So I've been observing people play through the Adventures of Chris demo, taking notes, making adjustments, recording feedback, and it's been an incredibly useful process. I suspect this is one of those lessons that should be obvious, but that I nonetheless have had to learn the hard way - if I tune the difficulty to be a fun and engaging challenge for MYSELF (the programmer), it's likely to be WAY too hard for anybody else. Sometimes this is a function of making assumptions on my part - I know what I expect the player to do, what the enemy patterns are, etc. - but there's no guarantee other players will understand the intent.
In a way, it's kind of embarrassing. Watching players struggle against early bosses that are supposed to be a cakewalk, it's easy to feel like a failure as a designer. Fortunately, I've discovered that I'm in good company when it comes to this sort of thing.
Consider this interview with the creators of Chrono Trigger, one of my favorite games of all time:
Sakaguchi: At first, getting through the game was tough. The testers were saying "You guys are being cruel. Whose idea was this?" It was mine! *laughter* Harsh, right?
(This is actually a big comfort to me. If the expert, professional designers of some of the most beloved games in history had trouble tuning the difficulty at first, then I think maybe it's ok that the Adventures of Chris demo started out too intense. I'm in good company!
It also reemphasizes the importance of iteration. It's still early enough in the process to where I can make changes to smooth out the difficulty curve. I can try to make things more clear and better paced, without breaking the game. So I'm optimistic that eventually... EVENTUALLY... I'll get it right! (I think my more recent builds have already helped out a lot in this respect.)
In other news, people have been responding very positively so far to the art and dialog, as well as the music.
I'm excited to make more progress!
(And if you want to playtest the demo for me, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org! All feedback is welcome!)
So I've got the demo ready to go now! I've sent it off to the first wave of people - hoping to get some good feedback from everybody. If you're interested in playing it, feel free to drop me a line at email@example.com and I'll be sure to send it your way!
Over the last couple weeks, I've been trying to add some bonus content to The Adventures of Chris - filling out the Kingdom of Lost Balloons, the game's central "town" area. I've even added a mini-game!
You see, in the original, pixel-art version of the game, I had a level very early in the game that people called the "bird level." It was remarkably challenging for what was essentially the third level in the game, and a lot of people got frustrated to the point where they quit playing at that level - before they'd even reached the World Map! I smoothed it out significantly with later builds, but it still felt like a lot to put players through that early on.
Well, I aim to fix that in the new version. I've greatly shortened and simplified the first several levels of the game, trying to streamline the difficulty curve a bit. So the "bird level" is radically shortened. Unfortunately, I kind of like the bird level. I liked the challenge of it. So I'm bringing the bird level back, but as a completely optional mini-game.
"But Chris," you might be saying. "Don't you hate mini-games?"
"Not all of them!" I might reply. I do enjoy complaining about certain mini-games, that's for sure. Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII both had mini-games that drove me crazy, for example. I don't like a game that I enjoy telling me that I have to play a game that I don't enjoy to continue. Zelda mini-games are better, but occasionally the challenge level gets too frustrating. Right now, Mario Odyssey's jump rope and beach volleyball mini-games are driving me crazy.
But mini-games don't have to be random or overly difficult. They can fit in with a world well. And they have advantages! Mini-games provide additional variety of experience. They can reward exploration. They can add optional challenge for players that like that kind of thing. They help flesh out a game's world. (Final Fantasy XIII really could've used some.)
So adding mini-games is a risk, but they have potential rewards.
So we'll see how the demo players react! Hopefully it enriches the world, and adds some additional fun for players that want it.