and strategies of any game (not just Introversion's). That is, I'm assuming we're all gamers at some degree beyond casual.

But if you ARE shooting for the mass audience, casual gamer...what if all they want is one-dimensional? Sure the gaming press would slam it, but it would sell. How much is the character of your game worth, monetarily?

Is it art or is it entertainment?

Multiwinia was a fun experience, to be sure. But I was very overwhelmed by...well, lack of a manual. I wasn't familiar with the game. Perhaps I'm one of the remaining few people out there who actually flips through the instruction booklet before turning the game on. I ideally would also play a one-player game or two before jumping in with a human opponent. As to understanding objectives: King of the Hill is a no-brainer. So is Capture the Flag (...or whatever...). It's just difficult to know how to achieve those objectives when my only intelligence is "There is the flag. Here are your Darwinians. Go." I had no idea about Officer's, grouping Darwinians - solely because I didn't know I COULD. As to how you can achieve getting the player that knowledge...I have no clue. You are the designers. But, that was just my impression.
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Postby The GoldFish » Fri Oct 19, 2007 4:42 am

The first level of Darwinia is bad because it somewhat teaches the player to fail containment by jumping the gun and not getting the Darwinians they need.

Regarding Multiwinia, on these stakes, you only need to convey what your game is, and give a hint about what it is that will make people want to play it within the first 30 seconds, not every significant detail (probably everyone agrees here)

Many games start the player off with limited content/tools - command and conquer advances your tech tree as you progress, fps games often give you bigger and better weapons and tougher enemies, puzzle platformers start you off on simple puzzles and slowly ramp up complexity or your abilitiy to move through the puzzles.

Even bat&ball games have progression by giving new powerups, block types, and level complexities. But, as soon as you play the first level of generic bat&ball 7, you know it's a bat and ball game.

Here comes the problem for Multiwinia. There is no progression - it's multiplayer only - for example, like Quake 3 Arena was, and what progression did that have? It had single player arena tier sort of stuff, it started really simple and got a lot harder. It didn't teach the gamer anything new really except the format of its gameplay, because the vast majority of players already knew what quake was; FPS games are well established, all the weapons were familiar from the previous games - and if they weren't, you could see your opponents using them and learn from them.

If quake 3 had sat you down and explained what an FPS game was and how to shoot things, most people would have just been annoyed. Why is that? It's because it wouldn't really be conveying a new concept as, naturally, people already understand things they're already familiar with - ok, a quick refresher course is sometimes a good idea for the uninitiated, but, don't enforce it. So, given that, what is important? Explaining to the player what they don't already know, by teaching or tricking the player into learning or noticing what it is they need to pick up in order to advance.

ACTUAL IDEA HERE

Depending on how much it would screw someone's computer, I'd think one of the best things you could do is put a rolling combat demo as the background of the main menu (which can be turned off) or as an introduction (but then many people skip intros) or just put gameplay videos up on the web (again people may see these less) - this would introduce the game to them at a level they won't see at the beginning of any tutorial, but, is the basic multiplayer gameplay they'd get from the game - This *could* be very bad for other games, since sometimes it could show developments which were important to the gameplay and would be missing once the player started playing. For Multiwinia, I really don't think this is the case and it would be a good idea - as even though there is no tech tree familiarity to develop, that doesn't mean that the start of the grooming tutorial won't be damn as hell boring and possibly turn many prospective players away. A background demo could inform the player of exactly what they'll be getting once they learn the basics of the game and can play online, and hopefully, should perk their interests enough to get them involved in a tutorial in the first place.

END OF IDEA HERE

Simply having a rolling demo button won't work, because people probably won't click it, you need to (to some extent) force feed the player the information they need in order to know if they'll like your game. You need to show the graphical cues, like DG selection, and officers directing troops, so players become aware that they exist - it's not the understanding that's the problem, it's unfamiliarity, people will more than likely pick up that you tell the officers where to send your troops to if they actually see it happening, but, if they don't see it happening, they'll revert to what they already know, which is select to move from C&C etc, and they'll become frustrated when this doesn't really work out for them.
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Postby koorb » Fri Oct 19, 2007 9:15 pm

I think the word you are looking for is Discoverability. That being the ability for the player to discover features and actions at their command on their own through gameplay.

Micro-objectives are always great for keeping players interested. I haven't seen enough of Multiwinia to advise, but the capturing of a resource point could be a good first objective. Just make the player feel like they are making their own progress with micro-objectives and they will keep playing until they hit a stall in gameplay.
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Postby martin » Fri Oct 19, 2007 9:24 pm

I wouldn't have thought that most people who play a strategy game will have your 30 second attention span surely?

in fact, for a longer than 30s training exercise that has proved to be a tad popular look at portal...
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Postby jelco » Fri Oct 19, 2007 9:32 pm

I agree that an introduction can be too easy, but koorb wasn't saying anything to that extent. It is true that introductory levels should use step-by-step introduction of game mechanics, but doing this in such a way (preferably with a narrator to talk to the gamer) that the player feels in control, and in such a way that the player gets the idea he has mastered the concepts. It is much more fun to explore a game if you can understand the basics, than if you don't get it at all. That's so bad about the WiC demo: there's no tutorial. Now, even though the controls aren't too difficult (in fact the game has quite easy controls), it does throw you right into the action, and you'll quickly make mistakes because you're frustrated and simply don't get it.

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Postby martin » Fri Oct 19, 2007 10:58 pm

I've never played WiC (world in conflict?) but at the other end of the scale is black and white II - every time you play the campaign it forces you to do a terrible tutorial.

Turn camera left
Turn camera right
Throw big rock into small target in a way that the actual game *never* requires
etc

I *hate* that tutorial, in fact I played B&W at a friends house and it was the tutorial that put me off buying it :p
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Postby jelco » Fri Oct 19, 2007 11:51 pm

Yes, WiC is World in Conflict. I must say that I hate games which force you to do a tutorial, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be included at all. I think we can agree that a demo can be expected to include an introduction to the game mechanics, instead of just offering a sample of the game and leaving the fan clueless.

Getting back to TGF: Usually, RTS games work quite alike, and thus it would indeed be unneccesary to include a tutorial. But Supreme Commander set itself apart from the standard RTS format quite a bit, let alone World in Conflict. And as far as I can tell, this also goes for Multiwinia. Just showing a demonstration in any way without any possible interaction from the player seems wrong to me. Especially when only presented in such a 'background-manner'.

The best setup to me (well, the one I like best) is having a first button in the menu pointing to a Tutorial. People who are new to the world of Darwinia will undoubtedly click this one, because everything about it's outward presentation (if only the logo) tells you it's not your standard RTS. This tutorial will just be a bunch of video footage demonstrating the basics, and allowing the player to decide whether to try it out himself or not. Read: interaction is possible, but not mandatory.

The other possibility is more like SupCom. That tutorial is simply a sandbox map without limitations. A bunch of menus can tell you everything you possibly need to know, and you can try it out rightaway. The advantage of this setup is that the demonstration is very flexible, and doesn't happen within these 'demo circumstances' (read: optimal) which you'll never encounter in-game. The obvious disadvantage is that the player has no clue where to start. (This might also be something purely for SupCom, because that game has such a huge amount of options.)

I find it difficult to express myself clearly on this subject, which also goes for understanding others. But I find it very interesting what everyone tells from his/her own experience.

Jelco
Last edited by jelco on Mon Oct 29, 2007 7:57 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby brice » Sat Oct 20, 2007 2:16 am

FWIW I would suggest you follow BOTH tracks. Mold two UIs and flip the switch by user control or, if you're ambitious, by algorithmically gauging the players progress / abilities.

Modes. Make the intro mode as easy to pick up as a 30 second iTunes purchase. Then switch modes to the real game where the depth lies. If the players prefer WiiPlay, leave them alone with mode one. Happiness is subjective.

But don't emasculate your creative visions and leave the world with a burnt out husk of a seed which will never germinate... (Switch to a feminine earth metaphor as you like.)

The programming cost of a split UI cannot possibly be greater than the agonies of delay you're struggling with right now. Bite the bullet and do both tracks. Everyone will win.

Give us a game that contains more than 30 seconds of heart. You already know your schizophrenic audience. The buyers need their 30 second fix. The gamers need more.

You can't cram a lotus bud into a pipe and expect to smoke the unfolding blossum in a 30 second puff.

So why try.


(beating a dying horse... As I understand Multiwinia, the game is not the game. Like Halo. This time you are going to truely follow through with the final promise of Darwinia. This time the real game will be what the community cooks up with the mod system you provide. This time no one will curse Sepulveda because this time the tools will be usable by more than the few.)
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Postby The GoldFish » Sat Oct 20, 2007 3:29 am

Maybe the point didn't come across? My point was, yes, have a tutorial, but don't have that be the 30 second introduction as what the game is and what it's about. I was saying don't have a tutorial about how to play stategy games, have a tutorial about how to play Multiwinia. Introduce the basic idea of what Multiwinia is OUTSIDE of these tutorials, so the player already knows WHY they are learning something, not that they are simply learning something which they may not care about (rock in a small hole, as martin noted).

Anyway, I don't think this is really an arguement or anything; it's putting forwards ideas, but uh, I honestly think simply showing videos of how to play the game to the player as the tutorial is a bad idea - it's too abstract, there needs to be interaction! Seriously I had concerns with the SupCom tutorials because their UI was arranged different to mine and I couldn't find the minimap. OK, that's stupid, I'm sure it was really easy to change, but it annoyed me no end.

With "over the shoulder" interaction, if someone doesn't pick something up quickly it can be explained further (but not so they feel stupid), and if they do pick it up quickly, then it can be glossed over and moved on from. I agree that having videos and then "have a go sessions" (videos would have helped so much as an uplink guide) may work a little better than just the videos, but just leaving the player to it with only the option to rewatch the video still isn't a good idea in my books. They need to feel involved and engaged - maybe start off with having a pincer movement attack on someone from 2 allied factions, showing you (in mirror image) what you should be trying to accomplish and getting tips along the way on how to do it, and moving onto more complicated lessons from there.

I'm not sure everyone is getting this, but, people are comparing MW to games like C&C, SupCom, Portal, etc. Quick example, when was the last time you saw a TV advert for one of these games? That's not how these games work at all. They're established franchises now, they're advertising to different groups. Like it or not, Introversion do NOT have this big cloud of people interested in everything they do, they only have a small cloud. Steam allowed them to sekk many times more copies of their games simply by giving them an outlet lots of people use. How many games are there now on Steam? They need to get noticed and if they don't get noticed in 30 seconds then people are NOT going to care.

edit - also, please never listen to Brice. o_O
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Postby jelco » Sat Oct 20, 2007 9:17 am

I was only comparing those other games to each other to show that - even though they're all RTS - the gameplay differs enormously; Multiwinia is no exception to that. This was just a reply to your statement 'you don't need to teach people how to play an RTS'.

I think we pretty much say the same things, but - as I said earlier - it has been fairly difficult for me to express myself correctly. Of course, when someone starts asking why we're talking about this, I must say I am without an answer - we just like to talk about stuff around here. But that doesn't mean the conversation can't be interesting. And that is the most important thing at the moment: sharing ideas to each other, everyone with different experience.

Jelco

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The GoldFish wrote:edit - also, please never listen to Brice. o_O

That's one point we totally agree on :wink:
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