What a mod creator sees when they look at a mod they are working on is different from what a user sees when they play a game with that mod. This difference in perspective can cause miscommunications between well meaning people that make it harder for both parties to understand each other. When bringing on new playtesters I go over some of these differences with them to help them know what kinds of information I’m looking for. Since I will likely need to recruit more playtesters soon for “Echoes of Earth” (the Rising Tide spiritual successor to “New Horizons”) I wanted to present the information publicly.
The designer has a flashlight, the player has a laser
Creating a mod is a lot of work. If you’re not familiar with the technical pipeline or haven’t done it yourself it can be surprising how many hours of work it takes. As a result a creator will almost always have spent more hours working, thinking and playing a mod than a player has. But a player can still have more knowledge of how a mod plays than a designer. Often a creator has played a dozen different variations of the mod a couple of times. In contrast a player will have played a specific version dozens of times. While the designer knows a little about a lot, the player knows a lot about a little.
As a player interacting with a creator, especially one whos work you’re a fan of, can be intimidating. A designer might be able to cite all the names of a bunch of different buildings, technologies or virtues off the top of their head while as a player you’re still learning the exact names. This can make it feel like you have to match the superficial knowledge of the creator or else you couldn’t know what you’re talking about. But the only reason the designer can do that is because they had a two month head start learning all those new names.
Learning is part of good design
I spend a lot of time thinking about the learning arc of mods I create. A mod needs to be enjoyable when a player is trying it for the first time. When they have learned what is possible and are trying to form advanced strategies. And when they fully understand the mod and have refined their strategy to a razor’s edge.
As a player it is easy to make the mistake of thinking that only feedback from people who have refined their strategy to a razor’s edge is valuable. While a creator may not make subtle balance changes based on feedback from players still learning the ropes those players can provide useful insight to how the mod feels to fresh eyes. As a designer it is easy to become blind to the counter intuitive or needlessly complex aspects of your own work. It often takes someone with fresh eyes coming in and telling you.
What a creator hears when a player says “overpowered”
As a creator one common piece of feedback is that something is overpowered. If the person providing the feedback is a new player than it is usually a good thing. “X is overpowered” often means “X looks cool to play with”. I want to design effects that look overpowered at first glance but are in fact fair.
My favorite example of this is from my Civilization 5 mod “Reform and Rule”. One of the Honor Social Policies gives +250 Science when a Great General is born. The first Great General you create (usually some point in the classical era) will give you a full technology (approximately 10 turns of research). This feels great and powerful. But between rising technology costs and rising Great General costs the effect plateaus quickly. The second Great General usually comes around the medieval era but at that point it is only worth 1/4th a tech or approximately 3 turns of research.
But what if the player isn’t new? Then that means the player has learned something about the current version of the mod that mod creator may not be aware of. While the mod creator often knows the broad strokes of the trade offs it is unlikely they will know all the subtle synergies, combos and timings of the specific version of the mod. Having this knowledge from experienced players can greatly aid the designer in shaping the game play experience and ensuring their is sufficient depth in their design.
The problem is that from the perspective of the designer it is very hard to tell the difference between these two players. They both may say “X is overpowered” but the meaning and what the mod creator should do with the information is completely different. Faced with this difficulty it is very easy for a mod creator to presume the player is less experienced than the creator and to pat themselves on the back for having an exciting design. But if a creator makes this mistake they risk missing out on experienced insight that would let them better understand and refine their mod.
How experienced players should provide feedback
If you’re an experienced player with nuanced feedback to provide I, and any other designer, would love to hear it. It may not seem that way at first but if you can show your work it will help persuade us that you aren’t just reacting with a knee jerk but have thought it through. It can be annoying to have to add a bunch of basic information that clutters up your strategic point but creators need that not because they they think you don’t know it, but because without it they can’t differentiate you from an inexperienced player.
I design mods iteratively, refining as I release more and more versions. I’ll often try bold experiments that I know may not work in practice as well as they sounded on paper. Even if I’m generally happy with where a mod is I always have a list of areas that are concerns. Nuanced, insightful feedback has often made the difference between stubbornly going down a bad path verse cutting something I liked but was making the overall experience worse.
The mods I’ve made are as good as they are in part because of feedback I’ve gotten from users. I want my future mods to be even better and to achieve that I will need more useful feedback. This should help users understand where I’m coming from and how they should present their experiences in a way that will understandable to all parties involved.