July 20th, 10:17 a.m. Manchester, UK
As 3D People work flat out to push Kult: Heretic Kingdoms from Beta to Master in the next few weeks, it falls once again upon a member of the International Hobo team to keep the outside world updated on the project. This time, it’s Chris Bateman (or “me” as, like Julie Andrews, I call myself). I’ve been the surrogate lead designer and script writer on this project, and as such have become quite attached to it.
Contrary to popular belief (at least if online discussion forums are to be believed), it is not easy to design a great game. The chief barrier to this goal is not budget (although commercial reality must apply to any professional game project) but the huge diversity of tastes and opinions in the gaming audience. There is no single game that you could get everyone to agree upon as the best game ever, and as GameFAQs polls demonstrate, if you try, you end up pointing to whichever games have the largest cult following since block voting tends to dominate a largely fractured set of opinions.
This week, one of the chief tasks on the game from our side has been dealing with the blind testing reports. That is to say, reading through transcripts of people playing the game for the first time to see what their responses were. This often overlooked process is vital, as once you have worked on a game for six months or more you no longer have the capacity to look objectively at the game – you are too close to the game, you know the mechanics too well, and that makes it hard to assess things such as the learning curve of the game.
Because Kult: Heretic Kingdoms tries to be a little different in a few areas of its design whilst still remaining at heart a simple-to-use hack and slash RPG, we definitely have issues with the learning curve. Certain players pick up the Attunement system quickly, and are immediately selecting their weapons and equipment with an eye to maximising their preferred strategies… less experienced players are getting to grips with the basics of combat much later, and therefore not really understanding the Attunement system.
We’ve been using the blind testing reports to help construct the load hints for the game – a process requiring a great deal of care and attention. In the absence of a formal training stage in the game, and in the sure knowledge that most players will not even look at the manual unless they get stuck, the load hints need to gradually introduce the player to any concept they might have missed – and despite what so-called “common sense” tells you, even the smartest players can miss what appears to be obvious. It’s just the nature of being human.
The loading hint puzzle has been complicated by several other factors – the fact that some locations load so fast that you can’t fit in a hint of more than a few words, for instance, and the fact that you want to get certain information to the player but you only get one tip per location in the schema we are using. This has led to the whole team striving to find ways to reorganise the sequence of load hints to give us the best chance of delivering the information that certain players will need at as close to the best time as is possible.
As a professional game designer who has been making games now for pretty much my whole life, I can confidently assert that it’s these little corners of a game project that the public as a whole are fairly oblivious to. Do poorly, and you might get criticised, but do well and nobody is likely to notice.
The other side of that coin is trying to make sure that you don’t spend too much time trying to fix problems that a minority of players are actually going to experience. When you’ve racked up over a hundred hours of play time on a game that hasn’t even been released, you can be oversensitive to issues that simply won’t matter to a player who is playing the game for the first time.
On the whole, I think that Kult: Heretic Kingdoms will go down well with players who like a good, original fantasy story set in an interesting world (no elves and dwarves here!) and with a combat mechanic which is on the one hand simplistic and on the other subtly complex, provided one takes the time to learn how to use it. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I hope it will appeal to a lot of the RPG fans who are complaining that no-one is making games for them any more.
Managing Director & Creative Overlord, International Hobo Ltd.
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