[F]irst impressions are the most important. This is a fact of life that has been drilled into the minds of children the world over. It’s part of our evolutionary heritage, where cavemen and women would have to determine friend from foe at a glance lest they be caught unawares with a spear in their belly. Even modern neuroscience has confirmed how the brain will use its past memories to form a picture of every new stimuli found in the present. It is, quite simply, in our nature.
Once that first impression is formed it can be hard to break, and even if it is broken it’s not often a good thing. An analogy can be found in movie trailers – if the trailer makes a movie out to be a delightful comedy but turns out to be a depressing drama, it’s not likely to be reviewed very well. The same can be said for games – if the game trailer makes it out to be an action shooter but the gameplay turns out to be far more stealth and conversation oriented, then the player is likely to feel negatively simply for having their expectations subverted.
But the worst part about first impressions is that they are formed based on an individual’s unique history and culture, making it impossible as a creator to know how their creation will be perceived.
All game developers face this dilemma when creating their games, but in the world of indie games, this fact is made particularly harsh.
On To Diluvion.
“So at the time – this was like 2012 – there was a lot of space games coming out, and we were just like, ‘Yeah, that would be a really fun genre to work in, but like a sea of space games’,” says Leo Dasso, creative director at Arachnid Games. Their first title, Ballpoint Universe, was a gorgeous shoot-’em-up featuring hand drawn art made entirely in pen. While this visual feat drew Arachnid some acclaim, the small team had already begun work on a much more ambitious project in their second game, Diluvion, an open-world game of submarine combat.
Although not drawn in ballpoint pen, Diluvion would be no less visually stunning. The underwater world is at times bright and vibrant with life, and at others dark and foreboding, with untold horrors lurking in the depths. The 3D environments are both striking and grand, but no less so than the 2D inventory and menu system, which is rendered in singularly unique art style. The music is also marvelous, adding to the sense of scale and wonder that the player feels while exploring each new cave in search of valuable salvage from the old world.
“I think it was an overwhelming task for a team of three people,” Leo reminisces on the numerous difficulties with creating such an enormous world. The team at Arachnid was familiar with the Unity engine from their time in Ballpoint Universe, but adding the third dimension caused all kinds of headaches, like rendering enormous undersea battles “without the scenes getting too crazy and just eating up all the memory and crashing.”
With such limited manpower, it’s a necessity to make design decisions that are as efficient as possible. Playing to expectations can often work in a developer’s favour, making Diluvion‘s submersed setting more than just a whimsical choice. “The theme of 20,000 Leagues type of steampunk submarine thing is something that most people are pretty familiar with, so there’s a lot of intuition that you can tap when you’re doing designs.” Other underwater games, like Subnautica, have already taught players to concern themselves with oxygen and food, so it’s not necessary to spend as much time explaining these concepts in newer games.
But relying on expectations is a double-edged sword. Get it right and you can skip fully fleshing out aspects of your game. Get it wrong and the player is left lost and confused with nothing in the game to help them.
Unfortunately for Arachnid, a fast approaching launch date meant that time is perhaps the most limited resource of all. “We had a very short time in beta. Like, it was too short,” tells Leo of the six weeks Diluvion spent in beta. Much of that time was spent squashing bugs in time for release, but as Leo admits, “You can do a new build realistically maybe once or twice a week, so six weeks goes up in no time.”
The result of such a limited beta is that something inevitably will slip through. Diluvion released to mixed reviews, with most complaints centering on the controls. Portraying Diluvion as an underwater space game meant that players were expecting their submarine to behave like a spaceship, and when it didn’t those players reacted negatively. Similar complaints surrounded the map, which forced players to navigate by landmark, and a camera which turned every pirate engagement into a battle against both the player’s viewpoint as much as their undersea foe.
While a low review score – both from professional journalists and casual players – was disappointing, the sheer volume of feedback meant Diluvion was far from dead in the water.
As Leo reports post-release, “I think the biggest thing for us as a team was we had this immense amount of feedback and we were like, ‘We can do something about this.'”
A passionate following would be invigorating. Mere days after release Diluvion received a patch that would largely fix the issues surrounding the camera and more closely align the controls with the player’s expectations. Two weeks later it would receive an update that added the player’s location to the map along with numerous fixes and incremental improvements. As a result, Diluvion’s Steam user review score would climb from a lacklustre 66% to a “Mostly Positive” 76% as of the time of this writing.
And they didn’t stop. Armed with more Steam forum comments than a small beta could ever produce, the team at Arachnid set about creating a simple design doc with a list of potential improvements. The philosophy was always to answer two questions: “What do we think is missing? What could help out the most?”
“And we actually posted that doc on the Steam forums, so it’s out there for people to see.” This unconventional move further strengthened Arachnid’s connection with its fans and opened the door to even more constructive feedback. “The community has been pretty supportive on the forums, and they’re willing to talk about or give us ideas about what we could do for future releases and such.”
With such an incredible response, Arachnid is planning a massive update for Diluvion filled with ideas that were born on the Steam forums. The update is massive and will completely revamp the submarine upgrade system, add rewarding mini-games to salvage, and even add a crafting system so players can take their useless junk and turn it into useful armaments.
The forthcoming patch will be huge, and while many developers would package it as a payable DLC, Arachnid plans to offer it completely free.
The Trouble Between Big And Small
This all begs a certain question: if Arachnid has done all this work to improve their game, eliminating all of the major complaints against it, is it fair for those negative reviews to remain and possibly dissuade future players from purchasing Diluvion?
It seems that the two industries at play here have not kept up with each other in terms of how they operate. The videogame industry is no longer marketing static, unchanging cartridges. Games can be patched, updated, and improved well beyond their initial release, to the point that often a game years down the line will be unrecognizable as the initial build. Conversely game journalists rarely go back to a completed review to take account for the various updates that developers have made.
That is, unless you’re a larger developer. Then you can sometimes get a free pass on a poor initial release. Take the case of Prey: the PC release was marred by numerous bugs and a game-breaking save corruption issue, causing IGN to give it an initial rating of 4/10. A week later the game was patched, the bugs fixed, and they amended that score to be 8/10. One must ask if it wasn’t the name Bethesda publishing the title, and Prey was on offer from some unknown indie developer, would those same reviewers have been so kind as to go back and update their review?
All of this puts the professional integrity of a games journalist into doubt, if not the entire profession itself.
What’s A Developer To Do?
Larger developers are not blind to the growing issues in the games journalism industry. Many of the biggest names in the business no longer send out preview copies, noting that development on their game continues right up until release day and that early previews no longer seem representative of the game as sold.
Game publications are certainly not happy with the trend as much of their livelihood is based on the ability to preview games for their audience. But acknowledging that their operation is now deeply flawed while fundamentally changing the way that games are discussed is something the industry is resisting, sometimes vehemently.
In the ongoing war between publishers and developers, what’s a small indie studio to do? Steam Early Access is one such method that allows smaller developers to shield themselves from intense professional scrutiny as a game that is still “under development”, but that comes with its own list of problems, not the least of which being the user reviews can be equally as unforgiving as the professional ones.
Ultimately these issues are just beyond the scope of a team of three people. As Leo explains it, the goal for Arachnid has always been the same. “Our goal, as a studio, is to make a fantastic game, and even if it’s post-release, I still think there’s the word-of-mouth factor, and user reviews [act as] sort of a positive influence to things.”
“Maybe there will be more reviews coming in, offsetting that Metacritic score, maybe there won’t. But that’s not really our job to try and change people’s opinions, it’s our job to make a great game.”
Go try out Diluvion. No matter what the reviews say, it’s a fantastic game.