CGD Episode 26: Auro, and my change in philosophy

works

This episode is undoubtedly my most vulnerable episode, wherein I talk about the failure of Auro, a game that I believe in strongly and which I worked on for six years. I talk about the process and the struggle of dealing with that and how it has re-shaped my way of looking at art. It’s a short episode, but I had to talk about this before I talked about anything else.

The above Venn diagram, which kind of expresses my recent dramatic change in philosophy, was based on an off-handed remark from a recent David Sirlin article.

Thanks for listening, and as always, you can support my work on Patreon.com.

  • Pete Siecienski

    I want to start off by saying that I think Auro is actually a really great game. I’ve played 34 hours of the steam version with no intention of stopping, I’ve gotten to rank 11, and I’ve really enjoyed the climb through the ranks and the feeling of improvement. It feels like a game similar to Chess, in that it is a very strong mechanical system that I could see being enjoyed by people for years to come.

    Like you’ve said though, it’s clearly not connecting with people, and I think you’re correct correlating it to Sirlin’s Venn diagram. I think part of it is just too much change too quickly, and people tend to “auto-reject” change, almost like a defense mechanism. Auro, and a lot of your game design theory, is very radical compared to what is standard today, and I think people kind of get threatened by that. So while Auro is definitely in the “what works” circle, it’s unfortunately not exactly in the intersection of “what people will accept”.

    Some things working against Auro specifically though, from my observations. I think the theme might not “do it” for a lot of people. It’s a little goofy and cartoony, which isn’t a bad thing inherently, but I know from experience that that alone can turn people away. I have a friend who is the definition of a “theme gamer”, in that they really only care about the theme as long as the game is at least playable, and will ignore games that are otherwise good if the theme doesn’t do anything for them. I’d imagine, based on video game marketing, that there is a large sum of these types of people out there. I don’t think a game needs to be violence glorifying, but being “cool” definitely helps to attract people. Seeing a screenshot of a game and wanting to know more about it, solely because you like how it looks, is a pretty powerful thing I’ve found.

    Maybe more important than theme is the idea of game feel and presentation, in which I think Auro is lacking when compared to other games. I know this might be out of your hands due to monetary costs or engine limitations, but it’s worth considering. Something like Hearthstone *feels* amazing to play, everything is smooth and intuitive, buttons feel good to click, dragging cards with your mouse is natural, when you win there is a lot of fanfare, etc. And while I in no way think Hearthstone is a good game, I can’t help but feel that it’s amazing UI is a big portion of it’s appeal. When people play a pretty feature-bare game, having a high “production value” can go a long way in the perceived value of the game. Auro kind of has a very minimalist feel (almost unfinished feeling to be honest) to the victory screen and other menus. The “during a match” UI in 2.0 is good, but the victory screen is just a white background and some stats, it feels like it could use some more oomph. In addition the screen where you see your rank could also use a little dressing up, the progress bar specifically feels almost out of place, like it’s just floating there off to the side. Also moving Auro multiple spaces in a row can feel kind of clunky, which is never a good thing. I guess basically what I’m saying is, I would be more likely (and I’d imagine others as well) to play a version of Auro that had Hearthstone levels of polish and presentation, which I suppose is pretty obvious. But maybe more to the point, people may be specifically turned off by the fact that Auro is lower on that spectrum.

    I think those two things would help move Auro closer to the “what people will accept” circle, without changing anything about the core design of the game. It might not be enough, but like I said earlier, Auro is very radical compared to most things. Which to me is more of a problem that time solves than anything, people need time to adjust to radical new things.

    I think maybe the best we can do, is like you said, make games that are sort of familiar but move them in a better direction. To be honest that almost feels kind of like a defeatist attitude, but that could just be the reality of art in general.

    All that being said, I want you to know that I have been really enjoying your podcast and articles over the past year or so. I’m always excited to see a new one pop up. While I don’t necessarily agree with everything you say, you’ve really changed how I think about game design and games in general, and I strongly feel like that will lead to me making more interesting games myself.

  • Early on Auro was compared to my game because of its ‘bumping’ mechanic. But don’t feel so bad as I bet my game beat out Auro in the failure department (despite both games getting great reviews). BTW I used to wonder why Auro was getting so much attention compared to my game. But maybe I was imagining that attention as I was closely following Auro.

  • In the podcast the biggest reason for Auro’s ‘failure’ was not mentioned: The democratisation of game development. There are just so many games out there, both good and bad (well there are probably a thousand times more shit games than good games) that it is almost impossible to get noticed. Your chances of winning a lottery are higher than your game becoming successful. I bet if you had been lucky and PewDiePie or TotalBiscuit had featured Auro, your philosophy would have changed in yet a different way.

  • alastair_jack

    I don’t mind playing Auro but it’s not compelling for me, I’m not sure why exactly though. I think it feels more like puzzle work for me me, whereas I’m usually into something a bit more thrilling with actiony real-time games like Dota, Dark Souls etc. I’m probably just the wrong audience.

  • franklantz

    Really admire your honesty here, and I think your take on the designer’s responsibility for reaching an audience is spot on. I especially like the way you put it – most players aren’t stupid, they’re busy and distracted, often by difficult and important things. We need only look at our own experience playing games to realize how hard it is for them to penetrate the maelstrom of daily life. We should always keep this in mind and maintain a generous attitude towards players – patient without being patronizing.

    Fwiw, I think there are a lot of great things about Auro. I played it quite a bit, and have recommended it to many people. For me, the single most important feature of the game is the concept of “single-player Elo”. This system isn’t perfect, but it’s a major contribution to one of the most difficult problems in single-player game design. I honestly don’t think anyone serious about making challenging, “competitive”, 1P games can ignore it.

    I’m not sure I totally agree with all of the lessons you are extracting from your experience with Auro. You can probably imagine why – basically I think you emphasize theory too much and under-appreciate the value of trial and error. The reality is that popularity – connecting with a large audience – is just too complex, too riddled with chaotic network effects, too sensitive to initial conditions and arbitrary forces, too multi-dimensional and subtle and unpredictable, for us to have solid, dependable models about it.

    That doesn’t mean we can’t have *any* models, just that our approach should be to have a light touch with our models, to treat them as fuzzy heuristics and build robust creative practices around the assumption that our models of aesthetic/critical/popular success are highly unreliable and inconsistent.

    It’s just not true that people can’t deal with art that doesn’t fit pre-conceived notions and existing formulas. The world is full of counter-examples. The problem with Sirlin’s venn diagram is that we never know for certain what works, and we never know for certain what people will accept. Not knowing for certain doesn’t mean we don’t know anything, we have good guesses and we have to operate using this partial knowledge, but not knowing for certain affects the optimal *way* to operate.

    If I’m right, and there is simply more complexity and unpredictability in game creation, then you shouldn’t overcorrect from your experience with Auro. As poker players say: you shouldn’t be “results oriented” (over-weighting the results of a single hand or a single session, overweighting the data in a small sample size of a very noisy system.)

    If I’m right, the real lesson would be: you shouldn’t have spent 6 years on Auro. You should be trying more things, experimenting in more directions, refining your aesthetic and commercial models by tinkering, inventing, discovering. I think it’s great you are going to play around with a new approach – starting with more familiar gameplay elements and working outward. But you shouldn’t replace your previous, rigid, over-determined model with a new rigid, over-determined model. Just get more at bats! Try more things! Get more data!

    Again, I’m not saying abandon theory, I’m saying find a sweet spot between theory-driven approach and more aggressive trial-and-error creative experimentation.

    It’s self-defeating to assume your future games will be worse than Auro, most great art comes *because of*, not despite of, collaborating, fighting, struggling, and dancing with the world. But more than that, it’s simply a matter of odds. You will make a bunch more games, they will be of varying quality and popularity, the more you make, the less likely Auro will be the best one.

    Look at Michael Brough, he poured tons and tons of time and effort into Vertex Dispenser and it sank without a trace. In frustration he started busting out a bunch of little games and experiments, and some of these were unbelievable masterpieces and he went on to build a career with real reach, impact, and influence.

    As for Auro specifically, here are some things that I think contributed to its lack of success.

    The tutorial. Whenever I pushed this game on people they bounced hard off the ridiculously interminable and laborious tutorial levels. I know you tried to fix this in later versions, but for most of the folks in my cohort anyway it was too late.

    Complexity. The tutorial-palooza was a symptom of a deeper problem. The game is just too complicated, too dense (Vertex Dispenser had the same problem actually). You are so committed to giving the player “interactive value” that the game comes off as pushy, desperate, show-offy, fussy. Every unit has some tricky, hard-to-remember behavior, every mechanic is loud and bright and sharp, It’s a bit like one of those insufferable prog-rock symphonies full of guitar solos and synth arpeggios, there’s not enough empty space, not enough backbeat, it’s like you’re constantly jamming interactive value down the player’s throat.

    Look and feel. No disrespect to the art team, there’s clearly talent there, but the game’s look never came together. First of all, why does it need to look like a children’s cartoon in the first place? It’s a cerebral strategy game, why is it trying to look so cutesy? And then the awkward, half-low-res/half-not execution was very off-putting. Also there was simply too much interface and not enough gameboard.

    Anyway, my main message is don’t despair. You’re doing good work and I look forward to the many games you will make in the future!

  • tinytouchtales

    Hey, rough episode as i can related to a lot of things.

    First off i think Auro does a lot of things right. Unfortunately those things are not easily accessible as you said in your cast. I wanted to comment on a specific thing you said which is that in your head the game is totally awesome. This is where a lot of the problems you (and i and many other devs i assume) are facing. Actually Zac Gage talked about this issue in one of his PRACTICE talks:

    The problem is that you can’t communicate why you think the game is great to a player because he hasn’t the same information (basically all your knowledge that you’ve gained over the years on this subject) that you have. And there’s almost no way to teach that or communicate it via screenshots, video or what ever. This is why a lot of people look at the game and just shrug their shoulders.

    In addition to that i think what @franklantz:disqus said about the art is very valid. I’m pretty certain if the theme of the game was about war or anything that caters to hardcore strategy game fans it would have found a lot more players. Artistically the game is awesome but it’s theme communicates the wrong ideas.

    That said i’m making no secret about my game ENYO being highly inspired by Auro’s ideas and i have yet to see, if it will be overlooked in the same way that Auro unfortunately is.

  • Thank you so much for this really nice comment.

  • It’s funny how like, no matter how bad you’re doing, you kinda always have to present yourself as successful. For that reason people are always surprised to hear that something isn’t doing well.

  • ENYO does have a stylish art style that I think will *at the very least* get some recognition from the indie game / game designer scene, I figure. Should help a lot, anyway. Good luck with it, and thanks for the comment.

  • To me though this kind of a thought feels like “more excuses”. I don’t want to make excuses for myself and say it’s random or that there’s just too many games or we lacked a marketing budget – even if all of those things are true.

  • Thanks for the great comment, Frank, I really really appreciate it.

  • Well, it is possible to face reality, even if it is not in your favor, and still not give up. And it seems that’s what you are doing.

  • Great comment, Frank! However, while your prog rock analogy makes sense to a degree (in that both Auro and progressive music are more or less deliberately “beyond” what the general public can appreciate), it could also be argued the other way around. The typical criticism of progressive bands is actually that they let spectacle trump “core musical value”. They put an 8-minute solo in there just to show off, they change the time a hundred times to let you know how great they are at doing that etc. They don’t put the song first and let everything else support it. They’re *technically* better musicians than The Beatles but not at all when it comes to making a good song. So, in that sense, Auro seems pretty much like the opposite of that: Low technical fidelity, no chaff, all focused on the core value that’s delivered.

  • I don’t really have much to say, besides I have a huge amount of respect here for you putting yourself out there and doing it with humility. The only parts of the podcast I tend to dislike are when it *seems* to veer into “the player is wrong” territory, yet here you take the opposite approach with “the player is always right.” I don’t know if that’s an overcorrection, but it’s certainly one worthwhile perspective you can use to evaluate how a project is doing. I love the idea of more interviews by the way.

    Auro appears to be a great game (and I plan to get it as soon as I get access to a windows machine in the next few days… I was considering getting the mobile version, but am a little confused if it has full parity with whats on steam). Ultimately, even if it’s not helpful to hear, the success of your game is largely going to fall out of your hands. I’ve read so many postmortems and watched so many indies create one project that succeeds nicely and then another (with 2-3x as much polish/effort as the first) and have it go absolutely nowhere. And then you get the flappy birds of the world that explode in popularity for no apparent reason.

    My only insight is that small developers often shoot themselves in the foot by trying to *totally* avoid all the little addictive hooks that are built into today’s games: IAP, grinding, collectibles, unlocks, pay to win, achievements, etc. They do this out of principle, to avoid any hint of unethical practices which are so common in the industry. That’s fine, but the thing is those techniques are what works *really well*. If you don’t have them, you might envision players being highly appreciative and rewarding you (and maybe a small fanbase will be appreciative), but the vast majority won’t care. You’re then fighting against all the AAA games that do use the addictive stuff. And not all of those things are equally objectionable. Take unlocks. In the roguelike community there’s a lot of disdain for unlockable content. The hardcore people want everything unlocked at the beginning. However, the mainstream gamer LOVES unlocks. It’s why games like Rogue Legacy are massive hits. The modern gamer expects to get *something* out of their time dumped into the game besides pure skill. So all I’m saying is, maybe you’re right on the “what people will accept”. If you want to have a great game *and* a huge audience, you might have to sneak in some ice cream to get the kids to eat the vegetables (or whatever the hell metaphor makes sense there).

  • Thanks for the thoughts and for listening.

    Get the Steam version, it’s much, much better. And it’s on sale (for 12 more hours!).

  • glecko

    Enjoyed the podcast. Love Auro – have been dying to play 2.0 on ios but now realize that chance may have slipped on by.

    Something in this podcast discussion confused me – and it may highlight my ignorance with respect to the gaming industry. It was mentioned multiple times that the Auro game was released and no one cared.

    Who was supposed to care? We live in a crazy world where games, movies, TV, books and many other types of media and activities compete for our attention.

    I completely understand that Dinofarm and Keith are indie publishers – but without some kind of marketing plan why would anyone seek out Auro?

    I suppose what I’m asking is what were the expectations for the game in an oversaturated market? I hope for nothing but success for Keith and Dinofarm …

  • People who like strategy/tactics games? People who like board games? Maybe even some just general “gamers” who like interesting new games?

  • I’ll try and give you some thoughts on Auro 🙂 You’re right, it’s very hard to talk about.

    I was really interested in the idea of Auro and bought it on Android around the time it was released I think. It took me ages to get into it beyond just randomly pressing things; It might have been the theme, but also how weird it seemed to me initially. I recall having to go off and watch a youtube video before it started to make sense, in the end I found I kinda got the hang of it and understood basically how it worked, but then my interest really dropped off.

    I’m trying to think of the reasons why that was –

    I didn’t enjoy it being on a touchscreen phone at all. I screwed up multiple times due to mis-thumbing stuff, and it was incredibly frustrating. I know there can’t really be an “Undo” for gameplay reasons, but “losing” to mis-presses on a phone really annoys me. I actually rarely ever enjoy any games on a touchscreen for this kind of reason it has to be said.

    No way to “compete” with friends, or global/friends leaderboard or anything. I only play a small amount of single-player stuff as I tend to focus on competitive or co-op or team competitive games… adding some way to visibly ‘compete’ or even just display “Achievement” of skill etc could well have incentivised me more – and even tried to get friends interested to play ‘against’ too.

    I’m slightly tempted to get it on Steam again, but as a 1P mouse-only game that I feel I’ve “finished” (even though I know that’s not possible strictly speaking) I know I will likely never get around to playing it anyway 🙁
    One game that feels a little similar to it is ‘Militia’ for example, which I’ve felt the same way about. Tried it on my phone, got annoyed by it being on a touchscreen, and then got it on Steam, but barely ever find the time to play it anyway.

  • I’d be happy to send you a key if you wanted to try the Steam version for free, just email me. Version 2.0 – the version on Steam – is *dramatically* changed from the original Android release, btw.

    Thanks for your feedback.

  • alltom

    Is there overlap between those groups and the people you were expecting to get publicity from?

    When I recommend the games that I love the most to friends (which are mostly single-player strategy-ish: Auro, 868-HACK, Hoplite, Pixel Dungeon), most of those recommendations fall flat. As anecdotal as that is, it means that out of everyone I know, the audience for this type of game is 1 person.

  • Oh wow that’s so generous, I’d feel bad to take you up on that! I’ll buy it at some point on Steam then if it has changed a lot 🙂

    I recall another thing that hindered my interest in it, as I’d play very sporadically, I’d forget what each of the spells would do exactly each time. So every run I’d have some stupid trial & error stuff or obvious mistakes when I thought a spell did X from my vague memory of it, get into what I thought was the right position, then discover it actually did Y and I’d screwed up :-/ Not sure if some kind of help text or something could assist with this?

    … actually that makes me think that some kind of “this is how you might want to use this spell” situational things would be really handy in explaining the game. Maybe some really simple fixed “puzzles” where you have to efficiently use only 1-2 spells to solve the puzzle. Something like the Puzzle mode in Hero Academy if you’ve played that.
    (maybe it has this and I’ve forgotten though?)
    Would be an easy area for Achievements too.

  • Honestly, even if almost no gamers like the game, the biggest surprise to me was that other *game designers* didn’t like the game.

  • Isaac Shalev

    Your openness and willingness to revise your view, in public, is really admirable. Thanks for this episode.

    Many creators run up against the question of how important is it to meet the audience, and really, who the audience is. If you’re trying to reach a mainstream audience, you have many more constraints on your inventiveness, and greater demands on your transparency and communication. It seems like your stated aim with Auro was to reach a large mainstream audience, but that it is actually a nuanced argument for a design philosophy, not an attempt to execute a popular title. The disconnects that other folks have mentioned are worth considering too, but for me what stuck out was the absence of a marketing plan or assets devoted towards marketing. That’s not an excuse, that’s a critical lesson to learn – as a creator you owe it to your creation to sell it!

    I guess my takeaway is that creating a successful product is a much larger endeavor than designing a good game. I’ve learned that in the tabletop space, I’ve learned it by running my own kickstarter, and I’ve learned it by seeing how non-designers approach the business of games. The more a designer can integrate that truth into their design process, they more successful their games can be. Good luck on your next project!

  • SwiftSpear

    The way you’re communicating this, I think you’ve missed the heart of the issue. You can build amazing beautiful complex things and people will accept them if you package them right. I honestly think you’re being harder on yourself than you need to be. This was a marketing failure not necessarily a product failure.

    There is no contract saying anyone owes you attention for something you worked hard on, and there are TONS of games that disappeared into obscurity because of relatively tiny marketing errors. You can’t think of any because you also gave those games zero attention.

    The big problem with Auro is that the percentage of people who even get to the point of seeing the design elements in action is really tiny. The intersection of fans of dungeon crawlers and fans of dense puzzle games is already a very small population. Most puzzle gamers already have their favorite pet projects, they’re hard to win over. Most people are giving you a box cover judgement, they see some sort of weird Chinese checkers thing with monsters all over it, and it isn’t obvious what if anything it brings of value. Most of us puzzle gamers have been burned by giving gimmicky puzzle games too much attention in the past, how are you showing us you’re different in any way?

    After that, who are you to complain about a lack of feedback? Your steam reviews are pretty good. I have a solitaire app on my phone I’ve put probably about 200 or 300 hours of gameplay into. I haven’t left them a review, I haven’t told any of my friends how much I like this game, and I honestly don’t even feel guilty about it, I’m a consumer, not a codeveloper or a producer who has some special interest in giving valuable feedback or evangelism. You can generally trick a small percentage of your player base into playing the role of play tester for you, but that’s not the normal player/dev relationship. Your players don’t owe you any more feedback than an increment in your sales count. Getting feedback is also a marketing trick, you have to give someone a reason to come back and contribute to the community, you don’t get that for free. No one does.

    You have to pay attention to how Jonathan blow made people go nuts to solve grid puzzles by tricking them into thinking they’re playing a first person adventure game. If you can imagine distilling the witness into just the grid puzzles and a level selection screen, and take away the name recognizability of Jonathan Blow, it honestly would not be that much worse of a puzzle game, but you couldn’t sell it, and I’d be surprised if it had many more than 10,000 downloads and 10 or so reviews on the app store. The expensive unnecessary first person puzzle select environment provides a familiar base. People know how to navigate that kind of a thing. It fills space in between frustration of puzzle segments. It provides a narrative to go speculate and argue about in the community forums later (where people will also just so happen to drop their opinions on the game while they’re at it). The puzzles are allowed to get as dense and complex as Johnathan wants them to be because the game doesn’t look like just a game about puzzles, and people trust him enough to push through the denser parts.

    I absolutely will give you that you will have to spend far more resources on couching complex and abstract game mechanics in more familiar systems than you were building into your previous model, but the difference between what I’m saying and what you described in your cast has destroyed so many triple A games in the modern era. You don’t need to start with the familiar and the simple and try to find ways to awkwardly bolt complexity onto it. If it’s elegant in it’s simplicity it probably doesn’t need the extra complexity. The flaw in your original design, with some beautiful compex masterpiece, is you’re thinking in terms of “how can I make this palatable?”, or “how can I teach people to use this?”, when you should be thinking in terms of “how do I teach people how to use this without them realizing they’re learning?”

    How do you make a strategic dungeon crawler with deep puzzle elements not look like a gimicy puzzle game when I’m watching 10 seconds of gameplay footage? How do I make lets players interested in the game so people can learn how to play without buying the game? How do I give people something to talk about in the end of it all (you’re not doing terribly on that end of things so far, I’m here posting on your site and I’ve barely played the game)

    It absolutely is going to cost more in time, effort, and money in most cases, but it doesn’t mean you give up on the things that make games truly beautiful, it means you give something back in return for people’s attention and contribution back to you.

  • I totally agree with you on not expecting feedback from players. What really got me was other designers, the people freaking out about Michael Brough’s games, having no response to Auro. We’re talking about a group of less than a dozen people, here. The fact that *they* didn’t respond, even when directly asked about it, is what makes me question myself.

    Anyway, everything you’re saying makes sense. Thanks for the comment and thanks for listening. For the record, I have no intention of giving up on the things that make games beautiful.

  • Edward Anon

    Auro is genius…it’s a game with insane replay value and I’d go as far as to say it gets better the more you play. Do not get yourself down, whenever I go trawling for a new game to play I always seem to end up with something that has your name on it. Wishing empires was still being worked on