I played Orbital co-op with a friend who had never played Mysterious Space before. I love doing this, because it gives me an opportunity to take more notes on where the game can improve in basic ways. Any time I felt like I had to explain something, or that the player seemed blind to something I meant to be obvious, that was an indicator to me that the game had possibly failed to explain itself.
I say “possibly”, because I’m aware that if I WEREN’T there to just ask questions of, it’s possible they would have looked harder, and discovered it on their own. Observer effect is a tricky thing.
Still, it’s good to note EVERYTHING, because some issues keep coming up over and over again from person to person.
One issue I can’t seem to get away from is the ambiguity about which things you SHOULD touch, which things you should NOT touch, and even which graphics are solid, and which are go-through.
Spiked walls are one such example. I had one friend tell me that he kept getting hurt at seemingly-random times, and couldn’t find out why, until he realized that some walls are spiky! On one hand that seems really bad, however, since the penalty for touching a spiked wall is relatively light – especially in the early levels – I’m not too worried about confusion here. You’ll figure it out quickly enough – as my friend did – and once you realize what spiked walls look like, they’re easy to spot in the future.
Another, almost-opposite example is items you pick up – things you SHOULD touch! Again and again I see players ignore the gently-floating boxes. And actually, they didn’t always gently float: I added that animation in an attempt to make them look more friendly! Apparently it hasn’t worked 😛
I could be blunt about it and have some red cross-hair with the word “GET!” over the pickups until you collect your first one, but before going that far, I’m going to load up some old arcade shooters, and see how THEY depict collectibles. Maybe I’m just missing some little visual trick that will let a player know “this is a thing you collect.”
Another pick-up, which looks very different, is the Fuel – the goal of the level that many new players seem to forget about. The game tells you, during the tutorial “go find fuel!” but it’s in a bit of story text that I could forgive the players for skipping. I think I’m going to add a reminder from your ship AI when you first descend on a planet… some text like “I detect hostile forces. While they will get in your way, remember that it’s Fuel we’re here for! It will probably be beneath the surface of the planet.” Preferably presented in a way that does not rob control from you. (Making me think “should I aim for voice acting, some day?”)
But speaking of searching below the surface, I’ve also heard – and seen – players confused about which terrain they can go through, and which is solid. I think a big problem here is with the graphics: the terrain in general is big and blocky, and the background dirt is similarly blocky… “blocks = solid” is not an unreasonable thing for a person to think. This makes me wonder if fraying the edges of the background dirt, or some other effect like that, will help. It’s something I’ll have to experiment with, and something else I’ll look at other games for. (I hear there’s a big Starbound update; maybe I’ll give that game another shot…)
I think what will ALSO help, however – and is something I have already done in 0.6.1 – is increasing the visibility of the minimap. I would sometimes ask players “did you notice the minimap?” and often the response would be “no? minimap?” I can’t help but think that if they DID see the minimap, they would realize how much space there is BELOW what they’re discovering, and even in a worst case scenario think to themselves “there must be SOME way to get there”, prompting them to experiment.
But when I was first adding the minimap, I didn’t want it to be too obtrusive, since it is taking up screen space, and I think I went too far, making it SO unobtrusive that many players now miss it entirely.
So for 0.6.1, I tried putting a semi-transparent black box around the map, to see what it’d look like, and the difference was amazing! The map – as well as the unexplored space – is immediately visible, and thanks to the semi-transparency, you can still see the elements of the screen that the map would otherwise cover. It’s such a simple solution, and such an old/tried-and-true solution, that I feel kind of silly for not having done it in the first place. But at least I finally got there 😛 And the simplicity also reassures me that it’s probably a REALLY GOOD solution. (Ah! Occam’s Razor! My good friend!)
That was a lot of rambling about UI issues which, for many players, may not be very exciting 😛 Don’t worry: I have mini-bosses, co-op tweaks, and other things in the works as well! I’ll post about them as I get to them!
Thanks for reading! 🙂