One of the popular gags in The Ditty of Carmeana is the three tests you have to pass to prove that you are a graduate of the University of Chingaim. This post is a little bit about how the game design for the tests came about.
It was my original intention to have about ten majors, and all of them would be extremely difficult tests except for one super easy one. Part of the puzzle would be to figure out which one was the easy major. And in order to discourage trial-and-error, the difficulty of convincing the Registrar to let you take the final for a different major would ramp up: you’d need more and more money for each new major you declared, or something like that. Then, I was going to put in a bunch of clues all over campus about what each major entails to help the player deduce the easy one. In fact, you can see a little remnant of that idea still in the game: there’s a little stand in the room with the Registrar and Bursar with a pamphlet on a choosing a major.
The problem with that original concept is, if I did that, I would have had to come up with, and write, ten tests.
In the end I came up with about seven test concepts, and fleshed out three or four of them.
- The Aerospace Engineering exam was obvious: A. it was what I majored in, and B. it is an archaetypal example of a very difficult field. (“It’s not rocket science!”) I thought it’d be funny to just play that one straight: you say you majored in Aerospace Engineering, you get an actual, senior-level Aerospace Engineering test. Though I did throw in a few passing jokes about how airplanes and satellites haven’t been invented yet.
- The Bowtudgel History test was a pretty obvious as well since my nature is to write long backstories. Now, for most writers, the clever and sophisticated way to work in a backstory is to reveal it with a stream of little clues. But I thought it’d be mildly amusing to just infodump the backstory right into the game in a few places. And once that happened, there was enough fodder in the game to make a test about the lore. Hence the Bowtudgel History exam. This test wasn’t something I was planning to make funny; I wanted it to be something that might be an interesting challenge for players who enjoy lore.
- The (Ac)counting test. I don’t remember exactly when or how I came up with it (I don’t appear to have written it down in my notebooks). The joke was that this would be a major popular with student-athletes: that was one way you’d know it was the easy one.
- I had an idea for a final exam in Medicine; it would be a real medical exam but with a twist I thought was pretty funny. (I won’t reveal the twist here because I might actually still do this at some point.)
At this point I was running out of ideas. I came with a few more concepts I didn’t flesh out: actual questions from the SAT (which wouldn’t have been legal, incidentally, they are copyrighted), a physics test where the correct answers are “game physics”, and I remember a few other ideas.
Wanting to release the game in my lifetime, I decided that three majors would suffice, and the puzzle about figuring out which was the easy major would no longer be a part of it. (I mean, there’s not a whole lot of ways to discourage trial-and-error when there are only three options.)
That’s a lesson is letting go, but it’s not actually the main lesson.
Those who have read other blog posts I’ve written are aware that sometimes I do things in the game just to mess with people. Well, at some point toward the back end of development, after I had already settled on the three majors and was working out the logic with the registrar, I had an idea of how to tweak achievement bros.
I had already been planning to randomize the Aerospace Engineering questions, but my reasoning was so that you couldn’t list the answers in a guide. The idea was to preserve the difficulty of the test. And I did realize that it would bother people who have to get every achievement.
But then I thought of a better way.
Originally I was not going to have the Registrar issue corrected results, but as I was play-testing I decided that it might seem suspicious, so I added a mechanic to do that. (This it turned out to be trickier than it looked, by the way. In fact, I botched it and released the game with a bug that prevented achievements.) And when I did that, I realized that this would really mess with achievement bros. They’d be thinking they beat the system, that they could just cheat on the Aerospace Engineering test by applying corrected results, and get their achievement, only to realize they can’t. The idea that people expecting to be able to cheat would see the randomized test and yell, “Oh no they changed!”, was too hilarious to pass up.
And I definitely did want to pass it up. The other thing offering corrected results did was to undermine the Bowtudgel History test. Remember that I had wanted that test to be a challenge for players interested in lore to dig up facts. Well, that doesn’t happen if you put in a way to cheat, because people will just cheat. And couldn’t simply disallow corrections for the Bowtudgel History test only. I needed to have an example of a test where cheating actually does work and actually is helpful: that makes the burn far worse when your cheating it thwarted.
That is the true lesson on letting go. I wanted that Bowtudgel History test to a real challenge, but the joke was more important, and I had to let go.
In order to get some measure of the original challenge back, I have added an achievement where you have to dig up the facts in the Bowtudgel History exam. In the course of a single game, you have to visit the places and/or do the things where these facts are revealed, and then pass the test, without viewing the corrected results at any point.
It’s not really the same, but it is a small measure of what I originally intended that test for.