Saturday, August 7, 2010

Opac's Journey GAME DESIGN Postmortem

Ophidian Wars: Opac's Journey has been "on the shelves" for about 20 days now which in XBLIG terms actually makes it mature (arguably dead actually, maybe on life support).   The game definitely met our hopes/expectations but I am going to do a separate postmortem on the sales/marketing aspect (aimed more at devs). I wanted to have a look back at Opac's Journey purely as a game without the numbers muddying everything up.  

There's so much to consider, especially in hindsight, but I am going to try to keep this concise.


Box Art:   Throughout development and post-release, we heard almost nothing but good things about the shadowy Opac reaching upwards on the box cover.   This without a doubt helped it stand out and create interest.

Retro Look:  It's not quite the 8-bit look that seems to appeal to sizable subset of gamers, but Opac's Journey still has oldschool flavor.  For better/worse, immediate comparisons were drawn to "Metroidvania" style games - while this look was semi-intentional and that was a huge compliment, I wonder if it potentially created some false expectations of the gameplay.  Either way the combination of nice box art with retro screenshots/graphics was a big positive.

Music/Mood/Story:  The majority of feedback from players and reviews was that the moody tone backed by a narrative (and further backed by a much larger gameworld) was appealing and worth the extra effort, even if some didn't bother with it.

RPG Elements:  The same subset of gamers who value a story, also tend to love RPG elements.  While we probably didn't appeal as much to puzzle-platformer and action-platformer fans as much, we hit one out of the park for those who like exploratory-platformers.   The inclusion of upgrades and abilities (character progression) is time-consuming from a design and programming standpoint, but it was worth every second.

Controls: Outside of some complaints about the vertical size of the bounding box (which leads to "head-bonking" in tight spaces), we gathered that overall people were happy with the controls.  For me this is one of those categories in which "no feedback is good feedback" because that means the player noticed few-to-zero frustrations while moving around the world.   I've seen many other indie platformers fail on the first couple of jumps, and it's rare that the controls are perfect for everyone, so I feel as though we did well here.


It's not Metroid:  We saw tons of comparisons to one of my favorite games of all time, Metroid.   That's cool as shit.  The problem is, Metroid can never be dethroned (except maybe by Super Metroid) and getting held under the shadow of a timeless classic is never going to turn out well for the first time indie developer on a shoestring budget.  So in this respect we let some people down and gave reviewers a free hit.   "No combat?!" 

Borrrr-ing:  Related to the above point, players have expectations and if you don't meet them, some will dismiss the whole bag-o-donuts as a fail.   Those who like action-based platformers were quickly let down when a game which appears to be fierce on the surface, is actually more calm and exploratory.  This was probably a design oversight.  Opac appears too cool to not be kicking someone's buttocks, and the game has "Wars" in the title (that's the saga's name peoples!).   Also, while a good deal of content (upgrades, collectibles, puzzles, etc) is contained in the Journey, it would have bunch wise to include more in the first 5 minutes.  The game builds to a climax, and I fear some never made it there.

Game Name: "Who's Opac and what the heck is he?"  Good question, I made him up.  This little issue was something I was prepared for but had no intention of changing and remain stubborn on it.   The problem is, by naming our game something totally unknown/obscure, we failed to tap into any familiar veins.  No ninjas, no avatars, no farting, no massages, no aliens, no robots.  By unveiling a unique IP, we succeeded in peaking the interest of a [totally kickass] keen minority, but probably were overlooked by a general audience wondering why the title was so long and where the zombies were hiding.  Here's hoping for a long term investment.

Length:  We missed the mark somewhere here.  The game was about 60-90 minutes for most players which was intentional but something must be missing if that didn't sit right with reviewers.  It was too short for some, and too long for others who were taking their time (see "Ugly").  


No Saves:  Like a ten-ton boulder swinging into our groin region, we quickly learned that players sorely missed any sort of permanent save system.   Because this feedback hit so quickly and publicly, it seemed to snowball.  Checkpoints exist in the game, but you can't shut the game off and come back to where you left things.  Big issue, we found out.

This was a classic mistake of assuming your audience is just like you and knows what you know.   The fact is, for me, 60 minutes is a short gaming session for me, but not everyone.   Even more problematic was that while we knew the game was about an hour, players are never told this (that would be an odd thing to lead in with).  So players could be 55 minutes in and 5 minutes from winning, and have to go eat some grub - then come back and..."oh crap, screw this."  Lesson learned, big time.