This is a bit of a vent. Or a rant. Either way you have been warned.
The past week, especially the last couple of days have been a bit rough. As I have gotten to a point where a bunch of features are complete and I want to get ready for some sort of alpha, I hit the reality that this is not a game, let alone a fun game. There are traces of it, but I’m not there; not by a long shot.
I did a whole lot work around fixing bugs, tweaks here and there to things that was really bogging down the game play, and also some major improvements to the UI. But the problems continue and have made me think more deeply about the whole thing. In my mind there are 3 major issues. Here they are from least to most important.
The Art and UI
I put this first, knowing that it’s certainly the least important issue. Nevertheless all the programmer art, lack of animations, poorly presented and sized UI, awful fonts and colors; all of these are getting to me and are hard to look past. Add to it the fact that I’m constantly questioning whether or not I should put up a screenshot from something I spent a bunch of time, because it looks so awful and can turn more people away. It kills the joy of sharing. I definitely envy indies that have an artist core member.
I think a lot of the issues with the game have to do with bubbling up the right information and helping the player focus on things. There are a lot of information that the player needs to focus on at any given time in Startup Freak. The core is the tasks you have to “Level Up” in each of the four areas: Development, Design, Sales and Marketing, and Operations. Beyond that you need to keep an eye on emails (game events), employees, the market radar, and company stats.
Even though you can get to all these data points easily enough, something about it doesn’t quite seem right. It’s hard to tell what you need to focus on next. You run a sprint and it feels like nothing happened. Then you have to check various views to try and see what actually occurred and where you need to go next. There is no central sense of progress.
I have done a couple of things to help with that, including a new way to present progression of tasks, as well as a HUD for those tasks. This has helped, but still not quite enough.
I have also made some buttons (such as mailbox) do a throbbing color animation to bring attention to themselves when something needs to be done there.
Mini Goals and Progression
This is by far the biggest issue. I have been studying videos of Game Dev Tycoon and some other simulations. What they excel at is setting up a small game loop that just repeats over and over (with bells and whistles added over time). This makes it very easy for the player to focus on something tangible in the short term.
Adding the product launch checklist was great but once you have launched the product there aren’t any other milestones. You have access to all tasks and all items (I plan to have certain unlockable things like infrastructure or certain stat screens). Basically the goal is to increase revenue/profit/company size. I don’t think that’s going to be quite enough.
What I kind of fear is that I need to go towards a multiple product system like many other business sim games (something I really wanted to avoid because most software startups don’t work that way. They have one or two core products). That makes it much easier to naturally fit in mini goals. But yeah, that’s a last resort.
What Am I Going to Do About It?
As frustrated I am right now, it actually makes me more keen to push forward. I do worry about timelines (I wanted to finish the game in a 8-10 month period. I’m 4 months in at this point). There are a couple of things I can do:
- Keep working on the current feature set and tweak/bug fix and see if can “find the fun”, keeping in mind the last 2 points above.
- Find some professional local game designers and see if I can sit down with them and get some in-depth feedback. It so happens that, among other great developers, the creators of Game Dev Tycoon are nearby!
- Push forward with an pre-alpha release and see if I can get any meaningful feedback from players. I tread very carefully here because I could easily get a bunch of feedback that is actually distracting from the real problems. We’ll see.
Still not going to pay for art until I’m sure I’m holding a fun game.