Sunday, 29 April 2012

Sunday Sermon: Call of Duty!!!

Even success stories need fresh blood

No, don't worry I'm not going to talk to you today about Activision's over released, often abused, stale and dated FPS franchise... I could... but I won't. Nope I'm here to talk briefly about one of the many duties I think we have as wargamers, and one I'm not sure many of us ever get the pleasure to fulfill. I'm talking about the vitally important role of the playtester. Now I'm sure many of you out there will have heard of these mythical creatures that selflessly playtest less than perfect product, and give hopefully useful feedback on the development of a game to the designer. I've always offered my considered thoughts whenever I've been called upon. I feel it's the other vitally important duty we all have as hobbyists in the hobby. The primary one being the introduction and recruitment of fresh blood to the hobby.

So why am I prattling on about playtesting today? Well I obviously can't talk to any of you about specifics, or even in vague terms... mainly because of NDA's, but also because I've given people my word, and that means something to me. What I can say to you though is that recently I've had the pleasure of feeding my thoughts back to designers on a good number of products, many of them wildly different from each other. Indeed the design processes often employed by different designers and companies themselves are exceedingly different, and almost as interesting as the games themselves. As I psychologist and a systems analyst I find that last point particularly interesting... but that's not what I'm here to talk about, although it is something I might try to return to at a later date.

Yesterday this here Blogger got himself up at 5:00am in the morning to trek to a secret location, probably guarded by robotic fishmen (not actually true, at least I don't think so. Although the mine field was real) to perform the second most solemn duty of a wargamer, the playtest. Now the day didn't get off to the greatest of starts, as the previous evening I'd only managed to get home and go to sleep at 1:00am... hang on, that's the same day... bugger... it's a long story, and one for another day to I feel. So on four hours sleep I made my way to Birmingham New Street, where every fething  train to the secret location and many more were utterly badgered. Oh joy! However, it is a duty that must be performed, so I soldiered on to a nearby secret location where the trains were still running. I was now closer to performing my solemn duty.

Bleep, blip, bleep, blip... God I loved 24.

At this new secret location I spied two other lost and slightly angry looking souls... OK they looked like fellow nerds! Their nerdar was working as they too seemed to have spied me. I looked around to see if I could see any robotic fishmen with laser eyes, but I couldn't. Clearly I now had a combat ready unit, I approached and took charge of the situation, a minicab was called and we proceeded to make our way to the original rendezvous point. Miraculously we made it there well on time, despite the fickle mistress that is fate and the awfully decrepit British Rail Network trying their best to thwart us. Not today you won't, not today!!! So there we were at the secret underground bunker protected by robotic fishmen with laser eyes and explosive teeth, coffee in hand waiting for the other geeks to arrive. We got to chatting, as geeks in a room tend to do, it was then I had a bit of an epiphany in this conversation though it firmed up during the rest of the day... am I the right sort of person to do this task? In fact were any of us?

If you haven't done so already, you need to go see the Avengers movie. It's brilliant!!!

Let me explain further, I am by nature a highly analytical person. A math nerd if you will, but in the broader sense I like research of all types and I love picking apart systems, and rules are after all just systems. I think I'm bloody good at it too, in fact the exasperated looks on many an opponents face throughout the decades tells me I might be a little bit too good at it. So I'm the sort of person that you probably do want to ask opinion of. However, on the other-hand lots and lots of people ask my opinion on things, and is that healthy for the industry? Talking to my fellow geeks I found out that many people in the room had done this sort of thing multiple times before. So there was a lot of experience present and much of it was clearly as finely honed as my own. I have no doubt everyone in that room contributed greatly to the design process and their input was all incredibly valid... but...

Area 51 is probably guarded by fishmen too!

Is that's what's needed from this point forward? More of the same? I'm not so sure it is. You see recently for another project I got a room full of n00bs together and asked them to play another completely different game. The input from this group was entirely different and raised issues I hadn't even thought of, which isn't a surprise. Me with my vast gaming experience and hugely mathematical and gamey brain had been able to assimilate a very complex ruleset, understand it and process any convoluted descriptions and potential knowledge gaps to play the game. The n00bs showed me that actually things could be simpler, things could be better. In short they taught me something. As I say, I'm a researcher by heart and by trade so I know how vitally important it is to get a good broad sample, to ensure any conclusions you draw are valid...

So here it goes, the reason for this Sunday Sermon. I have two pleas really, one for us gamers and one for the Games Designers and Developers:

  1. To you gamers, if you have the time and you feel you have something to contribute then please make yourselves available to companies for games testing, the larger the pool the better. It might be a bit of hard work, but it's also quite exciting and hugely rewarding when you see the finished product, and know you contributed.
  2. To Games Designers and companies, don't just stick to the same old faces and crowd. I'm hugely flattered that people think highly enough of my opinions to seek it out, and I'll always give my thoughts when asked to do so... just please broaden the net for the sake of your own design processes and products.

I know the second one will be tough for many companies. Mainly because they are in a difficult spot in needing to maintain the secrecy and integrity of a product, which is also compounded by the fact that they're dealing with highly sensitive commercial information. Hence the NDA's, and those robotic fishmen with laser eyes, exploding teeth and cloaking devices. They need to trust those they are showing their newest baby off too, and that's a hard thing for anyone to do. So when they find some people they can trust on that score it must be very tempting to keep going back to them... all I'm saying is that the potential benefits of casting the net further afield would outweigh the potential risks for me.

Beware the fishmen, they want our women!!!

So what about this day of gaming at this secret bunker then? Well, despite being utterly knackered after what had been a very stressful and sometimes physically painful week, I think it was a highly worthwhile and productive experience. The game itself was a fantastically entertaining experience, and one I just can't wait to tell you all about. It really is potentially a big winner, and if I'm honest I wasn't expecting it. Yes it's that good. I also met an awful lot of really cool people and it was a pleasure to see and meet you all. So in in all it was a good day, even though I got home at 9:15pm and only managed to get to sleep around about 10:00pm, meaning in effect I pulled a 17 hour shift at my own expense on roughly four hours of sleep... we're mad us geeks... plus I'm not too sure whether it's sleep deprivation or not, but I think I may have been followed home by a robotic fishman with a laser eye, exploding teeth, cloaking device and atomic powered raygun of doom. Peace out!


  1. I find the whole topic of testing quite interesting, and I am fully aware that this puts me in a minority :)

    I've quite extensive QA experience, but in computer games, and I now teach game design, mostly for computers, but part of that is teaching PnP style game mechanic design.

    If you're aware of any companies out there who fancy giving a new product a turn past a captive audience of over a hundred budding game designers, drop me a line, be nice to make some connections, oh and we're in brimingham too :)

    1. Where are you based then? BCU? If so why haven't we thrown any dice in anger? Email me if you want to arrange any games. :)

  2. I was supposed to be at the very Top secret play test, but the person i was going with was still in bed at 9:00 am . So i missed a very good day. Sounds like i missed a fantastic day :(

    1. I honestly have no idea what you are talking about. Nothing to see hear, carry on!!! :P

  3. One word- open Beta.

    Well, two words...but you get the point.

    1. Open beta's are all very well for established product lines or brands within wargames, card games and board games. Mainly because you have a captive audience who are already up to speed on the game have an understanding of it mechanically. You also don't really have any information about it that you necessarily need to control the release of.

      However, if we're talking about a new product you don't want competitors knowing about or it's a completely new game that requires controlled playtesting open beta's just don't cut it. It's horses for courses. If I were putting the finishing touches to 3rd Ed FoW or 2nd Ed HoMachine I might ask the community what they thought. It'd be a useful tool. But if I'm putting the finishing touches to the next big thing TM, then I need to control that product very tightly.

    2. It doesn't even need to be open. I imagine most gamers would love to give their feedback on new systems and would happily give their time, but simply aren't asked. A webform up on the company website would solve this in a lot of cases ("Would you like to playtest our products?").

      I can see why you can't just release a WIP ruleset to the public and go "Let us know what you think" if you're keeping the lid on it, but you could easily release a call for people without giving anything away. I imagine if you're that worried about secrecy though you're never going to go outside your "usual faces". You've more chance of releasing a flawed product, but at least you won't be beaten to market by someone else using info from one of your testers.

    3. Ant it's a difficult one. Because at some point I wasn't the usual 'face' as it were. At some point I was an unknown quantity to these people as well. I suppose it's all about how many leaps of faith companies want to take. But I know of plenty of gamers out there such as yourself who are smart and vastly experienced with games and who have interesting things to say on them. You'd be a really useful person to contact for instance in terms of the game I played at the weekend.

  4. I also believe that the benefits of having totally uninvolved people test just anything, be it a game, computer program or hair-dryer, greatly improves it's quality. There are so many ways a concept can be interpreted, and so may opinions. As a coder I believe in Open Source. The same could be done with games, to their benefit really, as publicity is good for any product. And playtesting is one of those things that draw attention! You get to influence the final shape of the product from the user's side, or you get valuable insight from unexpected sources as a producer.

    Honestly, closed playtesting just puts me off. I like things evolving and improving constantly, with as many people involved as possible. True, it is impossible for a printed ruleset - many people dislike constant change as it makes them spend money - but I believe it is a flawed design at it's core - we should be spending money on beautiful models (miniatures if anyone got confused) not on another ruleset! Don't get me wrong, I have quite a lot books, but that is because they are beautiful too (and horribly outdated mostly).

    I say: publish the rules and idea before somebody beats you to it! So many people will help you improve it if you give it away for free. Many more will be attracted and will buy your products, even if they are on the drawing board right now, as many Kickstarter and IndieGoGo projests attest.

    1. I think there are two schools of thought broadly in terms of game design:

      1) Consensus Building

      That is I think what you are talking about. Taking a rough skeleton and allowing many people to add tweaks and to force it's evolution in a melting pot of ideas. That can work in computer games, where the tech behind the experience isn't so 'exposed'. Computer games aren't just the ideas and play mechanics they're the graphics engine, the physics engine, AI etc etc. Player input and user interface while massively important isn't actually the things computer game developers what to keep secret and be protective of. For Wargames developers and board game developers that relationship is totally flipped 180 degrees. The very thing you need to protect is not only totally exposed as the mechanics are the rules, they're also the very thing you don't want others knowing about!

      the second method is the one board game and war game designers use mostly...

      2) Autocratic Development

      One person or a very small group of people have a clear vision. They develop this vision into something concrete and protect it via secrecy. Any testing is strictly limited and controlled to maintain the integrity of the vision and the clarity of design. As I say above I'm not necessarily a fan of this approach myself, but I do fully understand why somebody would choose this approach. I just think it's a dangerous approach if you then rely on the same people over and over again for playtesting.