Friday, December 16, 2011

A casual gamer in a hardcore world - Part 1

Maybe the title isn't exactly what I'm going for, but close enough. Since I'm planning to have a game that's landing in a genre traditionally considered somewhat hardcore, I wanted to get opinions from someone who's not familiar with this type of gameplay.

I put the task to my fiancee (whose only gaming experience is World of Warcraft), and set up a copy of Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow for her to play. In my opinion, it's a fairly accessible example of the Metroidvania style, but I was about to learn what player-friendly really means… I should point out that I have a lot of information at hand, so I'll be spreading it out over multiple posts so this one doesn't run on forever.
Soul Trade isn't explained in-game at all...
I want to preface this by saying that besides explaining how the various buttons work on the controller, I tried as hard as possible not to interfere, tell her where to go or what to do. I wanted to hear her untainted feedback about a game that can be rather unforgiving. Don't worry, there's some good in with the bad. Let's begin, shall we?

The first thing I noticed when she started up the game was that the screen where you get to start a new game was not very intuitive. Before you could choose "New Game" there was a menu screen where you can choose from the options "Select Data", "Copy Data", "Erase Data" - it doesn't take long to figure this out, but it can easily make the player feel like they fell into some data management nightmare by mistake. Maybe the New Game option is back on the main menu, she thought, and went back to it.

During the opening cutscene, there was a part where the player's character is about to be attacked. She told me she pressed the attack button in response to the enemy coming in to attack. This means the cutscene did a great job of capturing her attention and even bringing on a little intensity.

When I asked her about it, she said she wasn't very interested in the opening dialog, although it may have been mostly due to the fact that she wanted to jump in and start playing. She did tell me that she tried to pay enough attention to characters being introduced so she hopefully wouldn't be confused later.

Doesn't this make you want to fight back?
The lack of in-game tutorials really hurt the starting experience for her, I had to explain how the special attack abilities worked, like what button combo used them, and how they cost mana (and how mana recovers over time or from collecting hearts from breaking candlesticks), which really added a whole new level of strategy to combat. I know the game comes with a manual, but game designers shouldn't rely on expecting every player to have read it before turning on the game for the first time.

There were some issues that came up that could be better described as classic game conventions, so I won't chalk those up to being faults of the game. Things like not understanding that the enemies hurt the player on contact, or that opening the menu pauses the game, or how to know that your character can't attack again while the attack animation is still playing. It's still worth noting that, while rare almost by definition, there may be some people playing that don't know these rules, and it's probably ok to quickly explain the basics if it's done in an in-game manual or something.

In conclusion, I'd like to point out that these issues came up in just the first few minutes of playing, which can be a crucial time period to get new players interested in the game. Especially with demos and Let's Play videos being so prevalent, it's important to make sure those first impressions count as much as possible. Stay tuned, next time we'll talk about getting into dangerous territory with various enemies and unexpected situations like not knowing whether or not the player character can swim.

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