Evolving: Reimagining the Sleuthhounds Story Board as a Timeline

June 12, 2015

So you’ve done your analysis. You’ve designed and implemented something that you think covers all the bases. And then the play testers come along and throw the harsh light of reality on all the assumptions you made. You do your post play test evaluation and figure out what you need to change. So you open up the source code and start changing things. Hence the title of this blog post covering the evolution of the originally implemented Sleuthhounds Story Board game mechanic into something similar but distinctly new: the Sleuthhounds Timeline game mechanic.

As I discussed last time, the Story Boards I had implemented in the upcoming Sleuthhounds demo worked as I’d intended them to. However, there was the higher level issue of the game simply not providing enough direction to keep the player engaged. This larger issue broke down into two smaller challenges.

One: Each suspect in the game had been setup as a puzzle. In order to get information from a suspect you had to figure out the correct approach to use when talking to them. However, players found it more expedient to simply grind through all the available dialog options without really thinking about what they were choosing.

Two: Suspects gave you information about other suspects with the intent that the player would go back to those other suspects to follow up on those leads. However, since the player could get a lot of information and a lot of such leads in one conversation it muddied the waters on where to go next.

In reworking the design of the game, I kept those two issues most prevalent in my mind.

The first issue went directly back to the analysis on dialog trees that led to the creation of the Story Board in the first place. I had wanted to introduce dialogs that would engage the player and make them think about the choices they were making. However, what I saw at the play test was very interesting.

Experienced players, conditioned by years of picking every option available in a dialog tree, did exactly that. Inexperienced players, not wanting to miss out on anything the game had to offer, did the exact same thing as well.

I still believe there has to be a better way to do dialogs in games. A way to engage the player more and make them think about the choices they’re making and the potential ramifications. However, I need to get the demo out the door so I can move onto the first full Sleuthhounds game.

So, my first decision was to remove the dialog puzzles with each of the suspects and replace them with more traditional dialogs where you do go through most of the options. It’s not elegant but it fits the way players play. Going against that would be like trying to stop the tides with my bare hands.

After that decision was made that just left the problem of getting players to revisit suspects they’d already talked to in a logical manner. The “first draft” of the game did not provide enough incentive to do that. People went back to suspects they’d already visited because they had exhausted everything else in the game.

It was here that I took a step back to think about what I was trying to accomplish with the game. It’s good to remind yourself of these things every now and then because it’s very easy to get caught up in the details of implementation.

The aspect of the Story Boards that I was most excited about was that the player would have to figure out the order of events in each suspect’s story. The order of events. That was important. Each story was designed to provide motivation as to why a given character would commit the crime at hand. These stories went quite a ways back into the histories of the characters. As such, they were less immediate to the events the player was directly experiencing in the game.

I realized that the character motivations—why a given suspect would commit the crime—could easily be put across in a couple of lines of dialog. That fit well with the redesign of the dialog trees to a more traditional format. If a player no longer had to sort out the motivations of the suspects then what would it make sense for them to determine?

Detectives are always looking for means, motive, and opportunity. That’s when opportunity came knocking at the door. Instead of working out a Story Board for one suspect at a time, what if the player had to work out the movements of all the suspects at the time the crime happened? Which suspect would have the opportunity to commit the crime? Who had alibis? Who could vouch for each other?

Once I started thinking along these lines, the Story Board very quickly morphed into a Timeline. A Timeline that looks a little bit like this:

[The nifty new Timeline - In rough.]
The nifty new Timeline - In rough.

The intent for the new design is that as players talk to suspects they start to amass these little postage stamps. Most stamps involve two characters. When the player talks to character A they will get a postage stamp colored gray. Once they’ve talked to character B and confirmed the story the stamp will be “verified” and will be colored blue.

The catch is, the player is trying to get the stamp to be green. Once a stamp has been verified and becomes blue, it then becomes a “fact” and turns to green when the player is able to place the stamp at the correct time in the timeline. This is more involved than simply trying the stamp in every column of the timeline. Instead, the player must gather additional clues on when an event in the timeline occurred. And some events have to be deduced from other events. So if event A happened immediately before event B then event A can’t be properly locked into the timeline until the exact time for event B has been determined.

I think—I hope—that the Timeline will do several things. First, since most events involve two characters it should provide direction on which characters need to be visited or revisited to verify a given story point. Second, it will present a series of clues that the player has to reason their way through to determine where events need to fall in the timeline.

So, what will happen to the Story Board if the Timeline is now the new kid on the block? In the short term I intend to keep one of the Story Boards from the game and include it as a special feature. A deleted scene as it were. Beyond that, the Story Board did work as I had intended it too. Perhaps it doesn’t work as a main gameplay mechanic but I could envision a situation where a single Story Board was included in a future game. For now I’ll “park” the design, but I’ll keep it in my back pocket to bring out again when the appropriate game moment comes along.