Recently we’ve reflected on the journey of designing and developing Pulled into Darkness and we realized that a lot (if not all) of the success we’ve been having is directly related to playtester feedback. That may sound obvious, but in our case the feedback implemented didn’t require any refining. The playtesters told us how they’d like to see the game change, we did it, and it worked basically flawlessly. In retrospect though, it wasn’t just a matter of waiting for the right suggestion to come up to fix our game, as we had received feedback on these subjects many times before. We had tried the suggestions, it didn’t work and we moved on. What was new to us was realizing that every time after trying the first few implementations that didn’t work we no longer took the feedback into consideration as much as we should of. Furthermore, although we may have tried a few implementations of the suggestions we received, we stopped working at it relatively quickly and were complacent in the fact that it could not work nor was it a match for the style of game we were making. This was all despite the fact that we continued to get suggestions regarding these same topics over and over again.
So this week we’re going to go over these mistakes in the hopes that they will help designers who may have also fallen into this trap. We’ll also give some information on the results of actually properly implementing playtester ideas, and give credit where credit is due; to the playtesters (who after all are usually right). But before we can give praise and reflect more on what we should have done, we’ll need to go over what we did wrong in implementing playtesters’ ideas/feedback in the categories of Special Powers, and Scoring and End Game Trigger for Pulled into Darkness.
From the game’s inception and earliest playtests, players wanted special powers. Personally, we didn’t think special powers belonged in the game as we designed it with simplicity in mind. However, playtesters consistently asked for space/sci-fi themed special powers so we decided to give it a try.
Our first implementation of unique special powers was the use of a separate card to be played on a single spaceship when it was (hopefully) most beneficial to the player. This implementation made the special powers practically useless and a distraction from the game for a few reasons. To start, each unique power was better at different stages of gameplay; for instance “Lasers”, which allowed you to shoot down a spaceship beside you, was usually best at the start of a round; whereas “Worm Hole”, which allowed you to teleport from one space to another, was much better in the middle of a round. For this reason, we weren’t sure when they should be allowed to be played without restricting player agency too much.
To try and solve this problem we restricted the special power to a designated captain ship, doing so lead to a larger problem of once the captain ships were removed from the game (which could happen suddenly and unexpectedly) you could no longer use your special power. This only lead to more player frustration and solidified in our minds that special powers didn’t belong in our game.
From that point on, when we received feedback regarding adding special powers we usually responded with we tried it and it didn’t work. Months later after consistently receiving feedback that special powers would be a cool addition, we started to question whether or not there was a way to implement them that wouldn’t ruin the game. After a suggestion from Peter Hayward, we decided to give it another try by adding two one-time use cards that could be used in place of a standard command card. These cards allowed a player to move first (instead of simultaneously with everyone else) and knock down any spaceship they ran into, which was a common special power suggestion. The result was the game gained a new level of strategy and more meaningful choices without a finicky system to resolve those new cards.
Originally, Pulled into Darkness ended when there was one player left with multiple spaceships orbiting the black hole (who was declared the winner). Although this model was somewhat focused around player elimination, we thought we were okay because the game was relatively short (about 30 minutes). However, players (particularly those who were game designers) were not so happy with it. They also didn’t like how near the end of the game when there’s less spaceships that the level of excitement drops off dramatically and that the “Down” card (which forced you closer to the black hole and your ultimate doom) was frustrating and unnecessary. Based on feedback, we decided to try scoring to make it a little more interesting for players who only had one spaceship. Once again though, we implemented this idea poorly.
Our first implementation included a scoring system where the further away from the black hole your spaceship was the more points you got, but we kept the same end game trigger of there being only one player with multiple spaceships on the board. It was quickly realized that this type of scoring system only made the problem of players not wanting to play their “Down” card more prominent, so we reversed the scoring so that the closer you were to the black hole the more points you got. However, keeping the end game trigger ensured that the game still fell flat. There still wasn’t enough going on at the end of the game so the scoring system seemed arbitrary and just didn’t feel right. So once again, we reverted back to the previous version and each time the scoring suggestion came up we basically shot it down with, “We tried that and it didn’t work”.
Just like the special powers suggestion, the scoring suggestion came up many more times and it wasn’t until months later that we decided we were willing to give it another try. I brought the game to Protospiel Michigan where the scoring suggestion came up and once again I told the playtesters it didn’t work out. The next suggestion was to try it with a new end game trigger, which for some reason we never thought of trying. We then played a game where it ended when a majority of the spaceships had been removed from the board and you scored more points the closer you were to the black hole. Doing so made the gameplay a lot better and this was without the one-time use special power cards (which were actually added later).
As I playtested it throughout the rest of the weekend, we started to receive comments that people wanted to buy the game without us even having to ask and were told at the Snakes and Lattes Designers Night to look for a publisher. When we did add the one-time use special power cards, it only made the game that much better and increased the number of playtesters who thought the game was publishable.
We’ve previously discussed listening to playtesters and making sure to apply feedback, especially if it keeps coming up. However, we never really discussed in detail the idea that if you apply that feedback and it didn’t work that maybe it wasn’t because it was bad feedback, but that your implementation was poor. Reflecting on our journey with Pulled into Darkness we realized that we failed to implement feedback properly in the above mentioned areas and then didn’t continue to work on figuring out a way that would work. Our thought was that we applied the feedback the way it was presented to us and it didn’t work so we’ve done our job.
We wrongly assumed that anyone who was suggesting the same kind of idea after the fact didn’t understand the logistics of applying the feedback or wanted the game to be something that it is not (which sometimes is the case). The work that we should have been doing to make those suggestions work ended up being done by our playtesters (which we’re very grateful for) despite it not being their responsibility. Looking back, we realize that this reflects poorly on us designers and is something we will be aiming to fix to make our games and our game design knowledge even better. Once again, we are very thankful and grateful to the playtesters who initially tried to tell us to try new things and helped us implement those ideas so that we have a game that is publish ready. We couldn’t have done it without you.
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