Making games is hard and fun and you should make sure you’re prepared, as much as you can prepare, for everything that could go right or wrong the first time other people try it.
What have I done?
I had the first playtesting session of Sombrero a few nights ago, more or less announcing that it even existed at the same time, at the NYC Games Forum playtest session at Microsoft’s NY offices.
There were a bunch of really interesting and/or fun projects to check out and that I really wish I could have spent more time with, but I was mostly hanging out near my setup to see how people were enjoying Sombrero and to get comments/criticisms/suggestions from anyone who happened to be standing nearby watching the game or giving it a try themselves.
Not only had I never done a playtest session before, but nobody else had even played the game before. On top of that, I somehow lucked out and what I thought was going to be a single projector I plugged into ended up being “yeah, so this here HDMI plug goes to every monitor and projector in the room and we can’t change that – have fun!”
For someone who’d shown their game before, or maybe hadn’t spent 3 sleepless days and nights debugging with the hopes that it wouldn’t crash constantly when it was time to show it to everyone, this would probably be a Very Good Thing. Seeing Sombrero on all of those screens, when not a single other person had tried it before and I wasn’t sure it was even going to entirely run properly? Kind of wanted to pass out a little. Then probably throw up a few times. At least twice for sure.
Okay, so maybe nothing is actually going to explode.
Luckily, the game didn’t break (mostly), and no one had to give the janitorial staff a call to help clean up any incidents.
Lesson: it’s definitely better to freak out before you’re in a room full of people seeing your product of many sleepless nights plastered 10 feet wide in front of the whole crowd in a way that’s impossible to miss.
Tell people as little as possible about how to play your game.
This one is first because it’s the one I figured out the quickest. The first few playthroughs I spent explaining how all the gameplay worked – or more accurately, how I imagined the gameplay working in my head – but that didn’t really prove effective for most players.
Once I simplified the description to “this is how the controls work, this is what your goal is, and try not to let anyone shoot or explode you” players picked up the mechanics of the game much faster and seemed to enjoy figuring out their own playing style based on the basic rules of the game (more on differing play styles and their consequences later).
Lesson: Less is more when introducing people to your game for the first time. If it takes you five minutes to explain the gameplay, you should probably streamline it a bit, or at least your explanation of it.
Listen to what everyone has to say…
This seems like a bit of a “duh” moment – of course you should listen to what playtesters are saying during a playtest – but I mean the people standing behind the players just watching what’s going on. It’s one of those folks that pointed out that a couple of the player colors were blending into the platforms a bit. While this was partly due to the lighting in the room and the image coming from the projector, this is the kind of issue that could also arise on any low contrast computer screen or TV, so it’s something that needs to be dealt with. Because all of the art in Sombrero is tile-based, it should be pretty quick to try out a few different shades for the platform tiles to see what works best and doesn’t make it easy to visually lose characters on-screen.
…But don’t do all of it.
Some of the comments and suggestions seemed more geared toward turning it into a different kind of game than what I feel it’s supposed to be. A few players treated it more like a deathmatch-style PvP game, and that’s the kind of game those players wanted to play and the arena most of the game-changing comments came from. While you technically can play it that way, chances are you’re going to spend more time losing than winning, and it isn’t really what I’ve envisioned Sombrero to be.
To me, this particular brand of player isn’t really wrong; it means there’s an imbalance between in the gameplay somewhere between attacking other players and trying to actually win in the game. I dealt with this a little during the playtest by slowing down how fast players could shoot, which helped some, but I think in the end I’ll end up adding in an additional “reload” delay after X number of shots.
People will be jerks and you can’t stop them…
I sort of kludged in the player respawning to send them back to where they originally started the stage, figuring that it wouldn’t be a big deal for this playtest and hey, it’s not the kind of game where spawn-camping makes any sense, right? Sombrero is meant to be a competitive game, but not directly pit each player against each other. It’s possible to win without going after any other player at all and without firing a single shot.
Wrong. Because spawn-camping is technically possible right now (it won’t be for long), some players did it. It’s impossible to win the game by doing it, this was pointed out to them, but they did it anyway. Now, let me be clear: you can’t win in this way, at all, ever. Not gonna happen. What you can do is annoy another player and prevent them from winning, but that’s a completely useless tactic unless that’s the goal you’ve set for yourself. Which, apparently, some people will do.
Lesson: some players can and will be real jerks, and they’re going to be jerks even when you point out it’s not in their own best interests to continue being jerks unless it’s their goal to be jerks. In which case, gently shoo them away so someone else can play. Who, fingers crossed, isn’t a jerk.
…So, make them be jerks in a more useful way.
What the unavoidable nature of this competitive streak means to me is that there’s failings in the game that need to be addressed to balance between the personal affront some people feel towards losing in a video game – which, as a reminder, are not real – and those who spend more time thinking strategically, aka the people who usually win. So, maybe what I need to do is to find a way to point that pent-up aggression away from other players and back towards winning the game. It’s a fair argument to make.
I’m hoping some of this can be accomplished with some changes to a few of the visual elements. One issue I noticed with Sombrero is that people didn’t realize that “capturing” campfires would give a score multiplier for any loot they picked up in an exponential fashion (1 campfire=2x, 2 campfires = 3x, etc) so they were just running around to get the loot before other players.
A few players managed to win in that fashion, but once I’d explained the deal with the campfires to them there were many wide eyes and changes to the tactics being employed. Hopefully, by making this gameplay element more obvious visually I can get those players running around to the whatever the campfires end up becoming instead of after another player who just stole the last few potential wins out from under them, since players can always “steal” the campfire you’ve just captured.
Because I was also able to change some gameplay elements on the fly, I also shortened how long players had to stand in front of a campfire to capture it until the timing looked and felt right during a match. It ended up being half as long as I’d initially guessed it should be, but up until then I’d only been poking around the stage by myself without 3 other player’s bullets whizzing past my character every half a second.
That’s all for now.
This is already getting pretty long, so that’s all for now. More behind-the-scenes as it happens!