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Caving to Your Players
by Randy OConnor on 12/03/11 11:57:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


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…)

WIP of Dead End's update

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.

Randy is an artist for Tiger Style Games working on the upcoming Waking Mars.

He also makes his own games and games with other people as well.

And he tweets

[Edited Sunday, 11:20am PST] 


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Michael Haney
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This does present a challenge...but perhaps this is what it comes down to: You want the game to be about learning how to use the control correctly, but everyone else wants it to be about killing zombies. When games are about learning the controls, they usually just involved successfully navigating some map/obstacle/series of obstacles. In your game, killing zombies is the central goal. Perhaps, if it were only a peripheral goal (like distance traveled + zombies killed = score), your intention of mastering the controls would be more clear, making the core mechanic more interesting and fun.

I'm a fan of Dead End, and a fan of killing zombies, and a fan of exploration and difficult-to-master mechanics. You can either make Dead End about killing zombies, or you can make it about surviving a zombie apocalypse--where you only sometimes need to kill zombies, but ultimately, need to use the controls to navigate something.

Eric Schwarz
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I have to back this up. You need to identify what your game is about, not just for yourself but for your players (and customers) and service players in achieving that goal. You've likely been playing the game so long that you've grown so used to how it is... being able to step back and understand what you're doing from an outside perspective is difficult, but it's also a necessary aspect of game development.

Granted, I also don't mean to suggest that the gameplay is bad as it is, or that you even have the wrong theme or tone for the game. I haven't played it so I'm certainly not at liberty to comment on that side of things. But if people have more fun one way than another, that's pretty hard evidence to ignore isn't it?

Luis Guimaraes
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1- Simplicity of controls has to be intuitive first. You Saltman's Cannabalt exemple tells it already.

2- Simple inputs are also affected by context, it shall make sense about why it's that way.

3- You don't have to give up on the intended or your prefered gameplay to do what people want.

In your place I'd make a second character in a manual wheelchair, that had to constantly switch hands to move, put him as the choice to play on Hard with your original system and put the first character as Easy, with the two button setup. Then think about either making separate scoreboards or giving different score bonuses for the two difficulties.

Kumar Daryanani
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The problem may be on the scoring mechanism being at odds with the control scheme. You say you want the game to be about not dying, rather than about killing, but you reward the player for killing zombies, hence the player will want to insist on being able to comfortably kill zombies to increase their score.

Perhaps if you change the single-button scoring mechanism to a survival mechanism - a timer, which counts how long you are able to stay alive - the player's perception of the single-button control scheme can be changed.

I might even go as far as suggesting you make the two control schemes different games within the same app, with separate leaderboads, one being 'time attack mode' and the other being 'score attack mode'. Luis's suggestion of having each mode star a different protagonist seems like a great idea too!

Lex Allen
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I think offering two modes will help you to increase sales. If everyone is asking or complaining about the same feature, it would be in your best interest to change if it your goals are sales oriented. I'm not sure what the point of focus or beta testing would be if you don't want to improve your game based on feedback.

I think if you're making the game for yourself, that's one thing. But if you plan on selling it, that's a little different.

Actually, you could also offer the other mode as a brand new game, or charge people to upgrade to the "harder" version.

Walker Hardin
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I think the problem (and I'm aware this isn't useful, at this point) might be the choice of zombies as the mode of presentation. Zombies can provide one of two things, horror, or power fantasy.

Your guiding mechanic, the thing you want players to walk away with, is "Learn self-control or die." That sounds like a horror game to me. For example, Left 4 Dead is "Work together or die," and Resident Evil is "Conserve resources or die."

But horror requires atmosphere, and atmosphere takes immersion. You're not going to get that with a top-down arcade game. Especially not one with 16 pixel high cartoon zombies. But you knew that already.

I think the disconnect you're experiencing is a result of the limitations of the genre you're working in. You can have a high-dollar, immersive game, that explores the terror stemming from restricted control in life-or-death situations, or you can have an addictive, zombie slaying, arcade game. But since you already made the latter, I would suggest setting aside your initial vision for another day. Instead, embrace the genre you're in. Make the most responsive, most intuitive controls you can, rebalance the game to account for them, and allow people to derive their enjoyment from the simplicity of murdering tons of zombies. 'Cause Lord knows... zombies need killin'. Not only will you make more money, you'll have made a better game.

If you want to take another pass at restricted controls, I'd suggest you make the window-dressing more abstract. Create something new and foreign (shapes, colors, lights, cells, stars) whatever venue you want, but avoid any possibility of a pre-conceived narrative (like zombies are invading.) That way players won't know what to expect, which means they can't stamp those expectations onto the game before they even play it. You'll have a much better chance of getting them to buy into your vision... your new world.

Robert Green
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Perhaps the problem is of context. The player can quickly figure out that they would be better off having control of which direction the character is turning, and the game world itself (unless I've missed something) doesn't offer a good in-game context to explain why the character shouldn't be able to turn the direction of their choice. I think the concept is known as affordance - the avatar can turn left or right, they're in a situation where being able to turn left or right would be very useful, therefore your players will inevitably want to do this.

And when they discover they can't, it's a similar situation to when a player thinks they've found a solution in an adventure game, one that makes sense in context, but it doesn't work because it's not the solution the designer thought of. Or, alternatively, when you're playing a shooter and you get stopped by a 3-foot-high wall that any soldier should be able to climb up, but can't because the designers decided that the character can't climb, they can only jump 2 feet high.

From a game design perspective, it may be that limiting the ability to turn was the core idea of the game, but you're not likely to convince the player that it makes any sense in context, which seems to be the root of the problem.

Randy OConnor
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Thanks for all the thoughts, folks. I should say that I probably exaggerated the difference in preference a bit. People that try the game often like it, many of them even without asking about more control. They just say it's really hard.

My goal was to be unique, to create a different game design that worked well with iPhone. I wanted to make a one-button action game. If I add two buttons, then I'm halfway to just making a dual-stick shooter like half the zombie games out there. I am loathe to make another game that's been done five thousand times. So part of my frustration is creating what I believe to be a clever and fun variation, and yet players would rather just have the more standard game.

Also, I am bored by certain tropes. You start this game, I tell the player they can press to spin and shoot, that's it. Why does a zombie killing game have to be precise? Because other zombie games do that? If you're not happy spinning clockwise, tap again. You do have control if you take the time but I set out to make a game where you have one way to control your player.

This is really just me saying that I tried to break the mold in how an action game might work and I both succeeded and failed. I wanted to make control not about explicitly controlling the character. Using a wheel-chair or a segway or making it about abstract shapes, or any of that, it just confuses things. My goal was to change how you might think about control and why you pressing the left side of the screen is any better in a game sense than tapping again.

David Paris
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There's a design hurdle to overcome with single player games, and that is to realize that regardless of what _you_ like to play, the ideal game is the one that the current player likes. And more importantly, that there is nothing wrong with this (up until the point where they've actually opted for a game that isn't as fun/compelling to themselves because people can be bad game designers too).

I totally fell (fall?) into this trap a lot in the past with my preference for blisteringly hard games. My kids joke that there are difficulty settings of "EASY", "MEDIUM", "HARD", and "DAD". Yet the thing that made some of my games much more accessible to more casual players was to include an option to tone down the difficulty.

Yeah, it tweaked my sense of "you didn't earn that win!" but honestly, so what? Someone played it, had fun, and got to experience the whole thing. At gouge your eyes out hard, they were never going to.

So you did the right thing. Give them both options, let the player use it as they want. If you truly believe one button will be fun, ship that as the default (and include something to TEACH people how to utilize it). But it does nothing but give you additional marketshare to include the option for both.


James Coote
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I hope when you release the two-button option, you have some feedback system / 'metrics' that tells you how many people chose the two-button and how many the one-button. Even better, record how many times people try the other option and then switch back

If you find one method is more popular, make that the default, and present the other as 'challenge mode' or 'hard mode'. Or like Kumar suggests, maybe you could call two buttons 'Arcade Mode' and have it about getting a high score, and call one button 'Panic Mode' and make the challenge to survive as long as possible.

But really, if you want to make money (and it sounds like you don't) then just go with the two buttons

Rasmus Gunnarsson
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Mindsets are a powerful thing. Perhaps a start screen or a short text explaining the point of the game. Perhaps even a short video were you show how it is possible to be good with this system to encourage its use? I think it is very important to set the right tone for the mindset, just look at minecraft, what if people played that more like a normal game :)?

Bryan Robertson
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Just my two cents, but my personal view on game design is that "is it more fun?" and "is it more intuitive?" are more important questions than an artistic vision that the designer might have in mind.

Michael Haney
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and that's why WoW is dying, methinks.

Maurício Gomes
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Some time ago I created a game exactly like yours...

I had to create a J2ME game for university, and my cellphone buttons sucked, only the "OK" button was reliable, since I liked shooters, I created a game where: hold button = charge. release button = turn direction and shoot.

Yes, I liked my game a lot, and I can easily go the most far on the game than anyone, but I noticed, that seriously, that control scheme suck.

Sometimes, two buttons are better ;)

Daniel Balmert
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Your game is thematically dissonant and I don't think you're achieving the "purity of gameplay" stuff. You're allowed one big lie in story telling or gameplay: yours is "there are zombies." You've added "oh, but also your character is from Zoolander and he can't turn left." It's just too much.

Poor controls worked in Silent Hill because everything from the music, visual style and control scheme supported the idea that you're not in control and you're uncomfortable the whole game. Your visual style is light and happy, but then has constraining in controls. You're not REALLY achieving fear and paranoia with your visuals or controls, and I doubt the music will be as haunting as Akira Yamaoka's stuff. Your hypothesis isn't confirmed by your thesis, so to speak.

Sergio Rosa
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I was having the same issues with an early iteration of my indie game SteroidS. The control scheme was somewhat different to what people are used to (even if it's still a keyboard and a mouse) but turning was relative to the character's orientation. It was causing too many problems so I changed it, and when I did, the input was a massive "this version controls better." This is one of the few things that have changed in SteroidS thanks to player input, so their input can result in a better game.

However... the trick is to choose which elements will actually improve the game, and which ones are more about gamers saying they'd like something because other games do it. For example, in my other game (currently under development), Parasite, the main character uses no weapons at all, but some people actually asked when I was implementing other weapons, what kind of weapons I'd add, and all that, because Parasite is a third person game (non-shooter), and gamers are used to having tons of powerful weapons on third person games. They wanted weapons because the dude from Mass Effect has weapons, but they don't know why weapons don't fit in Parasite (from a game design perspective).

So yeah, player input can be useful, but changing a bunch of stuff just because "players say so" may not be a good idea.

Rasmus Gunnarsson
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Agreed. The player does not always know what they are getting into and you might argue that you should provide exactly what the player expects and desires, but you have to take that with a grain of salt as they player might not get what "kind" of game you are making. For an example there is very few people who complain in Amnesia that they don't have any weapons (some still do) because they know that it is a game about being scared and helpless. Player input is crucial as haveing a working player-in / game-out relationship is the core of any game. But the game is not the only thing you can change, sometimes the player just doesn't get it and you have to find a good way to get the idea across.