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Tim Conkling, Blogger

May 5, 2015

6 Min Read

If I were to plot a chart of my confidence in Antihero as a function of time, it would look like a spastic cluster of sharp peaks and valleys (with the valleys winning, to be honest and hopefully not too melodramatic about it). And the nadir of this mental landscape would appear in November, 2014, about 1.5 years into the project. I was in LA for Indiecade - as an attendee, and not, as I’d dreamed, an exhibitor. Indiecade was the first event I’d entered the game into, and the first it was rejected from. At this point I felt pretty adrift with regards to the game’s design.

I’m a proponent of playtest-driven development, and I’d been rigorous in applying this philosophy to Antihero’s development. Every few weeks, I’d get together with a small group of friends who were working on their own indie games, I’d buy beer and sandwiches, and we’d playtest the latest build. Observations and feedback from these sessions formed the basis for the game’s next iteration, which was vital to my progress.

But not all playtests are created equal. In the taxonomy of playtesting, first you have your kleenex tests with non-developers, which are great for finding UI issues and design comprehensibility. Then there are playtests with other devs, which are useful for discovering whether your design is accomplishing its intended goals. And finally, playtests with design partners - designers on your team or in your company - who by definition have skin in the game, and who will continue playtesting after the novelty has worn off, through countless tiny balance tweaks and experiments, and who will help you work through the hard - and frequently boring - problems that any every design faces. In other words: your playtesters who treat the process like a job… because it is.

It’s hard to have a design partner when you’re a solo indie developer - because, obviously. And the risk of not having one, for me, is that I’ll lose sight of what I’m trying to accomplish and not have somebody to help refocus on what really matters. This is where I was during Indiecade - I felt like the game wasn’t fun, and none of my recent changes had moved that needle, and I was having trouble seeing why.

My roommate at my Indiecade Airbnb rental was Josh DeBonis, a friend and long-ago former co-worker (and creator of the amazing Killer Queen). Over the Indiecade weekend we playtested Antihero, I moaned a lot about how hard games are to make, and he did the designer-friend thing: told me it wasn’t as shitty as I thought and gave some useful, concrete design suggestions.

And then I proposed to him. Specifically, I proposed that I hire him onto the project as a design consultant.

When Josh countered that he was happy to continue playtesting as a friend, for free, I insisted on hiring him for two reasons. First, I wanted both of us to treat this arrangement like a job with specific expectations, schedules, and - on my end - deliverables – I wanted to be accountable to somebody. And second, I wanted Josh to feel more ownership in the project than you feel when you’re just a friend who drops in every once in a while to check out the latest build.

This is how it works - and it’s worked very well: we playtest the game every week. Sometimes we skip a week if I’m working on a big feature that takes a long time to implement. Since we’re on different coasts, we meet on Skype. Beforehand, I get a build ready and do a few solo playtests to fix the game-breaking bugs that I’ve inevitably introduced. I also write my own little changelog for the build so that I can quickly get him up to speed on what’s new and what I want to focus on, and I usually write down a few points that I want to touch on during the Skype chat – thoughts on the design changes and what to explore next, or design problems that I haven’t come up with good solutions for. It’s a multiplayer game, so we play a match together and talk about what’s working and what’s not. At the end, we agree on design priorities for the next iteration, and I schedule my week based on these priorities. A meeting takes between 1 and 2 hours.

So: simple and not so different, procedurally, from any other playtest. But the results are different, because the playtests are frequent – so we can stay mostly on the same page – and because the playtests are work rather than social events. (I prefer playtests-as-social events (because duh) – and I think they’re important – but they’re not enough for me when I’m working solo.)

Antihero’s core concept - Civilization meets Hero Academy! async multiplayer 4X strategy! - seemed ambitious but doable when I’d pitched it (to myself) as my first indie project. I’d done a lot of multiplayer game development at the job I’d just behind, so I knew the game wouldn’t be an engineering challenge, and it’s a lot easier to picture a nascent project’s potential technical challenges than its design ones. And so I was, essentially, willfully naïve about the project’s difficulty. I should’ve known better (though a - stupid? - part of me secretly believes that willful naïvety is kind of important).

The game hasn’t shipped yet. There’s a silly amount of work left to be done. But the rate that pieces have been falling into place has accelerated since I hired a design partner, and my moments of despair have appeared with less frequency. The arrangement feels almost like psychotherapy - you get an interested second party who provides perspective, helps you be honest about what needs to change, and saves you from occasionally disappearing completely up your own backside. It’s been an obvious - and huge - win, and though the dream is to have a true, full-time partner on whatever the next project is, this is an excellent facsimile.

And, as a bonus, I’ll still take all the credit if the game turns out well, but now I have a scapegoat if it doesn’t.

(If you’re interested in running your own thieves’ guild, you can read more about Antihero, my in-development game, here, or follow me on Twitter, here.)

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