Game Design

18 The Design Process: Playtesting

The word “playtesting,” like the word “game,” is overused and can mean different things to different people. In general, the term covers any activity where you are playing a game in progress for the purpose of improving it. But different playtests may have different goals, and it is important to know what your goals are before you do anything.

The concepts in these descriptions of different kinds of playtesting are more important than the labels.

Bug Testing (or Quality Assurance)

The purpose of QA is to find errors in the game’s behavior relative to its design. “Fun” does not enter the equation. If the designer says that the game should do one thing and it actually does another (even if what the game is doing may be superior), that is a bug that needs to be identified.

Normally, we think of bug testing as specific to video games. Board games do have a corresponding kind of testing, where the purpose is to find holes in the rules and dead ends in gameplay – gaps in the game that the designer did not cover.

Focus Testing

In a focus test, you bring together players that are part of the target audience’s demographic in order to determine how well a game serves their needs. This is normally done for marketing purposes, but if game designers are involved it can also help to make the game more enjoyable for that particular demographic.

Usability Testing

In a usability test, players are given specific tasks to accomplish in an attempt to see whether they understand how to control the game. This is done frequently in the greater software industry to make sure that a piece of software is easy to learn and easy to use. Video games can take advantage of this as well, and results from a usability test can be used to either change the controls or modify the early levels to teach those controls more effectively.

In board games, usability is doubly important, because there is no computer to respond to player input for you. If you misunderstand how houses work in Monopoly and place them on Community Chest spaces, the game will not stop you. By observing players who are trying to play your game, you can learn a lot about how to design the various game bits so that they are easy and intuitive to use.

Balance Testing

A fun game can quickly become boring if some kind of play exploit exists that lets a player bypass most of the interesting choices in the game. If only one strategy can win and it is just a matter of which player follows that strategy the best, it is not as interesting as if there are multiple paths to victory. Likewise, if one player has a clear advantage over the others, it is important to identify that so that players do not feel the game is being unfair. The purpose of this kind of test is to identify imbalances in the game so that the designer can fix them.

Fun Testing

A game can be usable, balanced and functional and still be uninteresting. That elusive “fun factor” may be hard to design intentionally, but when people are playing the game it is pretty obvious whether they are having fun or not. Certain aspects of the game may be more fun than others, so it is also important to figure out what parts of the game need to stay the same… not just what to change.

All of these forms of testing have some elements in common. Best practices are similar if not identical. All are important to the success of a project. So why make a distinction?

The reason is that each is appropriate at different stages of completion in a project. Each kind of testing has different goals, and you need to know what your goal is before you can achieve it.

Order of Effects

When should you do which kind of playtesting? What order do you do them in? A lot depends on your particular project, so some of this will be up to your judgment as the designer. However, there are some guidelines.

  • Very early on in the project, you need to make sure your project will meet its design goals (usually the “design goal” is to make a game that’s fun to play). Testing for fun is necessary to make sure you do not spend a lot of time building on the wrong foundation. If you are making a game for a specific market, focus testing may be involved at an early stage as well, simply to ask the target audience if a game with a particular concept sounds interesting to them at all.
  • Once you know that you have something, you need to solidify the mechanics. Design the whole game, making sure that all the details are taken care of. Test for “bugs.” (Note that bug testing in software projects is often done continually throughout the project, increasing in intensity toward the end. Non-digital games are easier to “debug” though, and a “bug” can stop a playtest in its tracks, so it is important for us to have a complete set of rules early in the process.)
  • Once the game is fun and the design is complete, gradually shift from testing for fun to testing for game balance. Make sure that all the numeric values and player abilities are where you want them to be.
  • When the game is working and balanced, towards the end, you’ll want to think more about the usability of the game. When you change usability you are not changing any mechanics, merely the way those mechanics are presented visually to the players. This is an important step that is often neglected. If you’ve ever encountered a game that you could only learn by being taught by another player (as opposed to reading the rules yourself), that is the kind of usability failure you want to avoid in your own projects. You may also do additional focus testing at this time, to make sure that the theme and visual elements of the game appeal to the target audience.

Remember, these are just guidelines. If it is incredibly important that your game be well received by a particular demographic, for example, you may be doing focus testing throughout the project at all stages. Do not let this order of things be your master.

Different Kinds of Playtesters

As there are different kinds of testing, there are also different kinds of testers. Each kind of tester has their own strengths and weaknesses, and some are more important for some kinds of testing than others.

  • Yourself. You are your own most valuable playtester. Do not forget your ability to play your game on your own. You know your game better than anyone.
  • Other game designers. If you are lucky enough to personally know some other skilled game designers, you can get some very useful testing done through them. They are able to critically analyze your game and propose design solutions. (If you do not know any professional designers, perhaps you can at least make contact with other participants of this course.)
  • Close friends, family, and confidantes. People close to you who are willing to provide their time to test your game are very useful. They are approachable and can make themselves available as a favor to you. Take good care of them, and do not abuse their kindness. Note that these people may not fall into any of the other categories, so while they are good for early tests, they may not be appropriate in more focused testing for bugs or balance since they may not know what to look for.
  • Experienced gamers. Skilled game players are great at finding exploits and dominant strategies in a game, and are appropriate for balance testing.
  • Complete strangers. People in your target audience are appropriate for focus testing and usability testing, and they are absolutely critical when testing for fun. Finding them can be tricky, though, because it is not in most of our natures to just walk up to someone we’ve never met and ask them to play a game.

Order of Familiarity

In general, you will want to go through testers in order from more to less familiar. Test with yourself first, then with close friends, then with acquaintances that are useful (because they are designers, gamers, or part of the target market), and then with strangers.

If you show your work to other people too early, it will likely be in such a rough state with multiple design flaws and holes in the rules that it will waste their time and frustrate them, and you want to treat your playtesters better than that. Also, if you start playtesting with strangers too early in the process, you may not get useful feedback – if your game prototype is in a rough state with only crude art and components, for example, the playtesters may be so busy commenting on the poor quality of the pieces that they will not be able to concentrate on the gameplay.

At this point you might be tempted to just do all of the playtesting by yourself, so that you don’t need to rely on other people or keep track of them. In practice, the designer eventually gets too close to their own project and is so familiar with the game’s systems that they can miss some really obvious flaws. If you keep the same set of playtesters for long enough, they will suffer from this problem as well. You need to bring in fresh sets of eyes to look at your game on a continuing basis throughout the project.

This chapter was adapted from Level 12 of Ian Schreiber’s Game Design Concepts course.


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Creating Games Copyright © 2020 by Cathie LeBlanc is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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