Monday, June 28, 2010

Focus Tests

Ugh, time flies so fast. Been so busy lately. But I figured I might as well post again before I get bruised up from all the pokes I've been getting lately for neglecting this page! I'll have to tell you what I've been up to in my next post. For now, I might as well finish this draft that has been sitting here for months!

When I was studying at the Ubisoft Campus, one of my design teachers' main job (when not teaching) was running focus tests. He had this big team to perform the tests and I thought it seemed a bit of an overkill. Then a few months ago, I had to organize and run my first focus test. Was I ever glad he had explained to us how he used to run his. At the end of the test, I had to admit that not only everything he did in his tests was justified, but the wealth of information you could gather was unbelievable.

We wanted to assess the difficulty and appeal of a new feature we're about to put in the game for the 5-12 year old players. Usually, booking a room and getting it all setup for your needs seems to be the toughest part as everyone and their brother always want the same room you need. But in this instance, that was cakewalk. The toughest parts were:

- Rounding up enough kids (boys and girls) of the right age group
- Putting together a good test for us that would also retain their interest
- Coming up with a comprehensive (but non-leading) questionnaire

When the kids arrived, I remember getting a major knot in my stomach. As I'm the only woman on the team, the guys all decided (without consulting me!) that I would be the best suited to deal with the kids! I love kids but have none of my own and have never taken care of so many at once. Fortunately, they were the very receptive "I don't need to cling to my momma's skirt or start crying for nothing in the presence of strangers" type. I was more nervous than they were. They were just eager to start playing :P

Quick explanation of what the test was about. Insert a few "there are no bad answers or performance" type speech, then we're ready to start. I was nearly pulling my hair in the first few minutes. The kids were so impatient that while I was logging them in, they would start hitting random keys on their keyboard or click that little X at the right corner, or refresh their screen... So yeah, I had to log a few of them back in, 2-3 times in a row! >.<

Eventually, we're all there and ready to roll. The kids start playing and remembering my teacher's description of his own tests, I start moving from one kid to the other, observing their reaction, body language, unconsciously spoken words, comfort (or lack thereof!) with the mouse, etc. It was incredibly revealing.

The boys were extremely vocal. So you didn't need to be next to them as much to know if they were happy or annoyed. A lot of mumbling (both positive and negative), heavy sighs of exasperation or shouts of triumph. The girls on the other hand were a lot quieter. They just focused on their task and their frustration or happiness was usually shortly displayed on their face: a short pout, a pleased smile. While the guys would flat out ask how long they have to keep doing this or if they can stop when they would get annoyed, girls would simply get restless on their chair or looking around to see if others had stopped, thus making it okay for them to stop too.

Performing the one-on-one post-test interview helped clarify a few things, but nothing imho was more revealing than their body language. But more importantly, I got a whole new respect for play tests because of all the things you take for granted but that isn't so obvious for your players. The most eye opening one was regarding chat.

We had a 6 yo girl trying to answer a 9 yo girl who had asked her a question in chat. The 6 yo was taking forever to type. Her spelling being very limited, she was trying to type things phonetically. Since we had a very strict language filter to protect the kids, half the words the 6 yo typed were being rejected, making it even harder for her. By the time she was ready to hit send, the 9 yo had tired of waiting and walked away. The 6 yo was so depressed, it was heartbreaking.

Other silly things such as the kids don't play this specific mini-game not because they don't like it but because it requires a dexterity with the mouse that their tiny hand doesn't have. Just slowing it down a little changed it from frustratingly hard to fun and exciting. The funniest thing though was this girl staring at her screen for a few minutes then clearly starting to be annoyed. When we asked what was the problem, she said "it's broken, it's been loading forever". When we asked why she thought it was loading, she pointed to the progress bar of the challenge she was working on and surely enough it looked a lot like a loading bar though it wasn't!

I'm now a strong believer in focus tests. But like in every other type of survey, when trying to interpret the results, you need to be as objective as possible and not try to make them say what you want instead of what really is. In the end, it's all about adjusting the game in a way that will make it appealing and enjoyable for the players.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Ancient History

Airmid asked a question that I (and I'm sure many other designers before and after me) have had to contend with in the course of their careers. "What would you do to help a content designer who is not completely familiar with the history of a game but has great intentions however marred by inaccuracies as they may be?" Short answer: he needs to do his homework.

Now for the longer answer...

We all know the saying about good intentions and the road to Hell. Depending on the game and the length of its history, I believe you should set some realistic goals as far as how much catching up you can do and then go at it. In a game like UO, there is simply no way someone who just started working on it (and never played it before) will ever be able to grasp the full depth of UO's history and legacy. That doesn't mean they shouldn't try nor should they feel defeated by the enormity of the challenge.

History is just that. Something that happened in the past and no longer is. The new designers shouldn't try to replicate the past but feed off of it. Learn from its successes and mistakes to give the game their own fresh new spin. History is a tool to help understand the community and the vision that drove the designers of old.

The developing studio and the veteran members of the team are often a wealth of information on the game. In a game like UO that has traveled so much and with so many changes in Dev Teams, information gets lost. But in truth, I always found that the greatest information actually came from the fan sites. And I have first hand experience of that.

In late November 2008, Draconi had told me that as soon as I was done with the Christmas gifts and events, I was going to scale down my involvement in Live to really focus on developing content for the Stygian Abyss expansion. He asked me what exactly did I know about the Stygian Abyss. And as I started fumbling through a lame answer, I realized that I didn't know didely squat about SA and not that much more about the Ultima Series because it has always been about UO for me.

I was beyond embarrassed and angry at my own ignorance. Draconi was very gracious about it. He didn't understand why I was beating myself up over it and very patiently gave me a quick run down of the story and asked me to start thinking of what kind of content I could come up with for it. Well, I felt humiliated and angry because I should have known better. Because I had known for over 5 months already that I would be joining the effort on the SA expansion. I should have asked myself that question long ago and done something about it. I should have been proactive, but I had not.

Guess what I did over the Holidays? I pulled up every web page, every fan site I could find on SA. Even got a copy of the game, but it wouldn't run on any of my PCs. By the time the Holidays were over, I knew the darn thing backward and forward and could even have filled some of the blanks for Draconi. Having finally done my homework not only made my job much easier, I was more help to my Lead as well and it gave me tons of inspiration for the content I developed (including the pushme-pullyou statuette for the stealable items).

Not every game has such a devoted community as UO does. But most online games (and even offline ones) have very well documented fan sites with old quests, world scenario walkthroughs, skill training guides, template discussions, game history, you name it. A designer that truly wishes to learn is only limited by how much time he's willing to invest towards that achievement. First, he needs to play the game. Second, read up everything he can get his hands on (again, set a schedule with realistic goals and milestones). Talk with the players. I have a few UO friends that are walking UO bibles and databases.

You can't learn everything about a game with a long history over night. But with genuine, reasonably paced effort, no mountain is too high.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Day One

There's nothing like starting a new job. I don't know if you're like me, but the night prior, even though I know Day One is usually mostly uneventful, I inevitably get a sleepless night of tossing and turning and reminding myself how not to mess up. And then the day is over and you're like "what the heck was I so nervous about?". But sometimes, like today, you get your first test which could very well set the tone for the next weeks, months or even the remainder of your stay at that specific job.

In truth, I kinda hate Day One. First, morning sucks big time. It's the never ending HR paperwork, presentations and what not, going over benefits, bla bla bla (yawn) then visiting the studio. To be fair, it was exciting the first time when I was discovering some cool and unexpected benefits. But in my case, I left EA in the US to join EA in Montreal (GO HABS, GO!). I had already visited the Montreal Studio, I already knew what the benefits were (though there are some minor differences, especially because of our different healthcare system) and I had already gone through the presentation about EA and its history. It was interesting though watching the reaction and excitement of the true newcomers.

But I was itching to meet my new team, settle into my new workspace and get cracking on the project!

Then came afternoon and I got my wish! WOOT!

I must say that I love smaller teams. That was one of the great things about UO (despite the downsides that also comes with it). But I find them so much more efficient than huge teams. There's less dicking around waiting for everyone and their brother (not to mention the janitor) to give their 2 cents about everything, only to get back to square one because we couldn't get a clear majority on anything :P

Small teams are all the greater when the members have compatible personalities. So far, it sure seems that way (did too during the interview). I'm keeping my fingers (heck even my toes!) crossed that it stays that way!

I was itching to get cracking, and cracking I got! After the smooth sail of the orientation morning and friendly lunch with the producer, I got my first assignment. Three hours later, the executive producer came knocking to see how I was doing so far. We have big week in perspective and what I'm working on will play a non-negligible part of it. My breath catches, I swallow painfully as my heart starts beating erratically.

Moment of truth...

He will either think I'm brilliant or wonder why the heck he hired such a moron. I guess I could settle for a third option where he thinks I'm alright. But who wants to settle? :(

Both the executive producer and the producer are standing in the room staring expectantly at me. I dive in and start giving my spiel. By the time I'm halfway through, I get an approving nod. I breathe a little better. My monologue then turns into a 3-way brainstorm expanding on one of the suggestions I had proposed to resolve an issue. By the time we're done, the executive producer tells me with a smile to keep doing what I'm doing then they both leave.

It lasted barely 10 minutes though it seemed like forever. Then the weight of the world got lifted off my shoulders.

In the end, I don't know whether they thought I was brilliant or not and frankly it doesn't matter. I realized at that moment that as long as they don't think I'm a moron, I will gladly settle for doing alright :P

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Wow, it's been a while! I guess I've been a busy bee. A lot of it had to do with planning my move back to Canada (woohoo!) but interviewing for my next job certainly ate a big chunk of my time. I have to say interviewing sucks, especially once you enter the professional field. And the higher up the ladder you are, the tougher it gets. But there are ways to make things a little easier.

Saying you must do research on the company you're applying for isn't just a cliche. It is VERY important, especially in the gaming field. It not only gives you insight as to what the project you could end up working on is about, but also informs you as to what their other games are and their quality (or lack thereof!).

Keep in mind that an interview is a 2-way street, except that your side is narrower than theirs. The company is trying to assess if you're THE right candidate, but you too have to determine if it's an environment and/or project to which you want to devote the next few years of your life. So while the studio ultimately decides if you get the job, if you didn't do your homework and accept a job that wasn't necessarily the right fit for you, you may end up very miserable. If you're not happy in your job, chances are your performance will suffer, and with that so will your evaluation, your chances at promotions, and in an industry where everyone knows everyone, it could even hinder your ability to land the right job elsewhere.

Being a game designer doesn't mean you are the right candidate for every design job. Even a great chef will not just waltz into a kitchen and pretend he can cook any type of food. Everyone has their specialty and that's where doing your homework will save you from a painful interview. Look up the studio's games. Play them then ask yourself some of the questions they are likely to ask, such as:

1. Have you played our games? Which one do you like best and why?
2. What did you like the least and why?
3. How would you improve the features you disliked?
4. What other games of that genre have you played?
5. In your opinion, what are the most important features for this type of game?

These are just the basic warm up questions. If you're having a hard time answering those, you're already in trouble as the really tough ones are yet to come. If you haven't played any games in the genre you're applying for, then you should consider applying elsewhere. It's not only that you don't know and understand the preferences of the community, but it's mostly the fact that it didn't appeal to you enough to play it for fun. How can you design well for something you don't care much for?

Now the part I absolutely detest is the design test. Not every studio will give you one (thank God!). You normally have a week to complete it (and you will need it, especially if you're working full-time during the day). It starts off with a bunch of question to assess your knowledge of the gaming world (usually around the genre you're interviewing for), questions on your own professional accomplishments in the industry, questions about your knowledge of the game itself (if it's already released like in the case of an MMO) and finally a design question where you have to create a quest or mission based on parameters provided in the test.

That last one is a real pain. Some studios will only ask you to write a general outline of the quest. That's not bad. But some will ask that you also give a fully detailed level design of the quest with visual support that would be good enough to proceed directly to implementation. While I understand how these give the studio a good idea of your design and documentation skills, it does bother me a bit as it feels like I'm doing free design work for them.

And the same is true when interviewing in person. Sometimes you will be asked how would you resolve a very specific issues currently affecting their game. Be prepared that they could end up using your solution even if you don't get the job. Giving such freebies or not is up to you, but the quality of your answers certainly increases your chances. Just don't give away all your best ideas when asked what would you add to the game. Give them good ones with just enough details to pique their interest. Save some of the better ones for the 2nd or 3rd interview. And keep the awesome ones for when you actually get the job :P

Interviews are always tough and a bit nerve wracking, but if you're going for a genre that you love, your passion, knowledge and enthusiasm will shine through and carry you. Just make sure you don't burn bridges with previous employers. You wouldn't want to pass all the interview process with flying colors only to lose the job because you couldn't provide positive references!

Good job hunting!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Money Talks

In my last entry, I was defending the right for people to spend their money however they see fit, especially when it comes to entertainment. It doesn't matter that others find that extravagant or silly. As long as it makes you happy and isn't hurting your budget, why not? To this I received a comment from Greypawn saying that I just made a pretty solid case in favor of RMTs (Real Money Transactions). I was going to post a comment in response but as it would be too long for a mere comment, I decided to make a full entry.

So my short answer is "I am not against some form of RMTs, but..."

RMTs can be extremely detrimental:

1. Newbies bypass the much needed learning curve
2. You have nothing to thrive for: you already bought it
3. It's a breeding ground for scammers, dupers and hackers
4. It attracts bots/scripters, resource farmers, gold spammers
5. It ruins the natural balance of the game's economy

Those are the main points (that I can think of off the top of my head) but each has a slew of other negative consequences attached to them.

A newbie buys a uber account, fully geared, prime real estate and a couple hundred millions. But he gets frustrated that he can't solo the peerless bosses though the seller said he soloed them with those characters. Difference is, the seller had skills. That cannot be bought. It's learned over time. Going back to fight weaker creatures to slowly master your skills when you're already way too powerful makes it very boring.

People usually buy things that are hard to obtain, painful to harvest or highly desirable. If your ultimate goal was to own a castle, you could spend months/years slowly saving your gold to eventually acquire your heart's desire and then a couple more years of saving to buy the rares that will decorate it. Or, you could spent $1500-$2000 real life money on a castle and a few more hundreds on some rares and get it all within a month. The former took maybe a few years to get it all. The latter got everything he wanted within a few weeks. Will he still be playing in 3 months from now?

The minute you involve real cash, the worse always comes out of too many people and greed gets the best of them. Over my 12 years in UO, I've seen people stoop to the lowest of the low just for a few dollars. Betrayed long time friendships (even real life ones), creative scams, hacks and credit card fraud just so they can get their hands on your stuff and make a buck off it.

Then you have those who will not scam or hack, but who will script their little hearts out running bots to farm gold or resources. Those who will convince others to let them dupe their valuables or worse give a cut to hackers who let them dupe their stolen items. Problem is that be it a dupe or a bot, an unnatural amount of items, resources and gold suddenly enter the economy. Way more than the economy was meant to be able to absorb. And once many see how much money can be made, competition kicks in. Price wars soon begin and before long the currency is so devalued that the legit players can't even sell the resources they acquired the proper way because the dupers and bots are underselling at a 10th of their normal value.

But because so much gold is now in the market, everything costs 50 million. It makes a HUGE barrier to entry for newbies and almost forces legit players to buy gold just so they too can afford what they want. It doesn't matter that gold is cheap. Players shouldn't be forced into that situation. And designers spend ridiculous amount of time trying to counter the actions of such dupers, hackers, scammers and bots and trying to fix the ruined economy. All time that could have been spent fixing bugs or developing new content.

In a case of a theme park game (like WoW or most of the other level based games), RMTs are even more damaging that how long you will continue playing their game relies on a thoroughly planned progression. The entire game is leveling and acquiring gear. If you buy an account with all/most characters already at level 80 and fully geared, then there is absolutely no reason for you to play. Unless you want to camp the PvP instances which can actually be a lot of fun.

With all that said, how can I be "somewhat in favor" of RMTs? Until bots and duping can be eradicated, I don't think any game should officially support RMTs. But if that was achieved, then I would encourage the game to provide an official system to complete RMTs to eliminate scams and fraud. I don't have a problem with a newbie buying 5 million to get himself a decent suit, pay for his insurance and even placing a small 7x7 in the woods. It makes the first steps easier. I wouldn't begrudge a crafter, whose life is all about merchanting, spending a thousand or so buying a Luna house so his business can be even more booming.

Basically, as long as it helps you enjoy playing the game more but not bypass the purpose of the game, then as a player (and a fierce advocate of free choice), I say sure! But as a developer, I'm more inclined to say a big fat no!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Tight Shoes

In the world of entertainment, there is no such thing as one size fits all. There's a hat for every head (well ok, most heads) and a shoe for every foot. While everyone needs shoes, not everyone will invest the same amount in the pairs they buy. I love comfy shoes, but I wouldn't sink $500 in a single pair. Yet I know people that do and it makes them happy. Question is, how much do you spend on yours and how much do you think others should spend on theirs?

Why am I talking about shoes? Not because I've got a shoe fetish, hardly. I just love making random comparisons :P

This post is in fact about a conversation I had with a long time friend of mine over the Holidays. When I lived in Montreal, my best friend Claudy and I had made it a tradition to hit up the Casino once in while (usually once every other month) and we played the Roulette. We each had a budget of $150, sometimes $200. We pooled our money together and most of the time we came out on top. Our best winnings actually were of $2800. Over the Holidays, between dinners and get togethers, we managed to squeeze in a visit to the Casino.

We lost...

So I was talking with my friend Caroline and the subject came up. She was flabbergasted that we "blew money at the Casino". I was surprised that she was so shocked. I asked what's the big deal? We lost and we weren't upset. Disappointed because winning is always nice but we didn't dwell on it nor shed a tear over it. But she went on about how silly it is to give away your money at the Casino, you can't win, people lose their houses over it, not to mention their marriage, life, etc.

I'm like woah! Back up! We're not addicts. We went there with an amount that we were comfortable to spend on our entertainment, win or lose. But she was just hung up on the fact that Claudy and I went in with $400 total and came out with $0 after a few hours.

So I told her: last summer, you and your bf spent $500 on a pair of tickets for the Grand Prix. You sat, under the sun on uncomfortable benches, listening to the very loud sound of the cars speeding around the track, and watching most of the race on a giant screen because most of the time the cars were too far or blocked from view. And you paid outrageous prices for watered down beer and popcorn in the stands. Paid overpriced parking spots and had to deal with the painful downtown traffic. Total money spent: about $650. I watched the exact same race, for free, on my giant flat screen, in the comfort of my own home, drinking and eating quality beverages and foods. As much as I enjoy F1 Racing, I would never spend that kind of money on it.

The same is true of people who spend fortunes on collectibles, for certain shows and concerts, games, cars and car enhancements, shopping, decadent restaurants, you name it. I mean, some people spend thousands of dollars on stamps! I don't get it! But the important thing is that I don't need to. It's their shoes. They're the ones walking in it. That shoe wouldn't fit me, but if it fits them, more power to them! Let them enjoy it!

Establishing the cost of the form of entertainment you seek, accepting it and being at peace with it is the most important step to enjoying it. You could spend $6000 on a 2-week trip to Hawaii or hook yourself up with a really nice home theater that will last you for years. Each choice is as valid as the next. While that choice will be easy for some, it will be extremely difficult for others because both shoes fit and both are as appealing to them.

Transpose this to the game world... Why do players spend millions in gold or real life cash purchasing rare virtual items? I don't know. I never spent cash on rares but there was a time I used to spend millions in gold on them. Today, I don't get the people that still do, yet I used to be one of them. But if it's worth it to them, who am I to tell them otherwise? Some people use the game as a chat room. I wouldn't pay money just to sit at a bank typing my little heart out. To each their own. Others will pay just so they can kill (and be killed by) other players. Is that any stranger than someone who pays to tend virtual plants, raise virtual fishes and chickens? Or build and decorate a house they will never be able to physically set foot in?

Why did I pay for five accounts for so many years? Couldn't I fit all my needs into a single one? Maybe, if I had tried hard enough. But I didn't try or want to for that matter. Because those shoes were a perfect fit, incredibly comfy and worth every penny.

Monday, December 21, 2009

In Excess

Usually, when you eat something really good, you almost feel sorry you're eating the last bite because it was so good you could indulge some more. But sometimes, you'll get something awesome yet as you get closer to the end, and while it's still good as it was when you first started, you just don't enjoy it as much. In fact, you actually start thinking it's good but it needs to end. That's when you know you had too much and as the saying goes, too much of a good thing can definitely be a bad thing.

What got me writing this? The latest game I've been playing: Dragon Age. For any RPG fan, that game is seriously bad ass. I cannot remember the last time I've so thoroughly enjoyed a game. And I mean the "counting the work hours left before I can go back home to resume my game" enjoyable. The story was awesome, the characters were fantastic, the world looked gorgeous, the gameplay, UI, enemy AI, you name it, got a big fat thumbs up from me. Obviously, the game had some flaws, but compared to its successes, they barely qualify as footnotes.

The problem? The game is extremely long. So long in fact that at some point, after completing a main quest segment when another quest chapter opened, I thought "are you serious?" I didn't know whether to be thrilled or annoyed because I was ready for dessert. There were just a few too many courses to that meal and my tummy was rather full at that point. Not only were there many chapters, but most of them were very long as well and had extensive literature.

It's somewhat strange to be complaining that I got too much for my money. But that game clearly displayed to me one of the things I struggle with the most as a designer (and even as a blogger!): moderation. How long should an event be? How many rewards should you give? How much text/journal/dialogs is needed for the players to they really understand what's going on? This is especially challenging with chain quests. I know players don't want to stop every 5 minutes to read a novel. So putting out journals and scrolls that give clues and some of the background story is difficult. It has to give enough but not be so long that players go "argh!" every time they stumble on a new journal.

The same is true with monsters. How many monsters should a player grind through before they reach their destination? If your goal is to simply fight a boss, do you really need to systematically walk through miles and miles of dungeon slaying various levels of mobs to reach him? Reaching a boss should be difficult but there are other ways which do not need to be a grind.

In the end, I much rather get too much than feel ripped off, but just enough is always best! The fact is there is A LOT of journals and books and what not to read in that game. It breaks the rythm, so in that sense I found it annoying and often just skipped right through a lot of it. But after I finished the game, I went back and started reading them and they are honestly worth it.

That said, I've had players complain some of my events were too long (the Death of the Council was one prime example). Yet I thought the length was just perfect and quite a few players felt the same as well. I guess it just goes to show that we don't all have the same appetite!