More Evolving: Tweaking the Sleuthhounds Timeline

September 25, 2015

Way, way back in June I blogged about the change from a Storyboard mechanic to a Timeline mechanic for the upcoming Sleuthhounds: The Cursed Cannon computer game. Today the Cursed Cannon is getting closer and closer to being finished. A key part of finishing the game is polishing everything to ensure the best presentation possible. That extends to the Timeline. Especially the Timeline!

The Timeline is a new game mechanic. That means that it’s something that I haven’t seen in other games and so don’t have anything else to model it on, gameplay-wise. As such, it’s bound to have some rough edges. However, based on my experiences with the Timeline as well as those of people that have been kind enough to do some play testing for me, I’ve been making refinements and improvements to how it works. Earlier this week, I completed work on those improvements (at least, they’re complete unless I think of anything else to tweak).

Within the game, the Timeline is used to track the movements of all the suspects. As you talk to people and conduct your investigation you accumulate a number of postage stamps. These stamps represent what a suspect was up to at a given time. It’s then up to you, the player, to organize these stamps to determine whose whereabouts are unaccounted for that they might have committed the crime.

[The first version of the Timeline interface.]
The first version of the Timeline interface.
Click to view larger.

In the first version of the Timeline these stamps were added to the Collected Events without any sort of sorting, regardless of the character or characters the stamps were for. Similarly, each stamp was used only once in the time side of the interface. This arrangement was functional but it did feel a little awkward, especially when placing stamps that involved two characters instead of just a single character.

Most of the stamps feature only a single character. The natural way people started arranging the stamps was to pick a row for one character and put all the stamps for that character into that row. This became a little cumbersome with the two character stamps since they could only be placed in one row, which sometimes made it difficult to see what a given character’s movements actually were.

Another rough edge with the first version was with the color coding of the stamps. Gray stamps represented events that one character had told you about but that needed to be verified by a second character. Blue stamps represented events related to you by a trustworthy character or confirmed by multiple characters. And green stamps were ones that were successfully placed in the timeline.

Most of the stamps, once they’d been verified and turned to the blue color, could be placed in the timeline and turned green right away. Most, but not all. Some stamps required a little extra information or needed to be placed in conjunction with other blue stamps before all of them would turn green. This was because I wanted to have some dependencies between certain events to increase the challenge.

The problem with this was that since most blue stamps changed to green right away, players came to expect that if a stamp was blue then it could be put into its final place at that time. Players became frustrated when they encountered the stamps that needed to be placed in conjunction with other stamps. They would only try one stamp at a time in all of the available time slots and find that it would not turn green, which led them to think the game was broken.

In revising the Timeline’s interface I wanted to address the above issues.

[The revised version of the Timeline interface.]
The revised version of the Timeline interface.
Click to view larger.

First, I’ve reworked the layout of the Timeline so that it clearly presents “lanes” for the stamps for each character. As stamps are collected, they’re automatically sorted into the appropriate lane in the Collected Events area.

For the stamps involving two characters, a copy of the stamp is placed in each character’s lane. A connecting line is then drawn between those pairs of stamps. As one stamp in the pair is moved so is the other. So they always move together with their connecting line.

The second refinement I made was to the coloring of the stamps. The three color system has now been replaced with a four color system to better communicate to the player the state that the stamps are in.

In the refined version, red stamps indicate events that need to be verified by a second character. Yellow stamps indicate events that have been verified but can’t be placed into the timeline yet because they’re dependent on another event being placed first. Green stamps are stamps that can be successfully placed in the timeline. Finally, blue stamps are stamps that have been successfully placed.

Comparing the screenshots of the original version and the revised version will show a few other little tweaks and changes. However, the above two issues were the largest rough spots in the interface. The revised version is, I hope, more communicative to players as well as being more visually interesting. I do think the revised version makes solving the timeline easier, but I’d rather the game be a little too easy than a lot too hard.

At least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.