With the internet and modern game design, few games would ever consider having a hint line these days. There's just no need to have a dedicated line for players to get help with a game when, within seconds, they can look up countless FAQs, YouTube videos, and get help from in-game systems designed to guide and help them along the way.
So, why did Paul Franzen, developer of The Beard in the Mirror, choose to run a hint hotline for his game?
"It's a callback to the old 900-numbers you used to be able to call if you were stuck in a Sierra or LucasArts game," says Franzen.
As a nod to classic gaming, and the roots of it that run deep through the game he spent years working on, a hint line was perfect for the game. It was also something that put a smile on its developer's face, completing the retro point & click package he wished to make.
"The trappings of old adventure games make me so happy. The big boxes they used to come in; the code wheels. The fake newspaper clippings and notebooks you'd have to reference if you wanted to actually understand the story. I wasn't able to release the game on 16 floppy disks like I'd wanted, or include a free beard comb with every copy, but this? This was easy."
The Beard in the Mirror is a retro-inspired point & click game about a young man who's trapped in a mundane job and a mundane life until a mysterious woman takes him to a magical world of item combinations and cryptic puzzles. In keeping with early point & click games, it would be hard to figure out what to do, but Franzen didn't just want to let these players get stuck forever. He wanted to help them out. From this, the hint line was born.
Franzen wanted some sort of hint line for his game, but getting a 1-900 number set up wasn't exactly a viable plan. Luckily, the same modern technology that has made walkthrough and videos playthroughs so prevalent also let him create a help line easily.
"If someone gets stuck in The Beard in the Mirror, they can tweet at @beardhints, and I'll respond as soon as I can with a lovingly crafted, spoiler-free hint, straight from the developer. Usually it's just me coming up with the hint, but sometimes I'll consult my co-developer/wife Lizo, as well." says Franzen. "They can also DM the account, if they don't want to publicly out themselves as being stuck in a game. I'm easy to reach."
With a simple tweet, players can reach out to Franzen and have him reply to their specific query. All it took was Franzen setting up a specific account for the game's hint line, and then players could have direct access to him.
Franzen wasn't just going to deliver a plain answer to the confused player, though. This wasn't just some roundabout step to get a straight answer from a developer about how to beat their game, but a fun way of helping the player accomplish what they previously couldn't. It's meant to coax them to the right answer, not give it to them.
"Thankfully, this is the one time that being under-the-radar as a developer has been beneficial to us. Since we only get a few hint requests a week, I can really take the time to figure out the person's situation and what they need to do--and then how to phrase that without spoiling anything, and while still giving them an opportunity to puzzle it out themselves." says Franzen. "It's like if you had a direct line to Roberta Williams in 1989 that you could use when you couldn't figure out a puzzle in King's Quest."
Creating this hint line has let Franzen craft a way to help his audience without having to spoil it for them, which was important to the developer. "You won't accidentally spoil yourselves reading a walkthrough or watching a video on YouTube, and you'll get to connect with the developer in a small way."
Much of the play of a point & click game is connected to just knowing the right answer as to what you should be doing. Simply knowing the correct items and order is enough to move on. Franzen didn't want to spoil this sense of discovery that leads his point & click adventure, so it was important for him to create a hint system that would only guide the player, rather than outright tell them.
"I try to model it after the Universal Hint System style of hints: vague at first, so the player can still have that "EUREKA!" moment when they put two and two together, but more explicit as needed. Ultimately I don't want to be telling people straight up to "get the shoe from the guy and use it on the thing"; I want to be able to say "Look through your inventory; I believe you already have the sole item you need." Stuff like that." says Franzen.
In this way, Franzen can preserve the discovery that drives his game forward. Still, couldn't this be done with an in-game hint system? Something that would guide the player without his input?
"As for the in-game hint system--I could say that it would've gone against the game's retro vibe, but really, it just never occurred to us, until people started asking us 'Why didn't you just make an in-game hint system.'" says Franzen. "It's far enough removed from the game's aesthetic that it didn't even cross our minds that it should be included; it's like asking why there isn't a crafting mode (Plus, the game already took us 11 years of off-and-on work. If we'd included an in-game hint system, we'd still be working on it)."
It wouldn't fit with Franzen's vision of the game. It wouldn't fit with the game's retro vibe. It wasn't even a thought. All of those things were important reasons as to why he went with his hint system, but as it turned out, it would bring in one more valuable thing to the game.
"It gives me another way to interact with the people who play my games--which is an aspect of game development I never thought I would enjoy as much as I do." says Franzen.
As a developer, it feels good to know people are playing and enjoying your game. This creates an actual connection to those people, giving Franzen the occasional message from someone who's having fun with the game he took years to create. It lets him have a little bit more fun with them in the form of puns, and lets him directly engage with someone from his audience in a lighthearted way. It creates a happy bond between the developer and their audience, one Franzen is enjoying quite a bit.
"I was a shy kid growing up; I'm pretty sure my mom had to tell a teacher one time that "no, he's not dumb; he's just quiet." But this? This is fun. Helping people out; making bad jokes; seeing them engaged with a weird thing my wife and I made at home on our computers. It's cool." says Franzen.
Franzen could have gone with a traditional in-game hint system, but it wouldn't have given him that contact with his players. It wouldn't have let him have so much fun with them, and let him connect with them, sharing in the experience in playing the game, in a way. By helping the player directly, Franzen got to create a camaraderie with the player, as if they were sitting with them, helping them along as they played the game together.
In creating his own hint line through the @BeardTips account, Franzen helped his players without spoiling aspects of the game while creating a connection with his players. He could also capture some of the retro point & click vibe that The Beard in the Mirror was born out of, making it a perfect, entertaining way of helping his players out when they were stuck.
"It's kind of the best part of my day--starting up a hint line has opened up a whole new world of punning that I never dreamed possible. I want to make five more adventure games, just so I have more excuses to give people cryptic, pun-filled hints."