I think one of my biggest problems in building this game is not having a project manager behind me, tapping her foot, asking why I’ve been writing daft jokes about mani pedis when there’s planning and coding and unmanicured work to be done.
When I planned Cuthbert originally, it was going to be one complete (and absolutely flawless) game that I would build from start to finish in its entirety, perfecting it before I’d dare show anyone.
Every single one of my friends (yes – both of them) told me that was a terrible idea. And, when I looked at it from a this-is-something-I-can-actually-get-done-if-I-don’t-over-commit perspective rather than an obsessive perfectionist refuse-to-give-up-the-slightest-thing-until-it’s-too-big-and-impossible-to-do-and-I-just-go-watch-Netflix-instead one, I agreed.
I decided to scale it down – I’d do one chapter of the game so people could get a feel for it. In fact, I’d scale it back more. I’d make it MVP – a demo level with some conversation trees with another character, some travel between rooms, a puzzle to solve, and a full combat system. (A full combat system with different moves, items and weapons is most definitely MVP. I can only reign in my obsessive perfectionist thing so far, guys.)
It seemed like a great idea. I could get something up to show people to give them a feel for the game while I built the rest. I could show my amazing co-creator L. Whyte what I was actually raving on about.
And then I remembered how people work.
Playing Dontnod’s Life is Strange (which everyone should, incidentally, it’s wonderful), I was struck by the statistics at the end of each chapter which showed the majority of players didn’t want to ruffle any feathers: they went for the nice option in overwhelming numbers, not wanting to burn bridges. Or break snow globes.
You never want to break the snow globe. Square Enix
It’s something I’ve also seen in Telltale’s Walking Dead and Game of Thrones series, and even on a radio promotion I was part of for The Last of Us a few years back, where online votes would affect the story of a series of ads. Not only did people actually vote (who knew?) but they voted for the ethical choices, saving others before themselves in landslide numbers.
I had forgotten that people might not want to make the more questionable choices. They might not want to pick options from conversation trees which seemed like they’d peeve someone off – and if they didn’t do that, if they didn’t fall into a long and twisted and weird and fun conversation tree chock-full of mani pedi jokes, if they stuck with the safest possible answers, the demo level I had coded would be finished in about four minutes flat.
‘Would you like to do me a favour?’
Not riveting entertainment, is it?
I’d spent so long getting caught up in the funny options, the annoying options, the weird options, I didn’t think what would happen if you didn’t choose them: the demo would suck. It wouldn’t give you a feel for the game, it would give you the feel of a trip to the dentist – pain, boredom, contemplation on your own stark mortality. Which is only about 30% of the final story.
If I wanted to show the game off properly, I realised (embarrassingly late in the day) I had to show the game off properly. A couple of rooms out of context didn’t show off the story, some polite text options didn’t show off the depth of conversation, and not seeing the consequences of your actions didn’t show off that there are consequences to your actions. (It takes time to code, you guys. A lot of time!)
The best way to play the game was always going to be the way I’d designed it – from the beginning, in my jammies.
But that took me right back to my original problem. (And created a whole new one about lending out jammies.) If the demo started from the beginning of the game, what was MVP? What could I use to demonstrate what the game was and how it worked to people without… just coding the whole game?
After a bit of grumbling and side-eyeing Netflix, I decided to go back to my original story outline this week. There were a lot of ideas in there, some of them almost funny, but I realised what was making it difficult to split up and find a natural stopping point for the demo was the way the puzzles were intersecting. It was structured like an old school adventure game, like Simon the Sorcerer – forgetting that whole intersecting structure was what made Simon the Sorcerer suck.
Stare at this scenery for four hours. Congratulations, you have now played Simon the Sorcerer. Adventure Soft
Oh, it did. You know it did. While the jokes were funny and the world was imaginative, having every room unlocked, every puzzle open to be solved at the same time, made the gameplay frustrating. And I don’t want that in my game; I’m not running a premium hotline for hints.
I decided to completely overhaul my outline, moving the puzzles and characters you didn’t need to meet until later on in the story to later on in the story, where they wouldn’t confuse the gameplay. I was a little bummed to realise my favourite character – the Godfather-esque Fairy Godmother who ‘takes care of problems’ – didn’t make sense to be in the first half, and I’d need to put off finishing her scenes. They’ve been some of my favourite to write, but moving her and a few of the other characters has given the game a lot more balance. And a place I can stop it at without worrying there are enough ‘howdy good neighbours’ to get the game mistaken for poor quality Home Improvement fan fiction. (Or: the only kind of Home Improvement fan fiction.)
Ugh, ugh, ugh. ABC
Since I’m not working to any hard and fast deadlines, it’s quite nice to be able to make calls like I need to overhaul the whole plot and know that the game will be better for them. But it might be nicer still to have some feet tapping behind me, keeping me looking at the bigger picture so it doesn’t take quite so long to realise when a call like that needs to be made.
And to stop me getting distracted by so much Home Improvement fan fiction. Ugh, ugh, ugh.