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  • Student Postmortem: Skyrates

    [12.13.07]
    - Carnegie Mellon ETC students

  •  What Went Wrong
    1. Don't bend the tree to the leaves. Throughout the development of Skyrates 2, we had a lot of ideas about what we wanted to accomplish. We also had a large audience brimming with suggestions for new features and changes to existing ones. At the time, we tended to act on the most vocal player's suggestions, assuming they represented the entire player base.

    Eventually, we came to realize that while these players often alerted us to trends early, we needed to take their feedback with a grain of salt -- they held just one perspective and typically were the minority. The majority of our player base, due to the nature of the game, is the type of person who doesn't have time to provide feedback.

    As the team came up with several new features to add to the game, we fell into a similar trap. Rather than looking at the trunk of the game and seeing where we could branch off, we were looking at distant leaves and trying to bend the tree to meet them. While Skyrates 1 was characterized by constant iteration and refinement, Skyrates 2 saw the designs get larger and more complex without taking the time necessary to critique and analyze them.

    2. Player communication can hurt a game's casual feel. For all that Skyrates 1 lacked, there was a simple casual purity to it that was lost in Skyrates 2.

    One of the major differences was that Skyrates 1 was a lonely experience. Each player flew silent and solitary paths across the world, the only competition or interaction existing on the rankings board. In fact, we discovered that the rankings board was about the only thing that really drove people to strive and succeed. It was a pinprick of sound in an otherwise silent experience.

    For Skyrates 2, that sound became a din. At release, we added a forum and chat. Suddenly, the world was inhabited with real people, who were talking to one another, comparing their ships and characters. Now, as soon as they logged on, they saw their chat tab blinking with people debating the merits of the various aircrafts and so on. Players now had an entire community judging them, instead of being able to casually stumble through the game at their own speed.

    Adding these community features ended up being a crucial part of the game's success, but we should have considered what it might do to the casual intent of the game. Though communication added significantly to the game, it took us a long time to realize what it also took away.

    3. Not planning for remote work means work won't happen. When we were not in school, the project had a tendency to stagnate, and we never discussed the game's long-term future in detail. Certainly, that lack of planning was predictable due to the very unpredictability of our lives after graduation. Nevertheless, we lacked a clear goal. Once we were thrown into the chaos of searching for jobs and homes, Skyrates took a backseat.

    When the team members were no longer geographically near one another, we didn't know what we should be working on, what the process for work should be, or what the others were even doing. Work stopped. It was especially damaging to our community, who had come to value the developer presence. Many of our players quit, and we weren't even around to see it.

    Gradually, we reclaimed a bit of our step, conducting weekly meetings and staying connected through email. Regardless, it was a struggle getting people back into a productive mindset. Once a project hits inertia, it's exceedingly difficult to reverse it.

    4.Plan for the short term and only achieve short things. As a project that existed on a semester-to-semester basis, we were only really able to plan our progress three months at a time. We were forced to limit ourselves to the bare essentials necessary to make the experience work. This became especially apparent as new ideas and new ways of expanding existing ideas came up during development that would be impossible to implement within the current semester. We were thus unable to accomplish them because we could not count on any more time beyond the existing semester.

    5. Don't let the players run out of things to do. In the game's first iteration, there was a small archipelago to traverse, a few craft to try out, goods to trade, and that was about it. We wanted to provide a persistent game, but after a point, that game left players with little meaningful things to do. The problem was mitigated by biweekly resets, which returned all the players to empty coffers and a starter plane. This setup couldn't sustain a meaningful game for the long term. We needed something that players could do perpetually. It's a problem we still haven't solved.

    Our strongest lead on an actual solution right now is the "influence game," a way for players to accept missions in order to increase their reputations and contribute to the "influence" of their factions. The faction with the most influence gets to plant a flag with their color on the skyland. Modest though it may be, this simple "king of the hill" aspect has been enough to unify teams and give them something to do at the end -- but it's really just a stopgap and will not suffice for long.

    Figuring out how to give casual players a perpetual end game experience remains our most critical design challenge. Our team simply doesn't have the manpower to be out laying out the tracks in front of the train. However, we do think there is a more sustainable solution to be found.

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