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14 Jan 2015

Indie Developers: Giving Your Player’s Breathing Room

For the last month, my wife and I have been having a blast playing Don’t Starve Together. There have been nights in which we play for probably six hours straight – from the time we eat dinner to when we go to bed. It’s insane how addictive the game can be. For a few days, I was trying to figure out exactly what made this game such a blast to play – especially since I never felt this way about the original Don’t Starve. Of course, the co-op nature of the game makes it so much more satisfying (in my opinion, this is the way Don’t Starve was meant to be played), but there was something else that pulled me in and made me hopelessly addicted.

Then it dawned on me: the game never holds your hand. The only support you have from the game is how to craft certain objects – and that’s it. No hand-holding, no tutorials; you have nothing but a recipe list and your wits.

It harkens back to games I grew up with (and this will go for a lot of you as well). There was a time in which if you couldn’t figure out how to play a game, the only person at fault was you. If a game was too challenging or a puzzle was too confusing, blaming the developer for not including a tutorial was a pretty ridiculous gripe.

But times have changed. Players expect to be told what they have to do to some extent, and this certainly isn’t a bad thing. Tutorials that tell the player how to play the game and even a few helpful hint pop-ups are a welcome change, but it seems like too many games go a little overboard. In an effort to appeal to everyone, many developers tend to hold the hand of the player, making them feel like they’re on a tour rather than playing a crucial role in the game. Sure, this makes the game accessible to everyone, but the challenge of the game is sacrificed (and a game without a challenge is worthless).

As an indie developer, it is vital that you find a happy medium between teaching your players how to play the game and giving them room to learn on their own. Ask any player what their most treasured gaming moment is, and I guarantee the backbone of that moment will involve the player putting into practice something they learned on their own! After all, true learning comes from converting theory (i.e. tutorials, in-game hints, etc.) into action and ultimately figuring out how to solve problems using one’s own wits.

With extensive hand-holding, the player never experiences this sensation; and it’s this sensation that keeps players coming back for more. When developing your next indie game, teach your players the fundamentals, but give them enough breathing room to learn how to become a pro at the game on their own. They’ll be more inclined to master it, because half the fun of a video game is learning how to figure out all of its secrets and develop your own strategies.

Do you have any tips or comments about giving your player’s breathing room to learn how to play your game on their own? Let us know in the comments below!

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