On Saturday, DAM hosted about 26 different people in groups of 2-4 for a marathon playtest session hosted at the ETC. The testers ranged from ages 7-22, but primarily were aged 7-11. It was fascinating to watch younger people interact with the game as most of our playtesters this semester have tended to be around 18-30.
There was nothing shocking from the playtest that we hadn’t realized earlier, but much like our Schell Games playtest, we were able to clarify some of the things that are working the best in our game and some of the things that need more attention. The night before the playtest, we were quite busy preparing a submission for the Independent Games Festival’s Student Showcase. We had just added some new AI scripts into the game that we think really added an exciting new layer with animals and other moving objects making the world feel more alive. Even though we didn’t have time to perfectly tailor the difficulty and settings of the game for a younger audience before the playtest, it was incredible to see how much fun the kids were having without even experiencing the full scope of the game. The kids were so excited after playing the game that the playtesting group that followed ours received complaints about how their experience wasn’t as fun and how you couldn’t burn anything.
Here were some of the main things that the playtest reinforced:
1) The beginning of the game is too difficult, especially for new users. This is problematic because for iOS games (which there is no shortage of) if people are not engaged in the first 30 seconds of the game, then they can easily delete the game and find a new one in a matter of seconds. Due to the procedurally generated levels, it is not uncommon to be stuck right at the beginning of the game without the ability to progress in the level with unsurmountable refrigerators or being stuck under a stool.
– Solution: We had wanted to implement this feature already, but the playtest helped us decide that it needed to be prioritized over some other features. In the past two days Alex has implemented a condition based block system so that we can tailor the type of block that the game starts with as well as customize the blocks during the rest of the game in response to how well the player is playing and other factors. This solution allows us to create a better balance of design and procedurality at the beginning of the game to ensure that the interest curve follows the pattern we intend.
2) Transferring from using a keyboard to a touch screen on iphones and ipads remains to be a tough challenge for us. We had our testers try two different sets of controls: A virtual d-pad control scheme that splits the screen into two sections, a d-pad section and a tap to jump section and a swipe based control scheme which allows for dragging anywhere on the screen for movement and swiping or tapping for jumping anywhere on the screen. The testers’ preferences were pretty evenly split with D-pad getting a slight edge, but neither seem to allow for the same level of control that the keyboard does.
– Solution: There is some tweaking that needs to be done in the responsiveness of both sets of controls that will likely help in their comfort level. Some playtesters felt the responsiveness felt uneven at times. The ramp-up of difficulty also will help a lot in allowing the player to get comfortable with the control scheme before the game gets more difficult. After we fix these issues we will do some more playtests to try and see if the situation improves. At some point we might have to come to peace with the fact that there is no “perfect” control scheme due to the complicated nature of touch screen interfaces.
3) The clarity of feedback for the new “thermometer system” (the replacement for the combo system) is also a work in progress. Nearly 100% of playtesters thought that the thermometer represented your health or how much fire you have left. While this is not far from the truth, our current iteration fails to teach the player the relationship between the thermometer and the players actions. Most were able to grasp that the more things that you burned the more the meter on the thermometer increased, but not necessarily that the more items you burn the hotter your flame gets, allowing you to “unlock” previously non-flammable items.
– Solution: Fixing the difficulty ramp-up also potentially will help solve this confusion as few of our playtesters were able to play for longer than 1-2 minutes in each playthrough. Without playing for a while, you don’t get to truly experience each unlocking moment and one of the main points of the thermometer, which is the scaling up moments that rewards them for filling up the meter. Because it was a new addition, we also haven’t had time to add proper audio feedback for the system which will also help make it’s role more clear. Adding more visual feedback and changing certain elements is also in our plans to make it clearer.
– This one is a little bit trickier to solve as the vignette/thermometer relationship seems to have some inherent dissonance, but we will meet as a team and decide some economical ways to make things more clear. One of the positive elements of the playtest was seeing how much people enjoy the feeling of having their vignette die down to tap into their thermometer reserves, anxiously searching for the next flammable item, before woosh, in the last second they find an item, and the vignette expands again for the perfect tension/release moment. Many described that as their favorite part of the game. On the plus side, even if people don’t understand the relationship and logic perfectly, they can still play through the game and enjoy it nonetheless. It is not as if missing the point of it destroys the experience and eventually with more time to play we think that they will understand it.
Those were some of the main findings from our playtest. We will keep moving forward by looking at ways to improve the game, playtesting, and continuing to expand the NEIF world.