Indiecade East Feedback, Programmer Search, and Next Steps

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Indiecade East Feedback

I just got back from New York City. Manifold Garden was showing at Indiecade East, as part of the Sony PlayStation 4 section.

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I received some really great feedback from this last showing, both in terms of how to refine world 001 and how to set up the pacing for the entire game.

There were two playtest sessions that really stood out to me.

(SPOILER ALERT)

In the first, the playtester had found her way outside in world 001 after solving the initial indoor puzzles. She had lit up one the first laser beam, and had more or less figured out that she needed to get to the other islands and light up the laser beams there.

However, even though she knew where they were, once she got to them, she wasn’t able to orient herself correctly to access the entrance. This was because she wasn’t approaching the island from the center tower, so she would land on the “side” of the island. Because she kept landing on the exit door, which didn’t have a surrounding ledge, there wasn’t a surface for her to orient herself correctly. As such, she kept falling off and getting frustrated.

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This was unnecessary frustration. She had already solved the basics of the outside puzzle, in that she knew what she needed to do. The problem she was facing was an execution one, which is not in line with the goals of the game.

The solution is to simply add a ledge around the exit room. This provides a surface for the player to rotate onto to correctly orient themselves with the entrance room.

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In the second playtest session, I had gone out to lunch, and had come back to see the playtester had made it to about the 4th world (which means he had been playing for about 1 hour). I asked if he had started from the beginning, and he said, yes, and then I asked him what he thought of the game. At this point, he didn’t know I was the developer. The gist of his feedback was: the puzzles were good (he was obviously engaged having played the game for about 1 hour), thought the architecture was cool, but was starting to wonder why he was solving the puzzles. What was the purpose?

He explained that he wasn’t a puzzle game player normally (he had played Portal only), so for a puzzle game to really grab his attention, it needs something more than puzzles.

This was very helpful information for me. While Manifold Garden doesn’t have an explicit narrative with characters or voiceover or text, there is an implied one. There is mystery to be discovered. What this playtest session informed me, is that I need to introduce this mystery within the first hour.

The puzzles and architecture are clearly engaging enough that even a non-puzzle game player will play for an hour. However, at that point, they are starting to wonder why they are spending their time doing this when they could be playing something else. The prospect of more puzzles as a reward is not enough. There needs to be a sense of purpose.

I had the beat where the mystery is introduced, but not until 1.5 or 2 hours in. Now I know I need to move it up and introduce it earlier.

Personnel Change

An update on the situation, since some people have been asking questions.

David Laskey is no longer working on Manifold Garden.

In the end, things just didn’t work out, and I decided to look for a new programmer.

New Programmer Search

The search for the new programmer is going well. It’s been very busy. So far, I’ve gotten about 60 applicants. This was quite surprising to me, as I only posted about the job on twitter for a few times, and didn’t put it on any job boards.

It has been incredibly time consuming going through all the emails and resumes, scheduling interviews, checking references, etc. Last week I got very little done in the way of actual work.

I hope to finalize everything within either this week or next week.

I’ve also learned a tremendous amount about the hiring and job application process. One day I will write a more detailed blog post about.

Moving Forward

This week I’ll be adding in the feedback I received from Indiecade East. I’m now at a point in the development of the game where I need to start thinking about launch. I need to start looking into logistics of releasing the game – setting up infrastructure for beta testing, setting up a steam page, etc.

To be honest, things have been quite difficult without a programmer. My estimate is that I’ve lost about 6 months of work-time (taking time away to do interviews, working with inefficient tools, legal overhead, the new programmer having to catch up on codebase, etc). It’s very possible this will push back my original planned release date, but I just have to make the best out of my situation.

I am still able to work with existing tools to create new levels and test out pacing in the game, so that is what I will be doing in the next few weeks. I’ll be meeting up with the design club here in Chicago soon to go over what I have planned.

This summer is going to be a super busy one, but I’m looking forward to getting into a cycle of iterating and playtesting.

 

 

Interlockable Design

Trying to work out designs for the interlockables:

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I think a gradient base works really well.

It needs some work though.

I like the outline, but not sure about the diamonds:

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Diamonds need to be there to show direction.

Maybe having this background pattern?

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Making the end of the white lines arrows?

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Inactive state (also needs arrows somewhere):

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Development Update – New Changes, Bit Bash, & IndieCade Feedback

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I am getting ready to go to Japan for the Tokyo Game Show. These last few days are getting pretty hectic with packing and making sure the build is ready, and of course, all the tiny little details that crop up last minute.

Anyway, I thought I’d take a moment to write about my experience showing Relativity at Bit Bash last weekend. I also heard back from IndieCade – unfortunately, I didn’t get in. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed in the result, but the judges also gave me some really detailed and useful feedback. This is still a great opportunity to improve the game, and I’ll post their feedback  below, and share what I’ve  learned from this experience.

New Changes

Last month, I had the opportunity to show Relativity at SIGGRAPH as part of the MIX Showcase. I wrote about my experience and what I learned there in this devlog post.

Basically, after showing there, I realized that there were some serious design problems in the introductory part of the game.
When I got back to Chicago, I immediately scheduled a number of playtest sessions. I knew I had to redesign the introductory sequence in a very fundamental way before the Tokyo Game Show, and wanted to test out any changes, so I don’t run into unforeseen problems while exhibiting.

playtestingAbove – A friend invited me to his office to demo the game. Here is one of his co-workers playing the game.

I ended up doing about 4 playtest sessions a week for about 2 weeks, and slowly molded the intro into something new.

Here are some of the new changes I’ve made:

1. Interactive Instructions - Instead of having the instructions all in separate slides before the start of the game, the instructions now pop up during gameplay when players see the relevant element. Relativity_Game_Screenshot-2014-09-11_17-26-29 Relativity_Game_Screenshot-2014-09-11_17-26-37

2. Shortened the tutorial sequence - I want the player to get outside as soon as possible, as that is the real meat of the game, and the most impressive part visually. I realized that there were a few puzzles I had placed in the beginning indoor tutorial sequence that didn’t need to be there, and as such, could be moved elsewhere. For me, a good demo at a convention setting is when players make it through the interior tutorial section, and get outside. Too often though, I’d see people give up and leave right before the last puzzle. This was really anticlimactic, both because the player didn’t get to see the payoff for solving all these early puzzles, and also because they didn’t see the depth of the game. Relativity_Game_Screenshot-2014-09-11_19-21-43

3. First Hub World Overhaul - Completely redesigned the first hub world, effectively replacing it with the second hub world. From playtesting, everyone would talk about how much they liked the second hub world, while with the first hub world, people only talked about how often they got lost and how confusing it was.

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I think this is because the second hub world had logic to it. There was a meta-puzzle to the hub world itself, and this presented a sense of purpose, and a way to track progress. There were patterns that allowed the player to figure out where they had come from, and where they were going.

The original first hub was more or less random in design, and how you progressed through it depended largely on luck. Some playtesters told me that there was no sense of progression, and even when they did complete the level, it didn’t feel like they had completed it. They felt like they may have missed a thing or two.

After SIGGRAPH, I realized there was really no reason not to have the second hub as the first one. It’s better designed, easier to navigate, and everyone liked it. It was much larger than the first hub, but since it had a pattern and logic to its design, players found it much easier to deal with. It was only the second hub because that’s how I originally designed it, and my mind had come to accept that as reality.

4. Revamped the UI - I know it doesn’t make a difference in terms of the core gameplay, but having nice-looking UI really goes a long way!

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Bit Bash

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Bit Bash is a video game festival that a bunch of Chicago developers organized, which took place this past Saturday, September 6th. It was inspired by the Wild Rumpus party at GDC, and began as a series of conversations.

I won’t go too much into the festival itself, as there is plenty of information on the interwebz, except to say that it was a huge success with a turnout of around 1,400 people, and demonstrates that there is clearly a demand for such an event here in the Midwest. Also, the Chicago indie community is made up of a group of seriously awesome people, and I’m incredibly blessed to be based here.

IMG_6053Above – There was a huge crowd only an hour into the festival.

Anyway, showing the game at Bit Bash proved that all the design changes I had made were right. This time, instead of actively trying to recruit players, I would stand back and observe. And I noticed that people were making through the tutorial section and getting outside. It also helped a lot that I improved the start menu screen, so that it actually looked attractive and got players interested in it.

I had spent a lot of time on UI, and the game at Bit Bash was more or less able to run itself. There was a constant stream of players, and I didn’t have to stand around to reset it. Because of the improved UI and faster load time, people could very easily restart the game themselves.

I would stand in the distance and keep an eye on the screen, and after people finished playing, I would go up, introduce myself, and ask them some questions about what they thought. Almost everyone was able to make it the exterior parts of the level, so that was a very good sign.

Here are some shots of people playing the game at Bit Bash:

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IndieCade Feedback

Yesterday, I received an email from IndieCade informing me that Relativity wasn’t selected for this year’s festival. Needless to say, I was pretty disappointed. IndieCade was one of my top festivals I wanted to get into.

However, having seen the issues that arose when I was at SIGGRAPH, I can totally understand what happened. One of the really nice things about the IndieCade submission process is that the judges are required to give feedback on the games they juried.

The feedback I got from the judges were very informative and detailed, and I totally agree with the points they made, especially regarding the box puzzles. In fact, during a playtest session about 2 weeks ago, a playtester told me that he found the box puzzles to detract from the main theme of the game, and were very tedious to play through. This got me thinking about their role in the game, and I’ve since decided to scale them back a lot. So it was great to read the comments from the judges about the box puzzles. It means that the decision to lessen the role of the block puzzles in the game is the right one.

As always, each feedback is an opportunity to improve the game. It definitely hurts when criticisms are made about your game, but it’s important not to get emotional about it. This isn’t about feeling good, it’s about making a great game!

It can be easy to dismiss the feedback from the judges, saying “they didn’t get it” or that “this is just not the kind of game they like”, and I’ve seen some people posting on twitter to this effect upon finding out they’ve been rejected.

However, from the feedback I received, it’s very clear that the judges took the time to play through the entirety of my demo (which takes on average about 3 hours for a first time player), so the judges clearly made an effort to play and understand my game. I really appreciate this, and since the judging process is anonymous, and there’s no incentive for the judge to lie, it’s really important to think about why the judges felt that way. It can be easy to blame the system, to become angry and say that your game was biased against, but I think it’s much more effective to use this opportunity to really analyze your game – ask yourself if the design is really that good, and what’s holding it back? It’s not fun, but it’ll make your game better.

Anyway, since the feedback given was anonymous, I’ve decided to post it here in its entirety (this is for the version of the game in July 2014):

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Once my head got used to it and didn’t hurt anymore from switching, the game was interesting. However at one point I did feel like I was doing stacking boxes against a ledge. Navigating the balls through the tunnels bugged a bit in the big puzzle; the ball fell through the doors I was meant to open. ‘
In the seemingly endless staircase, I guess this was sort of the end of the game for now? I could revisit previous puzzles, and a place with cubicle-likes connected to each other. I fell through a connecting beam that was glitching with green. I also fell out of the endless staircase that didn’t turn out to be endless (red gravity). Here was another of those cubicle-like below it, but I missed it and fell into the void.

I think I was able to skip some puzzles in the first open world, I didn’t need to use a blue box there. I just fell myself toward the green pop and could make it from there.

I hope that if you’ll make more puzzles, you’ll be able to make some that feel more different from each other. The box-against-the-wall puzzles are different from each other, but they don’t feel that much different, since the concept of solving them is often the same, just a little more difficult. I’m sure you can think of some that are more clever, rather than more difficult; it feels like you can get a little more out of this.. Surprise your player!

Hope you won’t think of me as too harsh. I love puzzle games (such as Antichamber and Portal, which seem like a big influence), but that’s why it feels familiar and the patterns are easy to recognize.

Good luck with the rest of the development!

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The core mechanic of Relativity has immense potential. The first time you flip the world and start walking on the ceiling to access a hidden corner of a room is a real thrill. That novelty and discovery propelled me through the much of the game. And while walking through the different rooms there’s a real sense of how the entire structure connects in greater way. Walking outside the buildings into the open spaces where you can see the worlds repeat infinitely is a unique and wonderful moment.

The individual puzzles though bog down the experience by making the focus of the game on block placement than the joy of shifting the axis of gravity and bending spaces. While there’s some clever puzzles based on following block-line connections across floors and walls too many times I felt like I was staring at the floor placing blocks over and over. The worst offenders here are the puzzles in which you are required to use blocks as temporary platforms to get across spaces. The effective landing area of the player is a lot smaller than you would think and each time you fall off and have to restart the process is an exercise in frustration.

Still though the newness of the mechanic really helped push me the more mundane moments. I look forward to seeing the experience as it develops and I feel this game with further refinement and polish can be something incredibly special.

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Art is great, shows a nice refrain given the subject matter. For more variety, maybe different superstructures could have different color schemes, bright, dark or colorful, etc. Something as simple as alternating the color scheme could really give different superstructures different moods.

I really enjoyed the mistake of slipping off the edge of the structure, it was a pretty clever way to handle ‘falling of the edge.’

While engaging at first, the box-stacking component of the gameplay became a bit tiresome, especially because you know the solution, but now you have to apply the repetitive movement to complete it. I wonder if experimenting with the box scaling could help with this?

I did enjoy falling off edges to get to strategic locations, which there was more of later in the game, like when you’re turning on the color-coded beams, you’re falling down into various nooks and cranies of the superstructure. There was one interior puzzle where, after an extensive box-stacking, I lept off with a box in hand to the desired platform.

I would’ve like to see more variety in the puzzles, maybe this could be a good angle? Since its a WASD first-person with a central gravity mechanic, I think considering more non-discrete acrobatic movement in the puzzles could help add diversity.

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IGF Feedback

The IndieCade feedback strongly parallels the feedback I received when I submitted Relativity to IGF last year. When I submitted Relativity in fall of 2013, I thought I had such a kick-ass demo, and the judges would be crazy not to choose this a finalist. Of course, this didn’t happen, and I was disappointed.

However, I continued to work on the game, to improve it, and by the time I got the feedback from the judges, in April 2014, I not only agreed with the problems they pointed out, but I had also started to address those.
In the spirit of open development, I meant to share the feedback I received for IGF when I received them, but had forgotten to, so I’m going to do it here. This is for the October 2013 version of the game:

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I just wanted to say that I had a great time playing Relativity, and I think the general premise has a lot of potential for some interesting puzzles. But I wanted to convey my thoughts that it felt like this was the BEGINNING of a much bigger and better experience. And by that I primarily mean how you progress. The colored box system works, but I don’t think that should be the primary form of interaction/progression. I don’t want to sound disrespectful when I say this (as I probably would be annoyed by this feedback if I worked on the game), but I would recommend trying to experiment with what it means to orient the gravity to each wall in a room. I think there’s a lot more that you can find if you mess around more. What if there was a linear progression through a room, with the room filled with stairs and hallways, and you had to go through the right order? What if this? What if that? As I played the game, I sorta got bored by the colored block requirement and I just started walking around the room, flipping the gravity. It was like a breath of fresh air, and it makes me think there should be something more inherent to that in terms of going through the game. It’s way more fun to think of where you are, instead of where the blocks are. I guess that’s it, base it on the player’s perspective primarily, not the block’s perspective. But again, this is your expression, so take what I say with a grain of salt. I think, with more time, it could be a great game. I definitely like the block idea, but I don’t think it’s the “true” form of the game.

Oh, and not sure how far along the game is, but try to differentiate yourself visually and narratively from Portal, otherwise players will think it’s a retread of what Valve already did. To me it definitely like I was playing Portal again, and that loses some of the wow factor. But overall, great job on it! I’ll be looking forward to what you do with it in the future :)

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Hi there – was very interesting playing through Relativity. As a game I think it’s definitely accomplishing some of what it sets out to do, but it also feels very very early in terms of things like setting and puzzle design, which I think is holding it back a bit for me in terms of voting for any of the categories.

Let me say, first, that I think that you really have got a lovely mechanic here, and one that’s much more interesting that just “look ma! I can walk on the wall!”. I think the way it changes your relationship to the space of the world is fantastic, more interesting than the Portal gun I think, in the way that it’s localized and perspective-changing. I had several occasions when I felt genuinely disoriented and the way that the game forces you to spend a lot of your time *not* taking an orientation to the world is really interesting (and slightly nauseating at times). I had a moment of running up some stairs while very much simultaneously thinking of myself as running *up* them toward a wall. These sorts of moments are just the kind of Escher-esque things that can be great about this game.

So, that said, I didn’t vote for any of the awards because it just feels too early. You have this really interesting mechanic and relationship to the world, but the world isn’t there yet, the puzzles aren’t really there yet, there’s no contextualization, no texture (literally and figuratively) and so on.

Very, very much looking forward to seeing where you take this.

Also a “bug” (perhaps it isn’t, it hard to tell in these sorts of environments) in the elevator cube thing – if I changed orientation while inside it I got spat out into the surrounding world. Which I initially thought was a kind of homage to Portal’s furnace scene, but didn’t actually seem to be. Nice potential easter egg to hide there somewhere maybe.

One minor technical comment is that I think it would make a *huge* different if the orientation change was just animated quite a lot faster (and perhaps more smoothly)… the jolt of stopping at a wall definitely removed some of the kinaesthetic enjoyment of the space…

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The puzzles were fun/interesting, but — in the end — was looking for more of a ‘hook’ to the game, other than the whole walking-on-walls thing. Would like to see some kind of story or ‘voice’ to set this game apart and make it feel like more than a Portal homage. Also, agree that the overall mechanics need to be tightened up/smoothed out to be an optimal experience. 

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Conclusion

Making a game is hard! For me, I’ve been working on this game alone for almost two years now. It’s like my baby now, and it can be really difficult to get an objective view of the game. My feelings toward the game can go from thinking it’s the coolest thing ever one day, to thinking that it’s absolute crap the next day. Rejection is never easy, and taking criticism is still difficult. I get butterflies in my stomach whenever I’m about to open an email with feedback on the game. However, honest, straightforward feedback that point out the problems in your game is hands down the best way for you to improve!

When I look at the IGF feedback and see how far the game has come, I know I can do the same for the IndieCade feedback!