To listen or not to listen

So here I am again – it’s my birthday & I’m the middle of releasing a game. It’s not the first time, and I guess it won’t be the last time either.(*)

Somewhere on our servers there is C++ code of the previous Divinities in which I reflect on the practice of being in the office in the middle of the night when it’s your birthday and whether or not that is a good thing.

It makes for good stories, but I distinctly remember not being happy about it all back then. Luckily, this time there’s a difference.

I’m going home tonight, and it’s going to be at a decent hour.

And that is as it should be.

We made a movie today in which I did the tour of the office, asking developers of the Dragon Commander team about their progress.

While watching it, notice that nobody looks über-tired or stressed out, and that most in the team are actually quite positive about making their deadlines. They’re not acting, because it’s how it is.  In fact, most of the team are in their last weeks of working on Dragon Commander and are then done with their work.

Quite a contrast with the release of our previous games.

There producers were doing everything they could to find extra time, including squeezing the team to work harder and the publisher to move its deadlines. There, emergency plan followed emergency plan, with total chaos as a result. There, our creative ambitions were completely out of synch with the expectations of the  publishers, and conflict became a rule rather than an execption.

Not so this time.

Yes, there is a bit of stress and the days are longer for some in our team, but in general, the atmosphere is fairly relaxed. There’s no sense of panic, there’s nobody sleeping behind their desk and nobody has had to spend the night in the office so far.

It’s because we are self-publishing of course. We can decide for ourselves what’s best for the game but also for the people making the game, and we can balance this with the needs of the business. Quite a luxurious position to be in as a developer, I know, and one I obviously appreciate a lot.

There’s the risk that there might not be enough pressure, but I don’t think that applies here. I am stressed, I’m just not that stressed that my health suffers from it. Big difference.

We’re entering money time for Dragon Commander now and so I’ll soon discover if the development and publishing choices we made were the right ones. But of one thing I’m already sure. The fact that it was us making the choices instead of some third party, added so much to our team’s quality of life (and development output imho) that I never want to go back to the old days of publishers deciding for us. That would be stupid.

I’m 100% sure that we made many mistakes since we started our self-publishing adventure, but I’m equally sure that the lessons learnt from our errors will contribute to our future success, and so I don’t care that much about any negative output generated. As long as we keep on learning and our mistakes don’t kill us, we are making progress.

Speaking of which, today I find myself confronted with the perfect opportunity to make a mistake, one that is worthwhile sharing because it highlights what I just said.

We received feedback today from a group of journalists about what they thought of a hands-on session with a beta-version of the game. Specifically, they were asked to name three things they liked and three things they disliked. From that list a few issues got flagged, and the question now is whether or not we’ll address those issues.

We are dangerously close to release, so anything we change now is bound to have a significant impact. But of course, not intervening means that for sure those issues will pop up in reviews, and if they’re bothering the journalists, they’ll probably also bother our players. Naturally, if we continue fixing things that pop up, we’ll never release because there’s no such thing as a perfect game. So, when is enough enough ? And should we listen to the feedback we received?

Had this been one of our previous games where we were paid via milestones, the decision would already have been taken, and no changes would be made, definitely not at this stage in development. But it’s not somebody else’s decision to make this time. It’s ours, and I am happy that we get to make this type of decision.

To make it concrete, the issue at hand has to do with the difficulty, pacing and tempo of the RTS part of Dragon Commander. Several journalists think it’s too fast and too hard. That would be a simple enough thing to solve if it weren’t for that other group who thinks it’s too easy. Go figure ;)

Unfortunately it’s not something we can easily fix by introducing a gamespeed slider or balancing multiplier, so we’re either going have to make a real choice for who our primary audience is or introduce completely different sets of balancing data from which players can choose.

That obviously will impact development, because suddenly we’ll have doubled our balancing work, so it’s not a trivial thing because it means not only extra design work, but also a shitload of extra QA work.

For the purpose of my blog and my arguments pro self-publishing, whatever our choice in this is doesn’t really matter. The cool thing is that we actually can choose and that we know things like this prior to release, so we have a chance to do something about it. If we didn’t self-publish and wouldn’t have been that closely in touch with the journalists, we would never even have had this opportunity.

For the purpose of the success of my game, it of course matters a lot.

Personally, I’m no big fan of things like difficulty and gamespeed sliders and I certainly don’t want to have to put a slider on easy when playing myself. If I have to do that, I consider it bad balancing on part of the developer. It’s up to the developer to ensure that my play experience is a perfect fit. But of course I also want it to be challenging, and I want the game to be challenging without me having to put the slider on nightmare levels. If I can read a book while playing, you’ll hear me screaming about the game being dumbed down and I’ll probably stop playing it. (Yes, there’s not that many games being released nowadays that I’m happy about  and it’s not because I’m a game developer that I don’t have the same god-given right like other gamers to expect a game to be made for me only   ;) )

I’m pragmatic enough to realise that we’ll never be able to please everybody, so in all cases a certain amount of customisation needs to be present on the gameplay front. But that doesn’t remove our development responsibility of trying to come up with balancing values that feel “just right” to the majority of players who bought Dragon Commander, and in this particular case, it looks like that will not be an easy task. We might even have to revert of the horror of asking you what type of player you are when the game commences… Hmmm… TBD, that’s for sure.

Anyway, you can probably guess that I’m leaning more to do the “yes, we need to do something about it” type of decision than to the “let’s pretend everything is ok and hope for the best” alternative.

My main reason is that past experience has taught me how important  balancing changes can be for the success of a game. With Divine Divinity, the average ratings on release in Germany were around 70% whereas in the rest of the world they were above 80%. The German version was released prematurely and thus included bugs which the English version didn’t have, but the biggest change was the rate and composition of loot drops. From reading the German reviews and forum posts I’d noticed people weren’t happy about their character development, and by just changing those few values, suddenly the experience was completely different and the ratings increased with on average 10%. A small change that had a big impact if ever I’ve seen one, and it’s a story I like repeating to my developers.

So, chances are that we’ll do at least something with the feedback we received, though I don’t know what shape it’ll take yet. The funny thing is that if we go the route of taking on the extra work, it might significantly increase our stress levels. And then everything will be like it’s always been near the end of a release – madness incarnate. But for a good reason ;)

The real point is however that we can make this decision. That is a very big difference.

 (*) Actually it was my birthday last week, but I didn’t manage to finish this piece then ;)

  • Daniel

    Very interesting read, cool to see what everyone is doing at this stage of development. It looks like the part of Bert Stevens got cut out though, intentional?

    About the difficulty problem, maybe you can cheat a bit there instead of making more AI. Say that on easy mode the AI is the same, but that the AI gains less gold or whatever currency you have so that it builds up slower than you. And on hard it gets more gold for example.

  • Jon B.

    This was quite a cool blog entry actually! Thanks for doing all this, Swen! And… happy birthday!

  • LC

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SWEN! :)

  • arne

    Stunning video. I mean how often do you get a chance to look into a development studio the way you offer? It’s funny whenever recognizing one of the staff members by following the videos all along. And happy birthday, of course!

    Considering your question on AI, where I study we’re learned NOT to make new decisions/modifications during the last stage of development, and you probably know that too. And you’re right on one thing, there will allways be flaws, whether your journalists’ comments are succefully implemented or not. If not for this, they’ll find something else to critisize. I say stick to your original plan and build the game you yourselves would like to play. Because that’s what customers associate you with, your studio’s soul, and they’ll expect the same thing from your future products.

    Also, you forgot to interview David in your video, because we, your kickstarter clients, would like to know when the vault will support DC via KS ! So get him online next time, will ye?

  • JackDandy

    Happy birthday! Very cool video.

    Also…

    “But of course, not intervening means that for sure those issues will
    pop up in reviews, and if they’re bothering the journalists, they’ll
    probably also bother our players”

    Will it, though? Will it really? Game reviewers aren’t exactly well-known for their hardcore mannerisms, and neither for appreciating finely tuned difficulty.

  • thesisko

    If you absolutely must, call the “true” difficulty “Hardcore” and adjust some values to please the journalists and call that “Normal”.

    If there’s one thing I hate is when the game is obviously balanced around a very low difficulty and then has a hard mode that is obviously an afterthought and usually only more tedious without actually being more challenging. I think balancing for a stiff challenge and tweaking for lower difficulties produces a better result.

  • Guest

    Happy (late) birthday, Swen :3

  • Kein Zantezuken

    Happy (late) birthday, Swen <3

  • Mico Selva

    Happy Birthday!
    It does seem a bit as if You have already decided to implement more than one difficulty level. Am I wrong? :) If so, I hope it works well for You and Larian. If not, You can always add it in a future patch. ;) Really looking forward to the game!

    Oh, and the video was great!

  • Notrue Noture

    Happy birthday. I wish you best with DC.

  • Eric S. Macy

    I think it depends on why it was easy for some people and hard for others. Were the players who thought it was too easy using some sort of exploit? Or using a single strategy that is a bit overpowered? Did the players who thought it was too hard know how to play the game? Were they aware of all the different tools and strategies at their disposal?

    A better tutorial, or having the option of tips that show up during gameplay could take care of the issue of the game being too hard.

  • John Glassmyer

    Please keep it intense! I always play single-player games on Hard (or Hardest) these days to get a more intense experience from the start. But the “What sort of gamer are you?” at the start (and available throughout) might be a good idea.

  • melianos

    Why not a speed slider ? With like 3 or 4 speeds.
    You may choose whether you want “fast thinking” action or deeper strategy.

    On another matter, are you still thinking of a paper strategy game for Dragon Commander ? If yes, will it be released with The Game or by itself ?

    Good luck, and stay sane :)

  • Sammy

    Please don’t gut the gameplay by making the difficulty (even standard difficulty) too easy. The fact that self-publishing means you can choose, means you don’t have to make the same choice any published developer world; ie make the game easy to appeal to a “mainstream”, “broader” audience. When you try to please everybody, you please nobody.

  • nobody72

    I hope that at least in single player mode there is a pause where we can issue commands while nothing is moving. From watching the videos I felt the pace was fairly fast and it would be easy to fumble (I realize that multi-player is very different but in single player I’m playing alone and if I’m not as good as the next person it won’t kill the game to slow things down a little). It seems to me that a pause option is easier than a slider (maybe there already is a pause option as I described?). Hum. I suppose a slider (speed or difficulty) is always an option but it seems harder to balance when you talk about difficulty changes (difficulty can mean many things – resource, ai, offensive vs defensive). For me the primary focus is speed – I’m slow and sometime needs a few minutes to think :(

  • AlexF

    I think some difficulty options are a good thing, especially for strategy games. The main problem is knowing beforehand which difficulty level is for you. For example in the days of old, games on normal were actually pretty challenging and I didn’t consider it a shame to play a game on easy (especially strategy games that I’m not so good at, compaired to like RPGs). Nowadays normal can range from very easy to normal and hard can range from easy (for example Dragon Age 1) to extremely difficult or annoying (e.g. Dragon Age 2). I think you should give a bit more info for each difficulty level than “This difficulty are for players who enjoy some challenge” or “This difficulty is for players who are new to the strategy genre”. A better description would be “At this level of difficulty your computer controlled opponents play more aggresively and are less likely to waste resources on battles where they have the upper hand.” or something like that. Also naming the difficulties something other than easy, normal, hard etc I think is a good tactic to avoid the whole discussion of how easy or hard the game is on normal. For example you could use Hatchling, Drake, Dragon Knight, Dragon Lord, or something.

  • qpqpqp

    I dunno, a slider seems like a great fallback option. It’s unreasonable to expect to create the “perfect” difficulty. Gamers all have different experiential backgrounds and thus will solve problems differently, and there are so many games out there that casual ganers will surely quit on any game that’s too hard. The trouble is of course that so few developers manage to implement such a slider with any sense of balance. The game is almost always effectively broken at one extreme of the scale, so it must be very difficult to do well. I personally think that at least 2 levels of difficulty is always wise these days. One should say “have never played this style of game” and the other “every stage is a puzzle you will have to think about”. Then just make those two deliver well (not just ramped hp but more clever enemy placement or AI), lean back in chair, amd collect monies. ;)

  • Voinescu Marius

    Happy birthday Swen :)

  • AlienMind

    Happy delayed getting older day! That sounds sad.. maybe it is ;) I’m all for the standard difficulty slider which only is a multiplier for your hitpoints. You can also call that “Handicap”. If the AI really gets to a point which is like deep blue beating Kasparow, you have to add a slider for that too. As you can see, I’m for sliders. But the standard slider setting must be really normal when it says normal. Which is of course subjective…. My main point is: Don’t let yourself get brainbubbles thinking about the difficulty as long you have sliders!

  • http://tarasis.net/ Robert McGovern

    Can we take from the delay to DC that you did make a decision?

  • Farflame

    Hello Swen. Keep in mind that these journalists played the game for the first time and not for a long time. So most of them was just learning and a little confused with all the elements. So I would not listen too much to their lament “its too hard”. Of course – it SHOULD be hard for people who are just learning.

    On the other hand I think that strategy of this caliber should have more difficulty options (by design). Its almost impossible to balance it for completely different player crowds. Keep in mind that some RPG players are interested in the game too. And some of them are not hardcore RTS players (like Myrthos :-) .
    Your statement “It’s up to the developer to ensure that my play experience is a perfect fit.” is not complete. At least in strategy genre its always “perfect fit for who?”. :)