Indirect Playtesting

I have a lot to write about, but I will do it about this because it’s easy.

Something weird happened to me these days. Something that has to be noted, because is helping me designing my games.

I did not make this game (just in case).

A friend of mine visits me from time to time with the only purpose of playing games in my laptop. She loves videogames, but right now she can’t afford a console, moreover a PC suited for gaming. So, she comes, we chat, we share, and she plays.

And even when I do think she’s a very good player, it is simply annoying watching her play. It makes feel nervous, angry, stressed and everything which is bad in the world.

So, why I watched her play?.

Because I realized that, somehow, she is validating (or not) my points of view of a particular game, in this case the Half Life series.

Half Life 2 is a game I’ve finished about 30 times, played a lot more. I memorized most of the game and level design with the only goal of understand it. That’s important because Half Life is a major influence in the game I’m working on right now: Dark Recon.

Watching my friend play is a cheap way to understand why Valve made things like finally did. It’s what I’m starting to call Indirect Playtesting. If you can maintain a lot of looping in your project for design-playtest, maybe indirect playtesting can’t help much, but (as in our case) you simply don’t have the resources to loop that much, indirect playtest your influences and references could be a source of solutions.

Let me elaborate.

See, my friend plays a lot different than me, and it’s impossible to me to think in such a gameplay style because, to name just one reason, she is a girl. We have a similar tastes in games, but even the genre defines how we play those games.

Example: Water Hazard. This is a long level in Half Life 2 almost at the beginning of the game, so if you played it you probably remember it.

This level could be the most annoying experience in gaming, but that is not a coincidence. First of all, it’s actually a crescendo moment towards the very best of the game (We don’t go to Ravemholm). Let me write a little about the second reason.

What happens here is that, every time I played the game I didn’t leave the boat until it’s obviously needed. Never. Even when I tried different ways to beat the level, none of those ways involved leaving the boat.

My friend beat the level on foot.

Seriously, she did that. (And it was annoying as fuck).

Ok, not the entire level, because after the helicopter starts chasing you it’s almost impossible to do it, but I thought the same of the map after that point. And it isn’t.

She argued that the boat is confusing and the lack of weapons makes her feel weak, so she prefers to walk around the area, see what is happening, shot if necessary, take the boat, drive and repeat a few steps ahead.

You can criticize her logic, but not the result. She beat the level on foot. Outstanding.

But what is more surprising is, you can beat the level on foot. Read again: you can beat the level on foot. You can totally do it.

If you read Half Life 2: Raising the Bar they said that this level presented particular problems: the boat was actually more confusing and dizzy (and it got worse with the laser turret on it), the path wasn’t easy to design (because of the sense of freedom the player felt), and such. What my friend proved is the reason why you don’t have the laser turret in the first place: it’s almost impossible to make the boat not confusing right away, you need a whole level to get used to it. Even when there is an optimal way to beat the level (using the goddamn boat) the player has the option to do it otherwise, until there is no other option. But that point is reached after a long time, not inmediately.

But it goes deeper. There is another place where such a thing happens:

A whole level as a playground for the gravity gun, before more subtle uses to that weapon are proposed.

Half Life 2 has some different tutorials throughout the game, ones more obvious than others. Ravenholm is one of them. To name a few, you learn how to use the RPG (very quickly), how to pass over the Antlions, and even how to use them (more or less in a very obvious way), but what happens with the buggy?, it has actually no apparent tutorial… until you remember the boat. The boat, as well the gravity gun, is a new gameplay element in the game. No vehicle with such a sense of freedom was included in the first Half Life.

Water Hazard was (in some degree) annoying because it’s a tutorial level, and as in any good tutorial , it needs to be safe to the player, or almost. My friend beat the level on foot because of that. She had the option and she used it. That’s also why, later on, when the helicopter starts chasing you it’s not possible to leave the boat: the tutorial is finished.

I thougth We don’t go to Ravenholm was one of the bigger tutorial I’ve played, but Water Hazard is even bigger, and I didn’t realized it was a tutorial level at all. Why? because to me, it was very straightforward how to use the boat (due my experience as a gamer). Valve’s designers had the duty to think in a even larger set of gamers, for example, those who aren’t that experienced, like my friend (and even thoug, she finished the original Half Life). And that’s not the only reason, it also helps to keep the game interesting even almost 8 years of it release due its approachability (think on those good old games that are somehow criptic nowadays).

All of that in exchange of a little annoyance for experienced players. Not a bad deal, at all.

(Remember that the boat is not the only vehicle in the game, of course there is the buggy and in Half Life 2: Episode 2 there is the car. The difference is that, in the Half Life 2: Episode 2 the car is designed for a not that linear experience towards the end of the game.)

And you can look further. You have Water Hazard as a tutorial level, then We don’t go to Raveholm, Highway 17 (with no tutorial at all, it was covered before); Sandtraps, with a little tutorial about not stepping in the sand, and then a tutorial of using the pheromones, and so on. The entire mechanic of tutorial-level is a pattern that shrinks. Valve’s designers decided to teach not only what you will learn, but how you will learn it, so they don’t have the need to create a whole entire level tutorial each time, saving developing time a resources.

That pattern also matches the suggested interest graph, which has a lot of sense now that I can see the tutorials more integrated to it.

I noticed a lot of those details a long time ago, but if it wasn’t for my friend playing the game differently, I wouldn’t noticed the thing as a whole. And it was awesome.

Watching her play a game that is one of my biggest influece and I know deeply lead me to a lot of insights about it. That’s what I call Indirect Playtesting.

The conclusion is: you can indirect playtest the game you are designing by watching people play your influences and references. It is a very easy and cheap way to make decisions, if you don’t have the resources to loop the design-playtest process of your game as much as you want. (And even if you do have the resources, I think it can be helpful).

Three suggestions to do it:

  1. I think indirect playtest only works if you already played the game to playtest enough times to know it pixel by pixel. Otherwise, I think it could be a waste of time.
  2. Be patient. My friend gameplay style was very, very, very annoying to me; and that’s it worked: it was just different than mine.
  3. Try to indirect playtest wisely, because focusing in other game just keeps your attention away of the important thing: finish your game. I think you can indirect playtest your game only when the resources of the project don’t allow to create another design-playtest loop, and you have to move forward in the development cycle.

Remember, Indirect Playtesting, by no means, replaces playtesting, is just a way to make it a little cheaper and to improve your gameplay guesses.

I hope this helps. It is helping me right now.

More on Dark Recon development soon.

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