Post­cards From The Clip­ping Plane

Con­ve­niently ig­nor­ing the se­ri­ous side of videogame de­vel­op­ment


James Leach con­sid­ers the pit­falls of re­ly­ing on playtest feed­back

There’s long been a the­ory in de­vel­op­ment cir­cles that you can learn a lot about the game you’re mak­ing by watch­ing it be­ing played for the first time. Across the land, bus­loads of ea­ger youths are fer­ried into stu­dios to playtest and to fo­cus group (yes, it’s a verb) games as soon as they are playable. It’s an in­ter­est­ing facet of prod­uct cre­ation for sev­eral rea­sons, not least of which is that th­ese peo­ple are of­ten the only new faces some of the coders have seen in months.

The very first thing that oc­curs is that th­ese fo­cus-test­ing peo­ple are usu­ally over­joyed to be there. Th­ese youths are not only de­lighted to be inside the mod­ern equiv­a­lent of Willy Wonka’s fac­tory, but they’re aware that, as Golden Ticket hold­ers, they’re the elite. Hun­dreds of oth­ers are gath­ered at the gates, hop­ing to catch a glimpse of an­i­ma­tion through a win­dow, or strain­ing to hear the eerie sound of a rail­gun ef­fect be­ing re­fined.

Our lucky few are there­fore awestruck. They file past a brightly lit cab­i­net in the re­cep­tion area, pur­pose built for hold­ing awards. Some pause, per­haps vi­su­al­is­ing the awards which might even one day grace its glass shelves, be­fore the in­flux of civil­ians is es­corted to a meet­ing room where they drink the medi­ocre cof­fee their cod­ing he­roes drink. This is of­ten served in mugs in­ex­pli­ca­bly bear­ing the lo­gos of other game com­pa­nies. What an in­dus­try – the cross-flow of ideas, the very no­tion that the de­vel­op­ers flit be­tween com­pa­nies, tak­ing their favourite drink­ing ves­sels with them. And the very meet­ing room the out­siders are in is amaz­ing. A gi­ant TV hangs on the wall. There’s a weird tele­phone thing on the ta­ble into which many can prof­fer ex­cuses to an angry exec in the US all at the same time. This room has seen so much: so many ideas ig­nored, so many awk­ward pay reviews, so many peo­ple be­ing let go.

And now our gang of new­bies all have to sign non-dis­clo­sure agree­ments. Se­ri­ous stuff. They can’t wait to tell their friends about this later. It’ll make the de­tailed de­scrip­tions of the game so much more in­ter­est­ing.

Fi­nally, with ev­ery­thing signed, our gang is given the chance to visit the toi­let. Even this mun­dane event is some­thing spe­cial. They won­der and laugh at the taped-up A4 no­tices on the door, rep­ri­mand­ing the dev team for treat­ing the loos like a pigsty. Th­ese no­tices are surely ironic. The peo­ple who work here are ca­pa­ble of amaz­ing works of cut­ting-edge cre­ative ge­nius. Surely they’re ca­pa­ble of leav­ing the bog in the same con­di­tion as they found it? Ha ha, the very idea that they’d be un­able to… Oh Lord, look at this. The stalls are worse than Glas­ton­bury. There’s no way this isn’t a clever, ironic state­ment too.

To business. The first thing that hap­pens is that our gang love what they’re see­ing. It’s nat­u­ral – they’ve been in­vited here, they’ve had the cof­fee, and it’s hu­man na­ture to be kind in re­turn, de­spite the ut­ter non­sense they might be wit­ness­ing. So, from the place­holder splash to the first place­holder text, they love it.

Then the true met­tle of this in­ci­sive crowd as­serts it­self. Crit­i­cisms are made. Valid, price­less opin­ions, which are cru­cial be­cause th­ese peo­ple are get­ting their first look at some­thing, and that only hap­pens once. Per per­son, ob­vi­ously. Other peo­ple are avail­able.

“I can’t get him to move over there. Some num­bers have ap­peared with xs and ys next to them. How do I cheat?” And a favourite: “That door’s stuck closed. I can’t open it no mat­ter how hard I press the but­ton.”

All the feed­back must be lis­tened to po­litely. There are no wrong opin­ions. This is what we’ve been told. The trou­ble is, this adds im­pe­tus to the ea­ger play­ers. They con­tinue as a stoic NPC ap­pears. The fo­cus peo­ple say, “Why can’t he be a girl? You could make her more stealthy, and she’d need a bow and ar­row.” Not a bad sug­ges­tion, this. Ex­cept that the NPC in ques­tion is Hans Langs­dorff, cap­tain of the Ger­man pocket bat­tle­ship Graf Spee, and the game is a taut, his­tor­i­cally ac­cu­rate sim of the Bat­tle Of The River Plate.

And as the day wears on and the fo­cus gang grad­u­ally get ig­nored, the re­al­i­sa­tion slowly dawns on their once-ex­cited faces. Un­fin­ished games crash. There’s no mu­sic, de­bug and re­fresh-rate stats lit­ter the screen. Worst of all, they can’t win. In short, the game isn’t fin­ished and play­ing it isn’t much fun yet.

Off they go, car­ry­ing a T-shirt em­bla­zoned with the logo of another game, won­der­ing how to spin their day into some­thing worth telling their mates about. Only one thing can lift their dis­ap­point­ment: they’re promised a credit. Not in the man­ual – at the end of 11 min­utes of cred­its view­able by those who beat the fi­nal game. This makes them very happy.

Now our gang of new­biesb all ll

have to sign non-dis­clo­sure agree­ments. They can’t wait to tell their friends about this later

James Leach is a BAFTA Award-win­ning free­lance writer whose work fea­tures in games and on tele­vi­sion and ra­dio

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