Monday, September 6, 2010


Play-testing can be a tricky thing. It is not just about making sure the end product is relatively free of bugs, but also about making sure the game is fair, easy to understand and to play, that the "rules" of the game are consistent and coherent. Most of the time, what the play-tester has to say is one hundred percent spot-on-- such-and-such a part is too hard, such-and-such doesn't really make sense-- and some of the time-- not often, but some of the time-- they're wrong.

Usually, when it's the latter, it's kind of obvious-- weird suggestions and nonsensical complaints being two of the biggest red flags. But sometimes, you'll think your tester is dead wrong when they're dead right, and you've been blinded too much by your own ego, your over-familiarity with the game, your laziness, or a combination of all three to see the painfully obvious truth.

In Seq.Breaker's first mission, the player has access to a bomb weapon, which explodes upon impact. If the player is caught in the blast, they take damage. If the player threw the bomb down from higher ground, they'd be quite safe, but if they just stood there and threw it, they'd get hit. Well, I thought, you just have to jump before you throw the bomb, and I went to work designing an area with low ceilings and tricky jumps in which you needed the bombs. A nice challenge, I thought.

But my first play-tester never jumped before throwing the bomb. He kept getting caught in the blast, and he kept getting frustrated. "I don't think it's fair," he said, "that I have to get hit to use the bomb."

"Well, you can jump up and then use it, and you won't get hit," I said.

And so he tried to do just that. But in that tricky jump section, he kept taking damage due to inaccurate timing.

"I thought you said I could jump and I wouldn't get hit," he said.

"You got to time your jumps."

He didn't do much better. Afterwords, he expressed his reservations.

"It's fine," I said, "you have to just stop doing it wrong." Which was kind of an ass thing to say, and I realized it as soon as it came out of my mouth. It was also a tip-off that I was in the wrong in this case; having to jump before throwing the bombs was not as easy to figure it out as I thought it would be, nor was it fun. Having a weapon or mechanic that bends the player to its will is-- in most cases-- not particularly strong game design.

I was blind to see that because I was too pleased with my own level design; I was too familiar with the game, to the point that things that didn't quite make sense seemed to; and, above all, I wasn't looking forward to sitting down and tweaking the movement speed and gravity for the bomb. Which took me all of ten minutes to get right.

Now, the player can stand still and toss off their bomb without fear of being hit; it's only if they keep moving towards it that they'll feel its wrath. It's fair and it makes sense, and now all that remains is to give my play-tester an apology...

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