GameDev Thoughts: Tackling The Underrated Art Of Playtesting

There is one main rule of game design, and you’ve probably heard it mentioned a million times; yes, we’re talking about playtesting. It’s important to playtest thoroughly and frequently, but this crucial part of game development is often viewed as just being some kind of “fun time” and sometimes even simply as a money pit. Many designers greatly underestimate the important role it plays during the development of a game, and quite often the quality of their game suffers as a result. “Why do I need to structure time to build my own game?”, I wrote. I should know it! Perhaps the argument is, “I’m a designer, I’ve already played enough games to be able to build one!”

However, if you take a different perspective and begin to see playtesting as being akin to research, you will soon see just how integral a part it plays in the greater picture. It is part of the process, after all, and precisely why structuring the time for your team to be able to playtest is something every design team should abide by. How exactly are you going to know what’s out there if you never play any games? As in any industry, testing out the competition will help you stay on top of the latest trends and standards, and ultimately allow you to more effectively observe and take notice of the kinks and faults within your own games. Frequently, game designers begin to feel rather cocky once they reach a certain stage; they feel secure in their knowledge and abilities, and thus do not see the point of testing new games for the sake of research. Alternatively, it could also be that more seasoned designers just do not have enough time for this type of activity, and perceive it as a luxury.

If your ambition is to progress and get ahead, you need to stop thinking of it in these terms. Testing games should not be seen as a luxury, but instead as a necessity; an integral part of the game development process. If you refuse to spend time and money testing out games in your own genre, then why should you even have a game design process at all? You might as well simply write some code, have your buddies test it out, and drop it straight onto the market. Obviously, this is totally wrong; the design process is an intricate experience which allows the opportunity for troubleshooting and refinement. Testing other games in your genre provides a valuable insight into not only what could be a better game overall, but it could also introduce you to fresh, new concepts, more complex UI, better storytelling and so forth.

Thus, if you shorten or eliminate this process altogether then you are seriously limiting yourself and your team on what you exactly you can achieve, and bring to the table. Playing games together allows for an enhanced collaborative experience that can illuminate for each team member exactly what is being done right, or indeed what is being done wrong and how these problems can be fixed. Ensuring that you designate the time and resources in order to let your team play games can save you money in the long term. It can also lead you to create a superior game, and it can save you a tremendous amount of time when you and your team are wondering exactly what to do when an issue arises that you would have otherwise had no idea how to solve. Also, if you are unsure of whether to incorporate an idea or not, why not spend some time testing games that have already incorporated it successfully? You may indeed see that it was not exactly how you had envisioned the idea, and decide that it is not a good idea to include it in your game.

If you are the lead designer, then it is important that you don’t just leave playing games for the rest of the design team while you are on vacation. You should be present in the play sessions too. After all, you will want to see how ideas are formed, approve concepts, and derive inspiration from the task you are creating for others. If you are absent from the play sessions, then you may have no idea about what the other team members are talking about, and therefore will be unable to shape their vision and grasp their thoughts; this is not a proactive approach. Everyone likes achieving results. We live in a results-orientated society because talk is cheap. If, at the end of every play session, each member gives a short presentation on what they liked and disliked about the game, and what they suggest could be incorporated and introduced into your game, it may feel like more than merely a “play session”; it may start to feel like actual work to all parties involved. Once you begin to view and respond to play sessions, you will soon start to see how they can prove useful to you and your team, for now, and into the future.

Important Takeaways: Playtesting is a crucial part of the game development process and it should be seen as an integral part of the research stage. It is a brilliant way to study the competition within your industry, and it helps with solving problems in your own game. Playtesting can give you new ideas and almost always saves you time, money and resources in the long run. Remember, it is important for your team leaders to participate in the playtesting processes as without that participation they will not be able to utilize anything said that is potentially useful for getting a leg up on competition.