The game has been coming along pretty well for the last week. We have a brand new subtitle system. Someone requested it in the last build, and I was going to put it off, but we finally found some time. We will only support English subtitles for the time being though just because it doesn’t make sense to translate everything until the script is final. Still, it feels good to have a core system in place for the game.
I know I’ve talked about the new enemies and how I was proud of the puzzle aspects to them. I thought they were really clever, but Joe tried playing one of the harder ones last week, and he couldn’t figure it out at all. This is a bit discouraging. Granted, he skipped ahead to the hardest one, and I don’t have some other teaching tools in place that I’ve been planning on, so it might not mean it’s a complete failure. I think this is a good illustration of the challenges of teaching about the underlying systems without explaining how they actually work.
In a lot of games, they just flat out tell you “this is how the system works”. This can be irritating especially when you either want to figure it out yourself or you already had. As much as I love Uncharted, I figured out the solution to a puzzle and was trying to step on the right tiles, but I didn’t land on the tiles exactly, so it was taking me a while. The game kept saying check your journal for the solutions, which was a bit annoying because I knew the solution, but I was just having trouble executing. I want to avoid that. In Retro/Grade, if the player was unable to figure out the new mechanics we introduced over the course of the game, then we’d display help messages. I think this worked pretty well.
In Neverending Nightmares, I don’t want to explain how things work. It destroys immersion because a help message reminds you that you are playing a game and also reveals how the enemies work, which reminds you they aren’t living breathing monsters, but rather simple computer programs that execute predefined behaviors. What I am trying to do with the new level is to create “educational” setups. Basically, I position enemies or other elements to hopefully teach the player something new about the way the game works. It’s funny because the setups with the new enemy are all really easy when you know how the enemy works, which of course I do because I designed it. The challenge is finding a way to give players the knowledge that I have through the actual mechanics of the game. I think it’s possible, and we have some good ideas for that, but I think people have to be observant and think about things to really figure it out.
The real question is: are gamers observant enough to pick up on the clues given that they will have to be somewhat subtle to not destroy immersion? Will they think it through, or just have preconceived expectations of how it should work and go charging in based on that? I don’t know. This brings me back to Retro/Grade. Sometimes mechanics that the developer thinks are really clever are actually not a good fit for the game. Personally, I was really proud of the Octoborg boss with his singularity bombs and arm attacks. I thought it was a really cool mechanic. Almost everyone gets the help message about how those works because people couldn’t figure it out. Even still, I had to make the Octoborg boss easier like 10 times. (Some of the harder patterns are preserved in challenge mode if you are curious, although the original pattern required you to use the force of the gravity wells to throw you into the correct lane, which I thought was really awesome, but when I came back to it a few months later, I could no longer beat it. I scrapped that one. Haha) Besides the complaint about the game being too short, I think the Octoborg boss was the second most common. Perhaps I should have cut it or refactored it, but I loved it too much to make huge changes. What if I fall into that trap again?
This is where you guys come in! I’d really love to see playthrough videos of the next build – or at least the new level. I got a few of these with the last build, but I was hoping to get a few more. I want to hear your thought process when going up against the new enemy. I want to see how many times you fail and if you’re able to persevere. I’ll do another post play survey to get some helpful data as well, so be sure to fill it out when you finish the game. I think with a lot of data from players starting many months before the game ships and your suggestions, I can figure out how to balance the enemy for the right difficulty.
Speaking of the next demo, I don’t think we are going to get it up until after GDC. I was really pushing for before GDC, but I didn’t think that one through. I completely forgot about making a demo build for GDC. Making a demo build is a challenge – especially for a horror game. Neverending Nightmares is supposed to have somewhat of a slow pace to build up tension. The problem is that if you have 5 minutes to play the game and there is music blaring from some other game, it’s tough to capture the same experience. I’m working on creating something that plays more like a “highlights” reel. I actually have a lot to say about demo builds, so maybe I’ll save that for developer video. 🙂
Not getting the new alpha build out until after GDC makes me a bit nervous about the schedule. My goal was to finish a level a month. Is this possible? Well, sort of. We mostly finished the last level in under a month. We reused a lot of the mansion assets, which is one main reason why it went smoothly. We also didn’t quite finish it. There is an ending cutscene that is pretty amazing that we finished now but didn’t get in the last build. That took about a man-week of animation time. We also are finally integrating a staircase in the new level. Getting all the staircase stuff working was a pain, but at least we have our first real example now. We’ll have to go back and add them to the other levels though, which will be some extra work.
I guess the main problem is that to finish a level there are so many elements that need to go in to call it done. Certain people are bottlenecks on some and different people on others. I am still trying to figure out how many levels we can deliver. It’s definitely less than I originally planned, but the levels are turning out better and more interesting. While I think the game may only have a playtime of about 2-3 hours with all the paths (although it might be more depending on how easy the branches are to find), I think it’s going to be an awesome 2-3 hours. I think that is more respectful of your time than padding it out with stuff that is not as awesome. Especially with a horror game where you have to constantly balance tension, I think padding would really ruin the experience.