Originally Posted October 17, 2012 - idle-chatter.com
After months spent hunched over a laptop, vertebrae in protest and hands ruined from overuse, you come blinking into the light to show your new title to the world. You’ve put a great deal of yourself into this work, fine tuning controls and gameplay elements, polishing art and dialogue, running your ears deaf from sound tests and listening to long to the repeating tracks. So you’re a bit taken aback when nobody notices.
An alternate scenario—your team has been pushing hard towards the deadline, and everything’s snapped into place. Your production staff is top notch, and keeps you well appraised of current trends, but somehow, sitting and watching launch day, launch week, and launch month pass by, your sure fire hit has done mediocre at best.
While I’ve seen the first scenario far more often than the latter, the fact remains that properly engaging your audience and gauging their response is a hard thing to master. It can seem random to people new to the industry, with statistics skewed by the mind-boggling successes of a few Rockstar developers and companies, but the simple truth for both big and small is that getting your players involved doesn’t happen instantaneously. So how do you, toiling on your newest baby, give it a chance in the real world?
Playtest early, playtest often
That new accelerometer based selection menu you designed is pretty cool, and now that you’ve been using it for the last four months, you can’t imagine anything else. You’ve never seen anything else like it, and couldn’t be prouder of it.
It’s very easy to fall in love with parts of your game when you’ve been playing them and tweaking them towards your play style; but there’s a reason you haven’t seen anything else like it, and that’s most likely because you’ve built it for you. The earlier you can get players involved with actually playing your game, the more quickly you’ll find out what works and what doesn’t.
One area where developers fall prey to their own biases over and over again is in difficulty scaling. Easy mode is way too easy, and your Insane setting barely gives you pause. Better make things just a bit harder, right? Unfortunately, your players aren’t going to have had the luxury of playing the game for six months when launch rolls around, and they won’t have learned your mad skills on day one.
By passing your game through players, you can catch all of those things which just don’t present as well outside of your team, and you’ll save yourself a lot of headaches if you can alter those core mechanics before doing so breaks the game entirely.
Watch and Listen
You’ve grabbed some players to test, and sure enough, they keep walking straight past your shortcut, fire their bullets uselessly against enemy shields, and completely ignored the skill tree. Maybe you’ll just give them a nudge in the right direction, and explain that they need to charge up their gun to fire EMP rounds.
It’s almost more helpful to see what players don’t do than it is to see how they do things. If players aren’t utilizing a control or mechanic enough, then that brings up some very legitimate questions. Is that feature really all that necessary? If so, what are we not telling them that’s keeping them from using it? Maybe they do know about it, but the balance or utility is so off that they never feel the need.
Resisting the urge to get involved during your playtests is one of the hardest skills to learn when putting your game out in front of people, but it is an important one and should be learned early. By avoiding leading questions, hand holding, and plain-old direction, you will get a much more realistic picture of how informative, accessible, and playable your game is in its current state.
You are (Probably) Wrong
If one player says your weapons are too weak, it’s a data point. If two people say your weapons are too weak, it’s an active area of focus. If three or more people say your weapons are weak, it doesn’t matter how right you think you are, you are wrong. Players play games, and honestly, you most likely don’t have nearly the amount of time to play things as they do. On some level, if you get the same complaint about something you feel is finished, you probably need to revisit the drawing board. Maybe players aren’t using their weapons at the best efficiency, or maybe one of the themes of your game is weak-guns, but either your values are wrong, or you’re not communicating valuable information to the player.
Learning to rely on players for feedback early and often will help you guide your development into smooth areas. Now, obviously, if the size of your audience is predetermined or of no importance, you should ignore my advice here and simply get the game out there. With that said however, if you aren’t seeing the player counts and loyalty that you or your team are expecting, it’s time to reevaluate your player interactions.
Remember, you need to engage your community actively if you hope to keep them. The developers of FTL posted regularly on their forums, and responded to fan suggestions with each build. The staff of Kerberos Productions plays a very active part in their community, and are among the forum’s most rapid contributors, both in supporting their games and talking about them. Building a community has long term benefits, and it can only be a good thing to have easy access to dozens or hundreds or millions of people who, honestly, want you to make the best game possible. So, if you’re past your first playable, go gather up some people, sit them down, and get their insight. If nothing else, you’ll have a good idea what players expect from a game that presents as yours down. On the best side, you’ll be opening up new paths for understanding how your game feels, plays, and performs.