Dapple’s Identity Crisis

I want to take some time today and reflect on the game design for Dapple. As the game’s designer, it’s often hard to remove oneself from the game and look at it somewhat objectively. I’ll never be able to look at the game with complete objectivity; I’ve spent far too much time thinking about it. However, I’m starting to gather a decent amount of data on why people aren’t buying the game, so I want to talk about some of it here.

As the designer of the game, it’s hard when people don’t like the game. I realise that not everyone likes every game; that’s obvious. However, Dapple seems to be lacking traction in the two demographics that I thought it would have the best chance in: hardcore puzzle gamers, and casual gamers. So, I want to look at where Dapple isn’t succeeding as well as I thought it would, in the hopes that I can learn from this for my next game.

Disclaimer: It’s worth pointing out that I’m generalizing greatly here. This is not true of all players, but I’m starting to see a trend when I ask for feedback on why people chose not to buy the game.

I’ve been gradually receiving feedback on Dapple from players who have tried the game, or players who have tried the Lite version of the game and decided not to purchase the full version. I’ve been talking with players on the Touch Arcade forums, and the inclusion of a Feedback button in the game and the lite version seems to be helping. I also read all of the reviews that get posted in the App Store across all countries.

In following all of this for the past 6 weeks or so, since Dapple was released, a common thread is starting to emerge among players who aren’t enjoying the game: it’s too difficult.

The difficulty of the game is something that I spent a lot of time on during development of the game. There is a learning curve associated with it: you need to spend some time with the game in order to learn how the colours mix. However, it seems like Dapple is suffering from a bit of an identity crisis in this regard.

Dapple is a game that plays like a hardcore puzzle game, but that looks like a light casual game. I think one of the problems I’m having with the game is one of perception. Hardcore puzzle game players dismiss it immediately because it looks like a casual game. Casual gamers download the Lite version and when they don’t “get it” immediately, they stop playing out of frustration.

I say that Dapple plays like a “hardcore” game, because it requires real thought and concentration when you’re learning to play. It’s not a game that you can succeed at early on without some thought. Players who expect to be able to jump in and “grok” (see “Stranger in a Strange Land” and “A Theory of Fun for Game Design”) the game instantaneously are going to be frustrated that it doesn’t play like other matching games. You have to learn to play the game to be good at it. However, feedback I receive from people who love the game suggests that after playing it for a certain amount of time, things suddenly “click” and the game becomes incredibly addictive. What’s interesting to me is that the “click” happens at different times for different people. Some people get it very quickly. For some others, it takes time.

I suspect that this is why I’ve generally received such positive reviews from review sites. Reviewers play a game until they understand it, because they’re trying to provide the reader with an complete view of the game. These reviewers are playing up to (and past) the point of that “click” and they end up really liking the game.

I think the problem is that the average person who downloads a game for their iPhone is looking for something they can grok instantly. Dapple is a game that, once you “get” it, can be played in very short bursts and is ideally suited for the iPhone in that regard. However, it can’t be grokked instantly, and I think that’s the biggest design flaw with the game.

In “A Theory of Fun”, one of arguments Koster makes is that “[t]he definition of a good game is…’one that teaches everything it has to offer before the player stops playing.'” This is true of Dapple if players play until the game “clicks”, but Dapple fails in this when players give up before that point.

All of this begs the question: how do I fix this?

I have done certain things in the game to help players learn:

  • “How to Play” popups that come up the first time you play, and are accessible in the Pause Menu and Main Menu
  • Hint arrow that comes up quickly on early levels, and more slowly on later levels that shows players where mixes are avaible (and the hints can be turned off by the user if it bugs them)
  • Early levels don’t have any “malicious” elements in the game, letting users play without worrying about losing
  • Putting a finger on the paint palette icon at the bottom of the screen shows how colours mix

However, clearly this isn’t addressing the issue. People have trouble remembering that Red + Yellow = Orange. One of the most common complaints is that people felt like they had to use the paint palette help every turn and felt like they couldn’t learn it.

To be honest, I’m not sure what the solution is, or if there is one, even. I’ve thought about things like:

  • A tutorial mode – but this is tricky…a lot of users will ignore tutorials altogether
  • I was talking to a guy at the Toronto IGDA meetup and he asked almost immediately if there was a mode where he could play with a subset of colours. This is something I considered during development, but wasn’t sure it would work. Now I’m starting to think about that more seriously. The idea being that users could play a game using only Red, Orange, and Yellow. Once they were comfortable with those colours, switch to Yellow, Green and Blue, and so on. It would be a kind of “Learners” or “Practice” mode.

I am planning further updates to Dapple, so maybe one of these ideas will make it into the next update. I think it’s clear that I don’t have a good solution yet, so I think I need to give it more thought. If you have played the game and have any suggestions, please send me an email, or post in the comments. Email can be sent to: dapple [at] streamingcolour [dot] com.

Game design, like so many other creative endeavors, is going to be a life-long learning process. I hope that by doing this kind of analysis on my own work that it will help me to grow in this regard. All I can ask is that each game I create teaches me something new. My hope is that with each game I create, I will teach the player something new too.