(Reposted from Shamus’ Good Robot Dev Blog)
It’s been almost three months since the last update. This is unfortunate. I’d really like to post these on a weekly basis, but I couldn’t afford to take time away from working on the game for talking about the game.
This week Good Robot is headed to EGX 2015. Pyrodactyl will have a booth on the show floor and will be letting the public try the game for the first time.
On one hand, it’s nice that the public is going to see the game. On the other hand, it’s a shame that trade shows are the deafening, crowded, sensory-overloading marathons. In an ideal world, we’d get to put someone in front of the game, watch them play, and then interview them afterwards to see what worked and what didn’t.
This is how Valve does playtesting, and I think it’s the way to go, particularly if you’re unsure of your mechanics. If you’re just making a cookie-cutter shooter, then you probably don’t need to have playtesters try the game while you observe them. But if you’re doing something new – even if it’s just new to your team – then it’s invaluable to be able to make sure that the experience you envisioned is the one they’re having.
It’s not “Playtesting” without the “testing” part.
Sure, you can send out builds to playtesters, but you can’t watch them play. I’ve found that asking people to explain their impressions after-the-fact is vastly inferior to being able to observe their playing. They might tell me, “I died a lot.” But if I was watching them myself I’d be able to tell what the actual problem was:
“Hm. Players don’t know how to dodge homing missiles. In fact, they don’t seem to realize it’s possible. Maybe we need to make the early missiles slower.”
“Players keep passing up the chance for healing, even when near death. I think we need to make them more visible.”
“Some players are hiding in alcoves and playing peek-a-boo with the enemy robots. This is a slow way to play, and eventually they get bored. Maybe we need to add robots that are good at ‘digging out’ an entrenched player rather than allow them to exploit the game in a way that makes it boring to play.”
“Players always smile when they see the boss for the first time. But they get bored and restless halfway through the fight. I think the boss introduction is making a promise that the boss fight isn’t keeping.”
Obviously players aren’t going to tell me about not seeing health resources they didn’t know existed, or the difficulty of pulling off a move that they didn’t know was possible. They’ll just send an email back saying, “It’s too hard.” And then when six people all say that, we end up nerfing foe damage and making the player more powerful, which makes the game easier without fixing the problems that kept it from being fun.
I’m convinced there’s just no substitute for watching someone play without any direction or coaching from the developer. It’s the single most important form of feedback you can get. And testers only get one shot to play through the game for the “first time”. After that, they will be dragging their previous experience with them and skewing the results. Which means you need a steady supply of new players to observe. That’s basically unobtainable for a little indie house like us outside of a trade show.
So EGX represents our first chance to see if people play the game as we expect, or if they do something completely different.
On the other hand, these people are tired, footsore, hungry, and functionally deaf and mute. We can’t get them much in the way of instruction and it’s not reasonable to expect a detailed exit interview. The screen will be washed out with reflected light, the music and sound effects will be drowned out, and they’ll probably be standing still on hard concrete instead of sitting on a couch or chair. They’ll probably play for a minute or two and move on to the next oasis of stimulation. Any feedback we get from them will be limited to the most immediate concerns, and not to the long-term experience of playing the game over the course of half an hour.
But that’s not what trade shows are for, anyway. The main goal of the show is advertising and building some kind of buzz beyond the reach of this blog. Hopefully we can at least achieve that.