Evil Islands Playtest Story (Translation)
What goes below is a translation of an article written by Aleksei Sviridov back in the year 2000. Aleksei was the lead writer of Evil Islands. This article was my first glimpse into the world of game industry, and I think this is the one that has started an avalanche in my decision process of choosing a future career. It’s a pretty funny story, so I hope you all enjoy the read.
Playtest. So much in this sound…
Illuminative story of life and wondrous adventures of an Evil User on Evil Islands, as told by an Evil Developer.
An epigraph kinda:
1. If something can be done wrong, it will be done wrong.
2. If something can’t be done wrong, it will still be done wrong. It’s not just Murphy’s Law, it’s the Law of Nature.
What’s the difference between a playtest and a beta test? Paraphrasing a well-known joke, it can be described as such: beta-test is searching for mistakes in the code of the game, and playtest – in its DNA. Playtest is an attempt to learn in advance what His Majesty Mass Consumer is going to do with the game.
Frankly, Mass Consumer has got a lot of different variations, and you can’t possibly encompass them all. And you don’t need to. For example, we don’t take into account the type of Aggressive Mass Consumer who puts a wet cat into the microwave to dry her out, or scissors a 5-inch floppy disc so it would fit into a 3-inch floppy drive. This one’s unbeatable, and will go through all foolproof defences. They will open up the PC with a chisel and will cut out extra legs from the processor to put the newly-bought Duron into a 486 motherboard.
There’s another extreme kind, much more widespread and harmless. The Shy Mass Consumer won’t even try to put the right disc into the right drive, if there’s no arrow on the disc pointing to ‘insert this side up.’ And when they do, they won’t eject it without a sign under the button that says ‘Press to eject.’ Although, if there’s only going to be one button, they’ll most likely press it, but if there’s going to be two, they will call tech support for consultation and memorize the company name of the disc drive manufacturer – so not to buy any more of their products, be it a battery or a VCR.
Somewhere between these two extremes there’s the normal mass consumer – a person that’s not angry, but also not cowardly. They honestly try to learn using what has got into their hands, and read the instruction no later than two days after trying to master the new purchase. On one hand they’re not afraid to experiment, and will try to find and press a green button if there’s no red one, but on the other hand, if the green one’s not going to give the desired result – they’ll stop this useless activity.
We weren’t expecting any extreme cases. Figuratively speaking, playtest must give an answer, what color and what signs and what form the buttons must be in our game, so His Majesty the Normal Mass Consumer wouldn’t throw away the game halfway through.
My feelings in regards to the playtest in question were skeptical at first. The experiment didn’t seem pure to me, as our future beta-testers were invited. Some of them have already tested Rage of Mages 2, have played a lot in other games as well. But it didn’t turn out to be all that bad – in a sense that it all turned out to be much worse than expected.
7pm – the end of the official work day in the company. This day, the owners of the PCs that were used for playtests have decided to actually leave the workplace for a change, not forgetting to clean up the desks and desktops (leaving only My Computer, My Documents and EI icons behind). Somewhere around this time… well, I suppose it wouldn’t be correct to call them ‘victims’, so I called them ‘clients’ in my head, have started entering the studio.
So, as our clients gathered, they were sat down to read the Non-Disclosure Agreement. When the next to last, fourth tester, appeared (we decided to not wait for the fifth one, and were right – he got to the studio only at around 8), Orlovsky gave a short speech. In it he said all the respective gratitudes, well-wishings, and, just in case, vaguely defined the poor fate waiting for anyone who’s going to ignore the NDA and disclose something without consulting us. The clients nodded, and asked tricky questions, like can you disclose it with the wife in bed (for those who are interested – “Yes, but only if you whisper” © S. Orlovsky).
The plan was as such: a tester is sat down by a machine, and a Nival employee with a paper is sat down near him. Said employee should quietly watch the process of searching for the Required Button, and write down where said searching goes on for too long. Any help to the tester wasn’t envisioned.
Out of all the clients I chose one young man who I knew from a Rage of Mages server as a pretty good gamer. Of course, I chose him not out of whimsy, but secretly hoping he wouldn’t waste time figuring out simple things, immediately finding some deep-rooted flaws that the others won’t have enough time to find. We smiled at each other for a bit embarassingly (please no insinuations!), and then after making a stone-cold face I took the tester to his designated PC. He didn’t have any problems finding the game icon, Evil Islands have successfully started and the intro movie started rolling.
The client’s first move was to turn on the speakers. Then turn up the volume. Then I registered an urge to close the game and get into the computer’s settings to make the nasty Windows play the sound. I had to break my vow of silence and explain that there’s no sound in the intro just yet, but there will be later. I wasn’t lying to the client, ‘later’ the sounds have indeed appeared with such a strength, that we had to quickly tone down the volume on the speaker.
The playtest version was scripted in such a way that the Hero appears in the Ruins starting location, would make a few steps to exit them, and then instantly transports to the village. Any of us who sat down by this version did this in five seconds. But the client quickly decided to demonstrate that this playtest wasn’t a bad idea after all…
First, he couldn’t select the character for a long time. I mean he clicked on the whole screen but couldn’t hit the guy – as it turned out, we wisely placed the camera so the Hero at the beginning of the game is hidden behind tree leaves in such a way that you had to essentially click on the tree, and what kind of normal person would do that? (based on the playtest results we made so the hero, or anybody from his team, would be constantly selected. ‘And this is the right thing to do, comrades!’) But in a minute or two the client eventually got the controls in his hands and sent the Hero… no, not to the exit. At first the good tester tried to throw the poor guy off the steep, but the Hero declined to jump into the waves. After that he was sent onto a steep hill. But the Hero was too lazy to climb the vertical terrain, so the first round of ‘Game-User’ ended in our favour: the client actually led the Hero out of the Ruins, teleported into the Village, and received the first (automatic) dialogue, which he read very attentively.
He read as attentively all other texts as well. Though, before that he tried to find the Hero amongst the people in the Village, but didn’t (in the final version you can find him), fly around with the camera which remained static (in the final version you can move it), open the Esc-menu (it didn’t want to open), and, finally, get into the Hero’s inventory (it didn’t want to open either).
Regarding the dialogues, the first character that prompted the cursor to transform into playful lips (later we decided to change the icon, as the lips caused some very weird associations… though sometimes I pity that decision, precisely because of those associations) was a pig. The conversation was very informative. (‘Get out of here!’ – ‘Oink-oink, squeeeee!’). The client was pleased, and went to talk with other characters. He learned a lot about the island Gipath, took Rowdy in his team and received the first two missions in the Foothills. Also he learned that there’s some witch Esthera that doesn’t let the villagers to her abode and you can’t simply approach her.
So, the client has left the Village, and on the global map finally found the icon allowing to look at his belongings! (Well, Hero’s belongings at the least. He couldn’t find a way to select the teammate).
The client was so happy that the first thing he did was taking all the clothes off the Hero. He made a snide remark about anatomic details that could be seen from under the trousers (actually it was a model bug and not what he thought, but it looked exactly like that). After this, the client has put the clothes back on the Hero, and figured, that items removed from the body but that are still in the inventory are put on the LOWER item slots. Being sure that he does everything right, he placed his only weapon – a metal knife – from UPPER item slots to the lower ones, leaving the Hero defenseless against numerous dangers.
Completing said action, our tester got back to the global map, thoughtfully moving the cursor between two game zones (The Foothills, where he had two missions, and The Witch’s Abode, where he didn’t have any, but read the description that everything’s bad there you see). Reading the description of both game zones, he went to…
Yes, yes, of course you’ve guessed it! The client has sent his group to the Witch’s Abode, where he continued his exciting adventures in the world of Evil Islands. First steps towards the Witch’s cave were smooth enough: the Hero, under the client’s wise commands, fought some boars and killed one barehanded (the other two were killed by his teammate, Rowdy).
But then it got worse: during the next 40 minutes our Hero died a huge variety of ways – the client, flying on our ‘free camera’ like Powers on his U-2, found the entrance to the Witch’s cave, and rushed to it like Lemmings on the other shore of the fjord. Of course, the same fate as those of the stubbern rodents was waiting for him, only Lemmings can’t save. When the forty first minute of this tragedy began, I couldn’t resist, and quietly (so the project lead couldn’t hear) whispered that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to go to another zone, where there are missions and hints regarding their completion.
And the client went where there are quests and hints. No, as the text author I don’t remove responsibility from myself: of course I could write things in a more clear way. But, honestly, I still can’t imagine, that my work could be perceived THAT way… Judge for yourself: here’s a quote straight from the game’s resources:
‘The Brigand Camp lies on the north, between the two prongs of the river at the feet of the mountains. The direct route goes through a bridge, which is always under heavy guard. It’s much simpler to get to the camp through the shallows near the headstreams: this route is longer, but the shallows are much more lightly guarded.’
So where do you think the client went after reading that text? That’s right, the direct route, mumbling to himself ‘Where is that bridge?’ Though, he didn’t even get to THAT brigand bridge. The goblin outpost near the beginning of the road was enough. So I had to break my oath of silence again, and ask the tester to read the hint FULLY, and only then the Hero managed to get to the brigand camp without any fatal adventures.
And at the camp the client got into another pickle, and that one is absolutely my fault (reminder – the text author). The mission statement was short: get ahold of the items carried by the brigand chief and his fat wife. Meaning that at some point the choice was supposed to be fully up to the player: killing the leader family with foul strikes to the head from behind, or quietly steal from their pockets and crawl away to a safer distance.
But much time has passed since then, and things change around N times, and the game concept also did a few 180 degree turns. So nowadays it’s practically impossible to kill the chief, so theft is the only solution.
But nowhere, not in the texts, not in the hint popups, nowhere there was even a remote description about the existence of a possibility to steal something from a live person! I realized this only when the client got close to the Chief – this what a developer’s blind spot means. So I had to once again betray my strong and silent act and put the cursor on the ‘steal/use’ icon – and instantly redden with shame after seeing the popup hint reading ‘sleight of hand’, which is how I named the stat responsible for stealing and using different mechanisms (based on the playtest results we have implemented a tutorial system that would explain in detail all the game’s features at appropriate points, future playtests proved that it really helps).
So I had to play the role of the tutorial system myself for a bit, and quickly explain what icon that is and how to use it. The client quickly figured things out, and soon enough the Hero went back to the Village, with the stolen items and the mission completed. There, the Craftsman waited for him – a character who as a sign of gratitude for the aforementioned theft gave the Hero the possibility to use the store and the item constructor.
And here, I must admit, I held my breath. When I would try to figure out this amazing instrument, I spent a lot of time, both mine and its creators. They would explain me that the interface is as simple as two plus two and would get angry that I couldn’t understand the simplest of things. For example, the fact that the small line of text above the Hero’s available money in the left-not-so-lower corner is the screen name. Of course, what could possibly be simpler…
The client was in full agreement with me. Though, he didn’t say that out loud, instead he started a silent demonstration of protest and solidarity, showing with all his actions that he didn’t realize the importance of pressing the very smaaaaaaaaaal checkmark to confirm the experience points distribution. Really, why do that when the numbers so obviously change with every your mouse click… And how could he know that when going to another screen without the pressed checkmark everything reverts back to its original state? We didn’t have any information regarding that (the interface changed multiple times since then, we also added hints and tutorial systems for it as well).
And of course, the moment we all waited for – using the constructor. I can’t even imagine how to explain what the poor tester would do with the materials, prototypes and interface screens in hopes of getting a granite axe finished… And I admit that on the tenth minute of the battle between the interface and the client I couldn’t resist once again, and stepped in the middle of the Titan Battle. And I must say I didn’t feel bad about it not one bit – I doubt that ten more minutes (or twenty, or fifteen, or two hours) would make it more obvious that the interface is hard to understand.
The client rejoiced, and with the newly crafted granite axe he went searching for new adventures… but, sadly, the adventures got tired. The game crashed one time, then another, then third and fourth and fifth one… Long story short, Evil Islands alongside with Win 2000 couldn’t handle more than three hours of the client’s walking around, and declared a strike, confusing even more already morally broken due to discovered failings developers (though I hope everybody understands that since those playtests our programmers didn’t just sit there doing nothing?)
In short, the playtest was over. The clients left all in all happy, and we remained all in all not so happy. Not with the clients, but with ourselves. Suddenly we found out that a lot of things in the game need fleshing out, if not a total make over. And most of that stuff was right there on the surface, and it would’ve been enough to just place ourselves into the mind of the user, who…
Though, I didn’t use the term ‘blind spot’ for nothing. Somebody who goes through a zone for the 128th or 256th time, and then goes into the same old constructor, can’t really place himself on the spot of that Mass Consumer who in the end will received our game.
So please forgive me all playtesters, and my client in particular, for all the sarcasm and irony I told the story of our adventures. Their mistakes are really our mistakes, and it’s a good thing that they were found when they could be fixed. With all sincerity I want to say: a huge thanks to you. We will try to make it so our future testers will have it easier… And I hope they will try to make it harder for us.
So when is the next playtest? A storm is coming…
A. Sviridov aka CMERTHIK, March 2000.