Easy Peasy

Over the last week or so I’ve had the good fortune to run up against differing judgments of what’s easy or straightforward in games.

When I’d finished the final chapter of my (forthcoming) book about playing the first screen of Machinarium I felt pretty pleased with myself. The book is meant to ease someone into playing video games, and Machinarium is a deeply charming game for achieving that. Not particularly hard, earnestly tries to explain itself, no time pressure, etc. And then a non-gamer colleague of mine tried out the game alongside the chapter and: meltdown.

So I had to revisit Machinarium to see if I was really explaining everything that happens sufficiently for someone who just doesn’t play games. And no, I wasn’t. Man, we gamers really assume a hell of a lot when we play games. Everything from being eagle-eyed enough to spot the helpful arrows the game puts up, to realising it’s okay to click things at random (in an Adventure game, anyway), that sometimes you have to click the same thing twice (like the bathtub), or how to combine objects in an inventory and use them in the world. It’s super complicated. I rewrote the chapter entirely and it ended up being almost three times as long in order to really explain what was going on in the game.

Even more important was the development of Safety Instructions lately. I had this whole idea of a “Nightmare Mode” which would be really challenging to keep up with. So I wrote what I thought were challenging texts with punctuation and awkward phrasing and a lot of characters. Then I played through it myself and it was pretty hard, but about right I thought. I had to type super fast, but when I was in rhythm I could finish a level with a second or so to spare. Except that, showing it to some testers, particularly Rilla, who’s a fast typist, it turned out to be flat out impossible. In this instance, it was just so easy to be blinded by the fact I was typing in sentences I’d made up myself – it made them easier to type, they had a familiar cadence to me, I knew them backwards, and so on. Surely this is true for most developers and their games – “it’s so easy! What’s the problem?” we ask.

It’s been fun to be on the “other side of the screen” for these two experiences. In the first place to see the differences between an established gamer and a newcomer, and in the second place to see the differences between being the person who developed a game as opposed to the people who play it. While in a perfect world it would somehow be possibly to maintain all views simultaneously, in practice it ain’t.

So thank goodness for testers of all kinds.

16 August 2011
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