Skies Above - post-comp thoughts

In structure, Skies Above is basically a CRPG where you grind activities instead of fighting monsters*, and the experience points are called “floatrons”. When you level up, instead of getting new abilities, you get access to new locations.

There’s clearly a spectrum of how much players enjoy grinding!

The feedback I got seems a little at odds with the results. Many reviews and comments used the word “tedious”. The voters’ feedback was definitely harsher than what I’ve gotten in past years. Just based on what I read, I would have expected a significantly lower result. But the game finished 10th overall, and 3rd among the authors. Hmm. The only thing I can think is that grinding is a special kind of experience when you’re playing a game. It gives you a kind of satisfaction, even though it can’t really be called “fun”. Maybe people enjoy it in spite of themselves.

Probably my single biggest goal was to make a game where players aren’t going to get stuck. You might progress faster or slower, but you will definitely progress. As far as I can tell, that goal was achieved. Players might have gotten bored, but they didn’t get stuck.

Other scattered thoughts:

  • There are twelve activities in the game, not counting the Fortress battle. I asked my testers and some players to tell me which activities they liked most, and which ones they liked least. I was surprised how varied the responses were. (Especially how much variety was in the “liked least” category.)

  • The game tries to respect the player’s poor fingers. You never have to type SLIDE UPPER ELEVATOR CARD THROUGH SLOT. Most of it is just tapping a key. I’m glad the testers nudged me to allow movement without typing “go”.

  • One strange characteristic of this game, in my limited observation, is that people who are less interested in puzzles tend to progress faster, and maybe to have more fun. They don’t spend time making notes or trying to optimize an activity–they just bang away until they get to the next level. In a way, the game rewards casualness and punishes carefulness.

  • There’s kind of a strange cognitive thing going on with some of the activities. When I play, I have to force myself not to go too fast, or I’ll make mistakes. Especially in the Orchard, the Factory, and the Laboratory. I know exactly what to look for, but I have to stop and process the output before I make my next choice. It can be taxing on the brain, even when you know all the rules. I think it makes the repetition more tiring. It might be the biggest liability of the game.

  • One of my goals was to keep introducing new activities, but also to keep the earlier activities relevant. That placed some difficult demands on the design, and I didn’t totally achieve it. But even late in the game, if you know what you’re doing, the Pumphouse and the Factory can be two of the most valuable activities.

  • Because the game has so much randomness, I’ve been able to enjoy playing it myself. My fastest speed-through is about 26 minutes. I had one session where I was trying to get the highest rank, and on the day of the “deadline”, I was short on everything: floatrons, larks, and erkulite. So I thought about strategy for a minute, and I tried something unusual, and it worked: I finished and got the highest rank. I was pretty excited.

  • As far as I know, no one has gotten MAX_FLOATRONS yet.

  • Hooray for Glulx, 32-bit integers, and floating-point math! Thank you, Andrew Plotkin!

*There is one activity where you fight monsters, but you don’t get any floatrons there!