Combining Emotions for Optimal Player Experiences

Game Design

Emotions are Mechanics are Emotions

As I continue to explore single-player titles, I’ve been reminded of the complexities of evoking and utilizing player emotions. While competitive online gaming certainly involves some level of emotion, and yelling at the screen, you must surely recognize the difference in depth of the experiences. I think most of us agree that any number of intensely frustrating rounds of online first-person shooters don’t hold a candle to a pivotal moment in a single player campaign, as far as memorability goes (Bioshock, anyone?)

Would You Kindly

I’m sure some of you are already jumping to the obvious differentiator, the story. Sure, multiplayer gameplay is typically far more shallow than single-player experiences, but that’s not to say a few lines of backstory makes player emotions an all-or-nothing issue. Modern AAA multiplayer titles like Overwatch are actively supplementing “straightforward” gameplay with stronger plots, backstories, and subtle in-game references. Looking at Blizzard’s social media accounts, you can see that a lot of their content is related to creating and developing stories that have no direct effect on gameplay or mechanics. Even plot points covering long-standing alliances (or rivalries) doesn’t limit playable characters for opposing teams in online matches.

Emotion isn't depth

Why take so much time to build these stories and add such creative depth? Is it just for show? To give fans something to talk about? While true, that barely scratches the surface.

Regardless of genre or platform, a game that doesn’t evoke player emotion will ultimately fail as a creative (and likely financial) production. In a hyper-competitive industry, nobody can afford to be forgettable.

Thankfully, it’s easy to evoke an emotion. Fear? Throw in a jump scare. Power? Have a weak enemy that’s larger than the player. Genius? Throw in a few puzzles that look more complicated than they really are. It's a compliment wrapped in deception. But it’s easy to compliment someone, and compliments have diminishing returns. The player will soon recognize the game is pandering to their emotions and unless your strategy changes, few will experience the entirety of your creation.

The best experiences evoke multiple, often conflicting emotions.

Recently, I’ve been making progress in Jonathan Blow’s The Witness. Deceptively simple at first, the variety of puzzles are ingeniously familiar yet innovative, requiring no explanation or dialogue to intuit solutions. While plenty can be said on the game itself, what’s more important is how artfully crafted puzzles make you feel. Frustration and satisfaction may come to mind, but think specifically about the minute-to-minute experience: when you finally solve the puzzle that’s been haunting you for days, or when you ultimately resort to Googling solutions for something that’s “so obvious” once it’s broken down. A well-crafted puzzle makes the player feel like a genius and an idiot at the same time, and that unpredictable fluctuation is what we can't get enough of.

While I haven’t been as up-to-date with The Witcher as I’ve liked to, I’m a long-time fan of The Elder Scrolls. In a similar vein, the player will feel incredibly powerful yet weak on a minute-to-minute basis. One minute you’re looting the corpse of a towering atronach or dragon, and you’re running away from a mudcrab the next. Think of how amazing you feel after taking down a Deathclaw in Fallout, and then how ridiculous you feel running away from an aggressive Mister Handy. From hero to zero, zero to hero, the roller coaster never ends. You’re here for the ride, not the destination, but you're sure it’s going to have a great ending.

The examples continue with horror (brave explorer or terrified weakling?), sports (klutzy or coordinated?), and others, but the contrast remains. Some players are more easily affected by emotional moments, others quickly grow numb. It’s impossible to create something that works for everyone, but you will certainly appeal to a larger audience when you seriously invest resources into capturing and manipulating player emotion. Don’t tell players how to feel, prompt them with mechanics and design.

What’s your most emotional experience in a game? Not like the ending of Red Dead Redemption, but something fleeting; temporary yet lasting. What game didn’t let you off the emotional hook? Leave a comment and compare with your friends. Who knows? You might have had completely different reactions to the same games.

Signing Off: A Healthy Hiatus From Online Gaming

Game Design

Sometimes You Need More Than Competition

From our Director of Operations, Chris Germano

Over the past few months, I've spent an increasingly minuscule amount of time playing games the way I used to: fast-paced, headset on, lights low, no distractions, and giving it 110%. However, I've recently come to the conclusion that while my interest in competitive gaming hasn't diminished, my satisfaction with online first-person shooters (as a designer) has significantly waned. Don't get me wrong, there are many amazing games that I would love to keep playing, but I know in order to best stay updated on the marketplace and trends in modern gaming, I need to take a step back from what's big and popular. So that's what I did.

Overwatch Logo
Rainbow Six Smoke

Online Gaming: The Usual Suspects

While I managed to free myself from the grasp of Counter Strike and League of Legends earlier this year, I put more time and attention towards Overwatch and Rainbow Six: Siege. While the two games are very different, the appealing attribute they have in common is the option to play in a ranked, competitive environment. This deadly trap here is the ability to immediately affect your personal rank with every game. It's like MMORPG Syndrome reinvented: perform a repetitive task to see numbers go up. This time, the repetitive task is a time-consuming, exhausting online match with no guarantee of success. Overwatch is fantastic with friends and Rainbow Six is one of the best tactical experiences I've played in a long time. Between the two, I'd get whatever online experience I was looking for: fast-paced, slower action, realistic, ridiculous, you name it. Unfortunately, it only took so many frustrated nights of losing my hard-earned ranks to recognize that I had gradually become driven by the numbers game more than the game itself. Once familiar with the core mechanics and objectives in the game, I simply couldn't be bothered to play the game for anything but the competitive modes. I wanted validation for a strong performance, and as soon as I recognized that, I left the match, quit the game, and uninstalled anything that required an internet connection.

For anyone interested, in the last few years or so I've spent a substantial (100+ hours) amount of time playing ranked Overwatch, Rainbow Six: Siege, Hearthstone, League of Legends, Heroes of the Storm, Call of Duty, and Battlefield. Obviously weighted towards generic military shooters.

Designers, ask yourself if you spend too much time with one kind of experience. Start with the kinds of games you like, but abstract what appeals to you. Going genre or mechanic-specific is too narrow, what about the experience appeals to you? The feeling of power? The social connections? Alternatively, the isolation? Once you identify what you're drawn to, look at what you've been spending most of your time playing lately. If you're feeding your desire for a specific experience, that's great for fun but not an effective way to learn and grow as a designer. Never feel bad about what you play, but as a designer you need to always be conscious of why you're playing it.

So What Now?

By no means am I done with online gaming. I know that there is a world of amazing experiences when connecting with players across the world. The problem is, like with most things, there are too many different experiences for any single person to enjoy in a realistic period of time. I plan on going through my laundry list of offline, single-player games, and spend a little time playing them the way they're meant to be played. Exploring a variety of experiences is far more powerful than mastering one, and as a game designer and professional in the industry, I've spent too long not broadening my horizons.

So far I've been greatly enjoying the relaxing yet complex Stardew Valley. I'm looking to stay away from AAA titles for a little while and work my way up in scale. What should be next on my list?

Pylons: From Mind to Market in 72 Hours

Game Design

Creating Pylons: An Experiment in RRR

Replayability, Rapid Development, and Release-Driven Production

Pylons was designed and developed by Chris Germano with help from music producer Mike Harrison. This is his account of the experience.

It's the morning of May 3rd, and last night my newest game, Pylons, went to market. 72 hours earlier, it didn't exist. I've made numerous games over the years (many in less than 72 hours) but nothing I thought was "appropriate" for a marketplace. Sure, anyone can follow a tutorial, tweak it a little, and throw it on an App Store, but I wasn't going to cheat myself. I wanted to give myself the bare minimum time for designing, developing, and marketing a commercial product.

A personal problem I have when brainstorming concepts is that they're always too big. Even when I condense and simplify my ideas, they eventually grow out into something unreasonable for the allotted time and resources. This was no exception. On Sunday morning I was thinking of something partially between Surgeon Simulator and TABS: A first-person swordfighting game where you can barely hold the weapon, let alone use it effectively. Thanks to past experiences, I immediately told myself to throw that idea away but keep one element I genuinely liked. I kept the sword. 

The second thought, minutes later, was another first-person swordfighting game where the player has to deflect incoming projectiles. I pictured on-screen warnings like the ones used in Time Crisis. Again, I rightfully told myself to throw that idea away since I wasn't going to spend more than three days on the project. This time I held onto the bullet deflection idea. Something time-sensitive and fast-paced where it only takes one mistake to lose.

I quickly realized the biggest issue with these concepts was the control scheme. Using a mouse to control a sword in first person is either going to be very boring or very complicated. First person control schemes are difficult (why do you think so much first person combat is with guns)? I switched mindsets to one of my favorite genres: twin stick shooters. I pictured a sword where one stick is the handle, the other stick is the angle. While I eventually decided to reduce that idea further, I will likely revisit that mechanic in the future.

Skipping a few other less interesting iterations, I landed on what I have now. The player can move and aim around a limited "grid" with enemies appearing randomly in other areas of the "grid", requiring the player to navigate in specific ways to eliminate them. Inspired by the classics, this wasn't going to be a game that you win. It's a game that you don't lose for as long as you can.

Pylons Menu
Pylons Map

Development started quickly and efficiently. My primary focus was on the behind-the-scenes functionality (e.g. game managers and other persistent entities). Once the foundation was designed and developed, it was a lot easier to focus on gameplay development without getting sidetracked. For something of this scale, you don't need more than a preloader, main menu, credits/controls page, and the game itself. While the game is self-explanatory, all of the other serve a purpose:

  • The preloader serves the obvious purpose of disguising the game loading before the player grows impatient, but it also lets you implant your brand/game logo in the player's mind. Being memorable is critical.
  • A main menu doesn't just offer a convenient location to interact with the game outside of actual gameplay, but it serves as a central hub or foundation to the whole experience. Few games feel "complete" without some barrier between the preloader and the game itself. A sense of robustness gives a sense of completeness. This is why cheap knock-off products are often fitted with extra weights because "heavy means higher quality."
  • A controls page obviously gets the player comfortable with the input scheme before jumping into the game, but the inclusion of a credits page gives the game a human element. This is powerful for creating a bond between player and product, similar to why many successful Kickstarter videos contain a human element in the thumbnail (a person, face, or even hand). It makes buyers more likely to react positively to the product.
Pylons Enemies
Pylons Explosion

While core gameplay was quick to develop, maintaining an attention to detail was critical for the MVP. Little things that may be taken for granted can make a big difference to the overall user experience. The two greatest improvements we some of the last additions before packing it for release:

  • The "clouds" underneath the rods accessible by the player allow players to more quickly picture where they have to be to get the right angle on a shot. The perspective camera intentionally makes it more difficult, so the atmospheric indicators dial the difficulty down a touch.
  • Shot impacts on the walls were added in response to the player feeling ultimately "weak." When the player's shots don't hit a target, they simply fly off the screen. Adding a passive reaction gives them a bit more consistency with affecting the environment around the player.

There's no hiding that the game is in active development. It's fun and entertaining (and definitely worth the 1.99 price tag!) but there's a lot I want to add to it. As someone personally against abusive DLC practices, all updates to the game will be free. Right now I don't have any plans to develop paid expansion packs (remember the last time you heard that phrase?) or DLC. 

Last night I posted the game on itch.io and shared a few links on social media. Since then I'm excited to say the game has already sold a few copies!

Don't be afraid to enter the market, just treat it as your portfolio. Never try to sell something you're not proud of. If you need help with your strategy, pricing, or anything else, Pilone Consulting is ready to help.

Knight of Cups: The Pilone Jam for Charity

Game Design

The Pilone Jam:

Knight of Cups was built from scratch in 14 hours, following user suggestions

On Monday, April 17th 2017 we streamed designing and developing a game from scratch for the first ever Pilone Consulting Game Jam For Charity. In just over 14 hours, Chris Germano (Director of Operations and Founder of Pilone Consulting) built a first-person action/adventure game following user suggestions. Prior to the live stream, a public survey was distributed across social networks asking for suggestions on genre, camera, and other categories related to creative direction.

Google Form Screenshot

Inspired one suggestion regarding tarot Cards, we looked for specific cards that inspired us and came across the Knight of Cups. There was something a little special about a knight that fights demons and death itself while clutching a goblet most likely filled with wine or mead. And knights are always on adventures, right? Conceptually, it just made sense.

It was an easy decision to make. Our game would be Knight of Cups: a first-person adventure game inspired by tarot cards.

Knight of Cups: Baby Steps

In a game jam, effective time management is a top priority. Thankfully, deciding on a concept and high-level design didn't take long at all. Being a one-man operation, finding appropriate resources for the project was important: no matter how comfortable you are in multimedia, you will rarely have time to simultaneously design and develop creative assets alongside the game itself. Being familiar with content licenses, we knew that assets with Creative Commons Zero would be the easiest for us to work with. Anything with attribution or limitations would put additional restrictions on our work and it would ultimately become a distraction. Between the Unity Asset Store and popular CC Zero marketplaces, we found a number of simple assets we could use alongside 3D primitives to create our characters and world.

Knight of Cups Player Test

 

Right off the bat, we developed two powerful mechanics: a native UI health bar and data-driven animations. Because the Knight of Cups is always holding a crystal goblet, we thought using a proportional amount of red wine in could effectively display player health without sacrificing immersion. Initially, we considered allowing the player to drink from the glass to replenish health (at the expense of sobriety), but ultimately this would have been too confusing. The second part, the core of the combat system, was a simple data-driven animation system for player and enemy attacks. Using arrays of positions and locations, unique and complex attack animations were easily prototyped in minutes, where traditional animation could have taken hours. We've made the relevant code public, in case anyone wants to use it for their game (link).

Knight of Cups Demon

There's not much to say about the enemy design. Following the Death tarot card, we wanted to design a death-like character with a little bit of a twist. Instead of a human skull we used a bull skull, and instead of a cloak we experimented with the Unity fabric object. A fun little learning experience!

After spending arguably too much time on creating light, heavy, and ranged attacks for the player (as well as melee attacks for the enemies), we realized enemies needed the same versatility in their attacks or else combat would get pretty stale pretty quickly. While the final product isn't exactly what we had in mind, it proved our hypothesis enough to justify taking the time to make a ranged attack. This time, we kept it simple: a projectile with particle systems is spawned, fired in the direction of the player, and remains on the ground indefinitely as a little "landmine". This made tight encounters deadlier and added a bit of unforeseen deadliness to an otherwise tame attack. All in all, the enemy combat came out well, and we were ready to build the world the Knight of Cups inhabits.

Knight of Cups: Taking Shape

A significant portion of the live stream was dedicated to designing the level by hand with various terrain tools in Unity. Although we probably spent over an hour on the terrain alone, it wasn't quite polished to the point where we're completely satisfied looking back at it. While the overall shape, progression, and design are effective at guiding the player and opening up unique second-to-second experiences, there are two noteworthy choke points where the design falls apart (not to mention one significant exploit early on in the game).

If there's anything to learn, it's that paper prototyping is incredibly powerful and highly recommended, even outside of game jams. Design your levels with extreme precision, and always take a minute to step back and question your decisions. It only takes one miscalculation to ruin the flow of the level, and ultimately the player experience.

Knight of Cups Gameplay

Knight of Cups: Playtesting and Polish

At this point the core mechanics and level were complete, and it came down to polish. We were lucky enough to find some fantastic models in the Unity Asset Store that really brought some areas to life. Again, too much time was taken with arbitrary details, but all in all it wasn't for nothing.

We also added hidden wine bottles that refill the player's cup (and their health). However, each bottle increases the player intoxication, affecting their walking. With more time we would polish this mechanic, as it's certainly disorienting in its current state but doesn't quite have the intended effect.

Knight of Cups: Mushroom Boys

The biggest mystery during the jam was the emergence of "Mushroom Boys." What started as a random discovery in the Unity Asset Store became a driving force in the game that took it to a new level of absurdity. Friendly NPCs were introduced to inject a unique variety of humorous dialogue and direction throughout the level. One Mushroom Boy acts as a blacksmith and replaces your sword if you accidentally threw it into an inaccessible area.

Knight of Cups Mushroom Boy

Knight of Cups: Post Mortem

What worked

Avoiding a traditional user interface was a goal from the start. Between the use of red wine representing player health and floating dialog to avoid classic text overlays, a small amount of immersion is generated in an otherwise ridiculous project.

As previously detailed, the data-driven animation system allowed for more rapid development and resulted in a simple, versatile system that can be utilized in any Unity 3D project.

Quickly choosing assets on the app store saved a lot of time during development as no asset creation outside of Unity was required. The unique variety of assets gave the game a unique aesthetic and fun appearance.

While only truly addressed near the end of development, bringing humor into the game added a lot to the player experience and gave Knight of Cups an extra bit of personality.

Finally, what worked the most during the 14 hour marathon was effective prioritization. By spending the most time on what the player experiences the most, the best parts of the game get the most attention. Combat is versatile and levels are detailed and full of variety.

What didn't work

Ultimately, Knight of Cups didn't reach the desired level of polish. Many elements needed a bit of additional time, whether to improve mechanics or fine tune user experiences. The end game experience was rushed, and the start screen, player death screen, and game over screen were all done extremely quickly.

An avoidable issue that was unfortunately left unaddressed was the ability to exploit object collisions to force the player through certain objects, bypassing area restrictions.

Player death was handled mostly as an afterthought and certain elements were left underdeveloped. Player death is sudden, jarring, and always unexpected. While the game over screen has a bit of polish, it's very rough around the edges.

The biggest disappointment with the final product was the end game content (or lack thereof). While the game was thought out, the ending was completely improvised. Working with limited energy and wanting to reuse resources, a lazily designed "boss fight" was developed with a victory screen as jarring and rough as the player death screen. The entire experience yells "Oh, that was it? I guess I won, cool".

On a (very) related note, cutting corners at the end of development unfortunately not only tarnished rushed areas, but that feeling spread out to other elements of the game that would have been otherwise satisfactory. If anything, it reinforces the fact that simplicity is key in time-sensitive environments, and developing a smaller polished game will ultimately be far more rewarding and enjoyable than a larger, occasionally rough around the edges, production.

Knight of Cups: Conclusion

If you made it this far, we salute you. Overall, building Knight of Cups was a greatly enjoyable and rewarding experience. The game is full of little hidden gems, but unfortunately contains scattered rough patches. The best part of it all was we raised some money for Extra Life in the process! If you'd like to donate to our page, it's not too late: please take a minute to visit our profile here.

 

We'll be making Knight of Cups available for pay-what-you-want download where all proceeds go to Extra Life. Available soon!

Heliophobia

Design Audits, Game Design

Heliophobia

A Pre-Release Design and Product Audit

Abridged for demo purposes
Heliophobia Screenshot
Overview

Heliophobia, the first-person horror/mystery game by Dave Gedarovich of Glass Knuckle Games, creates a unsettling and intriguing experience as the protagonist runs for their life while decrypting arcane messages scattered around a dark yet familiar world. While still in early development, the alpha provides an initially entertaining, tense, and enjoyable hour or two until it is abruptly stopped at a captivating cliffhanger. At the time of writing, Heliophobia is in active development following an initial limited alpha release.

Heliophobia is not available for purchase as of February 2017, but a release date this year is expected. Based on the existing alpha, with no knowledge of work done following the build, we expect that to be an ambitious yet realistic goal, assuming work is done on a part-time schedule. We expect the game’s success to hinge primarily on how well is makes itself unique in comparison to similar existing titles, as well as the final level of polish and attention to detail. Based on build we studied, we expect financial success to be attainable.

Because of the mystery nature of the game, some content below may contain spoilers. We will make an effort to limit specific references whenever possible, except when it detracts from the quality of feedback.

Breakdown
Heliophobia Hexagon

Heliophobia presents itself as a “dark first-person horror/mystery presented with a non-linear narrative”. With some noticeable similarities to existing titles like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Heliophobia faces the challenge to differentiate itself in the marketplace, perhaps more so than usual. Thankfully, Heliophobia creates a unique, detailed atmosphere from the ground up that not only keeps the player interested from level to level, but has them passively imagine their own world outside the playable areas. Because the game appears to take place in a unique hybrid of psychological manifestations and physical locations, it makes many elements throughout the game more enjoyable and believable, ultimately aiding in immersion.

Heliophobia only offers a single-player offline campaign, which is standard for the genre and experience. While a multiplayer option could offer interesting opportunities, it’s rare and exceptionally difficult to manage with this particular experience.

Gameplay is ultimately enjoyable, despite suffering from being somewhat inconsistent. Bouncing back and forth from puzzles to horror, crouching to sprinting, and bedrooms to bridges is a great and unique way to effectively keep players engrossed in the overall experience, but on multiple occasions (as detailed in the Playtest Report), the slow moments are more prone to contain points of frustration or confusion. This can result in more active areas losing their luster when immediately following“dips”. It’s important to note the attention to detail and sense of humor scattered throughout the game, leaving the player with little surprises as they work towards an overarching goal.

While most levels have a clear cut objective (i.e. go to Chinatown), several areas leave the player thinking “what was I doing again?” and without an easily referenceable UI of some sort (an overlay, a note, etc), they are left to blindly follow what “looks like the right direction” without knowing why. Enemies scattered throughout most of the levels introduce a tense and occasionally thrilling challenge, although they suffer from the“blindness” found in many first-person horror foes. While there is no explanation for their existence in the alpha, the introductory level does a good job demonstrating their ability to “phase” into existence, as well as the visual and apparently psychological effect on the player. Interestingly enough, a new type of enemy is introduced midway through the alpha, but fails to return in later levels. Some of the playtesters hoped these enemies would replace the more common variant, as they are more visually unique and unsettling than their generic “brethren.”

Accessibility is a challenge for any game in the genre, and Heliophobia faces the same issues found in most of its competition. On-screen text is the primary method of communication, which bodes well for hearing-impaired players, but on several occasions there is unprompted narration with no on-screen visual accompaniment. Another recurring element in several levels is the use of red and green lights to indicate success (or completeness, in some cases). Puzzles and notes are primarily done with high-contrast colors, like black on beige, and the minimal crosshairs change both size and shape when looking at an interactive item. While there are available settings to customize controls, it seems they aren’t yet functional. The game is configured to work with controllers as well, although one was not utilized during our playtest.

Polish is an interesting aspect of Heliophobia, as it simultaneously feels highly polished, yet certain elements noticeably unpolished. The attention to detail, as previously mentioned, is fantastic for an alpha build. Hidden messages tucked away purely for atmosphere and player experience add a surprising amount to gameplay. There are tons of items to interact with in every level, and the visual effects when interacting with enemies is fantastic (if the rest of the game was as visceral as the effects of looking at a nearby enemy, it would be overwhelmingly intense, in a good way). However the enemies themselves appear somewhat roughly modeled and poorly animated, which we assume is simply a priority issue as the game is in active development. The use of what appear to be default Unity particles is also effective in some areas but detracts from others (such as the menus or when floating around the “mystery” character).

Visibility isn’t one of Heliophobia’s strong suits at the moment, however it is early enough in development that it shouldn’t have a strong negative impact on the game (or be a priority during active development). While Glass Knuckle Games has a dedicated social media presence between social media and streaming, the lack of a dedicated social media pages for the game or studio is a missed opportunity to build a fanbase early on. No results were found on major gaming subreddits as well, or IndieDB.

Sociability does not have a huge place in the current state of Heliophobia, as the game is still in alpha stages. It’s worth noting that few games in this genre rate particularly high in sociability, with the biggest exceptions possibly being Five Nights at Freddy’s or another horror game that gained immense visibility due to mass distribution. One of Heliophobia’s unique elements, the mystery and dynamic content, should provide players with a variety of experiences that provoke discussion and natural dissemination of content through social media.

Monetization should be a low priority aspect of Heliophobia. Other than playable DLC, there are few options to naturally integrate paid content into the existing game. With a fair price point (we would expect something around 15 USD, +/- 5 USD based on how dynamic the content ultimate becomes) and substantial variety in playthroughs, Heliophobia should see solid sales without reviews noting disappointment for limited gameplay for the cost. Regardless of dynamic content, players generally like to spend under three dollars per hour of gameplay, which should be kept in mind when pricing the final product.

Playtest Report

Our playtest session included four participants who played through the entirety of the alpha twice (data in this demo covers the first playthroughs, not the second). Playthroughs were staggered (A-B-C-D-A-B-C-D), and without observation. Participants were encouraged to write their thoughts at any given moment, but not required to. None of the players had prior experience with the game, but were familiar with first person gameplay within the horror genre.

Early stages in the game were generally praised for effectively setting the scene. While little proved to be particularly difficult, the game starts off with a seamless combination of horror, puzzles, tension, and intrigue. While random elements in the second level hinted at the deeply varied and unique player experiences, little to no content changed between playthroughs. Playtesters were aware the game is in active development, but all noted disappointment in that fact due to restricting replay value. Surprisingly, hiding in level 2 was one of the favorite moments for most playtesters in either gameplay, due to the random nature of the key position as well as the mostly non-obvious options for hiding spots.

Heliophobia Horror Versus Puzzle

Specific highlights included the note puzzle in level 3 (for being most cleverly designed) and the basement sequence in level 4 (for being the most tense and intriguing). Moments that forced the player to utilize the audio and visual cues from enemy location and proximity had the most significant positive effect on player experience. The peak moment across the board was level 7, where a new variant of enemy is introduced.

Heliophobia Level Difficulty

Initially, alpha gameplay was described as lasting around 1–3 hours. As first-time players, none of our testers faced moderate difficulty when progressing through the game. Other than the occasional confusing moment, none of the playtesters encountered areas that posed a serious challenge. The completion times for each player ranged from 111 minutes to 139 minutes. However, due to the aforementioned static level structure (as well as a couple issues to be noted in Proposed Improvements), players going through their second playthough completed the entire alpha in a mere 29 to 41 minutes.

Heliophobia Level Time
Closing Thoughts

In it’s current state Heliophobia offers two hours of unique and enjoyable gameplay. Casual gamers may not pick up on similarities between this game and it’s competition, but the intrigue offered in puzzle and mystery elements definitely introduces a two-tone atmosphere that sets the game apart. Currently, the biggest drawback to the game simply appears to be the early stage in development, as many elements of the game feel unfinished or generally rough around the edges. For being in alpha stages, however, the game offers a ton of captivating content for new players to truly enjoy.

Heliophobia Searches

Thank you for taking the time to read our first abridged demo audit. If you want to share your thoughts or have any questions, feel free to reach out to us for questions, comments, and business inquiries. If you found this interesting and informative, please share it with your friends and colleagues. We plan on releasing more audits like this on a variety of games to show how no two projects are alike and that for the highest quality service you need to hire an expert, like Pilone Consulting.

The Story of Skorecery

Business Dealings, Game Design

The Story of Skorecery

One of our clients, GrappleHook Games, has just revealed that their latest game Skorecery has been accepted into the Boston Festival of Indie Games’ Digital Showcase. While they deserve a big congratulations (which you can give them on their Facebook page), it should be said that success doesn’t come easily, and there is still a long road ahead!

GrappleHook Games Logo

A few years ago, GrappleHook Games created their award-winning arcade game, SquadHero: Revolver, where the player cleverly uses a Guitar Hero controller to shift colored ships to align with corresponding targets. The game received universal praise from classmates, colleagues, and industry professionals, winning the Pupil Perfection award at the 2013 Boston Festival of Indie Games, Best Overall Game at Northeastern Game Demo Day, and Most Innovative Game at Northeastern Game Demo Day. Riding on the momentum, they begun development on Buzz Breakers (which would eventually become Skorecery) with the help of Pilone Consulting’s current Director of Operations, Chris Germano.

What's all the buzz?

The three worked tirelessly to design an exciting, innovative, but accessible local multiplayer game. The original prototypes were well received and the team was strongly encouraged to continue development, as initial versions only featured a single map, 1v1 gameplay, and limited player mechanics. Over the coming months, mechanics were changed and refined (custom physics, controls), features were added (gravity flipping, real-time stance swapping), and the controls were fine-tuned to feel fast and responsive. At this point, all game assets were basic 3D shapes, which was helpful for clarity during gameplay but made it harder for players and audiences to get excited since the lack of any real identity made it hard to build any sort of emotional connection with the in-game “characters”. This was the first major pivot, where the team embraced simplicity and eliminated many superfluous features, like “stance switching”, where a player could trade abilities and stats in real time to adapt to and modify the pace of the match.

Crater Kings Gameplay

King of the Crater

Eventually, Buzz Breakers went to space: the rectangles were replaced with moon rocks, the players were replaced with capsule-shaped astronauts (there wasn’t an experienced artist on the team yet), the playing field was given a retro-futuristic mining atmosphere, and the main menu was styled up to be entertaining and memorable. Building on the initial audience gained from demoing Buzz Breakers around the Greater Boston Area, it was easy to draw in a crowd when Crater Kings was an official sponsor of the 2015 Boston Festival of Indie Games. At this point, Crater Kings amassed a noteworthy following, but the state of popular indie games (Hokra, Videoball, Rocket League) put the team in a tough spot. Simple mechanics and a space theme wasn’t going to stand out any more, and a serious redesign had to take place.

Skorecery Gameplay

After a lot of planning, refinement, and technical work from the GrappleHook Games team, Skorecery was born. Artists and musicians were added to the team to give the game an amazing new look and feel, and Pilone Consulting returned to manage digital marketing and audience building. Why go with anyone else when your marketing team helped design and build the game in the first place?

Still, there’s a lot of work to do, as we plan on getting Skorecery to Steam without cutting corners or abandoning an unfinished project. We’re extremely proud and excited that Skorecery is receiving the praise it deserves, and we’re not going to stop until we think it’s the best game it can be. We’re looking forward to seeing you at the 2016 Boston Festival of Indie Games on Saturday, September 10 at the MIT Johnson Athletic Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts!

Design Lexicons: Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

Game Design

Design Lexicons: Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

This post can also be found on Gamasutra.

Every game has an inherent lexicon, not of words necessarily but of “design language”; a set of rules and systems that govern the world the player inhabits. While the real world has things like the laws of physics, skeuomorphism, and internationally recognized symbology, there are games out there that have very little in common with our reality. When one of these games brings a new player into an unfamiliar world, the first challenge presented is deciphering its lexicon. While games vary wildly in environment, from ancient civilizations to alien planets, their languages typically exist in a context analogous to our own. Objects and relations are familiar, or at least presented in a familiar manner. But what happens when the analogy is lost? When a game takes place in a world that is not only unlike our own, but we have no apparent way of familiarizing it? Games that fall under this category can be uniquely effective in teaching players about storytelling and game design, and playing them should be a regular activity for those interested in better understanding how games work. Without an explicit prompt, players will find themselves taking notice of things normally taken for granted: Do characters in this world communicate in a way we recognize as language (Journey, for example)? Are objects recognizable or do they subscribe to familiar design patterns? Do characters fit in with our biology and evolution, or does their design imply this world is in a distant or parallel universe?

Journey Game Screenshot

When a game is intentionally designed to require the player to devise their own context and instruction, it introduces another level of interaction and connection. When a player is forced to connect the dots on their own, the lines they draw become instrumental to their experience, and by creating and sharing these experiences, communities are given greater opportunity to collaborate and build personal connections. Additionally, because a greater percentage of these experiences are organic, players are naturally more drawn to elements they’ve created on their own.

While the exercise of familiarizing and extending an unknown lexicon is inherently positive (practices creativity and adaptation to new environments), there is an added bonus for those who express interest in game design or are designers themselves: improving your ability to identify affordances. Affordances are present in nearly every game where designers need to define objects in an environment where a more direct approach would be inappropriate or impossible. As the player creates organic elements through deep understanding, they begin to recognize how the affordances they’ve inevitably created supplement specific areas of the game that benefit from these distinct contributions. By understanding affordances, you add an invaluable skill to your repertoire of design talents; because affordances are used for direction, progression, and even instruction, you begin to understand how to design around metaphors and subtleties, rather than obvious tutorials or storytelling. Affordances are present in every aspect of development, from art assets to player mechanics, and their underlying design doesn’t change much despite being wildly varied in execution. Designing an NPC behavior to guide the player from Point A to Point B may have the same end result as designing a funnel-shaped level, but the work that goes into either approach is completely different. It’s important to ask yourself: Where is the affordance, what options did the designers have to achieve the same effect, and why did they go with this approach?

Gonner Game Screenshot

GoNNER, a 2D roguelike platformer by Art in Heart, is a great example of a familiar world with a mysterious lexicon. We’re all familiar with platformers, and increasingly comfortable with roguelikes in recent years, however, the abstract and stunning world featured in GoNNER is hugely unique. WIth no instruction or direction, the player is expected to progress through a dark and abstract world, where their motives, abilities, and even identities are unclear. This world interestingly enough is inhabited by a combination of familiar animals, recognizable demonic beings, and death itself, all peacefully coexisting (which introduces a creative affordance, in which the player creates an identity for the “protagonist” based on their behavior). While there is a basic story to the game, it plays a minimal role in the actual gameplay, and isn’t evident based on gameplay alone. As the player seemingly creates the world while they explore it, abstract colored shapes come together to form floors, walls, and platforms with quiet but distinct “wooden board” sounds (a conceptual affordance, associating these shapes with wood reminds the player of other common surfaces made of wood in real life). Additionally, the player is rewarded small purple glyphs upon killing multiple enemies, which seemingly represent an unknown alphabet, presumably for the unintelligible audible language used within the game. Even as the game begins, the player has no discernible features and must acquire a head, weapon, and wearable item before progressing. In a mysterious and abstract world, a player begins without an identity, a language, a past, or a future. It’s what the player does that creates it, bringing a cryptic lexicon into the realm of the relatable.

Lastly, for those of us who neither design games nor think to deeply about them, playing a game with an unfamiliar lexicon is a great step toward understanding games at a more granular level and from a designer’s standpoint. Not only do you get a close look at how many working parts of a game interact, but you also get an opportunity to identify affordances and build on them; directly contributing to the player experience. With a strong enough community, you’re able to share your work and discoveries with your peers and get their thoughts and feedback, granting yourself an opportunity to grow as a gamer and creator alike.

20XX

Design Audits, Game Design

20XX

A Pre-Release Design and Product Audit

Abridged for demo purposes
Overview

20XX, the roguelike action-platformer by Batterystaple Games and Fire Hose Games, brings together many appealing qualities to construct a well-rounded and ultimately enjoyable experience. Deceptively complex, 20XX is easy to pick up and provides great replay value thanks to all systems running behind the scenes. At the time of writing, 20XX is still under very active development. This audit describes beta version 0.961b in late September 2016. All elements of the game are subject to change at any given time, and based on how active development is, we expect significant changes between now and release day.

20XX initially came to the public as Echoes of Eridu (EoE), which ran a successful Kickstarter in April-May 2014. Despite nearly missing their goal of $20,000, EoE was well received by fans and industry members alike. 20XX is currently on Steam as an Early Access game for $14.99, which was raised from an original $11.99 on August 31, 2016. The current Early Access version of 20XX is being met with almost entirely positive reviews, with only 4.5% of reviews being negative. Ultimately, we believe 20XX’s success will hinge on how effectively the developers address a handful of minor design and creative improvements as well as the game’s marketing. Due to its unique appeal between modern roguelike design and Megaman X nostalgia (and current popular opinion that it is a superior alternative to its modern competition), we believe the right strategies during beta development could have massive impact on release day.

Breakdown

20XX Hexagon
Great experience, excellent at audience building, but finishing touches are key.

At its core, 20XX is a well-executed modern homage to classic futuristic action platformers, most notably Megaman X. While 20XX offers a minor backstory to the game, the characters you encounter (and play as) are hollow, providing little more than dialogue or brief cameos. During every playthrough, the player navigates through a variety of unique environments that feature enemies and natural hazards such as pitfalls, damaging surfaces, and projectiles. While there is no introductory or tutorial sequence, enemy and environment behavior is designed to be predictable yet challenging, allowing the player to freely progress without feeling stuck or confused.

Alongside a regular playthrough, 20XX offers casual (start by choosing free power-ups) and challenging (start by choosing stackable difficulty modifiers) modes that can significantly alter gameplay. Additionally, there are daily and weekly challenges that give experienced players a chance to stand out against their friends and the entire Steam community. Lastly, players are able to pre-purchase items for their next game (or unlock items to spawn in-game) based on the credits received from their most recent playthrough, which encourages players to stick around, as they’re given an extra boost to help surpass their previous performance.

Gameplay is 20XX’s double edged sword. The complexity that goes into roguelike gameplay paired with the nostalgic simplicity of combat creates a very modern and appealing experience, but the technical and design issues in that system introduce a lot of points of frustration. For instance, the random level generation for Arctic Datacore creates small icy platforms that are frustratingly easy to fall off of, and there have been observed sequences in Jungle Station that set the player up for unavoidable damage. While defeating enemies is satisfying, the randomized placement sometimes leads to surprisingly frustrating or dull areas, which can break play flow and even increase likelihood of ending the play session early.

The boss battles are varied and have fun retro feel to them, enhanced by the introductory splash screen and the slow build-up to the encounter, but ultimately suffer due to the lack of difficulty or sophistication before the player makes significant progress in the game. While bosses get noticeably more difficult later on (and by no means are they easy enough to cruise through the entire game), early battles consist entirely of getting to the boss as quickly as possible and dealing as much damage as you can with complete disregard for strategy or avoiding damage.

Accessibility is handled well in 20XX, as gameplay works well with either a controller or mouse and keyboard, and controls can be customized uniquely for all local players. The game is currently only in English, but because none of the characters require voice acting, support for future language packs is a definite possibility. Currently there is only a Windows build, which slightly reduces potential audience size but to a negligible degree.

Polish is one of the main issues we’ve found in our time with 20XX so far. While there are subtle animations, special effects and aesthetically pleasing backgrounds, there’s a decent oversight in the composition department: comparing 20XX’s graphics and aesthetics against Megaman X’s for any given level demonstrates just how difficult it can be to differentiate foreground from background, or just different foreground objects. In many familiar chunks, there are platforms that match the surrounding area too closely, making it difficult to smoothly progress through the level. Additionally, in several levels there are square platforms that spawn and disappear, requiring the player to jump strategically from block to block in order to avoid falling off the map. While this mechanic works well horizontally, it’s rarely successful vertically: if a player enters the block area as it’s spawning they get instantly pushed to the top or side once it appears. This inconsistent behavior makes the mechanic look unfinished and can detract from the player experience.

Visibility is important for any game in active development, and 20XX is no exception. Thankfully, 20XX does quite well in this regard: other than ranking well for explicit Google searches (20XX, 20XX game, etc), it ranks well with more distanced search terms as well (Megaman X homage, modern Megaman X, etc). 20XX is easy to find on major social networks and has a dedicated subreddit, which is a large plus for Sociability as well. Active developer input on social media lets fans feel better connected during development, and will greatly benefit the game in the long run, both in game quality and established audience size.

Sociability is one of 20XX’s particularly strong suits. From the main menu, players can easily access the Steam community, see the leaderboards (of which there are many, building more diverse competition instead of a single list that’s nearly impossible to top), and find out how to contact the team or find additional online resources. The multiplayer support is also a great addition, as it allows opportunity to connect with others through the game. While there are minor design issues worth investigating with co-op, the fact that it exists is a big selling point and a great addition to the product. 20XX also has a dedicated Facebook page and subreddit to promote discussions, sharing thoughts and achievements, and more. Almost 500 Reddit subscribers, about 250 Facebook page likes. There is clear developer interaction on the subreddit, which is great for more detail playtesting feedback, positive discussions, and a stronger fanbase.

Monetization should be an easy task for 20XX, thanks to their pre-announced dynamic pricing throughout development. The game is currently available on Steam for $14.99 (what we believe to be the perfect price for any moderately developed indie game), which was raised from $11.99 prior to August 31, 2016. Over time, there could easily be support for paid DLC that features new levels, playable characters, items, and more. Paid DLC/expansions in a roguelike is a delicate undertaking, but definitely worth it when players feel like they’re getting their money’s worth (looking at The Binding of Isaac as an example).

Playtest Report

We had two of our playtesters run through the regular 20XX mode five times each. They were free to choose their character and had no limitations with play style except that they had to choose the first available level following a successful boss fight (in order to avoid freely picking familiar levels and avoid new challenges). Playtesters were encouraged to take notes on their experience following the conclusion of a run.

20XX Level Completion

While none of the playthroughs went particularly far, our playtesters definitely felt a challenge once they got through at least two levels. Note: a “level complete” includes defeating the boss and continuing on. Levels ended prematurely are not included on this, regardless of whether the player died during the level or boss fight.

Even as first-time players, the bosses were seen as exceptionally easy to defeat in the early game. However, once a few levels were cleared, they got noticeably harder. While the progression makes the player feel challenged, it was seen as too sudden and came off as frustrating, especially if powerups haven’t been impressive that run (playtesters were certain they had missed something significant in the level). Additionally, the speed bonuses were awarded nearly every time a boss was defeated, which led us to believe the threshold for the rewards was set far too low. The rewards were also frequently underwhelming, which was disappointing on many occasions.

20XX Level Distribution

Level distribution was luckily quite balanced for our playtesters. To their enjoyment, their least favorite area was also the least common.

Playtesters expressed excitement when finding core power-ups, as they enjoyed the unique combat and mobility effects as well as the visual changes to the character. While stat modifiers were by far the most common, playtesters were mostly bothered by seeing the same modifiers over and over, like Ninja Sash. While there’s no hard data to support this, both playtesters agreed that Ace felt far superior to Nina, due to the reach of his default sword and Nina’s unimpressive basic attacks. They also agreed that the main menu layout was confusing at first, since the main gameplay is in the middle tier of an ambiguous shelf-like room.

20XX Powerup Distribution

Here we distinguish between powerup types: core powerups are armor and weapons, stat modifiers simply increase a stat with no added effects, and chance effect powerups are bonuses based on conditions.

Proposed Improvements

For such a complicated game, there are several ways of approaching any given problem. While we know our suggestions are not the only solution, we believe they’re either the most cost effective approach or will result in the greatest player response. We’ve streamlined our thoughts into three core areas.

Mechanics:

We believe more Core and weapon upgrades will increase new player attention and enjoyment, and create more late-game strategies for the experienced fans. Right now the vast majority of power-ups do little to nothing in regards to player appearance or abilities, which can be discouraging for a fresh audience. Defeating more significant enemies should have a weighted item pool, encouraging new players to work for items that immediately make their character look and act in new ways.

The biggest improvement to power-ups would be to include more (and more significant) damage modifiers, in a similar vein to The Binding of Isaac. While 20XX online communities have been sharing unique late-game builds for some time now, it’s very rare to have people with drastically different builds by the time they beat their third or fourth boss. It would also be a positive influence for sharing screenshots and clips of the game, which wouldn’t only promote sociability in general, but also show how unique and fun this randomly-generated experience can be.

Design:

The platforms that fall down after a player comes in contact with them need a “respawning” animation. Frequently during playtesting a player would be trying to advance through an area and get damaged and knocked back by a respawning platform they didn’t realize was coming back. In some cases this has caused frustrating deaths, especially following a Twin Astrals fight.

Additionally, Arctic Datacore maps should get rid of any icy surface shorter than 3 “units” wide. While icy surfaces are a familiar mechanic, there’s little fun in having to break the pace of the game to slowly hop on one small surface to another, lest you fall to your death. At very least, the physics of icy surfaces should be tested and refined, since there are still areas where normal movement is completely inhibited (slanted surfaces will sometimes stop the player completely, instead of slowing them).

There have been some chunks generated in Stonetemple Skycity that have points of unavoidable damage, and the “Don’t Attack” Glory Zone has spawned when the player doesn’t have an available power to use. There are more specific instances of randomly-generated issues, but these stood out the most from our playtesting reports.

When a player goes through the red doors to pre-boss and boss areas, there is a slow pause and the player is shifted over to the next area. This strange transition would make sense in the Metroidvania genre, but stands out in an unpleasant way in its current implementation. We believe the player should be set to a preset stand-walk-stand animation sequence if this transition is being used to cover up background loading and is unavoidable.

Most significantly, the graphics and aesthetics would greatly benefit from a facelift. While the game has come a long way since its EoE days, the style is still reminiscent of in-browser Flash games, adding an unfortunate “cheapness” to the experience (which will have a negative impact on marketing efforts). Other than the previously mentioned issues with foreground vs background clarity, there is simply a lack of contrast between foreground elements that can make navigation unpleasant and difficult. Many times the screen is just too busy in a way that feels claustrophobic and cluttered. While random generation can only be controlled so much, there are enough familiar sequences that we believe the chunks can be better designed to require players to master different mechanics and combat strategies, not just put together to introduce constant variety.

Concept:

Possibly the most significant improvement to the game is a conceptual one: better integrate the characters and backstory into the game in order to give the player a feeling of progression. In any roguelike, the player is travelling with a purpose. In 20XX, the player is simply checking off bosses on a list. There’s no uniqueness between Stonetemple Skycity as level 1 or level 8, and that makes the experience feel incredibly disappointing late-game.

Ultimately, the gameplay is too shallow for a successful roguelike experience. The game lacks real progression, and while bosses and enemies may get more difficult, the player doesn’t feel like they’re working towards a concrete, story-driven goal. A stronger story integration would be a good first step in making the game more compelling, but visual changes based on an increasing difficulty modifier would be the bare minimum for a v1 release (dynamic music would be a very strong accompaniment to this). Why are these locations randomized? Perhaps the robots are destroying and rebuilding society to fit their needs? Maybe the robots’ goals differ between playthroughs, affecting a global chunk generation variable? Just food for thought.

Conclusion

In it’s current state, 20XX is extremely promising. Between good market timing, great design, and a strong community presence, it has all the makings of a significant success. Even outside the core gameplay, there is a great sense of humor, enjoyable music, and a simply fun atmosphere. However, like any game in active development, there are several unresolved issues that will undoubtedly cause a fuss once the game is out. We’re confident that addressing the aforementioned issues will improve likelihood of unwaveringly positive feedback and increased financial success. With declining interest in Megaman and the ultimate failure of Mighty №9, 20XX is in a perfect position to be the “real” modern Megaman. Take note below, Mighty №9 released between the last two point on the graph, scoring 100 for Google Trends during that time. Interest is dwindling, and with a strong marketing strategy timed with continued public interaction, 20XX will surely take over that audience completely. Thanks to the random generation, live streaming has a high potential for long term interest, but we would advise against marketing too heavily to that niche until progression and polish are addressed, as per our proposed improvements.

20XX Search Trends

Thank you for taking the time to read our first abridged demo audit. If you want to share your thoughts or have any questions, feel free to reach out to us for questions, comments, and business inquiries. If you found this interesting and informative, please share it with your friends and colleagues. We plan on releasing more audits like this on a variety of games to show how no two projects are alike and that for the highest quality service you need to hire an expert, like Pilone Consulting.

Drunken Robot Pornography

Design Audits, Game Design

Drunken Robot Pornography

A Post-Mortem Design and Product Audit

Abridged for demo purposes
Overview

Drunken Robot Pornography (DRP), a first-person shooter by Dejobaan Games, creates a unique atmosphere that combines humor, exciting gameplay, and impressively unique enemies. While there are several fundamental issues, the game is generally well designed, polished, and enjoyable. While the majority of issues with the game itself surround lacking or overly light features, there have also been missed opportunities with the project that likely limited sales potential. If both areas are addressed, we see no reason why there wouldn’t be a resurgence of interest in DRP and Dejobaan Games as a whole.

DRP initially released on Steam with a $14.99 price tag with a 20% discount on the first week, while Dejobaan Games ran a series of live streaming events surrounding the launch to increase interest and visibility. Ever since, there hasn’t been significant community or media attention but reviews were positive overall, averaging around 65–70 out of 100 (66/100 on Metacritic at the time of writing). We believe that if the suggestions in this document are taken into strong consideration moving forward, significantly higher scores would be attainable as well as new and sustainable revenue streams.

Breakdown

Drunken Robot Pornography ultimately provides the player with an energetic and entertaining single-player experience. It effectively utilizes simplicity (with some instructional loading screens) to teach the player basic controls. While the early game difficulty ramp is far from steep, there are several elements that lacked proper instruction and could potentially prove to be frustrating for inexperienced gamers (for example, the fact that turrets are indestructible or the behavior of spam mobs). Thankfully, the fast paced nature of the game coupled with the visually exciting design should leave most players unaware of the lack of direction.

To summarize our six points of focus in a single thought, DRP features exciting and attractive, yet shallow, gameplay that ultimately suffers from lack of sophistication and commitment to visibility and proliferation of online content.

DRP Hexagon

Gameplay is fast, fun, and easy to learn. However, for being a self-described “bullet hell”, there is a disconnect between the pacing and style of traditional bullet hell games and what DRP has to offer. Not only are the Titan projectiles typically slow and easy to dodge, the weakness of Titan limbs makes them pose little to no threat to the player, regardless of the number of weapons attached. Not only are Titan weapons lackluster, but the player’s only available gun feels extremely weak without utilizing at least one of the few available buffs in the game. While it’s very satisfying to stack every buff and shred your enemies, it happens so infrequently it’s too irregular to confidently look forward to level-to-level. The low number of available power ups is also discouraging, especially in contrast to the visually and mechanically diverse Titans.

Accessibility is not seriously addressed in DRP’s game options, but control customization is available and gameplay works equally well between keyboard/mouse and a controller. Game dialogue and text is only available in English.

Polish is very well done throughout DRP; every asset fits within the aesthetic and even non-essential environment assets have a futuristic minimalism that fit well within the world Dejobaan created. While the world is minimalistic to the point where each level feels disconnected from the others, it works well enough to give the player a good variety of experiences without being repetitive or confusing. While the UI is mostly well designed, some menus would benefit from a rework. The Titan creation screen, for example, features what appears to be the default Unity UI assets. The bonus content (links to other projects and social media pages, etc) is unclear to anyone unfamiliar with the iconography, which is undoubtedly a high percentage of the audience.

Visibility and Sociability are key players in DRP’s success, but unfortunately there are just too many areas that were left unaddressed to give the game enough momentum in the market. While some Steam integration created opportunities for players to connect and discover new content, the design flaws previously mentioned gave communities little reason to explore original content other than momentary curiosity. The gameplay is perfect for Twitch (and other live streaming platforms), but other than early streaming by Dejobaan, there wasn’t enough original content or demand to keep an audience for long enough before it began losing public interest.

Monetization is a non-issue for the existing version of DRP, but there were definitely missed opportunities early on for additional revenue streams. We believe DRP was priced perfectly for the type of game and amount of content it offers, and would suggest any reboot or sequel is priced the same. We strongly believe that 14.99 is the new 19.99, and audiences will react positively to new future content at a familiar and accessible price.

Playtest Report

Although Drunken Robot Pornography features 52 unique levels with additional playable content, our playtest covered just the first 15 levels. We feel this sufficiently covered the essential player experience but acknowledge there are additional mechanics not covered in this document.

DRP Playtest Feedback
Level 1–15 rated by difficulty, entertainment, and design on a 1–10 scale

As an introductory sequence, DRP actually does quite well. Despite minimal explanation, controls and goals are intuitive and easy to master (movement, flying, shooting, powerups, item collection). However due to the slow levels early on, gameplay feels somewhat stagnant by level 6. It picks up momentarily and begins to introduce more challenging levels, such as level 8, but then unfortunately drops back down to simplicity and repetition until level 11. By then, the player has essentially mastered all mechanics and is ready for a greater challenge (thankfully, one can see the steady increase in positive experience from level 13 onwards). While it’s expected to introduce steady waves of difficulty, it’s fair to assume players will grow weary of the “three slow, three fast” pattern shown here until the final boss at level 52.

DRP Leader Standings
Online leaderboard standing from playtest session

One rational conclusion to draw from our playtesting data is to assume the levels with lower ratings are due to poorer performance. By cross referencing our leaderboard standings at the time of playtesting, one can see no strong positive correlation between high leaderboard placement and low feedback rating. One important point not covered in our playtest is how there there are steadily decreasing number of leaderboard positions as the game progresses, indicating players grew tired or frustrated at points throughout the game, never to return. A dangerous metric worth investigating.

DRP Ranking
Relation between leaderboard rank and cumulative level rank with linear trendline

Proposed Improvements

After a preliminary design audit, playtest, and analysis, we believe the points below would provide significant benefit to Drunken Robot Pornography if addressed. The benefits of these points may be in player experience, profitability, or just general polish.

Restructure level challenges to feel more like MMORPG raid bosses (a large systematic battle against a focal enemy, or enemies, that involves strategic multitasking and pacing). DRP is a game where giant sentient robots are destroying futuristic Boston, but right now the levels are small and centered around Titans that are less dangerous than being caught off guard by randomly spawning spam mobs. Reducing reliance on these mobs while increasing the difficulty and complexity of the Titans will improve player experience and reduce frustration (a). Auxiliary enemies could easily introduce unique challenges when generated from spawning units attached to the Titan itself, or shielded environment spawners whose behavior is linked to the Titan’s. A more advanced improvement (but certainly an appealing one) would be the ability for Titans to have a behavioral finite state machine, defining movement, weapons used, and fire speed based on health, available limbs, and other factors (b). This FSM would be integrated in the Titan creator, which would improve sociability and visibility, now that players can create more unique and challenging Titans. Even basic strafing and engagement with the environment (destroying platforms, etc) could introduce a novel amount of complexity, especially when accompanied by redesigned levels. While the existing levels are aesthetically pleasing and conceptually sound, many feel claustrophobic or inappropriate for the desired player experience (c).

a. Being damaged or killed by a random mob is as challenging as being killed by RNG. While it’s possible to keep track of enemies on the indicator by the crosshairs, it’s not easy or enjoyable to fight an interesting enemy while dedicating your attention to the chum.

b. Yes, this is a lot to ask. However it would drastically change the game to the point of essentially reinventing the title (which could be used if a re-release or paid DLC was of interest). One of the primary criticisms from players is the repetitive nature of the game as a whole, which undoubtedly is a byproduct of the static nature of the Titans (uniquely rotating parts simply don’t introduce enough character). While this would not only make Titan combat more compelling, it would be enough to add “personalities” to individual Titans based around their combat style.

c. Many of the more attractive maps turned out to be the least enjoyable to play. With walls, small and distant platforms, and low visibility, it felt like some levels were designed for one experience while the rest of the game was designed for another. See point 3 for further explanation.

While the time limit serves a purpose, it would be better served as an enrage timer (going back to point 1 and raid boss design). Make parts harder to destroy and Titans attack more often once a time limit has been reached. Visual and audio cues would accompany this change in attributes and behavior.

Tighten the player’s walking. Right now it feels like you’re running on ice, or still using your suit jetpack on the ground. There are too many maps where difficult controls lead to accidental damage or falling out of bounds.

Introducing more languages (even a simple implementation like subtitles alongside the existing voice acting) would allow further growth of DRP’s audience. A lot of DRP’s entertainment comes from humor and it shouldn’t be lost if an interested gamer is more comfortable in another language.

Conclusion

Ultimately, timing could make or break a release

Looking at Google Trends for “bullet hell” and “Drunken Robot Pornography”, a common pattern arises: the search popularity of the game peaks while the genre is a hot topic. DRP was released with great timing, but the downturn of the bullet hell popularity likely played a part in DRP’s relatively short tail. If it had been release in late 2013 when bullet hell games were increasing in popularity it may very well have reached audiences that wouldn’t have normally gravitated towards an indie game flying under the radar.

Drunken Robot Pornography is not a bad game, and easily revivable through a reboot or sequel. If the lack of complex gameplay was addressed and the new content was properly marketed, it could very well achieve Metacritic scores in the 90s, assuming everything had the same level of polish as the existing content. It’s safe to assume DRP was created by a highly talented and creative team that couldn’t add all the content they wanted to in a reasonable time frame and was too busy to dedicate full time to marketing and continue development long after release. We have no doubts that if the same team were to re-release the game with the same energy and intensity as the original, it would be a fantastic success.

Thank you for taking the time to read our first abridged demo audit. If you want to share your thoughts or have any questions, feel free to reach out to us for questions, comments, and business inquiries. If you found this interesting and informative, please share it with your friends and colleagues. We plan on releasing more audits like this on a variety of games to show how no two projects are alike and that for the highest quality service you need to hire an expert, like Pilone Consulting.

A New Hexagon – How to Analyze Your Game

Design Audits

A New Hexagon

It's no secret that designing a successful game requires a lot of talent, organization, and luck.

A "New Hexagon" is our attempt to effectively combine business, design, and documentation in game development. While there are a handful of best practices for increasing the probability of success of your project, there are still some extremely useful assets and strategies that many teams overlook. Utilizing a design document for organization, consistency, and transparency is key to successful pre-production (something we specialize in), but creating the document yourself can commonly fall victim to reinforcement theory. Once the project is underway, frequent playtesting can prove to be invaluable, but very rarely will your team receive sophisticated and specific feedback with the clarity a fellow designer would provide. A design audit addresses that lack of clarity and sophistication but rarely steps back far enough to see how the game succeeds or fails in its accessibility, connectivity, and visibility online.

With our unique auditing process we break down the entire project into two core components: the characteristics of a successful game and the characteristics of a popular game. By maximizing either you will be sure to find some success, but by maximizing both you almost completely eliminate the need for “a lot of luck”. Typically, some form of hexagon chart is used to quickly illustrate the general feedback and category-based strengths and weaknesses. You may have even seen this type of chart in a stat-based video game (probably something within the RPG or MOBA genres). While familiar, our approach takes more holistic and full-service approach, giving necessary attention to the external factors that ultimately determine a game’s success.

RPG Hexagon

The New Hexagon, as we’re calling it, is a binary graph that focuses on the two components previously mentioned: the successful game and the popular game. While similar, these two have unique properties and core tenets that need individual attention. The successful game needs powerful gameplay, polish, and monetization, while the popular game needs to be visible, sociable, and monetized. Ultimately, our categories are Gameplay, Accessibility, Visibility, Sociability, Polish, and Monetization.

The New Hexagon

Breaking down the Hexagon

For brevity’s sake, we’d like to break down just two significant elements from each half of the New Hexagon. If you’re interested in learning more, however, please contact us directly or through social media!

Gameplay is simply the most important factor in a game’s success. While our definition of gameplay covers half a dozen key categories, some of the most obvious remain our top priority when evaluating gameplay: a smooth learning curve and compelling mechanics. While we touch on other significant elements, like level design, we think the learning curve and mechanics are the most defining factors to indicating successful gameplay as a whole.

Sociability is less commonly a priority for small teams (and we’re afraid to say many large ones as well!) which unfortunately plays a large part in the potential for a game. While many games have leaderboards and some form of social media sharing feature, few games incorporate being social as well as they should. While dreadfully annoying to many of us, Candy Crush’s social integration with asking friends for resources was an immensely powerful tool. Even games that reward players for liking their facebook page are taking a step in the right direction, as Facebook will retain interest through repeated interactions and natural distribution of content (look at Call of Duty’s page for example).

Call of Duty Old Hexagon
Call of Duty New Hexagon

As a fun little glance at our approach, the above is quick display of the Call of Duty franchise using our system. It’s clear at a quick glance that the franchise is more powerful in its branding than the quality of the games, which is something most of us would agree with. The brand is extremely powerful, mostly due to its tireless promotions and constant stream of fresh online content (in other words, its Visibility and Social qualities). However as far as accessibility goes, it neither fails nor excels.Despite being available on multiple platforms, the only way for those with visual or physical limitations to enjoy the game is to set the difficulty lower. Unfortunately, this still prohibits those audiences from online gameplay, which is the majority of the franchise’s content. If you feel up to it, leave a comment with why you think we rated the other qualities the way we did!

If you’re interested in our approach with the New Hexagon and want to learn more, or if you’d like to discuss getting an audit done on your game, please leave a comment or contact us though email or social media. And if you haven’t yet, follow us on Facebook and Twitter for more original content, progress reports, and promotions!