We've had a busy summer with Iron Roads, with the first pre-alpha playtest in May, and Steam's NextFest in June.
After those we trawled through our Discord, Steam, Twitter messages and YouTube playthroughs to understand what was and wasn't working with Iron Roads. Based on that, we've been working towards the 0.1.0 update, which is looking to be a significant overhaul.
Two key insights we identified were problems with onboarding players, and communicating what kind of game Iron Roads sets out to be.
Watching streamers and Youtubers playing Iron Roads is very useful playtesting for us, as it not only lets us see everything they do, but their discussion with their chat spells out their thought process as they play.
The problem is that the tutorial in the demo, which in hindsight was a rushed, last-minute addition, was not very good. It didn't cover close to enough of the game mechanics, and it failed to familiarise the player with more complex aspects of Iron Roads, such as no stop zones and waypoints.
How did this happen? We think this blind-spot came about as many of our initial testers were from the Open TTD community, and for them Iron Roads' minimal interface and train mechanics needed no explanation. There is a lesson in there about selection bias when people sign up to test a game: playtesters do not necessarily represent the average gamer, and feedback should be interpreted with this in mind. It is not the fault of testers of course, so the second lesson is to just write a good tutorial for your game!
Anyhow, 0.1.0 will ship with what we hope is a much improved tutorial.
Another issue we picked up on from feedback is that it isn't clear what kind of game Iron Roads wants to be. Is it a chill game? An optimisation game? A puzzle game?
Marina and I talked a lot in the early days about a train simulation with the "accessibility of Mini Metro" and the "depth of Open TTD", but we hadn't thought about this for a while, and we certainly hadn't spent time articulating exactly how we'd achieve that "depth".
It took some thinking and playing, but we came to the conclusion that the greatest joy in Iron Roads is optimising networks to carry passengers faster, cheaper and in ever greater numbers.
In other words: the game we had spent the last year working on was in fact an optimisation game.
Looking at Iron Roads through this lens, we've added graphs to help players track how their network is performing. We've also altered the challenges in the scenarios to focus on optimisation-type tasks, and we've rebalanced to make it easier to edit networks without losing money.
We realised we needed to do a much better job communicating this depth and optimisation-as-the-mainstay-of-the-game when describing it. Presented with Iron Roads' minimal interface and cute graphics, players can well be forgiven for thinking it is an overly-simplistic train game unworthy of their time, and painfully for us, a few did.
A good example is the welcome screen, which shows a single train moving on a single line around three towns in a loop. This is hardly an advertisement of the depth lurking beneath Iron Roads' minimal UI. This, along with the Steam page, press-kit, etc will all be revamped.
So far I've described the issues we've fixed, but we've also been adding new content.
A common request in the Discord has been to add cargo to the game, so 0.1.0 comes with a new scenario, set in a new biome (desert this time) that does just that. The difficulties of managing a production chain have worked well with our focus on Iron Roads as an optimisation game. You make a change to your network, stare at the production graph to see the result, and repeat until you've hit your target.
With so many different tasks it has been a big update, and our TODO lists are not empty yet. We hope to have things wrapped up soon though so we can send it out into the world, find out what we missed and get going on fixing it all over again!
If you haven't already, do join us on Discord and give it a try.