Start testing, already!

With any creative project, you’ll need someone to take a fresh look at it and provide some qualified feedback at some point. This applies to game design, architecture, movie making and any complex creative undertaking. Even small-scale testing will help bring issues to the surface, which when addressed will increase the quality of the final product.

Unfortunately, it’s incredibly easy to put off testing. After all it requires recruitment and wrangling of testers, maybe even some material, test cases and documentation for them to follow. Then comes recording the feedback in a way that allows you to track what comes of it, your progress. If you are new to the process, it may be a tough lesson to learn that your baby isn’t perfect. You will need to get over that and start seeing the value in constructive criticism. Still, testing is a daunting task and often procrastinated or postponed.

With Torgar’s Quest, I waited until late in the alpha phase before starting to actively recruit testers. My early approach was to contact a few select friends directly, asking them to take a look. I got some decent feedback this way, but not a lot of it. I also made a few public calls for testers, but got nothing worthwhile from there. I don’t have a huge fan base to pull from, but if you do, that’s probably a good place to start.

My friend Kristian helped test the game and submitted this screenshot taken one turn before winning the game.

My friend Kristian helped test Torgar’s Quest and submitted this screenshot, taken one turn before winning the game.

What you do not want is a team of yes-men, whose approach to testing is pointing out all the things that are cool about your game. It’s great to get compliments, but testing is about finding flaws and making suggestions, not boosting your ego.

It was when I added a global leaderboard and posted a “friends only” link to a build on Facebook (of all places), that something magical happened. A few friends, who all know something about both gaming and software development, started competing with each other for the highest score on the leaderboard – feeding me their observations and bug reports as they went. Suddenly, I had a long list of things I needed to fix, tweak or add. Awesome!

Takeaway: it’s easier to get a lot of testing done, if you can tie it to any kind of event. Even if that event is a pseudo-exclusive friendly competition for early leaderboard spots.

What they found

Here is what the leaderboard looked like, right after Kristian won the game.

Here is what the leaderboard looked like, right after Kristian (Fenton) won the game.

When savvy people start poking at your game, they will find things. By savvy, I mean people who know what to look for. You may need to provide a little guidance up front, if testing is new to them.

They will find improvements that are right there in front of you. Simple changes that will elevate the overall experience, but you just never thought of them. For Torgar’s Quest, they suggested a limit to the amount of food Torgar can carry. This introduced a new layer of resource management to the game, and upped the fun.

They also pointed out that if Torgar is already holding a potion, new ones should remain where found. This way, they become a resource you can return to later, if you run into trouble (you can only carry one potion at a time).

They will force you to clean up your code. They found a memory leak of the worst kind. If the game ran on long enough, the whole thing would crash and you’d lose all progress. Which sucks. With a bit of investigation and help to reproduce it, the testers helped narrow down where it came from, and it could be fixed with a single line of code.

They will show you that not everything is as obvious and intuitive as you thought. For example, they may suggest you fix a bug that was meant as a feature.

This feedback can offer great insight for adding tutorials or for changing things that don’t work. In testing, it was not obvious to everyone that eating food gave Torgar health back. Not knowing this obviously makes the game much harder to play.

It’s important that the testers know how to report their findings. Mine were great at sharing screenshots and steps to reproduce what they found, though the actual feedback was mainly reported as comments in a Facebook post. I then copied the feedback I wanted to incorporate from the comments to Trello, my project management tool of choice for Torgar’s Quest. Obviously this approach only works for smaller projects. For a bigger test pass, I would have testers log bugs and suggestions directly to a database.

If you are working on a game (or other applicable project), do yourself a favor and start testing now. Do it in sprints of a week or two, gather intel, and you’ll have a ton of improvements to your already beautiful baby. Time to squash some bugs.

You can download Torgar’s Quest alpha via IndieDB (free,PC/Windows).

The Fork in the Road

I’m at a fork in the road. Truthfully, I’ve been standing here a while, for several months in fact. One direction is lit up in bright neon. Down this road lies ambition, dreams and risk alike. The other is murkier, but I can sort of make out an alarm clock and getting old before my time. All my life, I have wanted to create and build things, from songs and photographs to a self-sustaining business. Creating jobs for other people is high on my wish list too. You’d think choosing a path would be easy, but it turns out, it’s not.

Creatively, I have reached the point where I really should hire a part time assistant, because my projects get more and more complex, as my ambition grows. Which is great, and the way it should go. Another Passion is the best example. What started as a side project grew into a priority, and instead of a one-man creativity blog, I wanted to build an Arts & Culture site with multiple contributors and high quality content, as well as a framework through which other, original projects could take root. And all of that is happening, slowly but surely. It’s pretty awesome.

But. Other things have made me reconsider many a plan and ambition. Most importantly Kelly’s cancer, the treatments and the toll all of that has taken on our household. A situation that makes life difficult, even if you’re not trying to make your own way and build a business. It’s made me realize, that if I really want to go down the neon lit path of risk and possible wonder, I need a better plan – and help.

Of course, while I’m busy working on said plan, Life keeps happening.

Kelly is not out of the woods yet, which means I still have to focus on supporting her more than anything. It’s not a chore or a duty, it’s a privilege, but it does drain a lot of energy of both the physical and emotional variety. I channel most of what I have left into Another Passion. And when there is nothing left at all, I hop on Minecraft and take a mental vacation.

On tough days, you might find me here in the Clearview Lounge, hanging in the bar or at the jukebox.

While standing at this fork in the road, I have been living off of my savings – leftovers from selling my apartment last year. There is still a little left, but not enough for another year of living like this. So I need to get that plan done, get my ducks in a row and buckle up (and whatever other clichés you can fit in) – or dial it all back and focus on work that pays me, instead of being paid for by me. But I’m not quite ready for that.

The one good thing I have to say about cancer, is that it puts everything in perspective. There’s a lot of little stuff I don’t sweat anymore, and I appreciate the good people in my life more than ever. Even on the tough days. For that very reason, I still want to build and create, and I still want to create jobs instead of just taking one.

These are interesting, and scary times.

Kill the Jack of All Trades

Jack of all trades, king of none. I hate that saying because I used to believe it, and it was a curse on my self-perception for years. I seriously thought, that because I love writing, making music, taking pictures and pretty much anything else that involves creative thinking, and am completely incapable of limiting myself to one, that I was doomed to fail in all of them. Now, I declare war on this antiquated saying and way of thinking.

The saying implies that you have to specialize in something, or you will never find your full potential. It’s the hidden threat and slight air of superiority that appeals to my never-sleeping inner rebel. Continue reading