Hey everybody, it’s Frank! I just got back from a trip to Washington D.C. for AwesomeCon 2017, a comic convention that’s expanding its selection of gaming exhibits. We were invited by the wonderful team that hosts the MAGFest Indie Videogame Showcase to take part in their giant indie booth – thanks to Lexi Urell and her team for allowing us to take part in such an awesome con!
Why Did Frank Go To AwesomeCon?
That’s kind of a weird question, right? Is there ever a reason not to go to a convention? Besides, we were invited! Do you even need to ask?
Now that the Game Revenant official coffers are looking a little emptier, it’s important to evaluate every large expense. Travel is certainly one of them. While I’d love to go to every show on planet Earth that’s even remotely related to gaming, we don’t have that kind of cash to spend. Besides that, there’s the time cost involved. If I’m standing at a table showing off Where Shadows Slumber for 3 days straight, that’s 3 days I’m not spending doing animations or environment art for the game. Was it worth it?
We decided that the best way to get a return-on-investment for our time and money was to focus on one very specific thing during AwesomeCon 2017 – testing. Conventions are a great way to show your game to a lot of people. It may seem like this is purely a marketing activity where indies promote their game, but that’s a shallow view of what conventions can do for you. When you’re given the opportunity to sit down with nearly 100 people and focus on your game, that’s a great time to ask them critical questions about your work and get their honest feedback.
So before I left, Jack created a build of our Where Shadows Slumber alpha that had all 17 of our test Levels in it, along with a basic menu for easy navigation. I resolved to show this early alpha to as many people as possible, with a specific focus on these key issues:
- If I don’t tell Players how to play the game, what will they do?
- What do Players think of the first three Levels, which are meant as a tutorial?
- How far will Players go before they get stuck or bored?
My Testing Procedure This Time Around
As you test your game at a convention, you begin to find a consistent testing method that works. Halfway through the first day (Friday), I had a pitch ready to go once people sat down at the Where Shadows Slumber table.
I was really straightforward with people. I told them that I wasn’t going to teach them how to play because I wanted to see how they performed on their own. (No one seemed to mind!) Then I told them that they could ask me questions if they got really stuck. I told them that the game’s artwork was a placeholder. The only information they were allowed to know was that it was a puzzle game called Where Shadows Slumber. With that, I just watched them play through Level 0-1 and noted their progress. This pitch accomplished a few key things.
This Is Only A Test: Setting up expectations right away is key. By telling people that the game is being tested (and not them) it put them in the proper mindset. They weren’t here to be entertained – they were here to break the game if possible, and try to beat it. I think that increased people’s enjoyment actually, and definitely led to finding some serious bugs.
Ask Me Questions: Getting people to talk while they play is really hard, but it’s very important. You can only glean so much from watching people. I didn’t give anyone that much information, but allowing them to ask questions is helpful. After all, if they ask a question, it means they don’t understand something. That “something” is what Jack and I have to go back and add to our tutorial.
Don’t Tell Me The Art Sucks: It’s important that you tell people what you don’t want to hear. Setting up this expectation decreased the amount of people who would complain about the art. Seeing this alpha next to screenshots of our beautiful demo was probably a bit jarring, but once I explained it to testers it wasn’t an issue anymore. When you’re testing, you don’t have much time with each person so you need to make it count. Make sure that people know what you already know, so they focus on different issues.
To my surprise, people loved the alpha! I only say I am surprised because this is the first time I’ve seen people play it with my own eyes. And although the artwork is all just placeholders and the Levels are brand new, people gave it glowing reviews:
Having said that, not everything is sunshine and rainbows. We found a few bugs over the weekend, and there are some Levels that may need to be redesigned or cut from the game entirely. Here are all my notes from AwesomeCon 2017:
- People don’t realize they can’t drag something if the Player is in the way. Draggable objects should smack into the protagonist to give them feedback on this matter.
- Someone suggested a mechanic where torches (lights) are only on for a fixed amount of time before they shut off.
- Someone requested a Reset button (which our demo has, but the alpha does not – even though you can just re-select the current Level from the menu).
- MAJOR ISSUE: People didn’t realize they could drag red objects. Many suggested that they “shimmer” when they are dormant to encourage dragging. Perhaps there should be a handle on the Draggable object to indicate that it is interactive, and show the direction it moves. They should glow when they are being dragged as well.
- Someone suggested a UI indicator that shows how a Draggable moves, since some objects rotate but others slide across the floor.
- When the Player is following closely behind a Walker, he stutters and stops, producing an awkward floating animation.
- The protagonist’s light should grow out from him and stop at the predetermined radius needed to solve this Level.
- MAJOR ISSUE: Every single Player (with few exceptions) dragged-to-move if I didn’t tell them the controls. Our game is tap-to-move, so dragging is not an optimal way to play. People assume the controls are bad, but they’re just doing it wrong. Without a way to correct them, they make it harder on themselves.
- Someone suggested charting a path (like in StarCraft) when you drag-to-move, a possible solution to those who find that way more comfortable. This would basically be like connecting the dots between every space you dragged over.
- IDEA FOR A LEVEL: Level 1-3’s “Lock”, but the Light Switches are connected to some of the Rotating Draggable blocks.
- MAJOR ISSUE: People tried to drag the purple blocks, but couldn’t. This stopped them from trying things in the future.
- Glyphs are really just buttons that can be pressed infinite times, right?
- Draggable Light Switches need to be turned off when they’re off. They still appear on, which is impairing people’s understanding of the light mechanic.
- The age when players seem able to understand the game is 12 – younger children could trudge through it by trial and error, but with limited understanding.
- MAJOR ISSUE: “Why is there a shadow?” People do not realize the main character has a lantern with a massive radius and it’s the only light in the scene. This is understandable because our game is super weird. We need to find a way to show this constantly, or they’ll think the shadows have a mind of their own.
- Someone suggested a mechanic where the main character’s lantern is a spotlight, instead of a point light, for a few Levels.
- Someone suggested a mechanic where the main character can lower their lantern’s light radius and then reset it, for a few Levels.
- A businesswoman with knowledge of the Indian market suggested that we lower the price from $5 for that particular market. She felt strongly that Indian mobile gamers wanted free games or something much cheaper.
Here are my notes that are specific to each Level in the alpha.
Level 0-1, Fallen
There’s a bug in this level where there bridge (which should fall after you press a trigger) stays exactly where it is. Players who drag-to-move skip right over the trigger, and they never trigger the bridge sequence, so basically they miss the puzzle.
The Draggable box on this level doesn’t have much weight to it. People fling it around like crazy. They also really want to drag it down (onto the dirt path), up (onto the dirt path), or onto the bridge to drop it into the water as a makeshift bridge. None of that is possible but there’s no feedback for that and they don’t know how shadows work yet so it doesn’t register.
Half of the people who play this Level don’t quite understand that the shadow makes the bridge appear.
It’s possible to walk past the Goal Space, and go to a spot on the Level that is beyond the door.
This level is not idiot-proof, like the first Level in our demo.
I think this is our weakest Level. I suggest cutting it and replacing it with a walking tutorial similar to the first Level in the demo. This Level is just throwing way too much at Players all at once.
Level 0-2, Bridge
An excellent Level. This serves as a perfect introduction to 3 key mechanics: walking, shadow revelation, and dragging.
The Rotatable bridges here should probably wobble after a while to indicate they can be dragged. I can also make a circular pivot point in the center, cut into the stone. That would be a good indication that these are on a swivel.
Draggables can also have parts on them that suck in when Players hold them down. Having parts of the stone depress inward is a good sign that you’re controlling the object with your finger.
Level 0-3, Monolith
This Level is perfect teaching. It’s a great gateway – you will never beat this if you do not understand how shadows work in our game.
“The purple box moved!” We need to make sure people don’t think the shadows merely move things. They make things appear and disappear… the visual style of the purple box makes it seem like it’s jumping around.
Why can’t Players make the farthest purple block appear if they are standing all the way at the entrance of the Level?
The Draggable Block here should be on some kind of a flagpole so that the vertical movement appears to be a natural fit to Players. (Many tried to move it horizontally.)
Level 1-1, Recovery
The name of this Level ought to be “Protection” or even just “Light”.
Why is the Light Switch casting a shadow? Does that shadow do anything? That may be a visual error.
Level 1-2, Detour
This Level can be broken to make both Goal Spaces appear at the same time. Players usually move the Draggable Block back and forth so rapidly that it causes both to be visible. However, the fake Goal Space does not work. If we can’t fix this bug… we should make it work! Why not reward Players for their trickery?
If there was a Light Switch near the space where the Goal Space is revealed, this Level would be a bit harder. You’d have to make sure the Light Switch was off. That may make it more interesting for the Players who figure it out in two seconds – and it keeps the World’s atmosphere consistent, since we use a lot of lights here.
The shadow needs to change more of the Level when it swipes across the screen, to give Players a clue that something weird is going on.
There ought to be two Shadow Eyes on the Draggable Block.
Level 1-3, Lock
Let’s make the sides of the Rotating Blocks sloped here, or at least spiked. People consistently try to walk on the sides of them when they are down, but that would break the Lights. It must appear unwalkable.
Level 1-4, Pressure
Extremely hard Level. That’s a good thing to have at this point in the game.
“I didn’t know I could stand on the box and rotate it.” Are we being consistent with when Players can do this and when they cannot?
How will Shadow Eyes work here? How can we align them with the object they are changing?
Someone found a bug where both buttons were pressed and they beat the Level, but they could not walk on the green path. (This is a soft crash I guess, since the Level is broken but the game still works fine.)
Level 1-5, Wolf
This Level should be renamed to something that indicates how to solve the puzzle, like “Doors” or “Black” or “Pitch”.
People don’t know they can drag these pillars.
The effect of pressing a Button here was not always obvious. I need to make an animation and we ought to have a clear sound attached to it.
On the iPhone, there was a bug where the sliding pillars could not be dragged. We had to reset the Level. I suspect Glyphs have something to do with this.
Level 2-1, Docks
Literally every tester thought the Walkers would hurt them and everyone called them “zombies”. My use of the color green was foolish!
We should start this Level with a Walker coming toward you that you can’t avoid, so people see that they aren’t bad.
People LOVE the reveal with the pillar sweeping across the Level. We should do more.
People tried to reverse the reveal and they couldn’t do that, which upset them. I think they wanted to see it more than once. When we get it set up properly, let’s consider this. It’s about consistency and Players enjoying the game for its toys rather than its puzzles.
Level 2-2, Test
We can call this Level “Elevator” or something. Maybe “Switch”, because you press a switch, but you also need to change places with the Walker.
Walkers flip around when you rotate Draggable Bridges, and this really annoys Players who are trying to guide his path. Also sometimes the Walkers float, breaking immersion.
Level 2-3, Guide
Pressed Buttons really ought to look pressed. I need to redo the art and then I’ll need help setting the states properly. We can also drain them of color once pressed.
For some reason I think buttons should be octagons. Why did I write this?
Level 2-4, Ebb
These Walkers cast a light, but they don’t have an obvious light source. I can make them holding torches, but what happened to their little light bulbs? Did I delete them?
Level 3-2, Tradeoff
The main light in this Level looks like it’s off because it’s so dark. The Player’s lantern doesn’t always need to be the brightest light in the scene! This sliding light is way more important to the mechanics of the Level. We can dim the Player’s light in favor of the other one.
Level 3-3, Anchor
Rectangles can pass through each other.
The right side Button node was briefly unwalkable, due to a multiple reality error.
After leaving a node, the state of a Button was still pressed. This made the Level unbeatable.
Level 3-4, Torus
“Is that it?” Torus looks more intimidating than it is. Can we bring up the difficulty on this one somehow? I think people are disappointed that you don’t need to find a way to navigate back and forth using the rotating segments. It is solved quite easily.
Level 3-5, Island
This Level can be broken by drag-dashing back and forth until the pillars remain upright. Then, walk into the island, the pillars lower, and you beat the puzzle without really solving anything.
It’s incredible how much insight you can get from just a few days of testing! These kind of testing moments are hard to come by, so it’s important to make the most of them. I hope you appreciated seeing how your feedback will impact the game, and this gave you an insight into what indie developers are looking for from testers.
We’ve got a lot of work cut out for us this month, so expect to see these changes reflected in my post at the end of June where I update you on the state of the game’s artwork.
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We hope you enjoyed this insight into our testing methods. Do you have any feedback for us about the game’s alpha? You can reach out to us at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, tweet at us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), message us on Facebook, leave a comment on itch.io, jump into chat on Twitch, and email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.
Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.