Fabled game designer Peter Molyneux has poured cold water on the way games are focus tested today. The practice often leads to blandness rather than innovation, he claims.
Speaking to IGN AU, the Lionhead man was asked about the state of core games in the wake of the success of the Wii. Molyneux says he's worried about the future of core games:
"Core gaming is about being challenged and facing things you haven't face before. And this is a harsh comment but Jesus, we live in an age of emotional blandness, where the hero's journey – for films – defines everything. And God, I'm so sick of sitting in cinemas and thinking, 'seven-and-a-half minutes... right—cue the scary music, and here we go.' Why do we do it? We do it because a lot of our entertainment is created through focus groups and through studying consumers – and that's fine, but that's not how we innovate."
Focus testing is often done badly, Molyneux says. As a designer, he doesn't get anything out of asking someone "did you like this?" and is concerned that such testing doesn't delve more deeply into what the player feels.
"Well, the thing about focus testing is – and this makes me feel old a lot of the time – when it's used to 'prove' something and as a comfort blanket for people, I don't think that's right. If I as a designer present to a group – which I do, a lot – and I say, 'look at this – tell me what you feel about this moment.' And if people respond with 'I feel scared' or 'I feel happy' or 'I feel excited', that's really useful, man. And if I as a creative take a look at it and say, 'ah, that's not what I was going for', then you need to go back to the drawing board.
"If you were to go to a focus group and say, 'did you like this?' then that's a completely different way. You're not learning from this – you're just saying 'that's good', 'that's bad'. I worry about overuse of this."
It's quite worrying to hear that this is standard practice through the industry. Focus testing should be about providing the designer with data that enables them to further iterate their design. Valve, famously, don't even ask their focus testers for verbal or written feedback; they just watch them play and take notes.
I'm curious to hear if any of you have ever focus tested a game and what your experience was. And any developers out there, how useful is focus testing for you?
Peter Molyneux: A Conversation [IGN AU]