I am frustrated. I don't know if I am even allowed to be frustrated. As a game designer trying to make a living, there are two interrelated questions that pop up while constructing and evolving my awesome indie iPhone game Dead End. (Available for purchase at this moment for the low, low price of 99 cents!)
Does the player's opinion matter more than the designer's? And should you make decisions based on potential to make more money?
I could easily beat the high score on Dead End's leaderboards. 70 hours of playtime onward, playing the game was an obsession. I continue to play as I refine the game and add content, preparing my first (major) update. Point is, I am Dead End's biggest player, and biggest critic.
The fundamental method of controlling my game is one button. You press or not. You turn clockwise and shoot when you press, the next time you press the screen you turn counterclockwise. Then back to clockwise, etc. This restriction on controls is the root of my game. It was taking Canabalt's control and adding it to Super Crate Box. And I think I achieved it. I have a few ardent fans. (As far as I am aware…)
Whenever I show the game to new players, often gamers, they ask me if they can control the direction they turn. No, I say. That's the challenge. Learning how to control your character is half the battle. They say they want to choose turning direction. I say no. I show it to more players who ask for the same thing. I say no. I tell them I can beat the game with one button, I say that two buttons will not make the game better, it will make it different. They shrug and some of them purchase my game.
I added two button control this past Thursday. It literally took ten minutes to implement. Press right side of the screen to turn clockwise, left side to turn counterclockwise. I handed it to a friend/co-worker/gamer. He said, "I like this more." Several more developer pals said the same thing yesterday.
I am troubled because this preference for the two-button scheme says that my one-button method is a less successful mechanic. But what does that mean? My teaching of the mechanic is done poorly? Perhaps the theme conflicts with the control? Maybe the mechanic itself is not appropriate.
The mechanic, however, was what created the theme. I began with the premise of fear and paranoia and the black and white of attacking or not. A man running scared has very little control of himself. He is filled with indecision. He turns left, he turns right, who knows. Try and deal with it. But because this is a "gamer" game, players want to control him rather than fight the controls themselves.
I am going to ship my update with the option of using two buttons, I may even make it the default setting, but I'm not thrilled about it. Two buttons completely changes the game to me. It means the game is no longer about dealing with wacky controls. It's making Enviro-Bear 2000 easier to play. But because this game is a zombie-killing high score game, everyone wants it to be more about killing zombies, when to me it's more about not dying. A subtle but important distinction.
As a player, I would always rather have more options than not (presuming no loss in game quality). But now, on the developer side of things, I feel strongly about how this option changes intention. Dead End is a game I made to make money, I began the project with the sole intention of "targeting the market", getting my fledgling indie self off the ground. But I've grown attached to Harold and his haphazard movement decisions. I'm adding this control option because, perhaps giving two button control will make Dead End more accessible and more appealing and get me more sales.
I can't answer the questions I posed at the beginning of this post. There is never a solid answer to these questions; I am plagued with this unsettling feeling that I am doing something wrong by adding a second button and caving in to demand. But players have responded positively. Sales may go up. I'm doing this because I hope it gets my game into more hands.
I've grown very attached to this little, nervous, jumpy Harold and his one-button control.
[Edited Sunday, 11:20am PST]