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Witchfire GGU Diary 3: Iron Pineapple and the Opening Hours

Opening hours of a game are a design challenge

Opening hours of a game are a design challenge

How did the video affect our daily numbers? – asked one of The Astronauts.

I didn’t know. I didn’t check because I assumed it didn’t.

The video I’m talking about is the one from Iron Pineapple, a YouTuber known for his reviews of Soulslike games. The video features Witchfire. Actually, Witchfire is the biggest segment of it.

In the past, my research showed that YouTubers rarely affect sales. I think this has changed lately, but it’s just a gut feeling. The gaming press does not have the power it had twenty years ago, and gamers look to YouTube, forums and social media like X or Reddit, and Steam reviews, to form an opinion on a new title. The logic suggests, then, that a respected content creator can, in fact, affect sales.

I was curious, so I checked.

On the day the video was released, we sold over five times more copies than usually. The next day, four times, then three times, two times …and then Black Friday happened so the data is skewed. But overall, it’s clear that the video did have a tangible effect on sales.

This bit of into is merely a pretext to talk about the actual content of Iron Pineapple’s video. I highly recommend watching the segment first, it’s not that long:

But if you don’t have the will or time, the gist of it is that he really likes the game – but notices it is not without issues.

Let’s start with the former. The biggest compliment happened when he said that after exhausting content, he kept returning to the game just for fun. You cannot make a game developer happier. Whether they are used for good or for evil like in the case of some free-to-play games, we have many tools to keep you engaged and wanting to return. But when the player returns not to level up or to water the carrots, but just to play and have fun… This is gaming at its purest.

Now for the latter… While Iron Pineapple likes certain things about Witchfire, he would like other things changed. This is 100% fair and watching the video I don’t think I had a single moment where I thought I disagreed. Basically, the whole idea of Witchfire being an Early Access game is to identify and work on any issues that stand in the way of the intended experience.

Ok, maybe one thing I kind of disagree with, but for what it’s worth, this is an issue brought up by many players, not just one. Remember how initially Witchfire had strong visual effects to show the players that they are low on health or Stamina? Most people complained about it and not only we have weakened these effects, we’ve also added an option to reduce them to almost nothing.

The idea was …exactly what people disliked. Yes, these effects were annoying on purpose, to make you not want to experience them. The screen is all fuzzy when low on Stamina? Do not be low on Stamina. Problem solved.

Witchfire has some new concepts and we felt that strong messaging is required to help players understand the core gameplay loop.

We made a mistake, though — but again, this is why we’re in Early Access. It turned out that the challenge that Witchfire offers meant people were low on Stamina and low on health most of the time, at least during the opening hours. Players can forgive splashy effects and crazy post-processing when they are rare. But not when they are in your face all the bloody – nomen omen – time.

How did we miss that? Well, we, the developers, know the game inside out, so we’re not low on Stamina or health that often. And the tests we’ve done were mostly focused on bugs and compatibility rather than gameplay.

As you know, we fixed that issue. But Iron Pineapple also mentions the visibility issues and effects overload during the most heated moments of combat. And this …I’m going to be honest with you all, this will stay. This is rare, and if you, the player, allow enemies to overwhelm the battlefield, that’s on you. This visual chaos is the punishment.

Mmmm, motion blur, the favorite effect of all gamers worldwide!

However, we will review all effects and make sure that nothing extra slipped through. Some effects do need an update, too. They need to scale differently depending on the distance from the players, so when e.g. an explosion happens right next to you, it doesn’t cover the entire screen.

Anyway, so the above is literally the only thing I kind of partially disagreed with. The rest is exactly the stuff we’re working on.

If you survived the pitch black darkness of Alak-Hul, what’s a little particle explosion

One of these things is the player experience in the opening hours.

It’s funny watching Iron Pineapple’s Witchfire segment because it’s divided into two parts, each with a different vibe. The first part explains the game, and actually does an excellent job here, with the extra entertainment layers. But the man was not in love with the game yet. The best he could say was, and I quote:

God damn it, this is a pretty strange experience so far but I think I’m into it.

Nice and promising but not quite the vote yet.

And then the second half begins, after Iron Pineapple played the game some more, and…

It was a couple more hours of pain until things finally clicked but man when it clicked it really clicked. Even after I finished all the content in the game and had played more than enough to form a full review, I found myself continuing to play just for fun. This is something that’s kind of uncommon when it comes to a lot of the games I play for these videos. […]

This game looks great and that’s to say nothing of how good the sound design and feel of the guns are. The fact that a team of only twelve people made something that rivals AAA on the front of graphical fidelity and production values is pretty wild.

Something has changed, right? After the initial doubts, the game clicked.

So let’s talk about the insane difficulty of creating good opening hours of a video game, how this applies to Witchfire, and what are we doing about this.

Yes, you read it right, I did say: insane difficulty.

I can offer examples from my own experience. What do Red Dead Redemption, Bloodborne, and Mass Effect have in common? All are some of the best games in the history of the known universe, but not only I was kind of lukewarm about the opening hours, I even bounced off some of them initially.

This is how it started with Bloodborne:

This is how it went:

With RDR, I gave up after a few hours, only to return a year later due to hype. Now I consider it the greatest open world game ever made. With Mass Effect, it took me three full restarts for the game to finally click and become a wonderful space adventure I’ll never forget.

I think most people have at least one such game in their memory. One that started meh, or maybe you even uninstalled it, only to return to it later and discover something incredible.

But why is this so?

Ten or so years ago I wrote these articles on this very website:

As you can see, the challenge of designing the intro segment of a game is a subject very dear to my heart. Let me repeat two quotes from one of the posts:

A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.

Frank Herbert

It is easier to resist at the beginning than at the end.

Leonardo da Vinci

Combined, these two tell the entire story. The game needs to be perfect in these opening hours, and sometimes even that might not be enough, as the players are not fully invested yet.

How to combat this?

The obvious solution is to see what games with successful openings did right. I’m not talking about the excellence of Elden Ring here, because, let’s be honest, any dark fantasy from From and we’ll be playing it like maniacs. No, I’m talking about games that nobody expected to be that good, ultimately.

One such example is the original God of War, with its explosive opening. Where other games end, God of War begins. And then the game never lets go. You think all the money went into the intro but no. The entire game is like that. At the time, our minds were blown.

But while that works, it is a pretty expensive solution. So let’s take a look at another example, Resident Evil 4. Its intro is just perfect. It starts slowly, moody. The mystery deepens with each step, and the visuals help understand this is going to be a journey. And then you reach the village, one of the best combat scenarios ever, and you know you’re in love.

But then… This is an adventure game very much interested in you moving forward. Yes, it’s challenging, but this is not a Souls-level difficulty. The point of the game is to let you live through a fantastic adventure, not to turn you into a skilled hitman.

And thus in our case, I don’t think studying other games is that beneficial. What we chose is to simply listen to the players and observe how they play, then.

The opening hours of Witchfire are pretty good. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t have any fans or sales – and we do. Just drop by our Discord to see. But they are definitely not perfect, as Iron Pineapple noticed. But we have the videos, we watch the streams, we listen to our players… Easy fix, right?

Sounds simple but it’s not. To give you an example reason: an old experiment had monkeys opening a box. Sometimes it was empty, sometimes a banana was inside. In the experiment that followed, the box sometimes contained a small gift, and sometimes a bigger gift. In other words, in the first experiment it was all or nothing, and in the second one the monkeys were always rewarded, it’s just that some rewards were better than others.

The dopamine release was always way more impressive when it was banana or nothing. And this, by the way, is why you sometimes have empty barrels or chests in Diablo and other looters. Knowing that the chest might be empty makes the reward that much sweeter.

But now the question arises: what if people fall in love with Witchfire exactly because the first hours are grim, hard and unwelcoming?

I mean, I am exaggerating, they’re not that hardcore. But you get the idea, right? What if polishing the opening results in …less fun? Yes, it’s a paradox but it’s also possible. Let’s listen to Iron Pineapple once more:

Okay, wow, I actually have a lot to say about this game. The gameplay you just saw only scratched the surface. What you just watched better serves as a glimpse into the awkwardness of starting this game rather than how it feels once you actually get into it. Witchfire only really begins after several failed  runs and a bit of waiting around for some weapons, spells and accessories to unlock — and even after that point it was a couple more hours of pain until things finally clicked. But man, when it clicked it really clicked.

So yeah, pain. But …no pain, no gain, and per aspera ad astra, no?

Just kidding. We think that while we’re transporting nitroglycerine here and must be extremely careful, there’s a room for improvement. Without spoiling too much, here’s the top three things that will change with the GGU (our first big update, in case you don’t know):

First, there will be starting classes. The differences will not only be in the stat distribution (e.g. so you can choose for your witch hunter to have more Stamina at the cost of smaller, say, Metanoia), but also the initial loadout. Yes, there will be more than one weapon available at the start. Some of them you’ve never seen before.

Second, there will be a new enemy type in the Village, codename druid. Before the Church took over, they were the spiritual leaders in the area. The witch does not discriminate and had no mercy for them just like she had none for the priests. And so the druids are now half men, half trees (fun fact: Proto-Celtic druwits means “oak-knower”), reduced to crawling and decay (which is Earth element).

Druids will be easier for fresh players as they are easy targets that attack only up close and person, but move slowly. They dish out a lot of damage but that is the price for their weaknesses.

Of course, we will be adding other new enemies as well, but this one is specifically designed to be a good tutorial in itself.

Third, the first Calamity the players will encounter will be different, easier to understand. And, but that is a big secret for now, the entire Calamity system will be redesigned. It won’t be a revolution, we need to give the witch some agency, too. But you will have much more to say about when and why the Calamity happens.

There are also other, game-wide changes but as for the opening hours, these three are the most important. In the future game updates, most likely we will be redesigning the entire tutorial area as well. But first we need to see how the GGU moves the needle.


Question of the Week

I know the “demo” thing is a joke, but I feel it’s important to explain the difference just in case. The demo is a part of a finished game. Early Access version is a live organism that changes and grows with each update.

In my opinion, people who might want to buy Witchfire (or any other Early Access game) can belong to one of the following groups:

  • You are interested in game design or creation, as a gamer or future developer, and want to see a game grow.
  • As above, but additionally you want to influence that growth with your feedback.
  • You buy a game once, but play a few different versions of it. After the GGU, Witchfire will be a slightly different game than what it is today.
  • You like to support the developer.
  • You are curious and like what you see. You buy the game now to satisfy the craving but will play it when it’s in the final shape.

Only that last thing is common for both a demo and an Early Access version.

Anyway, to answer your question, it’s done when it’s done. But we don’t anticipate dragging the development forever. We do want to reach the 1.0 as soon as possible. Without compromising the quality of the game, of course.

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