Here’s my developer’s post-mortem for The Princess of Vestria. (Some light spoilers throughout, and a few heavy ones redacted)
First I’d like to thank my playtesters on this site – Kestrel, mathbrush, The Pixie, Deuslrae - for the huge help they gave me getting my game into a reasonably-polished shape for the comp.
Now, my takeaways from the reviews. First, the positives: what seemed to go down well?
I’m pleased that the story was generally enjoyed, as I don’t consider myself a fantasy writer, and because I tried to prioritise gameplay before narrative. Still, people commented positively on the setting, lore and characters, which was gratifying.
The interactivity/consequentiality of choices
This was a relief, because a big fear upon submission of PoV was that I hadn’t done enough to point out to the player when and how their choices were shaping the story (I still might add something to flag e.g. when a player’s character traits and/or epilogue have been “shaped”)
The ending/dramatic climax
I’m counting this as a qualified success, because although opinions on this were not universally positive, it seemed to go down better in the comp than with my playtesters (there was also a problem with a lot of my playtesters seeming to get the same ending). I worked hard on this, and the feeling of having “fixed” it, to some extent, is a good one. Some of the improvements were quite simple, e.g. giving the Princess three arrows instead of the one my poor playtesters got!
Now to what didn’t work well…
The music box puzzle
Lol, said the scorpion. Lmao. No, I am sorry guys. My playtesters were all baffled and annoyed by this puzzle. My main approach to fix it on the eve of the comp was to increase the time limit… oops! Suddenly reviewers are complaining about a baffling puzzle that lasts for ten minutes and they have no way to skip… (the latest update has improved this puzzle, I hope. I’ve clued it more clearly and added an option to “Just give up and try random combinations” which will succeed if the player has luck remaining. Ha, I feel like a scientist refining his mad experiment.)
I think I could probably add the monkey puzzle to this category of “puzzles that were under-cooked/not sufficiently clued”. Did anyone get the monkey?
Waffly, over-long first chapter
My last playtester before the comp gave me this feedback as well - but too late for me to edit it, sadly. I have to guess that these exposition-heavy passages, combined with the game’s lack of styling/cover art/smooth initial intro cost me some reviews and some plays. Ah well, live and learn. (I have since edited and the reviews seem to have improved on this point)
Not a total flop, but probably didn’t gain the traction I would’ve liked. I’ve concluded that I went the wrong way about this. I wrote a single epilogue passage that, through a tangle of coding and the players’ scores on various metrics – heroism, empathy, ruthlessness, wisdom etc. - gave the player their personalized epilogue. I think I probably should’ve just written ten or twenty different endings and sorted players into them based on their metrics. Or maybe a combination of the two approaches. But either way, I needed to make it clearer to what extent things were being personalised. Perhaps including something like a “You achieved Epilogue 6b: moderately heroic, very diplomatic and wise ruler” sentence.
A little surprised by the nonplussed reaction to a mechanic I was quite excited about. It possibly could’ve been worked into the game deeper (I only thought of it half way through), but part of me thinks this was a communication/presentation failure more than a mechanical failure. The idea (as some have recognized) is to mitigate the outcome of “bad” choices – to make the game more forgiving and less brutal – while still accounting for the player’s failure in a consequential way. I’m not sure if people recognised that it was working that way, or were expecting something different? I’m wondering if I should add an optional “What would’ve happened if I didn’t have any luck left?” link for players to click on at these moments. Either way, this, as a concept, is something I’m definitely going to persevere with and work on. I sense that even if it only ever elicits a nonplussed reaction, that’s ok if it staves off a “This game kills me unfairly/too much” reaction.
Next section is my response to some valid critiques (besides those already mentioned).
Story is a bit generic/basic
I will own this one. I actually had ideas for a much more ambitious, surprising narrative, but I was still a little uncertain at that point about the ambitiousness of the project (first Twine game), so I decided to play it safe and go with the simpler storyline that I had already mapped out and knew accommodated plenty of gameplay. (Also, the simpleness of the tale I think reflects the way it was originally conceived: from deciding to write a story with a friend by interpreting random cards from a medieval tarot deck.)
There’s no way to resolve things peaceably with the witch
Yes, I really would have liked to include this as an option – and originally planned to. Unfortunately, once I came to write it, I found that it didn’t really ring true given the character of the witch I’d drawn up to that point: could she really be talked down? What concession could the Princess make?. Maybe there’s an opportunity to add something along these lines in the future, though it will require a bit more shaping of the story. This critique probably relates to the previous critique about the story’s simpleness.
There are a LOT of ways to die or otherwise fail
I was surprised by the commonness of this reaction but I think that says more about me (and my limited exposure to IF) than everyone else. This kind of gameplay will be some people’s bag and not others, I guess. I hope to refine the game more, maybe add different difficulty modes, to make it friendlier to those who want a nicer, less perilous experience.
Things to ponder:
- Dare I remove the save game feature? I really want to, but may have to develop other safety net systems first
- Character shaping - should I let the Princess’s character take shape in game, via the player’s choices? I decided against this kind of system, but maybe I should reconsider. I already let the players shape the Princess’s character in the epilogue, so I’ve kinda already started down this path
Questions to players:
* How did you all defeat the witch at the end (there are 3 ways, and one of them I’ve not heard players refer to yet)? Did you make use of the hints/walkthrough?
- What were some gameplay moments you enjoyed/didn’t enjoy?
- Did anyone get the monkey?
- How would you have enjoyed the experience of the game if there were no save game option?
- Did the theme music play for anyone (at the start)??
* Did anyone kick the old man away the first time?
Finally, many thanks to everyone who has played and reviewed the game