Use Your Psychic Powers at Applebee's: A Post-Mortem Nacho Supreme

Hello, welcome to Psychic Applebee’s. I’ll be your designer, Geoffrey. Can I get y’all a few Schtupmeisters to get you started? Maybe some sweet 'n spicy buffalo meat ranch dippers? Our special today is a post-mortem for my first IFComp title, Use Your Psychic Powers at Applebee’s. Here’s a button. If you need anything, I have a shock collar and will come back to help.

The Table Setting

UYPPA was the result of a survey. For the past three years, I’ve published over 75 interactive fiction games, twice a month, via my Adventure Snack email newsletter. They’re funny, bite-size, and choice based. At the end of the year, I ask my players to fill out a survey, which helps me determine Adventure Snack’s creative direction for the following year. I gave a list of potential projects I could work on (D&D module, podcast, comics, etc.), but hands down, “text adventure” got the most votes.

The “aye’s” had it. Now all I had to do was learn how to program a text adventure.

The Ingredients

After a bit of research, and the advice of a fellow writer, I chose to learn Ink. I liked that it was a clear, easy to understand language designed with writers in mind, and has the ability to export games directly to web. I’ve dabbled with Twine in the past, but one crucial selling point was Ink’ss reputation for playing nice with Unity. So I could release a web beta to my Adventure Snack audience, get their feedback, and if I wanted to add a fancy UI or graphics or something down the road, I could plug my Ink game into Unity.

Over the winter break, I read the Ink print guide, which is already dogeared at the side of my desk. Around the same time, I remembered there was a contest for interactive fiction games, but in past years I missed the deadline. So I had my plan for 2022: learn Ink, design a beta, ask Adventure Snack players for feedback, revise, then enter a completed build to IFComp 2022. Super easy!*

*It was not easy.

The Recipe

UYPPA was inspired by an unlikely source: the infamous Sega CD FMV game Night Trap. I love the game’s campy acting and aesthetic, but the gameplay, which involves flipping through security cameras to trap invading “augers” (shitty vampires) at a girls’ sleepover, always bothered me. It actively discourages the player from watching the ridiculous party scenes, which is the best part of the experience. If you follow the girls, you won’t trap the augers, and they take over the house. Game over, man!

I had a couple other game ideas, but I kept coming back to improving (IMHO) the Night Trap mechanic. What about a multi-track story experience where paying attention to the story was crucial to the gameplay? Players would have to follow the flow of the story to know when important decisions were coming up, then time those flips accordingly.

Now how exactly that led to being a psychic at Applebee’s, I have no idea! I’ve always loved X-Men comics and the idea that you could be having a conversation with Professor X, but he actually wasn’t paying attention to you at all. His mind was in space stopping an alien invasion or pleading with a mutant teen not to do drugs behind 7-11. But something about the idea of hopping from mind-to-mind cliqued with me and the mechanic I wanted to explore.

I drew a story map in my design notebook outlining the four main characters, their simultaneous evenings, their key decisions, and how they might affect one another. Each character’s story would have 10 beats, followed by a resolution sequence outside Applebee’s to reflect the results of player’s choices inside. This game would be quite a bit longer than a typical Adventure Snack, but I knew from game development experience to keep the scope small for a first time out, so I didn’t get overwhelmed by features and give up the project in frustration.

Cooking

I knew I wanted the characters’ stories to intersect in fun and unexpected ways, which was the trickiest lift narratively speaking. During development, the number of story beats expanded from 10 to 13 to better accommodate multiple branches, so everything would line-up properly.

It was no surprise to myself that programming would be the hardest part. If I had chosen to create an entirely linear, choice-based game with relatively simple branches and variables, Ink would’ve made the development process a breeze. But I find the ideas I’m most attracted to are the ones that (accidentally) take me beyond my own understanding.

The mechanism for shifting minds / narrative tracks was trickier than I imagined it would be. None of my attempts to build it worked. I’m extremely grateful for Jon Ingold, who personally replied on the Inkle Discord (!) and helped me figure out what I was doing wrong. Maybe he took pity on me because my last name also has “gold” in it?!

When the player decides which mind they want to enter, the script does three things:

  1. It keeps track of how many beats in the conversation have elapsed.
  2. It wipes the current character from the “currentchar” list and replaces it with the player selected one.
  3. It sends the player to a function called “wheretonow” that’s a laundry list of characters and their story beats. So if you’re headed to Waitress / Beat 6, it goes down the waitress list, finds beat 6, and sends you to that stitch.

(If you’re a programmer, this all might sound super easy and obvious, but it was a major wall for me.)

I kept track of my hours for the initial prototype from March to May of 2022. Between design, story, and programming, I spent 27 hours in development. The good news is that on future projects, I’ll have the benefit of this experience to draw from, so hopefully I’ll be able to do certain tasks faster without having to flip through my dogeared guide as much.

Soft Open

In mid-July, I sent a password protected beta to Adventure Snack players. Twenty brave souls played the UYPPA beta. Overall, players liked the game, rating it a 4 or 5. The most encouraging sign was that 85% of testers played the game multiple times, with 30% playing 5 or more times. I took that as a very good sign for engagement.

Players most enjoyed the humor, the characters, and the psychic mechanic of hopping from mind-to-mind. But the negative feedback was troubling. A lot of players felt the game was “passive,” more like flipping channels on a remote than an interactive experience, and others bemoaned a lack of a player goal. They were absolutely right.

In the beta, you’re a psychic at dinner with the tech bro. You’re so bored hearing about crypto, you let your psychic mind wander. It’s a funny conceit, but I realized it was a weak design choice. The narrative setup gave the players a reason to explore the minds of patrons, but it wasn’t actively encouraging the player to explore. The beta had no stated goal for the player. It was all too subtle.

The other problem is that players were making their way through the entire game without experiencing any of the choices. Since players could flip from mind-to-mind, they might be listening to the Waitress when the Boy’s choice comes up. Hence the feeling of lack-of-control.

I needed to completely re-contextualize the design and I didn’t have much time left, since I was going to be on a trip out-of-town over the two weeks leading up to IFComp’s deadline. Pressure’s on!

Renovations

At first, I wanted to add a bunch more choices to the narrative. My plan was to allow the player to make psychic suggestions in each story beat, and depending on the suggestions you made, the character would take a certain action. So, for example, if you made peaceful suggestions to the boy, he’d act like a good boy. But if you encouraged him to think of Kool-Aid Man and Garfield as violent rivals, he would torch the place. But the idea quickly ballooned the scope of the project beyond the time I could spend on it. That feature would have to wait for the inevitable AAA sequel, Use Your Psychic Powers at Applebee’s: Ranch Burger Saga.

So I went back to the drawing board. What could I add that would be easy to implement, give the player a concrete and measurable goal, and give the player more choice? Then I thought about Night Trap again and the whole “trap” mechanic. Maybe this game could have something similar. I remember going to a bar one time and a brand ambassador in a Captain Morgan’s tank top gave our party free drinks and I think plastic bracelets? Maybe the player was a psychic brand ambassador and the goal is getting everyone in the bar to drink their beer by catching them in the right mood. That would directly encourage the goal of paying attention to these characters’ thoughts.

The change made sense for the tone and story, and was within scope, so I started implementing the new framing in September. But it wasn’t just framing. I needed to integrate a new core gameplay mechanic, including a score counter, tracking variables for whether a character drank the beer, and payoffs in the ending for selling beer, including an entirely new end sequence. I stopped keeping track of the hours I spent, but I’m lucky that my partner is a late sleeper, because I loaded the Ink files onto my laptop and worked several mornings on my September trip. I had just enough time to bring a few playtesters on to test the new version of the game. We caught a couple last minute gnarly bugs, including one where if you got a particular score, the new ending wouldn’t load at all.

This version was a much stronger and more compelling game, but I kept my fingers crossed I didn’t somehow miss any game breaking bugs. It was tight. For the sake of dramatic tension, let’s say I uploaded my entry to IFComp at… 11:59 pm on September 28th. Just made it!

Grand Opening

Over the next few weeks, I was very excited by the public reviews for UYPPA. They were mostly very positive and there were lots of them. I didn’t want to appear to be “talking back” to the judges, so I made a policy of not responding to reviews, but I read every single one and appreciated them all. The public review spreadsheet was a tab on my desktop and mobile devices, and I became a little obsessed.

One highlight was watching two Twitch streamers play UYPPA multiple times. It was kind of like an out-of-body experience? I’ve seen streamers play a game I wrote before, but not an interactive fiction piece like this. The game’s words were like a bucket in my head, and the streamers splashed those words out all over Twitch. It was cool and surreal!

My last minute design solutions worked for the reviewers. I didn’t clock any reviews about the game feeling directionless, choices not mattering, or game breaking bugs. In fact, many reviewers noted they played the game multiple times to try and achieve their desired outcome, which at first was getting a higher sales count, but then wanting to help the various characters. Huzzah!

It began dawning on me that I could only do so well in the competition when I read reviewers use “snack” as a way to describe the game, no doubt taking a cue from the Adventure Snack link on the top of the page. Since I was competing against 1-2 hour games that felt more like a “meal,” I knew my score would reflect that. The multi-track switching minds mechanic at the heart of the game may have cost me points in the end. According to Ink, the game is 8770 words long. If the average adult reads 225 words per minute, I could’ve potentially cleared a half hour runtime with the same word count by having the player read minds one at a time. Of course, that would have been a very different game, but it’s a hypothetical bouncing around my brain like the DVD logo on a TV.

A couple reviewers wondered if UYPPA was an advertisement for Adventure Snack, given the link at the top of the screen and in the end credits. It certainly sprung out of Adventure Snack, and I honestly believe IFComp players will enjoy my newsletter, but if my goal was purely conversion, I would’ve been a lot more shameless! (Years ago, I made a mobile game to promote my old humor magazine where players jump around the screen collecting issues of the magazine.) If my Substack stats are to be believed, about 5-10% of judges became Adventure Snack players, which is awesome. Looking forward to sending you short, funny IF games twice a month! (See? Shameless!)

Final Course

All in all, I’d say my first IFComp was a great experience. When I entered the competition, I told my partner I’d be lucky if the game made the Top 50. So hitting #16 went beyond my expectations for the project I learned Ink on. UYPPA has a few neat distinctions…

  1. UYPPA was the highest ranking short game.
  2. UYPPA received 122 votes, which was the most votes for all games in 2022.
  3. UYPPA received the incredibly funny and terrifying score of 6.66. Hail Satan!

I wish I could’ve attended the live stream, but I had a prior engagement on Saturday. When I watched it back later in the day, I talked back to the screen. “I wish I was there, y’all!” I do plan to get more involved in the IF community in the years to come. There are plenty more snacks on the way and maybe even a proper meal or two.

Thanks for eating at Psychic Applebee’s. See you next time you’re at a shopping complex and PF Chang’s is closed for renovations. Take care!

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