Lessons from Land War – Lesson One: Nobody Reads the Manual

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Land War is out there in the wild now (buy it today, it makes a great gift!), and in these post-release days I have quickly learned a couple interesting lessons about indie game design and development. Rather than write a lengthy, high concept post-mortem analysis of the game, I thought it would be best to distill everything I’ve learned into a series of easily digestible articles.


LESSON ONE: Nobody reads the manual.

While I never thought of Land War as a particularly complicated game, I did recognize that there were some unconventional gameplay mechanics in there. Specifically, the mechanic of creating troops to fight for you and upgrading them is not something you see very often in an action game. To this end, I made sure to display the icons that dealt with that business very prominently on the HUD. Still, I knew I had to do more to inform my players how my game works.

This is where I had the brilliant idea to include a “how-to” section in my game. From the main menu of the game, the player can press the “How To Play” button and be given a step by step run down of how the game works. I went with this idea mostly because this is how I had seen it done on most Xbox Live Arcade titles that I’ve played. Indeed, it is Xbox Live store policy that all titles must have a “how-to” section. This made a lot of sense to me, but at the same time I failed to realize something very important: Out of all of the Xbox Live Arcade titles that I’ve played, I have never once actually pressed the “how-to” button.

So it was with my game that nobody who played Land War ever pressed the big “How To Play” button on the main menu, and then would give me the exact same feedback about the game, namely that the game is too hard. Only the game isn’t particularly hard at all. Indeed, I toned down the difficulty significantly for the phone version so that it would be a very casual game. However, if you don’t know about or understand the troop creation mechanic, then even the very first level can in fact be quite difficult or even impossible.

What Land War needed was a first level with a number of HUD popups that would tell first time players what buttons to press, and when to press them. Again, my “how-to” section actually goes over these concepts in detail, but no player is ever actually going to see that so it is a moot point. Lesson learned.

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