Lately, we’ve been doing a ton of playtesting of Road Not Taken, particularly with fellow game developers. (If you’re ever looking for brutally honest feedback, other game developers are a good place to start.) In general, the feedback has been pretty positive: people love the game’s basic mechanics, art and audio. But one big issue repeatedly crept up in many of our playtests: people weren’t sensing the depth of the game and weren’t feeling a strong sense of progression. This post is all about how we’ve been fixing that.
I like to think of Road Not Taken as an iceberg floating in the ocean: a tiny percentage of the total game is visible above the surface when you first start playing, while the vast majority of the game lies unseen, waiting to be discovered. A large part of that depth comes from all the unusual creatures and objects you can encounter as you explore the enchanted forests of the game. Another large part comes from all the secret tools and boosts you can create if you know what you’re doing. (For example, if you combine the right number of red and white spirits lurking in the forest, you can create a useful magic axe.)
In our previous playtest builds, none of this was surfaced to the player. Since Road Not Taken is a roguelike, we simply expected players to assume that they would encounter different and/or more challenging objects and creatures as they progressed. And we expected players to stumble upon a few of the simpler crafting recipes in the game, and consequently realize that there must be many more recipes just waiting to be discovered. But neither of those things happened, so we realized we needed to do a better job of communicating with the player.
We’ve taken several steps to address these issues. First and foremost, we’re adding a “book of secrets” to the game, and we’re introducing it to the player during the very first mission. This book is basically a giant progress meter, in addition to being a very helpful reference guide. When you start out, it contains just a few entries, two of which are simple-but-useful crafting recipes. This unambiguously signals that crafting is something you can and should do. More importantly, the book tells you how many new objects and secrets you have yet to uncover (i.e. “2 out of 100 secrets found.”) This is an unmistakable signal to the player: you’re just getting started! Get to exploring!
There are already dozens of secret crafting recipes in Road Not Taken, in addition to dozens of forest objects and critters, and we hope to add more over time. The book of secrets is, in retrospect, an obvious way to make it all comprehensible to the player.
This sort of problem is common in game development. You build a robust system, expecting everyone to love it at first sight, and then grapple with the brutal reality that people either don’t understand the system and/or don’t understand its depth. Your tutorial might need work. (We’ve gone through at least a dozen iterations of the Road Not Taken tutorial and probably have a couple more left to go before it’s good enough!) Your metagame might be poorly surfaced. Your UI might be confusing. The list goes on and on. There’s only one cure to these illnesses, and that’s lots of playtesting, iteration and polish.
There are a bunch of other things we’re doing to give new players a clearer sense of progression. For example, one interesting thing about Road Not Taken is that your character has a maximum lifespan of 15 years, and each mission you embark upon consumes a year of your life. (This ties into one of the main themes of the game: trying to live the best possible life in the limited time you have on this Earth.) In earlier builds, we never actually informed players of their lifespan limit until they died after 15 missions. This caused new players to feel like the game was somewhat aimless at first, and later upset them when they unexpectedly kicked the bucket! So now we signal your limited lifespan in a bunch of ways. After each mission, we explicitly tell you: “X years remaining.” (14… 13… 12… etc) And NPCs comment about the passing of time. There’s a rather foreboding doctor in town who likes to make not-very-funny jokes about your dwindling lifespan. It’s hard not to get the message.
You can, of course, die before you reach your limited lifespan. This game is a roguelike, after all! We’ve found ourselves tuning the difficulty up over time as we realize that encountering a steep challenge is half of what folks like about a good roguelike (the other half is a deep sense of discovery, which this game has in spades, and which we’ve accentuated with the book of secrets that I mentioned earlier.) High difficulty and death in Road Not Taken are, in their own ways, a signal to players that this game is not going to hold your hand. You need to play carefully, and you need to learn the game’s secrets if you want to survive.
Okay, that’s all I’ve got for you today! As always, we really hope you’re enjoying these little insights into the development of Road Not Taken. If you have any questions about this post (or anything about the game in general) just leave me a comment! I’ll do my best to give you a decent answer. :-)
PS: If you’re planning to attend PAX East, we’d love to meet you! We’ll be there showing off Road Not Taken (with a playable demo!) and we’ll be giving away a beautiful free poster (see below) to everyone who plays the demo and signs up for our newsletter! Please come by, say hello, and take a free poster home with you. :-)