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'Were You a Nineties Gamer?' Post-mortem

Posted by BenW, 22 March 2013 · 4182 views

games design game design ui post mortem nineties snes megadrive
'Were You a Nineties Gamer?' Post-mortem Overview

Last year I finished up a quiz game in Flash and released it around a few gaming websites. After seeing what went well, and what didn't, I thought I'd write up a few things about it that may not be obvious right away.

First of all, here's the game itself: Were You a Nineties Gamer?

The Nineties were full of awesome games, and my game was a tribute to them. It's a retro-themed videogame music quiz, where the idea is to guess the name of the game by listening to the music. There are optional hints and screenshots available for each game, plus some trivia about each one. Additionally, dedicated players can collect Chaos Emeralds hidden around the questions, and there are 3 secret questions to discover.

"once i heard the streets of rage music, i cried!"
- player comment

Design

I started with the base of a previous game I'd made in a rushed 8 hours or so. It wasn't a particularly impressive UI, and looked like this:

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It's not terrible, but it's not especially nice either. It doesn't fit the theme, the checkmarks look ugly when you have most of the questions completed, and there's just something about it that doesn't work. Basically, it looks like icons stuck on solid color boxes, which is exactly what it was. The white/blue gradient behind it doesn't help much either.

I always felt that the earlier game would have benefited from a nicer UI. For the gaming quiz, I had most of the content done before working on the UI, realising that the ugly, programmer art look I was using was holding the game back. This time, I asked a couple of artists for quotes, but the prices I got were too high for a game that only has a niche audience appeal. I settled on spritesheet rips, on the basis that nothing else would fit the game more perfectly.

The revised version ended up like this:

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Much nicer! And it fits the theme!

The change to the Mario blocks was a key alteration to the UI. Before they were added, it felt like the game had been thrown together without much care. That wasn't true - but graphics do matter, and a nice UI is essential in a game like this, since it what users will spend their entire session looking at.

The backgrounds were added out of frustration at nothing else looking "right". Before settling on them, I tried solid colors, gradients, abstract vector designs, blocky isometric images, etc. Even after deciding to use game screens, about half the images I tried out still didn't work well, and were discarded. I think adding a few more would have improved the effect, but with so few screenshots working as backgrounds, I decided not to spend too much time trying to find more.

UI design is never going to be something I look forward to doing, but I found myself enjoying improving it once I knew how it should look. My main problem was how long it took me to know what it should look like, and I had to put it together through repeated redesign rather than working to implement something from a fixed design.

There were several UI elements I wasn't happy with, including the green star box for completed questions (there's no rollover or click effects), the progress 'thermometer' on the left (it doesn't look great, but I needed something to fill the space), and the TV itself (it doesn't match the style of the rest of the game). I was unable to improve these without hiring an artist to create new graphics for them.

One of my favorite aspects of the UI went almost overlooked, but if you take a look at the bottom right hand corner of the game, Taz is there, holding a lever. Click him and he provides an alternate way to open and close the achievements tab. Originally he was going to be the main way to access achievements, but I realized most players would miss him.

The title screen took me a few days to perfect, and also went through many different iterations. The original version was ugly, again carried over from the preceding game, and then my next idea was to alter the Sonic the Hedgehog title screen with new text, but that didn't work because Sonic, rather than the banner, dominates the image:

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Finally I decided on using the Sonic 2 font over a backdrop over game screenshots. Even then it wasn't quite done, and I spent a lot time altering the glow and the shine on the text, as well as the white fade on the bg images. The result might not be a shining example of modern design, but it does feel very Nineties. Which was the idea.

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"This game has an amazing amount of balance in it, from obscure things I played/rented once and things that I played the ** out of (also, songs that made me pull my hair out because I couldn't remember where the ** it came from). Big fan."
- player comment

Programming

I've never been an especially good programmer, and a look at my source code would show many, many things that could have been done much more efficiently.

One major issue that's immediately apparent on slower computers is that the background changes kill the frame rate. This is partly as a result of coding the game in ActionScript 2, and mostly because that feature was added near the end, and coded badly. During the transition, there are two alpha transforms being applied to the full game screen every frame, which play behind a partially transparent shape.

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This would be wasteful in any language. With minimal extra work I could have halved the graphical workload by using setDepth() and just one alpha transform. And with a little more thought, there are probably even better ways to handle it.

The setup of the questions themselves also wouldn't meet the approval of pro coders. I find it impossible to work in a situation where I can't see what's being worked on, so I ended up setting each question as its own movieclip, with the answer, trivia, etc coded onto that MC.

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Most Flash coders will tell you not to work like this..! For this particular project, it didn't matter and I'd argue it allowed me to add the questions faster than other methods.

There were also several small bugs that showed up after release. They weren't big enough to find in testing - the credits screen doesn't show up in certain situations, the final achievement doesn't unlock if you do things in a particular order unless you refresh the game, stuff like that. None of them are gamebreaking issues, but it was frustrating to make silly mistakes like that in a game I spent so much time iterating on and improving from the original design.

Finally, one major mistake when I uploaded the game was that the sitelock wasn't working for about a day, during which time several scraper sites grabbed it. This likely cost me some money in lost ad revenue as players had other sites to play the game on.

"I cant stop playing it, so many memories, even knowing all the games"
- player comment

Gameplay

The main point of contention with players was over the accepted inputs for games. The answers are checked each time a character is typed, and the game checks for partial matches against a key word in the title. So, "Justin Bieber Sonic" would work for the first question, because "Sonic" is the key word.

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However, some players complained that the answers were too specific, others complained that they weren't specific enough. The most problematic were games like StarFox and Aero the Acro-bat - the former because many people automatically type it with a space in the title, and the latter because the hyphen tends to get overlooked. (It's a pun. He's a bat that's acrobatic. An acro-bat. Sigh.)

Anyway, this caused problems because players who felt they knew a game's name, but couldn't get the exact answer required got frustrated and rated the game lower than they might otherwise have done. This could have been solved by allowing players to use any punctuation or spacing they liked, and discarding it when the answer was checked, but I'd hoped that my answer validation method was good enough without that.

I also found there were aspects of the game many players missed entirely. The Emerald search was frequently overlooked, and most people didn't make the connection between unlocking new achievements and the additional sprites in the background. Only the most dedicated players even realized there were three secret questions to be found, which might be expected, but too many people didn't notice the trivia icons or realize they unlocked for free after getting a question right. That was a shame because I spent a ton of extra time researching the games on the list to find trivia that was worth reading. On the other hands, the players that did take the time on these features were generally positive about the extra depth they added.

One of the main complaints I saw was that it was the game was biased to one console or the other. Sega gamers said there were far too many Nintendo games included and Nintendo fans felt the Sega games outweighed their system. They can't both be right, and in reality it was fairly even, probably slightly skewed to the Sega side of things because Nintendo had a much smaller variety of strong exclusives.

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(image via Neogaf)

The real issue seemed to be that many players assumed a game they didn't know was for the rival system - as one commenter noted, in the Nineties you didn't have a collection of different consoles, you were either Sega OR Nintendo. Adding a counter for each console would have solved the problem, in theory, although given the nature of internet commenting, there would likely still be people who disagreed with it!

A few people also expressed a preference for non-music questions, and questions from other consoles of the Nineties, but both were outside the scope of the game.

"Wow! I usually don't like these kinds of "Guess the game!" kinds, but this one really has a lot of nice features! Plus, the fact that there were so many titles to pick from as well as some visual rewards (The sprites running across the screen ect.) was a nice touch! Really hope you make more, and perhaps in the Playstation era- So many titles to choose from!"
- player comment

Reception

The game was featured on Kotaku, which triggered interest from various other websites, some of them completely unexpected. Play.com, the shopping site, tweeted the link, as did Play Magazine (no relation), OCRemix, and others. Because many of the players were outside Kongregate's regular userbase, it received a high number of shares on social media compared to most games on the portal. There are a lot of people out there who were gaming in the Nineties!

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Image via Neogaf

Most of the traffic to the game appears to have come from the Kotaku article and shares outside of Kongregate itself. It was very briefly frontpaged on Kong but displaced almost immediately by other games. A longer time on the frontpage would have increased gameplays but decreased rating (gamers outside the target audience would likely have rated it lower). The Kongregate rating stabilized at 3.75 (out of 5), which isn't bad.

On the other hand, the game tanked on Newgrounds, apparently as the result of some malicious downvoting. At one point the score was as low as 1.52, despite mainly positive reviews. This was frustrating because the Newgrounds demographic is closer to the game's target audience, but many players who might have enjoyed it will never even see the game with such a low rating.

The ever awesome Andkon bought a sitelock for the game very early on, and was, as usual, great to do business with. Other portals I approached both prior to release and after the game was out mostly didn't get back to me, presumably because the game has a niche appeal rather than being a mass market product.

I don't have final stats for the number of gameplays, since the only hit tracking outside of Kongregate was through CPMStar ads, and the CPMStar site resolutely refuses to load if I ask it for full stats on the game. I estimate them to be around 300,000 to 400,000 in total.

Despite the relatively low playcount, I felt the game could have had some value for a sponsor because of the high number of social media shares and the fact that so many shares and plays came from people who wouldn't usually spend their time playing Flash games. This may have been a missed opportunity, but it was difficult to predict ahead of release.

"Simply fantastic. So many memories! I love how you can go back and listen to the tracks of games you got right and read all the trivia. The little characters running around are a really nice touch too."
- player comment

Overall

I felt the game did well with the target audience. I enjoyed making it, which is maybe more important, and I definitely ended up with a game I'd have liked to play had someone else come up with it. It was disappointing that I couldn't match the Kong rating of games like NES Music Quiz (3.90) and there were definitely some things that that series did better than me, especially with the answer verification. The Newgrounds rating also disappointed, and there are several high quality videogame quizzes on NG that I'd hoped to match in rating.

The programming mistakes were also frustrating, and if I'd tested the final build of the game on a low powered computer before release, I'd have been able to identify and fix the lag.

Finally, some of the comments from players made me literally facepalm. One guy in particular took exception to one of the accepted answers that didn't have a space in it, and refused to budge even after being shown a picture of the game's box with the title written on it. "Just because the box art saved space, doesn't mean its one word." While there definitely was some argument in favor of allowing spaces in answers, the logic in his comment is the same as saying Spongebob is written that way to save space, and should be Sponge Bob.

Other comment "highlights" included:

"Waste of Kongspace." followed up later (from the same guy) with "There weren't 93 awesome games made during the 90's and no one remembers the music from that many."

and

"WTF? WHY THE **** IS THERE NO HALO?!?! THE FIRST HALO WAS MADE IN 1998, AND WAS ONE OF THE MOST POPULAR VIDEO GAMES EVER, BECAUSE IT COMPLETELY CHANGED THE WAY WE PLAY VIDEO GAMES TODAY! IF IT WEREN'T FOR HALO, ALL GAMES WOULD HAVE A ****ING HEALTH BAR! (PLEASE CORRECT ME IF I'M WRONG, AND IF I'M WRONG, HEHEHE...)"

Sigh. Internet :laugh:

  • 4



wow , nice entry

sincerly ^_^

    • 0

I went and played it. The Altered Beast music was frustrating, because I love the game, but it took a moment to remember the title.

    • 0

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