We put a lot of value into bringing our game to events and conventions, going to MomoCon and IndyPopCon in the past few months, Evo a few weeks ago, and Playcrafting just last night. At all of these events, having the opportunity to show off our game to so many new players (and some fans who remember us from previous events! Always an awesome feeling.) is such a valuable way to see how people interact with the game with fresh eyes.
It's always a kick to see people play the game for the first time. Lately I've taken to not explaining the mechanics and letting folks learn by trial and error, I think this is valuable for a few reasons:
First, it gives players more of a sense of mastery- that when they discover something, it's because of their own exploration, and not because a developer told them about it.
Second, it gives me insight into how intuitive our UI is and how effective the game is at leading a first-timer to understand how to play. Any common sticking points I can then bring to the devs and we can work on smoothing them to make our user experience better.
Third, it gives other, more experienced players, the opportunity to explain the game to their fellow players. This enhances the community around the game and creates an awesome system where players can transition seamlessly: the old players teach new ones before they move on and leave the once-new players to teach the next group. This is good for everyone because the teachers feel great about being able to pass on their knowledge, the newbies get excited because they see these players being so passionate about the game, and we folks working the booth get to take a breather to chug our *insert caffeinated beverage of choice.*
Focusing on that second point, there's always an interesting balance between having a mechanic be straight-out confusing to players and having it be an enjoyable "learn through experience" aspect of the game. For example, the tutorial mode podiums can be a sticking point for new players. The podiums are the same color as the rest of the tutorial area, only raised slightly, so there is no immediate visual indicator that they should be interacted with. There are arrows pointing forward, but not at the podium itself, so many players think they just need to move to the end of the tutorial area. At Evo I saw probably 1 in 4 players (so one every new set of four players) be confused by this area. This isn't great user experience, even though after that initial awkward confusion, the players understand the mechanic and it never happens again. Thanks to this kind of feedback, we're actually in the process of remaking the area, taking into account a lot of what we've seen be confusing to new players.
Conversely, we have levels such as AI Core and Frame Drop where certain environmental hazards purposefully destroy players for being unaware. Watching new players on Frame Drop for the first time is always a kick: the question "Why are the platforms blinking?!" makes way for utter robot panic as the floor starts falling and many a player's first life is lost to the swirling vortex below, "Oh, that's why." The blinking on the platforms is a visual indicator, but it's message is not explicit- only after a player experiences it once do they know what it means. There is nothing written, no tips or hints on the loading screen, that clue the player in to what's about to happen. Same with AI Core, half the time new players don't even realize the center of the stage is what controls the laser until a few games in, or they play with more experienced folks. The decision to have these sorts of experiences be learned and not taught feeds back into the first and third points above. Instead of the players having a developer explicitly give instructions, players learn through trial and error which gives them this feeling of mastery, and then are able to teach other players what they've learned (or keep their l33t skills a secret passed down through generations! Wahahaha.) For example: can a bot jump over the laser to escape death? Who knows! Try playing a few games to find out ;-)
Every developer has their own opinions about how much to teach the player and how much to let them learn on their own. In the end, it's probably best to have a balance and we think we've found a good one. Bringing Blade Ballet to events like Evo a few weeks ago, and Playcrafting last night, is an incredibly valuable way to interface with tons of people whose enjoyment and frustration with certain aspects of the game directly impact where we go next with our design decisions. Plus, there ain't nothin' like seeing people get wrecked by a giant lase- I mean, have tons of fun playing something into which your team has put so much sweat and love.