How To Make It In The Game Business – Playtesting!

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Jim 2200-point-Scrabble-Name, 22 October 2014

How can you make it in the game business?  How about playtesting?

(Interviewer’s disclaimer:  I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Hamilton via a playtest.  I will absolutely not indicate which one as it turns out that’s quite the forbidden thing.)

For the folks that don’t know, who are you and what is your role at John Tiller Software?

My name is Rich Hamilton. I cut my teeth on Avalon Hill and SSI games as well as 1:72/HO scale miniatures but had boxed my hobby up a few years earlier as my life just didn’t have room for it, in more ways than one! Then one day, in a Computer City I believe it was, I found Battleground Ardennes and I was hooked from the moment I looked at the back of the box.

I’ve been active on-line with the Tiller games since late 1997 when I stumbled upon the old Leadeaters outfit. From there I migrated to the “sister clubs” hosted under (CCC/ACWGC/NWC/MBC, etc.)  and have played an active part in a variety of sites at varying levels. WarfareHQ, later GameSquad, was probably my largest “club” activity outside of the clubs.  I started the SDC, or Scenario Design Center, as a central hub for Tiller user-created content in the late 90’s posting my custom work and content from many others.  Several years ago I handed that site over to Steve Trauth who has done a fine job expanding both the content and appearance of the site over time.  I also spearheaded the three TillerCons along with help from quite a few others. Having a 20+ system LAN party for three days was a good way to enjoy the games and discussions related to the games.

I made contact with John Tiller directly in 1998 through my activities on the SDC and was given the opportunity to be the scenario designer for my first game, War of 1812. From there I lead/participated in several game design projects (French & Indian War, Campaign Waterloo, Mexican-American War), but also started project management duties for several titles spanning the Squad Battles series, Naval Campaigns, Modern Air Power, Musket & Pike, Napoleonic & ACW. During all this I became the official front man for HPS support in late 2001, handling all email communications and patrolling the forums. Today my project management roles continue, and while I continue to be the front end of HPS Support I also fulfill that role for John Tiller Software.

How long have you been supervising playtests and what games have you been involved with playtesting?

I handled playtest management for my first title, and each one there after, but my first solely “project management” role came in 2004 when development started on Mexican-American War, but  several other projects were running concurrently. I also ended up rolling back into a designer role for part of this title during the development process. I was also working with Charlie Cutshall on Campaign Waterloo at the time  and a door opened to take over the Squad Battles team.

Squad Battles has proven to be the most extensive line I have worked on managing seven games to date and helping out with an eighth.  The designers on this series are very talented guys and the depth of scenarios out there are fantastic. Content runs from “main stream” WWII such as Red Victory, to much more obscure conflicts such as Soviet-Afghan War, Spanish Civil War and Dien Bien Phu.  This engine allows us to go places the others don’t as it is much smaller scale and so a title can be fleshed out, where it would be a struggle to cover the Falklands War at the operational level, for example.

Midway was another title I worked on, a very enjoyable to one to play I might add…and I’m not a real-time gamer. We debuted the Musket & Pike series with HPS and have many plans for that too. I currently have active projects in 5 series as well…

Tell us the truth, we’re big kids here, is playtesting a good way to break into the game industry?

I guess it depends on what you mean by “break into”. For involvement with JTS it’s the only way in the door…if you can’t handle playtesting duties you certainly can’t handle designing your own scenarios for a full game ;-).

I have used it as a gateway to many other avenues of involvement for people, and also a weeding out process. The later is usually the end result. I only have limited experience with other companies, having only worked on two other outside projects, and those showed no signs of other opportunities; just sayin.

Programming is another avenue, but a person must be passionate about it, and have a steady income elsewhere, before attempting to get a toe in.

How do you find your playtesters these days?  Is there any specific set of skills or a particular background that you look for?  Do you approach them or do they usually reach out to you?

Responsiveness and ability to communicate are the biggest two factors in getting added to a team. The guy who responds when asked something, and makes the effort to let me know what’s going on has a big leg up on the one who doesn’t like to be bothered.

Patience is also a big plus, as most game projects run for prolonged periods of time, so it is a long-term commitment. Familiarity with the games is of course a must. We have brought a couple of guys on to projects in the past that were new to the Tiller games and they were tenacious, learned the ins and outs and hung in there…but they are the exception.  A veteran player who doesn’t need to spend time learning how to move will do much better with a testing role.

With that said, I do try to get guys of varying levels as our customer base varies as well. It’s important to not only have grognards on the team who may possibly gloss over details, but also guys who are not as familiar and can point out documentation issues where maybe assumptions are made and things need to be fleshed out. Also, many guys are veteran PBEM gamers (myself included), and testing against the A/I is a requirement – and not everyone is willing to do that.

At this stage of the game I have a pretty wide pool of people I know and can reach out to when I formulate a new team, but I pretty much always give the person asking to help a chance if I have a slot for them.

What is the absolute best way to guarantee that you won’t be selected for a playtest?

Have a history in the on-line community of being divisive, or an inability to follow directions. The Internet brings us all together and if I don’t know a person I can find out pretty quickly about their on-line actives. I generally attempt to give grace, as I need plenty of it…but there are those who are pretty solidly “out” of any chance of participating in a project.

Assuming I get selected for a John Tiller Software playtest, what will be expected of me?  Related to this, what are the most helpful things I can do during a playtest?  What do you never want me to do?

Never want you to do? That’s easy, talk about a project publicly until after release. The reason being is life happens, and delays are inevitable…and we don’t like “vaporware” any more than customers do. Thinking back to Talonsoft, who loved to talk about projects in development, but then failed to deliver on many…better to focus on what is out there and let the development process run its course. Hand in hand with that is passing out development copies to your buds… that’s a no-no. 😉

While a tester needs to take a project seriously, they also need to enjoy the process…we are after all developing games, and if its not fun we’re not going to release a satisfying product. We do absolutely strive for historical accuracy, but these are not step-by-step simulations, but rather a starting point for the player to carry out their own ideals and plans – hence the game aspect.

Beyond that though we have forms used to report on scenario designed to catch details we might not always think about when playing – then communication – both following the update process and keeping the team in the loop with what is happening with you. It’s good to voice criticism, and suggest enhancements – and many changes have been implemented as a result — but you also have to understand there are limits in what can & will be done.

I assume — heaven knows I want to be corrected if I’m wrong — that I’m working for experience and software at this point, i.e., there’s no money in it?

That is correct, playtesting is not a paid position. As alluded to above, several testers have been excellent contributors and have moved on to do their own titles – so financial compensation is possible, but not at this level.

In your experience, how long does a typical playtest last?

Well…I’ve been involved in projects that went through in as little as 10 months from the time testing started to mastering…and others that have taken multiple years. The long ones are frustrating for testers for sure, and we try to avoid that, but we’re not a big budget shop who can throw money at problems and most times everyone fits this work into their free time, so development cycles are usually a bit on the long side.

Anything else you’d like to share on the subject?  Not on the subject?

Would just like to take this opportunity and thank the community. Not only John Tiller for programming the games and making my hobby even possible, but my fellow team members and fellow members of the on-line community. I’ve got some good friends I have met over the years through this hobby and many I have met in person and toured battlefields with, attended cons and the like.

I’m an odd ball of a guy in that I don’t get into sports – at all – so I share a camaraderie with the guys in this hobby that is hard to find elsewhere. I’m glad I have been involved for better than 16 years now and hope it continues on for many more to come.

Can I PLEASE get a massively multiplayer Age of Sail game from JTS before I die?

I won’t say no…Midway offers real-time play for multiple players on a side and is a blast…played it at TillerCon III on the LAN…so maybe. We have many ideas, and market permitting, we’ll continue to put games out for years to come.

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