Nobody Knows Anything: Why Skipping Playtesting Is Inconceivable

Last week plagued us with at least three deaths of figures in the entertainment industry.  The death of beloved Marvel Comics editor and Marvel film cameo star Stan Lee made front page news around the world. A less publicized death was that of actor Douglas Rain, who provided the voice of the murderous computer HAL 9000 in my favorite film 2001: A Space Odyssey.  But another death that was significant to me and many others was that of screenwriter, novelist, and playwright William Goldman.  If you are not familiar with his name, you certainly are with his work: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, and The Princess Bride, to name but a few.

In addition to his works of fiction, he is also famous in the film industry for his memoir about his career in Hollywood, Adventures In The Screen Trade, and particularly for this quote:

“Nobody knows anything…… Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

That observation is as true in the game industry as it is in Hollywood.  I’ve experienced first-hand from both sides of the fence how game publishers will push developers in certain directions or to make other concessions in the belief that the publisher knows what will sell to the game-buying public.  In many cases, I’m sure it is a sincere belief, but in others, I’m certain its merely the publisher representative trying to demonstrate and justify their value to the project.  But sincere or not, what is going to work in a game is just an educated guess at best.

However, I’m not going to point my finger only at the publisher. Remember, nobody knows anything.  That includes game developers.  Even a developer with years of success may discover that when his or her game is first played by gamers, that what the developer was sure was easy is actually difficult, what was understandable was confusing, or what was fun was boring.  As developers are working on a game, it is essential that they get it out in front of potential players to verify their assumptions about the game.  To not do so is, as The Princess Brides’ Vizinni would say, inconceivable!

Not game developer gets it right the first time they show their game to players.  It may take dozens, hundreds, even thousands of adjustments to games before they deliver the right play experience.  This is the called iterative process of game design, a design methodology based on a cyclic process of designing your game, making a prototype, testing the prototype with users, and then learning what changes need to be made to the design.  The cycle continues until the game is good enough to launch (or you run out of time and money for more iterations).

Usually developers will find it to be a very humbling experience, because everything they thought they knew about how people would react to their game will prove to be wrong.  But they shouldn’t be too hard on themselves.  After all, nobody knows anything.

 

 

A Tribute To The Marvelous Stan Lee

Today we lost one of the most prolific and influential creators of pop-culture entertainment, Stan Lee. During an incredibly fertile creative period from 1961 to 1972, he was instrumental in giving birth to Spider-Man, the X-Men, Black Panther, the Mighty Thor, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, Daredevil and Ant-Man, among countless other characters.  Creating comic books, like video games, is a team effort, so Stan did not do this alone, but with collaborators such as Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and other artists and writers. But he was the visionary and face of Marvel Comics, and through his impressive work and enthusiastic promotion of that work, by appearing at comic book conventions and in movie cameos, his vision lives on today and is as popular as ever.

Now, I have to admit that I wasn’t a Marvel fan when I grew up during the Silver Age of comic books. Although I did enjoy the Spider-Man animated series, I preferred reading DC Comics, where the superheroes were more paragons of virtue and impervious, both inside and out. It wasn’t until I grew older (and presumably wiser) that I grew to appreciate what Stan Lee brought to the world of comic books.  After all, many of the great talents I admired were fans of Stan’s work, and I took notice that the great writer Harlan Ellison, with whom I had collaborated on a video game adaptation of his short story “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream”, kept a large Spider-Man toy figure suspended from his kitchen cabinets.

Stan earned the respect of talents in other fields — even receiving the National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush in 2008 — when he revolutionized comic books by putting the “human” into “superhuman.” As fantastic as his characters were, they were relatable because they had real-world problems like the ones you and I experience. His superhumans had very human frailties. Despite his extraordinary powers, Stan’s most popular creation, Spider-Man, had problems at work, at home and with his girlfriends,enduring many defeats and setbacks, sometimes ones of his own making. He suffered from the awkwardness, self-esteem issues, and dating difficulties that plague every real-life teenager. The other characters that Stan created together with his team of talented artists and writers all battled their inner demons while fighting off supervillains. Because we can relate to these inner struggles, we true believers can learn from them.

Stan made these larger than life characters accessible by having them relate to contemporary society.  The X-Men, for example, have served as a metaphor for many groups of people who have been demonized and mistreated for their differences, but have to live in peace with those who hate and fear them.  Through Stan’s stories, they became a symbol of hope for the readers who felt demonized and mistreated themselves.

By creating three-dimensional characters who had meaningful things to say about the human condition, perhaps Stan’s greatest achievement was in demonstrating that comics were not merely pacifiers for children, but could be legitimate works of literature. Stan was slow to realize this himself, telling the Chicago Tribune in 2014:

“I used to think what I did was not very important. People are building bridges and engaging in medical research, and here I was doing stories about fictional people who do extraordinary, crazy things and wear costumes. But I suppose I have come to realize that entertainment is not easily dismissed.”

That is an important message for game developers, who for many decades had their works dismissed by mainstream society as being toys for children. Both comic books and video games have millions of fans, and the influence that brings cannot be denied. Stan wrote one of the most famous lines in comics, “with great power comes great responsibility,” and in doing so, he set a very high bar of responsibility for all us other content creators to live up to by inspiring our imagination and challenging us to all use it to make the world a better place. As Stan told Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man in his cameo in the 2003 Spider-Man film, “You know, I guess one person can make a difference … ’nuff said.”