Gamedev Grievances #2: Menus, Stories, and Boring Screenshots

Over the past week or so, following the launch of the Ambience demo, I’ve continued to push Ambience to greater heights towards the eventual final release. So far my main focus has been working on the story and getting that sorted out as much as possible, but I’ve also been addressing some bugs and feedback regarding the demo. Along the way, I’ve come across a few more “Gamedev Grievances” which I thought I might share.

1. Controls and menus

When it comes to controls (and especially the number of controls), there’s a delicate balance to be observed. Fewer controls means less to remember and so the game is easy to pick up; however, this limits the degree of functionality and control the user has. In contrast, many controls gives the player greater functionality (for example, having lots of hotkeys to access menus), but is harder for new players to pick up and remember.

In the first few builds of Ambience, long before the demo was released, I opted for the “few controls” approach, and had a single menu that dealt with everything – items, weapons, and so forth. However, it soon emerged that gameplay involved switching between weapons and items a lot, which involved picking your way through lots of menus almost every turn – which was, understandably, very annoying.

Gif Menu 1 Early Build
The original, clicky menu in an early build of Ambience – fewer controls to remember, but slow and inconvenient.

As a result, the Ambience demo kept the main menu (accessible with the Enter key), but also added a series of hotkeys (Z, X, C, and V) through which the player could quickly switch weapons and use items without going through the menus. However, in hindsight I probably over-corrected and wound up with too many controls to comfortably memorize. Some people who played the Ambience demo noted that there was a steep learning curve regarding the large number of controls you needed to get used to. There was also a need for consistency between using either the mouse and keyboard, and not pushing players into using a mix and match of both.

Gif Menu 2 Demo
Both the clicky and hotkey (ZXCV) menus in the Ambience Demo – good functionality, but too many controls.

As a result, I’m currently working on developing a new, more integrated menu, which allows access to everything important through a single key (Enter). The original, full menu can still be accessed through this, as well as the quick menus for weapons, items, and skills.

For the moment, I’m keeping the clickable buttons along the side of the screen for the major functions, such as save, quit, and help. I’m also debating whether to keep the ZXCV hotkeys from the demo, or just have a single, pop-up Enter-key menu. Decisions, decisions…

New menu
Both the clicky and Enter key menus in the current, post-demo build of Ambience. (I still can’t work out how to get GM:S to map the Enter key to a character in a sprite font, though. Sigh.)

2. Branching storylines

The final release of Ambience will have a much deeper storyline than the demo, with multiple possible endings – probably three main scenarios, with other minor differences increasing the true number further. These differences will depend, in part, on your interactions with the Renegades, Vulcan and Zephyr. While these interactions are usually optional, and won’t directly assist you in completing the game, they will influence how the Renegades (and you) end up. In some cases, they will even affect the nature of the bosses you face in the current and subsequent playthroughs. (They will also affect the difficulty of these bosses, but only very slightly – I’d like to avoid any major influence of story progression on difficulty if at all possible).

Most of the story has already been worked out on paper – but the hard part about all this is implementing it.The amount of planning, tables, and careful analysis I’ve undergone already is mind-boggling, to say the least. Already I’ve written almost 6,000 words of tables, text, and fragments of dialogue… and counting. Even then, it’s still nothing compared to many other games with multiple endings, such as Chrono Trigger or Undertale – just the thought of how much effort and careful thinking must have gone into these games just hurts my brain.

One thing I’ve definitely learned from all of this is: never underestimate the amount of creative writing involved in developing a story-heavy game, even if you’re not going for a branching storyline like in Ambience.

The "dull side" of game development, here in the world's most boring gamedev screenshot.
Part of my story planning notes – or in other words, probably the world’s most boring gamedev screenshot.

There are some other Gamedev Grievances I’ve run into, but for the moment (and in the interests of keeping this post short enough to still be readable), I think I’ll hold onto them for now until next time.

What are some of your recent Gamedev Grievances?

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