Visiting the Control Conference in Utrecht, I was particularly looking forward to the talk held by 11 Bit Studios representative Paweł Czaplarski, who shared the studio’s experience with designing the game This War of Mine. As both a player and a researcher, I was particularly interested in how the team designed for specific emotions, and their process of user-testing.
This War of Mine, a game designed by Polish Game Company 11 Bit Studios, is not a “conventional” wargame in the sense, that it is not a shootergame where the players plays a soldier. Instead, it is a survival-game where the player plays several civilians that are trapped in a city under siege. The game provides the player with several ethical dilemmas that a civilian faces in a war, such as limited food resources, illness, and having to scavenge or steal for the supplies you need in order to survive. In the talk Czaplarski shares some of the challenges 11 Bit Studios faced in designing and testing the game.
As Czaplarski explained, there were several challenges the team faced in the design of This War of Mine:
- Studio Size: being a small design company meant that they had a limited amount of resources to create the game
- Designing for emotions: the difficulty of designing a game for specific emotions that are not very common in wargames.
Process of testing
Designing a game such as This War of Mine means making design decisions interpreting feelings that players get in a specific game. Czaplarski shares two methods of user-testing, which both have pros and cons:
In-studio testing: this allows designers to closely observe the players, their facial expression and thus interpret their immediate response to a game.
- Pro: close analysis of player response, which is especially valuable when studying emotions
- Con: more costly, since it requires a set-up with computers and manpower to observe the players
This allows designers to collect larger amounts of data of different players, and doesn’t require the players to physically come to the studio
- Pro: cost-effective, it is easier to collect data and players play the game on their own computers
- Con: if you design for a specific experience with a certain emotion , it is hard to discover how the emotion relates to the mechanic because you cannot see the players emotional response.
As a result, the game company used a lot of elaborate qualitative user tests. These tests were done in very early stages of the game, which ended up altering the final product. As Czaplarski shares: ‘we wanted the player to think about the game, and change the way the player feels about war’.
Feedback mechanisms in the game
Procedurally, there are feedback mechanisms built in the game that remind the player that this experience of war is not a regular shooter experience. In the discussion I asked what mechanisms were built in the game. Some examples are: character biography, character emotional state, and character text balloons that remind the player on why the PC is depressed.
Reading reviews on Steam, the impression I get it that the game is still very enjoyable, but joy is the wrong word to describe the experience. Comparing it to different genres, perhaps This War of Mine is a game that is designed to make you feel sad, just as some films such as In The Land of Blood and Honey are made to show some of the more human aspects of contemporary conflict. All in all, the game is really interesting to play, and I hope 11 Bit Studios continues in this direction. Their next challenge is This War of Mine: The Little Ones, which is a wargame played from the perspective of children.