The play test is one of the most important parts of game design

The play test is one of the most important parts of game design, but it’s also one of the hardest things to do well. There’s a lot more to getting useful data out of your players, than simply sitting them down in front of your game. Today, we’re going to talk about playtesting. This isn’t the same as the bug testing you would do if you’re a professional tester. I’m talking about the user feedback type of play test, that designers do to help us understand the real quality of our games.

Unfortunately, many young designers seem hesitant to go out and playtest. They often feel like their work is not ready to show yet, or that people just won’t get it, or the playtesters are only going to give them feedback they already know. Maybe, it’s just that showing your work to other people is really tough. It’s like reading them your poetry, or playing them a song you wrote. By conducting a playtest, you’re kind of putting yourself out there. The first major challenge in a designer’s career, is to overcome this shyness, to fully invest yourself in your work, without getting your pride tangled up in it.

At playtest, people will say negative things about your design. They will tell you all sorts of things you already know should be in your game, but that the team just hasn’t gotten to yet, or you simply don’t have the budget to do. It’s important that you don’t reject any of this feedback. Don’t get defensive, or try to explain to the player what will eventually be in the game, just embrace it all openly. Write it all down, and really listen, because all of this information has uses. You have no need to justify yourself to anyone. Your only job is to put out a good game, and the only way to do that is with feedback.

Once you’ve steeled yourself for all the criticism to come, the second thing to know about playtesting, is that it is never too early to do it. As soon as you have a prototype, as soon as you have squares moving around on a screen, you can test. In fact, James will often run tests well before, he’s even got anything digital to work with, creating a prototype out of a deck of cards, or even getting a bunch of people to run around a room can yield valuable data. Many times, design students will tell them when they go to playtest early in the depth cycle, that all anyone tells them are things they already know. That just means they aren’t looking at all the data.

“As soon as you have a prototype, as soon as you have squares moving around on a screen, you can test.”

As a designer, you have to observe everything. If all you’ve taken down are just the words your testers said, you haven’t looked closely enough. The order that people give their feedback in, is almost as important as what they’re actually saying. It tells you what’s most important to them, and where in your experience they encountered these issues. Make sure to listen closely. You’re going to be naturally biased about your game. You have a set of things that you know are wrong with the game, that are on your to do list to fix, so when a tester describes something similar to a problem you already know about, it’s remarkably easy to subconsciously think, “Yeah, yeah, I know about that one. I’ve already taken care of it, no problem,” when they actually might have been talking about a different problem entirely.

Additionally, early testing gives you data that you’re going to need for later. Each time you test, you’re going to see if the adjustments you made to the game, made the issues you encountered better, or worse. To do this, you need as many data points as possible. The longer your trend line, the more in depth your understanding will be. One final word about early testing. You may be wrong about your game. Embrace that. You may well find that what you thought was the core engagement of your work, wasn’t what people actually found engaging. Don’t reject that, that is the most valuable data you can get. As anyone who has built a game will tell you, the earlier you make changes, large or small, the cheaper it is to make them. Don’t cost everyone else on your team weeks of work, just because you were afraid to playtest early.

Now, let’s go over a few quick and dirty rules of how to test. First, try and talk to your players as little as possible. Anything you say to them, biases them, and prevents you from getting good data. You may feel the need to explain your game before starting, but resist that urge. Let them take a crack at it, before you tell them what they should be doing. This will allow you to observe what they naturally want to do in your experience, and gives you a better sense of where they get stuck, or what needs to be explained. Once they’ve had a go, or 2, then you can inform them.

When observing them, listen carefully for when they vocalize. Anytime your game draws an utterance from them, a sigh, a gasp, a thoughtful hmm, you’ve either done something right, or something very wrong. Also, try and see where they spend most of their time looking in your game. It will give you deep clues into what they feel is important, and what data they felt like they had to spend most of the time processing. Admittedly, this can be a very hard one to do, and you’ll often have to resort to asking the player, unless you can get all high tech and have a camera set up to record the session.

Additionally, create a test survey, rather than trying to get everything from simply talking to your players afterward. This will not only allow you to get data from a lot more people at once, it’s also unbiased data that can be cleanly turned into metrics, if you give your playtesters a 1 to 10 scale question, which I highly recommend doing. It puts less of a burden on your playtester, than making them write out whole paragraphs. It gives you an easy way to know if you’re making changes for the better in future tests. Just watch to see if the numbers trend upward or down. Just be sure to leave the playtesters room for comments at the end too, because that’s also helpful.

When you do talk to your testers, just be aware that as human beings, we all have a tendency to jump to solutions, rather than stating the underlying problem. When a playtester offers you a solution, like, “There aren’t enough power ups,” really dig in, and try to establish what underlying problem they are trying to solve. You’ll often find, it’s something else like, “My gun doesn’t feel powerful enough,” which may require a totally different solution than the one they

Lastly, be aware that we are all hardwired to avoid suffering, so make sure you’re testing in an environment where you tester feels okay walking away from your game. If you lock them in a room, or even have them in an environment where they feel socially compelled to play, they’ll try to make the best of it. They’ll try to get into your game. That will deny you one of the most important data points you can get, where your player gives up on your game, or walks away to do something else. Remember when you launch your game, you’re not only going to be competing with all the other games out there, but with every book, every movie, every TV show, even the the internet itself, so your game better be ready for it.

If you don’t have to worry about NDA’s, it can often be fun to grab several of your other game making friends, and test as a group. That at least gives your players other options for what to do with their time. Before we wrap this up, let’s talk about who to test with. Test with everyone, but know that the test results you get vary in value. For example, you are the worst tester of your game. You’re just too close to it. You’re naturally going to test your own game a thousand times over the course of its creation, but that sort of testing only goes so far. There’s all sorts of things that you’re going to get used to, things that will become second nature to you, that will seem totally alien to anyone picking up your game for the first time, so you need other people.

As a rule of thumb, if you think the difficulty on your game is just about right, it’s probably way too hard. Next, family and friends. Second worst testers. They’re biased, they can’t help it. Next comes the hard core. Hard core players are often the most willing to test but unless they’re the only audience you’re looking for, and they are a niche, you need to find other testers too. As hard core players, we simply have too much ingrained in us from the thousands of hours we spend playing these things. You’re really looking for people without preconceptions or biases. People who like games, but aren’t in any way invested in them. Strangers who owe nothing to you, or better still, know nothing about you.

Who makes the best tester? In my experience, little kids. They may not be your audience, but if they are, you can always count on them to be open, eager, and 100 percent honest. I hope that was useful, good luck honing those games to perfection.