Posted on June 29, 2017
Seattle Retro Games Expo
At the Seattle Retro Games Expo on June 17-18, I demoed Cascade Quest to the public for the first time. It was a great experience, and a great way to get feedback from a subset of the gaming population.
I didn’t have time to commission a nice poster for the booth, so I just ended up using a large logo mounted to cardboard. The booth looks fairly cobbled together, but it was about as professional as other nearby booths, so I didn’t feel too bad. I also spent a day or two coming up with a demo mode of the game that plays through about 4 minutes of gameplay in various screens. This was probably better for attracting attention than any poster would have been. It shows lots of the text input, which I think was important.
I had two laptops set up (a good idea, since the power kept being cut the first day), one with a TV attached to it. I placed newsletter signup sheets on either side, and also had a signup form directly in the game (if you make it out of the ranger station, at which point you’re probably reasonably invested?). The in-game form ended up having slightly more signups.
How did folks react?
Even though this was a retro game expo, it is mainly focused on the 90s and early 2000s, and heavily focused on Nintendo and Sega. So I was a bit worried that it wouldn’t be the right demographic for Cascade Quest. That may have been true, but I still had a fairly steady stream of people playing the game both days. Most people who played (maybe two thirds) had played the old Sierra games before and were immediately intrigued by the similarity. For some, it was a completely new experience.
I would say the demographics for people who played my game tended towards older. They may not have been the majority of people attending the expo, but there were enough of them that it kept me pretty busy. I also had several small children (under 10? I’m not good at guessing children’s ages) play the game and enjoy it. Some were young enough that they didn’t really understand what was going on (nor were they able to progress very far), but still seemed to enjoy typing things in and seeing the responses. I did have one young girl play the demo to completion (solving most of the puzzles herself) over the course of about two hours.
The good news is that I got overwhelmingly positive feedback about the game. However, I think most folks aren’t likely to give any negative feedback (critical feedback seemed to only come from other game developers). If someone doesn’t like it, they just play for a few minutes and leave (this happened a few times). But the vast majority of people played for a while and said they really enjoyed it.
Some folks were very excited, and told me I had really captured the nostalgic feel of the old Sierra games – but without the design problems they suffered from. This was really nice to hear. Many people didn’t even realize that the graphics weren’t actually EGA – they just looked that way (also my intention). And I got plenty of compliments on the graphics, which is nice for this programmer to hear.
I learned not to judge people’s enjoyment of the game by watching their expressions. Some had constant looks of confusion, anger, or frustration – but in the end said they really enjoyed it. Of course, it was nice to have people sit down and instantly start giggling at the responses the game was giving to their actions.
One person suggested (only half-jokingly) I include an object early in the game that – if you fail to pick it up – prevents you from finishing the game (of course, you don’t realize this until the end). While I am explicitly designing away those issues, this highlights the importance of keeping a good amount of nostalgia in there to appeal to older players. In that same vein, one person asked “can you die in the game?”, and was really happy to hear that deaths are indeed possible.
The only analytics I had in the demo were tracking the players’ typed commands, and tracking whether or not the game reverted to a default response (thereby indicating it wasn’t understood). For future expos I want to be able to replay the players’ movements more completely so I can better understand what they’re trying to do.
My one regret is that I didn’t spend more time watching players play the game. I would walk behind them every once in a while to make sure they weren’t running into bugs, but in general I tried not to bother them. As a result, I don’t feel I got a good enough picture of what issues people ran into.
It was painful at time watching people struggle with the puzzles. However, I began to realize that they should be struggling. In the end, those that made it to the end of the demo (or close to it) took about the time I had expected… roughly two hours. I want people to struggle, but I also want them to feel satisfied when they solve a puzzle (and say to themselves “ah, that’s so obvious, why didn’t I think of that?”). That’s a hard thing to gauge at a broad public demo like this though.
For some reason, players had a much harder time navigating the puzzles on Sunday than on Saturday. I’m not sure if this was just a random thing, or whether there was a difference in demographics (perhaps more hard-code players visited on the first day?)
People ran into a number of bugs with the demo. This told me that my object interaction architecture (which I rewrote several months ago) isn’t robust enough.
Many people praised the text parser autosuggest, but didn’t realize they could use it to actually complete words (they thought it was simply a reference for which words would be accepted). I probably need to tweak the UI a bit to make it behave more like a modern browser search box, rather than a programmer command prompt.
One thing that definitely stood out was that people expected “look” to describe the object in front of the player. Instead, a simple “look” is wired up to give the room description (like Sierra did), and you have to name the object to get a description of it. I do have the ability for many verbs (like “take” or “open”) to operate nounless, based on what’s in front of the player. It seems “look” needs to work that way too. I originally resisted this, because I didn’t want players to have to type “look around” to get a general description of a room. But the evidence was so strong that “look” needs to refer to a specific object that I will have to revisit this.
Some people thought the parser was more intelligent than it was, e.g. “tell my boss that I don’t know where to find paper”.
Other people thought it was dumber than it was. They would type “give copies boss” instead of “give copies to boss”. The problem with this is that the parser interprets the former as “give the boss to the copies” – that is, boss is the direct object, and copies is the indirect object (and we fail to get a valid response). As a result, I will probably lessen the restriction on the grammar and ignore the difference between direct object and indirect object for most scenarios (I struggle to see a situation in which both would be accepted and perform different but valid things).
Appealing to a broad demographic
I would really like to find a way to make the game appeal to a broader demographic than just those who enjoy the nostalgia. I had some success with this, but I think it’s still not accessible enough to modern gamers.
Further data to corroborate this is the ratings that Void Quest has been receiving. A lot of people really like it, but some people really hate it (a relatively high number of 1-star reviews). Unfortunately people who hate it tend not to leave comments on what they don’t like or what turned them off. So I’m basically left guessing. I have to assume that either:
- the text parser turned them off and they didn’t realize that the game they were downloading wasn’t a point-and-click
- the puzzles were too hard
I did have some people at Seattle Retro Game Expo be suspicious of the text parser at first, but then gradually get into the game once they got the hang of it. So part of it may be convincing people to keep playing long enough.
I’m currently in the process of refactoring some of Cascade Quest’s object interaction code to make it more robust and predictable. I’ll also integrate some of the puzzle feedback I got, and then begin work again on the other parts of the game.