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Witchfire Players Write Mock-up Reviews and It's The Best Thing Ever

We learned something unexpected

We learned something unexpected

Before the release, all, or almost all AAA games go through mock-up reviews. Certain gaming journalists receive the game, usually in beta, and review it as if it were a regular press review. This is supposed to inform the developer and the publisher about what to expect from the actual reviews when the game is released.

I am not a fan. We went through this with Bulletstorm, and I found these reviews to be useless. There was nothing illuminating there, and in my opinion, people have a hard time understanding the jump in quality from beta to the final version.

So when Rafał proposed that we ask our players to write reviews of Witchfire, I was a bit skeptical. First, see above. Second, we would be asking people who not only bought the game but also hang out in our Discord. It’s easy to imagine that they would be biased in favor of the game. Meanwhile, what we needed was pure, uncolored honesty.

For now, Witchfire is only available on the Epic Games Store, and while the shop features scoring, it does not have written reviews yet. So we couldn’t use it. Asking the players directly was a good alternative if we could keep things neutral. We asked everyone on our Discord then to write their review not for us, not for the developers — but for other players. Exactly as if they were writing it for the people using the store they like enough to post reviews on.

When the number of these reviews reached a nice round one hundred, Rafał made a summary. Honestly, most of the feedback was understandable and fair, but one thing surprised us. Shocked, even. And that one thing made it clear that the whole thing was well worth it.

What do I mean?

Well, I’m sure you’ve heard the stories of how developers tend to make the difficulty modes harder because they are so used to their game that it is no longer challenging to them. Most games fix that before the release, during the final Q&A phase, but alphas and betas can be punishing.

Kind of the same with everything else in development. Just like you stop seeing the actual difficulty, you stop seeing other things. Like, you’re so used to certain verbs and actions that they are an integral part of the game for you …except no player knows this because you failed to explain it to them.

Take dashing, for example. Witchfire is all about dashing away from danger, about dodging projectiles and enemy attacks. It’s a ballet of death, a corrida of murder and mayhem. And yet, we’ve seen people tanking damage because it’s what you do in modern shooters, with either regenerating health or easy health regeneration due to restoration mechanics or pickups. Seeing this, we realized we never brought the player’s attention to dash. It’s just a verb in the controls section, like jump or reload… And sure, many players figured it out on their own, but it should still be a part of the onboarding phase.

Anyway, so what did the player reviews reveal that we never even thought of?

Before I get to that, context is needed.

First, I read the reviews and I have not spotted any tangible bias. This was a relief. The reviews felt honest. They were so honest that one guy admitted to torrenting every update for now. Dude, no problem, but I do hope you will do as promised and “buy two copies” when the time comes.

Second, let’s take a look at some basic stats.

This is incredible. Developers are notoriously bad at estimating playtime, and usually overshoot. “It takes me twenty hours to finish the game, so it will take new players at least thirty,” they think, then Johnny on YouTube speedruns the whole thing in five hours.

With Witchfire, it’s the opposite. We hoped that there’s enough content now for 10-20 hours of play. If you like the game, considering its price we believe that would be fine. But only 19% played the game for 20 hours or less. Half of you played it for 20-50 hours, and one third of you played it for more than 50 hours! We love it.

That is a great number of people who would recommend the game to others. But we’re here because of those who would not. Before we get to that, allow me to quote a couple of reviews that melted our hearts.

I picked the game last week and I have about 30 hours in on Gnosis 4. It’s an awesome game. It feels so fresh, I feel like playing a new genre. The quality of the game is phenomenal. The graphics, but what really impressed me is the sound design as well. Listening to the environment is a core mechanic and it feels refreshing.

The game is HARD, but in the best souls way possible. You feel the growing knowledge and skill between each run, that’s really well done. Fun weapons (although I didn’t try a lot yet), fun spells, fun melee.

The level design is incredible. When reaching the castle, I didn’t know what I was in for. Some kind of quests, locked shortcuts, consumables that matters, my god it’s perfect and engaging.

This game is fantastic as a weird roguelite extraction hybrid. Easy to pick up, hard to master, and even harder to put down once you get going.

I’m not a big FPS guy. At first I got knocked down by mooks, but this Witchfire world is so creepy, fascinating, and tense that I soon retry it. I’ve played 518h already. I never get tired of it. It’s a very good roguelike shooter. My all time favorite.

The one below hits especially hard because it was my personal goal, the most important one when making the game. I dreamed that to someone, Witchfire would reignite something in their soul. If you know, you know.

For me, the most important thing is that once again I feel what I felt playing games as a kid when I kept finishing the same stages and levels in platformers, racers, shooters, etc., just having fun playing. Enjoying each repeat, happy I’m getting better. It’s something I miss in many games of today that are often “finish and forget.”

Thank you!

But — while we cannot please everyone, we want even more people to enjoy Witchfire than the 90% from the reviews. So we made a list of reasons why some people would not recommend the game to others. A few such reasons are quite obvious and expected:

“The game is not finished yet.”

It is in Early Access, and that is not for everyone indeed.

“It’s an exclusive to one online store only.”

In the future, the game will be available on many more places and platforms. But yes, for now, it’s an exclusive to EGS.

“Not enough content.”

This one hurts because we think there’s actually a decent amount of content already. But it’s ok if you feel different, after all, we are still a work in progress. However, the majority of players who said this are in the 20-50 hours of playtime bracket. I am not sure what to do with this information.

Anyway, rest assured we are working hard to bring more content to the game. As described and explained in the previous post, the next update will bring a new (smaller but still) map, among other things.

So, all of these issues quoted above are solvable, of course. The game will reach 1.0 one day, other shops and platforms, and will have more content.

The second category of “no” I would describe as kind of an expected feedback we do need to act upon as soon as possible:

“The game is too difficult.”

The game is supposed to be difficult, but there’s the difficulty we want and one that’s unintended, the difficulty that feels fair and one that does not. We are or will be working on all the things people mentioned. This includes things like:

  • Onboarding that teaches the core gameplay – stuff like dashing – better.

  • Fair Stamina drain from damage. Currently, any damage drains Stamina. Some a little, some more, but still. We need to pull back a little here. The idea is good and tested, already present in games like Bloodborne when multiple minor enemies or a single boss can even stunlock you. But even then, minor damage does not affect Stamina, as Stamina has already its own cost (spend too much of it and you might not be able to avoid an attack).

  • Difficulty spikes. These are good and a standard fare in video games, but some areas need more love. For example, someone mentioned that researching Arcana dilutes the initial pool of easily understandable, quite powerful Arcana. True, and this is the bane of many roguelikes or games with roguelike elements. Luckily, we know what the solution is here.

  • Arcana issues. A player mentioned that they never feel OP from gathering Arcana. We agree. Arcana do give a boost and can synergize, but this happens not often enough. We talked about it in the previous post.

  • Unclear structure. Yes. In Witchfire, you can explore and play some of the world and even kill some of the bosses already but …why, right? What’s the goal? This will become clearer with the next update after this one, but also there are some low hanging fruits we can reach for now. Like a much better map description that clearly shows rewards for this or that activity.

“There is no story.”

Here’s a reversed Simpsons meme for you:

“No point in changing a beloved loadout.”

We don’t see it as an issue. You are tasked with killing the Witch of the Black Sea. The Church does not care if you do it with one loadout or ten. I finished Bloodborne using only two weapons, and it’s one of the best games I ever played. In Gears of War, you spend most of the time with your Lancer. It’s all fine.

Having said that, we do want more content that will pull you out of the comfort zone and make you think that maybe with a different loadout, things would be easier.

“Calamity should not launch when fighting a boss.” and other minor issues.

Half the team is fighting Karol the Designer on this one. We’re getting closer.

We are also working on other smaller stuff that people mentioned, like an improved mini-map, improved UI, or better balancing (things like the HP of the second boss).

To make it very clear: all of the above are things we either already work on and will be featured in the very next update, or we will work on for a later update. All will be taken care of, that is a promise.

And then, finally, we have the feedback that surprised us. Stunned, even.

It’s just one thing. Literally one.

“Stats do not matter and might be gone as well.”

Initially, I laughed.

This made no sense to me whatsoever.

“It is expected that some feedback won’t be of quality,” I thought, foolishly.

The reason I wanted to disregard this observation was that recently I tested the game using a save from the player who maxed out all stats. I literally could not die. I felt like playing with cheats. I was drowning in health and spell energy and elixirs and gold and witchfire. You still need some skill and expertise, but if you can control the battlefield, with maxed out stats, the game almost becomes a joke.

“Stats do not matter my ass.”

But this was not something a single person said. We noticed a pattern. If one guy says something, sure, maybe you can ignore it. If you start hearing it more often, stop and listen.

So I stopped and listened. We all did. Actually, once we understood the issue, we had a day-long chat about it in the studio. Many pages of a heated internal discussion were written. What initially sounded like feedback to ignore turned out to be a nuclear hit to the core of the game.

There are two sides to this coin.

First, stats do matter. Trust me. I would argue they are bordering on broken. But… it’s hard to feel them when you upgrade your health from 100 to 104. A law of big numbers enters the chat. Imagine that instead of upgrading your health by 4 points, you have a base health of 500 and upgrade it by 20. Percentage-wise, going from 100 to 104 is the exact same thing as going from 500 to 520, but the latter looks better, doesn’t it?

Now you know why you have around 500 HP at the start of Dark Souls 3 or Bloodborne…

It just feels better to upgrade a stat by 20-30 points than by 4-6. I think we will go this route as well.

Second, and way, way more importantly, in games like Souls, stats govern more than just some features of your character. They define, for example, your builds. You invested in Strength? Cool. You can use that big hammer now. And not only that, but the hammer’s damage scales with Strength now, and that makes it a stat worth continuously investing in. However, other things also fight for your attention. Would you not like to increase your Vitality as well?…

This gives the players some extra goals to work towards. Even if they do not feel the immediate impact of increasing Strength level from 20 to 21, unlocking the option to use a new weapon is enticing.

There are other forces at work here as well, but I do not want to spill all the design secrets at once.

Anyway, so the “stats do not matter” feedback is not limited to just this. It’s also about the builds and their connection to stats. It can be weapon efficiency dependent on the stats or a skill tree connected to the stats — whatever works, as long as there is more to stats than just stats.

So what do we want to do about this?

We certainly do not want to copy the Souls’ solution. It works very well for them. It would not work for Witchfire. The reason is that we do not want to push you into a narrow path. Sure, in Souls you can respec a few times. But we think of Witchfire as a story of one certain witch hunter who gathers an arsenal and uses whatever is needed to fight the witch. No limits. Anything goes.

Take Destiny 2, for example. You have your Vault, full of Legendary and Exotic weapons and armor…

For one activity, like a Grandmaster Nightfall, you might want to use a certain set of abilities and gear. For another, like a raid, you might prefer something completely different. Up to you. You hold all the cards.

This is closer to our philosophy. You work hard for the gear, so you can use all the gear.

Sounds good, but how to make stats more meaningful then? And how to play into the players’ fantasy of builds? Like, how to support one player’s fantasy to be a gunslinger preyer who’s a lightning bolt on the battlefield, with another player’s fantasy of being a fire mage who rains down meteors of lava onto their enemies?

Well, you do not want me to ruin the surprise, do you?

Let me put it this way. With GG, the Ghost Galleon update, we introduced Gnosis and brought Calamity 2.0. With TWT, the next planned update, we will bring Arcana 2.0. And then our focus is on Stats 2.0, and then, but that one is a maybe, Classes 2.0.

Big changes ahead either way.

This is also what I hope people who bought the game in Early Access enjoy. You already played two versions of Witchfire, and you will play third, the fourth, and so on — until the final 1.0. With each update, Witchfire is not just growing, it is also changing. It’s like going from egg to larva, from larva to pupa, from pupa to imago.

The game is changing thanks to you. That was the whole idea behind the Early Access. If you do it right, it just works. Lately, we’ve seen Hades 2 also releasing as an Early Access game. No Rest for the Wicked, too. These experienced studios did not need to do it, but they did. They know the power of a proper Early Access.

Big fat thanks to everyone who wrote the reviews we asked for. We read them all and treat them seriously. But we also read your discussions on our Discord, your suggestions, your bug reports. To all those who engage with these things, thanks just as big and fat.

‘Til next post!

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