Worthing & Moncrieff, like every other indie developer, lives and dies creatively by maintaining a pipeline of projects. Now that "Austen Translation" is in it’s final stretch (the early 2018 release date is coming! We’re so excited!), we really should be blue-skying and dreaming about our next project. Yes, already. We should already be knee-deep in sifting and planning and sketching and pitching, all those fun, frightening, open-ending idea-generating activities we depend on to grow as game professionals and as a studio.
With two other projects out in the world (or almost), this third project will have things to say about who we think we are as company, what we value, and where we’re going. When we go back to square one with a new project we’ll also have to revisit all the big-picture decisions we’ve already made for our first two games. What are the best ways to foster player connections? What is the best vehicle to tell the story we want to tell? What makes a gameplay mechanic engaging and fresh? And a hundred others. Heady, engaging big-picture stuff that deserves our time and attention.
And that’s the rub, of course. We’re too small a studio to have staff dedicated to new project development exclusively, so we’ll need to carve out brain space and hours to do the development work we need to do on the next game *while* we’re buttoning up and launching this game and supporting our original title, “A Matter of Murder." We’ll have to manage the intellectual dissonance of getting the “Austen” details right while simultaneously dreaming of our next great adventure. A challenge, for sure. But it’s a challenge which brings with it the promise of growth and renewal.
We were very fortunate to get to show “Austen Translation” at this year’s amazing Boston Festival of Independent Games (BFIG). It’s events like FIG that help a developer hone their elevator pitch and to refine and clarify how you talk about your game and how it works. Developers get to see firsthand how players who are brand new to their games approach the play, interact with it, and where they connect to the story.
One of the best aspects of participating in a show like this is the opportunity to have fresh, in-depth conversations with first-time players. Some of our favorite take-aways from showing “Austen Translation” are summarized below:
NOT EVEN SKIN-DEEP
AT uses a system of matching three numerical characteristics to determine who each bachelor wants to marry. At FIG these were listed as Beauty, Ruthlessness and Wit. We had a really interesting conversation with a player who looked confused after they finished the character customization phase. When we asked, we were told that they expected their avatar’s appearance to change when the Beauty score was increased or decreased. Which made us realize that we were thinking of Beauty in the larger sense, encompassing appearance, but also grace and generosity and a lot of other intangibles. The label of Beauty seemed too specific and it seemed to be getting in the way of players understanding the design intent. Moving forward, we’ll be calling that attribute Charm, which is both a more flexible and a more truthful label.
THE PLOT THINS
There is a certain sub-group of Austen players who aren’t as interested in the strategic aspects and are more focused on the story parts (I’m one of them). So their decisions may not be the soundest tactically, but they feel right for their character in that moment, and winning in the traditional sense isn’t always at the top of their list. After one of these players finished their round they asked me, “So what happened to my character?” “Well,” I replied, parroting the intro text “She died in poverty because you didn’t marry your bachelor.” We had made the design decision early on that the more successful you were in the game the more in-depth your ending would go, and that if you didn’t even manage to get a proposal, you were basically dropped from the story entirely. This was not a good answer for this player and seems a little dismissive in hindsight. “But I wanted to see it,” they replied (reasonably enough). “I want to know what happened to this character I created and rooted for." With this in mind, we went back to draft a set of endings for every player. Not only does this give us a sense of completeness for everyone, it allowed us to layer in a whole set of messages questioning what it means to “win” a game like AT.
READING IS TRULY FUNDAMENTAL
With it’s conspicuously literary theming, it seemed impossible to envision “Austen” as a game without text. Of some sort. Of some amount. But we’ve been concerned about where that right balance between text and game flow might be. Watching people play at FIG showed us that folks actually read the text, which was a tremendous relief. They read, they laughed, they followed the story and felt something for their heroines. So the balance may not be exactly right yet, it’s at least working on some level.
We want to thank everyone who came out and played AT and especially the folks who stayed to talk with us about the game in more depth. Our thanks also go out to the BFIG organizers and their volunteers who always do an amazing job. We’re already looking forward to next year’s event!
Worthing & Moncrieff's first publication was a rogue-like puzzle game called “A Matter of Murder.” MoM is a game which doesn’t really lend itself to a multi-player experience — though some YouTube live streamers have made unexpected and excellent use of the suspect naming feature to populate their single-player streams with all the folks watching online. Melissa at Cocktails & Consoles does this particularly well.
So we were excited, when we started prototyping “Austen Translation,” to find we had an opportunity to create a robust multi-player mode with up to five humans in the mix. Not only was plotting and scheming against your friends in real time great fun, but it gave players the chance to do the same things their character were doing in the game — which fosters immersion and connection with a game world. And, and, if we want to get all meta about it, by having players compete ruthlessly against their friends, we were getting them to engage in the very social norms and behaviors we were satirizing. Plus it was fun. Did I mention how fun it was to slip bacon into your best friend’s skirt so the hunting dogs won’t leave her alone?
Planning for a multi-player mode posed some interesting design challenges. For example, “Austen” boasts a pretty robust heroine customization system, but who wants to wait while someone searches for just the right hairstyle or the oh-so-perfect character name? We think we solved that by moving the customization/character selection options to the beginning, before players enter the multi-player lobby. And speaking of waiting, what about pausing play to consider options or re-read text? The current prototype disables pausing in multi-player in the interest of keeping the story-telling pace moving. And then, of course, there were all the considerations of how the player lobby is graphically displayed and how those features re-purpose the UI vocabulary from the single-player version of the game.
We haven’t even touched on the technical challenges with getting multi-player games to run. Eric tells me that’s an entirely separate blog post. When I tried to draw him out on the subject, he started talking about things like “high level API" and "remote procedural calls” — to which I had no follow-up. So that’s a topic for another post.
It’s been tremendous fun sharing the development process with you over this last year. Thanks for coming along for the ride. We’re not done yet, but we are gearing up to a projected release date of November 2017 for “Austen Translation.” We’ll keep you posted as the big launch date approaches. We’re also excited to announce that AT will be featured in the digital showcase at the Boston Festival of Independent Games on September 23, 2017 in Cambridge, MA. We hope you’ll come out to say hello, play the game and compliment us on our swanky new Worthing & Moncrieff polo shirts.
We're very proud to announce that "Austen Translation" will be featured in the digital showcase of the 2017 Boston Festival of Independent Games (BFIG). The festival will take place on September 23 at MIT in Cambridge, MA. We hope you get a chance to come out to the show to see us and play "Austen." More info on the festival can be found at bostonfig.com.
The promotional video we used to apply to BFIG is included below. We hope you enjoy this behind-the-scenes look at the game and our work.
So, we’re sending out “Austen Translation” for initial play testing. This is a time of both delight and horror. It’s delightful in that people are actually *playing* our game, which is great! And they’re sending back suggestions and commenting and giving us fresh insight into gameplay, pacing, and tone, and that’s all amazing! But it’s also a little horrifying because we *know* there are things that aren’t working and we know that there are big fixes still to be made, but you can’t wait till you think it’s perfect before you send a game out for play testing. It would never leave the nest. So it’s time to push our squawking, squealing little fledgeling out of the nest. Yes, right now.
We like to embrace a hands-off approach to play testing. New players are generally given only a short soundbite about the goals of the game and set free to muddle their way through a round. There is no tutorial. It can be very informative to watch a fresh player figure out how your game works through trial and error. When they grok things right off, you know you’re in the ballpark. When multiple players make the same mistakes or experience the same frustrations, it can be a sign that what you thought was intuitive or obvious really isn’t. After play, there’s generally an informal discussion to capture impressions and suggestions.
In addition to our usual cadre of industry folks and insiders — who are great for technical and higher-level commentary and understand the process well — we invited a few more “civilians” into the play testing mix this round. We were particularly interested in getting the game into the hands of female players, players slightly older than the predictable demographic, and folks with a literary background. The game was also made available at the recent Playcrafting Spring Play Game Expo event here in Boston, which brought a wide range of players and sparked a lot of lively discussion. We want to thank the Playcrafting folks for the opportunity to get “Austen” out in front of their audience.
One of the hardest parts of play testing effectively is interpreting the feedback you receive. Often feedback is couched in terms of specific recommendation (“A should be B”) which you may or may not agree with at this very moment. It can be helpful to avoid a binary “we’re going to accept or deny this recommendation” and look beyond the suggestion to the issue which sparked the suggestion in the first place. Specific play tester requests can be symptoms of deeper issues which could be better addressed by fixing the underlying problem instead.
There’s also a constant natural tension between wanting to hear and respond to your testers, and the necessity of maintaining the integrity of your original vision for the game. Group processes tend to be biased toward knocking the quirky sharp edges off products, but sometimes — just sometimes — those edges are precisely what make a game experience unique and memorable.
It’s come to that exciting (and terrifying) moment in the development of “Austen Translation” when we get to give the ending sequence a little love. Endings — in games and in literature — are tricky beasts since they need to check a lot of boxes. They need to feel earned, organic, satisfying to the player or reader, and a bit unexpected. And it’s in the balance between surprise and inevitability that the art of crafting a “good” ending lies. Too much surprise and it feels like it’s a conclusion out of left field. Too much inevitability and players see it coming a mile away and your suspense is shot.
Complicating the “Austen” ending problem is our aim to keep the number-crunching that’s going on under the hood, well, under the hood. We made a conscious design choice at the start of the project to downplay the spreadsheet aspects in favor of a more literary, narrative gameplay flow. But without showing players some obvious objective standard the game is using to judge winners and losers, we ran the risk of making the strategy elements feel like window dressing.
After a few iterations, we’ve decided to experiment with a hybrid approach which enthusiastically embraces both story and statistic, just not at the same time. At the end of each round, the player gets to see the “story” ending that happens to her heroine. This gives their story journey a sense of completion while maintaining a certain “literary” distance from the math that determined their result. By building out a pool of stock unsuccessful endings to draw from, we can offer players endings which seem fresh and integral to their stories each time they play.
Once the player’s individual story has come to a conclusion — either in glorious victory or punishing defeat — the round ends with a statistical table laying out how each of the players did and what each of the bachelors was looking for. An objective document of the round.
By placing it at the very end, outside of the narrative flow, we hope to provide players with feedback on their round without breaking their sense of a continuous narrative. Then, armed with some hard, cold facts about why they won, or didn’t, they can plunge back in to tackle new Austenian challenges and woo new Austenian bachelors.
We're excited to announce that "Austen Translation" just went live on Steam Greenlight (like, just minutes ago). To celebrate, we're posting the promotional trailer below. If you've enjoyed reading about our game design process, please head over to our greenlight page to give us a thumbs up of support. Thanks! http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=927724334
We were at Pax East last month and I watched a young woman playing a lovely little story-based game. I couldn’t help but notice a phenomenon that I have seen frequently in the game world. She clicked through every bit of text. At the fastest possible pace and without appearing to make any effort at all to read anything. It was like the text was being perceived as getting in the way of her fun. And my writer’s heart bled a little with every click. Because someone somewhere (hopefully) had labored to put together copy to illuminate, enrich and expand her digital experience. And maybe it was successful text, and maybe it wasn’t, but that player would never know. That player is probably clicking away from this post even as you read this — too wordy! Get to the point!
The point is that “Austen Translation” is all about capturing the essence of a particular sort of literary experience, so text (to one degree or another) is not really optional. As a writer I am willing to die on this particular game-design hill. The question then becomes, in a literary strategy game, how do you make it advantageous to the player to actually read the modest copy that appears in the game? Ideally without punishing the fast-clickers (because this is a game and punishment is not fun). Can we layer on a mechanic that encourages players to engage with the story text? The answer may lie in the brutal pressure of the conventions of polite society.
Austen and the women she wrote about were often educated, artistic, witty, charming and excellent conversationalists, but not because these accomplishments were valued for their own merits. No one thought these women would go on to use their knowledge of philosophy to teach at Oxford. They were educated so that they could hold their own in a dinner party conversation. The aristocracy needed intellectual discourse and art and performance to connect people and demonstrate value. Perhaps this thematically appropriate social engine can be put to work in the service of meaningful text?
We’re currently looking at ways to weave details about the bachelors’ likes and dislikes — clues, essentially — into the game text. In that way, an attentive reader (our version of a good social listener) could see some advantage in making choices that show she is being attentive to her preferred bachelor. Will he like her more if she also claims to favor the breed of hunting dog he prefers? Will his heart warm to her just a little bit if she remembers his sister’s name? This approach also interests us because it allows the player to actually do the thing their avatar is doing in the game (listening and remembering and signaling that) which strengthens immersion and connection to the game world and goals. Stay tuned as we explore methods for implementing this idea without breaking the game...
At its most basic level, "Austen Translation" is a game about making choices — choices which affect how the other characters in the game perceive you. So, if you were guest at a swanky lawn party, you might choose to “bedazzle your croquet mallet” to get a +1 to your BEAUTY score. Or maybe “fail to warn the other spectators of an incoming polo ball” to boost your RUTHLESSNESS score. It's pretty easy to see the cause and effect in these simple examples.
But recently we’ve been experimenting with some more complex interactions between a player's character and the other women vying to marry the same well-off bachelors. These might include actions where you gain *and* an opponent loses. Or maybe you both lose but she loses more. In this way, we’re hoping to make the choices of the rivals — or other players in the multi-player version — more meaningful, since they might well have a direct impact on you. We also wanted to enhance the sense of direct competition between the women. For instance, at the archery club outing you might choose “You ‘mistake’ an inattentive rival for the target” which would give you a boost to RUTHLESSNESS and the rival of your choice a reduction in WIT.
What was particularly interesting to me was the conversation that followed when some less obvious relationships between the text and the resulting changes to the stats cropped up. Take the action option “Offer a rival the last slice of pie at the church picnic." The original slated result was -1 WIT for you and -1 RUTHLESSNESS for your rival, the reasoning being that you have be pretty dumb to give away the last slice of delicious pie, and that your rival would feel warmly toward you and more happy with the world in general if they just had more delicious pie (my partisan “pro-pie-bias” is showing here). But, not so fast! There is also a good case to be made that this would be a -1 RUTHLESSNESS for you, and a -1 BEAUTY for your rival event, the reasoning being that you will look like a softy by giving away the pie and your rival may well look a bit of a glutton. A case could also be made that your BEAUTY might suffer (what with all the crying you’re doing having had to give up pie) and your opponent’s WIT might suffer (since they were too dumb to figure out just how much you love pie before they took it from you).
As a writer, these sorts of “self-constructing narratives” are a fascinating mechanic. How much content do we need to give players before they start connecting their own story dots? Do players feel a stronger sense of connection and commitment when they feel like storytelling partners with the developers? And how can we structure the narrative we do provide to encourage this sort of imaginative investment in the action?
We found a similar human delight in connecting implied narrative dots when we were working on our first game, "A Matter of Murder." In playthroughs and livestreams it was pretty common for players to draw strong conclusions about relationships, motives and events base on the *flimsiest* of cues. Most often these story elements weren’t intentional or integral to “winning” the game, but players seemed to revel in these serendipitous discoveries. It’s a tribute to all the ways our brains are wired to see pattern and meaning and story in the world all around us. It’s a beautiful thing.
Writing compelling copy for a strategy game like “Austen Translation” is a daunting enterprise under the best of circumstances, but it’s doubly challenging when you’re writing to capture the essence of a beloved literary canon. It was relatively easy, however, to pick up some of the broad themes from her work, such as the role of women and her criticisms of marriage as an institution, since many of them are baked into the satirical premise of the game.
The conceit of the game is that the player is “writing” their own Jane Austen novel, so it seemed natural to adopt the conventions of classical literature, down to nomenclature and structure. Each action round is presented as a chapter with it’s own headline and subhead, as well as a blurb of “flavor text” to set the scene for the next phase of play.
We looked at the formal aspects of Austen’s work such as sentence structure, vocabulary choices and cadence. It was way too much fun plant contentual easter eggs in the text -- names, word choices and ideas which fans of her work would undoubtedly recognize. This serves the double purpose of grounding our game in the Austen universe and offering players the thrill of discovering the connections as they play.
A hallmark of her work was the seamless transition from the traditional omniscient narrative to text which gives the reader a window into what her characters are thinking and feeling. She is credited with pioneering this objective > internal > objective again formula. And this gives us, as game designers, a terrific opportunity to use this same mechanism to give players an additional level of strategic information they can act on in the next chapter.
It’s been a busy couple of weeks getting a working protoype of “Austen Translation” on its feet and preparing our submission for the 2017 Boston Festival of Independent Games. We’re excited to get the game into the hands of playtesters for feedback so we can begin the real work of making the game fly. Stay tuned.