Kane County postmortem (and bonus questionaire)

Kane County was my 4th IFComp game and was actually the very first IF game idea I’d ever thought about making. I’d been tossing the idea of a desert survival story around in my mind for years, and I’m really glad I finally let it come to life. I liked certain elements of my previous games, but this is definitely my best work I’m really happy with how it turned out.

I originally planned on making it an Android game but then I’d decided to change course and make it a web game for the comp instead. I guess I wanted to sort of test the waters and see if a wilderness survival game would have any real appeal to a general audience and not just survival-TV fans like myself*. I’m definitely planning on doing a post comp version because I had to take out over half of what I’d originally wanted to include (anyone familiar with my previous works will know that writing short is not my forte!). Hopefully writing V2 for Android will not only solve some of my technical problems but also most of my javascript code will convert over easily as well (fingers crossed).

Enough preamble, let’s get onto the post mortem. It’s really long (I’ve got a lot to say) and if you don’t feel like reading everything then please please at least jump to the 3rd section where I have some questions.

First, the negatives:

[spoiler]1. the inventory system didn’t work right
Or it technically worked but not like it was supposed to. I really, really wanted to have a clickable inventory where you could select which items from the menu whenever you wanted to instead of it being mandated by a choice in the text. I thought this would bring a lot more creativity and more natural decision making to the gameplay. For instance, when you’re trying to build a fire I wanted to nudge the player that they might be able to make a bow drill or use a piece of glass and let them figure the rest out for themselves instead of just directly telling them that they could do it if they had the right items.

I really wanted the inventory to work like this. It would have added a lot and I ended up spending much longer trying to get this mechanic to work than I really should have. I could go into a prolonged explanation of the programming problems I had, but long story short: I just couldn’t get it to work correctly. It almost did and I tried and tried but eventually I just had to accept defeat and go back to an in-text system to get done on time.

  1. inconsistent difficulty
    The difficulty level was extremely hard to balance because all my testers had very different results. Some said it was too easy, some said it was too hard. The comp reviewers mirrored this with a pretty even divide of winning on their first try vs. dying again and again. I was originally aiming for “hard-ish”, like a 6.5 out of 10, but this was hard to judge with so little consistency. I made it much easier in one of the later updates but I think it’s too easy now so I’m going to ratchet it back up. I can have save points in Android (having one at the end of each night seems a logical place) and I think they’ll help with a harder difficulty level so you don’t have to start from the very beginning each time you die.

  2. some reviewers didn’t like the plot or writing
    I’m not going to say much about this. My sister saw that I was neck-deep in javascript coding hell (damn that inventory system! fist shake) so she offered to write the prose for me. She also had written the prose for Blood on the Heather which was a cheesy vampire game we did for the comp in 2013 if anyone remembers. Without her help in Kane County you all would have just gotten the broken-sentence “placeholder text” that I’d used for coding the panels. She did me a huge favor and I thought she did a great job so I’m very grateful for all her help.[/spoiler]

Let’s do some positives:

[spoiler]One general note: Several of the reviewers referred to it as a Twine game. I’ve used Twine in the past but Kane County was 100% homebrewed javascript. I’d looked into all the different Choice engines but I ultimately just really wanted to create my own. I’m stubborn that way.

And my coding seemed to actually work! Holy crap! I had envisioned it crashing half the time or the javascript not loading properly and being unplayable. But other than one reviewer having a bizarre font related problem it seemed to actually work right! happy dance

There is also a long list of things that I’d considered putting in that didn’t make it into the Comp version due to time or effort constraints. Different items, 2 enemies, 2 other character classes (a hippie with animal kinship and a convict on the run and out of his league), a ghost town which sort of morphed into the homestead, etc. And I had this whole cool section inside an old mine.** Last year I really lost control of the scope so I was very mindful of what I couldn’t do given the amount of time I had. This time I did really well with the scope other than wasting about 2 weeks on trying to code that damn inventory. But I digress. ***[/spoiler]


[spoiler]I have 2 design elements that I feel I need to change and I have a couple of ideas about what to do. If anyone could give me their opinion on what would work best that would be awesome! Any and all comments are very much appreciated.

First is that people seemed to find the various splits in the path too random so I need to find a way to improve on that. In real life you won’t know if a debris pile 20 minutes in the distance is worth your time or not, but in the game I think people felt like it was out of their control. So I need to find a way to better signal what’s possible at each split.

Option 1: Have more backtracking.
As it is now, there were a few places with a backtracking option but more or less the player was kept moving forward with each split. Instead, I’d change it and let the player backtrack to the split and explore all the side paths to their heart’s content. Stat loss and potential danger for wandering around the desert excessively would still apply and be used to prompt them forward but at their own pace.

Option 2: Have each split described in more detail and make it clearer what you might find there.
Basically tell the player that they have a pretty good chance of getting X item at each location. Ie. “that juniper tree over there looks like a good place to find a digging tool”. This would take some of the spontaneity out of the game but allow for better planning. I’d have to find a balance between disguising it in the narrative and still being clear.

Option 3: have item-themed areas.
Every time there’s a wetter looking area it’s either a food or water source (though you might not necessarily have the right items to harvest there). Things made of wood (debris piles, fences) would be digging tools. Human signs like a campfire or tracks would be human items like the can, blanket, etc. I like this themed location idea but I’m not sure if players would actually pick up on it or not.

Second, I don’t think the stamina-level challenges actually worked very well. I was trying to touch on the idea in real-life survival situations that you’re constantly getting weaker and you have to decide whether you can still do something like you normally could. However, it seemed like a lot of players felt that the outcomes were just random luck.

Option 1: would it have helped if I had clearly stated what stamina level was required? Like “Climb down without a rope (minimum stamina level 3)”? This would break some of the immersion but then the player could clearly judge whether they’ll be successful, should skip, or decide to chug down a +1 sta item to get to the needed level.

Option 2: Maybe it would be better without the stamina mechanic altogether? There still needs to be a health meter so I’d replace it with “vitality” which won’t effect gameplay other than if it reaches 0 you die. Instead, I’d have either knowledge or items challenges where if you don’t have the right item you can’t do something or if you’re not sure how to do something. This would require careful balancing in the beginning to keep the game moving while still giving the player all the information and training that he’ll need for later on.[/spoiler]


Sweet crackers that was a long post mortem! I’m so putting this towards my NaNoWriMo word count.

On a more serious note, this was a frustrating competition for a lot of us authors. On the private board several people expressed a sentiment that it was just TMW: Too Much Work. Too many authors working too hard over too little returns. I don’t necessarily feel that way, maybe because this was my 4th comp game and I’m kind of jaded by now, but I did feel frustrated and like a lot of people’s hard work was just getting overlooked.

I’ve never done particularly well in this comp and I think my style’s just not a good fit here. BUT, you know what? I really like my game! I think it’s fun and different and definitely my best work so far. The post comp version’s going to be awesome and I just need to find the right indie gaming community to host it.
And I’ll probably be back next year. It’s going to be a speed IF sort of thing (Tia’s done with busting her ass for the Comp) but if I can do the unthinkable and actually come up with a quick game idea you’ll see me again in 2016.

So thanks to everyone who voted for me. Now you all have to do your part and go back and play the games you didn’t have time for!

[spoiler]*survival reality TV recommendation time: Dude, You’re Screwed is the best followed by Naked and Afraid. Bear Grylls The Island can be safely skipped. Man Vs Wild is the original classic but ran out of ideas in later seasons. Naked and Marooned with Ed Stafford is pretty interesting if you can get past Ed’s intensity and profound strangeness.

**You were going to blow it up and escape to freedom on the other side. Possibly while riding out on an old mine cart. This is so going in the post comp. Also, a park ranger also once regaled me with a story about lactating javalinas that I wanted to put in but my co-author put her foot down.

*** Can you tell that I’m still a little butthurt about not being able to get my inventory to work right? Because I’m still a little butthurt about not being able to get my inventory to work right.[/spoiler]

What do you think of Survivorman?

What sort of returns were you thinking of? What specifically do you think is being overlooked?

I don’t think there were considerably less reviews than last year, but the number of games made it tough; I had to push really hard to get through (almost) all of them.

There are options outside of IFComp. I am announcing something new this Saturday, and there’s always doing a little promotion and then releasing outside of a competition altogether (with the bonus that it doesn’t have to be played in the middle of a crowd of 50+).

ADD: Oh, I liked the feel of stamina. Maybe on stamina checks you could give a general impression of how hard it’ll be? That sense isn’t 100% knowable just from the text.

I think the backtracking would be a really good idea. Also, savegames could mitigate the difficulty concerns. But this is impossible with the current engine.

You can use a RNG approach to the checks: “you feel this will be TOUGH for you”.

I didn’t get through all the games in this comp, but I did play this one. I’ll be posting a short review of it on my blog before the end of the month.

In response to your questions:

Game flow:

I would choose option 3. I think it’s more realistic (and possibly easier to code?) not to allow backtracking, in the sense that you’re trying to escape the area and have an interest in pushing forward rather than spending a lot of time exploring. I thought the game was very well balanced in terms of items, once you have a sense of what you need and where to find certain things, and making themed areas will help the most with the “where to find” which I found to be the hardest part. I hope adding the extra content won’t unbalance it too much. I also agree that saves would be helpful, but in a sense, having to do the whole thing without saves added to the tension and the potential for failure that made it more realistic. Adding more content and allowing saves will make it fundamentally a different kind of game, I think.


I would choose option 1. I would have liked more of a signal that certain actions weren’t going to work with low stamina. On my winning playthrough, I kept stamina high throughout in order to avoid these kinds of failures, but depending on what you’re going for, that may not always be an option, so it’s good to know when things will fail as a result.

I’ve only seen a few episodes of Survivorman. I like that the host (whose name I can’t remember) is filming just by himself and that he goes to a wider range of places. I like Naked and Marooned a little better but these shows tend to only put naked people in warm climates, lol. I’ll check out some more episodes when I get the chance.

Back on topic, I think I’m going to keep the stamina challenges in but I need to spend a while thinking about how to do them better. One of the problems is that the lower your stamina is the harder it becomes to do things that might raise it and also the easier it is to loose even more stamina. Realistic downward spiral for survival but a frustrating mechanic in a game. Maybe have more alternative options presented along with the challenges.

Thanks for your comments everyone, I really appreciate them!

Ah, I never would have guessed Kane County wasn’t made in Twine. (I actually went back and checked my review to make sure I didn’t claim that it was.) That’s actually pretty neat! The system looks very polished, despite all the kinks you mentioned.

Re: the questionnaire:

I’d prefer option 3 for the first question (maybe mixed in with option 2 in the beginning areas), and option 1 for the second. I think it’s fine to obfuscate the challenge rating a little (I like Oreolek’s idea), but there should be some indication of roughly how much stamina it will take to succeed a challenge.

The biggest thing that surprised me about it is touched on by the questionnaire but not completely…

[spoiler]1. I expected the Survivor to have more of a clue what was going on. The most jarring case for me was the cactus, where the PC was surprised that he couldn’t get much water from it. It seems like the Survivor should have known in advance that this isn’t as good an idea as legend would have it.

Specifically for the case of backtracking, a full map with a water timer seems like it could be made to work pretty well, but might end up making it even more punishing.

  1. I really liked the Stamina mechanic overall, and this seems like another place to distinguish the Athlete and the Survivor. The Athlete probably has a much better sense of his own endurance and can estimate what it takes more accurately if it’s purely physical.[/spoiler]

That’s a good point on the survivalist. I’ll definitely try to differentiate the classes better and highlight their strengths and weaknesses more. The water loss mechanic probably needs a bit of an overhaul also. Looking back, I think it’s rather difficult to actually die from water loss and this should be one of the biggest threats with surviving the desert.

Thank you both for your input!