Game Design Workshop Wednesday Exercise 1.1: Become a Tester #GDWW

Welcome to the first exercise of the Game Design Workshop Wednesday series!

Each week, I’ll go through an exercise from Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, Third Edition. Fullerton suggests treating the book less like a piece of text and more like a tool to guide you through the game design process, which is why the book is filled with so many exercises.

The first chapter explains that the role of the game designer is to be an advocate for the player. Playtesters are essential for the feedback they provide because otherwise you are designing games in a vacuum. If you don’t bring in playtesters early in the design process, you will have no idea how your game will be received when other people finally do play it.

And so exercise 1.1 challenges you to take on the role of a tester. Play a game, and document what you are doing and how you are feeling.

I chose to play FTL: Faster Than Light, the space-based roguelike from Subset Games. I purchased it a couple of years ago, but I saw people mentioning online that it had some updates, so I fired the game up again.

My First FTL Game Over

I started a new game, and I noticed that there was an option to enable Advanced Edition Content. I opted to leave it disabled for this playtesting session. I left the difficulty on Normal, and I hit Start.

I read the brief text telling me that I’m trying to get data to the remaining Federation fleet before the Rebels can catch up to me. It occurs to me that I’m the kind of person who roots for the underdog, and I wondered about the design choice of being on the side of the presumably better-equipped and much larger Federation.

I remember I preferred to have one member of the crew in the shield room, so I reassigned the one from the engine room. I found that a good part of the game was spent moving crew around to repair damage, put out fires, fight off invaders, and enhance capabilities such as those shields. I don’t remember if the hotkey to assign people to specific stations was there in the original game before the updates, but I just noticed them this playthrough and really appreciated it. When new crew members joined the ship, I found myself assigning them to their strengths, juggling responsibilities if needed.

Rather than risk the lives of my crew to out-of-control fires, I found I liked the idea of venting the air out into space by opening the doors and waiting. I lost too many good people in multiple playsessions before I learned that lesson.

When it came to jumping from one beacon to another, I thought about how I made the decision of which one to choose. While I kept the approaching rebels in mind to make sure I didn’t dawdle, I found that I preferred circuitous routes in order to get more opportunities to answer distress calls and collect supplies. I only took more direct routes to the exit beacon when I was my hull was badly damaged and I wanted to avoid as much interaction with the locals as I could.

After arriving at a beacon, there would be a random encounter. Sometimes it was a fight with a pirate or rebel scout. If I had a choice, I found myself coming to the rescue of another ship or attacking slave drivers. It seemed that despite the main mission, I made choices based on principle and morals. Well, most of the time, at least. I needed to ensure I survived, so the times I chose not to enter a fight were the times I couldn’t.

Sometimes I jumped instead of fighting so I could live to fight another day. Sometimes I fought rather than surrender needed supplies.

Often, I died. So much dying. If I was juggling crew members at the start, it’s nothing compared to frantically trying to move the lone surviving member of the crew from one fire to another while the ship has been boarded and the enemy ship is still attacking while your own weapons are down. He or she could not repair anything fast enough before the lack of oxygen or lack of hull ended the game mercifully.

During a fight, I had to choose which room of the enemy ship to attack. I liked knocking down their weapons, which saved my hull while I continued the attack with impunity. If it was a scout ship revving up its FTL drive to alert the rebel fleet, I would try to attack the engines to stop it. Sometimes I found that I couldn’t get a missile past the drone defending the ship, so I started striking at the drone control room to disable the drone. I sometimes attacked shields, but often I found that my multi-shot lasers would knock them down and still get some hits in, so early in a game I focus on weapons instead.

If I collected enough scrap, I could upgrade the ship. Did I improve shields? Weapons? Engines? Do I improve them now, or wait a little longer in case the scrap could be used on better purchases and upgrades later? If I waited too long, I would fight stronger and stronger ships until they badly outclassed me, but if I upgrade too soon, I might not be able to afford new crew members or better weaponry if I find a store.

When I did get new weaponry, I found new attack options opened up. Attacking empty rooms means bonus damage? Well, ok then. Also, if I upgraded my sensors, I could see the enemy crew on their ship, so I could purposefully try to attack them if I see they are weak. Fewer of them means less opportunities to board my ship or repair theirs.

Every so often, I come across a quest marker. For instance, I was asked if I was willing to defend a space dock from a rebel assault. Well, why not? The fight was easy, and I get a reward. Or I would have, had the rebel fleet not overtaken the area where I would go get my reward. Oh, well.

When I find myself in rebel fleet space, the battle is intense. There’s no quarter given or taken, and I find myself frantically trying to repair hull breaches and engines to jump away to safety, but I rarely succeed.

When I do lose the ship and the total score is tallied, I see how this session compared to previous sessions. I want to get a higher score, and I also want to make it past the latest sector I’ve arrived at. It’s enough to make me want to replay each time.

So there you have it. I documented my experience playing FTL, and I gained an appreciation for just how much is going on in this game. If you participated in exercise 1.1 on your own, please comment below to let me know, and if you wrote your own blog post or discuss it online, make sure to use the hashtag #GDWW.

Next week, I’ll be writing about a game that was “dead on arrival”, talking about what I didn’t like about it and how the game could be improved.

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