Ball control: Lessons from the BattleBlock Theater beta
It’s for The Behemoth’s booth at PAX East and Prime conventions to draw large crowds of gamers willing to wait in line for the chance to step up and play BattleBlock Theater. At each PAX for the past few years there’s always seemed to be an an amorphous throng of bodies awaiting their turn. As with anyone waiting in line, they could work together in groups of friends to navigate closer to a machine, or they could get a little more sassy and exploit someone else’s momentary pause or inattentiveness to edge their way ever closer to playing a game that also lets you work with or take advantage of others.
Last month, 10,000 more gamers were presented with the option of cooperating with or causing trouble for fellow players in the BattleBlock Theater beta. It wasn’t meant to be a free-for-all, however. Invitees received daily emails asking them to play certain game types on certain days. The Behemoth didn’t just want to let more gamers play its game early; it wanted gamers to help it make a better BattleBlock Theater. So when XBLAFans caught up with The Behemoth President and co-founder John Baez and Level Designer Ryan Horn in Boston two weekends ago, I had to know: did gamers follow instructions? Or did they give in to a desire to have fun their own way at the expense of helping to better the experience for the masses who will play the game for the first time tomorrow?
“They were really good,” said Horn of the beta testers’ willingness to follow instructions. “I mean, we didn’t expect 100 percent compliance — everybody’s busy. For the most part, all of the beta participants, they wanted to help us make the game better, and that’s what we got from them.”
Carrying the rock
OK, so most of the class was on its best behavior during the principle-supervised beta. Great, we can temporarily have faith in the goodness of gamers. But did the testers’ conduct allow The Behemoth to actually learn anything about its game that it couldn’t have gleaned from internal playtesting? Horn described the beta as “smooth,” saying that his studio by how few things were brought to light that needed quick fixing before the April 3 release date. He informed me that the beta allowed his team to mitigate the chances of launch-day problems occurring by making small “routine” fixes, and that the testers generally enjoyed their time with the game.
The 10,000 teacher’s pets were good for more than proving that players could follow instructions. They also earned their varsity letters by showing The Behemoth that a little bit of gridiron-inspired tweaking had gone a long way towards perfecting a game mode. “We made a small change to Ball Game mode before the beta,” Horn revealed, “and it was such a small change, but it changed the way Ball Game played. And we all loved it in-house, but we were interested to see how people responded to it, and it was an overwhelmingly positive response, which [was] really, really nice to see.”
Ball Game mode turned out to be one of the beta’s more popular modes. How did the developer make it happen? “We changed the way the player interacts with the ball,” explained Horn. “Before it was that the player couldn’t pick up up the ball or anything, and so you just ended up with people jumping around the map and the ball going all over the place without player control. And what we did was make it so that the player could carry the ball like it was a football, and then you also had moves based on whether you were carrying the ball or not. So it made it so the player had a lot more influence on the game itself, and it just exploded. Personally, it’s one of my favorite modes.”
A good block
Ball Game mode was completely fabricated by the game’s creators. Beta testers took it for a spin and showed The Behemoth that it’s adjustments were for the better, but they didn’t actually create anything new. The game’s impressive level editor, however, allows players to do just that. I asked Horn if he was surprised or impressed by anything in particular that the testers were able to construct using the tools that were put at their disposal.
He struggled to answer the question for a brief moment before admitting that “it’s kind of hard to categorize it on a large scale, but being a level designer, we pretty much spend our entire day in a level messing with different iterations of how to arrange blocks. And what we saw [were] a lot of instances of kind of smaller-scale placement that we hadn’t even considered, and it came out with a lot of really unique kind of smaller sequences that made levels as a whole really exciting.”
Continuing, Horn explained that “it’s not just the block options; it’s how they interact with each other. It’s stuff that the programmer didn’t design with, ‘OK, this only has certain interactions.’ It’s just an organic process of how the blocks interact, and what people end up with.”
A tricky playbook
The beta was held precariously close to BattleBlock Theater‘s release date, leaving one to wonder if The Behemoth would have had enough time to call an audible at the line and straighten things out if it didn’t like the look of the defense. That wasn’t an issue, but when asked a different way if any problems reared their ugly heads during the beta, Baez lamented a lack of time to fix a “small issue.” While the studio’s co-founder and president described it as “by no means bad,” he admitted that some testers had trouble learning how to navigate the menus during the beta.
Baez noted that, following the creation of the overtly difficult Alien Hominid during the studio’s early years, his team has purposely pursued making increasingly accessible games. Multiple hands-on sessions with BattleBlock Theater have proven to XBLAFans that the game is quite approachable, the menu system — for new gamers, at least — could use some work.
“So there were some things, some suggestions that came up during the beta, where if we did the menu navigation a little bit different it would make it so accessible to anyone who’s never picked up a controller,” Baez revealed. “It’s like, ‘Do we want to delay three more months to get that small section [addressed]? Nah!’ We’ll go with it. We’ll go with it. No reason not to.”
Baez admitted that it’s “too late” to change the menus now that the end zone is in sight, and there are no timeouts left. The testers behaved themselves. The public waited patiently for years. Now it’s time to release the game. It’s time to punch it in. Besides, he insisted that anyone who has played games even casually in the past should expect to not have any trouble with the menu system.
“Nobody’s going to come back and say, ‘Oh my god, I can’t find anything!’ No one’s going to say that,” Baez asserted. “You know, the artist in us is just like, ‘It’s gotta be absolutely perfect.’ But it’s not gonna matter.
Horn chimed back in at this point. “It’s one of those things where it could be in development forever,” he explained. “Eventually you gotta…” Horn trailed off, not bothering to finish his sentence. He didn’t need to. The message was clear: BattleBlock Theater is as ready as it’s ever going to be. It’s time to release it.