Last week I had the opportunity to conduct some interviews with developers who show their games at this year’s Gamescom in Cologne. Initially I did them for my German YouTube-Channel (you can watch it here), but since I already had to transcribe them, I figured I might as well post them here.
The fist one is from my Interview with Julia Keren-Detar und Itay Keren, two thirds of a studio called Untame who are currently working on a game called Mushroom 11.
Tell us who you are and what you’re doing?
Itay: We are working on mushroom 11 for the past three and a half years. It started as a global gamejam project between me and Julia. It’s a Puzzle Platformer where you control an amorphus blob and the only way you can move is by removing your own cells. We’ve been making improvements and adding new content and are turning it into a full game and we’re releasing it in a few months.
How much did the game change between its initial concept and now?
Itay: It’s more or less the same idea, but it has still changed dramatically. When you make a prototype you don’t really know how it’s going to end up.
The idea of removing cells and being able to shape a certain object or cutting it to pieces that’s still there, but even the very basic mechanic of what you can do has changed dramatically.
It first was a kind of tedious sculpting game and now it’s a platformer where it’s really easy to move. The movement is no longer challenging it’s more about what you can do with it.
Not to mention adding huge amount of content on top of that.
A question about the movement system: It’s a bit hard to understand just from watching video how well the players are going to be able to control the growth of their organism. So how exactly does it work?
Julia: You always have the same number of units on screen at any time. So when you delete stuff from the mushroom it’s going to add the amount you cut. When you cut it in two or more pieces it will grow among those pieces you have divided on the screen.
If you are in the air however, it will not regenerate. You have to be touching the ground or some kind of surface in order to grow. Basically you will always be removing and it will always grow up to the same amount of units, so you are always working with the same number.
Itay: As for the actual control of the motion, that’s takes a little bit of time to understand how it exactly it works, but it will always grow away from your cursor. The growth is pseudo-random, but it will always grow away from your mouse. So if you want to move left, you would remove pieces on the right.
But you also need to be very cautious. For example if you remove pieces in a way that changes the center of the mass it could become unstable. This is a common mistake people make in the first few minutes. But the game teaches you this.
We spend a lot of time working on the tutorial system and I think we did a very good job at explaining players this very different movement system and how to control it.
From the trailer it kind of looked like you’re trying to push a ball of liquid through an area. Is that an apt comparison?
Julia: There’s a problem with that thinking, because when you feel like you’re pushing something it means that you have force over it. Instead you’re actually deleting something, which looks similar, when you just watch it as a video.
To understand that has been challenging for us. The reason that pushing isn’t a good analogy is that if you feel like you can have force you feel like you can move your finger right through the mushroom, because that would push it, right? But when people try to do that they actually just cut out a big piece right out the middle of the mushroom and the top part falls down.
You don’t expect that, when you think that you’re pushing something. If you think that you’re deleting it you think that you’re shaping and deleting negative space around it, that’s a better way of thinking about it.
Even though it looks like you’re pushing it, it’s a little bit different. You can’t just take the mushroom and shove it into a wall, it will grow around it. And when you think that you can just take your hand and drag it, you will end up just deleting large parts of it.
Since this system is so unique, how important was showing this game to other people in order to see how they react towards it?
Julia: It’s really important for us and we actually just had a few speaking gigs, where talked about this. It was a process of two and a half years and it’s just so much work to get these puzzles work in a way so that people can understand them. It seems pretty simple, but it was actually really hard and a lot of that was taking this game to shows and seeing where people were failing.
We actually used a lot of shows, like EGX, PAX East, Pax Prime, local shows; Lots of different shows where we had A/B tests of the tutorial system where we would change puzzle and would see how two different people on different computers would play and if one group of people would perform better than the other we would take note of that.
We also sometimes had the opportunity to change puzzles on the fly by hitting certain keys so we could quickly test if one puzzle would work better over another so we were constantly looking at how people were playing and taking note of where people were having problems.
Itay: We’ve also been talking about a lot on different opportunities: We’re trying to make our tutorial very minimalistic. We have our own belief, that just telling players what to do is not going to achieve the most optimal learning. I think players would want to experiment and when they see something that works for them in the actual game, things actually connect in their mind.
An example I keep bringing up: It’s like when I give my grandmother a PS4. It’s something that is very clear to me and is probably going to be clear to her after a few minutes of experimentation, but it’s probably going to be very foreign to her in the beginning.
In order to make our players more familiar with this alien control scheme we need to make sure that they understand, they know how to move. Just telling the how to do it isn’t good enough.
We basically have just a couple of words on the screen telling them what this is and then confront them with a couple of challenges that were designed in such a way that only teach you one thing in a very specific order. Everytime we changed this order, we made players understand less of the game. So we take it one step at a time.
For example one of the first things you learn is how to climb and we’re not telling you how to do it.
There is a small step that you need to climb, and if you don’t understand the fact that you’re this tumbling mass you’re going to fail and you’ll have to try again and again until you figure it out. However, once you’ve figured it out, you know how to do it in the future.
But then you’re playing very slow and cautiously so we want to break that understanding by putting you through a series of tunnels. This makes you realize that you move really fast in tunnels which then a makes realize that you can move very fast when you know what to do.
All these things are just build on top of each other after years of experimentation.
I find it interesting that you’re using trade shows as testing grounds, which make me wonder how many other smaller developers are using them as well, considering that they don’t necessarily have the ressources to hire playtesters.
Julia: It’s really good, because even when you have the ressources to hire playtesters, you’re incentivizing them to stick with your game, whereas with a trade show it’s a more honest thing. People at tradeshows are more like „if I have one ounce of doubt or frustration with your game I’m gone“, which very clear to see.
Sure sometimes you have to take it with a grain of salt, where people are having their phones out and are messaging each other and have to go, which is a bit different. But usually having tradeshow is perfect, because it’s like there’s no room for error. You can see right away that when something is frustrating they will just get up and leave that’s really visually clear.
So trade shows are perfect for testing, even better than playtesters.
Itay: We found that lowering the bar for frustration for potential players is probably the best thing we could have for playtesters, if you think about it.
As designers of the game it’s sometimes really frustrating to see player who are not getting it end up getting up and leaving the game. It’s not something I enjoy, but you get such perfect information when you have someone with such a low threshold for frustration, because of the context. You know that they’re not doing you any favours, that as soon as they see something they don’t enjoy they’re gone.
If you had this level of frustration in the actual game, players would probably stay around a little bit longer, especially when they purchased the game. But here you don’t have that thing. So you can immediately see that reaction make changes accordingly. And by making these changes you’re actually improving the game for everyone.
Julia: It’s also great, because you’re getting to many people too. So you can see where your problems are. So when 40% percent of your players are leaving at a certain puzzle, you know that there’s a problem. And now you really recognize it and watch them and see what are they trying to do, that’s not what we wanted them to do and how can we fix the puzzle to help them figure out what we wanted them to teach them.