Usability, Design, and the three bears

Yesterday I showed Flip to three developers. The Big Developer was annoyed by the flashing sign that said “Too many moves”. He likes to tinker with things, try out possibilities, and the fact that the game told him that he was already beyond the move count felt frustrating to him. The Medium developer mostly ignored the sign, because he is used to playing games that tell you when you are not going to reach your objective. He played and solved some levels, and others he just skipped. The Small developer was not even aware that a sign was flashing on the screen, so he did┬ánot realize that he was not solving the puzzles when he used too many moves. He did not even read the message telling him that he could do it in less moves.

This is just a sample of how diverse people are: even among those who might be seen as such a niche group (game developers) there can be a huge variation in behavior. And I’ve already noticed that variation in almost every aspect of the game. Some people love the controls. Some hate it. Some like level progression, others feel constrained by it.
Can I cater to all of them? Of course not. And with a limited budget, I cannot fund a serious research, find my target group, do proper testing, etc. What I do is to go with a tablet or two, game loaded, everywhere. Whenever I can, I ask people to play. And after that, I create something that is stable, coherent and that, when you follow its rules, works. There are still a couple things players can think, that worry me and are very difficult to handle.

“Is this possible or am I doing something wrong?” / “Why is the game not allowing me to do this?”

This is very hard. How can a player know that something is possible, when she is doing it in the wrong way? With flip, this happens for example when players place the fingers between pieces instead of on top. Also, when people want to rotate something from outside to inside. This has been mostly solved by the tutorial, which shows people what to do and asks them to repeat it.

“I had not seen┬áthat!”

Similar to the one above, a player might not realize what is happening. He could be missing content, or just the fact that he is not progressing (like Small developer above). I used to have a move counter shaped as several bars. Dark means a move is still left, light means move done. e.g., two darks: a level with 2 min. moves and no move done yet. one light three dark: a level with 4 moves and 1 done already. But as the first level had only two moves, some people interpreted the two dark bars as a pause symbol, and ignored them altogether. The only way to find this problems is by looking at people play, letting them do something, and later ask them if they saw some detail. You can be quite surprised about what people perceive.

“This game annoys me!”

There is a subset of the people I’ve tested with, I’ll say between 10 and 20%, that just want to try things but don’t like the game nagging them for going over the minimum amount of moves. Flip does not discourage experimentation, but it also does not reward it properly. You get no points for solving something in more than the minimum. It is probably something I will have to change, implementing some “3 stars” system or similar. On the other hand, not every game is for everyone, and finding the right players is important.