There I was – sitting back and watching a stream of Sentinels of The Lost being played privately by two people. That was hard. Just sitting back and watching them play and converse with one another and I’m just there taking notes on top of notes quietly. In the grand scheme of things, I should pat myself on the back. Good job, me… You made a game where someone in Canada can connect and play cooperatively with someone in North Carolina. Why wasn’t I happy?
It may at least start with the fact that they weren’t able to beat the demo. Fine. That one is on me. I didn’t balance well enough. In my personal playtests I can blow through the demo. I thought I compensated for my own abilities – being the greatest SOTL player in the world and all… but still, I didn’t balance well enough – I can eat that bullet. But there was something else really nagging me. I was there pulling my hair out while they were playing and struggling. I didn’t speak up or hint or any of that stuff because the game deserved my silence as to not taint the playtest. But I just wanted to scream out, “You guys aren’t playing it right!!”
Alright, alright. I get it… by thinking they weren’t playing it right was actually me saying I didn’t design it right. Or it was missing something. You see – my game is designed so that players must rely heavily on cooperation. Play together. Use your skills together. What I was seeing was separation. Each wave would start and my two playtesters would immediately separate. One would work the left side of the arena and the other would work the right side of the arena. This would work well enough up until a certain point where the enemies were just too much for them to use this tactic. And that was that. They couldn’t get past certain mid-game waves and I did what any self-respecting game designer would do – I hit the emergency button and took it back to the drawing board. Ugh… I know I over reacted.
One thing is true. I needed incentive. What I was witnessing was two players innately choosing to play separated and I was determined to squash that behavior. Make a small tweak to promote playing united? Nope. I dropped a bomb on it. I designed and installed a game changing mechanic that, in my head, was going to be awesome. I was terribly wrong.
So what did I do? To explain it briefly – at first, my game characters played in an arena where they could run off and do their own thing. They could be on separate sides of the arena and still do whatever they wanted to do. I crushed that and made it so S.A.M.M. was required to be near H.A.R.R.I. in order to allow H.A.R.R.I. to use his own skills. I made it so that players had to be near each other to actually even use their skills!! Unity, right?! I spent days on days building this new behavior and installing it. I was sure it was going to play out great once fully installed. It felt terrible. It played terrible.
Yeah – promoting unity is not the same as requiring unity. Promoting is elegant and thoughtful. Requiring unity turned out to be needlessly bloated and complex. While playtesting these new mechanics I was struggling to get my head wrapped around it myself. Both of us were too worried about being near each other in order to do anything that we lost all sense of freedom. S.A.M.M. would move away from me to take care of something and my H.A.R.R.I. character would simply stop shooting because of it. The feeling of not being in control was jarring. We weren’t enjoying it at all. This fantastic idea of mine that spawned from simply watching others play my game ended up being a complete failure and huge waste of time due to my own shortcomings as a designer.
I went against my own rule book. “Keep it simple, simple, simple.” I built something needlessly complex that took control out of the players hands. But I did learn. Should I have known already? Perhaps. But I learned that there is a unique difference in promoting something versus requiring something. Through promotion, players feel good about something. Applying a small unity buff to S.A.M.M. or H.A.R.R.I. while near each other PROMOTES unity. Things like that. Requiring something of the players is a dangerous game to play as a designer – at least for me. I’m still undoing my past sins as a designer to get the game back to the healthy state it was in before my bright idea. But oh well, right? Channeling my inner Bob Ross – “As long as you are learning you are not failing.”
Promoting something in game is not the same as requiring something in game. Promoting intent and allowing players to find their way, not necessarily requiring it, is a mark of good game design.
As always – I appreciate your time in reading.