Ruffian Gamesâ?? creative director Billy Thomson on being tough but fair

â??The hard truth is we donâ??t make games for ourselvesâ?

Striking the perfect balance of difficulty for a video game is one of the trickiest parts of development for me, and I’m guessing that I’m not the only designer that finds this particular area troublesome.

The main problem is we can sometimes spend years developing a game from start to finish and by the time we reach the balancing phase we’ve likely clocked up hundreds of hours playing through the game over and over again to the point that we can close our eyes and see where the enemies will come from, where we need to be to make best use of the cover on offer and where that perfect place just to the left of the tattered poster on the wall behind the hidden sniper is to bounce our grenade so it lands perfectly at their feet undetected.

We’re basically so close to the game at this stage that we can’t see it for what it is. It’s incredibly difficult to retain any sort of perspective at all when it comes to judging how hard your game is, which makes striking the right difficulty balance a real challenge.

Thankfully the publisher will have their own team who focus entirely on this aspect of the game. This team are a massive help, but going through the testing phase – or Usability as Microsoft refers to this process – can be a terribly frustrating and demoralising stage of the game development process for a designer.

You’ve tweaked the game to the point that you think it’s playing spot on, the objectives are clear, the obstacles are varied and challenging, it’s fun to play, in your opinion it’s ticking all the right boxes. As far as you’re concerned bar a few bug fixes, it’s ready to go out the door and into the player’s eager hands.

Then the game goes through its first usability playtest and you’re suddenly handed a large amount of data that suggests that nobody can figure out what they’re supposed to be doing and when they finally do they find the objectives too difficult to complete, basically the game is not ready for the gaming public.
It’s nothing short of soul destroying, but painful as it is, it’s exactly what you need to hear. Unfortunately the cold hard truth is we don’t make games for ourselves, we make them for the general public, and that audience don’t have the luxury of enjoying the same in-depth knowledge of the game world and its mechanics; they haven’t logged hundreds of hours mastering the controls and figuring out the behaviours of the enemy.

They’ve just picked the game up for the first time and they need to be taken through the game slowly, a little bit at a time. They’re like infants that need to learn a whole new world with the developers more akin to a cynical old man with a vast amount of experience and lack of tolerance for the uneducated.

Normally we’re still stinging from the feedback we’ve got, so for a while rather than referring to them as the ‘cute wee gaming cherubs’ all we can do is sneer and refer to them as the ‘ham fisted muppets’.

After a few playtest sessions that sentiment passes and as we grow calmer we begin to accept that the game does have flaws that must be addressed, when we get to that point we’re ready to get stuck in and start making the necessary changes.

I have to say I do worry that we’re starting to make games that are potentially too easy to complete. I still look fondly back on the days of the early Spectrum games that were sometimes insanely difficult to complete.

I know we can never make games that have that level of difficulty anymore, we’re aiming at such a wide audience that it would be commercial suicide, but it doesn’t stop me longing for the truly selfish opportunity to make a game that would be genuinely challenging to the people who made it.

I’ve been doing this job for over 14 years now and while I’ve definitely improved my ability to keep a decent level of perspective I’ve still not mastered the art.

I can honestly say that I’m further on than some of the complete nutters that we have on the design team at Ruffian right now, it would seem to me that some of them wouldn’t mind hooking up electrodes to the 360 pads and electrocuting the player every time they failed an objective. I think the Usability team at Microsoft would probably be against the idea, though.

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