Today is Melbourne Cup day. For those that do not live in the promised land (Australia), the Melbourne Cup is a horse race. Race horses often run with ‘blinkers’ on them. Blinkers are pieces of material aligned so as to prevent the horse from seeing what is going on behind it, or even sometimes to the sides. Fitting blinkers to a race horse may prevent the horse from being distracted by stimuli like the crowd, or other horses.
Game developers are very much like horses. We are both mammals, breath oxygen, and tend to snort at startling things. We also often wear blinkers. Our blinkers, however, differ in one key respect: They don’t just stop us looking to the side or behind, they also prevent us from looking at things right in front of us. Things staring us in the face, as it were, are invisible.
We acquire these blinkers through focus. At Unknown Worlds, we live and breathe Subnautica. Each morning, Charlie juices us up by forcing us to drink pure Subnautica seawater, mixed with ground Stalker bones, layered with Peeper Fish sashimi, and seasoned with eye of Hoverfish. As we engineer, animate, design, draw, and break Subnautica, we lose the ability to see it clearly. In one day, any of us might start Subnautica dozens of times, accumulating hundreds of hours of ‘play’ time before release.
All that exposure to Subnautica means it’s very hard for us to see the game as a new customer might see it. Blinkers grow in front of our eyeballs. We mash the keyboard blindly, random characters entering our text editors, hoping we are still making a good game. Big game publishers get around this problem with focus groups and huge armies of paid playtesters. We don’t do that, because indie. Instead, we go to Day of the Devs.
Day of the Devs (DoD) is a cool little game show put on by Double Fine in San Francisco. It’s a great opportunity to check out funky games, talk to players, developers, and press, and share flirtatious glances with Tim Schafer. Double Fine deserves heaped praise for their contribution to the gaming scene in general, and DoD is an obvious example of that contribution.
Watching people play Subnautica at DoD is an exercise in the forceful removal of blinkers. There’s no surgical process, no anaesthesia: A member of the public simply walks up to the game, starts playing it, and in doing so rips the barriers off your face. A common reaction might be: “Why is the player swimming over there? There is nothing to do over there.” The answer to which is: “Because we the game developer created an incentive for them to be over there.” Followed by a facepalm.
I genuinely enjoy watching people drown. To death. It’s one of my quirks. You should try it some-time: Go to a game show where Subnautica is being shown, and stand near someone playing for the first time. They will look around for a developer, wondering if someone will help them play. Ignore them and just watch. Tentatively they grasp the mouse, then the keyboard (on the arrow keys, because we stupidly assume people will default to WASD), and then they drown.
The drowning process is not pleasant. I can see their oxygen bar dropping, and maybe faintly hear the audible warnings through the headphones (which the player is, naturally, not wearing). But they don’t. They’re focused on what we have presented to them most clearly, and completely miss the oxygen bar. The screen fades to black. They look around confused – “Why did my screen go black?” I stood there and did nothing. I let them drown. I am a monster.
More monstrous though is to ignore this evidence. Players express frustration at not being able to pick things up because the game does not clearly communicate the fact that their inventory is full, or that they have an inventory at all. They spend half their time swimming on the surface to the inert crashed ship, because it’s the most interesting thing in the scene. They stand in the escape pod, a helpless babe, unable to what to do with the giant constructor model blocking their view and making instruction text impossible to see.
We don’t see these obvious things, because we are used to constructor placement rules, know about oxygen limits, and are aware that the only thing going on at the crashed ship is boredom. We tell each other we will get around to fixing the things that cause our customers to not have fun, but then we forget about it. The only solution is to watch people play: Have them rip your blinkers off.
Despite our multitude of similarities, game developers are not race horses. We do our best work with blinkers off. Now, if you will excuse me, I’m going to go work on that damn oxygen bar…