Dev Diaries: Kyle Kukshtel Playtests Cantata through Parsec

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All over the world, creatives are relying on Parsec and Parsec for Teams to keep media, entertainment, and, of course, games on track during the pandemic.

Digital artist and game designer Kyle Kukshtel has been using Parsec to test and develop his upcoming character driven, tactical strategy game Cantata, which is right up our team’s alley.

We chatted (remotely, of course) with Kyle about the game, playtesting-during-a-pandemic, and how Parsec’s helping his team keep progress.

Parsec: Tell us a little bit about Cantata. What got you started on this game?

Kukshtel: Cantata started out as my answer to the question of “Why are there no good space 4X games?” posed by the strategy games podcast Three Moves Ahead forever ago. Over time it’s grown a bit beyond that and matured into itself, becoming something that combines the immediacy of tactical strategy games like Advance Wars with the scale and discovery of games like Civilization or Alpha Centauri. It’s very much a strategic, tactical game where you need to worry about supply lines and resources, but it’s also more personal/story driven than something like Civ because you inhabit a specific faction and leader (a Commanding Officer) who you learn more about over the course of the game.

For anyone who doesn’t know much about game design, what is playtesting and why is it an important part of game design & development?

Playtesting is to game design what wind tunnels are to cars. If you’re making a car, there’s a point in which your conceptual design has to meet the realities of the marketplace that your car is being delivered into. You could build the most beautiful, conceptual car ever, but if you run it through a wind tunnel and the average miles-per-gallon on it is too low or too high, your design won’t succeed in the market. You are fundamentally delivering a product to someone besides yourself with different needs. Playtesting is the same process for games: it takes the conceptual aspects of game design, its in-game mechanics and systems, and puts them in front of actual players to see how the design fares.

Playtesting isn’t an exact science, and similarly that’s a reason most cars look broadly the same. Playtesting can have a smoothing effect where all the rough edges of a design are sanded off until the game loses its personality (or makes every car look vaguely like a Camry). But feedback can also help you learn more about your own design. What are you willing to take away? What are you willing to add? And what must be kept? These are questions you may be able to intuitively answer. Playtesting helps inform those decisions.

Before the pandemic, how were you doing playtesting?

I’m based in New York, and at the time I was in Brooklyn, so it was pretty common to go to either game development meetups or spaces and have people play through portions of the game and give feedback. I’m also managing a Discord community for the game, so I would distribute builds there for a certain group of players to play through Discord’s Store Channel system. Otherwise, I just send around builds of the game hosted on a service like Amazon S3 or otherwise.

How has Parsec been involved in Cantata’s playtesting? What are the benefits? What are the drawbacks?

Parsec came to me through seeing Sam Eng, fellow NYC developer, use Parsec for playtesting his game Skate Story. I had never really considered the idea of remote playtesting before that, but for whatever reason it clicked. I had done the thing where I send builds out to people and they send back feedback later, and the quality of the feedback varied greatly. It rarely produced insight into how a player interacted with the game. This was a major benefit of physical playtesting,despite all the drawbacks I mention below — I could still see what people were doing or trying to do, and watch them build up a mental model of the game prior to them saying even one word to me.

So Parsec is the best of both worlds — it allows me that high-signal communication line that you get from in-person physical playtesting, but gives people the time and space to be focused on playing and hence drives higher quality feedback. When I schedule people for playtesting, it’s not like people are distracted in the way if I just sent them a build and expected them to play it at some point. With Parsec, 100% of the people I playtest with are fully engaged in the act of playtesting, for the whole duration of the session.

Additionally, Parsec fundamentally lets me reach a wider set of people. When I would send around builds, I was only producing the game for Windows. This meant that people with an OSX or macOS machine literally weren’t able to test the game unless they went through the whole process of installing Windows. Being able to instead send people a join link, and know that they could play from whatever machine they were on, through either the web browser or the Parsec client, makes the process almost seamless. Plus I didn’t have to send builds out and hope they didn’t leak or anything because everyone was just playing on my machine.

For drawbacks, honestly I can’t really think of any. One issue is that it’s time intensive, in that if someone is playing then I need to be watching them, but that’s less of a Parsec issue and more of a human issue. There was some strangeness that came up with specifics around Unity input management and it transferring over the proverbial wire, but someone from the Parsec team helped me debug the issue and the problem went away.

The key takeaway for me from this experience was that before, we assumed all playtesting needed to be fully remote or fully physical. Parsec adds in this crucial middle ground, where we can manage high-signal playtesting and feedback sessions, without the need to actually be physically present. It augmented our playtesting toolset and gave us another option for how we collect feedback from our players.

What are the limitations of typical, physical playtesting?

With COVID, physical playtesting is totally out of the question. Though even before that, Cantata was a game I didn’t think showed well in a public environment. It’s fundamentally a strategy game: there are a lot of interlocking mechanics and ideas happening at the same time that can be hard to internalize in any environment where there is a decent amount of distraction.

Even going to games-specific co-working spaces to show off the game, things are always so busy it can be hard to assume the person you are showing the game to is really paying attention 100%. Which means that the feedback they give may be surface level, which can be fine, but if you’re making a relatively complex game you do eventually need people to be able to give you critical deep feedback that can only come up once they’ve really internalized how the game works, which often only comes through sustained attention. So physical playtesting, if not really mediated or done with a consistent group of people over long periods of time, can easily feel like a vanity project to just show off the game or otherwise a waste of time. Some people find a lot of value out of it, but I definitely struggled to make physical playtesting work for Cantata.

Are you using Parsec in any other way during Cantata’s development? What other communication tools are you using to get the word out about the game and attract testers?

Because our studio, Afterschool, is fully remote, we needed a way to test work in progress versions of the game without worrying about having those changes integrated and pushed to source control. Parsec allows someone to easily share their work to the rest of the team for high signal feedback on how something feels in the game or how specific design is implemented. It keeps the team running smoothly and means that we can quickly give each other feedback without being bogged down in integration tasks every time we want to test someone’s progress for even 5 minutes. And because that feedback is quick, it saves creating extra work that may come from someone integrating their changes, you having feedback on their change, and them needing to open up a new pull request you could’ve given them before.

In terms of other communication tools, Cantata right now is a pretty slim operation. Our Discord is only a few hundred people, so for Parsec-centric playtesting we can just ring the bell there and easily book out our schedule for two weeks of non-stop testing. I’m looking at Steam’s upcoming features for managing playtests for the game there, that would allow us to deliver versions of the game to the group of players through that platform. But Parsec has given us a funnel for playtesting. We can start people at really high level remote playtesting, and then dive into a deeper, one-on-one session with testers if need be.

If members of our community want to test out Cantata, how can they get involved?

There are a few ways! The home base of Cantata is the Steam page, where all the latest news and announcements about the game and playtesting are posted. Our Discord is where the Parsec playtesting I mentioned is conducted for very specific feedback on the game, with one-on-one calls to the playtesters where sessions can asily run for two hours each.

People who join there can be notified about when other sessions like that happen. Alpha Testers of the game can access a rolling stable release of the game there, where they can test more at their leisure and provide asynchronous feedback.

All of this is a long winded way to say, join the Discord!

How can Parsec help indie developers like you get the word out about your game?

Being able to allow people to play the game in some capacity through the Parsec client itself would be great! Having something like a rolling selection of games that people can essentially play for free in some capacity would be really cool. Like a perpetual Steam Festival.

Want to use Parsec for playtesting your own games? Join our Discord, or check out Parsec for Teams.

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