A few days ago, we held the very first playtest of Witchfire.
We invited a couple of industry friends – easier this way, they know what a work-in-progress build is and won’t be distracted by missing textures or placeholders sounds – to our studio to play the game for an hour or two.
Does this mean we’re nearing the end of the development? No. We simply believe you should playtest your game as early as it makes sense. We still have a lot of work ahead of us, but for now we wanted the answer to one important question: is the difficulty right?
Witchfire is supposed to be a challenging game but we’re making it for so long now that we cannot be objective about its difficulty. Game developers have this natural tendency to make their game on the hard side, because they know all of its systems inside out, and play it daily. So, if a game is hard for the creator, it’s usually twice as hard for the players …until the playtests show this and everything is properly re-balanced for the final release.
We knew that but we still kept the test build’s difficulty high, i.e. at a level we had trouble beating ourselves. We wanted to be 100% sure that what we consider hard is truly hard …or see people effortlessly beat the playtest build, revealing we suck at video games.
Before we get to the actual story, a short explanation of what I mean by “you should playtest your game as early as it makes sense”.
WHY PLAYTEST EARLY?
Not to find the bugs, of course. There are three important questions that early playtests answer.
One, are the players having fun? Sure, at this point of the development your game is probably quite buggy, doesn’t look the way you imagine it to look, and is generally rough around the edges. But your core gameplay loop should be done by now, and you should see the players engaging with it and enjoying it.
Note that this works only for mechanics-heavy games. It doesn’t work, say, for walking sims or some adventure games in which the atmosphere is such a key factor that the playtest only makes sense with proper, almost final quality visuals and sounds. If these things are at placeholder quality, it’s like watching a Marvel movie cut without any special effects and a green screen in every scene.
Two, what is it that you no longer see? Game developers often add half-baked features forgetting that what is clear to them is not necessarily clear to the players. So, you have a game full of things that are important …but they don’t work, because no one gets them.
Basically, playtests expose all the placeholders, shortcuts and temporary solutions you forgot about. Let me give you an example straight from our playtest:
Let’s start with the left side. There is a red aura with a smoky dark shadow around the enemy. It’s the enemy’s magical shield, a spell cast by the witch, effectively increasing their HP. Almost any enemy in the game can exists in two versions: the regular one (e.g. this enemy but without the aura), and – rarely, but still – the shielded one (e.g. this enemy exactly, with the aura). This allows for some interesting gameplay scenarios, where for example units with low HP but strong attacks suddenly, thanks to the witch’s protection, become much more of a threat.
And all that is nice and dandy except …almost no one got it in the playtest. Well, this dude has some sort of an aura? But what is it? Doesn’t matter, kill it with fire!
But wait, there’s more. Some of the more powerful enemy attacks are telegraphed with a special visual effect. You can see that on the right side of the screen: the sword-wielding enemy is about to jump-dash to the player, so a fiery magical aura flashes around him. But …isn’t that just another aura, another “circle around the enemy”? Of course it is, and it adds to the confusion. One time the aura is a shield, another it’s an attack warning.
The thing is, we knew all of this. We knew that we needed to visually separate attacks and defenses, and we knew we needed to make the protective spell easier to understand. It’s just that we either forgot about it, or put it inside the “will deal with it later” drawer – and we all know what happens next…
So, early playtests make you realize what you forgot to prioritize, and how much you’re used to things that are obvious only to you.
Three, what don’t you know that you don’t know? It doesn’t always happen, but sometimes the playtest will reveal an issue you had no idea existed, or will give you a fresh new perspective on the game.
Did anything like this happen with our first Witchfire playtest? Not quite but I was surprised by the skill gap among the players. It’s something you know exists, right? Take Returnal, for example, that PS5 exclusive. Some people spend 20+ hours on the first boss. Some people finish the game in literally the first take. Skill gap, it’s obvious.
But it’s one thing to know something exists, and another to witness it firsthand with your own game.
Now back to the playtest story…
Getting the playtest build ready was of the standard fare:
“The playtest is on Thursday 5pm, so we make the build for Tuesday.”
“Right, okay, but it’s Thursday morning at the latest.”
“Right, okay, 2pm at the latest, we need to test it before 5pm.”
“It’s 4pm, cook the build!”
“It’s 5pm, they’re here and they’re playing, oh shit, a texture is missing…”
But ultimately the build was very much playable and suffered only from one minor issue. As I reported it in the previous blog post, we’ve spent the last two months making the new lighting for the game. The world got darker and the lighting setup received a few new features that made particles and other special effects too bright in dark places. But you could still play the game, so we focused on other things, and went with “we’ll just darken the particles later”.
Well, a few days before the playtest it turned out that no, just darkening the particles or toning down the emissive values is not enough. Without going into technical details, we could not solve the issue – the fix turned out to be a great feature of UE4 and an easy one to implement, just time consuming – until after the playtest. So this is what our friends played, with some particle fx artificially darkened a bit:
And this is how the game looks now, after the fix, with the original values restored, and adapting properly to the surroundings:
If you can’t see the difference, look at the eyes of the enemies: glowing a bit harder in the first movie, toned down in the second one. The current effects are still juicy, but without supernova in dark spots. Still, a disclaimer as always: this is work in progress…
As for the logistics, the main force behind it was our programmer Piotr aka “Cartman”, who made all the PCs ready, both software and hardware wise, painted the keybinds, bought the pizzas and the extras…
…and even cleaned up the equipment. Because, I mean, look at the picture below. We work from our homes for many months now. When we left the studio, everything looked normal. But as it turns out, if you don’t touch your work keyboard for a year, this is what happens:
What is this white stuff, no one knows. It’s not dust, it’s not crystallized sweat… But whatever it was, Cartman nuked it with any cleaners we could buy and disinfected it with a flame thrower:
THE PLAYTEST ITSELF
Everyone arrived on time (we had two turns, three people each turn). Cartman was there on site, along with Karol. As you can see, Karol wore the attire proper to the occasion. Papa bless.
Kacper joined both guys a bit later, and the rest of us “watched” the event unfold from homes. Karol took a lot of notes during the playtest and after, with the direct feedback from the players, and we have also recorded all the playthroughs for reference.
The organization was not perfect, for example there was not enough time between the turns for a relaxed, deep feedback. Lesson learned for the future playtests. But all in all, the whole thing went relatively smoothly, and the game crashed only twice :pepelaugh:
I’ve done enough playtests in my life to know they’re always worth it. This one was no exception.
But what have we learned specifically? Well, that’s hard to reveal without spoiling the game. Let me just say we have a long, long list of things to work on. Not to leave you empty handed, though, here’s a spoiler-free example of how valuable the playtest was…
Imagine there are nine combat areas in the Castle location to reach one of bosses. Internally, we usually get to the sixth one before we die. This is fine, we don’t have the health-replenishing systems in the game yet, apart from the potions you start with.
Now, if we set the difficulty right, we would expect the playtesters to reach the third, maybe fourth area – and then die. After all, we’re much more experienced, right? It’s our game.
And that’s what happened for most players, but not all. At least two people reached the sixth area… They never touched the game before, and yet within 90 minutes they were able to get as far as the actual developers of the game!
Does this mean we didn’t set the difficulty right? Well, yes, but actually no. The problem lies elsewhere.
When we – the developers – play Witchfire, we engage with the game’s systems and mechanics. People who got the same results as us, didn’t. A colorful comparison would be reaching the final boss in Mortal Kombat through skilled gameplay, versus achieving the same by button mashing.
I’m exaggerating but just to make a point. The playtest revealed a loophole in the gameplay systems that allowed the players to get results without committing to our gameplay loop. In other words, not engaging with the Witchfire core loop was not punishing enough…
Note that this is not about the freedom of your approach to combat. The game actually offers a lot of choice in that department, we’re not forcing you to play one way only. What we have right now, though, is a bit too much of a good thing. Imagine if Bloodborne gave you a machine gun… It might be a short term fun, but since you wouldn’t have to engage with the game’s core mechanics, you’d never get the same feeling of pride and accomplishment (he he) as if you played the game as the developers imagined it.
I think this might be the top issue we discovered, the rest is more or less bugs, unclear messaging, tweaks here and there, etc.
I want to thank all the participants – you know who you are – for their time. It was a fantastic experience and we’re surely do it again, more than once.
Oh, and last but not least, the other thing we’ve learned is that people liked the game. After all the talks we had on site, we still got a couple of messages the next day:
I think a good summary of my feedback is that I woke up this morning and thought I’d like to play more Witchfire.
The game is awesome and this hour and a half only whet my appetite. I didn’t get too far but I left the studio convinced that if I pushed more and had more time, I’d be able to do it. Can’t wait to go back.
Seems like even though there’s still work to do, we’re on the right track.
Thanks for reading, and see you in the Summer update!
Question of the Month
The Astronauts are a nine men team: two designers, four graphic artists, three programmers. It’s only a nominal division, as e.g. a designer can script, a programmer helps with the design, etc.
Everything else, like animations or music, we outsource. Which usually translates to “we co-operate with a few great friends from the industry”.
As for how the game will be published… Over two decades in this business taught me not to commit to anything release-related until we’re 100% sure. We’ll see. The idea is to publish the game ourselves, just like we did with The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, but you never know — the landscape is changing fast.