How To Not Make Bad Games

On January 6, 2013, in King Machine, by bateleur

It is a well known and widely accepted thing amongst game designers that extensive playtesting is important. In fact even if you thought you already knew this, there's a fair chance that playtesting is more important than you think it is. But there's another aspect to playtesting which is less often discussed.

First, let's have a King Machine screenshot:

KM Screenshot

It's changed quite a bit since I last posted here. The actions available to the player have changed a bit and the interface to them has changed massively. Also, the player's robot now has cute little feet. That last is by far the least important change. But still… CUTE LITTLE FEET!

So here's the thing about playtesting: everyone knows you have to do some. Most people know the testers have to be people not on the design team. But what isn't nearly so widely recognised is that if you testers flag up a problem you have to fix it. Or more precisely, you have three options:

  1. Fix it.
  2. Decide not to fix it because different testers disagree over whether it's a problem or not.
  3. Ship a bad game.

Maybe you're laughing at option 3, but it's a lot more popular than you might think.

A big problem with playtesters is that they're often too polite. They say "I had some difficulties" when then mean "this stinks" or "perhaps it would be better if" when they mean "the current approach is beyond terrible". Fortunately there is a known fix for this problem: watch people play.

About five months ago, I spent some time watching people play King Machine as part of the UI redesign. What I learned was that the game was really annoying. Players mostly knew what they were trying to do quite quickly, then spent literally several minutes fighting with the game to let them do it. At the time I'd been thinking the game needed a better help system, but that wasn't really it. The problem was that even the redesigned UI was too fussy. It was very precise, but it was the bad kind of precise that forces you to care about exact control and play extremely patiently. Players seemed excited by what they could do in the game, but the act of doing it wasn't much fun.

What I did about this was simple: I rebuilt huge sections of the game. It took about six months, on top of the UI redesigns I'd already done.

The problem with this sort of thing is that it's enormously expensive (taking a long time), not very sexy (I haven't been blogging about the process for this reason) and if you get it right then nobody will ever notice. Which is why developers sometimes don't bother and just kid themselves that everything will be OK. But once the game releases, players are consistently unforgiving of bad designs.

Is King Machine's interface good now? Actually, despite all the rebuilding I still don't know. It's definitely a lot better, but more – hopefully minor – changes will likely be needed before it reaches its final form. Fortunately everything gets easier from here. I'll be blogging a bit more about the development now that it's mostly back to more interesting areas and in a couple of months or so there should be some kind of demo release so that people can finally get their hands on the game.

Not that this means the game is close to release yet. Feedback from more people is something I'm really looking forward to, but between then and release the aim is to refine the game further based on their comments. Because releasing bad games really isn't in anyone's interests.

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6 Responses to “How To Not Make Bad Games”

  1. Paladin says:

    4. Ship the game as an alpha for half the final price point, with the promise of free updates, and get testers that are willing to pay to express their opinion and endure all the debugging phase. I'm not sure how much I like/dislike this emergent marketing plan in the indie scene.

  2. David Given says:

    @Paladin: KSP does that. It seems to work pretty well — there's a huge player community who find *and then report* bugs. Each time a new version goes out the price goes up a little.

    …regarding playtesting: I still have the player transcripts from play-testing the first version of _Changes_ (my ifcomp text adventure). They're hideously embarrassing. I rewrote half the puzzles for the second version, including rebuilding the entire NPC AI, simplified everything no end, made everything much more straightforward and less clever, and ended up with a vastly better game…

  3. bateleur says:

    @David – Sounds like a pretty much perfect example, but I don't think failed playtests are ever a call for embarrassment. Indeed, I subscribe to the maxim "fail early, fail often". In fact, let's have a link: http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2006/05/fail-early-fail-often.html

    @Paladin – The elephant in the room there is Minecraft, isn't it? But I think there is a positive side to that approach. In particular, providing access to alpha/beta builds to players who have preordered seems like almost all upside. (And then there's Kickstarter, but I don't feel qualified to discuss that beyond reporting what others have said.)

  4. Paladin says:

    @David – I'm glad it works well with KSP, but I wonder what is the proportion (rather than the flat number) of people who actually report bugs. Being invited to a free alpha-test and returning the favour by providing feedback is a thing. Having paid for early access to content is another one, because as a customer you feel less entitled to a tacit aggreement of proving bug reports and suggestions.

    The issue I could see is that the day this becomes the default standard (especially for games that still have a long development time until release), the "dedicated testers" – which I don't see as a growing demographic – might get scattered between too many games in development, at which point titles getting bigger exposure and, dare I write that, marketing (whatever that means at an indie scale), will get the most playtesters, the most feedback and the best chances to achieve a good release state in a decent time frame. And I don't really want competition on communication in the indie scene.

    But at the very moment, yes, the model seems fine, especially since it eases a bit your side of the model, aka living from your work!

    @bateleur

    I cannot write about Minecraft, since I only acquired the game in its beta state, which was already a full-fledged game ; and let's be honest, the only difference with post-beta was that an arbitrary patch has been given release status, so I'm perfectly fine with that.

    I have no personal experience on the matter, but a relative of mine bought the alpha of Prison Architect, tested it two evenings, eventually noticed neither losing or victory condition, and hasn't touched it since. If he saw bugs, he didn't report them, because he acted as a consumer ($30 isn't nothing) rather than an alpha-tester. So indeed he helped financing the game, at the cost of not advertising it to his friends because the game didn't meet his expectations (for now), and I'm convinced that's the case of many people who bought the alpha. They might be please by the final product, but for now their enthusiasm is toned down.

    Kickstarter campaigns offer a variety of pledge levels, which might be copied, because many non-dedicated testers will choose to back the minimal amount to get a cheaper copy, without any beta access. That means their intact enthusiasm will be a powerful communication tool when the game hits release.

    (The perverse effect is that you're charging playtesters more under this pledge system, although they're more helpful.)

    Is the fact King Machine is not currently on such a pre-sale with alpha access due to you wanting more feedback on the UI before showing it to large public, the pace of updates that people will undoubtly want fast, or the fact you didn't think about a pricing structure yet?

  5. Paladin says:

    Forget about the last question. I overlooked the demo part.

  6. bateleur says:

    I'll talk about King Machine release plans in a future post, I expect. The short answer is that I don't see any benefit in releasing a version where I'm not completely happy with the basic controls and gameplay. I suppose the way I see it is that calling something an "alpha release" doesn't remove the obligations of a designer to ensure the game is fun. Missing content and not-yet-fixed bugs are one thing, but games which aren't fun yet probably aren't ready for any kind of release.

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