Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Pay no attention to the ceph behind the curtain

I remember reading an article about the great lengths Bungie went to when playtesting the Halo games. This was not the standard 'lock underpaid interns in a room with no air conditioning and then ignore their bug notes because the game needs to ship on time' routine. There were see through mirrors involved and copious notes taken by people watching the people who were actually playing the game. Bungie would graph how long it took players to get through sections and if too many of them got stuck in an area because they didn't know where to go or what to do it was back to the drawing board. The results were games that, if absolutely nothing else, played smoothly. There was a flow to levels that kept the player from running around in circles because he couldn't find the door out.

This kind of testing takes time and money, two things that EA is not as willing to part with as other publishers. They spend their money on licenses and annual releases, regardless of what it does to the quality of the titles. Crysis is a fine example of a property going in the wrong direction. The first Crysis was an open ended level tour-de-force. Running it well was the measure of quality for new computers. It worked for the first two thirds of the game because it was a playground filled with violent toys and the player was given free reign to use them all. Crysis 2 came along a little short on both freedom and graphical prowess but the same feel was still there. The player is just better than most of the opponents and the fun came in coming up with interesting ways to dispatch them.

Less than a year later and we have Crysis 3, a game nigh indistinguishable from Call of Battlefield: One more time, please. Enemies disappear into very detailed but very narrow and dark levels. The best option is not flying through the air and tearing the room off a building but waiting for the AI to stick its head out from behind a chest high piece of wall and shooting it. It has succeeded in playing exactly like everything else, and by that I mean that it isn't very exciting.

Which brings me back to how action games should be tested. One way to hide a lack of interesting content is with breakneck pacing. There is no time to analyze something if the next thing is already in your lap begging for your singles. Crysis 3 tries very hard to hide from the player. Look, aliens! Pay no attention to there being only two different kinds that are boring to fight. Look, the aliens are blowing up mercs! Look, you can wield alien weapons and turn people to mush from half a mile away! Look, you have no idea what to do and have wandered in a circle for twenty minutes getting progressively more annoyed! Breakneck into a brick with that one, and apparently no one noticed or I am just not as good at video games as the average tester.

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