Greetings from Outer Wilds Ventures!
May has been a busy month so far here at Outer Wilds Ventures! Our designers have moved on to greyboxing the last two remaining "large" planets and adding some improved functionality to the probe. The tech team has been revising all the ship systems, rewriting the way players lock on to objects in the solar system, and integrating new UI to the player and ship HUDs. The art team is continuing to model characters, redid the ship, and are redesigning the player tools (See below!), while the audio team is working on the player breathing & damage effects. Yeah!
We also managed to take a well deserved Friday evening to Escape the Time Travel Lab in the next-over neighborhood, Little Tokyo. It should be of no surprise that gamemakers of the time loop persuasion managed to best a tricky room that only has a 12% success rate!
This update we'll be focusing on the player tools, their redesign, and how we teach players how to use them. One of the big focuses of our style reboot earlier in the year was making the Hearthian technology, props, and culture more distinctive visually. In defining a new aesthetic, we focused on our design pillar of "Backpacking in Space" and decided to craft Hearthian gear out of a combination of old school camping gear with Apollo era NASA tech.
While all the tools will get an extra touch of polish before we ship, we're really excited about the direction these tools are taking! We've nicknamed the probe "Little Buddy" because of its similarity to the player ship and its tendency to look like a pet dog. The probe can be shot from the player's suit or in the ship and can send images of what it sees back to the player, illuminate a dark area, or detect natural warnings. The designers consider the probe the most important tool in the player's arsenal.
The translator tool design is getting firm, though the visual effects around it are still evolving. The blue rectangles below will be replaces with something a bit more technical. Additionally, the translator interacts with 5-6 different alien technologies, so we want those effects to feel different. Still, there's enough of a Ghostbusters-y vibe that we dig where it's going!
The signalscope combines the traditional function of a telescope with its audio equivalent--the tool lets you hunt down and hone in on auditory signals as well. This is particularly handy in particularly hazardous environments where non-essential traversal might very well be the death of you (coughDARK BRAMBLEcough).
We feel like the player tools have a much more specific aesthetic to match their specific design, and we're pumped to get them in your hands soon!
HOW WE TEACH PLAYERS
So with all of these tools, how do we here at Outer Wilds Ventures go about teaching players how to use them? We sat down with Alex to chat about our very specific approach!
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR BASIC PHILOSOPHY TOWARDS TUTORIALS AND TEACHING PLAYERS IN-GAME?
Sure...why don’t I talk about the original village and how much it sucked?
SURE. TELL US WHY THE ORIGINAL VILLAGE SUCKED.
Well, it started with you by a campfire and the first thing we did was force you to roast a marshmallow because we thought players needed to learn how to roast marshmallows. And after you were done roasting a marshmallow you were prompted to look up into the sky and use your signalscope, because we thought players needed to learn how to use the signalscope, where you’d see this meteor fall out of the sky and land on the other side of the village. And the whole premise of the tutorial was to go investigate the thing that fell.
And you had to take a picture of the meteor with a probe, and you had to get a jetpack and jetpack over to where the thing is, because you need to learn--you see where it’s going. And at the end of all of that you were supposed to ask for the launch codes and figure out what the hell was going on in the solar system. And the problem with that really traditional narrative sequence of teaching you tools was that before, during, and after the tutorial people wondered, “Why am I doing these things?” We wanted people to be curious about this thing that fell out of the sky but we hadn’t introduced them to the world, so they got very distracted. They couldn’t pay attention to the world or what they were supposed to learn because they were too busy with what they thought they were supposed to do.
So we replaced that with you waking up on Launch Day, and all you need to do is get the launch codes in order to reach space. On the way to getting the codes you have all of these completely optional mini games/fun training scenarios that players can opt into that clearly teach them things they’ll need to learn later, but in a more sandboxy-playground-freeform kind of way.
The model rocket is the first one of these you encounter, and it’s clearly intended to teach you how to fly the ship. But nothing says that explicitly. And it’s fun to mess around with on its own and there’s no reason you have to do it, but people will just muck around with it for ten minutes because it’s a fun thing to do--they set their own goals and challenges without us interfering. We try to do the same things with all the tools in their own way.
SO HOW HAS MAKING A LESS STRUCTURED TUTORIAL HELPED PLAYERS GAIN THE KNOWLEDGE THEY NEED TO PLAY OUTER WILDS?
As I mentioned, one of the main problems with the original tutorial is that players got into space and asked, “What do I do now?” Because it was a very jarring transition from a very linear tutorial to a very open-ended game. So I think the less structured approach works because we’re training players not just how to use these tools & mechanics but also the open-ended nature of the game itself.
The one overt goal we give players is to get the launch codes, and that’s really the only overt goal they’re given in the entire game. In fact, the character that gives you the launch codes, you can ask him, “What’s my mission?”, and he essentially says your mission is to investigate whatever the hell you feel like investigating. So the one thing you have to do tells you that it’s the only thing you’ll ever have to do.
The clear problem with the approach is that making things optional means that you can’t avoid some players just skipping things and not knowing how to play later. There’s not an easy answer for that. The hard thing about Outer Wilds is that we don’t teach you one tool at a time because that’s not how you experience the game. You don’t go play one planet at a time or have one goal to do or whatever. We dump everything on you all at once.
WHAT ARE WAYS OTHER THAN THE OPTIONAL INTERACTIONS IN THE VILLAGE THAT YOU USE TO TEACH PLAYERS? I KNOW YOU PUT SOME NEW POSTERS IN THE SHIP.
The probe’s the most problematic tool we have--because the other tools, even if you miss the tutorials, you can eventually pick up why it’s useful. The probe is a more all-purpose tool, and there are a few places in the game where you have to use it, but it’s not like we put players through X levels of learning how to use the probe to encounter a specifically designed situation that requires the tool.
So how do we get players to understand its versatile functionality? The probe tutorial in the village can’t teach all the reasons why you should use the probe. So the whole idea with these posters is that they show different situations where the probe would be useful, and the goal is that when players find themselves in that situation they’ll hopefully remember enough to use the probe. Essentially we added these posters because we think it’s better than a twenty minute probe tutorial that would be overwhelming and just boring.
We used to have prompts that would come up in the solar system that would tell you what you should do--like the first time you left your ship, there was a prompt to throw a probe. And of course players would throw a probe, because they were told to, but they didn’t understand the why. Tutorialization in Outer Wilds has always broken down when we force players to do things.
So now we have button prompts instead of gameplay prompts. The idea is to always let the player know what they can do without ever telling them what they should do.
DO YOU HAVE ANY EXAMPLES OF TUTORIALS THAT INSPIRED YOUR DESIGN OF OUTER WILDS?
No. Not really. Lots of games have good tutorials. Puzzle games are the most obvious examples. Portal. The Witness. Games have gotten very good at teaching players one bit at a time. Not too many other games have as much of a sandbox approach to tutorialization that I can think of...the Zelda series has it for a lot of non-essential game mechanics, like teaching you how to fish.
I really hate linear tutorials. I like tutorials that let you go at your own pace but don’t hold any information back. I’m the kind of player that wants to have the opportunity to know everything I need to know before doing a thing. That doesn’t mean removing experimentation or not letting people poke around at things, but giving them the information to know what’s going on.
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