The archive: Playtesting

It was so little, and it helped.

It was so little, and it helped.

Way back, when we were making Joe Danger, we wrote a column for Edge about our experiences as a tiny, new, indie developer. Being part of our history, we’re publishing them here again every week.

Check here for the full set…

Sean Murray The counter says “Attempt 67”. Grant is biting his fist and I’m miming at him to just keep quiet. This could be the one and we can all go home. Rob jumps, bashes his head again at exactly the same spot and we all let out a groan. “Attempt 68”…

Every fortnight, we get our Hello Groceries delivered – breakfast, lunch and dinners. We’re always mildly embarrassed by the other companies we share our office with watching us stuff a filing cabinet with crisps and fruit, but we’re getting used to it. We also get a new delivery guy every two weeks, but when Rob from Tesco rings our buzzer one day, we have no idea he’s about to bring Hello Games to its knees.

“You boys minted then? Show us round,” he says. I really like that making games is an interesting, aspirational job. Unfortunately, though, we’re about to burst that bubble. If it wasn’t already clear from the crisps in the cabinet then the fact that this is the entire office is another taste of reality. “You boys must really like each other,” he observes.

He wants to come back to play our game, Joe Danger, and it’s kind of flattering, but this is our baby – no one has seen it but our closest friends. We’re trying to make excuses, but he doesn’t really pick up our subtle, awkward hints. Besides, it’s pretty obvious we’re in most of the time. “I’ll call over Friday.”

It’s always hard to get useful information from a playthrough: you tend to see what you want to see. I read once though that the designers at Valve can’t go home on a Friday until someone new has played through their latest level. The catch is, they have to watch without saying anything. So here we all are, spending Friday evening with Rob and he’s making our game look terrible. What’s worse, none of it is his fault. It’s ours.

Of course our first reaction is to try to dismiss his experience. He doesn’t read tutorials, after all. He skips cutscenes, and can make the same mistake a hundred times without learning a single thing. Grudgingly, though, we realise this also makes him the perfect tester. A talking mole explained the special moves a couple of minutes ago, but he was too busy trying to see if he could kill it. Now when he actually needs to know what he said, there’s no way to find out again.

Still, so what if he’s finding it difficult? He’s a populist gamer, not a true gamer. His favourite game is FIFA, except when it was FIFA Street. Sure he’s got a huge Gamerscore and he destroyed me at Call Of Duty 4 multiplayer, but then who doesn’t? He played his first game on PlayStation and even though he’s now on his second 360, every game he’s ever played has been a multi-million seller.

Slowly we realise this is what makes him so special, so different from our normal tester. He is pristine, untainted by the low quality and high quantity of games that most of us play though. He’s never persevered through a difficulty spike, or had to figure out the controls on a Japanese import. He’s never looked up a GameFAQ, or spotted that secret door behind the unlit texture. He will fall at every hurdle and get snagged on every rough edge, but his love of games is pure and unpretentious. He never sees potential, though every problem is obvious to him and finds them strange and comical. At one point he jumps through a crack in the collision boundaries, giggles like a madman and is convinced he’s found a secret level that we didn’t know about.

And actually, we’re warming to Robbie. Right now he’s stuck, bouncing over and over into something that looks like an exit, but isn’t. So many would have put the pad down by now, but not him. He is focused, determined and, in spite of everything, enjoying himself. You can tell he could be really good at our game, it’s just there are just so many little things we’ve ignored getting in his way. We’ve had focus testing and usability tests at previous companies, but it’s nothing like this. Standing over someone’s shoulder silently watching their frustration grow at something the four of you have made – I feel sick.

Over the weeks, his discoveries about the game have become an obsession and the cause of more arguments than we’ve ever had in the office. Ultimately, nothing major actually changes about the game, but it starts to flow better and smoother through a thousand tiny improvements until Rob, our new mascot, can come back and play through without intervention. Levels get signposted, rewards become obvious, effects are added, colours tweaked, tutorials are snappier – and the graphics are tightened up on level 3.

Rob or his friends would never have bought our game of course. He didn’t know what XBLA, Steam or PSN were before we met. Which is a shame, because he loves Castle Crashers when we introduce it to him (or “that game with the fighting”), although Braid wasn’t his thing (or “that game with the Ginger going backwards”). We’ve learned a lot from him, and he’s definitely got a more critical interest in games now, too. Although I doubt he’ll ever become your typical Edge reader – well not until they add a coverdisk.

Originally published October 13 2009

by Sean


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