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Game Testing Versus Game Design

Published by under Editorial on Aug. 03. 2011.

I knew a couple of guys that were part of a game development team. The game was made by a small team of dedicated enthusiasts and most of them were programmers at heart. It was a strategy game set in space, not unlike Homeworld (if any of you still remember that great game). They slaved at it for 3 years for a small wage hoping to make it big once the game is released. They even got a worldwide publisher, which meant they had a sellable product. When the game came out many tried playing it but found it unnecessarily complex at times and hard even when it didn’t need to be. It had a small following of dedicated fans but it never made it big because it asked too much of players to be widely accepted.
The problem with that game was that the programmers made a game for themselves. There was a lot of math involved and complex systems that would make an analytic mind very happy. The problem is that gamers are not analytic machines. They are gamers of various personalities and mindsets and if you are a game maker you better make sure you are pleasing a larger variety of people than just programmers, unless, of course, you were making the game for three years just to play it yourself.
What brings games closer to gamers is game testing. Involvement of gamers into the game making process introduces another set of minds, other than that of game designers themselves. This brings fresh perspectives and usually changes the game significantly. We saw a glimpse of this process during Q&A sessions at San Diego Comic Con this year. We found out that some systems designed long ago by game designers have been changed based on game testers’ input. There were even some changes so significant (in terms of time needed to develop the system again) that I was rather surprised they decided to do this so late in the game.

The changes started very early on with the introduction of game testing program. Although the number of gamers involved is rather small compared to the demand (several thousands of testers – several million interested) statistically it is a good representations of people that will be playing the game. The first influence game testers had on the game I can remember of was the fact that flashpoints suddenly became repeatable. Back in the very early days there were instances and flashpoints that you could do only once and your choice inside those story moments would be very permanent. Cool concept on paper, but very strange for MMO gamers. This was abandoned the moment first MMO veterans got their hand on the game and had a chance to voice their opinions.
The latest changes are the introduction of companion customization including possible companion AI customization, changes to speeder looks and consideration of advanced class switching. To non-programmers this might seem like small changes, but I think considerable resources will have to be diverted into making this possible before launch. Companion looks, for example, were not supposed to be customizable several years ago. I remember that the first mention of companion customization was perhaps last year at PAX where “companion kits” were mentioned as special items that will change your companion’s appearance. To go from several pre-defined looks to fully modifiable skin color, facial features and full equipment takes making new models, new textures, new code to tie it all together. IF you want customizable AI on top of all that (similar to Dragon Age) you need large amounts of new code, UI elements and testing to make sure it works right. As you can imagine, to do all this all game making teams will have to be fully committed for a large period of time. Being so close to launch this means that such decision was not made lightly. This just goes to tell you how important Game Testing feedback is and how it made Bioware divert considerable resources into making happen something testers pointed out as crucial.
There is another side to the medal where Game testers influence the game too much. Blizzard is doing this with their “everyone should feel special” philosophy so now everyone in WoW wears epics and considers themselves to be top players. There were a lot of threads on the official forums asking Bioware not to budge to pressure and to stick to their game design decisions, despite those game designs being hard for some gamers to grasp.
In conclusion, I am happy to see Bioware being ready to listen to the gamers and to change the game to better fit their audience. No matter how smart game designers and programmers are they are not the best gamers in the world and making them listen to gamers’ feedback is a good way to go. On the other hand we have also seen that hardcore choices (like killing your companion) have been sacrificed due to feedback by gamers one could call “spoiled”. How heavily do you think gamers should influence the game making process? Leave your opinions in the comments bellow.

8 responses so far

8 Responses to “Game Testing Versus Game Design”

  1. Dalqakon 03 Aug 2011 at 9:55 am

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    Great piece as always, chief!

    I really am excited to see the changes to the CC AI and CC appearance customization. I didn’t like the idea of 50 identical-looking Makos running around, and I’m glad to have a little input as far as what my CC will look like.

    Also, loot bags = much love.

  2. Virtekon 03 Aug 2011 at 10:30 am

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    I’ve stalked the site long enough, figured it’s about time I tossed up a comment, right? You’ll notice why I don’t comment often…I tend to make them long-winded, hehe.

    Anywho, I couldn’t agree more with your happiness that Bioware is willing to bend to make the game more “comfortable” for its fans, for lack of better wording. I’m also happy to see that they are standing their ground as firmly as possible, while maintaining that flexibility.

    The AC change idea…..they’ve decided to allow it, but are only going to budge enough to allow for “buyer’s remorse.” I’m ok with that. There just might be someone who makes a decision that they want to heal during one moment where delusions of grandeur make them feel like they can heal a train through a wall or four. 5 levels (and 3 flashpoint runs) later….they decide the gaming world would live longer without their “contributions,” and would rather play as melee dps, with which they are *always* good. Let em switch! From my tanking point of view: let.them.switch.PLEASE! Just not after they’ve missed 40 levels of introduction to their character. =)

    CC appearance…this one I like, but it’s not the bells and whistles that make me go “Squeeeeee!!” when I read it. CC AI customization….now THAT is where I start getting happy in ways I probably shouldn’t. Want!

    And a bit +1 to the “Loot bags are pure win” vote! As long as Bioware takes the time to balance drop rates so that content doesn’t become trivialized too quickly.

    P.S.- Love the gamers pic! lol The guys on far left and right look like they’re not even in the same dimension, let alone looking at the same screen.

  3. prenerfedon 03 Aug 2011 at 5:51 pm

    Having seen the results of games rushed out too quickly that were not ready for prime-time (not just MMOs, though they’re the most notorious for it) I’m all for BW taking their sweet time and listening to the testers. I would rather have a late great game than a “just release it already!” game with flaws that they intend to fix with patches later. Market forces and timing can lead to a lot of pressure to get a shipped product, but when the decision is to ship junk now or ship a solid game later there’s no reason to not test some more. Thanks BW and THANK YOU TESTERS!!!

    And the “hardcore” players saying they’re dumbing down the game need to realize that the content they really want will still be there, and death systems, loot bags, and the other elements they want to cry about will ultimately help them get through more content with fewer problems. Some people just gotta complain about something though. . .

  4. swtorcrafteron 03 Aug 2011 at 6:15 pm

    this is one of the things that has bugged me about the group of testers in SWTOR. I have always been wondering if they actually had some of my same interests in mind while they were taking part. Some of the changes Bioware has talked about recently that they have changed due to tester feedback makes me feel better that they actually have a good solid group in there beating away at the game.

    Now my only fear is that they wont screw up the crew skills system.

    @Virtek thank you for visiting and commenting on our site, we are glad to have your input here! 🙂

  5. swtorcrafteron 03 Aug 2011 at 6:28 pm

    that pic of james must be from a hundred years ago, lol 😛

  6. Jasonon 03 Aug 2011 at 6:50 pm

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    This is a great article! I can remember how SWG started out, and then came the “Dark” times when SOE caved in to everyone that wanted to unlock a Jedi, which started the “Grind” and then finally NGE.

    Listening to fans and testers is great. It shows you are trying to make a game for the fans. That said, Bioware needs to not give the masses everything they ask for or want. You will never please everyone. Basically, no matter what direction you go, 20% will find something to hate about an idea or change. Stay true to the game you set out to make and make the changes needed for game balance, combat mechanics, fixing bugs, etc.

  7. Virtekon 03 Aug 2011 at 6:57 pm

    Yeah, SWTORCrafter….I’m not even a crafter myself, and I’m starting to get really curious about some of the mechanics, as they haven’t released a *ton* of info about it. I have a feeling PAX will bring a bit more to light.

    And I’m glad to drop some input! As I said, I’ve been just readin the site for a while now, and this viewpoint is one that isn’t really thought of or talked about very often, so I had to chime in. ^.^

    The process behind the scenes is kinda like magic to most people. Like the Wizard of Oz just whispers something nifty n mysterious, and suddenly there’s a perfect game. Or a failure, for that matter.

  8. Virtekon 03 Aug 2011 at 6:59 pm

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    Now I just have to remember to always pick an avatar. Not that I don’t like Mr Super-Grinny-Star on my last post up there….I just like the guy to the right a bunch better. =P