Before we dive into this topic we have a small announcement: today marks the end of our retrospective journals, and regular Friday updates, as we move into the big picture marketing campaign for the release of We Happy Few!
For 2.5 years we’ve been writing weekly journals, every Friday, to share the development process behind We Happy Few: what the team has been working on, why we are making the decisions we’re making, and describing the evolution of the game. Open development was the name of the game: to help Kickstarter backers (initially) and then the wider community to keep in touch, but also to help provide a behind the scenes look at how games get made.
As we approach the release of the game, things have been getting hectic here in the studio. The last few months before a launch are the busiest time for a studio, both in development and in marketing. We wound up our regular development weeklies a couple of months back, as we started focusing on bugs, and now it is time to finish up with the retrospectives as well. This will be the last regular Friday update, effectively saying goodbye to the weekly journals we’ve been posting since July 2015!
Fret not, we are not abandoning you! We are still here answering questions, chatting about the game and posting announcements. However, we will soon enter our final marketing and media campaign phase, which means among other things, a lot of traveling to meet with the press and showcase the game, and less time to write. If you don’t already know all you want to know about the history of We Happy Few , feel free to reach out! We will remain as active as ever on social media and the forums. We’ll still write the occasional blog post, as we go through the usual marketing phase most games do, but we’re also going to get started with the usual fun things like trailers, or even story and character teasers (maybe soon? ;) ).
Thank you for being here with us every week since 2015.
Tutorials: Or, why you must tailor your introductions to your audience
For the last retrospective, we will touch on the topic of tutorials!
As most of you will know, the simple concept behind tutorials is “to teach players how to play the game”. However, what this means can vary wildly, and is one of the most challenging aspects of game development, because every one of you reading plays games in different ways. Creating tutorials that teach everyone what they need to do, while not treating the player like an idiot, has been one of the biggest focuses of game development for the last 15 years, and has seen tremendous growth in the subtlety of tutorials.
A developer needs to tailor their tutorials to the game, its audience, and how you thematically want to present them. A simple game with a hardcore audience won’t need to be taught “press the D pad to move”, and can get stuck in. A more involved game, with complicated mechanics, will need much more information. And while the games vary in scope, so do your audience - someone who has played a hundred games has a very different understanding to someone who is sitting down with a controller for the first time.
One of the concepts we’ve tried to live by is to introduce what players need to know, with a little bit of flavour, but not tell them exactly what to do. To do this, we’ve been to multiple conventions (and collected information on people playing the demo), had Kickstarter and Early Access / Game Preview feedback, and run a large number of internal playtests. This field in games development is known as “User Research”, and is an important part of reducing frustration in people playing your game.
If you’ve played the early versions of We Happy Few, then you will know very well that tutorials were not on our priority list. In fact, we didn’t want any! We wanted players to learn the harsh reality of our world the hard way - through repeated failure, like all roguelikes. Our first tutorials weren’t even in the game - at PAX East 2015 we brought along controller cards showing how the controls worked, but otherwise left it up to the player. Other than that, it was all about experimentation.
However, this was short lived: we first noticed this at PAX East 2015, where a lot of players were drawn in by our art style but had never played a survival game. They became frustrated very quickly, and we realised that we would need to make changes and adapt.
A Shelter for the Player
The first issue we faced was that it’s very hard to control a tutorial when in a procedural world. It’s much easier to start somewhere controlled, so we decided to implement an introductory area.
In Arthur’s playthrough, beginning with the Kickstarter builds, the player started in a shelter - an underground area that the player was always safe in. At first we started with small pop ups giving the player tips on crafting and how to get out of the shelter. Fierce debates raged inside the team as we argued over what was too much hand holding, what was really necessary, and we decided to err on the side of caution. However, as with many debates, reality had other ideas: most of these were overlooked and dismissed by the players. We experimented with different looks and wording, but in the end realised that we would need to introduce concepts more slowly, and one by one; effectively requiring players to learn the basics in order to move forward.
As we progressed and observed players’ behavior, we created many variations of the shelter. In today’s version we have a much bigger shelter that introduces the player to combat and basic mechanics. We also tried creating small tutorial quests, but the procedural world made this difficult - new players would easily skip those (by simply not noticing them or choosing not to engage) and become frustrated later on when they didn’t know how to craft, or manage their needs. We tried small tooltips, but it turns out most players just ignore those completely - we now have a very few full screen pop ups because we had no other way to train the most important parts of the game. The good news is, these seem to be working and aren’t overly intrusive.
However, after almost 2 years of working on it, all of this just wasn’t enough. Players still didn’t understand how the stealth mechanics worked, or the combat, or how to craft items (something that is still an issue in the Early Access game). Even today, we still get tweets saying “I still have no idea what to do in this game after 2 years”. And in most cases this is because of the procedural world.
So, we bit the bullet. In the end we decided to create a custom tutorial island - the famous introductory tutorial zone that we began work on in November last year.
A Hand Made Island
The tutorial island sort of came in because of unanimous feedback of people struggling a little bit to understand how our world worked. We had received the feedback that the core mechanics were tough to grasp during Early Access, but we also began receiving feedback that players didn’t get introduced well enough to the world itself - and in particular who the wastrels were and the rules of this part of the game. It felt like their motivations were hard to understand and the world was overwhelming because of how much you had to learn quickly.
The only way to address this properly was to craft a unique island with a fixed layout, which allowed us to slow the teaching down. The good news is, this allowed us to craft the experience to not feel too much like a tutorial and more like a way to ease the player in the world and still be curious about it and wanting to know more. The custom layout allowed us to properly pace each new element we presented to the player, and give players time to get curious without being set upon by hordes of people.
Combat and Stealth
One of our big challenges was designing an area where we would teach the player combat and stealth. It was a bit difficult to satisfy everybody on that front. The art department wanted organic caves and the level designers wanted more like a bunker aesthetic that would allow us to teach players stealth more conveniently (pillars, crates, barrels are pretty easy cover options and are recognizable later on during the game because we use them everywhere). We often juggle realism versus gameplay needs and sometimes it might seem simple to come up with a level but can get very complicated.
In the end, we reworked this area constantly over a period of 4-5 months before everything finally fit into place. One advantage of this was giving us a controlled environment to also polish our mechanics - if it didn’t feel right in the tutorial island, then it probably wouldn’t feel right across the rest of the game. Both stealth and combat have undergone substantial review and improvement since the last Early Access update and we’re very happy with how they’re working!
It took many, many tries for us to get the tutorials right. The introduction to a game is crucial in setting the tone for the rest and in keeping players engaged, so if a player is frustrated in the first hour of your game, they will most likely not play the rest of it.
Likewise, something that is obvious to you or us will absolutely not be for a new player, which is why user research is so important. We learned a lot by observing playtesters, which includes many of you who streamed or recorded your first times playing - it’s a very big way that the community contributed to the game. It helps break us out of our bubble, where we are so familiar with our mechanics that sometimes we can’t see when things aren’t introduced well.
You guys will have the opportunity to experience this very soon. We appreciate many of you have been waiting a long time, and this work was a big reason why we delayed the game past April - to make sure the first two hours introduce the world well enough that you can enjoy the story for what it is without struggling to craft a lockpick. Today we are happy to announce that with are really satisfied results and we cannot wait for you to experience it.
Thank you all for reading, for contributing, and for showing us how to be better developers. We’ll see you all in Wellington Wells very soon!
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