Since Shank 1 came out, we’ve given an enormous amount of time thinking about the user experience of Shank, and we regularly bring players in to see what works, and what doesn’t. I just want to share one story, among dozens of unexpected, fantastic, humbling experiences during development.
Give the player a reason to learn
Shank 1 has a huge amount of moves. In fact, there were tons of strategies that are very effective in different scenarios. However, what we found was that the experience varied wildly whether players would actually learn or employ these strategies. That’s because, in general, players could find one strategy that fit their immediate play-style, and complete the entire game that way, even if it was sub-optimal. This had a few negative consequences: first, it made the game repetitive — a player could end up doing the same actions throughout the whole game. Worse, it made the game unnecessarily hard — the suboptimal strategy didn’t outright fail, but it would be good enough to keep trying until it worked.
Highlight the strategies
Knowing this, in Shank 2, we set out to very purposely to create scenarios where we pace the learning of new movies. The introduction of Shank’s options is deliberate, and the enemies are placed in ways to highlight different strategies: strategies such as dodging, grabbing, pouncing, countering, shooting, multi-weapon combo’ing, using pickups, and so on. But a portion of our players still got stuck in a rut, falling back on button-mashing and luck to complete the game.
And then, one very simple, but non-intuitive change completely altered player behavior: we lengthened the time between death and respawn.
Options, options, options
I’m a big fan of Super Meat Boy, and their implementation of respawning instantaneously was genius — it allowed me to gain muscle memory of their level, and get right back into the action. However, we realized Shank has a very different problem — we noticed some players, after dying, would jam the controls until they restarted, and then proceed to do exactly what they did last time, and fail almost exactly the same way.
Our problem wasn’t that players needed to practice, at least not exactly. Our problem was that these players didn’t know, or had forgotten, what options they had to succeed.
By adding a slight delay of few seconds, two very important things happened. First, players slowed down; the forced pause made players noticeably change posture to a more relaxed state, and stopped button mashing as much. This is very important, because the game very much rewards finesse and reacting to the enemies, rather than just pure offense. Second, they were able to see the hints that we give upon death, whereas previously they skipped right past it. This not only served the purpose of seeing the hint, it also prompts players to think more about their actions, and wonder about what else they could do.
Immediately, we saw a huge improvement: players were much less likely to simply mash their way into a fight, and started experimenting with different moves and strategies. We would never have figured this out just by thinking and theorizing about the problem. It was extremely eye-opening, and humbling, to see such a small change have huge consequences.
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