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  • Playtesting is Sovereign, Part 2

    [09.02.10]
    - Lewis Pulsipher
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    Specific Items to Watch For

    "You tell people what you do for a living, and they're like, 'Oh, you play video games for a living.' No, I play a game that's not as fun as it should be, that's broken, until it's no longer broken. Then I give it to other people to have fun with." - Cliff Bleszinski (Designer of Gears of War etc.)

    "However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results." Sir Winston Churchill

    When at a playtesting session you should write down anything you want to keep track of. I keep printed copies of the rules at hand so that I can change them, or I write all notes on scrap paper and then, after the game, transfer to computer.

    Here are some specific factors to monitor when playtesting. I've divided them into categories, but you're going to be looking at all of them, to a greater or lesser extent, whenever the game is played. I'll list them first, then briefly discuss each one.

    What you're doing

    • Break Old Habits
    • You can't be satisfied with "it works"
    • Outliers
    • "Feature Creep"
    • "Chrome"
    • "That's not the way to play"
    • Why Use Dice/Chance
    • Dice (or any other kind of) combat "one on one"

    What the players are doing

    • User Interface Convenience
    • Rules difficult to grasp
    • What do players tend to forget
    • What do players not bother to use
    • Horns of a Dilemma
    • Player interaction

    How the game plays

    • Length
    • Game balance
    • Dominant Strategy
    • Taking it to the Max
    • Adequate control
    • Analysis paralysis
    • "Derivativeness"

    How the game works

    • Stages of play and pacing
    • Replayability
    • Player interest/enjoyment
    • Scale it down
    • Is there a way to combine two functions into one
    • Who's keeping track
    • Components and Play Aids

    What You're Doing

    "In all affairs it's a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted." - Bertrand Russell

    Break Old Habits. Sometimes we do things out of habit. We should be thinking all the time, doing things because it makes sense.

    Testing my prototype boardgameThe Rise and Fall of Assyria, I realized I was letting the "parent game" (Eurasia) govern what I did. In Eurasia there are two sets of pieces for different empires, and when players get a third empire their oldest is replaced by neutrals. This is a matter of piece limitations. But in Assyria each nation has its own set of pieces, so the limitation doesn't exist. Consequently, I could change the rules to allow a player to score for all of his old nations, not just for the two most recent. But I had to recognize that I was going by an old habit, and that wasn't until the third play of Assyria.

    You can't be satisfied with "it works". "It works" is good, and if you've not designed games before you can congratulate yourself. But "it works" won't do for real game design. It's got to work in lots of different circumstances, with lots of different players. One of my prototypes resulted in an interesting abstract game that people seemed to like playing. But I gradually noticed that whoever was in the lead halfway through the game almost always won. That's much less than ideal, so I had to extensively revise the game, even though no player had yet complained about the problem.

    Outliers. Playtesting follows the usual "bell curve" or "normal curve". Most playtest games will be near the middle, the fairly typical play, and some will be out on the "unlikely" ends of the curve. Consequently, one screwy result doesn't mean you have to overhaul the whole game-you may have just played one of those outliers-but on the other hand you must have rules that take into account those wildly varying occurrences. A game that can cope with both the normal and the extraordinary occurrences is what you want.

    "Feature Creep". In any design, whether of a building or of software or of a class or of a car, there's a tendency to gradually add features, or to "enhance" (read, complicate) existing features. The general term for this is "feature creep". It is particularly bad in video games, which are usually released on a strict schedule. Generally these schedules don't leave enough time for the original conception; every feature that's added makes the game more likely to be unfinished.

    This is a poison that must be vigorously opposed. Playtesters will suggest additions to the game; don't use them unless you're convinced that the addition is worth more than the complication. (When you're playtesting you can try something to see how it works out, but remember that one try may not give you a good handle on it-the sample space is too small.)

    "Chrome". This is a term for special rules or entities that give the game a special flavor, but also complicate it. For example, having leader pieces in a game about history is often "chrome" (though if the main point of the game is the person, rather than the person's nation, this would not be chrome). Each bit of chrome should improve the game more than the added complexity "disimproves" the game.

    "Feature creep" and "Chrome" are related to "Keep it simple". New features, or more complex features, tend to make the game less simple. Yet once the game is in a fairly healthy state, the guide should be to simplify. As I have quoted before: "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

    (What about those who don't believe in "Keep It Simple? Remember that even complex games, video or otherwise, can be reduced to a few simple things that are happening, the "essence". More people play the game because of the essence rather than because of the "chrome" or "features".)

    "That's not the way to play". Don't get the idea that people won't do something because it's "unsporting" (like "camping" or "turtling"). Some players will do whatever the rules allow. If you don't want people to camp or turtle, you'll need to design the game so that such strategies are unsuccessful. (Even if you call the camper names, if he wants to win, he'll camp and the heck with you, you loser noob!)

    During playtesting, look for ways to play that many people might not think of, but that will dominate when used. This is where it's really good to have some excellent players among your playtesters.

    Why Use Dice/Chance? Dice are perfectly reasonable parts of a game, but only if there's a reason to use dice. Don't use dice (or, in a computer game, randomization) "just because dice are in games"; in particular, DON'T use dice for movement of pieces unless it really makes sense.

    In the real world, movement is generally pretty measurable and predictable. Combat is not nearly as predictable. So use of dice in combat makes much more sense than use of dice in movement. And there are lots of ways to do it, varying greatly in how much chance is involved.

    Combat "one on one". Avoid the "one on one syndrome". Let mass play its part in battle. Don't require fights to be one against one even if there are ten attackers and two defenders. The ten should be able to overwhelm the two, unless there's some terrain or other reason why the ten cannot attack the two at the same time. Having units fight one against one, serially, destroys the advantage of superior numbers, which removes a major reason to maneuver.

    The purpose of maneuver in wargames, of having maps and boars to move on, is usually to concentrate superior force on a target. If it doesn't matter how many enemy are at the fight, why bother to maneuver? And if superior maneuver doesn't play a part in battle, will it be reduced to mere dice-rolling randomness?

    This one-on-one stuff reminds me of the Iliad, where the Greek and Trojan heroes would sometimes fight each other one against one while the rest watched. You hear of it also in China's Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It's quite unlikely this happened much in the real world.

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