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