I hope that Ring Fling straddles a strange line between ridiculously simple and what in the world is going on. The second part is definitely reinforced by the Huffington Post headline of “Ring Fling – The Most Confusing iOS Game Ever?”
One of my major goals for Ring Fling was to not have a tutorial. In fact, one of my early goals was not to have any menus at all. When you tapped the Ring Fling icon, I wanted the game to start up into a 4 player game where 4 AI players were already going at it. While this would have been a bit baffling at first, I have enough faith in the human race to believe they could look at it and eventually see the “Tap to Play” text and have a go at it.
I learn by doing. I’ve never been a big fan of reading programming text books. I’d just rather try it and see where things go wrong. It’s really one of my fundamental beliefs. I’m actually in Anaheim at my parents’ house for the week. My mom isn’t too well, so I’ve stopped by to help out on my way to WWDC. My parents and I have never really seen eye to eye. In their upbringing, authority was more important than anything. You listened to your elders because they had experienced more and knew better. While I never disagreed that my parents knew more than me, I feel that always listening to authority leaves a massive gaping hole in one’s consciousness around the question why. Even if the authority fully explains why they think a particular thing should be a certain way, there’s always going to be something theoretical about it. When you’ve done something based on your own reasons and your own emotions and your own gut, when something goes right or wrong, you really feel it. It sticks with you. You grow as a person.
For this reason, modern games with modern tutorials really bother me. I worked in the social game space for 2 years and in the social game space, I feel there are some of the most condescending and useless tutorials in the history of video games. It’s gotten so far beyond teaching a player about how your game works and shifted completely to training them to do what you want. I don’t want to make games for lab rats. I want to make games that even when you evaluate them with your conscious mind, you’re happy about the experiences you had with them. I think it’s also important to appeal to the subconscious, especially in the feel of moment to moment gameplay, but I don’t want to make games that only appeal to the subconscious.
I had to give in to having a menu because I added the 2 zone board. I really kept going back and forth on this. Even a week before submitting to Apple, I was considering taking it out. The one thing that forced my hand in keeping it in was that I actually had a lot of fun playing with the 2 zone board on iPhone. I wonder if Ring Fling would have been a better game if I kept with the constraint of no menus. I guess we’ll never know.
Anyway, the thing I did succeed in was having no tutorial. Before I went to that night of pub testing, my solution for no tutorial was having no complexity. There was infinite ammo. There were no gameplay modifiers. There was no charging of shots. You would just fling rings as fast as you could. While it wasn’t a bad game, it wasn’t very interesting to work on or think about. So I wanted to make the game a little bit deeper, but had to think about how I’d train the player without a tutorial.
The first thing I focused on was creating an environment where mistakes were safe. Obviously, the main thing that helps is that it’s just a game. Nobody’s life is on the line. You don’t lose a bunch of money if you don’t play well. However, I wanted to make sure that losing wasn’t a big deal. If you didn’t do well in a round, you have a quick 3-2-1 countdown to relax and then back to action. If you lose a game, you hit OK and start a new one. There are no cutscenes or massive dialogs or stat summaries or anything. You’re two taps away from a new game.
The next thing I thought about was layering the complexity. There are only two things that you need to know in order to play the game. The first is that you swipe to fling rings. The second is that the red things are bad. So for the first one, I kind of cheated. I put in text. I also put glows on the AI players to simulate what a finger was doing. To be honest, most people I watch play figured it out even before I put either of those in. The second one was a bit more difficult. Whenever one of the jaggies goes into a zone, I pulse the increased scores. It gets across the point that there is an association between score and jaggies going into zones, but when three things flash at once, I don’t think the human mind is very good as forming the association, especially when it’s an association to something non-intuitive. I think the thing that’s less immediate but does sink it in is when you get scored on and your number doesn’t pulse. I think at a fundamental level, after seeing it pulse before and experiencing it not pulse makes you feel like you don’t like that as much as when it does pulse. I know it sounds ridiculous, but this is how I think. There are a lot of advanced mechanics that I don’t think are required to have a good time. For example, how ammo works is reasonably complex, but as long as you know that when your bar is empty, you can’t fling rings, it’s fine. The more you play, the more you’ll notice that when a ring enters your zone, that little number pulses, but it’s not critical. I also added the instruction text “Hold to Charge” after you’ve successfully flung a few rings. It goes away after you’ve successfully charged a few rings. In most games that I’ve observed, that never happens. Ha ha.
The biggest thing I had trouble with and toiled over were the modifiers. In my early build, all the gameplay modifiers were unlocked at all times. So there were already so many things going on and it was a fast-paced game and on top of that random stuff was changing behind your back. I’m glad I decided to go with random modifers rather than player activated ones, but there’s a certain WTF experience you get with randomness. The next version was to start with simple modifiers and slowly introduce more and more complex ones behind the scenes. The idea was that I wouldn’t use modifiers where you need to understand how ammo works until you probably understand how ammo works. But then the confusing part is when do modifiers unlock and why? So what I eventually ended up with was that you can unlock the modifiers by just scoring points. The more points you score, the more modifiers you unlock. It was a nice simple mechanism that allowed me to make it so that you didn’t have to think about modifiers when you first played the game and also made it clear when a new modifier was going to become active.
The last thing I spent a lot of time on for training purposes was AI. Originally, I just wrote a really stupid AI so I could take screenshots. Trying to play 4 players at once and take screenshots is not fun. I wasn’t actually thinking I was going to ship any AI players. It was designed as a 4 player game and I didn’t know if I wanted to be judged as a 1 player game. But then I saw how people responded to watching the AI. As soon as the game started, and the AI went at it, people started mimicking. Comparing the time it took people to start playing with and without AI was huge. Without the AI, people would sit there for a bit and ponder what was going on and what they should be doing. With AI, people just jumped in. So I tried to extend this idea a bit further. First, I wrote an algorithm for the AI to start leading, but then follow. What I mean by this is that at first, the AI just plays how it wants to play. As it collects data on how the player plays, though, it’ll start trying to balance itself properly. So, if the player is firing really slowly and infrequently, the AI will do the same. If the player is charging lots of rings, the AI will do the same. Also, if the player is doing very well, the AI will become a bit more aggressive and if the player is doing poorly, the AI will become a bit more passive.
I’m actually really happy with the way that the learning process in Ring Fling has gone. In the play sessions that I’ve had with co-workers at Mind Candy, people seem to get the basics without any problem. The people who have played a few times get the more advanced concepts. So yes, watching my trailer is a pretty baffling experience, but it’s a game that’s meant to be played and if you play it, things will make sense. I hope.
I think this is the last post about the actual development side of Ring Fling. I can’t wait to write about PR / Marketing and launch. If you have any questions about anything Ring Fling related or not, drop a line in the comments.