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We’re currently developing a mini open world local co-op called Bugging Humans. It has a shared asymmetrical UI — where one player doesn’t see the screen but they have the controller, and the other player sees the screen and they have the keyboard. This means best practices, for instance in level design, have to be adapted. It also means blind and low-vision players can play with sighted players. The game could involve many innovations, unless we stuff it up by avoiding player discomfort. We know what we need to do, but perhaps our playtesters can meet us half-way

Christy Dena

February 26, 2024

10 Min Read
Commissioned illustration of a frowning figure guarding a closed gate.
Commissioned illustration of a frowning figure guarding a closed gate.Concept by Christy Dena, illustration by Marigold Bartlett.

Dear Tester,

We’re making something unique. We’ll test within our team. We’ll test with developers who understand experimentation. And we also want to bring you in. But there is a reason why many games have the same gameplay, and why you’re not privy to them until they’re looking pretty, smoothed out, and play like all the others. It’s in part because of the way some of you respond to new stuff, and stuff in formation. We’re including developer testers, and publishers, in that, too. Psychonauts was cancelled by Microsoft and at first rejected by other publishers, in part because the devs didn’t have the gameplay yet. Untitled Goose Game was apparently rejected from Apple Arcade because the tester couldn’t find the skip button.

It’s a negative reaction that is easy to do, makes sense at the time, and is what we’ve done ourselves. We’ve thought, heard, or said: “You should have your gameplay sorted first!” “It doesn’t give me the gamey vibes I love.” “It looks and sounds bad.” “It isn’t working, you need to make it more like [insert existing game].” Back in 2013, designer Daniel Cook of digital games such as Triple Town, and Alpha Bear, talked about such player responses during testing. He said, “Early controls or programmer visuals or being a toy instead of a game tend to throw people off. They’ll comment on superficial items or get hung up.” This is why he, and some other devs, recommend testing later. The thing is, even then, these hang ups can continue. In his handout “Your Board Game Critique,” designer Sen-Foong Lim of tabletop games such as Avatar Legends: The RPG, The Legend of Korra: Pro-Bending Arena, and Belfort dissuades innovation because of this. “More often than not,” he explains, “players want something that they know and understand with a twist, not something that comes out of left field.”

We think you do want something out of left field. But, maybe the issue is you’re just not familiar with how messy, weird, and apparently amateur a project can seem when it’s just forming, or, when it’s really different? We know that it took years for us to realise none of these things are necessarily bad signs. And we‘ll go ahead even if you get, as Cook describes, hung up. But not all developers are as steadfast as us, and it would be cool if you were in on it too. So, if you like, here are some ways you can help us be innovative. Some you’ll already be on top of, of course.

Know that we need to go in the opposite direction for a bit

Part of getting to an innovative game, or any project, is exploring interactions, settings, tone, characters, sounds, etc, that aren’t our intended end look, feel, or play. Why? Sometimes it’s because we’re going with ideas that make sense from where we are, or where our curiosity is driving us. We learn from everything, though, including what we leave behind. Sometimes it’s because we’re trying to find out something specific, and we’re using the quickest and easiest way to do it. Director Hidemaro Fujibayashi did this with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. He first made a prototype which was an 8 bit game with no puzzles. These unusual moves are how we’ll get to where we want to go.

Computer scientist Kenneth O. Stanley talks about this in his co-authored book Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective. Here is a talk he gave about it. He explains that truly different things aren’t common because people don’t know how to get to them. If they did, they’d be everywhere. He extends this, and says this means we can’t use the same steps we usually do to get to anything.

From the computer models he created, he did indeed find that we get to outcomes more efficiently by doing something counter intuitive: avoiding stepping stones that look like the end product. He gives the example of training an algorithm to walk, and how the best results came from not trying to get it to walk. We’re doing this. We’re focusing on novel steps rather than trying to make it be what we want it to be in the end, now. So, it’s not that we think what we show you should be in the final game. It’s that we’re willing to walk in the opposite direction to get there, faster.

There are many reasons why it won’t be smooth

If you’re coming into the early development process, we won’t have everything smoothed out for you. We could smooth it out. We could spend time on good audio, art, controls, and so on. But that often means we’re not focusing on the new, cool, complex stuff we’re excited about. We don’t want to spend our precious time and money on the more known stuff yet. Interestingly, in the tabletop industry, unlike in computer games, you often don’t even pitch to publishers with the final art. Publishers know they can make it look great, and that it needs to work well without that first. In UX design, Pavel Samsonov frames it in different terms. He says, “the team must be willing to set learning rather than outputs as their main goal.”

Also, sometimes we won’t have done that simple fix because doing so will mean erasing the new stuff. New stuff doesn’t fit nicely with the usual stuff. And sometimes we have people new to games on the team. New to games means new games. Sometimes we all make the mistake of confusing unclear interaction design with  cool game difficulty. Sometimes we’re focusing on the things we don’t know, and we’re forgetting the stuff we already know. Sometimes we don’t yet know. And sometimes you’ll be the first player who has found it uncomfortable. We want you on board, so bear with us.

Grafting.png

Commissioned illustration of a figure with it’s tongue out trying to connect two sticks,
concept by Christy Dena, illustration by Marigold Bartlett.

We do want to know your difficulty and discomfort

We’ll bring it to you in its weird early state, even though there is a chance you’ll find it annoyingly difficult and experience discomfort. We still want to know when you’re confused, frustrated, worried, excited, surprised, curious. Whatever you’re thinking, feeling, and wanting to do or not do with this weird thing. Why? Because when we’re creating something wildly different, our biggest job is creating a bridge between the known and unknown. The world you know and the world we’re making. We can create all the cool, interesting, important new things but it won’t mean much if you can’t reach it.

So, as early as possible, we need to know where you are. We need to know when things aren’t working for you, and when they are working for you — so we can make a bridge. A bridge between you and this new way of playing. A bridge for you, and the next tester, and the next one. And, if you’re up for it, it’s soooo helpful if you’re also willing to reflect on why something isn’t right for you. And even where the idea that it isn't right came from. Maybe you can discover your own assumptions about traditional gameplay, ones you might not need anymore.

We need to use different solutions

Every game has design and technical issues. When the game isn’t working yet, the impulse is to apply known solutions. It’s what experienced players do, and what many designers do. They apply best practice. But those solutions may not help our game be innovative, or great. Author Toby Litt talks about this in the context of Hollywood storytelling. He says there are truisms that everyone teaches, and they’re not intrinsically bad advice. They’re just not likely to make something great. He says, “Bad stories have become mediocre because of them, and mediocre stories have become okay. But I doubt that in following them any good stories have become great, and I suspect that quite a few potentially great stories have become mediocre.”

You may argue that greatness could also come from the same best practices. Sci-fi author Samuel R. Delany addresses this. Talking about creating quickly versus slowly, he says: “masterpieces have been written with both methods. Both methods have produced drivel.” In other words, best practices can be best for some, and terrible for others.

This is why Jesse Schell doesn’t tell you what you should do in his game design manual, A Book of Lenses. Schell recently shared in a podcast how when he was writing the manual, a colleague warned him that “different games are so different from each other. So, any advice that might be good on one game, it could be really bad advice for another game.” We’ve found this. Game design, any design, is always contextual. But Schell figured out how to aid good design, anyway. He realised: “a question is never wrong. It might not be applicable to the situation, but it’s never wrong.” He added, “that is how good game design happens anyway: you ask yourself key questions.”

So, this is sometimes why we’re not using those same solves. The solutions that work for other games may be the worst thing for our game. But we can find the right ones, with your help! How? For the past few years, we’ve had great success using the artist-run feedback process that Liz Lerman designed. This is where you tell us what is interesting, what you associate with our game so far, you find out what we’re interested in your feedback on, and so on. You share your confusions, and so on, but avoid or delay the impulse to try and fix it. It’s more helpful if we know when and why you’re having trouble, so we can all solve it in a way that doesn’t remove the innovative or unique parts.

We want new designs, designers, and new players

If you don’t identify as a gamer, or don’t find most games appealing, or can’t usually play games, you may think you’re not suited to give feedback. But, if you’re keen anyway, we want all your responses, and yours in particular! Why? Because we’re designing for new players, and for new markets, and your thoughts have the greatest potential to help us succeed. How? Well, studies have shown that when you want to solve a complex problem, it’s people who are outside the area that provide the most novel insights. They’re not already thinking inside the box, and so can help us avoid getting stuck in it.



We’ll show you half-baked stuff because we’d like you to…

It’s also important to us that you’re exposed to our half-baked stuff, because then you’re more likely to feel creation is open to you too. If more can see how projects begin like this, then more will have a go. If more can see how we’re happy and comfortable to share our work in any state, then more will get past their own self-disgust. And if we share how we let innovation happen, and show how we’re still keen on the unknown even though we could do more of the known, then we might contribute to your innovation too. Whether it’s a game, film, your accounting, teaching, or event work, or life in general. We’re interested in how new things happen for you, for all of us, too.

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