There are two key skills to game design; predicting human behavior, and running the numbers. Games are played by humans, so predicting how they will react in the game (and how they will feel about the game) is absolutely key. That’s not something you can figure out just by calculating statistics, because people don’t always make the logical choice (or even play a game for the same reasons). On the other hand, you don’t want a system that can be broken and manipulated, so you also need to run some hard numbers and know your statistics. This is important both so that you can make sure that the most intuitive choice is also the most statistically viable choice, and to make sure that six months after release someone who does understand hard statistics doesn’t release a net list that dominates your meta.
A single game designer only needs one of these skills; but a game will need people with both skill sets to function. I’d like to think I’m capable of doing the tight rope walk between both of these skills, I would argue they’re pretty much the only two things I’m good at. Luckily, running a public beta falls very heavily into one of these areas: predicting behavior.
The past four months of public beta have been a hell of a ride. If a beta like this goes bad, it can go VERY bad. Every time I mentioned to another game designer that I was running a public beta, I always detected a little bit of a cringe. All too often it can just turn into a non-productive hate fest that nobody wants to talk about once it’s done. I think we can all agree that was not the case for the wave two testing, but why not?
First, I need to give credit to the community. You guys are awesome. The Malifaux community is one of the most mature, respectful gaming communities out there, and I don’t know if I could have pulled this off with another fan base. Also, I need to give credit to the hard working moderators who kept an eye on things.
That said, we are all gamers. We were all on the internet. And we all showed up to the beta to argue a point. Even with an amazing community, that can be a recipe for disaster, so I needed to get ahead of the game. I needed to provide an environment where the great community we had could live up to its full potential.
First and most importantly, I set a schedule and I stuck to it. Updates would come once a week, every week, on the same day. This is something I instituted in the Showdown playtest, insisted on continuing during the wave 1 beta, and kept up here. Updates for this beta came every Tuesday. Even the day was no accident. I poled a number of people behind the scenes and found that Monday was the most convenient day for a beta update (followed by Tuesday). Unfortunately, Monday didn’t work for me, because most playtest games are played over the weekend and I don’t even see them until Monday, so Tuesday became update day. This gave me enough time to input the data, and gave the player base enough time to digest the rules before their games on the weekend. I stuck to this schedule rain or shine, posting updates on Christmas Eve and New Years Eve. I did post two updates at odd times in the morning the day before my daughter was born and the day we came home from the hospital (yes, we spent a week in the hospital, that was fun) but that was pretty much the only thing I let get in my way.
I kept to such a strict schedule because a predictable schedule is probably the best behavior management tool you can ever have. When people don’t know when things will happen, they get antsy and, worse, they get bored. People *want* to be productive but, if they can’t have that, they’ll always settle for a little destruction. I can’t point to examples of this in the beta because I didn’t let it happen but, after five years with the school district, I can assure you it would have (and no, I’m not comparing you to children. It’s just how people are. I’m the same way. How many horror stories start out, “So, I was bored one day…” Internet flame wars are no different.)
My next most powerful tool was allowing people to feel heard. I accomplished this in a number of ways. The first and most effective way to allow people to be heard in the beta was simply to put in the changes they were asking for. How many of you can proudly point to an ability and say, “That was my idea!” That’s an awesome feeling, even if you were just pushing for a slightly lower/higher stat. I say that this is the easiest way because…it’s the entire point of the beta. People showed up to influence the game, allowing them to see that influence kept the beta a positive experience. It’s what I wanted, and it’s what the players wanted (efficiency!). Now, that’s all well and fine when the ideas people were pushing were good. Obviously, that can’t always be the case. However, more than once I put a change in I knew would probably be removed just so people could tell I was listening, and try it out for themselves (and, hey, sometimes I was wrong and those things stuck).
Of course, sometimes I reached a point where this wouldn’t work. The suggestions were too varied or there wasn’t enough time to test things I knew might be dead ends. In these instances I jumped in, brain stormed with the community, and did a “mid-week update.” Basically, I tried to distill what people were saying and actively worked with them to come up with something when there wouldn’t normally be an update. This was beneficial when there were a lot of voices going in different directions. It focused the discussion and made it more productive, rather than simply allowing fifty different lines of argument to continue until there could be an update (which is obviously a recipe for negativity).
My final tool for allowing people to feel listened to was to simply…respond to them. I know this may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many professionals just don’t respond to emails or private messages. I tried to always respond (admittedly, at the height of the beta, with my daughter being born and spending a week in the hospital, I probably missed a few). Of course, I didn’t just wait for people to reach out to me. If I wanted a better understanding of where someone was coming from, I messaged them.
No matter how you do it, letting people know that they are being listened to is incredibly important. Because if they feel like they’re just yelling at a wall, they’ll get frustrated, worked up, and then just start yelling at each other.
My next tool was preventing escalation by hyperbole. Escalation by hyperbole is something you see a lot on the internet. One person comes in saying, “Yan Lo is a little weak.” The next person responds, “I’ve never seen him lose!” Cut to ten pages later and one guy claims Yan Lo shoots lasers out of his eyes and levels Tokyo on the weekends, and the other guy is claiming that Yan Lo is the worst model ever made and if he goes to print like this he will melt his models down into a point and jam them into his eye because at least then they’ll be able to deal damage. This sort of progression is terrible for the beta, both because it gets people insulting each other, and because it seriously dilutes feedback. I combated this sort of escalation in two ways.
First, I put a lot of emphasis on battle reports. This kept the discussion on hard facts (VP differences, models killed, etc). Hyperbole is a lot more difficult with the truth sitting in front of you. It also gave either side an “out” if they got into a hyperbole war. They could always just politely say, “Well, I’d like to see the battle report.” Of course, keep in mind, I’m only commenting from a community management point of view, battle reports were incredibly useful for a myriad of other reasons (which made them all the more efficient).
Secondly, I put a stop to the escalation when I saw it, and I never allowed any one thread to carry on too long. Usually, if I locked a thread where this sort of thing was happening, neither party bothered starting a new thread. The battle ground had been closed, and both parties wandered away. Granted, not every thread I closed had this problem, but any thread that goes on too long runs this risk, so I made a habit of pruning them. (This also made it easier for me to read feedback. Again, we’re back to efficiency. If you want to run a public beta by yourself, efficiency is something you’re probably going to want to keep coming back to).
Another great tool was recognizing passion for what it was. Sure, a lot of the time that passion was frustration pointed at me. And on occasion I got frustrated right back, and I had to say sorry once or twice. But, at it’s core, everyone was there for the love of the game. If I could take that passion and let people legitimately help influence the game, I won twice. I had one less person unhappy with me, and one more person helping me.
Finally, I encouraged people to give me feedback privately if they wanted. This allowed a number of people who weren’t comfortable with the forums to have a say. Opening this line of communication was very important. It allowed me to get feedback I may have otherwise missed out on while also preventing other, less productive, communication.
For most of the beta, I tried to maintain my distance. I didn’t want my opinions influencing feedback. If I came in and told people how to use a model, that’s how they would use it. Unfortunately, the players who get that model a year from now won’t have me sitting at their table telling them what to do. So, to a certain extent, I needed to let people struggle to see where the system broke. On the other hand, I sometimes needed to pop in and say, “test this.” Or, “calm down guys, here is the story…” When I worked for the school district I had a teacher who told me, “Everything is a moment in time, and you will need to make a judgment call. You won’t always be right, but you do need to make a call. Learn from it either way.” I definitely heard that voice in my head a lot during the beta.
Of course, there was a lot more to the beta. I didn’t even touch on…game design. Or analyzing data, or managing my time, or, well, a lot of things. But I think this beta was unique in how positive it was, and I wanted to spill some light on how I worked towards that. And, again, most of the credit goes to you guys. I provided an environment where the community could be productive, but you’re the ones who did it.
Anyway, this whole process was a great experience, so I want to wrap this up with a sneak preview of one of the first masters on which I had some say on the art direction and character.
(Click image to enlarge)
Sleep Now In The Fire…