On playtesting, part 1

Written by Heikki Kuorelahti

Hey, my name is Heikki and I’ve been helping the guys at SIEIDI in making Gunnheim the best game possible by arranging the formal playtest sessions for the game. I thought I’d shed some light on playtesting in general. My game design background is in tabletop games. However, the same playtest principles apply to basically all games. This will be a two-part post. In the first part I’ll focus on the ‘why’, and in part two the ‘how’.

Game design flowchart

Playtesting is crucial. I think it’s the game designer’s best and most cost-efficient tool. The only situation where you could omit playtesting is if you are making a game only for yourself, and that’s not something many people do (and even then you would probably be better off playtesting anyway).

As a designer you become so familiar with your game that you are blind to a large part of the game experience. You start forming habits. You will play the game a certain way and, subconsciously or not, tend to avoid places where the game breaks. You will think your way of playing is the only way to play the game. Doing so, you are not only likely to end up with a game that breaks easily when you bend it, you are also missing out on a golden opportunity of discovering a better game beyond the one you set out to make.

Many game ideas and mechanics have been found accidentally: the combo moves in Street Fighter 2 (mechanics that are now in practically every fighting game) were not designed into the game, but were instead a bug in the controls. The time travel concept of Braid was realized by making a billiards game where you could predict the future. The odds of finding a gem in your design is multiplied by having other people look at your game from a different angle.

Even if you don’t find a revolutionary concept, playtesting will help you see the strengths and weaknesses of your game. The first thing you usually find when you playtest is the places where players have difficulties. Are the rules of your board game written or explained clearly? Is there room for interpretation in the rules? Do the players find all the controls in your video game? Are the controls intuitive and easy to use? People have different personalities, past experiences and ways of thinking. It’s very easy to overlook explaining a core concept of your game just because it’s very familiar to you from the games you’ve played. It’s surprising how many problem points, glitches and poorly explained features you’ll find the first time another person plays your game.

Just as important as finding out the shortcomings of your game is seeing where the game shines. Through playtesting, you can see which parts of the game the players are most engaged with. It may come as a surprise, as it can be different than what you thought was the meat and potatoes of your game. If so, embrace the fact that you have created an engaging game experience and start building on that.

Another benefit of playtesting is the morale boost it can give. When you’re grinding out the small stuff and replaying the game over and over, you can lose perspective. Seeing someone else play the game and enjoy it will boost your energy level more than any amount of self-assurance ever will. If they didn’t enjoy it that much, focus on the stuff they did like and build on that. If they didn’t like anything about the game then they’re either not in your target audience or the game just might be crap. And if it’s the latter, be glad you playtested when you did instead of spending any more time making a shoddy game.

In part two I’ll talk about who to playtest with, how to do it and when to do it (hint: early).