Kempt Games Development Diary: What happens when you let gamers decide your gameplay mechanic?
My last diary entry left things on something of a high. To recap, I introduced you to Bar Fight Live, a crowd-sourced, crowd-funded iOS game that we're developing live on the App Store.
In the article I described the successful launch, the excitement generated by the app and the enthusiastic first feedback.
While Bar Fight Live is still warmly received, we've since experienced a few bumps in the road. In fact, if this entry was a sequel we're probably talking Empire Strikes Back
To summarise where we left off, the first version of the app contained no gameplay; it was really just a pitch to the user plus a crucial piece of functionality a vote. This asked users to decide what gameplay mechanic they would like to see in Bar Fight Live.
Option 1 - Touch-based fighting (swipe to attack etc)
Option 2 - Turn-based strategy (choose targets, type of attack)
Option 3 - Arcade melée combat (Gauntlet-esque)
The winner, with nearly two-thirds of the vote, was 'Option 1 - Touch-based fighting'.
"Blimey," we thought, our minds turning to some of the sludgy gesture-based experiences on the App Store, "We wouldn't have picked that one."
Having considered either of the other two options a more likely bet, the users had delivered us a first surprise. Little did we know, bigger surprises were to follow.
With such a resounding mandate from the user base we set about creating a touch-based gameplay prototype to be delivered in the next update of Bar Fight Live.
We began by sketching out a top-down format and carrying this hand-drawn black & white aesthetic into the game. This had the advantage of being quick to iterate and full of character while also telling the user that it was just work in progress.
This simple visual approach also had the benefit of clarity: the next user vote would ask for feedback on how successful the controls were so it was important that the prototype could demonstrate a very direct cause and effect.
When prototyping the touch controls we drew on the experience of our very first iOS game, a puzzle platformer called NinjaTrials. Early versions of that game relied heavily on swipes and gestures, which allowed the character to pull off a wide range of jumps.
However, after a few rounds of user testing we saw that most users didn't 'get' the variety of controls on a first play of NinjaTrials.
A possible solution would have been to walk the user through an in-depth tutorial but it was clear to us that we had controls that were too complex for fun, snackable gameplay.
So we scaled them back, allowing the game to be played in its majority with simple taps while retaining swipes for more advanced gamers. We applied this learning to the Bar Fight prototype, which of course wouldn't have the benefit of any lengthy introduction or back story.
Gameplay, therefore, was simple but with a strategic element.
The Stunt Guy character is placed in the middle of a bar full of thugs (about 20 of them) and the player can defeat them using either a simple input (a straight swipe in the thug's direction) or a more advanced 360-degree roundhouse kick (triggered by a circular gesture) that hits any foe in range.
The strategy comes in knowing when to strike and when to run, taking advantage of the furniture in the bar.
We bundled up our completed prototype with a new vote "What do you think of the demo's touch controls?" and submitted it to the App Store with our fingers crossed.
A change of direction
As soon as users could get their hands on the prototype the votes started to come in. The results gave us our second, bigger surprise. We asked:
"What do you think of the demo's touch controls?"
They responded like this:
Option 1: Just right (same again in the next update) 5.7 percent
Option 2: Getting there (I'd like to see the controls develop more) 45.7 percent
Option 3: Try again (I don't get on with them and would like to see an alternative) 48.6 percent
And we responded with well, quite a few expletives!
Clearly this wasn't how we'd planned things. First of all, only a small proportion of our users were totally happy with the controls (which, considering it was an early demo might be expected).
However, the biggest proportion didn't get on with the controls at all and wanted to see an alternative instead essentially we were being sent back to the drawing board!
What to do? We'd already spent a significant amount of time following this route and were now being asked to start again from scratch. One possibility was to take the view that a small majority (combining the votes from Options 1 & 2) would actually support us carrying on along the same route.
However, after some robust debate (and a few more expletives) we decided that would be too much of a fudge. Option 3 was the winner (albeit narrowly) and so we'd just have to accept it. As our MD Chris Kempt put it:
"Unfortunately clients sometimes tell you things you don't want to hear. In this project the users are our clients, so while we might prefer to just plough ahead with our vision, if they tell us to change direction we owe it to them for the faith shown in the project to do just that.
"Sometimes life gives you lemons, so why not put a slice in a rum & coke and get on with it?"
And so we started again.
To find out more about Bar Fight Live, visit the game's website or download the app.
Pocket Gamer Connects Helsinki 2015 on 7-8 Sept.