February 19, 2014
Playtesting is something that you should just do. Don’t wait. Do it now. Don’t be afraid. If you are scared of what people might think, then you aren’t ready to go indie. If your game is great, playtesting will confirm it as well as show you where you need to improve. If the game just isn’t working out, it will tell you before you waste a lot of time and money on it. If the response is positive, it really provides that motivation to keep going.
Playtesting has been invaluable to me so far. It’s easy to get caught up in your game, which you know every detail of, and not realize what other people’s experiences will be. Playtesting allows you to test your assumptions. It sits you down, shuts you up, and tells you where you are wrong. Every month that goes by without playtesting is a month you could have spent going in the wrong direction.
My Recent Playtesting Adventure
I was lucky enough for Paperbound to be a part of the Indie Prize Showcase in Amsterdam. I did some playtesting with some game developer friends of mine just before the event in order to make sure that I had the best showing possible. As a result of that playtesting, I was able to make some changes which required minimal coding but had significant effects on how the game played. In particular, I was able to improve
1) Accessibility – Can people just pick it up and play without being confused?
2) Information conveyance – Does the game present people have the information that they need?
3) Tension – Is there a palpable sense of tension that grows as the game progresses?
4) Balance and Flow – Are any weapons overused such that combat breaks down or is not fun?
#1 was accomplished by removing restrictions on where you can invert your gravity. It took a lot of people, or at least people saying it in the right way, to get through my thick skull that the restrictions were just confusing and didn’t add to the fun. I may later experiment with later having a “pro” mode with these restrictions, but the main game mode will not feature them.
#2 was accomplished by minimizing UI and putting more information in-game. Instead of having health dots in the corners of the screen, each character now has a damage texture to indicate if he’s not at full health. It’s immediate and doesn’t require you to look away from the action. I also added a leader glow to indicate who is in the lead and how close to winning he is.
#3 was also accomplished by the leader glow. It starts off gentle, but begins to grow and pulsate faster and faster, finally changing color for the last two kills. This adds anxiety and tension to really engage players.
#4 was accomplished by tweaking weapon strengths and ammo counts.
I am certain that the game would not have gone over as well in Amsterdam without this testing.
How to Playtest
“But, waahhhhh, I don’t have a big QA lab.”
Then get creative.
I have not paid a dime for testing, other than buying gas and a cheap $30 TV on Craiglist. I took the game to midnight releases at a local Gamestop, where the manager was excellent enough to allow to me set up outside. I also took it to a local college that offers game art and design courses in exchange for talking about my experiences as a developer. The teacher even made feedback for my game part of the coursework. Additionally, I am lucky enough to have a large group of game developer friends who provide me with feedback, which you should also be able to find in any major city.
For playtesting, all you really need is a laptop and maybe some controllers and/or a power source. My first time at Gamestop, I put my laptop on a stool on the sidewalk. A table and a big TV definitely help but are not necessary.
You should go with a definite testing goal in mind (“Is this new game mode worth pursuing further?”, “Is the game better with infinite ammo or limited ammo?”). Of course, it’s also a great time to simply gauge how much people are enjoying the game and where they have frustrations.
You should prepare a brief questionnaire beforehand. Ask very specific questions. Be careful on your wording. Try to phrase things in a way that will generate more negative feedback. If you can try for the most negative possible responses and yet get positive responses, then you should have confidence that you are onto something good. However, if you try to get people to say glowing things, then you cannot rely on the data. Be sure to tell people that their feedback is valid and appreciated, and be very clear that you don’t want them to sugarcoat anything. The nicest thing that they can do is be mean. Your livelihood is on the line.
Now stop making excuses and go test.
Posted by Dan Holbert