A Playtester's Guide

Alert reader Theo came across something interesting - an Everything2 node by Origin playtester Anthony Salter about the development of Privateer 2: The Darkening (from an Austin perspective). It's fairly incendiary, but it's also part of history -- it seems important to archive it here. We do know from talking to Erin Roberts and Paul Hughes that they were in the dark regarding a lot of the cross-studio criticisms and politics.
Privateer II: A Playtester's Perspective
My name is Anthony Salter, and I was a playtester for Privateer II. I thought I'd expand on the above writeup and explain how the game managed to ship with the problems it did.

First, some backstory. Privateer II started as a game under development by Electronic Arts' studio in Manchester, England. Chris Roberts' brother Erin Roberts was in charge of the studio at the time, and wanted to make a spiritual sequel to the original Privateer.

The result was called "The Darkening", and it was a game that combined first-person outer space combat with trading and a plotline very much like the original Privateer did, at least on the surface.

I was working at Origin Systems in Austin, Texas during 1994. Word came down that Erin Roberts had requested to Electronic Arts that the game's title be changed to Privateer II: The Darkening. Electronic Arts approached Origin Systems about this, and Origin upper management said, "Yes, you can call it that, if you submit the game to our testers here and incorporate their feedback into the game." EA Manchester agreed.

The test schedule for Privateer II was a strange one. The test lead, J. Allen Brack, called for volunteers from among Origin Tech Support and Quality Assurance who would be willing to do their normal jobs during the day, then stay late for several hours each night and test Privateer II. I was one of the people who signed up for this, along with several other excellent Origin testers and tech support folk.

When we got our first build of the game, we were initially impressed. The entire game ran in 640x480 when most other games were just offering that resolution as an option for high-end machines. The interface looked very sharp and streamlined, with nice little artistic touches. The movies ran well and looked good.

But we started to dig, and we didn't really like what we discovered underneath. The first thing was that the keyboard controls were very different from the Wing Commander games, and there was no way to customize the keyboard layout (a feature that was commonplace in games at that point). Since the game was going to be called Privateer II, people would expect it to have the same key layout as Wing Commander.

That was minor compared to what we found in the other game subsystems. While there was a trading system in the game, prices varied by less than 10% in most planetary systems, making turning a real profit difficult. There were no big wins in the trading system for the player to find.

We also discovered all of the flaws in the combat system that ichthyroid noticed above. Watching an enemy jump in just as you were about to jump out is a horribly frustrating experience. And since these enemy jump-ins were random, there were times when our testers recorded being stuck at a single nav point for a half-hour or more - totally unacceptable.

Actual combat was divided into two types - way too easy and way too hard. Most ships were easy to defeat. The simplest evasive maneuver on our part was enough to make them miss, and once we got on their tails they were inevitably destroyed. On the other hand, some ships (especially Kiowan Skrulls and Shuttles) were incredibly difficult to kill - the Skrulls because of their high speed and manueverability (much higher than the player's ship could ever attain) and the shuttles because of their damaging lasers that could kill any player ship in two or three shots. We discovered that if we jumped into a nav point early in the game and found a shuttle there, it was easier to just allow ourselves to be destroyed and restore from the last save game. Again, totally unacceptable.

The scripted missions were not only weak, but they were almost hidden in the game, and were missed by a lot of players. Some of the missions required the player to have the best ship in the game and phenomenal reflexes, while others drug the player halfway across the system map without allowing him to land and refuel or repair his ship (to do so would cause the mission to fail instantly). One particularly stupid one required the player to decipher numerical clues to find out which nav point to jump to.

And we also had the plethora of bugs an alpha version inevitably contains. But we were still excited, because we saw that the game, while currently flawed, held great potential.

So we set about fixing it. Not only did we write up every bug we found, we wrote extensive notes about how the team could make this game much more enjoyable. My friend Lee Gibson wrote up a new trading chart. Kenny Hott and Rhea Shelly worked on the combat system. I worked on the ship building system, finding bugs (the level three shields were initially more effective at stopping damage than the level four) and suggesting ways to make the ships less "generic" and more unique for the player.

We sent back our first batch of bugs and in return got a new version of the game. We also got a rude awakening - it played almost exactly like the previous version!

Our communication line with EA Manchester seemed to break down at this point. We requested cheat codes to help with testing, since without them we had to play the game extensively to get enough money to buy the more expensive ships and weapons in order to test them. EA Manchester told us no such codes existed. We knew this almost certainly wasn't true, but if they wouldn't tell us, what could we do?

After many emails, phone calls and conference calls, it became clear to us that EA Manchester considered the actual gameplay aspect of the game "finished", and therefore the gameplay bugs that we had sent weren't bugs at all. J. Allen and Rhea went to bat, trying to convince their superiors that the fun aspect of the game was just as important as the bugs.

Finally, EA Manchester told us, "The version you have is the version we're shipping." J. Allen responded by stating that we in Origin QA would not sign off on the game in this condition, as it still had some technical issues on top of being no fun to play. But he was overriden at a higher level and the game shipped without QA's signature, something that was never supposed to happen.

And less than a month after the game shipped, EA Manchester leaked the cheat codes to the gaming press.

The final sting was that even though we hadn't signed off on the game, Electronic Arts considered us at Origin Tech Support responsible for supporting the game - and the game still had significant problems that required several workarounds and finally a patch (this was back when patches on games were a lot rarer than they are now). We were not allowed to tell customers then that we had found the same gameplay problems they were; we simply had to bite our lips and give them whatever help we could.

The worst part of this experience was that the game had such potential. Even though the plot movies were poorly acted and made little sense, the player could have ignored those and gone off on his own to become rich and powerful through trade and bounty hunting...if any of that had worked either. We gave EA Manchester everything they needed to make the game superior, and they refused to.

If I become a producer and a group of incredibly devoted guys who play games for a living ever tells me that my game is no fun to play and offers to help me fix it, I'm going to listen.

--
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