“People in glass houses sink ships.”
There’s a pattern of behavior familiar to many creators. People rarely read, listen, or pay attention. Sometimes it’s their fault. Sometimes it’s the creators’. Usually it’s a combination of both.
My game Steam Marines recently launched on Steam Early Access. It quickly became apparent that some people never took the time to play the tutorial, look up keybindings, or even look at the F.A.Q. Some went so far as to go to the discussion board, ignore the answers, and simply fire off a post asking answered questions. Others went further still and posted misinformation, unaware that the correct information was a few posts above.
Throw in the fact that people love to argue and you can see the problem.
“Don’t cross the road if you can’t get out of the kitchen.”
I don’t like hand holding in games. I avoid tutorials, go straight for the hardest difficulty, and mod for extra difficulty. But that seems to be unusual behavior, and I don’t hassle the developers if I can’t figure something out. It’s part of the challenge mindset.
Steam Marines is peculiar to most people. There’s a quote from an Indie Games AAA podcast that I love:
“There are a lot of tactics. It’s such a brutal game and it makes it even more brutal that you didn’t realize how brutal it is when you start. Then you realize you died because you made one, literally one, wrong move.”
– Joe, Mandate Radio
I wasn’t there when Joe first started playing Steam Marines, but I’m willing to bet that when he first started the game (he played a build prior to a tutorial being implemented) he was a bit befuddled. When I personally observe people first play that’s usually how it is.
But, if you pay attention as you play, certain patterns will emerge. Oh, I shouldn’t have done that. Oh, I should have done that two moves ago! Oh, if I do this and that the AI will probably move here and that’s bad so let’s instead… et cetera.
It’s not really like peeling back layers. That’s how a lot of people like to describe tactical/strategy games. Peeling layers suggests you discard said layers as more are exposed. It’s really more like unfolding a map.
“What the fuck were you gonna do, laugh the last three to death, Funny-Man?”
I hate trying to convey complex information in a game. I hate it when games try to do it to me, too. Give me the basic tools and then treat me like an intelligent human being, dammit!
Explaining complex systems robs the player of discovering it personally. It also establishes a de facto rule. That rule is “Don’t worry, if something confuses you we’ll explain it.” If you don’t deliver then you’ve broken an implicit promise to the player. If you do deliver then your’re encouraging pigeonholed playstyles, assuming your game allows for diverse playstyles.
Give the players basic tools. Give them basic parameters for how the world operates. Let those tools and parameters interact. Let the players loose.
“We could kill EVERYONE.”
I like to think Steam Marines gives just enough information to progress before slamming on the brakes. Default movement keys are arrows on a keyboard. Tab or clicking on marines selects squad members. Tooltips give you general knowledge like “Hey, this marine can shoot X tiles!” or “This item does Y!”
It doesn’t tell you that your Leader class marine can throw a grenade to blow a hole in the deck of the ship then use a shotgun to knock enemies into space. It doesn’t tell you that flanking automatically turns units toward the source of damage which can be important for positional play. It doesn’t tell you a lot.
It sure as hell does not tell you that Steam Marines hates your guts and wants to murder your face. It’s colorful. Enemy units bounce up and down – some might call them cute. How can these little guys hurt you? Because I made them hit really hard in the code you can’t see, that’s how.
“Ah, shit! I forgot about that one! Nine! Nine?”
By now I should have referenced the title of this post. Don’t tell players all the possibilities you’ve created with your mechanics. Let them emerge from player experiences. Keep your mouth shut in-game.
Outside the game you don’t have to be as coy. “Gosh, that Revenant spawns minions in all adjacent tiles whenever you smack him! I wonder what would happen if…!” Light bulbs. Experimentation. You want this to happen within your community.
But what about all those people who don’t read, listen, or pay attention? If Steam Marines is so good why do you have all those people that ignore what you say? One has to start somewhere. I say we start sooner rather than later. Maybe some of that lateral thinking will spill over.
At any rate building a community is something of a game. And I think what I’m doing is working. Emails of people regaling me with stories of their epic failures, and their joyous successes, is really something.
Thanks for reading,