The Joys of Playtesting

So, I hope everyone had an excellent Christmas! The soundtrack to today’s article is this chilled out number (Out of Town by Zero 7).

This fortnight’s post was going to be about something totally different, but yesterday I had an excellent playtesting session, so decided to talk about that instead. Don’t worry, you’ll get to read the original post next time, but for now I’ll be sharing a few tips and thoughts on how to get the best from your play-tests.

Play-test Early

Play-testing early is pretty conventional advice, but I feel like I should drill this in one more time, in case you haven’t heard, or are being stubborn like I was. Play-test early! Even if think your game or prototype is too short or too rough around the edges, sit someone down in front of it to have a play. You may quickly find that your core mechanic doesn’t work as naturally as you expected, or that the opening segment of the first level doesn’t teach the player the rules as well as you expected.

If you play-test early, you can catch these jarring issues early before they become troublesome to remove, and before you become attached to how the game currently works. A good mantra to follow is: If you’re not slightly embarrassed about the first build you play-test, you’ve taken too long to test.

Play-test in person

Last night I sat next to a friend of mine who was playing Standpoint for the first time. Despite me having emailed some builds people to test for feedback, and sending Dan (our resident musician and social butterfly) to bring feedback from the London Indie Developer meetups, physically sitting next to someone playing was an eye opening experience. It helped me visualise some of the problems that people had reported back to me, and I was also able to spot areas where the design was subtly broken, even if the player hadn’t noticed themselves.

Now, I’m not saying it’s useless mailing builds to people/participating in Feedback Friday, but don’t think you’ve play-tested properly until you’ve physically watched at least one newbie play your game. If you happen to live on some remote island where you can’t find a single gamer who’ll try your game in front of you, see if you can at least persuade them to record their game screen with FRAPS or Dxtory. If you can get them to record a face-cam as well, that’s even better.

If you have to speak, your design failed

In Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses (A book I would highly recommend), the section talking about play-testing mentions you should avoid talking to your testers, advising them where to go e.t.c. I honestly struggle with that, so have altered it to the above statement, which allows me to advise people, but I jot it down as a fail each time I do so. Every time you feel the need to say something to your tester relating to game play, something is wrong with the game’s design.

Try your best to speak as little as possible. Telling a player what things do and where to go before they’ve had a decent attempt completely destroys the point of the test. I’d go so far as to say “the less you speak, the more you’ll learn”. So perhaps I should be training myself to not advise at all!

Have 2 people per play session

From last night’s session this is something that I want to experiment further with. While my friend was playing, another mutual friend who knew nothing about Standpoint was also watching from behind. While I tried (and failed) to keep silent, the two would freely converse with each other, and the conversation was a surprisingly useful source of information. Listening to the player describing his game experience to the other friend gave me an extra glimpse into his mind, and helped reinforce my conclusions of what I’d done well, and what I’d done badly.

If you can persuade your tester to talk through their play-through, I imagine this would be similar in result, but I have a (admittedly ungrounded) suspicion that a natural conversation has a more honest commentary. If anyone wants to try both and compare the two, do get back to me!

So, these are my own thoughts on the world of play-testing. If you have any tips yourself, leave a comment! Until next time, and have a wonderful New Year!

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