Session #5 Resources and Homework: Playtesting

Posted on Friday, August 3, 2012 by Jennie Faber

It’s crunch time now, with the 18th only two weeks away. In the rush to get your game mechanics, levels, and visuals up and running, don’t forget about some of these other factors:

  • music and sound effects
  • title, game over, and credits screens
  • instructions and direction for new players

Assignment for Next Week: Playtest!

Once you have a playable version of your game, find playtesters—people who can try playing your game “cold,” with you looking on. Watching others try to figure out how the game works will be invaluable to you—if there’s a flaw in your design, a confusing UI element, or a bug you haven’t caught yet, they’ll find it!

Every other week, Bento Miso holds Games with Friends, a board-and-video-game social evening. This is a great opportunity to get fresh eyes and fingers on your game! The next GwF is next Tuesday, August 7, at 7 p.m.

Why playtest?

If your background is in creating digital experiences for others, you’re likely familiar with the concepts of usability testing, user research, and user-centered design. Game playtesting encompasses the objectives of all these practices, plus many more. If you’re new to user experience research and design, here’s a primer:

The reason testing is so important in game development is that most video games are highly dynamic experiences. The flow of events changes from moment to moment, and each decision the player makes leads to a multiplicity of outcomes. Most games are also programmed with an element of randomness, so the same player never has quite the same experience twice. Multiplayer games throw even more unpredictability into the mix. As a result, the designer doesn’t directly control the actual gameplay, but instead controls only the underlying system in which the play unfolds. Without actually seeing the game in action, you cannot reliably anticipate how it will work. Mike Ambinder, an experimental psychologist at game developer Valve Software, puts it in scientific terms: “Every game design is a hypothesis, and every instance of play is an experiment.”

How do I playtest?

Put your game in front of someone, and ask them to complete a set of objectives, thinking out loud as they do so. Test early and often, in front of as many new people as possible! Don’t be afraid to ask someone to play something that is unfinished—it’s better to catch problems before spending lots of time polishing elements that may need to be eliminated or changed. Players will provide you insight about the most successful elements of your design, so you can tune and refine the parts that make your game great.

… Grab your coworkers, your family, your friends—anyone who’s willing—sit them down with your game, and watch them as they play it. Don’t forget to play it yourself too! Be harshly critical. Do you enjoy playing it? When it’s over, do you feel like playing it again? Is it frustrating? Is it boring? Is it too hard to figure out what to do? … be prepared to put your game under the microscope again and again, and to adapt the design to make it more enjoyable.

Take notes as players work through your game, and weigh their feedback against the following considerations:

Usability. Do players understand the interface? Are they successful in carrying out their intended tasks?

Ergonomics and Mechanics. Does your control mapping make sense? Can players move and fire at the same time without crippling their wrists?

Aesthetics. Do players “get” your style? Does your visual to aural design, title, storytelling elements and control scheme all work together to create a cohesive experience?

Agility. Are players frustrated or challenged appropriately? Is it too fast-paced or require an inordinate amount of button mashing?

Balance. Do the values you’ve assigned to different elements contribute to fair and equitable gameplay? Are enemies — or player characters — over- or under-powered?

Puzzles. How long does it take players to solve the cognitive challenges? Do they persevere or give up?

Motivation. Are the rewards for playing sufficient to entice players to keep trying? Do they take an active interest in the game? If so, how long is it sustained? At what point do people lose interest, and why? Would they be better motivated by different rewards or game structures?

Affect. What do your playtesters walk away feeling? What emotions come up, and how do they map to your desired effect?

Excerpts from Playful Design: Creating Game Experiences in Everyday Interfaces

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