So, we’re sending out “Austen Translation” for initial play testing. This is a time of both delight and horror. It’s delightful in that people are actually *playing* our game, which is great! And they’re sending back suggestions and commenting and giving us fresh insight into gameplay, pacing, and tone, and that’s all amazing! But it’s also a little horrifying because we *know* there are things that aren’t working and we know that there are big fixes still to be made, but you can’t wait till you think it’s perfect before you send a game out for play testing. It would never leave the nest. So it’s time to push our squawking, squealing little fledgeling out of the nest. Yes, right now.
We like to embrace a hands-off approach to play testing. New players are generally given only a short soundbite about the goals of the game and set free to muddle their way through a round. There is no tutorial. It can be very informative to watch a fresh player figure out how your game works through trial and error. When they grok things right off, you know you’re in the ballpark. When multiple players make the same mistakes or experience the same frustrations, it can be a sign that what you thought was intuitive or obvious really isn’t. After play, there’s generally an informal discussion to capture impressions and suggestions.
In addition to our usual cadre of industry folks and insiders — who are great for technical and higher-level commentary and understand the process well — we invited a few more “civilians” into the play testing mix this round. We were particularly interested in getting the game into the hands of female players, players slightly older than the predictable demographic, and folks with a literary background. The game was also made available at the recent Playcrafting Spring Play Game Expo event here in Boston, which brought a wide range of players and sparked a lot of lively discussion. We want to thank the Playcrafting folks for the opportunity to get “Austen” out in front of their audience.
One of the hardest parts of play testing effectively is interpreting the feedback you receive. Often feedback is couched in terms of specific recommendation (“A should be B”) which you may or may not agree with at this very moment. It can be helpful to avoid a binary “we’re going to accept or deny this recommendation” and look beyond the suggestion to the issue which sparked the suggestion in the first place. Specific play tester requests can be symptoms of deeper issues which could be better addressed by fixing the underlying problem instead.
There’s also a constant natural tension between wanting to hear and respond to your testers, and the necessity of maintaining the integrity of your original vision for the game. Group processes tend to be biased toward knocking the quirky sharp edges off products, but sometimes — just sometimes — those edges are precisely what make a game experience unique and memorable.
It’s come to that exciting (and terrifying) moment in the development of “Austen Translation” when we get to give the ending sequence a little love. Endings — in games and in literature — are tricky beasts since they need to check a lot of boxes. They need to feel earned, organic, satisfying to the player or reader, and a bit unexpected. And it’s in the balance between surprise and inevitability that the art of crafting a “good” ending lies. Too much surprise and it feels like it’s a conclusion out of left field. Too much inevitability and players see it coming a mile away and your suspense is shot.
Complicating the “Austen” ending problem is our aim to keep the number-crunching that’s going on under the hood, well, under the hood. We made a conscious design choice at the start of the project to downplay the spreadsheet aspects in favor of a more literary, narrative gameplay flow. But without showing players some obvious objective standard the game is using to judge winners and losers, we ran the risk of making the strategy elements feel like window dressing.
After a few iterations, we’ve decided to experiment with a hybrid approach which enthusiastically embraces both story and statistic, just not at the same time. At the end of each round, the player gets to see the “story” ending that happens to her heroine. This gives their story journey a sense of completion while maintaining a certain “literary” distance from the math that determined their result. By building out a pool of stock unsuccessful endings to draw from, we can offer players endings which seem fresh and integral to their stories each time they play.
Once the player’s individual story has come to a conclusion — either in glorious victory or punishing defeat — the round ends with a statistical table laying out how each of the players did and what each of the bachelors was looking for. An objective document of the round.
By placing it at the very end, outside of the narrative flow, we hope to provide players with feedback on their round without breaking their sense of a continuous narrative. Then, armed with some hard, cold facts about why they won, or didn’t, they can plunge back in to tackle new Austenian challenges and woo new Austenian bachelors.
Worthing and Moncrieff, LLC is an independent developer of video game stories founded in 2015.