Last night, I conducted the first (informal) play trial for Fireball. It wasn't a blind study (that is, the player already knew a little about the game - equivalent to having read the game manual, perhaps) but the game isn't quite ready for blind play trials yet. Nonetheless, it revealed some issues:
- The player will need to play about 20-30 levels at the Easy difficulty before they are ready for anything at Mid difficulty.
- Many of the fields currently categorised Easy are very difficult for a beginning player to handle. There will have to be some recategorisation.
- We desperately need the 'shadow' of the avatar - it's still very hard for players to know where the avatar is in the world. Fortunately, this is already in hand.
The difficulty issue has implications for the game structure. In order to get the player off the ground, we're going to need a lot of easy fields at the 'front' of the three Paths (Fun, Puzzle and Challenge) - or we're going to need a fourth Path (Novice?) which must be played first, to give the player a chance to get to grips with the basics of play, and to adjust to the controls.
An alternative would be to have a complete game in the original structure, but have the player play through first using only the Easy fields. Then, with the Easy and the Mid. Then a third time with all the fields. That will help extend the play time for the game, which would be an asset, and the player could use their knowledge of the game to score higher combos in the replays. But, the game through the Easy "projection" would probably seem ragged and incomplete.
A last option is to split each path into an Easy, Mid and Hard segment. So, instead of 60 fields in 10 x 6 field chunks, we'd have 20 + 20 + 20 fields (each 20 consisting of 4 sets of 5 fields). As long as the first 20 fields are all Easy, that should be long enough for the player to get a handle on the play (it wouldn't preclude having Easy fields later - just ensuring that the first 20 are all Easy).
For context, you may need to understand that the game is split into ten Stages (the stage codes are for internal use only - the player will not see them):
- Stage L: Leaf and Stone (inert) blocks
- Stage W: Wood and Stone (inert) blocks
- Stage LW: Leaf, Wood and Stone (inert) blocks
- Stage C: Coal, Leaf, Wood and Stone (inert) blocks
- Stage P: Plastic, Leaf, Wood and Stone (inert) blocks
- Stage CP: Coal, Plastic, Leaf, Wood and Stone (inert).
- Stage F: Changes the inert block from Stone to "Fire" (probably Magic in the final game)
- Stage M: Metal, Wood, Leaf and Magic (inert).
- Stage PM: Plastic, Metal, Wood, Leaf, Coal and Magic (inert).
- Stage S: all blocks; Stone blocks can be melted.
LW-style levels are the bulk of the fields in the game currently, so it shouldn't be a problem to put 20 Easy levels at the start of each path using just L, W and LW.
All of this implies some reasonably significant restructuring. Anyone sufficiently au fait with the design to comment on this, please do - I could use some opinions!
At some point soon, we will begin blind trials. I could use people to run these trials from inside the Fireball pool. If you're already licensed, and have a machine that can run Fireball but haven't the time or aptitude for being a level designer, you could still earn a professional game credit by running some blind trials according to our (broad) protocols. Let me know if you're interested in this. Excellent experience for game students!
I feel the game is going to need a setting or back-story for the manual (it won't need it in the game itself) - if only to defend against the accusation that this is an "arson simulator", rather than a rather sweet and innocent platform-puzzle game. This is the complete text I intend to include at the start of the game manual:
Where does fire go when it dreams?
I have two publishers suitable for this project to meet with at GDC: Mastiff and Red Octane. If anyone knows of any other US publishers who (1) publish PS2 games (2) publish some titles at impulse price points ($25 or less) and (3) would be interested in games with expected unit sales of less than 250,000 (but probably more than 100,000) please let me know!
As ever, my infinite thanks goes out to everyone who has supported the Fireball project thus far!