[Developer Sharon Hoosein outlines the troubles and triumphs of creating King's Ascent, a narrative-based platformer with unique mechanics.]
Haven't played King's Ascent? We just released it on Kongregate, and it's also available on Newgrounds.
What Went Right
Simple core mechanic with a unique twist
King's Ascent is a platformer where platforms are used not just to escape, but to damage monsters. Since most players are already familiar with platformers, they already have skills for timing and positioning within this genre. King's Ascent builds on these skills to challenge their abilities in path finding, judging trajectory, and balancing the tradeoff between causing enough damage versus gaining a safer distance.
Our goal in making King's Ascent was to create a free game with a professional level of polish and playtesting. Given our inexperience and time constraints, it was very important to keep the mechanics simple to achieve this goal, let alone finish the game. The core mechanic of King's Ascent had originally been a backup idea for the Global Game Jam, so we knew we'd be able to pull it off in a longer time frame.
Playtesting in person
"Hmm..." "Gah!" "Oh!" "Heh" are all extremely important noises players make at points that respectively stump, frustrate, surprise, and amuse them. They won't remember most of these moments, especially in a game as fast paced as King's Ascent. Jotting down observational notes with a follow up interview is an effective method of pinpointing the causes of memorable joy/frustration.
One important question we asked during the playtest interviews was "What was your goal while playing this game, and what did you use to help you achieve this goal?" If the player was not doing what we intended, their answer to this question helped point out exactly what was confusing to them and how.
King's Ascent is the story of a king who believes he's done great deeds for his people. He discovers that he's made enemies from the consequences of these deeds. These enemies are now sending giant monsters to kill him.
The story in King's Ascent is interesting in that it's unclear whether the king made the right or wrong decision given his circumstances. Some players argued that all the king's actions were completely reasonable, and his enemies were simply selfish. Others sympathized with the king's enemies, but thought they should have handled the situation differently. Some thought the king was a selfish jerk and deserved to be punished.
Most players claim that this story was what made them play King's Ascent to the end. Although each level introduces new mechanics and new ways to use existing mechanics, even players who enjoyed the gameplay still found the story to be the main draw. For the players who felt the gameplay was too challenging, their interest to see what happens next in the story countered their frustration.
Even people who didn't like the story still enjoyed that it existed. Some commenters that claimed to hate it still raged in a way that showed they were clearly engaged with the story, but didn't agree with the outcome.
We spent a year making King's Ascent. Development was divided into milestones: preproduction, prototypes, finished first level and final game. Each milestone had a deliverable to show off our efforts up to that point. Completing milestones gave us motivating boosts of accomplishment. They were also a failsafe: if the team fell apart for whatever reason, we'd still have something to show off and our efforts would not be wasted.