The Science of Playtest

I’m pretty passionate about playtesting. More specifically, I’m passionate about establishing and maintaining good playtest practices. I’ve had the opportunity to playtest many different products over the years for a number of different game companies. I’ve participated in playtest sessions as a playtester, as a playtesting coordinator, and as a game developer, giving me a broad perspective on playtesting and plenty of opportunities to see what works most effectively.

When I sat down to write this article, one of the article names that appealed to me for a moment was “The Art of Playtest.” The other side of my brain, however, immediately rebelled at the thought. I’ve mentioned in blogs and podcasts in the past that I love how game development merges analytical and creative pursuits. That’s true of playtesting just as it’s true of game development, but playtesting requires far more objectivity and critical thinking than people might realize.

It’s easy to think of a playtest session like a normal gaming session – you hang out with friends, and you play a game. Then, because it’s a playtest session, you talk a bit about how you felt the game went and what aspects of it you feel could be a bit different. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of playtesting, but that’s not enough.

Playtest games are essentially experiments. I’ve often said that “playtesting is light on play and heaving on testing.” The goal of players is to compete for victory in a game. The goal of testers, however, is to help create a better finished product. It doesn’t matter who wins or loses. You’re not testing player skill. It doesn’t even matter if you finish the game. What matters is what you learn and how effectively you communicate that information to the game developer. Shifting your mindset from working against other players as competitors to working with other players as fellow scientists performing an experiment will go a long, long way toward increasing the value and impact of your playtest feedback.

Thinking about your playtest session as an experiment will help in all sorts of ways beyond that first step of working with your opponents rather than against them. Taken to heart, it helps alleviate some of the following playtest pitfalls in a way that comes as second nature.

1. Don’t play favorites. When performing experiments, you need to test a variety of outcomes. Even after you find your favorite character, faction, play style, etc. in a playtest game, don’t get hung up there. There’s a ton more variables to consider, and you should take this opportunity to experiment. Your goal should be the balance and fun of the game as a whole, not one specific element of the game.

2. Expect change. It’s very easy to form opinions about a game mechanic or a character or a rule and then stick to that opinion. As gamers, we do it all the time. As playtesters, however, it’s a trap! Playtest games are constantly changing, and it’s absolutely critical to look at the current version of the game rather than relying on outdated impressions.

3. Consider the big picture. It’s easy to get hung up in the current revision of the game and your own playtest group’s experiences. After all, your feedback is the piece of the picture you see. In the big picture, however, lots of other folks are submitting playtest feedback, and the current revision of the game is changing all the time. Your feedback will be heard and considered, but it won’t always result in immediate and visible change.

So those are some of my thoughts on the science of playtest. In the next blog, I’ll be continuing the topic of playtesting to talk about how to maximize your playtest feedback. Being an effective playtester not only helps to make great games, but working smoothly with game developers can frequently lead to additional opportunities in the gaming industry.

3 thoughts on “The Science of Playtest

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