Interpreting Player Feedback
After the first few releases of Spelunky, there was one player who began nagging me constantly to make the game easier. “Derek, I hate your fuckin’ game,” he said. “Because it’s the first roguelike/platformer implementation I’ve ever seen, which is totally awesome. But from this game it seems you suck at difficulty.” I thought about it, but I really felt that the game’s challenge was one of the things that made it work. No challenge, no tension, no mastery… no fun. I tried to explain my thinking to this guy, but he wouldn’t have any of it. “Feeling cheated and insulted by a game is not fun, unless a person is brainwashed or mentally handicapped.”
I considered ignoring him, but I really did want him to enjoy the game. He was annoying but also very passionate, writing short novels describing how much bile was in his throat as he kept playing… and dying. I felt like he might have a good point about the difficulty level of Spelunky, but I couldn’t see how to fix it without diluting the things that made the game compelling.
Instead, I fixed bugs that other players were finding and released new versions of the game. Interestingly enough, I noticed that while The Angry Player(tm) was getting more and more angry, he was also making progress in Spelunky, getting to the later levels and eventually beating the game. This convinced me that the difficulty was not the problem in-and-of-itself, and that I was right to not include an easy mode in the game (since obviously it would have become an unnecessary crutch for players like him). This was a game that you could get better at, even if you weren’t a great video game player.
In the end, the various bug-fixes and improvements I made to the game’s controls DID make the game easier… but in a good way. So in some sense, The Angry Player was right: the game was too hard. But not for the reasons that he or I assumed.
What I got out of this experience was that player feedback is very valuable, but cannot always be taken at face value. I’ve come to think about it as almost a doctor/patient-type relationship: the player may approach you with symptoms (“My head hurts!” or “Your game’s too hard!”) and it’s up to you to figure out what the real problems are. Simply treating the outward symptoms may alleviate them temporarily, but won’t necessarily address the underlying, and more fundamental, problems. I call these types of solutions (e.g. adding an easy mode) “band-aids”.
Taking the doctor analogy further, it’s interesting to think about how doctors actually take care of patients: they ask the patients how they feel and try to eliminate potential illnesses. Eventually, they’re left with just one possible problem. In game development, there’s perhaps an inclination to want players to be more specific with their feedback, but like patients, players are often most in tune with how they feel about the problem rather than the problem itself. With The Angry Player, I probably should have asked him more questions to zero in on what was wrong, rather than spending so much time trying to convince him why I was right.