How do the best players in the world, play your game? Or how *will* they play your game (if it's still in development)? I think coming at your design from the 'best players in the world' angle can shed light on some possible gaps.
After mulling over an inspired question by Jason Rohrer of his own Diamond Trust of London, "I'm interested to see over time what a really good player of Diamond Trust is", and reading a Super Hexagon tip list by a world-class player, I wondered how the best players of my own games would play them.
We're working to finish our first XBLA game, Serious Sam Double D XXL. It's not out yet, so I don't know yet how the world's best players will climb its leaderboards. But I have a good substitute--myself. If you're a indie dev like me and you're working on a game still to be released, chances are your team includes your game's best players.
You play the game day-in and day-out working on and testing it. You may be using techniques and abilities that are perfectly in-line with your designs, or you may be side-stepping intended gameplay without knowing it. Will your players do this as well?
Here are some questions I've been using and you put to your game:
For instance, In Serious Sam Double D XXL there are campaign levels (with a story) and challenge levels. The campaign levels have leaderboards for quickest level completion time. Based on how I play, I know this means they need to get the Air Buffer gun upgrade, which lets them hover some as long as they shoot. I also know its possible for players to skip a lot of enemy setups. Is this okay? Is this still fun?
|Air Buffer in action, encouraged through Speed Run attempts|
For me knowing how players (and myself) try to skip enemy setups, can help foster new ideas. This led to creating a shotgun upgrade with pellets that slow down time momentarily for any enemies hit. This combined with the hover ability can get you through fast.
Thinking about this from the original PC release of the game, I realized some setups players were skipping too quickly in any case. Even though the game now registers speed runs, I wanted some spots to give them something more substantial to fight sometimes which led to the introduction of armored enemies.
Another aspect of the campaign is collecting currency to spend on new gun upgrades. Similar to getting infinite 1UPs in a Mario game, I know there are a few spots in the game where a player can grind to gain currency. If you have exploits like this, make sure you know about all of them, to properly manage them.
Collecting currency actually helps the simpler setups now as well. In the earlier, easier levels, players will still engage the smaller enemies because they drop currency on death. The original designs of the game had no such system, and no incentive to engage the smallest enemies once players became accustomed to the level setups.
Imagine that best player wrote a walkthrough about your game. What are they telling others in order to perform well that's missing from within the game itself?
New to SSDD XXL, There are over 30 upgrades which let you heavily modify your weapons, some of which are pretty strange. That's a lot of new gameplay to introduce; how do I know players are getting it? This is especially tricky to consider because as the creator you inherently know all the abilities of your guns (or various gameplay).
|Bee shotgun in combination with the turret gun|
It may sound obvious, but a good place to start explaining things is a description of your guns (or whatever advanced gameplay you have). If there's some advanced technique you regularly employ and expect the player to know, explain it somewhere. For instance, XXL has a 'Cybernetic Bee' upgrade for the shotgun which shoots bees which can lift enemies into the air, stinging them. Cool! But it can also be used against armored enemies. While normal bullets bounce off the armor, the bees can go under their armor. One way to explain this is with text. I do this now, but originally the Cybernetic Bees description only mentioned what they were, not their ability against armored enemies.
A better way is organically letting the player discover abilities. For instance, in the game, the Gunstacker system lets player stack up their guns, allowing players to have multiple guns firing at once. Here players don't have to exclusively try out the bee gun to see it working--it will likely be in a stack anyway, and the results against armored enemies speak for themselves.
|Bee shotgun against the new armored soldiers|
While I assumed players would be able to figure out that the bee gun can be used on armored enemies, since this is a quasi-required mechanic (not just a secret), it's best to go ahead and explain it wherever possible.
I'm still learning about gaps and looking for issues in Serious Sam Double D XXL, but it's getting much better. With my game still in development, imagining what tricks the world's best player would employ, I can see what areas of the design are being exploited, require shoring up, or better explanations, and hopefully you can do the same for your designs.