I hope this postmortem is clearer, more fun and less frustrating than the game itself. I hope it will help illuminate specific things about Ugly Oafs and my thoughts in general, and I hope it helps you deal with your creative frustrations, or even your frustrations with Oafs. I can’t blame you. I appreciate the lack of full-nuclear in the reviews I read. Every review I read pushed me a bit to do and organize better.
First, I think this is it for now for abstract wordplay games. I feel happy to have scraped through with a top-half finish, with my testers’ help. I enjoyed being in the author subforum. I appreciate the encouragement and advice from some direct competitors. It made up for not writing the game I really wanted to, which is about logic, in its own way. Next year, maybe. I’ll make sure to avoid this year’s time-wasting.
If you didn’t like Ugly Oafs, I still hope the general principles and issues I dealt with make sense and help you with anything you may be writing. There’s some irony, here, too: with the abstract gameplay involved, I hoped to avoid emotion and struggles in general. I failed, because it’s pretty clear players were frustrated, and also, I was frustrated I didn’t give them more chances.
Warning: LOTS of writing below. TL/DR (about 20k of writing) : I’m glad I took the risk. I’m just sad I didn’t take it on more aggressively. At least I can change that with a post-comp release which will include some changes I despaired of making. They’re nowhere near as hard as I feared. That’s good, for my game, but it makes me feel a bit lazy for not doing so in the first place. Also, I should’ve included in-game hint items earlier. I worried I might make it too easy if you had a total decoder, but truth is–I’m not forcing the player to use anything, and even my current uber-hint device would only maybe spoil one puzzle at a time, one letter at a time. So maybe you can still figure the word with the letters partially aligned, which can’t feel too bad.
Part 1: getting to writing the game
[spoiler]A lot of the internal struggles were down to “Is this too weird? Oh, okay, I found how to do something. Is this still too weird?” This wasted a lot of time. The right way to go about things is to say, well, what would I do to make the people who might like this game like it more? Or not say “I’d have liked it, but…?” I spent a lot of time woolgathering and telling myself the mechanic wasn’t as obvious as Shuffling Around or Threediopolis, but I never took action on that. I hope this isn’t woolgathering or humblebragging–but anyone out there worried your story isn’t as good as the last one? Don’t be. I’ll present a parallel to Ray Bradbury. Farewell Summer is not Dandelion Wine. But I still like it a lot. And I’m glad Bradbury didn’t waste too much time saying “Gosh, should I even bother?” There’re some really fun bits in there, and I don’t care about the faults. Maybe you have a favorite author who did something similar, and you’re glad they did it. So–that’s my general advice.
I suppose I don’t have a why for Ugly Oafs other than that it was there & it never quite escaped from my mind. And with any odd idea like this, there may be there’s a reason nobody’s ever tried it before. But I like going down those blind alleys, and I hope that even if someone didn’t like my game, it would encourage them to say, “Well, I can go down my OWN blind alley, and maybe it won’t be so blind.”
Now I recognize that my preferred blind alleys to wander down are different from others. I like brain teasers, but I’ve seen all the big ones. And I generally like logic-y problems, as sitting down to solve one helps stabilize me to tackle more subjective things. That probably doesn’t hold for most people, but hopefully it explains why I think this would be a game. And why I’d always said I’d sort of like to make my own. I remember, as a kid, reading puzzle books with even a bit of a story and saying, I want to do that. In this way, making a game like this–or sharing that this sort of puzzle makes me happy, though it frustrates other people–is intensely personal for me, even if the puzzles are abstract. Of course, I read regular books, too, but the thing is: sometimes I don’t want to think about stories! The family trees and alliances in Game of Thrones make me sob and say why bother as much as a complex math problem probably makes many of you want to throw stuff. But for me, a puzzle is time away, so when I come back, reading is fresher. Chess grandmaster Mark Taimanov put it best: when I’m playing concert piano, it’s a break from chess. And vice versa. Replace piano/chess with puzzles/reading for me.
But those are personal hang-ups. For the game itself, I see a story I could have established, and that can be added. And my quest for uniqueness and odd logic doesn’t excuse any outright bugs and oversights and hints I could and should have thrown in, but all the same, I’m pleased I went through with it. I hope anyone who wants to write a(nother) game can get to experience this too, regardless of how popular it turns out.
Not that popularity, or trying for it, is inherently good or bad. Certainly people on both ends of the spectrum of “I need people to love me” vs “I don’t care about anyone” are annoying. For writing anything creative, it’s most important to strike a balance between Not Worrying What People Think and making sure your work finds the fewest ways to annoy people. In my case, Ugly Oafs is a wordplay game in a medium where people prefer storytelling. But I do like building a story from weird stuff, if I can, and I’d rather fail at that than write something straightforward that leaves nothing lasting. I’m kind of hypocritical this way–I’ll often put a work that doesn’t bug me over a more ambitious work I may not have time for, but then, I will always try for the second, in my own way.
I have nothing constructive to say about this, other than that I am not the only one, and about all an author can do in this case is to have testers tell them what is absolutely awful and must be changed. Getting rid of these big potholes is a huge help. It changes critics’ views from “nice idea, but…” to “good job,” or from “What’s this mess?” to “Okay, this is clear, but it’s not my thing.” This makes your ambition less of a gamble and more of a reality–if you want to do something tough, you should put in the time, and I didn’t.
I know with works that strive to be different, there’s the temptation to say “Oh, it’s different and people won’t understand, tough for those who don’t” vs “It’s just too different, why bother.” But this is a false dichotomy, and the third way through is pretty simple.
I certainly wasted a lot of time wondering “will it be any good” when the real question is to ask “what can I do to make this as good as possible.” I’d thought up several concerns about the game, but failing to write them down somewhere important and useful cost me. I did a lot better with Threediopolis, e.g. realizing your nameless benefactor from the first draft needed a name, then having Ed Dunn pop up right after reading an article on someone named Dunn. For a while, I said “I can’t do anything with the name Ed!” Then, a-ha. The light went on.
And because this year I didn’t really follow my previous process of writing down places that stuck me, or things I wanted to change, or trying to organize what could be changed to what, I wound up being swamped at the last minute. Which is ironic, given a text file I had on my computer dated 5/2012. UO came about as a thought experiment after I had my other wordplay game ideas. After IFComp 2011, I said I wanted to make a wordplay game, and I had a spell back around April 2012 where I just tried stuff with words. The Anagram Server caught my eye, and I wondered how to find a huge list of them. I found a text file with a lot of English words, and from there, I dumped out a list. Then Threediopolis came about, and I wrote a PERL program to figure out all the locations of your friends. I was able to develop proofs-of-concept for these games. But I was hoping there was one more.[/spoiler]