The Ditty of Carmeana: Some words on Game Design – SPOILERS

Picture this very common scene from my life. I’m sitting around with someone playing video games. They are at the controls, and a cut scene or conversation comes up, or sometimes even just text bubble with instructions. And they blow through this as fast as their thumbs allow them.

Then, when it turns out that the thing they just blew through actually contained information they needed to proceed, they always frantically ask me what they’re supposed to do.

I never, ever tell them. My response is always, “Why didn’t you read what it said?” And, if they can’t manage to figure it out, they start nagging me, and I just sit there amused repeating, “You should’ve read it.”

(In fairness, there were many times I really didn’t know what to do, since the game was new to me also. That was the most baffling thing: sometimes they knew I was unfamiliar with the game, they blew through conversations and text bubbles, but somehow they expected me to know what to do, and kept asking me.)

My exposure to this mindset might be the biggest driver of my game design decisions. You see, I don’t play video games that way. I like to take my time, read things, explore, discover new things, try things, find secrets, and so on. I like to study it out and figure out the best way to do things.

And, they say you’re supposed to make the game you want to play, so I did. As such, the overarching game design goals of The Ditty of Carmeana are:

1. To reward players who take the time to explore, read text, gather clues, find secrets, and just enjoy moments.

2. To mess with people who don’t.

The rest of this post, I’ll show a few examples of how I implemented these design goals in the game.

There are a whole bunch of places in the game where you are given information during a conversation. If you pay attention, and maybe use your brain a bit (there are strong puzzle elements in the game), you’ll know what to do next. If you don’t pay attention, you’ll be stuck with trial-and-error.

Perhaps the best examples of this are the item fetch subquests for the animals in the Chateau.

Let’s take Ass. I’ve seen a lot of comments reporting not knowing how to make progress with Ass. (Some people apparently never figured it out, though they managed to find an alternate, macabre workaround to the situation after lots of trying stuff.)

If you’re the kind of person who blows through every conversation, you probably didn’t read a word of Ass’s conversation with Lance. Then, when you went back to talk to Ass because you didn’t know what the hell to do, Ass told you he wanted you to find a way put him out of his misery. What you completely missed in that situation is Ass’s depression.

So, when you opened a treasure chest containing antidepressants, you didn’t connect that item to Ass. Whereas you might have, if you had instead read the conversation, and understood Ass’s real problem.

This was a deliberate decision. I deliberately designed the Ass subquest so that you wouldn’t know what to do if you didn’t read the conversation with Ass, and you’d have to resort to trial-and-error, or macabre workarounds, to make progress.

(In fact, I actually thought it was too obscure. For that reason, I put in a little conversation between Tabitha and Lance to call attention to the fact that the chest contained antidepressant pills.)

Another example is Doe, but in this example a late edit made the Doe subquest rather more obscure than I intended.

If you talk to Doe again after her initial conversation with Lance, you could have Lance suggest that Doe try to pass herself off as a reindeer, since female reindeer have antlers. It’s during this side conversation that you get the clue for what item will help Doe: that reindeer shed their antlers in the spring. So when you find a painting of springtime, and if you’re using your brain a bit (…puzzle elements), you might have an idea of what to do with the painting.

But originally, that clue was in the intro conversation. Very late in the game’s development, I moved the reindeer stuff into a side conversation, and now I think the clue is actually too obscure: it’s reasonable to expect someone to have an intro conversation, but not a side conversation. So this would be a case where the effect is not quite what I wanted.

I’m planning to move it back to the intro conversation in a future release.

Having said all that, I have to say I’m still a little disappointed in how much trouble some of you seemed to have with this section. I mean, there’s a mechanic where you offer items to animals to help solve their problems. You will know that by the time you start finding items the animals need.

So, even if you missed the clues, shouldn’t the obvious strategy to be to offer any new item you find to all the animals?

That’s JV puzzle solving skills, people.

The list goes on.

I put in a riverboat traveling infrastructure to help player travel between cities faster before they’re able to acquire a (useful) speedup. But there are no explicit clues about boat travel in the game; finding them depends on exploration. For instance, anyone who opened the map in the capital and decided to explore things marked on the map would have found the docks. The docks in the capital were pretty well hidden, but in Brobensy they were in plain sight and most people would have found them just by talking to anyone they see.

But I saw several streamers whiz right by Dawnelly without talking. (It’s possible but hard to believe they didn’t see her.) Those same streamers went on to have a bad time running between cities in the overworld.

Now, in spite of everything I wrote, I want to clarify that I still sought balance.

I already mentioned that I took steps to make sure Ass’s subquest was not too obscure, and that I felt like I had made Doe’s subquest too obscure inadvertently. Those, and a few other things I do feel like I hit too hard.

Conversely there are a few things that I didn’t hit hard enough. Selling water to Yubi Tish, anyone? A lot more people seem to have figured that out than I was expecting. I wanted to reward people who tried things like that, but I didn’t really think anyone would “buy” water since it seems to have no use, so I thought not many would discover the loophole. I suppose I shouldn’t have underestimated the allure of getting things for free, even seemingly useless things in a video game. (It’s not a big deal in general. Another overarching theme is parodizing how useless money is in Zelda, and I wanted The Ditty of Carmeana to reflect that–for people who take the time to try stuff.)

So if anything feels little too hard, or too easy, it probably is.

But there is one thing I definitely hit way, way too hard. And it’s time to talk about it.

First of all, I want to assure to you all that everything about the Speed Boots is 100% entirely deliberate. The Speed Boots have exactly the effect on players I was going for. I spent a good while making and testing fine adjustments to the Speed Boots to make them as annoying as humanly possible, and they are.

The Speed Boots make Lance run 12.5 times as fast as he normally would. I tested a bunch of different values for this. I tested 12 and 13, and decided that 12.5 was the exact multiplier at which the player would be just tempted enough to keep trying them on. I tested the Speed Boots in different areas and situations. I tested different launch thresholds (how steep does a hill have to be before he launches). I made sure there was not a hot key for them.

And I have to say: I nailed it. Players are continuously tempted to use the Speed Boots, and no matter how often those boots launch them, they just keep trying and keep getting burned, and it’s hilarious.

But there are two problems. One, even though I am wildly successful the sense that I am someone who’s trying to entertain and am absolutely nailing it, sales do matter to me a little. And, well, an item like the Speed Boots might not be a part of game people actually want to play, as opposed to just watch.

Second, I really erred in my estimate of how hard it would be to find the Not-so-speedy Boots.

The Not-so-speedy Boots (in which Lance runs only 4 times as fast, and doesn’t launch in situations where he wouldn’t launch with regular boots) I had intended to be an item where you felt a supreme sense of accomplishment. After slowly traveling the kingdom for half the game, and/or repeatedly getting burned by the Speed Boots, I wanted the player to find the Not-so-speedy Boots and experience catharsis.

Problem is, not many people seemed to find them. And it largely comes down to a reason I can hardly believe: too many players were too concerned about their credit rating. Of those who did overcome their credit anxieties and checked into the Desert Inn, many never explored the roof.

Even after I made an update in which Achilles could give you the Not-so-speedy Boots if you helped him pass the turtle (the item Achilles formerly gave you having been rendered obsolete, talk about another misjudgement), few seem to be finding them. I suppose they are not even aware of the Not-so-speedy Boots.

And although it is my desire to mess with people who don’t explore, and don’t find things like riverboats and Not-so-speedy Boots, forcing them to take long treks across the kingdom with only the Speed Boots to help for the whole game is too much of a burden.

So, with regrets, I’m planning an update to make the Speed Boots less annoying. Also, I am thinking of ways to make it less likely to miss the Not-so-speedy Boots, and maybe get them to the player sooner. These two changes I think will make the game just generally more playable, even if they do take a little edge off the entertainment value.

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