Playtesting is the single-most powerful tool you have at your disposal as a games designer. The earlier you are able to get you ideas in front of the player, the sooner you can see what works and what needs tweaking.
His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy . There’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti.
The above lyrics from “Lose Yourself” by the immeasurably talented Mr Slim Shady are how one might feel before coming on stage to take part in a rap battle. They are words that could also describe how a game designer might feel just before pulling their game out for play testing.
Let me say this first: you will never think you game is ready for play-testing.
I will come back to this point, but it’s important you take that on board early! Let that get nice and comfy in your subconscious 🙂
It might seem counterintuitive to talk about play-testing on only the fifth post on game design. Surely there are other things we need to cover first? Balancing? Use of chance? Why monopoly sucks?
Not really. Once you have a mechanic and components you can get out in front of players… your ready to go. The second you start to make your game, and apply your theme, mechanics and play order, you create unique dynamics that likely won’t have ever existed before in that exact same way. On that basis, although you might be building from another game you play, or from some well defined mechanics, you can’t make any assumptions about how your game will compare.
Playtesting, as part of the iterative design process facilitates telling you if your game is engaging. It shows if the player-experience is as intended, if it’s well balanced and works mechanically. There are two other crucial things you get from play-testing. The first is flow, which I will cover separately as it deserves a post on it’s own. The second thing is creative feedback and the creative group-mind.
Littered through this article are graphics from cards that were used in a game I designed in 2016 called ‘El Presidente’. You’ll have noticed that there is an excruciating abundance of terrible puns used throughout. I did not start making El Presidente with the intention of creating a shovel load of puns, as I recall there was only a single card that had a pun initially.
However, as the game was continually play tested, every time the artist got another amazing piece of artwork in front of players, it became very clear that having a puns on the card became a really rewarding part of the game as it played out thematically.
And I didn’t come up with those puns all on my own either. It took that group mind, playing the game together to help me find the hundreds of puns that ended up in the game.
This discover came entirely organically as I play tested and refined the game with people helping me out. Without the extensive playtests that we had, we would have never discovered this quirky element. And more importantly – without play-testing, I would have never come up with all of those puns on my own. The fact that people were playing it with me, meant I could take advantage of their creative mind.
Did it change the game dramatically? Not really? Did it improve the final version of the game. Absolutely. I obviously also got oodles of information on how else to refine the game. Stuff I’d expected, such as balancing, but not in a million years did I expect people to enjoy what seemed like such a trivial aspect of the game.
As I mentioned earlier in the article – you will never believe your game is ready for play-testing. It’s very much in the same vein that a painter might agonize over a piece of work before they are prepared to declare it ready for viewing. It’s one of the facts of life where the creative industry is concerned.
There seems to be this belief, especially among newer designers that the longer they spend tweaking and refining components, rules and graphics, the further along the development process you will be when you do come to play-test the game with willing guinea pigs.
This is a misnomer, as all it means is that you will have more work that you will have to chuck into the bin and iterate upon, rather than finding out early that something won’t work as you’d hoped.
Turn up to a play test with nothing more than a few scraps of paper and pens, and an idea in your head. Hash it out as you go. You’ll find out that you can never really be too unprepared. The human brain is an incredible imagination factory, and it wants to play and create It’s in our genetic makeup to invent and adapt and evolve. Take advantage of that as soon as possible!
This article is the first of a two part-er on play-testing as it is as important to a game designer as a bucket of cement to a brick layer. Without it, you might as well not be designing.
I have mentioned play-testing in many previous articles, and I will in many more. I wanted to first right more generally about why we utilize it’s benefits so much as game designers. In the next article, I am going to work through a useful timeline and question template you can use to maximize the benefit of your play-tests!