Hey there, I’m Troy and I make up 0.25 of Ghostbox. For our second Dev Diary I wanted to share a design problem we faced, and a lesson we learned on the way. So stick around, grab a chair, have a seat and let’s get started…

As mentioned in our previous Developer Diary, Mini-Quests are our unique take on the mission system people have come to expect from endless runners. As a recap: the basic concept of our Mini-Quests involves the player receiving missions in the game round itself (as opposed to the meta goals in most other games) from Quest-Givers they interact with. In addition we have tied these mission characters to our in-game seasons (which change every ten minutes). We have found this to be even more interesting than we anticipated. It makes our mission system feel dynamic, adds a narrative to something that is usually quite dry, and finally reinforces that there is something new to see whenever you start a new game – including a Cow riding on the back of a Dragon.

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However, implementing these Mini-Quests has had its fair share of design hurdles. The biggest problem we had to overcome was the very concept of receiving missions in-game – it was something we were very big on keeping, but really had no answers on how to integrate successfully with the gameplay. In a game such as Jetpack Joyride, the player can prepare themselves for the missions due to the fact it is not dependent on the game round itself. They memorise their goals and therefore there is no need to communicate it in the game round – so what were we to do?

We tried many things – initially the text would appear at the top of the screen with a progress bar (i.e. “collect 500 coins”). As you can imagine this was a total mess. In an edge-of-your-seat action arcade game, the last thing you want to do is not pay attention towards your surroundings so you can read a piece of boring text.

Another solution we tried was a ‘pit stop’ approach, where the moment you pick up a Quest-Giver a big flashy text box would appear. We planned on giving it loads of character, but when the prototype feels wrong you’re just putting lipstick on a pig. Although players could absorb the information at their own pace and it was very straightforward in terms of understanding what to do, an endless runner should never… stop.

So now we had an interesting problem. One solution was readable at the cost of fun, and the other was non-intrusive but had too much information for the player to absorb. Unsure of what to do next, we tested the game and our suspicions were correct: it just wasn’t working. After reviewing our testing feedback, one of our mentors, Dan Vogt, told us a very insightful story about how he once faced a similar issue. When you break it down, what is really happening is you are trying to get the player to look at two places at once, and for less experienced players, this is impossible.

So the real question was: where are the players looking?

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It’s an ingenious piece of design you can see reflected in Mario Kart. In a way their weapon system is very similar to our Mini-Quests. It’s a pickup which changes the rules in a very moment-to-moment fashion, and when you are frantically navigating obstacles the last thing you want to look at is some kind of UI, so instead of a tab that says ‘Red Shells x3’ you show it on the kart itself. No text, no numbers – just literally three red shells rotating around the player.

It’s so beautiful in its simplicity, much like any good design, that it’s the last thing you think of. The good news for us is that we were unintentionally halfway there, what with the Quest-Giver being on the Dragon’s back. After some more brief prototyping, we came to the solution of adding a speech bubble attached to the Quest-Giver displaying the current mission. However, it is far less text-heavy than our initial information. We are communicating missions in the most graphic, universal way possible – language (and therefore age) is now no longer a barrier. The player doesn’t need to know what ‘coins’ means when they can see an icon of the in-game object instead.

So now, when a player starts out in the game with such a tiny window of vision –  before they learn to look outward at incoming obstacles and the Heads Up Display (HUD) – all essential information for progressing in our game is visible to them immediately: Where am I? What is my button input doing? What character is this? What is my current mission?

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And for what it’s worth, I think that’s pretty neat.

Thank you for reading. I hope this lesson might save you some design hair-pulling, and if nothing else – having a cow on the back of a Dragon is hilarious.

Ghostbox are Dom Drysdale, Troy Duguid, Cameron Pyke and Chris Webb. Dragon Season is being published by Right Pedal Studios.