One of the most invaluable tools at the indie game designer’s disposal is the ability to find people willing to play their game for a few moments and tell them about it. It’s called playtesting, and different from beta testing, the sole purpose behind a playtest is to discover exactly how well your game actually plays. You will obtain valuable information that you can use to improve your game along the way of the design process, so without further ado, here are a few tips to ensure your playtest sessions are productive.
Local People Only
Especially for your first few playtests, you will want to invite only local people to play your game in your office. The reason for this is quite simple: you want to judge their body language. Body language is invaluable with seeing how people react to your game, because it’s honest feedback that you can use. If you see someone squinting their eyes and cocking their head to one side in frustration at a part of your game that shouldn’t be hard, make a note of it and ask them about it later. And if you see your playtesters smiling and laughing? You will know you have done a great job with that part of the game.
In short, watch every little expression on everyone’s faces, notice how they internally react to your game, and from there, improve your game.
Record Your Playtesters
Of course, you need to let them know they are being filmed beforehand, yet recording them is invaluable for one reason: again, body language. Sure, you can note the body language you view as they play the game, yet you are going to miss some details during the playtests. To ensure you see every little thing, record their facial expressions (perhaps with a tiny camera sitting atop of a monitor aimed at their faces), then use this data to go back, watch the footage, and use this information to improve your game.
Additionally, you can also contact the playtesters later and follow up on their experience. For example, if you notice that a player looked as if they were having a tough time on level 3 and you did not notice this until watching the footage, contact the playtester and ask them about the experience (e.g. “I noticed you were having a tough time on level 3, can you tell me why?”). Creating follow up questions from watching recorded footage of playtests is vital, and it will be valuable for you and your team as you improve your game overall.
Use Only New People
Every time you have a playtest, ensure you are using all-new people. The reason? Because you do not want your playtesters to have any sort of bias toward the game. For example, if you have another playtest 6 months after your initial playtest, you will not want to hire the same playtester(s) because they are going to already have experienced your game, and when they see it improved, they are not going to give you realistic feedback that you can use.
Going back to the level 3 example again, if the same playtester plays this level again in a few months, they are going to be (hopefully) impressed the level has been improved. While this may seem like a great thing initially, they are going to be comparing it to the level they played before rather than what you want them to compare it to: nothing. You see, your playtesters need to go into playing your game without any notions of what the game is about and no prior experience with the game whatsoever.
Going back to level 3 once more, if you hire a new playtester to play the game for you and you believe level 3 has been improved, they are going to tell you what could be improved upon in level 3 (e.g. “Level 3 is fun, but I had a tough time figuring out how to crawl through a tunnel midway through) as opposed to the playtester from 6 months ago (who may say something along the lines of, “oh wow, you really polished level 3! It looks really great!” Again, flattering but not the type of information you want).
That’s really the formula for having playtest sessions: have a few during the development cycle, and hire new playtesters to play the game each time.
Leave the Playtesters Alone During Testing
During various writing workshops I have attended over the years, when my peers read my writings and begin to critique it with the group out loud, I constantly want to interrupt them and explain myself to them. Yet I cannot do that: instead, I have to listen to everything they say, take notes on what needs to be tweaked, what needs to be fixed completely, what needs to be removed, etc. Wanting to interrupt the group is normal, yet you should never do it.
The same goes for playtesting. When you are watching your playtests experience your game, no matter if they are stuck or they are not playing the game right, don’t say anything. This cannot be stressed enough. Do not interfere, do not talk to them, just simply allow them to play the game without any intervention whatsoever. Tell them to play as little or long as they desire, then sit far away (or from the room altogether), and allow them to play.
As stated above, take notes of their body language. Let them experience the game without any outside interference. After they finish playing the game, ask them a few questions about their experience, and allow them to tell you what could be improved and what needs to remain in-game.
You may also want to create a small survey for your playtesters to complete once they finish playtesting your game. The survey can ask the playtesters to rate various parts of the game, explain what they enjoyed and didn’t enjoy, and so on. In short, if there is anything you want to know about the game, place it into the survey!
Use the Notes, Surveys, and General Data Obtained
This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s good to have a reminder: use the notes, surveys, and the data you have obtained from playtests and use them to improve your game. Brainstorm with your team, look at each bit of information appropriately, and come to a consensus as to how you can take the information acquired and improve your game. It sound simple enough: it isn’t. It will take time to use this information to improve your game, and while some information may prove to be useless (e.g. some playtester complaining about there not being enough robots in a game about jungle animals – you know the type of gamers that are out there), you’re going to see a pattern among most playtesters.
That dreaded Level 3? Almost everybody complained about the difficulties of traveling through the tunnel in that level. Level 4? Players had a difficult time finding out how to fly. One person said the jumping mechanism didn’t feel tight enough, while another said they felt the character was traveling too fast, resulting in them not having full control of the character. It’s information like this that you are going to acquire during your playtests, and it is going to become invaluable.
And that moment you think your game has been improved thanks to playtesting? It is time to playtest again and see what new players think about the game. The cycle repeats itself, and repeats itself, and repeats itself until you have a solid game that is fun and fully realized.