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.
The Life of a Video Game Tester
Testing, or quality assurance, is an extremely important job in the game industry. It is a low-paying job, at or near minimum wage, and the working conditions aren’t always the greatest (I once visited Activison’s testing department — it was crowded, dark, and the smell of body order was overpowering), but for many people in the game industry — especially designers and producers — it was their first job.
Being a game tester is not as glamorous as it may sound to some. It involves playing the game before it is fun to play. You may be playing the same broken level over and over again, either trying to find new errors, or replicating the one you just found so that you can document the steps for recreating it. Then, after the problem is addressed by the development team, you need to verify that it was indeed fix and that the fix did not introduce new problems.
Being a good tester requires you to be observant, persistent, methodical, and have excellent communication skills. There are actually two personality types or approaches to testing: The Judger, who follows checklists and does repetitive testing to find content errors; and The Perceiver, who does open-ended testing and tries unconventional things to find context errors.
As important as the testing function is, QA people are often not treated with much respect in the game industry. Part of the reason is that it is an entry-level position, but perhaps an even bigger reason is that developers get upset when someone finds bugs in their work. And many of them do not want to be given design suggestions (mainly because they are trying to meet a launch deadline) and would rather you just find programming defects. This is unfortunately, because testers can have great insight and sometimes fixing a problem correctly involves a design change instead of a programming change.
If you are interested in a testing job, many of the big publishers and studios, such as Activision and Electronic Arts, have permanent testing departments. Check their websites for job openings. Smaller developers hire testers on an as needed basis, and some use Craigs List to find part-time help.