Catching Player Disappointment Early

Posted On: 2020-07-20

By Mark

Early playtesting of the (highly unstable) current version has borne valuable fruit so far. A number of bugs (including one game-breaking one) have been identified and resolved. Beyond that, however, it also has provided a window into some of the expectations that the game's systems create for players. Knowing this is essential, as accidentally violating expectations will create unjustifiable frustration for players.

Preventing Loss

One of the most disappointing things that a player can experience is the loss of an investment. Whether it's time or emotional energy, players often only invest in things that they have some expectation will lead to some desirable outcome. If that outcome is undesirable, or, worse, completely ignorant of the investment, this can be greatly frustrating for players.

Unfortunately, due to a (previously undiscovered) bug, one such situation occurred for my playtester when she was trying out the game. One of the game's mechanics was pretty open-ended, allowing players to invest as much time into it as they wanted. Recognizing the opportunity, my playtester went all-in, pushing the mechanic just about as far as it could go.

Initially, everything went well - and rich visual feedback consistently indicated that her investment was recognized by the system. Unfortunately, however, when the playtester performed one specific (unrelated) action, it triggered a bug that caused the visual feedback to display the incorrect amount of progress. In that moment, the playtester was greatly distressed - everything she'd been working towards came apart instantly, with no warning. Fortunately, it was only the display that was bugged, but the impact of that one moment was unmistakable: all the playfulness and joy that had led her to experiment with it was dashed apart in an instant.

Since then, I have resolved the issue, and I am grateful to have caught the issue so early, when few players have had the opportunity for their joy to be thusly snuffed out. Nonetheless, it was disheartening seeing the issue unfold at all - such disappointment is antithetical to everything I aim for this game to be.

Unrealized Potential

Another source of player disappointment is unrealized potential. This can take many forms, perhaps some narrative foreshadowing that never leads anywhere, or some spectacular ability the player thinks they can get, but turns out to only be in cutscenes. In early prototypes, this is both inevitable and expected: the game is, by definition, unfinished, so many things that they will eventually be in the game simply are not there. Nonetheless, feedback about such things is quite valuable, as it helps to identify which (as-yet) unrealized potential the players notice, as well as catch any that were unintentionally introduced.

Specifically for my prototype, I am now seeing the importance of actively soliciting information about unrealized potential - especially for narrative elements. Before starting the playtests, I had some simple expectations about this: the player(s) would remark about what they cared about, and I would do what I could with what I got. After the playtesting session (and discussing the results at length with my playtester), however, I now see that playtesters may keep quiet* about things they see as missing.

With so much incomplete in the game, playtesters won't be able to tell what is and isn't intended - and likely see a huge number of loose threads they could potentially report. If playtesters self-select which topics to raise, they may skip over things that assume will obviously be implemented - things which I may not even be aware of yet. Likewise, they also just as likely may mis-attribute frustration around missing elements to other areas of the game: if I only hear about the mis-attribution, that may bias me to undervalue improvements in areas that are the actual source of discontent. Lastly, with respect to what characters say in conversations, I can't possibly imagine all the things a player may want to say. Even if I never implement the vast majority of them, simply having a wide variety of possible responses to draw on should help me reflect a more diverse pool of perspectives*.


Lost investment and unrealized potential can undermine a player's enjoyment of a game. At early stages, there will likely be many such situations, but I am hopeful that taking time now to get out ahead of them will improve the project as a whole. Further still, identifying which feedback needs to be actively solicited should help improve future playtests. I am, therefore, optimistic taking the time to playtest it now will not only improve my current version but also improve all versions going forward.