Procrastinating a Milestone

IMG_1403.JPGDo you ever put off finishing something, because finishing means that it’s over? That’s kind of where I am right now. It is an exciting place to be, because it feels like I am accomplishing something.

It is also frustrating as hell.

In this case, the project is my game Torgar’s Quest. I’ve been working on it for several months, slowly developing and implementing all the features I thought it should have. Even many that I didn’t think I could figure out how to code or design, because it was new and scary.

Now, it’s nearly all there, maybe not fully polished or balanced – but at least it’s in there – yet I find myself procrastinating the last few details as if to prolong the process in some act of self sabotage. I have seen this symptom before, and it can be a killer if you let it take root. Like the writer I know, who has several unfinished novels on his hard drive, or the musician I know, who has hundreds of unfinished songs stored away.

There is still a LOT of work to do, don’t get me wrong. Making a video game is a lot like writing a book. You start with an idea and turn it into a rough outline (alpha), which then forms the basis for your first draft (beta). That’s me, now, with Torgar. What follows next is editing and making it nice, before I can finally unleash it on the world in its full, pixelicious glory.

Still to do: more balancing and testing and tweaking and, did I mention balancing? Polishing an endless list of detail, localization and somehow finding time to also promote the game.

So I have to kick myself into gear and add those last few features on my list, so I can start testing and balancing for real. Even if part of me is enjoying that feeling of almost being done with the first draft.

First up, no more writing blog posts about procrastination, as an act of procrastination! Instead, I should start getting ready for beta testing. If you want to be part of the beta testing, let me know.

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).