Hydrophobia: A Lesson in Play Testing

I just finished Hyrophobia on Xbox Live Arcade.  I really enjoyed the game!  It had a few things that could have been improved to enhance my play experience, but I liked it enough to play completely through the game which is more than I can say for most games.

The sad thing is that this game did very poorly on Xbox Live Arcade.  According to Wikipedia, only selling 17,000 copies by the end of October 2010.

It appears that the main reason for this is that many people were disappointed in the game when it was initially released at the end of September 2010.  You can see some reviews here on MetaCritic.

Dark Energy did an update to the game about a week ago that addressed numerous issues the people found with the game (see the list here).

Had the studio made these updates to the game before release, I have no doubt it would have done much better in the market.

Based on Dark Energy’s initial reaction to the feedback, I think the problem was that they either didn’t do enough external play testing or just ignored people’s feedback.  It’s difficult to keep an open mind about a game you’ve been working on for quite some time.  Fresh players are an invaluable source for a clear perspective on the game experience and you discount what they say at your own risk.  Obviously you should not change your game to adapt to every whim of every play tester, but if someone is getting frustrated or confused while playing your game, that’s a clear sign that something should change.

I’m sure they’ve learned their lesson, but what a price to pay!

So like I said, I really enjoyed the game and I hope they will release a sequel.  But this time, I hope it’s after addressing play test feedback.

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I Hate 3D Studio Max

I hate love you!

For soooo many reasons. The root of which is them trying to do things the way they did 10 years ago because “there are some people that are used to that” (IE the user interface is a complete mess). That and Max crashing all of the time when it doesn’t know how to handle what you give it. So yeah, terrible user interface and poor stability.

However, I really like maxscript for the power it gives you and for all the sweet utilities.

Looks like I’m going to have this love hate relationship with it for quite a while because our studio is using Max as its principle modeling package.

Why can’t we just use Maya, Softimage, or even Blender *sigh*

IndieCade and Innovation in Games (again)

So I just got back from IndieCade. It was interesting. I was able to meet some of the creators of a few games that I had played which was neat. It was also fun to play the you-know-a-guy-I’m-friends-with game with people on the floor.

It had a pretty sparse attendance today (and maybe in general) so I do not know that it will be happening in Bellevue again. It’s a little sad since it was only 4 blocks from where I work.

Today there was a panel on “why we need innovation in games”. I really didn’t like the title because it implied and misdirection from what I think is important (see my prior post on what games need).

So I sat and listened for a while until I had an opportunity to very loudly and outspokenly present my argument toward what the attitude about innovation in games should be.

I could tell I had supporters in the group, so that was good. I’m worried that I may have offended the people running the panel, but, well, it’s their fault for having a faulty panel topic…. and frankly, any being offended is your own decision.

To help back me up on this, here’s a rant from Jonathan Blow on the topic.

To sum it up:

Stop worrying about innovation! Focus on a vision for the game! Innovation should just be a word we use to describe the byproduct of new things that happened to be developed while moving towards that vision. The value is not in the innovation, it’s in the effective execution of the vision of the game.

So why is it valuable to make this distinction? Well, focusing on “innovating” ends up missing the point of a game. It produces games with new mechanics that do not produce effective experiences. Trying to adapt an experience to an innovation means that the innovation is in charge, it becomes the ruling factor in the game. It makes for shoddy and mediocre games with little or no depth. It’s like the artist that paints a picture because it hasn’t been done like that before rather than painting one that evokes an emotion or sends a message. In a single word, SHALLOW!

Yeah, so that’s fine. While people go ahead making games that focus on innovation, I’ll go forward trying to make games with a vision for an end user experience. We’ll see which ones are more significant in the end… And in fact, end up containing more… “innovation”.

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What Games Really Need

So my wife finished reading the book “Twilight” by Stephenie Meyer. Apparently it’s kind of like the new Harry Potter.

Anyway, I was interested in her background because she was formerly a stay at home mother of 3.

So her books have been on the top sellers lists for an amazingly long time. In fact her latest book “The Host” is the current #1 best seller found here http://www.nytimes.com/pages/books/bestseller/index.html as of today.

The key thing that go me is this. She never planned or had dreams of becoming a writer. She didn’t write the story to be sold or even to show it off to friends. She wrote it because she loved the process and loved seeing where the story would go. It reminded me of something an art teacher once mentioned. He said he paints for himself. He doesn’t paint to please other people. It also goes along with that Brad Bird of Pixar said in an interview here:


He makes movies for himself, to satisfy his own creative vision.

Here’s a video of a talk Stephenie gave at BYU (former grad there) , the last few seconds are the best part where she talks about “true writers”:


So now where I’m going with this.

People in the games industry are getting way too caught up in “innovation” and “the next big thing”. We don’t need people focusing on that stuff. We need people focusing on making a wonderful vision become a reality. A vision with meaning. We need people who care about the game and care about what kind of experience they are giving out there. We need less worrying about what’s hot and more brilliant passionate vision made reality. Disney was able to get people excited about his films and “make them their own”. We need people that care more and believe in what they’re working on. As a head of a project, if the people on your team don’t have the vision for your project, you need to help them catch it and make them believers. I think that can be done for most anyone. Even if a game is not their ideal, they can catch the vision of the experience the game is trying to give.

As far as where innovation fits in, it’s a means to an end. Great innovation is the byproduct of progress towards a clear goal. I’ve had lots of innovative things happen on my personal projects, but it was never because I wanted to innovate for innovations sake. It was because I wanted to do this, or have the player feel like this, or experience that. With that goal in mind, I would come up with ways to make that happen. Innovation that does not lead towards the goal of the game is pointless and should be thrown out with anything else that doesn’t contribute to the desired player experience.

On Caster, I’m focusing on making it the game I want to play, the experience I want to have and want to convey to others. It needs to go out the door with my seal of approval and none other.

I think that’s why I’ve been hesitant to consider publishing deals. After I’ve made the game, I’m done. Anything after that is work and gives me no motivation.

Anyway, just some scattered thoughts…

What’s your take on it?

Headgate Assimilated by EA

On December 1st, Headgate Studios became EA Salt Lake. That’s right, Electronic Arts, the worlds largest video game publisher purchased the game development studio I work for. The studio focus is to be on Wii projects for Nintendo.

This is both good and bad for the studio and its employees. Good for “stability”, bad for flexibility. I prefer the flexibility. You can read about my concerns here as well as a well written rant about the situation here. Mostly concerning the fact that EA feels a right to own anything you work on in your time away from work if it’s related to the “business” of EA.

It’s not just the ownership of my own time that concerns me. It’s the new attitude from management that has already become apparent since they took on more projects and accepted the break neck time frames. We’ve started doing some pretty important stuff for EA and we’re now seeing the effects of powerful executives pressing their agenda on us. You can read from my last entry about how we would constantly have to fight EA about how we manage our overtime. Well, management has buckled under pressure and I imagine will continue to do so so long as we remain part of the EA mega corp. I don’t like the feeling I have when I go to work anymore. Sure, my tech lead is great and doing what he can, but how long can he keep up the fight under the constant rebuke and pressure? It’s been a little while in the works but we’ve finally become an EA studio with the EA culture of “Crunch hard for our late reviews and feature creep and get the thing out the door!” After considering things, I don’t think things will “remain the same as they were” with respect to quality of life. Things were already changing before they purchased the studio.

I don’t know if I will stay or for how long. Several more appealing opportunities have become available. I turned down working for EA in the past so that I could work for Headgate. Looks like I just can’t get away from them.

I have always had my side projects that I could use keep my sanity and provide me with a creative outlet. EA wants me to stop working on them so I can focus more on my work for EA and not “compete” against them. Well, I will not stop working on them. Weather I stay with EA Salt Lake, or weather I go elsewhere, I intend to continue with my work. That’s just the kind of personality I have. There are so many things I want to do—want to create. I won’t give up this flexibility for “stability”.

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