The early concept work for “HRO” envisioned it as sort of Cubicle-Themed Thunder Dome — a sci-fi open-world bureaucracy sim (wow, that sounds — insane now). Players were intended to be on their own, hunting down workable solutions and implementing them perfectly from among a myriad of persistent and persnickety options. It was a cold and lonely world where only the spreadsheet-savvy survived. As development progressed, the concept was refined to become a more focused story-driven experience. But something was missing — as early play testers noted. We got a lot of questions like “Why would I want to talk to the ship’s Botanist?” and “Wait, who is that character?.” Not to mention the dreaded, “What do I do now?.” The player was alone in this world. And they were adrift.
To address this, we gave the player a digital assistant, a PAL (Personal Administrative Liaison) who pops in at the beginning and the end of each act to update the player and move the story along. An ally, of sorts, or at least a witness. Someone else in the world. PAL carries a lot of design water for us. Here are some of the ways he helps:
PAL’s primary function is to orient the player at the top of each act. He summarizes what just happened, what the next goal is, and what the avenues from getting from A to B might be. In this sense, he’s very functional and the major challenge is getting all the content in a 500 character screen limit. In the early stages of the game, he also replaces the traditional tutorial. By choosing to present PAL as VO and giving his dialogue a little edge, we also avoid some reading fatigue and warm the relationship between the player and their helper.
The role of PAL at the end of each act is very different. Here they serve a feedback role, often commenting on the success or the failure of the player’s choices. There are multiple “succeed” and “fail” endings to each act, but even within the successful options, there are some outcomes that are more desirable than others. PAL’s summary lets us signal those shades to the player and provides weight and consequence to their choices.
And finally, and most importantly, PAL’s interactions with the player connects critical story-telling dots. It’s an opportunity for us to resolve loose story ends, point the player to the next story arc, and bring together branching storylines. From a branching/converging narrative structure point of view, PAL is the bridge that allows three different story paths to share a common video summary cut-scene. His dialogue gives the player the story elements they need to connect where they were to where they’re going. This allowed us a lot more flexibility in the kinds of stories we could tell and efficiency in the video resources we could share.
The only downside to building PAL in is that now I kinda want one in my real life, too. But that’s a topic for another post…
We were really excited to have HRO included in Steam’s June “NextFest” promotion and we’re still sifting through the feedback and the observations. Eric and I wanted to thank everyone who downloaded the first demo episode of the game and especially the streamers who played online. Streamers were particularly helpful because it gave us a chance to watch real people play in real time, without our presence being a distraction or skewing the responses. It was a whole “Gorillas in the Mist” thing, except this was more like “Streamers in the Net.”
So what did we learn? Well, we learned a lot about how intuitive and effective the UI and game structure was from watching streamers navigate through the game. Generally, we watch for where players fumble and where they flounder, but we didn’t see a lot of that. It looks like the early play testing let us address most of those potential issues already. Which was a big relief. It’s nerve wracking sitting and watching players wander off the story path and get frustrated because we neglected to connect some dots.
We saw good player engagement with the story and the characters and a wide range of play styles that all seemed to work. Some players tackled the game as more of a mystery to be solved, some as a story to be enjoyed and explored and some as a series of obstacles to be overcome, and everyone seemed to find things to enjoy along the way. All the online streamers also “succeeded” in completing the first demo episode and would have moved on to episode 02 if that had been available. Yay!
This week we're moving on with content development, music composition, and voice-over casting — which is one of the most fun parts for us. We were both theatre people earlier in our lives so being on this side of the audition table is very exciting for us. Next blog post we’ll be talking about PAL (the "Personal Administrative Liaison") and how he helps orient players and move the story along within the branching and converging structure. Til then, we’ll see you in space!
Worthing and Moncrieff, LLC is an independent developer of video game stories founded in 2015.