A Playtester's Guide (July 2, 2008)

Bandit LOAF

Long Live the Confederation!
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.


--
Original update published on July 2, 2008
 
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Mekt-Hakkikt

Mpanty's bane
That's very interesting. He's harsher than I was, I didn't think that Priv2 was no fun to play.

It's also interesting to me that at apparently no point they wanted the game to be more "WC", with more ties to the established universe to be called Privateer but criticized the keyboard layout for not being enough WC.
 
One particularly stupid one required the player to decipher numerical clues to find out which nav point to jump to.

Interesting read however I personally disagree with this one particular comment. It was only one mission (and an optional one). That was infact one of my favorite missions in the entire game. It was unique and went beyond the scope of any other simple fly and shoot. I still remember the question calculating how high you have to hold you head in a square basin to prevent drowning in your own puke... classic. "roses are red, violets are blue, here's clue number two just for you"... or something similar to that, not bad for 10 years after playing it, one of the most memorable parts of the game for me.
 

ChrisReid

Super Soaker Collector / Administrator
That's very interesting. He's harsher than I was, I didn't think that Priv2 was no fun to play.

It's also interesting to me that at apparently no point they wanted the game to be more "WC", with more ties to the established universe to be called Privateer but criticized the keyboard layout for not being enough WC.

Yeah.. the person also criticizes the game for lack of keyboard customization because it's supposedly commonplace then, but none of the Wing Commander games released afterwards had it either (only one earlier game did, Armada, and primarily for the splitscreen gameplay).
 

Vinman

Vice Admiral
I found it too difficult as well, but the invulnerability thing was a nice bit of them to add.
 

AD

Finder of things, Doer of stuff
I find this mainly interesting for the perspective. There's a few key important issues he does touch on that are unique to his experience. And when you combine all the sides to this story interesting things emerge, including a bunch of higher-up politics that must have obviously been going on at the time.
 

Bandit LOAF

Long Live the Confederation!
It is interesting and I think it was necessary to archive it...

But at the same time, I'll say for the record that I know Erin Roberts and Paul Hughes and they're just the nicest, kindest and most dedicated guys in the world. They absolutely went above and beyond to do The Darkening (calling it Privateer 2 wasn't their idea) under very strained circumstances and at a very strange time in the Origin/EA history.

It is frustrating because in terms of style, technology and innovation it's an absolutely brilliant game, entirely unique in so far as Wing titles go... but Mr. Salter is correct that it had a lot of balancing issues that I have to believe Origin's crack QA department must have discovered.

There was a communications breakdown somewhere out there, there was a political haze created by the naming issue... but I just can't believe that the team in England went out of their way to ignore advice and not credit Austin developers for help.

As for the math mission, I both loved it and agree completely with Mr. Salter's take. As a playtester he's absolutely right - that mission caused a *lot* of problems for ordinary players. "What the hell do I do with this?" was all over the message boards at the time and Origin even published the answers to the questions at their website.

As someone trained to recognize things that impact the bottom line, he was completely, completely right. It frustrates players, it creates phone calls and emails and postings that Origin had to pay staff to respond to, it stands out for reviewers to pick on and so forth and so on.

... but! I think at the *same* time it was a really clever way of doing something unique with a type of game design that is plagued by repetetiveness (there's no environment in space, there's four types of missions and five types of fighters and you mix it all together as best you can - forcing the player to do alegbra within the context of the game is a very cool and easy to implement trick from a design perspective.)

I think this is exemplary of Privateer 2's duality. So many of the things that make it a classic piece of game-as-art are also things that made it pretty darned uncomfortable for players in 1996. The surreal video sets, the international actors with their strange accents, the math mission, the 3D engine with its completely unique look, the Douglas Adams-style flavor text, the Elite-rather-than-WC-inspired control scheme and so forth are all things that I look at today and go wow, this is really clever... but at the time plenty of people said ugh, I just want to blow up space cats.

(In fact, I have a lot easier time today picking up Privateer 2 and show it to strangers than I do ordinary WC games.)


* and let me say, that isn't a criticism of Origin's playtesters *at all* -- because I know they pointed out plenty of things that could have been easily done to make those uncomfortable immediates a lot easier... like subtitles for the video, or an optional WC-style control scheme. It's just a case of everyone being well intentioned and there being a completely missed set of communications.
 
I have to agree with LOAF's take.. Priv 2, while not my favorite in WC, stands out with some VERY intriguing and interesting design decisions. Some of the detail touches in the game are nicely done. It may not be the most successful game, but there was some real creativity at work and that IS noteworthy!
 

Wedge009

Rogue Leader
I remember the maths mission too - it was an interesting idea, but I can't remember if I managed to work it out on my own or not.

As I read that piece, I did find myself nodding a lot with regards to a number of points that the QA team took issue with. Clearly, there must have been some miscommunication along the line because a lot of what the playtesters had was what we, the consumers, were given too. I realise the 'what-ifs' of history will remain just that, but I think it really would have been interesting if Origin and EA Manchester worked together and communicated better on P2.

...the international actors with their strange accents...
LOAF, as for the 'strange' accents, I don't think everyone in the world might find them as strange as you seem to. ;)
 

Bandit LOAF

Long Live the Confederation!
LOAF, as for the 'strange' accents, I don't think everyone in the world might find them as strange as you seem to.

Heh, I'm actually just generalizing the common complaints - they weren't especially strange to me (I went to a British school in France for middle school!)

I've always wondered if someone might be able to 'fix' some of the easy problems with Privateer 2 - like the faction balancing or the too-many-pirates-delaying-you bits.

Sounds like we'll be running Privateer 3 before anyone can do that, though - I doubt the P2D source code is in the Mythic archive.
 

Edfilho

Cry some more!
I agree with most of his gameplay complaints. Trading was useless, ships, weapons and equipment were not balanced at all, the random jump-ins were unacceptable, most enemies were too easy while a few were impossible, obscure and imbalanced side-missions, everything.

I think that dude nailed all his criticisms. I don't think the game is devoid of any fun, but Priv 1 is still a superior gaming experience, even with the far inferior technology.
 

Vinman

Vice Admiral
I agree with most of his gameplay complaints. Trading was useless, ships, weapons and equipment were not balanced at all, the random jump-ins were unacceptable, most enemies were too easy while a few were impossible, obscure and imbalanced side-missions, everything.

I think that dude nailed all his criticisms. I don't think the game is devoid of any fun, but Priv 1 is still a superior gaming experience, even with the far inferior technology.

What do you mean, trading is useless? I made my fortune hauling beer to Anhur.
 

cff

Kilk'dymga'qith laq Ik'vikvi
Trading is far from useless. There are only few profitable routes, but once you find those you make far more then one missions in my experience.
 

Capn Johnny

Cap'n Johnny
As to how 'The Darkening' became "P2: The Darkening."

It was always my impression that the suggestion and decision were made entirely within the cubicles of EA's Marketing department.

I know of one statement that nearly made my head a'splode.. someone in the upperity-ups of EA Marketing or Sales (not Alex) was quoted or paraphrased to me as having said:
"It's Space, it's Trading, it's Combat.. It's Privateer."

Nnnnnnnnnnnnnggggghhhhh!!! (*pop*)

I *know* it was when they announced to us (via an EA-World e-mail) that they were officially branding The Darkening as P2 that I did go ballistic.. and (accidentally) replied to all of EA World with a rather angry e-mail.. I owe Mr. Cain great thanks for shielding me and helping me keep my job at that point.. heh.. he may even still have a copy of that e-mail..

Ah.. thems was the days.. :rolleyes:

-Capn J
 
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