Friday, 29 January 2010

Pocket God - game usability playtest part 1

I recently ran a game usability playtest of Pocket God on the iPhone. Why that game? It's developers Bolt Creative recently claimed that it's been downloaded 2 million times. I was intrigued to see the appraoch the developers took to keep the game fresh - to release regular free updates (30 "episodes" over just over a year).

With so much additional content being added to the core game I was curious to see how the game introduced itself to a new player. I decided to conduct a very-mini playtest, consisting of 1 tester. Step forward test subject number 1 (the girlfriend).

Test subject number 1
Preferred genre -  Strategy/Puzzle
Favourite game - Ceasar 3
Systems owned - iPhone and PC/Mac (some play time on the Wii)
Average time playing per week - 2-3 hours

  1. I had no contact with the game before the playtest -  I didn't know anything about the controls or content. Not ideal for a playtest, but it was necessary (the iPhone used for the playtest was owned by test subject number 1).
  2. I deliberately didn't allow test subject 1 to read any information about the game before the playtest - not even the reviews. She would normally have read the reviews, and learnt about the game to a much greater degree before purchasing. A lot of the issues encountered wouldn't have been encountered in real life (as the tester would have read around the game before commencing). I wanted to enact a spontaneous purchase.
The playtest

I'm just going to write what happened:

Before the game loads, an 'Open Feint' window appears and requests to use the players data. The tester (hereafter referred to as her, or she) was unsure what this was for. She thought it was a different application altogether and guessed it was some form of social tool (it is, but there's no explanation - what it is, or what you'd want to sign up to it for).

Next she asked if they want push notifications. "Are these warning messages? How often will I be warned?"

The game starts and informs her that episode 29 is loading - "Episode 29? Why start on episode 29?"

The game loads with 1 pygmy on the screen... it picks up a fishing rod and starts to fish. Almost immediately it is pulled into the sea and eaten by a shark - much to her dismay. She's left with no one on the screen anymore. She doesn't notice the 'add pygmy' button in the top of the screen. She gets distressed.

With some assistance she notices the controls in the top of the screen. They load the help, which offers some explanatory text... but this is rather small and hard to read. There's a total of 34 help pages - too much for her to take in. They started reading... then gave up. She gets distressed. "Ice monster? What? I'm meant to throw the pygmies at the ice monster? How? Why?"

She creates a couple of pygmies and tries dragging one around. Succeeds in dropping the pygmy into the sea, where it quickly drowns before she can pull it out again. She gets distressed.

After a couple of minutes she is starting to get to grips with the controls. However, they still felt overwhelmed - "There's too much...".

Pulling up the map she accidentally takes the pygmies to the 'underwater zone' "Are we underwater now? Why?". She panics, fearing the pygmies would drown.

Finding the toggle controls (where the player has the ability to toggle various interactive aspects of the zones on and off). She toggles a couple of options, but is unsure what they control "Are they on or off? What are they?"

After 5 minutes of the playtest she abandons the game. "I just don't know what to do..." She believed she was playing the game incorrectly, that there was a way to be benevolent and save the pygmies from their rather gruesome fates.

After playing

After playing she went online to see what she was missing. Reading the Wikipedia entry, the tester realised the whole point of the game was essentially to torture and kill the pygmies in a variety of amusing ways... This didn't appeal to them. The game was not to their taste, but they were still able to find several issues. The biggest being:
  • The game never introduced itself to the player - there was insufficient help and no tutorial. It was also unclear exactly what kind of game it was (a sim-killer)
I'll discuss the other issues, and how they could resolve some of them next time!

Friday, 22 January 2010

Context of game play is key - Part 2

I'm playing a few classic older games at the moment:
  • Fallout 3
  • Mass Effect
  • Bioshock
All great games circa 2007-8. Why so old?

Up to recently, I didn't have much of a chance to play games. I lived with my Grandfather, he had 1 TV, he watched it a lot. This meant if I wanted to play any console game I had to wait for him to walk away from the TV (not a regular occurrence). Then I would sneak on and have a gaming frenzy.

Unfortunately as that wasn't that often, I was reduced to playing games on my old conked out PC. In the cold cold cold spare bedroom. If I wanted to play a game I'd have to wrap up like a Michelin man. Unsurprisingly I fell out of the habit.

"I'm off to game!"

That's a major problem with games, they take up an entire living room. If you're playing, it's hard for someone else to be in the room doing something else. One of you will distract the other. There's a great shot of me playing Dead Space Extraction in the front room with headphones on, trying to be discreet. I managed to distract the housemates watching TV by flailing my arms around (physical attacks in the game) and jumping (scary bits).

The solution? There is none. Get headphones, get a PSP/DS... That's about it. You're then either still taking up the TV or playing on a much smaller screen. Players know you need a room, it's one of the prices of entry (you know, in addition to the actual prices for games/equipment themselves).

It also has an implication for how you go about playtesting games - natural environment (in the lab or in the players homes), familiar company (friends and family), etc, etc. This is a further blog post for another day though...

Coming up shortly - iPhone Pocket God playtest! oooooo...

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Context of game play is key - Part 1

The world needs me. I'm busy saving the world.

I'm mid-way through Final Fantasy 7, a game that blew me away last time I played it. As soon as I saw it on PSN I know I had to go back and play it all over again. I spent 2 late nights trying to coax PSN to accept my hacked PSP. It was hard, work, but I did it!

Final Fantasy 7. Great game. I clocked 70 hours when I first played it through the first time around on the PlayStation 1. Now I'm playing it again. I should be loving it, but I'm bored... it's not the same as last time. This time around, it's different. Things have changed, but what?


The PSP is (obviously) a different piece of equipment to PlayStation 1 - you play in totally different situations:

PS1 - Large screen, good sound, non-portable.
PSP - small screen, poor sound, portable.

I think this is the key problem. I now play the game in totally different situations than previously. The first time through it was only played in the front room. On my own, with a large screen dominating my vision, and with nothing else going on.

Playing on the PSP means I can play the game anywhere. This is both a blessing and a curse. It means I can play ANYWHERE! I've played whilst cooking, in front of the TV, whilst on the train... other things are going on around me. I'm not as wrapped up in the story as I once was, my attention is now split between the game and everything else occurring around me.

I can also drop out of the game whenever I want. I'm not obliged to listen to this or that cut scene, I don't need to stick with it to the next save point.

This problem is made worse because I often play the game without sound, so I don't interrupt people around me. I've removed one of the key affects the game has on me. Without sound I've now got to rely entirely on the visuals for atmosphere. But with a smaller screen as well as other things going on around me it's a lot harder than it once was.

What else has changed? Well...


I played through the game before, so this time I know what's going to happen. I can't remember the details, but the main arc and twists are still there. The story itself now seems at little melodramatic.

The result is that I'm not gripped as I was before. I can put it down and wander off whenever I need to. No more late homework (or work equivalent).

Summon spells

A common complaint I know, but the 'summon' spells can't be skipped. Whilst I found this a small price to pay to play the game last time, this time it's infinitely more annoying. Last time I had the storyline unfolding before me, this time I don't want to grind, I want to get to the story peaks asap. Why didn't the designers allow skipping? *sob* I'm a busy (ish) man! I've got no time to wait!