Thursday, July 17, 2014

Playtesting the Controlling Idea

A month ago I talked about how the controlling idea helps me better prepare a game for playtesting.  Today, I am going to talk about how the controlling idea helps me use feedback from the playtesting of Underground Street Racing at the UNPUB Mini in Chantilly, Virginia.

For those of you not familiar with my game Underground Street Racing, the original controlling idea was for the players to experience the dynamic, fast, and has twisted turns of fate of snowboard cross, a Winter Olympic event.  I discovered during my iterative design phase that being true to a snowboard cross theme made the game too complicated, and that I could preserve the same experience by resetting the controlling idea and the theme to Underground Street Racing.

Controlling Idea and Playtesting Help Fixed Theme Problems

What playtesting revealed to me is while I had internally altered the controlling idea to be about underground street racing, some of the language I was using in the game was thematically snowboard cross.  In the version of Underground Street Racing that I was playtesting, cars could go too fast and crash.  When a car crashed it also crashed into other cars around it and forces all the crashed cars to stop before accelerating back into the race.

This frustrated my playtesters.  The pointed out that when there is a crash in an unregulated street race, especially if it takes out more than one car, there is no expectation of anyone walking away, let alone continuing the race.  That is when I realized crashes for going too fast was a byproduct of my old controlling idea and theme.  When snowboarding, if you crash, you generally get right back up and keep going.  Even if you crash into a few other people some bumps and bruises may be expected, but injuries are very rare.  

I needed players to stop imagining a horrendous NASCAR style crashes. So I thought back to my controlling idea of car racing and thought to myself what else can happen from going too fast in a car race that results in everyone slowing down, but not in the outright destruction of their car.  That is when I started visualising cars spinning out in NASCAR races and all the nearby cars having to slow down to avoid crashing into it.  So, I changed the terminology so that when a car goes too fast around a turn it loses control and spins-out.  Cars that spin-out, stop, regain control, and then try to get back in the race.  Cars around the car that spins-out also are forced to stop and then try to get back in the race to prevent a crash that would have eliminated them from the race altogether.

Controlling Idea and Playtesting Help Fixed Mechanic Problems

Playtesting also showed me where my game was unsuccessfully meeting the goal of the controlling idea.  I wanted strategic spin-outs throughout the race to be the twisted turns of fate within the race, but in repeated playtesting, each race had only one strategic spin-out close to the end.  I quickly figured out this was due to having five lanes in the game, and it taking a player half the game to get into a position where it was possible for a car to spin-out. And so, five lanes became three to encourage more spin-outs.

Even with the reduction in lanes, I still had a problem with the game not living up to the controlling idea.  The race was not exciting enough.  

Originally when players came around a turn they could speed up or slow down by being above or below the target number with their dice.  If players dice equaled the target number they remained at the same speed.  Maintaining a good line through the turns was the only way to keep control and momentum to the next turn in the race.  Each time a player played dice to move, they lost the dice from their hand unless the dice total equaled the target number, in which case they kept one die to use later in the race.

I thought this setup would result in chaotic and exciting races with cars constantly speeding up and slowing down.  Sadly, in actual game play this led to scripted races where players made sure to always hit the target number with all of their cars to keep as many dice as possible.  Only at the end of the race did players use dice to move into the faster lanes for the win.

I was at a lost at what to do until I received one suggestion that challenged my initial expectations on what was needed to achieve the controlling idea. The suggested change was to reverse the target mechanic, so that players only lose dice when they hit the target number.  That meant speeding up or slowing down allowed players to keep dice in their hand.  This had a massive effects on gameplay.  Cars were now swerving all over the place on the board, and with the reduced amount of lanes it meant that a potential spin-out was on every turn.  Players were not losing as many dice from their dice pool, letting me reduce by half the amount of dice each player needed to play the game.

Initially in my design, without any playtesting, I would not have entertained this idea.  I, incorrectly assumed that players needed the extra incentive to maintain a straight line through the course to better simulate strategic racing.  After I instituted the change and saw how it drastically alter the game for the better, I realized players were already rewarded to maintain a steady course by avoiding a spin-out or stopping during the race.  To create side to side motion created the risk needed to infuse the game with excitement throughout the race, I needed to make it harder to maintain a straight course.  I discovered that this change to the game better adheres to the goals of my controlling idea and is now a fixture of the current version of the game.    

Final Lessons on Controlling Idea and Playtesting 

Having a controlling idea at the onset of playtesting helps to better channel suggestions to make the game stronger.  I was able to take the feedback from the playtesters and discover flaws in my design that did not fit the theme or the desired experience of my current controlling idea and changed them to better fit the game.  

That said, the game still is a work in progress.  I still need to get more playtests of the game to figure out where else I can improve it.  If you wish to play test Underground Street Racing you can find the rules here, the print and play here, and the online feedback forms for the game here. I am grateful to any thoughts or pieces of advice you have.  

1 comment:

  1. I can't remember if I made the comment that I was concerned during the UnPub Mini playtest about retaining too much control (assuming that chaos and risk are among the governing elements in the controlling idea). Reducing the number of dice, though, helps reduce the amount of control players have and increases the risk, so it will be interesting to see results from the next round of playtesting.