A Matter of Heist Urgency postmortem

INTRODUCTION

A Matter of Heist Urgency, or AMoHU as it was quickly termed by its reviewers, began as a sequel to a series of stories written for a little girl who had never played IF before. This explains why it takes its setting for granted, why its implementation is so detailed and why it presents itself as a cutesy pony story. All of these things have proven to be beneficial. During its initial development in 2021, I had never dreamed it would go beyond its intended audience of one person.

When I submitted this significantly expanded version to IFComp 2022, I was surprised at how neatly the reviews divided into two camps: those who enjoyed the game as a short action-fest with comic overtones (like Viv Dunstan, Phil Riley, Rovarsson and Victor), and those who were disappointed that it was just a llama kicking simulator. Below I will explain what I think causes this divide, and elaborate on which parts succeeded and which didn’t.

FEEDBACK

Every review I got agreed that the setting was fun and the game was highly polished, with most of them mentioning that they’d like a sequel. Many (especially the more “hardcore” parser fans like Mike Russo and MathBrush) lamented the game’s lack of substance or said that there could be more about Anastasia’s unexplained backstory and power set. All of these criticisms are valid.

One of the game’s deep problems is the fact that it lends itself to a feedback loop of disengagement: a player who is not engaged at the beginning of the game may never discover some of the depth to the fight scenes, giving them nothing that piques their interest. Some reviewers (and online players) went into the game engaged and excited, and discovered many of Part 3’s action stunts and Part 2’s coconut antics. But others (like Encorm and JJ McC) simply played through, saying “>KICK LLAMA” over and over. While it’s certainly possible to win by kicking llamas and doing nothing else, that’s not the intended experience - but if you do, nothing hints at the fact that there’s more to the fights.

Near the very end of the development period, I added the final ranking system, which gives you two ranks based on how many “action stunts” you discovered and how well you did in the Part 2 fight. This was intended to encourage players who never knew the action stunts existed to replay the game and seek them out. Nobody did this. I clearly overestimated players’ willingness to restart the game, short as it is. So much work went into creating the Getaway Ship’s position and line-of-sight system, its tremendous text variety depending on combatants’ positions and how damaged the ship is, and its gradual hinting at the action stunts, that I was disappointed when I saw players standing on the deck and typing “>KICK LLAMA. G. G.”

Another problem, uncovered more in the online play transcripts than the reviews, is the fact that the game’s pacing suffers between Part 2 and 3. A huge number of transcripts quit at the very beginning of the Getaway Ship battle. My theory is that players were uninterested in immediately starting another battle which seemed no different from the first. I alleviated this problem somewhat by making a few incredibly minor prose changes at the end of Part 2, but the essential issue still remains.

Since the game relies so heavily on standard tropes, the high-quality execution of those tropes is critical to maintain the engagement of the player. The quick-moving writing praised by reviewers, the painstaking implementation of synonyms and alternate actions, and even its short duration all worked in its favor. Nobody mentioned it being buggy or stupid, although some players mistakenly associated it with My Little Pony. (Reviewers presumably familiar with My Little Pony did not make this comparison.) Its humor (which reviews mentioned less often than I expected) has two equally important levels: on the one hand, the game provides the childlike glee of playing a kung-fu “Power Pony”, and on the other hand, Anastasia’s characterization as a jaded cynic who understands what’s really going on allows a much broader range of subtle jokes that appeal to adult players. The fact that the battles were deemed “hyperactive” by Rovarsson is a sign that I succeeded in my main goal: to overcome the limitations of conventionally methodical and slow text-based IF in order to create exciting and varied action scenes.

Despite the many comments mentioning a desire for more backstory, I’m not sure that substantial exposition would improve the game. Anastasia’s origin is irrelevant to AMoHU’s story and gameplay. This is one thing that I’ll leave to be gradually hinted at in future Power Pony games. Many reviewers also wanted a listing of Anastasia’s superpowers. Since some of these are revealed in the final choice-based boss fight, I hoped that players would restart the game and try using some of their (fully implemented) abilities earlier. This design decision clearly didn’t quite work.

There are three main takeaways from all of this. First off, polish, writing and humor are absolutely essential; I’ve set a high bar for sequels in this regard. Secondly, the pacing must be improved. Between the combat scenes, there needs to be “more”; more humor, more characterization, more dialogue, more puzzly sections. And thirdly, the depth in the action sequences (which the game’s pseudo-marketing implies to be a staple of the Power Pony series) has to be communicated clearly. Players need to know what makes this fight unique, and what they can do beyond kicking llamas. I’ll try to rectify these issues somewhat in this game’s post-comp release, but I’ll also keep these in mind from the beginning if I ever create a sequel.

POST-COMP RELEASE AND FINAL NOTES

So, all that said, how can I alleviate the situation right now? I have plans to release a significantly updated and changed post-comp release which should address these fundamental issues. Anyone who enjoyed the original game might also enjoy the improved version when it is released, but I won’t go into detail here about what exactly I plan to do with it. There might be a few surprises for old and new players alike.

Thank you to everyone who reviewed, rated, or played A Matter of Heist Urgency. None of the criticism that I received was unfair, with the possible exception of My Little Pony comparisons, and I appreciate it all. Participating in IFComp has been a fun and valuable learning experience for me.

Also, everyone should know that you can give the coconut to Ponyheart during the first fight.

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Thanks for the postmortem! This is really well thought out, and answers a lot of questions I had about the behind the scenes stuff.

In regards to the combat stuff, since I was one of the guilty llama-kickers I’d like to give a little more insight into why I wasn’t experimenting more with the combat. Without any guidance as to how much damage Anastasia could take before going down, I was actually really nervous about screwing up and getting a game over. Basically, I had the mistaken impression that the combat was way more high-risk than it actually is in the game! I figured out that wasn’t the case somewhere around the middle of the second fight, but by that point I don’t think there was enough time for me to really get a grasp of the system.

I don’t have any suggestions for how to address this bit (although I’m sure there’s plenty available), I just thought I’d add on a little to your already-pretty-good analysis of issues players had with the game.

(I’m also glad to find out that Anastasia does in fact have more stories out there, even if they’re not publicly available - it’s less that I wanted more backstory and more that I was convinced said backstory existed somewhere and I was going crazy that I couldn’t find it. It felt like when I was a kid and picked up Animorphs #52 at the library when they didn’t have #46-#51.)

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Uhm… Yeah! Llama kicking (not to forget hurling coconuts at their surly-lipped droopy-longlash-eyed faces) is valid grounds for existence and enjoyment. Surely not for disappointment.

Plus it reminds me of Milo Murphy's “llama incident”.

I also really appreciate these game post-mortems, sheds a lot of light on my experience, and is a lovely peek into development philosophies and decisions.

I have no such mitigating mea culpa, I think for me it was a thorough case of mismatched expectations. As I look back, I think I was unable to break free from the impression Chapter 1 and even the title set for me. The ‘traditional’ if streamlined parser interface of Chapter 1 appealed to me as did the whimsy of the setting. On top of that, just putting “Heist” in the title suggested a much more puzzly/thinky exercise of elaborate plans to foil and reversals to finesse. It is uncommon that heists become brawls! That is definitely the trap I fell into, seemingly addressable by narrative signposting. I go back and forth on whether repeated kicking not working would have pushed me to engage the combat system more deeply or to further disengage. There does seem to be a path there if both were implemented.

Ok, hear me out. In my defense, I did open my review with this :sweat_smile::

I have a feeling my review of this is going to say more about my age and cultural blind spots than I intend.

Lastly,

YES! This is what I wanted so much of! Appreciate the work you invested and look forward to when I can again be a super-hero horse.

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I also thought there was a connection. I’ve watched Friendship is Magic through 3 different times, and I mistakenly thought there was a reference to the ‘Power Ponies’ episode, thought the villainous llamas were like the other ‘alternate species’ enemies in the Daring Do episodes, and thought the fighting was like the first changeling episodes. But it was just me projecting all along lol.

I actually liked the combat idea in this enough that I plan on using some ideas in my next game (specifically when you said that having multiple enemies allowed for more strategy, I like that.)

Yeah, I made a similar mistake once. I think the thing that you have to keep in mind is that if you’re entering a game in IFComp, Spring Thing, or ECTOCOMP (which, tbf, would be small enough not to have this problem if it weren’t running at the same time as IFComp), most of your players are going to be trying to get through as many games as possible before voting ends. That makes them unlikely to replay an individual game unless it’s really short (like, 15 minutes or less) or they really loved it (and even then, if it’s an hour or more, probably not). I myself usually don’t replay games during the judging period, so I don’t know why it never occurred to me that I maybe should not design a game around the assumption that people would.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with this type of game design, in which you expect players to spend a first playthrough sort of fumbling around figuring out how the game works and then provide an ending screen that hints at how much else there is to discover to encourage them to play again with a more thorough understanding of what they can do. Or at least, I think it’s possible to do well, if perhaps tricky to make sure that first playthrough doesn’t end up being too frustrating/confusing/boring. But I think it tends to be a poor fit for the environment of a competition.

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