Monday, April 29, 2013

Gridiron Solitaire #53: Playability

The second beta test is going well. I'm down to three bugs (eight were reported, none of them game-breaking or crashes), and I think I can fix them all by the build tomorrow night. There are also requests for feature tweaking, and I have a list of those as well.

It seems like a good sign that most of the feedback this time is related to feature modifications/enhancements, instead of things that are outright missing or broken. By next week, I'd like to have all the bug fixes and feature tweaking completed.

This week, I want to talk about playability.

Game mechanics are a Catch-22. Designers want a game to be immediately accessible, but they also want it to have longevity. It's hard to do both.

Here's the issue I'm having, and it's going to be tough to solve. Gameplay on offense is relatively self-evident: just call a play, match cards, and press Big Play if you want to try to extend the play. On defense, though, even though the gameplay is far more interesting (to me), it's not as transparent. A player has very limited resources in the form of Big Play presses. On each play, he/she has to decide how and when to use those limited resources based on down/distance and whether the max possible gain on the play is 15 (if he matched the CPU playcall) or 30 (if he didn't match).

In terms of gameplay, it's far richer, and it's more challenging. Starting out, though, it's easy to get your ass kicked. It takes 3-4 games for everything to settle in, and in the meantime, you may have decided to go play something else. You might just decide that defense ruins the game.

If I don't get you to play a few games, you won't realize that there's a home field advantage (+3 BP presses per half). You won't know that there are weather effects. You won't know that there are all kinds of dramatic moments in the text events. You won't know that the team ratings really do matter. Here's an example (this is an e-mail from one of the beta testers):
I like how the personalities of the team teach you about the game. I didn't invest in Special Teams in the offseason because it seemed like the least of the Lobster's problems. Then I played a team with awesome Special Teams. 

I was ahead by ten in the fourth. They got a touchdown, onside kicked and recovered. I was able to hold them: they tied it with a 55 yard field goal. I got the ball in OT, had to punt, the punt returner got though and scored a touchdown for the win. I love that my opponent was able to win it with a masterful special teams performance.

The code doesn't force something like that to happen. It just adjusts probabilities based on ratings, and it makes it possible for outcomes like this. What I like, though, is that this was unlikely, even with a big special teams rating gap. It's not likely--it's just more likely. So a player isn't going to see it every time, or even frequently. Which, to me, means that they'll be more likely to remember if if they do.

The realization that the game has gripping, exciting moments that will keep you playing is Point B. A new player is at Point A.

The conundrum: going from point A to point B requires playing the game for X minutes. I'm not going to artificially create drama in the first game, because that's a crap approach. Anything I can do to narrow the gap between A and B, will increase sales.

Another beta tester e-mailed me about my concerns, and he said that maybe Gridiron Solitaire would be like Papers, Please: a game that some people strongly identified with, and that other people would decide wasn't for them. I don't think that would be a bad outcome.

I still have some time, though, to try to thread the the needle for a better outcome.

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